Today, we celebrate the Feast of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus and the Patron saint of our parish. Today, we gather together also to mourn the loss of our dear Fr Tom O’Neill, who had served selflessly in our Parish for the past 28 years, and we thank God for the abundant blessings He gave us through the person of Fr O’Neill. [Fr O’Neill was meant to have said presided at this Mass, but it seems, for this time, he chose to celebrate it with St Ignatius and all the other Jesuit companions in heaven. I am sure we all feel Fr O’Neill’s presence with us even as we celebrate this Eucharist in his memory.]
I would like to speak briefly on St Ignatius, being his feast day, and also on Fr Tom O’Neill as he had lived such an exemplary life; a life that St Ignatius would certainly be so proud of and would have thanked personally when he met him at the gates of heaven two days ago. Both of these men are great models of the message of today’s Gospel of Jesus inviting us to take up our cross in life, if we want to follow Him.
Today’s Gospel presents us with a fundamental challenge of life when Jesus said, “What gain is it for us to gain the whole world, but lose our true self [lose his life]?” We are each challenged choose either to live our lives that is founded on the God of eternal life or founded on the fantasies of the passing secular world.Both St Ignatius’ and Fr Tom’s lives show us how they have been able to choose God as their foundation and goal in life.
St Ignatius was the youngest child of 13 children. He came from a noble family; the Loyola clan in Spain which had three of his brothers giving up their lives in the Crusade wars. When he was a teenager, he was groomed in Spain’s Royal court. His life was centered on his dreams of the victory and glamour of heroically winning wars for his king and winning the heart of the beautiful princess of his dreams.
However, such dreams were not mere fantasies for St Ignatius. When he was in the thick of battle against the French army, in Pamplona, he refused to surrender even though he was outnumbered by 1,000 to 10,000 soldiers of the French army. He managed to persuade his commanders to fight on; he would rather die in battle as a hero than to surrender. A cannon ball then struck and severely wounding his right knee. When he fell, his army surrendered.
The French army was so impressed by St Ignatius’ courage that they allowed him to return to his home in Loyola. Their operation on his knee was very badly done. St Ignatius could not stand the sight of his deformed knee.Out of vanity, he asked for another operation to reset his knee; all this without any anesthesia. This operation too was not satisfactory to him. So, he for a third operation even though it was life threatening; throughout his operation, while hegrit his teeth to withstand the excruciating pain he hardly showed any expressions of the torment. He did all these because he wanted to look good and handsome and be the great knight that could win the hearts of the princess of his dreams.
During his recuperation, St Ignatius did not have the romantic books of chilvalry that he wanted to read. His sister-in-law, Magdalena, a very devout woman gave him books on the life of Christ and the lives of the saints. Feeling bored, he read the books and started pondering on them. He began to realise that as he pondered on the life of glamour, women and victories of wars, his consolations were emotional and did not last, and in fact left him empty.
But, when he pondered on how St Francis and St Dominic were able to give their lives to serve God, his very deep spiritual experiences were consolations that drew him to the person of Christ and lasted for long time. This was the beginning of St Ignatius’ conversion as he began to realise that what is of God were more fulfilling than what was of the secular world. This was the beginning of what we now call the discernment between the Good Spirits of God and the Bad Spirits of the evil one that draw us away from God. This was what St Ignatius never did during his vain and secular living days, when he chose the world and not God. After some about 5 months of recuperation, he experienced deep conversion. He was determined to give up his life to serve Christ the Eternal King instead of the earthly king.
To make a long story short, St Ignatius, now being so passionate about living his life for Christ, wanted to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to visit, ponder, live and serve in the places of his beloved Jesus and Lord. This was the beginning of both and eternal and interior pilgrimage and journey of his love and intimate relationship with the Lord.
On his way, he stopped at Montserrat, a Benedictine monastery, and spent a whole night of vigil praying to Our Lady, and offering up his sword and dagger to her. As he set out the next day, he gave away his rich clothing and putting on the sackcloth of a poor pilgrim. It was St Ignatius’ way of making his total commitment to God.
When St Ignatius arrived at Manresa (near Barcelona), he intended to spend a month of prayer, but he ended up spending about 11 months. There he experienced very deep spiritual experiences of great struggles and deep consolations from God. Here St Ignatius first began to learn how to deepen and mature in his relationship with the Lord; the painful way;overcoming excessive spiritual practices, scruples and the like. Fortunately, he put his experiences down in writing; and these rough notes became the framework of his well known, Spiritual Exercises, that is to lead many people to conversion and also moved many to join the Society of Jesus; as many as 1,000 Jesuits at the time of St Ignatius’ death.
In his great passion to make Christ known, St Ignatius began to share his spiritual insights with others and taught them Catechism. He realized that all the insights that God gave him were meant to be shared with others and not to be kept for himself. These experiences made St Ignatius realise that as we are blessed to have God in our lives, we must always also serve God and draw others closer to Him. This is the beginning of the Apostolic dimension in St Ignatius’ spirituality.
Very briefly: As St Ignatius taught the faith, the Church authorities; the Inquisition was suspicious of him and interrogated him. He was put in jail several times, but was always eventually released as they could not find any doctrinal errors in his teachings. St Ignatius realized that, if he wanted to teach God’s Truth effectively, he needed qualifications in philosophy and theology.
Eventually, he decided to get himself into the University of Paris, at that time on of the most, if not most prestigious university in Europe. To get to the university, he had to walk 700 miles. He completed his Masters degree and also recruited some men to who were deeply moved to give up their lives, like him, totally to God, in the person of Jesus Christ. They had all wanted to go to Jerusalem, but because a war prevented them from traveling, they offered themselves to the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, to be available to be sent any where, any place and any time for God’s Greater Glory. This is what we today call Jesuit Spirituality.
Fr O’Neill’s life’s experiences, I am sure, is so distinctly different from that of St Ignatius. Instead of the noble and royal courtly and very vain and secular life that St Ignatius had, Fr O’Neill had much simpler and rural beginnings of the countryside of Ireland. However, what is common between Fr O’Neill and St Ignatius is the passion they each had to live their lives to the full for God and out of love for God; they were men who were totally selfless and never shied away from taking up the crosses of their lives when they were challenged; all for the Greater Glory of God and the service of all peoples. It is this spiritual and interior depth that sustained Fr O’Neill all these years of selfless, generous and humble service of God’s people.
When we endeared and loved Fr O’Neill as a priest and someone who was good, gentle, kind, available, unassuming, a quiet listener, we only saw his external self. As such, we were all shocked at his sudden death because to us, Fr O’Neill was always energetic, active and available in all apostolic ways. He was so selfless that we rarely realised that he was in his 80s; he walked and worked as though he was in his early 60s. Upon reflection over the past days and upon finding the medicine in his room, it is actually not surprising that Fr O’Neill passed away. He was actually a very sickly man with poor heart conditions.
But, Fr O’Neill being who he was would never want anyone to know that he was sickly; he never wanted to trouble anyone or want anyone to fuss over him; he was just over considerate. In fact, he would just inform the superior that he is going to the hospital for a few days and then quietly take the bus to the hospital to admit himself. When we brought Holy Communion to him in hospital, he would be so grateful, but at the same time we could see that he felt so sorry that he had inconvenienced us. . .
His apostolic zeal is truly so edifying. Yesterday, a parishioner told me that some 20 years ago, Fr O’Neil would cycle around for Neighbourhood group meetings and also teach some group singing. She remembers that on two occasions, Fr O’Neil was knocked down by a bus, and yet would still turn up for the meeting with bruised and plasters all over his arm and face.
We could add on to this list and go on and on about Fr O’Neill and be inspired and edified endlessly, but within the time constraints, let me add that Fr O’Neill was truly also a simple man who lived his vow of Poverty of Religious life seriously. There is practically nothing in his room except for some simple clothing, a fan (no air-conditioning), and the rest of his room will be filled with books, notes and papers for the use of his pastoral services.
Fr O’Neill, like St Ignatius, too was a deeply spiritual man. One of his favourite quotations during his homilies was from the visionary, Maria Vol Tota, who describes the person and the scenes of the Gospel vividly. We all know too well that when Fr O’Neill presides at liturgies and Masses, he would be almost drawn into the mystery of the celebration. It is no wonder that he specialized in Liturgy and liturgical music and also why God gave him such musical talents and such a beautiful-solemn voice that was able to draw out the sacredness and mystery of the hymns that he sang and the Masses that he presided.
When I became the Parish Priest, he told me, “I will be totally obedient to you . . . ! not that he was disobedient in any way. Yes, Fr O’ Neill was a full blooded Jesuit to the core, so to speak. A great model and inspiration to all of us; a great joy and blessing to have in our Jesuit community . . . he was constantly cheerful, and a great companion in conversation as he was also a very knowledgeable person. . . he enjoyed good music, good humour and would laugh heartedly when the jokes were wholesome.
In short, Fr O’Neill was truly a humble, holy and Christ-like Jesuit whom I am sure has created deep and lasting effects on each of our lives; especially those of us who knew him well. We can only now thank him for being such a blessing to us and should now ask him to pray for us that we too, like him and St Ignatius, would dare to take up our daily crosses in life and love God courageously, selflessly and humbly like Christ in today’s Gospel.
To conclude, let me add that, while externally Fr O’Neill and St Ignatius were so different, spiritually they were sustained and driven by the same Spirit of Christ. And that was why they both lived such a passionate life. The “Prayer of Generosity” of St Ignatius tells us much. It says, “Lord, teach me to be generous, teach me to love You as You deserve, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to seek for reward, safe that of knowing that I do Your most Holy Will.” I am sure, my brothers and sisters, you would agree with me that this prayer very aptly, succinctly and beautifully capture for us the essence of the lives of both St Ignatius of Loyola and Fr Tom O’Neill.
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.
Feast of St Ignatius Eucharistic Celebration on 1st Aug 2009
more on Fr Tom O'Neill,S.J.
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Fr Tom O'Neill
A simple man who was deeply loved