A faithful missionary priest in Japan and Ireland
Today is the feast of St John Vianney, the patron of priests who died exactly 150 years ago. Recently we began the Year for Priests that Pope Benedict declared in his honour, a year when we are all called to pray for our priests and when priests themselves are called to be saints.
A week ago Father Willie Spicer, a Columban who died suddenly at the age of 59, was buried. I didn’t know him very well as he was in his first year in the seminary when I was in my last. He spent many years in Japan after his ordination in 1974 and I met him for the first time in decades two years ago when I was at home. At the time of his death he was the coordinator of our mission awareness programme in Ireland, a demanding job that involved visiting different parishes almost every weekend and the schools in those parishes on weekdays.
Fr Michael Scully, who gave the homily in Father Willie’s home town of Westport, County Mayo, was ordained almost 20 years before Father Willie. His homily highlights for me a number of precious and sacred things in the life of a priest: his vocation, friendship between priests and the mission of a priest to bring the hope of the resurrection into the lives of people. I
have often found that a funeral is a time when persons are very open to the word of God. Japan is a country where there are very few Catholics, fewer than one in 200 of the population, and where the conversion of an individual to the Catholic faith is a great cause for rejoicing. A funeral Mass which Father Willie celebrated was a moment of faith for a Japanese artist who had never heard of the resurrection.
Another Columban priest in Japan, Fr Joe Broderick, ordained two years after me, whom I hadn’t met for many years, told me when we finally did that he still used in funeral homilies words he heard me speak at my mother’s funeral in 1970. I can’t recall what I said and didn’t even recall that Father Joe had been there. We never know how the word of God will reverberate and how something that one person cannot recall becomes central to the life of another.
When I first read Father Scully’s homily I was moved to tears and felt so grateful to God for having called me to be a priest.
May Father Willie and all our deceased Columbans, and the priests who have influenced are lives who have now gone ahead, rest in peace and enjoy this Year of Priests in the eternity of heaven with St John Vianney.
I have highlighted some parts of the homily.
Homily at Willie Spicer’s funeral Mass – July 28 2009 at Westport Church
Fr Michael Scully
We are gathered here today to do homage to the memory of Father Willie Spicer whose sudden death has come as a shock to us all. And I take this opportunity to express my sincere sympathy to all Willie’s family – to his brothers Jim and Aidan and their families and his younger brother Brian – as well as to all his relatives and friends, and to all of you who have come far and near to be here. I want to also express my deepest sympathy to Dick Healy and his family. The Healy family were close friends of Willie, and his passing must have been especially poignant for them on what was to be a happy occasion of celebration. Willie was in Limerick to attend Dick Healy’s 70th birthday.
We are all here, each of us with our personal thoughts and memories. Depending on how close we were to Willie, and how well we knew him, our thoughts and feelings at the present moment probably cover a wide spectrum of memories and emotions. Willie’s brother Aidan shared a very special memory with me this morning at breakfast. He told me that Willie once told him that Cloonagh was the place where Willie ‘got his vocation’ – where he got his call to mission. This memory is so precious to Aidan that he took some of his children out there this morning after a visit to the family grave at Aghavale Cemetery. [Aidan told me that Cloonagh is situated between Aghavale Cemetery and Croagh Patrick].
I will not be so foolish as to try to determine what the thoughts and feelings of others may be. I can only speak for myself.
I have lost a friend – a close friend - a trusted friend – a friend to whom I would entrust my life unconditionally. Last Friday evening when I heard that Willie Spicer had died suddenly, I experienced a deep feeling of personal loss. It is hard to imagine life without him. Not that we met frequently in recent times – after all, he was in Ireland and I was in Japan until recently – but even at that distance we both knew that in time of need, one was there for the other.
On hearing of his death last Friday, the thought came to me, if I were asked to preach the homily at Willie’s Funeral Mass, what would I say? What would be appropriate on this sad occasion? While mulling over this for a while – I let my thoughts wander back over the years, especially over the last eight or nine years that Willie was in Japan.
Over that period of eight or nine years Willie and I enjoyed a game of golf together on a regular basis even though we lived quite far apart. Willie was pastor at the Church in Chigasaki City in the Diocese of Yokohama; I was assigned to a Church in the Archdiocese of Tokyo about 80 miles away from where Willie lived. Sometimes before our game of golf I would stay overnight at Willie’s house.
On one of those occasions I noticed a painting which I had not seen before on the wall of his living-room. So, I asked him where he got the painting. ‘There is a story behind that’ was his answer. I would like to tell that story as Willie told it too me. These are his words: ‘About a year ago I did a funeral Mass here in Chigasaki Church. And, as usual, during the homily I emphasized that death was not the end of everything; and then went on to talk of Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead’. At this point, Willie paused and turned towards me: ‘I think it is meaningless’ he said, ‘to preach a homily at a wake or funeral Mass if we don’t make some mention of the resurrection of Christ and our own hope in the resurrection. Isn’t that what our Christian faith is all about? It’s because of that faith that we are on mission!’
Those words of Willie were for my benefit, but, needless to say, I was in complete agreement with what he said. However, Willie’s story did not end there. ‘You know’, he said ‘after that funeral Mass an elderly man approached me and said to me “Today was the first time I ever heard a talk like the talk you gave at the Mass. Until now, I had never heard of the resurrection of the dead – and somehow, it makes a lot of sense to me. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to hear that homily. If I had a chance I’d like to study the Catholic faith. Do you know if there’s a Catholic Church close to where I live?” and Willie continued, ‘That was about a year ago – something that I did not know at that time was that that man was an artist who lived about a hundred miles away. That painting came from him to me as an expression of thanks – thanks for my homily at the funeral Mass, but also as an expression of profound gratitude for the fact that he was studying the Catholic faith, and in hoping to be baptized in the not too distant future in a church close to where he lives’.
I have told this story because I believe that if Willie Spicer had a chance to speak to us today, he would say to us: ‘It’s all right to feel sad and to grieve on this occasion. I would feel the same way if I were in your place. But, don’t be carried away by sadness and grief. Today’s sadness and grief cannot compare with the joy and the happiness and the glory that will be ours if we but believe that the God who loves us, loves us so much that He gave His only Son for us’.
In this Mass as we move on to the Liturgy of the Eucharist – that’s the Liturgy of Thanksgiving, let us thank God for the gift that Willie Spicer was to each one of us, and for the many graces and blessings God has given to so many people through Willie’s dedication to the various missions entrusted to him.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis, may his faithful soul be at the right hand of God.