Words delivered at the funeral of my aunt, Mary Kelly (Oct 20, 2016)

As we know, a bitter presidential election campaign is slowing drawing to a close in the United States. It has had many low points, and few high points. But there is a statement Michelle Obama has made a couple of times now that has resonated with many people, and that I thought of too, as I looked back on the life of my aunt, Mary Kelly. Speaking of her opponents, Michelle Obama said: “When they go low, we go high.”

Go high…

That is what Aunty Mary did all her life, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense – go high. She went high. She always went high.

She was born and bred on high ground in the hill country of Croughmarka almost 93 years ago. She crossed those hills every day to go to school. She met and fell in love with and married a young man called Paddy, also born and bred on high ground in the same hill country. They spent most of their wedded lives together living on high ground, in a house nestled in the hills of Commonaline, rearing a family in often challenging conditions, when farming was tough, and frugality a necessity, and the weather not always hospitable. But being high up in the hills didn’t matter to Mary. She loved the mountains and she loved the outdoors.

Towns, cities, exotic foreign destinations, overseas travel – none of these held the slightest attraction for her. It was on the high ground – enjoying its grace-filled natural beauty, imbibing its unspoilt, invigorating fresh air, feeling the mountain dew beneath her feet, living in tune with the rhythm of the seasons – it was in Commonaline where she felt at home and happy and fully alive.

Go high. Aunty Mary went high.

But her going high wasn’t just a geographical thing, a matter of physical location. Aunty Mary went high in so many other ways too, the ways that define and describe one’s character, the essence of who a person truly is.

She had a high moral compass – a just woman who lived by the simple truth and did not tolerate wrongdoing; values she inculcated in her children and grandchildren.

She had a highly developed work ethic and sense of responsibility. Whether outside or inside the house, she worked long hours for long years for as long as she could, no cribbing about it. For her, it was simply doing her duty.

She had high standards of cleanliness – the yards and sheds always immaculate, her house spotless, too. One marvelled at how it could be done and how she did it.

She had a high sense of respect for others, was slow to speak ill of anyone, and was always warm in her welcome. She had a knack for making everyone feel special. Her constant smile reflected that. The way those in the nursing home loved her confirmed it.

She had an extraordinarily high capacity to love. She loved Paddy in a way that words cannot capture. A long, long love stretching back almost all their lives, broken only by his passing in 2005. His unexpected death was the beginning of her end. She loved her children and grandchildren in the same lavish, selfless way. The bond she had with them and they had with ‘granny’ was a thing of rare, high beauty. She was so proud of them. The way that Anne loved and cared for her deserves special mention.

It was easy especially to witness those love bonds these past few days as she grew smaller in her bed and her breathing grew shallow and the end drew near. The love, the togetherness, the unity, the sadness were all on display and yet also a profound sense of gratitude for having had this woman among us for so long, for being lucky enough to know her and be part of her family. I found my encounters with her to be almost sacramental – an audience with a gentle, simple, smiling woman who radiated something of the warmth and tenderness of God.

And, of course, that was no surprise, because she was a woman of faith. Her love of and trust in God was high. Her faith nourished her; strengthened her; it was what sustained her through the setbacks that came her way. Dying didn’t faze Aunty Mary. Just as in life she always went high, so also when she was faced with the prospect of death.

There are many today who believe that death is the end, period. That once you breathe your last, you’re gone forever, done and dusted. The best you can hope for is to leave behind some sort of positive legacy and happy memories, and a big gap in loved ones’ lives.

For us Christians, it is different. We know that death is a door, not a wall. Death isn’t an exit to oblivion, a sorrowful slide into nothingness. It is, rather, the threshold to a new, transformed life with God forever. On Monday morning, at 6.50am, Aunty Mary crossed that threshold from life to death, from life to life. Her earthly body is empty of life now; her strong heart is quiet; her big smile has given way; all we are left with are her mortal remains. But having crossed that threshold on Monday morning, she did not journey from life to death; from a breathing, smiling, pulsating, warm, wonderful human being, a granny to everyone, into some cold, dank abyss of darkness and destruction, she passed in that moment from this life to a completely new glorified life, life with God forever.

The second reading from St Paul, read to us by Noel, contains one of the most reassuring statements in all of scripture. Paul tells us that nothing can separate us from the love we share in Christ Jesus. “For I am sure of this,” he says, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Mary, our beloved one, knew and subscribed to that good news all her life. Now, reunited with Paddy and all she loved and lost, nothing separates her from the warm embrace of Jesus, her saviour. In our liturgy today, as in every liturgy, we are reminded that in Christ Jesus, we remain united with those who have died. Mary is gone from us but not forever. She is separated from us, but not for good. In this knowledge, we find our solace, our inspiration, our consolation, our hope.

And so we say our farewells. We are left with our tears and our sadness but, even more, we are comforted with countless happy memories and with a joyous sense of gratitude that we could not have asked for a more wonderful wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, great granny, aunt, cousin, neighbour or friend – a woman was who a bastion of common sense, a beacon of light, a rock of faith, a fountain of love, a beautiful, caring, smiling woman who always, always, always went high.

My tears for a lost innocence

The choir began the hymn and suddenly I felt the tears trickle down my cheeks. It was no special occasion and it wasn’t a particularly beautiful rendition of the hymn. It wasn’t even a very good hymn. “Our God Reigns” has never been popular with the liturgical types. So, why the tears?Because that is a song I associate with my young days, the days of youth and optimism, and those are long gone now.

“Our God Reigns” reminds me in particular of the pope’s visit to Ireland in September 1979. I was at the youth Mass in Galway, having entered the seminary just two weeks before. And at the Mass, where the warm-up acts included Bishop Casey and Fr Michael Cleary, I was allocated a seat in the section close to the altar, the section reserved for priests and seminarians. The pope was just one hundred yards away.

I was 17 years old. I was innocent and naïve and awestruck and, like so many others present that day, swept away in the euphoria of it all.

We were celebrating the swan song of the church in Ireland during those three days of the pope’s visit but we had no idea that is what we were doing. The hundreds of bishops and priests and religious present must have felt a warm glow of satisfaction and assurance as they gazed out at the vast sea of faces. The future of the church in Ireland seemed secure. All those young people had travelled to Galway from every corner of the country tired, but full of faith and vigor and love for the church, and singing “Our God Reigns.”

The day before almost the entire population of Dublin had gathered in the Phoenix Park in another extraordinary display of faith and emotion. The church was safe for several generations more.

I was 17 years old and had no cynicism in me, or disappointment or disillusionment with the church or the world. My experience of both had been nothing but positive. Full of zeal, I wanted to make my contribution.

It’s hard to believe that was almost 37 years ago. The young clergy who had brought bus loads of teenagers to Galway from all over the country are old and wearied now, morale is sapped, the energy and exuberance of those days long gone, as churches empty and monasteries close and parishes cluster and vocations disappear.

The tears I shed were for the innocent, fragile me of all those years ago with my naïve enthusiasm but also for the church that through arrogance and complacency and abuse of power lost the love and trust of its people and won’t ever get it back.

Remembering the 96 – words I delivered at a memorial service for the fallen of Hillsborough

Today I have been weeping, but not just because of the pain in my back. I have been weeping for the 96 Liverpool fans whose lives were taken from them unlawfully 27 years ago, and who were finally declared innocent only today. I have been weeping for their families too, who suffered so much but never gave up, and for all who have had to fight to have their voices heard.

Two years ago, I was privileged to preach at a memorial Mass for those 96 men and women, boys and girls, parents and children, who perished 25 years earlier at Hillsborough. These are the words I spoke that night to a church-full of fellow Liverpool fans in south Dublin, all clad in our famous red strip. (I was wearing my Luis Suarez autographed shirt under my vestments).

It’s something we have all experienced. The thrill of going to a match – the joy of anticipation as the days and the hours count down till kick off; the excitement of getting ready, of putting on the scarf or jersey that you wear with bursting pride; the buzz as you and thousands of soul mates approach the stadium – the banter, the colour, the singing, the noise, the little tingling in the tummy as the teams take their place.

And so it was on Saturday, April 15, 1989, at Hillsborough in Sheffield as Liverpool prepared to take on Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi final – another step on what we expected would be an almost routine League and Cup double for our heroes.

Thousands of Liverpool fans had travelled that day to support their team as they had done so often in the past. Fans young and old and in between; native Scousers as well as wannabe Scousers from towns and villages far from Anfield Road; seasoned supporters who had attended games too numerous to count as well as first-timers and those who only got to the occasional game.

It was going to be another great day. And luckily for those of us who weren’t able to go, the game was on the telly. We would be able to see it live.

Liverpool supporters were allocated the Leppings Lane stand. And, well, we know what happened as 3 o’clock approached. Twenty-threedecrepit, constantly jamming turnstiles had to cope with nearly 25,000 eager fans. Inadequate stewarding, disastrous policing and appalling crowd management meant that, as the numbers swelled outside, a gate was ordered opened, allowing fans into two enclosures that were already full.

Too many people squeezing into too small a space. Moments after kick-off, a crush barrier broke, and fans began to fall on top of each other. Those poor innocent, excited fans at the front – those who had taken up position early so as to be close to their heroes or who had been carried to the front by the momentum of the crowds – were trapped, the breath sucked out of them.

I was watching the game at home that day, and it took some time for the commentators and officials and for any of us to realize that something terrible was happening. And then as people began to scramble desperately, and fans were lifted by fellow supporters onto the stand overhead and others climbed over side fences onto the pitch side, and as Bruce Grobbelaar and other players tried to draw attention to what was unfolding, the game was stopped.

It was barely seven minutes after three. Seven minutes for 96 innocent people to be killed; for over 90 families to lose loved ones; for hundreds to be injured and traumatized; for thousands to be shattered, bewildered, devastated and broken.

None of us who were alive that day will ever forget it. I will never forget the sight of broken and battered bodies being ferried frantically across the pitch on make-shift stretchers; I will never forget the look of horror and disbelief on the faces of those desperately trying to help or who stood frozen in shock; or the picture of that one ambulance entering the ground far too late while others stood outside.

And then as the day went on and minutes turned to hours, hearing the tally of the dead rise relentlessly. Twenty dead, 35, 50, 70, 85, 95. Could it really be 95? (later 96 after the death of Tony Bland in 1993). How could that be possible? They were just ordinary football fans, after all. All they had done was go out to support the club they loved, and now they were dead. Men and women, boys and girls, young and old – dead. Two sisters, three pairs of brothers, and a father and son were among those who perished on that dreadful day.

Trevor and Jenny Hicks were at the game with their daughters, 19-year-old Sarah and 15-year-old Vicky. The parents had stand tickets; the girls were at the Leppings Lane end.

“On a beautiful day,” Jenny Hicks recalls, “we left home in the morning for a lovely day of football with our daughters. We came back to the house at about two o’clock the following morning without the girls.”

Their beautiful girls, their only two children, gone.

Eddie Spearrit took his 14-year-old son Adam to the game. It was to be Adam’s first ever semi-final. Like Eddie, Adam loved football. He was a good player and a keen Liverpool fan. Both had tickets for the Leppings Lane end.

Adam was killed, and Eddie still hasn’t a clue what happened to him between losing consciousness at 3pm and being admitted to hospital at 5pm.

And so it goes … 96 lives lost; so many individuals and families broken beyond repair.

It could have been any of us.

But if what happened on April 15, 1989, wasn’t devastating enough, what followed was utterly scandalous. The systematic conspiracy to blame the fans, and so cover up for the abject failure of the authorities, rubbed salt into gaping wounds, and compounded the suffering of the bereaved. For the families, it meant not just grief suffered but pain inflicted with cold calculation; not just devastation experienced but a city cruelly maligned; not just heartbreak felt but justice deliberately denied.

Thank God, at last, at last, after all these years, after botched judicial inquiries and malicious reports and altered witness statements and tabloid lies and an establishment that displayed callous contempt towards a club and its people, justice is dawning for the 96.

What has been extraordinary over the past quarter century has been the dignity of the families. Through grief and mourning, in the face of media indifference, even as their loved ones were called beasts and their reputations besmirched, they held their heads high, for they knew that right was on their side.

What has been extraordinary has been their perseverence. People like the late, brave Anne Williams, who lost her 15-year-old son Kevin, would not give up. They kept campaigning and lobbying and and insisting and demanding that the truth be told. The powers that be hoped that eventually they would fall silent, that their campaign would grow tired, that with the passage of the years people would lose interest, but the families would not be denied. They could not be denied, and thank God, their perseverence has paid off. They haven’t been denied.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel, in its report published on that great day in September 2012, concluded what we knew all along – that no Liverpool fans were responsible in any way for the disaster. Justice is dawning, and the new inquest now taking place, and the prosecutions soon to come, will be their vindication.

And so, 25 long years after that dark and dismal day, we remember our 96 lost. We celebrate their lives, so cruelly cut short, and we commend them to our God who is just and honest and loving.

Last Sunday, the hairs stood on the back of my head as our fans sang our anthem and observed the minute’s silence with impeccable intensity. It was impossible not to shed a tear – for the 96 we lost, who are our family, for the families of the 96 and their long years of struggle; and for the club in whose cause they died, and which has stood shoulder to shoulder with its family in their suffering and their campaign for justice. The call-cry of our anthem has never rung as loud or as true as it did last Sunday, as it does on this anniversary, as it will hopefully in less than four weeks time when we win the Premiership in what would be the perfect fitting tribute to the 96, and as it will every time we remember and commemorate our fallen dead:

At the end of a storm is a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,

Walk on through the rain,

Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown.

Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart

And you’ll never walk alone,

You’ll never, ever walk alone.