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"That is a true friend" - Fr Denis Geraghty OP (1929-2012)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Fr Allan White OP, formerly Prior Provincial of the English Province and currently Senior Chaplain at New York University, preached the following homily at the funeral of Fr Denis, which took place at St Dominic’s, London, on 5th November 2012:

One of the things Father Denis felt strongly about, and often he only seemed to feel strongly about things, indifference like logic was alien to him, was the undesirability of panegyrics at funerals. Once on returning from a funeral he dismissed the sermon of the preacher saying ‘he came to praise him not to bury him.’ Father Denis believed that the task of a Dominican friar is to talk about God. The work of a priest is not to draw attention to himself but to point towards Christ. He is sent for the service of Christ's Gospel. The priest points to Christ by coming to resemble him and that resemblance is to be seen not only in what he says but in what he does and in what he is. Word and deed go together. The word does not only need to be heard it must be seen.

St Thomas Aquinas considered, perhaps not surprisingly, that being called to the work of preaching was to be called to the highest form of human existence (IIaIIae 188.6) Those chosen by the risen Christ as his ambassadors are chosen because they have seen him, and eaten and drunk with him, they have enjoyed his society and been accepted as his friends. The way that they live their lives is a demonstration of the friendship they enjoy with him. In the end the most powerful and important sermon we ever preach is the sermon of our lives. In wrestling with the Word our lives become an enacted word, commentaries on the Gospel.

Fr Denis preaching at the funeral of Br Vincent Cook in 2010
Blessed Jordan of Saxony said of St Dominic that God gave him a special grace of compassion for sinners, the poor and the afflicted: he carried their distress in the innermost sanctuary of his heart. For Blessed Jordan Dominic had a gift, a charism, which prompted him to see and to share in an intense way in the sufferings of others. The Dominican mission of preaching is an exercise of the mercy of God made real and mediated through the human life and experience of his ministers. Father Denis raised eccentricity to a new level. He was a distinct and idiosyncratic character, his intention may have been to act as a signpost to Christ, he may have wished his own personality to fade into the background but God gave him a special grace of eccentricity which brought people to see the Lord in him. The countless number of people who came to him for counsel, confession, companionship and spiritual friendship testifies that in him they found the living Word of God’s love, forgiveness and acceptance. He was not unaware of his own failings and would often disarmingly admit them, usually when he had brought one of the brethren to the brink of murdering him, but instead of isolating him from others and marking him off from them these traits of character made him more accessible to others. He thought of himself as unimportant and was gifted with a rare humility which rather than rendering him bland or anonymous made him uniquely original. At times his unconventionality bordered on the anarchic but the gift he received form God was precisely to be a minister of God’s own anarchic grace which freed people from the broken circumstances of their lives from which they believed there was no escape. Father Denis never believed he was an expert on anything, but he was expert at reading human hearts. This skill he acquired through allowing the Lord to break open his own heart. He never thought that he had graduated from the school of the Lord’s service. There was always something more for him to learn and one of the things he was learning in the last years of his life was how to complete his Dominican profession of obedience as he handed himself over in surrendering himself into the hands of God.

It was said of St Dominic that he spoke only to God or about God. Fr Denis relished the ministry of the word. He loved to talk about God. In fact, he loved talking! He was always ready to preach employing that unique form of exegesis which blended acute human insight and profound spirituality with an amalgam of Professor Bultmann and Saint Alphonsus Ligouri. He never seemed to lose his way yet we knew that if he ended his sermon with the phrase ‘and so we might like to reflect on that’ it was because he was not sure of his conclusion. If he used the phrase ‘and so my dear people’ the brethren knew that things were dire. As he loved to talk about God, in his last years as his health declined he was drawn more deeply into talking to God in the mystery of prayer. His favourite spot in this church was at the foot of the crucifix in the Lady Chapel. There he spent many hours in prayer. If his active apostolate was limited his contemplative apostolate was not. Father Provincial told me yesterday that whenever he was troubled about some difficulty or problem in administration he would go to Father Denis and commission an immediate five decades of the Rosary. Father Denis was the Provincial’s equivalent of a Tibetan prayer wheel.

Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The most concentrated form of his teaching was given on the cross where he displayed his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father. In recent months Denis entered more closely into the mystery of the cross as he prepared to take leave of us and return to the Lord whom he loved and longed for. He knew there were no short cuts. The way to glory is the way of the cross and by cleaving to the cross he hoped to learn its wisdom from him who was gentle and lowly of heart. It was that yoke of gentleness and lowliness that Father Denis took gladly on his shoulders when he was clothed in the Dominican habit at the age of 44.

Blessed Jordan, replying to a letter of Blessed Diana in which she asked him to recommend some spiritual books, advised her that all the spiritual knowledge and wisdom she desired would come from the crucified Christ. He compared the crucifix to an illuminated manuscript she needed no other books:
    ...you will indeed be more nobly and sweetly consoled by that book that you have daily before the eyes of the spirit, the book of life, the tablets “of the purest law, that excites the soul.” This “pure law” (Ps. 18:8)…is love, when you behold Jesus your redeemer with arms outstretched on the Cross, written with his wounds, pained with his holy blood. …No book can lead more compellingly to love.
It was in this book that Father Denis read deeply as in these last months of private and secret intense pain he prepared for the final stages of his return to his Father’s house.

When St Thomas talks about the New Law of the Gospel he asks is it a written law? He concludes that no book could contain the excellence of Christ’s teaching. The new law of grace was designed to be impressed on the hearts of its hearers. Preaching, proclaiming the word is not the communication of information, it is not an empty moralism telling people what to do, it witnesses to Christ. The foundation of our life is the sequela Christi, the following of Christ. We are all disciples of Christ. Our ministry flows from discipleship. In our day we have often come to privilege the spoken word over every other form of word. We need to remember that we have heard His voice, but we have also seen His glory. As we read in the second reading from the First Letter of John our subject is not only what we have heard but what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed, and felt with our hands…the word of life. There is a hearing, but also a seeing. It is true that scriptural revelation is a revelation of the word, but it is not only that. Underlying the word there is always a vision, there must always be a vision. The whole story of scripture is driven by a hunger for sight, a nostalgia for the vision of God. “It is your face Lord that I seek. Hide not your face.’ In our intensely visual society, dominated by the flickering image of screen and tabloid, people want to see. In our world many people have lost the ability to read the Word, the witness of Scripture is alien to them, all the more need then for preachers who not only speak the word but do it and live it and show it forth. As an old Chinese missionary prayer has it ‘Lord make us to be Bibles so that those who cannot read the Word can read it in us.’

In his letter to the Ephesians St Paul reminds them that they are God’s work, his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works that God has prepared us in advance to walk in. We are God’s project, or as some translate it, we are God’s masterpiece, his principal work of art. We are being warned not to get ideas above our station. We are not our own project. We cannot create ourselves, if we try to do that we shall inevitably follow the wrong template, we will be design failures. When we try to fashion ourselves we frequently start with the wrong blueprint of humanity. Paul is saying that we often start from our own experience of what it is to be human and think that this is all there is to it. In fact we start in the wrong place and inevitably reach the wrong destination. The model of true humanity is presented to us in Jesus; it is only as we conform to this blueprint, live in accordance with the life that comes through him that we are truly alive and taste of true humanity. We can only be truly human if we allow ourselves to be his work. It is in disposing ourselves to be God’s work that we become not less ourselves but more ourselves. We become originals and workers in the world of the anarchy of grace.

Once St Francis of Assisi was passing through a field when a peasant who was ploughing saw him and ran up to him. He asked him if he was Francis and Francis said indeed he was. The farmer then said ‘I tell you do not be other than you appear to be for many people put their trust in you.’ Fr Denis never appeared to be other than he was and many mourn him today who never regretted putting their trust in him. We pray that as he continues his journey from glory to glory before the throne of God that he is becoming even more himself, although with what effect on the heavenly liturgy can only be imagined.

Last week we celebrated Mass for Father Denis in the chapel of New York University Catholic Centre. After the Mass one of the students came to me and said ‘Father I am sorry for the death of your friend.’ He asked me what he was like. I gave as best I could a description of Father Denis. At the end the young student asked me a question which rather took me aback. He asked, ‘Did he make you feel as if you wanted to be a better person.’ I was surprised at this and thought about it before answering. I replied ‘Yes, he did.’ I do not think he quite managed it as so often in this life desire outstrips performance. The young student then said: ‘that is a true friend.’

That is a true friend.


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