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Funeral Mass of Peter Sutherland

Gonzaga have lost a good friend and devoted supporter of the college in alumnus Peter Sutherland, former European commissioner, Irish Attorney General, and businessman. He died on Sunday 7 January. Fr Noel Barber SJ, a close of friend of Peter and his family, celebrated the funeral Mass on Thursday morning at 11.00 am in the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook.

In his homily Noel said that Peter was a “committed Catholic whose Catholicism was open, tolerant and gracious, and the absence of these characteristics raised his temperature”. He suggested that the gospel reading of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus was the lens through which Peter life and death should be viewed. “The message of Christ and the demands that it makes on us would be hollow if Christ himself did not take on the depths of human suffering,” Noel told the congregation; “Christ did not point out the narrow, difficult path while taking a different route himself. It is in this light that we have to place Peter Sutherland’s life and death.”

Throughout his homily, Fr Noel interwove the threads of Peter’s life and death with the gospel motif of suffering, dying and rising into glory. He spoke of Peter’s early student days in Gonzaga, where Noel first met him in 1961. And he recounted the story of a conversation regarding Peter between two teachers, one of them Fr White SJ. The teacher mentioned to Fr White that “young Sutherland” was not doing so well. “Fr White with uncharacteristic sharpness responded that when young Sutherland saw something he wanted he would go for it and get it,” said Noel, adding, “I overheard that conversation and I watched with pleasure how over the years the prophecy of the shrewd Fr White was fulfilled.”

Referencing some of the things Peter did achieve, Noel noted, “One never finds greatness in gaining credit of a great name on earth but in conforming ones life to that of Christ. If one achieves that then one is great no matter how the life is otherwise. This was something of which Peter Sutherland was quietly convinced and that he accepted in faith. This may seem strange to say of one who had Peter’s ambition, wealth, prestige and power in high places. Yet it was his faith and the practice of his faith that gave him his moral compass.”

This moral compass was also evidenced not merely in the Sutherland Law School, according to Noel, but in his “countless acts of generosity that were and remain hidden; the extent of this philanthropy is known to relatively few but it was extensive.” Noel also spoke of Peter Sutherland’s  “passionate devotion” to the cause of refugees that the Vatican and the UN called on – a passion, said Noel, “that came from a deep religious consciousness.”

At the end of his homily Noel spoke of the devotion shown to Peter by his wife Maruja throughout his life and particularly during the rigours of his final illness. And he concluded, “We look on the cross above this altar and we see that when Christ was at his weakest, frailest, when he was helpless and humiliated, then was he at the point of his entry into glory. So with Peter, he has moved from his frail and broken state into that place of peace and happiness that was prepared for him from before the foundation of the world.”

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Read the full homily below.

HOMILY BY FR NOEL BARBER SJ AT THE FUNERAL MASS OF PETER SUTHERLAND

We gather here today to pray for the happy repose of Peter Sutherland, to give thanks for the blessings that he received during his life and for the blessing that he was to others. We extend our sympathy and support to his wife Maruja, sons Shane and Ian, daughter Natalia, his sisters Jill and Karen, brothers-in-law David and Javier, son-in-law Paul, daughters-in-law Daniela and Eva and his 10 precious grandchildren. We remember in this Mass also, his deceased parents Billy and Barbara and deceased brother David.

The readings to which we have listened supply the lens through which we look back on Peter Sutherland’s life and death. The Gospel especially, puts his death in the context of the mystery of Christ’s life, death and resurrection: that mysterious pattern of life whereby we are lead through suffering into glory.

In the Gospel from St. Luke Our Lord points out to two disciples on the way to Emmaus that Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead; or as he puts earlier in the same chapter, ‘Was it not necessary that Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory? No doubt, the joy of discovering that Christ had risen blocked some obvious questions, such as ‘Why?’ ‘Why should the innocent suffer?’ ‘Why must Christ suffer? Why should the Passion have to precede the Resurrection? The message of the Gospel is a stark statement of the Law of the cross, which is a folly and a scandal, unintelligible in itself and acceptable only in the light of Faith. The message of Christ and the demands that it makes on us would be hollow if Christ himself did not take on the depths of human suffering. After all, the first readers of St. Luke’s Gospel were facing persecution and some were prepared to die for their Faith. To those and many others who follow them to this very day Christ did not point out the narrow, difficult path while taking a different route himself. It is in this light that we have to place Peter Sutherland’s life and death.

He was educated in Gonzaga, which had a remarkable influence on him leaving him with a fierce loyalty to the school and a no less remarkable loyalty to and admiration for the Jesuits. Allied to his admiration of the Jesuits was an acute knowledge of their history and above all of their educational ideals and practice. I would have been slow to enter a quiz on things Jesuitical with him. A story of Kingsley Aikins, a former CEO of the Ireland Funds, confirmed my diffidence. He shared with Peter the five key principles of fundraising: 1. Believe in the value of your work; 2. Let your light shine before people; 3. Know your clients and be patient with their moral failings; 4. Manage your assets carefully; 5. Never forget to say thank you.

He then asked Peter if he knew the author; Peter did: Ignatius of Loyola founder of the Jesuits, who wrote these words in the 16th century.

The Jesuits, Gonzaga College and I personally are deeply grateful for his generous loyalty. I knew him from 1961 when I was a callow young Jesuit teacher and he was a chubby 4th year student. One has to say that stellar success did not mark these years. Nevertheless, there were signs of what was to come. Once, a teacher overheard Peter and a pal discussing the strength and weaknesses of the priests whose Masses they served. Peter with Sutherland certainty said, “I like to serve Fr White”. His companion retorted – it was in the days of corporal punishment – “But he biffs us” Peter countered pragmatically, “What are you taking about? He has to do it. That is his job and he does a good job”. That same Fr White spotted something in Peter at that stage which eluded others. A teacher remarked to him that young Sutherland was not doing so well and Fr White with uncharacteristic sharpness responded that when young Sutherland saw something he wanted he would go for it and get it. I overheard that conversation and I watched with pleasure how over the years the prophecy of the shrewd Fr White was fulfilled.

Peter went on to UCD and the Bar where he devilled for a good friend of mine Harry Hill whom Peter as AG was to appoint Master of the High Court. About a year after Peter had been practising at the Bar I asked Hill how Peter was doing. He answered, “Too well. I worry about him.” A couple of years later, I reminded him of his worry and he replied that he was wasting his time worrying. “Sutherland was going to the top”.

Acres of newsprint have chronicled his journey to the top but perhaps have not underlined a most significant event that occurred in the Old Belvedere pavilion on Anglesea Road. There Peter met Maruja and a friendship blossomed into a romance and the romance into the happiest of marriages of two people of different temperaments and character but absolutely united in their devotion to one another and to the children. Her support was writ large over his success in the balance and calm she brought to union. Of course, his long illness showed her in her finest colours.

One finds the essence of Peter Sutherland in the gospel passage of the Mass.

One never finds greatness in gaining credit of a great name on earth but in conforming ones life to that of Christ. If one achieves that then one is great no matter how the life is otherwise. This was something of which Peter Sutherland was quietly convinced and that he accepted in faith. This may seem strange to say of one who had Peter’s ambition, wealth, prestige and power in high places. Yet it was his faith and the practice of his faith that gave him his moral compass.

There were indications of his Faith in many ways: in his philanthropy, and I refer primarily not to things such as the Sutherland Law School but to his countless acts of generosity that were and remain hidden; the extent of this philanthropy is known to relatively few but it was extensive. Then there was his passionate devotion to the cause of refugees that the Vatican and the UN called on and that passion came from a deep religious consciousness. He promoted globalization because he saw it was a means of lifting billions out of grim poverty and of countering a narrow nationalism, which avoids global responsibility. His enthusiasm for the real benefits of globalization may indeed have blurred his view of its downside but he rightly emphasized its benefit to the poorer countries of the world.

He was a committed Catholic whose Catholicism, was open, tolerant and gracious and the absence of these characteristics raised his temperature. I recall the appointment of a man to high ecclesiastical office producing language from Peter quite unsuitable to repeat in Church. His convinced faith enabled him to accept without self-pity his illness, which eventually led to the enfeebled body, the weakening mind, and a total dependency on others. These are the brute facts but we are not here to celebrate brute facts but to celebrate Peter’s life in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection. We look on the cross above this altar and we see that when Christ was at his weakest, frailest, when he was helpless and humiliated, then was he at the point of his entry into glory. So with Peter, he has moved from his frail and broken state into that place of peace and happiness that was prepared for him from before the foundation of the world.
Peter, may the good Lord bless him abundantly.

Noel Barber, SJ