The funeral this morning (Monday 17 January 2021) of Fr Michael J Kelly SJ was both a simple farewell and moving tribute to an outstanding Jesuit. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, only a limited number could attend the Mass but many tuned in from around the world to the live streaming of the service on YouTube. Watch the recording here.
Michael’s fellow Jesuits were joined by dignitaries from Ireland and Zambia. A message from his family back in Ireland was read by Pronch Murray, the Head of Missions from the Irish Embassy in Zambia. “Our beloved Uncle Michael is gone and we are all heartbroken,” they said. “We can’t imagine life without his wisdom, He was like a father, a grandfather, and a great grandfather to all the family. Now he has gone home. We will never forget you.”
The theme of ‘going home’ ran through the funeral Mass. The homilist was his fellow Jesuit Peter Carroll, and he told the story of how Michael gave an in-depth interview to the Daily Mail in Zambia last year. “At the end of it the journalist asked him what he would like to have inscribed on his gravestone,” Peter recalled, “to which Michael replied, ‘He has gone home to God’.”
Fr Carroll in his homily also drew on the four Universal Apostolic Preferences of the current head of the Jesuits worldwide, Fr Arturo Sosa. He went through these priorities of Fr Sosa, namely: to show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment; to walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice; to accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future; to collaborate in the care of our common home. And he explained how Michael’s life was the embodiment of every one of them.
He also mentioned too how the last paper Michael wrote in 2020, was about another virus, the coronavirus. In it he explored the impact of Covid-19 on Africa and his focus was on the women whom he said bore the brunt of coping with this terrible virus. It was a theme close to Michael’s heart as he was also on the record as describing HIV/AIDS as a “feminist issue.”
Fr Carroll also noted especially the way Michael impacted on people from a spiritual perspective, touching their hearts when he preached at Mass. He said he had a real gift in that regard that was also shared by his deceased brothers Joseph and Robert, who were also Jesuits.
Zambian Provincial Fr Leonard Chiti was the main celebrant and after communion, he read out a statement of gratitude from ZOA – Zambia Orphans’ Aid a branch of which Fr Michael set up to care for children orphaned because of the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Fr Chiti made the point that whilst Professor Michael Kelly was world-renowned as a scholar and scientist in this field, he also was hands-on in his care for those who suffered because of the disease.
This point was echoed in a moving address by the Minister for Religious Affairs, Mrs. Godfridah Sumaili, who spoke after Fr Chiti. Referring to the fact that Michael had left to the government and the people of Zambia a wealth of knowledge to be accessed by many generations to come, she also emphasized that he was not an aloof academic but rather somebody whose striking humility brought him close to ordinary people.
“I feel a lot of grief as I stand here on behalf of the President of Zambia and our government to express our profound sadness at the death of Professor Father Michael Kelly,” she said. “But we also want to celebrate his life. A life that was centered on serving God and humanity with passion and compassion. He has served this nation with distinction and passion also,” she said.
She also thanked the Irish Government on behalf of the Zambian Government for the support they gave to Fr Michael which in turn benefitted her country.
Representing the Irish government Pronch Murray also read out the statement of Irish President Michael D Higgins.
“It is with deep sadness that I learned of the death of Fr Michael Kelly in his adopted home of Zambia,” President Higgins said in his statement.
“As an academic, writer, and educator, Fr. Michael made an immense contribution to improved health outcomes for many people in Sub-Saharan Africa. Through his work with Irish Aid and several multilateral organisations, he was an inspirational figure to health workers, aid workers, humanitarians and diplomats from Ireland, Zambia and beyond.”
The President paid tribute to Fr Kelly’s intellect, as well as his “extraordinary positivity and compassion. “He epitomised the great work of Irish missionaries in the education and health spheres in so many parts of the world. His humanity shone through in his work and in his encounters with all who were fortunate enough to have met him.
As Fr Patrick Mulemi read the final commendation the haunting strains of a farewell hymn, song acapella by one of the women in the church choir, hung in the air. “It won’t matter where you bury me,” she had intoned, “For I’ll be home and I’ll be free.”
Fr Michael’s remains have been laid rest in Zambia, as was his wish, but his great heart “has gone home to God.”
Click here to read more about the life of Fr Michael.