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Michael J Kelly SJ on ‘Irish Abroad’ postage stamp

“Through my image on a postage stamp, for the next year or so I will be looking out on all sorts of places in this beautiful world of ours and thereby sharing the private lives of so many people in the intimacy of their homes and personal moments. And I think that it would be so wonderful if only I could make my paper image hear what the people are saying, voice my support for them in their trials and difficulties, encourage them, lift their spirits, and share the good news of the Lord with all who stick that image on to an envelope or see it on the letters they receive.” So writes Fr Michael J Kelly SJ, an Irish Jesuit missionary who has worked to combat HIV/AIDS in Zambia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and who will feature on a postage stamp this year as part of An Post’s ‘The Irish Abroad’ series. (Read his full reflection below).

The stamp featuring Fr Kelly will be issued on 27 February 2020. An Post says it is in recognition of Fr Micheal’s 65 years of Jesuit ministry in Zambia where he  reached into the hearts of people through education and HIV/AIDS-advocacy. In a letter detailing his personal reaction to the news, Fr Kelly says that he is completely overwhelmed and humbled at this “magnificent and totally unexpected honour”. (Listen here to an interview with Michael on his work in Africa.)

According to the Irish postal service, “The Irish abroad and those who have Irish roots move centre stage globally each year when Ireland’s national day [St Patrick’s Day] is widely celebrated in centres all over the world. Irish emigrants have made a huge impression on their adopted societies and on world affairs. Two of our five stamp-series on the theme of ‘The Irish Abroad’ for issue on 27 February acknowledge six such people”.

An Post notes that Fr Kelly, originally from Tullamore, County Offaly, is widely acclaimed for his work as a priest and aid worker. They say he will feature on the stamp alongside two other Irish emigrants: the accomplished author and Tuamgraney, County Clare-born Edna O’Brien and Mary Elmes (1908-2002) from Cork, the humanitarian worker particularly renowned for saving the lives of 200 Jewish children in France during the Holocaust.

An Post added, “Irish emigrants have made an indelible mark in many walks of life around the world over the centuries and we are delighted to mark their contribution by issuing two stamps that feature six notable examples”. The remaining figures are actor Richard Harris, scientist Dame Kathleen Lonsdale and musician-composer Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore.

“I can almost hear the Lord chuckling” – Fr Michael J Kelly’s personal reaction 

Nearly ten years ago, following major heart surgery and several traumatic weeks teetering between life and death in the Blackrock Clinic, I wrote a short article about myself, “Did this really happen to me?” In many ways, having heard that I will be featuring on an Irish postage stamp commemorating ‘The Irish Abroad’, I am now feeling somewhat the same.

Since I first got wind last October of this development I have been living in a kind of dazed and stunned shock. I knew it was real, that this was going to happen. But I found it hard to take it in that it was going to happen to me. I still do. I sometimes think it’s all a dream. In my way of thinking, things like this don’t come the way of somebody very ordinary from Tullamore, so maybe one day I would wake up to reality and get back to living my peaceful and quiet life as an elderly retired Jesuit (the oldest in the Zambia-Malawi Province!), praying for the Church and the Society and happily recalling the “full many a glorious morning I have seen”.

But whatever about the peace and quiet, or the praying in the present while living with the happy memories of the past, there’s no getting away from what lies before me – through my image on a postage stamp, for the next year or so I will be looking out on all sorts of places in this beautiful world of ours and thereby sharing the private lives of so many people in the intimacy of their homes and personal moments. And I think that it would be so wonderful if only I could make my paper image hear what the people are saying, voice my support for them in their trials and difficulties, encourage them, lift their spirits, and share the good news of the Lord with all who stick that image on to an envelope or see it on the letters they receive.

I first heard about this postage stamp project in mid-October last year when a stamp designer wrote asking for some pictures that would help guide him in his design work. I was completely flabbergasted at the word. Totally bowled over. I could hardly believe it. Never in my wildest dreams did it ever occur to me that this kind of recognition and public acknowledgement would ever come my way.

More than 70 years ago as a schoolboy I used to collect stamps and had quite a good and valuable collection (which went to the Jesuit Missions when I entered the Society). But I never thought that one day I would be an item in somebody else’s collection and would, as it were, see their stamp collection from the inside! And now I find it almost bizarre to think that back in the 1940s three of us all around the same age were at school in different parts of Ireland – Edna O’Brien with the Sisters of Mercy in Clare, Richard Harris at the Crescent in Limerick, and myself at the Christian Brothers in Tullamore – all of us eager young people, but none of us knowing what way life would pan out for us, and now here we are, appearing publicly on this stamp issue to commemorate and celebrate the millions of good people who emigrated from Ireland during the past 200 years. I can almost hear the Lord chuckling and saying to us, “You never expected that, did you?” Indeed, nothing could bring it home to me more clearly that God’s ways are not our ways.

I am absolutely delighted that those who left Ireland are being commemorated through this stamp issue, but I’m deeply humbled at the thought that they are being represented, remembered and honoured through me.

I can think of hundreds of others who are more deserving of such recognition, not least among them my own Jesuit brother Joe [Fr Joseph A kelly SJ] about whom his US friends frequently write very appreciatively and whose image hangs in the acclaimed Sardi’s restaurant on Broadway. But I think also of the thousands who opened to me the doors of their personal lives and sufferings as they shared with me their HIV-infected situation and their anxieties. Very few of these were Irish, but they retained hope and dignity through the ministries of HIV/AIDS-workers who came from Ireland, and today, with the benefits of HIV treatment, many of them are happily alive and praising God for the people of Ireland.

A significant feature for me in this stamp issue is that I will be appearing in the company of two women – Mary Elmes, who during World War II took so many risks in enabling hundreds of Jewish children escape from Nazi-occupied Paris, and Edna O’Brien, the renowned novelist. Promoting the situation and role of women has always been cardinal in my life, so I am very happy to appear in the company of these two great women and to see that gender-balance has been ever-so-carefully maintained on the stamps! I only hope that Edna, who is still alive, does not feel chagrined at having to share her appearance with me!

It is also great to see Dame Kathleen Lonsdale on one of the other stamps, a dynamic scientist who through her discoveries and accomplishments highlighted the original and creative capability of women. Really wonderful also to know that the new stamps make a further Jesuit connection by featuring Richard Harris who went to school in the Crescent. I have to admit, though, that until I was told something about these stamps, I had never heard of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, though like billions of others I knew his great piece When Johnny Comes Marching Home. But when I looked him up and saw that he came from north County Galway, I felt that he and I were kindred spirits – he from Ballygar in County Galway, me from Tullamore in Offaly; he lifting hearts through his dynamic music, me reaching into hearts through education and HIV/AIDS-advocacy.

It is my hope and prayer that my appearance on one of these commemorative stamps will bring recognition to the Church and the Society, and also, let me add, to my home town, Tullamore, and my adopted country, Zambia. The Church, the Society, Tullamore and Zambia have made me what I am and I can never be grateful enough to them. I don’t see myself as a worthy son of any of them, but apparently others think differently. While we agree to differ, let me say once again how completely overwhelmed and humbled I feel at this magnificent and totally unexpected honour. I pray that good will come out of it and I also ask you to pray for me that it may not give me a swelled head.

Finally, I want to express my very deep and sincere thanks to all who had anything to do with my featuring in this stamp issue as well as to all who, over the years, facilitated, encouraged or supported me in my work. If it takes two to tango, how many of you did it take over the many years of my life to motivate and energise me into using the talents with which God so generously endowed me? Thank you one and all, and may our good God give you as much happiness and sense of fulfilment in life as He has so generously given to me,

Your brother, Michael.