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‘The long learning of love’

Jesuits, family and friends have been paying tribute to Michael Paul Gallagher SJ, who passed away on Friday 6 November. His friend and fellow Jesuit Donal Neary presided at the reception of his remains in Milltown Park Chapel on Monday evening. He spoke of the contribution Michael Paul made to the many people with whom he came in contact including the students he taught in University College Dublin who felt free enough to call in for coffee and a chat with him.  So too did their parents who were often concerned that their beloved children were losing their faith.  Michael Paul, he said, would reassure them that the love and concern they had for their adult children was the real lasting kind of support their children needed as they struggled with important questions of doubt and faith. He said his first book Help My Unbelief, published in 1983, made a real impact on the cultural landscape as a substantial contribution to the understanding of issues of faith in modern times.

On Tuesday at 11am a large number of people filled the pews in Milltown Chapel, where Michael Paul had requested his funeral mass take place. (Listen to the mass here). They were invited by the main celebrant Jim Culliton SJ to “engage in celebrating the life of an extraordinary man, a man of great intellect, heart and warmth”. He said even inevitable death, (for Michael Paul was terminally ill and knew he was dying) was awful, raising many troubling questions. But the answers came, he said, when he thought about the kind of life Michael Paul lived, the reflections he offered in his writings and lectures, the impact he made in the courses and retreats he gave. “He was a fiercely loyal servant of all those whom he loved, fiercely proud of his Sligo roots, and proud of being an Irish Jesuit.”

In the homily Bruce Bradley SJ, spoke of the man he first met in 1962. He said he was someone who was gifted in “intuiting and imagining the horizons of others, inviting them in turn to share his”. He said the renowned author “did not take himself too seriously but he was aware and quietly proud of some of his own gifts and accomplishments”, adding with a smile, “Perhaps with just some of the small harmless vanity you occasionally meet with in an only child”. He said Michael Paul was impressive in how he faced his impending death with “clear-eyed courage and a lack of self-absorption”.

He book-ended his tribute with a moving story about his final meeting with Michael Paul just two weeks previously to the day. Having spent some precious time together and as he was leaving, he accompanied Michael Paul to the community chapel at mass time. Michael Paul dipped his hand in the holy water font and made the sign of the cross on his own forehead. “Then in a spontaneous gesture I will never forget, the made the same sign of the cross on my forehead too.”

And he quoted from some of his final writings or ‘fragments’ as he called them, published in The Sacred Heart Messenger, where Michael Paul described his life as “The long learning of love”, adding, “ When I am close to death there may be weakness and distress. But I hope then to have the freedom to surrender into the arms of God so dying can be a prayerful letting go.”
His three Jesuit friends (Donal Neary, Jim Culliton and Liam O’Connell) who were with him when he died peacefully at 11 pm on Friday, all attest that this is exactly what they witnessed, a dying that was indeed ‘a prayerful letting go’.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilís.