Fr Joe (85) was born into a population of 400 on Bere Island, Co. Cork on 8 January 1933, in the year of the Redemption called by Pius XI. His parents were John and Catherine Leary; Joe was second of two brothers and one sister.
He entered Pallaskenry in September 1949, aged 16, and did his Leaving Cert. in 1954. He entered the Novitiate in Burwash in the Marian Year 1954, was clothed on the feast of the Presentation and made his first Salesian profession on 8 September 1955. He did GCE advanced level while studying Philosophy, first in Ingersley and then in Beckford. He was Novices Assistant in Burwash 1958-60, after which he returned to Crumlin to do a B.Sc (Ag) in Univerity College Dublin, 1960-64.
After theology in Benediktbeuern he was ordained 50 years ago by Bishop John McCormack of Meath in Warrenstown, along with Frs Dan Riordan, George McCaughey, Michael McKenna and Michael Smyth and the later Fr Peter Coffey. He served in the agricultural colleges of Pallaskenry and Warrenstown as headmaster and as rector on a number of occasions.
He was appointed Provincial of the Irish Province by the Rector Major Fr Egidio Viganó in 1981, a post he was to hold for twelve years, during which he animated the confreres of Ireland, Southern Africa and Malta in the challenging task of pastoral planning, social analysis and prioritising the Province’s mission to young people.
In 2009 he joined the Milford community and served as chaplain to Milford Care Centre. He was ‘very highly thought of by residents, patients, sisters, volunteers and staff” over his two years there. He retired to Pallaskenry in 2012 and was later diagnosed with terminal cancer which he faced with courage, deciding not to undergo chemotherapy and letting the illness take its course. We commend his courageous soul to the Lord whom he served so lovingly through needy youth in the spirit of Don Bosco.
By Fr Eunan McDonnell SDB, Provincial
The needle of a compass points only in one direction – due North. For Joe his North Star was God. The goodness of God, the love of God was his guide. Like a compass facing due North, his fidelity to God set his life in a particular direction that he remained faithful to. When thinking about Joe a line came to me from the Acts of the Apostles referring to King David as ‘a man after the heart of God’ (Act 13:22). Isn’t that a wonderful epitaph: ‘a man after the heart of God’.
In his remarks about his funeral homily, Joe has asked a eulogy not to be given about him – but to focus on God – he writes:
‘concentrate on the meaning of life on death – of God’s great love – and of gratitude to God for all he has shown me.’
I hope to carry out his wishes respectfully. In many ways he has handed me a compass as to what direction I should go in with this homily. When I do recall events from his life, it will be simply to point to the goodness and love of God. This is the measure of the man. Like John the Baptist – “I must decrease, so that He may increase.’ Joe lived a quiet, unassuming life, getting out of the way so that God could be fully present. In a world which exalts self-assertion, personal choice, putting yourself at the centre – Joe witnessed to another way – one of humility – letting God have his rightful place, allowing God to be at the centre.
Even from an early age, as a child, Joe was learning to read the compass of life that pointed him towards God. In a recent conversation with some of our Salesian Sisters, Joe told them that he nearly became a Christian Brother – apparently, a Christian brother had visited the school and left his address if anyone was interested. Not wanting the other pupils to know, he waited until break time where the address had been posted on one of the classroom doors. Unfortunately, for him, the address was gone, so he had to re-think; Fortunately for us Salesians – God opened another door for him. He had to go back to the compass of life and re-read the direction in which God was calling him. This simple incident illustrates very clearly for us that God does have a plan for each one of us, married, single, lay or religious – but we need to learn to read God’s plan for us. It also raises simple questions:
what direction am I going in?
Am I on course or do I need to re-direct?
How is God guiding me?
When I became a novice, Joe was appointed the Provincial. He received our first vows and preached our pre-profession retreat. One line from those talks still remain with me:
‘Always remember – you are given brothers in community not to tolerate but to love.
If we took his words to heart and lived them – we are called to love other not tolerate them – how would this revolutionize our families and communities.
He was provincial for twelve years. Only now as provincial myself, do I really appreciate how demanding it must have been for him. Definitely he has done his purgatory in this life! When Joe was provincial he had many more Salesians than our province currently has today; many more communities and indeed, many more countries to visit. At that stage, the Irish Province comprised of Ireland, Malta, South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho – He spent many months each year in South Africa helping them to grow towards independence so that they could become a Vice Province. He carried out this service with great dedication and generosity. He was quite innovative, I remember the great buzz of energy in those days when for the first time we all started to explore together Pastoral Planning – something which once again we are doing as a Province in a very changed Ireland.
We live in a world where there are so many competing voices that it is so easy to lose direction, lose one’s way, end up getting lost. Born at a time when there was no GPS system – Joe, like many of our forbearers, relied on a compass for direction. Like many of his generation, the compass needle set due north, for Joe, was the goodness and love of God. However, he was also a man of the earth coming from a farming background and a love of God’s creation. On one occasion when visiting the Salesian sisters in Brosna to give a retreat he said to Sr Ita:
There’s a lot of brushwood growing at the base of the trees on the drive. That will take the food from the roots. They’re like distractions – it filters away the essentials from the core.
What needs to be cut away? How can we nourish our roots? What is the core?
Once again, let’s return to the compass needle pointing North – the core is God’s love and mercy. Once we remain rooted in this truth, we will chart the direction and navigate our way no matter how turbulent the seas or stormy the weather.
When Joe asks us to reflect on the meaning of life and death is he not asking us the deeper questions which often we avoid? We live as if we can avoid death, but that is an illusion. Death comes for each one of us. What made Joe so concerned that we should think about death – it was because he wanted us to enjoy eternal life after death. No doubt his pastoral experiences provoked questions about life and death. He faced death on a daily basis as chaplain in the Hospice here in Milford and he was also involved in compassionate outreach towards women hurt by abortion in Rachel’s vineyard.
Shortly before his own death, in a conversation with some of the Salesian sisters, he said
‘the coming weekend will tell a lot – but I’m not afraid of death.’
How many of us could say that? – ‘I’m not afraid of death’ – what had taken away his fear of death? It could only be his certainty of God’s goodness and love. As we heard in our first reading today –
‘After my awaking, he will set me close to him – I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part, these eyes will gaze on him and find him not aloof’ or as another translation says – ‘my eyes will gaze on God and find no stranger.’ I’ve no doubt that the God that Joe worshipped faithfully in prayer and served so faithfully in his neighbour is ‘no stranger for him now’ – He is coming face to face with God as a friend, as his best friend – as a friend of the human heart as St Francis de Sales would say.
Although he wasn’t afraid to die, and although we knew he had terminal cancer – I personally got a terrible shock to discover how quickly he went. He was prepared, I was unprepared. Like the Poet Seamus Heaney says, death can come like a gust of wind that ‘catches the heart off guard and blows it open.’ In fact, I had just received a Thank You card from him on Friday and he died on Sunday. He was thanking me for the gifts we had sent to him in recognition of his Golden jubilee of priesthood. On reflection, although I was unprepared for his quick departure, I could not but think how wonderful the timing was from God’s perspective.
We often see death as a going away or a going home – but dying on the feast of Corpus Christi – the body of Christ – the Eucharist which was at the centre of Joe’s priesthood and life – what was God communicating to us by allowing him to die on that date? Surely it was an affirmation of his priesthood? Joe who always remained in the background was now being brought to the foreground and God was saying something loud and clear –
Just as you remained faithful in silent prayer before me in the tabernacle, I now come to you.
Just as you visited me in the young, in the sick, the dying and those in need – I now come to you.
Just as you brought me in Holy Communion to my body the Church – now I come to you.
It is not so much that you are going away, it is that I am coming to you – I am entering into the fullness of communion with you as I bring you to my Father’s house.
Just as Joe expressed his thank you to us as a province in this card, I now say
THANK YOU GOD
THANK YOU JOE
Joe was given by God – we now give him to God. I’d like to thank God first and foremost for the gift of life that he gave to Joe – God blessed him with life and Joe, in turn, became a blessing for us. I’ve no doubt that many of you here could easily share a story about how your life was blessed by Joe’s gentle presence.
What God wants from us is not so much to talk about God but to witness to God – Looking at Joe we could not but see a man caught up with God – and how this relationship with God was at the centre of his life. The Goodness of God became his goodness. The loving kindness of God became his loving kindness. The gentleness of God became his gentleness.
God, the north Star, the compass that directed his life – this is the message that Joe leaves with us.
Let God be the compass that directs your life.
 Seamus Heaney – Postscript.
A reading from the Book of Job (19:23-27)
‘Ah, would that these words of mine were written down,
inscribed on some monument
with iron chisel and engraving tool,
cut into the rock forever.
This I know: that my Avenger lives,
and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth.
After my waking, he will set me close to him,
and from my flesh I shall look on god.
He whom I shall see will take my part:
these eyes will gaze on him and find him not aloof.’
This is the Word of the Lord
A reading from the letter of St Paul to the Philippians (3: 20-21)
For us, our homeland is in heaven, and from heaven comes the Saviour we are waiting for, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body. He will do that by the same power with which he can subdue the whole universe.
This is the word of the Lord.
Our homeland is in heaven,
and from heaven comes the Saviour we are waiting for,
the Lord Jesus Christ.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew.
Jesus exclaimed, ‘I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children. Yes, Father, for that is what it pleased you to do. Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.’
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
President: God raised Jesus from the dead so that we might have the sure hope of an inheritance that will never fade. Let us pray to him with faith and confidence.
Response: Lord, graciously hear us.
Reader: That Christ to whom Fr Joe witnessed on earth, may acknowledge him as one of his own in heaven.
Lord hear us. Response.
Reader: For those who mourn the passing of Fr Joe, particularly the Harrington family, the Salesian family and his many friends.
Lord, hear us. Response.
Reader: For all those who have cared for Fr Joe during his illness, Milford Care Centre, Dr Susan and all at the Askeaton Medical Centre and his many friends who gave their time to him.
Lord, hear us. Response.
Reader: For all the faithful departed: that they may see God face to face in the kingdom of heaven.
Lord, hear us. Response.
Reader: For the gift of life, which we all share and is very precious: may the Lord help us to be more aware of the gifts and talents given to us, particularly those we so often take for granted and may we use them to make the world a better place.
Lord, hear us. Response.
Reader: For all of us gathered here: that we may remember at all times, but especially at times of trouble and anxiety, that we are loved by God and that he will take care of us.
Lord, hear us. Response:
We now take a moment to pray for our needs and intentions, (Pause).
President: O God, may the radiance of your glory light up our hearts, and bring us safely through the shadows of this world until we reach our homeland of everlasting light. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.
St Theresa of Avila