- Church of Saint Patrick, Dundalk, Co Louth
I was shocked and deeply saddened when I heard the news of Bishop Clifford’s death on Monday afternoon. Shocked because the last time I saw him, two weeks ago, he was much less agitated and more restful than on previous occasions. Yes, he was weak and when we prayed together, his attention span was brief but he appeared more at ease and at peace. I was saddened too at the news of the death of a dear friend, a good and faithful priest, an outstanding brother bishop.
Of course, I am not sad to see the end of Bishop Gerry’s long Garden of Gethsemane – an agony which he endured with heroic patience and remarkable serenity and courage. And so we gather here in Saint Patrick’s, Dundalk, today to do many things:
First of all to express our sympathy to Rose and Christopher and Phyllis, to his nephews and nieces and to the extended family, to Elma Mulholland, his devoted housekeeper and to all who mourn Bishop Gerry’s death – his friends and neighbours and co-diocesans.
We gather with grateful and prayerful hearts to accompany Bishop Gerry’s soul as it passes to the other shore. May God welcome him in joy and grant to him everlasting peace and rest.
We are also here to give praise and thanks to God – a God, who in every era raises up people of generosity of spirit and calls them to work in his vineyard. We pray that the life and death, and especially the sufferings of Bishop Gerry may inspire others to follow in his footsteps. For the harvest is great and the labourers are few. Archbishop Eamon and the rest of the clergy need all the help we can get.
I first met Father Gerry Clifford in the late eighties. He was then Executive Secretary of the Irish Bishops’ Conference and I was newly appointed Rector of the Irish College in Rome. I had come to Maynooth to present the Annual Report on the college to the Conference. It was the first of many such occasions when I was very pleased to have the reassuring presence of Gerry Clifford at my side. I was very pleased, when a few years later he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop to Cardinal Cahal Daly.
When he came to Rome to get fitted out for his new role, my first impressions were definitely and pleasantly confirmed. Here was someone who was the essence of kindness and consideration, happy in his priesthood and yet willing and capable of undertaking whatever was asked of him, gently and generously.
Four years later we found ourselves together again – this time working more closely as Bishops, helping Cardinal Daly in this Archdiocese of Armagh. Once again I found the help and support and encouragement of Bishop Gerry to be invaluable.
I found that during his years as Director of Religious Education he had gained the trust, the respect and the esteem of the priests, religious and teachers of the diocese. He was acutely aware of the importance of religious education. He teamed up with many others – priests and laity – to provide a top class advisory service in religious education at a time when it was badly needed.
I also discovered that in his capacity as Diocesan Ecumenical Director, he had built a lot of precious contacts and made a lot of warm friendships with members of other Churches.
These were to prove of immense value throughout the rest of his life in his work for greater understanding among Christian communities.
Recently Pope Francis said that the unity of Christians, before being a point of arrival, is a ‘Cammino’, a journey to be travelled. But it is a journey that requires patience, tenacity and commitment. Well, Bishop Clifford and others who worked with him, like Canon Arlow and Bishop Farquhar, knew that long ago. They would agree, I think, with the Pope when he says that “Unity instead of being the fruit of human effort, is a gift of God, a gift that can only be received by those who decide to set out for a goal which can sometimes appear far away”.
But what keeps people like that going through the dark and difficult times is the joyful experience of glimpsing what unity would look like, even if it is not yet fully achieved.
Bishop Gerry chose as his Motto “That they may be one”. It is a quotation from the Farewell Prayer of Jesus for the disciples at the Last Supper. In the part we have just heard read in today’s Gospel, Jesus prays especially for one special gift for his disciples, a life of intimate friendship with God. In other words, a life of communion with himself and with his Father.
Jesus is praying not only for those who are at table with him. He is praying also for all subsequent generations who, through the preaching of those who were at table with him, will come to believe. In other words, he was praying for you and for me, for all of us. Let us take on board the wonderful gift Jesus is asking on our behalf. It is nothing less than the possibility of our sharing in the oneness of love that exists between Jesus himself and his Heavenly Father. This oneness is important for the world so that the world will believe that Jesus was sent by the Father.
So, when Bishop Gerry chose the words of Jesus “that they may be one”, his choice reflected his interest in promoting the unity of Christians and his desire to devote his energy to that task.
But I think we can also see that it represented his desire to work for greater communion in our own Church for a Church where more and more people would have the attitude and mind of Jesus Christ. Where people are of one heart and mind – looking out for one another’s interest.
Certainly that is how he lived his own life – as a tireless and selfless peacemaker, an earnest and dependable bridge-builder. A man of remarkable good sense and sound judgement. He had the ability to listen respectfully and respond graciously. His ability to articulate his own position clearly and honestly won him the respect, and often the support, of people who may not have initially agreed with his position.
So today we thank God for his many years of faithful service to the people of God but especially to the people of this Archdiocese whom he loved so dearly. We thank God for his parents Thomas and Margaret and for Rose and Christopher. They played an essential part in the formation of his faith and character. We give thanks for the parishioners of his beloved parish of Lordship who, by their example and their prayers, have supported him on the journey of life.
Praise and glory to God too for the teachers of Bellurgan, Bush, Saint Mary’s, Saint Patrick’s Armagh and Saint Patrick’s Maynooth. Long may they continue to be faithful to their ethos of educating their alumni about the truths of life and of eternity. We thank God too for all the faithful – lay and clerical – who make such a vital contribution to support the ministry and morale of every priest and bishop.
In the final chapter of his life, Bishop Gerry had to endure four years of great pain and suffering. He did so with amazing strength and dignity – without complaint or self-pity, uniting his suffering to the sufferings of Jesus Christ. Let us be grateful to God for his patience and acknowledge the help of all who comforted him, especially the heroic dedication of his sister, Rose. We will never know in this world how grace filled his sufferings have been to others.
I am certain Our Lady of Lourdes played her part also. Bishop Gerry loved to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes and to be in the midst of the assisted pilgrims. The dedication of the Clifford family to Our lady of Lourdes is well known.
Bishop Gerry had a great love of gardening and of painting and of walking in the foothills of the Cooleys. All signs of his keen appreciation of beauty and of life and of creation.
Now that the curtain has come down on his personal life on earth, we ask the Lord to draw back the other curtain to let him see the light of eternal day. There every tear will be wiped away and that other garden – the Garden of Paradise – will be revealed. The vision will be infinitely more glorious, where even the splendour of the Cooleys and Dundalk Bay will have to take second place!
The moment for the Invocation of the Saints to present him to God, the Most High is fast approaching. We ask the help of Gerard – his Heavenly Patron – Thomas and Margaret, his parents; Brigid his neighbour, Patrick, Malachy and Oliver his co-diocesans, Saint Mother Teresa whom he welcomed to Armagh and Pope Saint John Paul II who visited this, his native county, appointed him Bishop and received him in the Vatican on the occasion of an Ad Limina visit. May they all now come to his aid, receive his soul and present him to God Most High.
“I wish you well” was one of Bishop Gerry’s favourite ways of saying farewell. Now we wish you well, Bishop Gerard, in the sure and certain knowledge that nothing can ever come between us and the love of God which was made visible in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.