|Some years ago Bishop Finnegan told me the story of how a well known RTE commentator, with a certain degree of hesitation, approached him and asked him if he were offended by an article which the journalist, while still a student, wrote on the occasion of the bishop ending his time as President of Summerhill College. Needless to say, the bishop assured the commentator that he did not take offence. The caption in that article read “Farewell to the dreamer”. I cannot find a better one liner to sum up the man to whom we pay tribute on this day.
The Book of Ecclesiastes reminded us that there is a time for everything, a time for every season under heaven and it also reminded us that these seasons change and follow a certain pattern. Bishop Finnegan lived out most of his priesthood during the season of ‘new vision’ provided by the Second Vatican Council. And he was, by nature, a man with vision, who was blessed by God with many opportunities to realise it. He always seemed to be in the right place when the opportunity for change presented itself and allowed him room to be creative and to create something new for the future.
Ordained priest for the diocese of Elphin in 1951, he settled into priesthood, as a post-graduate student, a Diocesan Secretary and a Chaplain at St Angela’s College, Sligo, before Blessed John XX111 opened the windows of the Vatican and lifted the accumulated dust of centuries from the curtains. Appointed Junior Dean at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, in 1960, he had his first real opportunity to be creative, as he began to open the College to the spirit of Vatican 11.
A year after the Council closed, he came into his own as President of Summerhill College. He quickly seized the opportunity to develop the College; providing new buildings, broadening the curriculum and doubling student numbers. Undeterred by the voices which cautioned care with regard to the financial implications involved, he created an atmosphere in the College which has stood the test of time. At an award ceremony in the College as recently as last October a past pupil of the college, Mr Donard Gaynor, a highly successful Irishman working in New York, recalled his student days in Summerhill and singled out Bishop Finnegan for special mention; recalling that the bishop had inspired him to follow his dreams.
Commenting on Bishop Finnegan’s development of the college, Mr Gaynor recalled his own involvement in fund raising for the 1970s building, which included bringing rock bands to the college. Only Bishop Finnegan would have thought of inviting a rock band to a fundraiser in the 1970’s and only Bishop Finnegan could inspire a budding entrepreneur to follow his dreams. As a result of the inspiration given, some forty years later, that student could speak of the importance of faith and spirituality to him, as he lived out a successful career at the heart of the Big Apple. And I know that there are many other former students whose dreams for the future were inspired and supported by the bishop. During the late sixties and early seventies, therefore, Bishop Finnegan was regarded as one of the leading educationalists in Ireland at a time when the advent of free secondary education revolutionised Irish education.
A new opportunity for developing a vision presented itself when he was appointed Director of the Marriage Tribunal in Galway in 1979. At a time of unprecedented change in tribunal practice, he was able to explore, develop and broaden the criteria for marriage annulments in line with all the developments taking place in tribunal practice at that time. Inspired by Pope Paul VI, the spirit of canon law rather than its letter attracted him and offered him an opportunity to show the caring face of Church law to many.
His opportunities for pastoral outreach and care came his way in 1982, when he was appointed Parish Priest in Roscommon. Back among his own once more and close to the family he loved so dearly, he delighted in his work there for five years.
His fifteen years as bishop of this diocese offered him the opportunity to implement the reforms of Vatican 11 and develop important initiatives in many areas of pastoral care.
He began by working with and for the priests of the diocese, promoting parish pastoral councils and encouraging lay involvement in the life of the diocese. Shortly after his appointment, he reformed clergy incomes and looked at a plan for the re- deployment of priests both within and outside the diocese.
The prayerful, contemplative aspect of his spirituality expressed itself in his efforts to introduce a contemplative community to the diocese and it proved successful when Holy Hill Hermitage opened in 1995.
His awareness of the changing face of the Catholic Church and its place in a new Ireland expressed itself in his concern for adult faith formation. He devoted endless time and effort to trying to establish a Catholic University for Mayo and to having the John Paul 11 Institute for Marriage and the Family have an outreach at the Newman Institute. With support from the Kennedy Charitable Foundation, he established the Newman Institute in Barret Street, Ballina, as a first phase in the realization of his dream for a Catholic University for Mayo.
Together with the other bishops of the Western Province, he was a founder member of the Council for the West, which later prompted the Government to establish the Western Development Commission. As first chairman of Meitheal Mhaihheo, the Mayo Area Partnership established by the Governemnt in 1991 to tackle the problem of long-term unemployment in the West, he linked in to his personal interest in emigrants and emigration.
In the late 1980’s when unemployment was high and a new wave of emigration to America denuded the parishes of the diocese of their youth, he sent priests to New York and Boston to walk with the youth of Ireland in the States and to London to do the same.
His love of Irish lead him to support many causes aimed at the revival of the language and he was instrumental in bringing the All Ireland Fleadh to Ballina in 1997 and again in 1998. His concern for the Missions lead him to founding the Killala Diocesan Mission in the diocese of Miracema, in Brazil, which is one of the last diocesan missions still remaining. For many years he was Chairman of the Bishops Conference Commission for Emigrants, for Education and for Catechetics.
His ecumenical spirit and his care for all Christian peoples were evident in his warm relations with the other Church leaders in this area. Paying tribute to him yesterday, Archbishop Neil said “His ecumenical spirit, his care for people and his warm sense of humour were all part of a life of deep integrity and spirituality. Bishop Tom was a man whom you not only trusted but also loved as a true friend”.
Roscommon by birth, Sligo and Mayo by adoption, he grew to love his adoptive counties greatly. Lacken was his chosen place of retirement. Coney Island was his second home. These places and their communities were always uppermost in his affections. I often thought that the sea and the strand must have inspired his creative spirit to wonder and sometimes to wander.
His attachments, apart from his family and his diocese, were few; his small notebook and his mobile phone apart. He was legendary, at meetings of the Bishops Conference, for rushing out from the room as his mobile phone claimed his attention and disturbed the deliberations of that assembly. Some of his colleagues were know to ask if Killala was a busier diocese than Dublin.
During his years of retirement he continually counted his blessings, especially with regard to his own family and the priests, religious and people of this diocese and that of his native diocese of Elphin. I fully realise the love and time which he gave to his family but I equally realise the love and gratitude which they always showed to him, especially during his illness in these days. No words of mine could express the debt of gratitude which this diocese owes to them. Equally, I know just how much both he and they appreciate the support which he received from the priests, religious and people of the two dioceses in which he served. And, if I may, Fr Paddy Hegarty must be singled out for special mention in this regard.
One of his greatest insights, and the one which he rarely if ever spoke about, was his own grasp of the spirituality of the diocesan priest. He was, first and foremost, a deeply prayerful man. The Oratory in Bishop’s House and the open seas at Coney Island, and later Lacken, were his favorite places. Near to God in these places, his contemplative spirit generated the spiritual strength which he then used to create and support his pastoral ministry. Deeply aware that ours is a spirituality of activity and pastoral care, he nonetheless realized that its roots lie in prayer and that without prayer it falters. He brought to the oratory the ebb and flow of his ideas and their reception, his worries and their pain, placed them before God and, with new strength and resolve, went out again to further them.
Christ was the centre point and the still point of his life. His life was, as St Paul once wrote “hidden with Christ in God”. The Stations of the Cross were a hallmark of his spirituality and he produced two booklets on them, one in the 1970’s and one only last year, based on the Stations of the Cross in Lacken Church.
The Letter to the Phillipians, which we had read to us, sums up his spirituality. “I believe that nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For him I have accepted the loss of everything and I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him. All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share in his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death. That is the way I can hope to take my place in the resurrection of the dead.”
We believe that his hope of taking his place in the resurrection of the dead has now been fulfilled. Throughout his life he got to know Christ Jesus. He accepted the many losses of the diocesan priest. In his sufferings, especially during the past ten days, he shared in the sufferings of Christ and reproduced, as St Paul said, the pattern of his death. Nothing happened in his life which outweighed the supreme advantage of his knowing Christ Jesus, his Lord. Therefore, in the words of his former student, the RTE commentator, we can, albeit with sadness, now bid a fond farewell to a man of vision, to an inspiring leader and a much loved family member, priest and bishop.