Fr Paul Surlis Eulogy

The following eulogy was delivered by Fr Paul’s niece, Mairead Ni Nuadhain.

Paul Surlis….so good we waked you twice…..


Firstly- apologies to the man himself – we know you would have liked it but this is the closest we could get to actually having a woman say the Mass.

Bishops, Fathers, Sisters, a chairde Gael atá bailithe le chéile anseo inniu – let me introduce myself:

I’m Mairéad Ní Nuadháin – in Ballaghaderreen I’m one of Peadar Noone’s and around here I’m Nan Surlis’ daughter.

Three weeks ago at an Irish-Language function the President of An t-Oireachtas sat down beside me and asked—‘How’s Paul Surlis?’

I might have said-‘ Which Paul Surlis?’ Because in this family there was a great tradition of passing on names…

-There’s Paul, Aidan, Phyllis, Nora, Nóirín, Terence, Mary, Pat, Tom, Tomás… I’m sure I’ve left out some.

But, I might have said ‘Which Paul Surlis anyway……?

There were many Pauls….There’s the Paul rooted in Shroofe and Monasteraden where he was born in 1936. He would have celebrated his birthday last week. One of his great papers is on ‘Exile’- but he starts by saying he never considered himself an exile – an emigrant, yes but not an exile, heartsick for home.

However he did go away at an early age……to Cross.

–          His parents, our grandparents Ted and Nora returned from the United States in the early years of this State and they had a burning interest in education. And, in an early version of school league tables Nora used to scan the County Council scholarship results in the paper to see which school did best and then a son or daughter would be dispatched to it.

Paul at an early age was sent with his butter box on the trap, first to a school near Cross and then another near Tourlestrane.

(For those of you came in your BMW’s and who don’t know what a trap is, the engine had to be fed oats twice a day).

From 1949 to 1954 he attended St Nathy’s and, marked out early for academic distinction, he went on to Maynooth where he received a Bachelor of Arts and later a Bachelor of Divinity.

Paul was ordained in 1961 and I remember the celebrations which followed. It wasn’t unlike having a TD or a  Minister in Government come home to the family. I remember the bonfires and the blazing torches stuck in the fences all the way home to the Quarry where a large crowd gathered to welcome him home triumphant.

And just a little while ago I met the son of the man who played music at Paul’s first Mass here- that was Michael Joe Ryan and his greatgrandsons, Mary and Pat Surlis’ sons will play for us at Mass today.

And… an oft-to be repeated example of inequality in the church, only  Nóirín and Micheál in our family were invited to his first Mass in Maynooth, a source of much envy and rancour afterwards. We haven’t forgotten you know…..But we did laugh at the stories of the grandmother Nora snipping cuttings of the holy Maynooth roses….. and have them all fall out of her handbag later in front of everyone.

And always, there was Paul the wit and  raconteur….

My brother Peadar tells the story of how as penniless students he and a friend Mike lodged with Paul in Long Island in the 70’s. Paul’s fridge, phone and beer stock were used shamelessly. Students……

Anyway one night they had the bright idea of inviting two girls they knew from Galway to come over from another part of New York and go bowling. Without a thought for travel or lodging arrangements, they all ended up –innocently I have to add- in sleeping bags on Paul’s floor. He was out. So they generously wrote him a note saying they had been bowling and come home with the two girls. ‘Hope you don’t mind.’

The following morning they got up- eventually- and found appended to their note-

‘I must go bowling myself some night- the prizes seem to be getting better.’

There was of course Paul the academic, the agitator, the lecturer in the US, the correspondent- many people will miss seeing in their inbox from now on. And then again, maybe not! My good friend Patsy McGarry of The Irish Times has a record of correspondence on everything from Lough Gara drainage (calamitous) to interpretations of Papal Encyclicals.

On completing his doctorate in 1963, he worked as theological adviser and education coordinator for the diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas under Bishop Thomas Drury, a fellow Sligo man and cousin, until 1967.  As bishop Drury’s resident theologian, he accompanied the bishop to the last session of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 as Peritus or theological expert and a paper he wrote for the bishop in Latin, was afterwards quoted.

I heard there was a story of going in to a Vatican Two bishops’ meeting in disguise…..Today I was told a certain bishop even gave him a ring to complete the look. Even if it’s not true it should be – a man who shone as Gertrude in a Nathy’s production would have found a bishop’s robes no bother. But as a student in Maynooth, he appreciated even more being cast as Hamlet himself.

Subsequently, in 1969, he was appointed professor of Dogmatic Theology at Maynooth, a position he held until 1972. During this time, between1970 and 1971, he was the recipient of a Von Humboldt Fellowship, considered one of the most prestigious awards in Germany, and studied at the University of Muenster, with Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, recognized by many as the foremost Catholic theologian of his day.

Last, in 1975, Paul began teaching at St. John’s University in New York City, a position he held until 2000 when he retired as Associate Professor of Moral Theology and Social Ethics and moved to Crofton to be close to his brother Aidan and his family. While in Crofton, he continued to do research and write, in addition to occasionally celebrating Mass for the community.

Ah yes, correspondence and the Surlis’ – letters had a habit of being passed around among the aunts and uncles. Paul it was who credited his mother with inventing the ‘forward email.’ We used to say that if you waited long enough your own letter would make its way back to you on the circuit- I have one in my possession I sent to Father Paul when I was seven. (It’s said he also credited his mother with inventing the laptop- whenever she had a letter to write, she wrote it on the back of whatever child she happened to have across her lap at the time.)

According to Pat Joyce who wrote the US eulogy-

‘He was the consummate theologian. We might ask what theology is. One definition is that theology is Faith seeking Understanding. As such it is the job of the theologian to examine and analyze the question: Is it rational to be a believer in a personal God? Paul never shied away from this question and wrestled with it throughout his academic career while always remaining a man of deep faith…..

The guiding principle that Paul always taught in making judgments was Primacy of Conscience. He was fond of referring to a statement by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who, in a presentation to the tenth Workshop for Bishops in February 1991 at Dallas, Texas, quoted Cardinal Newman from Newman’s famous sentence from his letter to the Duke of Norfolk on the issue of conscience, “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please, – still to conscience first and to the Pope afterwards.” As we all know, Cardinal Ratzinger later became Benedict XVI.

Again from the US eulogy- ‘One other issue that caused Paul, as a theologian and a Christian, much concern and, indeed, I would go so far as to say much grief was the principle of Collegiality. Of the many debates that took place during Vatican II, it was one of the most important and complex – and one that still goes on today. It concerns the role of the college of bishops in leading, guiding and teaching the church. By extension, the collegial principle affects how parishes and dioceses are run, as well as how the church operates on the regional, national and worldwide levels. ‘

This theory of a model for the Catholic Church  seemed familiar to me– and then I remembered how when I was a child, he had tried to get me to submit an idea to RTÉ Television based on a triangle or pyramid-model of the Church. He got me to draw a pyramid/triangle with a little lone figure with a mitre sticking out at the top and lots of squashed faithful at the bottom, with arms and legs everywhere. And I thought- RTÉ – well they’re never going to take a programme idea from me! The lesson – if you’re going to protest about something never miss a trick- even kids’ TV!

–          And never throw out a good analogy- here’s a quote from the ACP website where one of Paul’s papers had been reprinted:-

–          Malcolm R
June 3rd, 2014 at 7:57 am (theologians get up early)

o    Thank you Eddie, for bringing this excellent article to our attention.
In his blog of August 2012 Paul gave us an expose of ‘Structural Change in the Church’.
“We must move from the hierarchical-Patriarchal pyramid to a Church seen as a communion of Communities of co-equal disciples, with all ministerial roles open to women; that includes the papacy.
Women after all have great experience in the role of servant of the servants of God”

While living a life of academic freedom in the States he never missed a chance to protest – whether about sweat shops in Asia and in the States, the state of post-Vatican Two Catholicism, Politics in Central America, US foreign policy- sometimes in academic journals, sometimes in blogs and constant email traffic to correspondents in family, in the press and among students. One of his students, a soccer coach in St John’s, Jim Keady challenged the university over its alliance with Nike who were doing a major sponsorship deal with St John’s and he subsequently became a well-known protestor over its labour policies.

Paul’s retirement in Crofton was a happy one where a new Surlis enclave was set up – Shroofe Two. Aidan, Cathy and Aidan Jr are here today and  we know all the Crofton Surlis’ are here in spirit. My own brother Peadar and his wife Eithne valued very much the family get-togethers in Maryland – and Peadar tells me the visit invariably ended up with late-night fireside chats between Paul, Aidan and Peadar where world politics and stories of Lough Gara and the Mac, were exchanged…… I think President George Bush may not have come out of it well.

The care and love given to Paul by Aidan and Catherine’s family in the US cannot be underestimated –during the last months in particular when Paul was ailing, they were a constant support to him and we all thank them very much. Phyllis, although nominally based in Foxford, managed to miraculously bilocate from time to time and was literally an Angel of Mercy to her brother.

For those who would like to read the original versions of Paul’s many papers they can be found online if you just Google his name. The articles on Exile and on the Nike story are particularly interesting. The full eulogy given his friend by Pat Joyce in Crofton last week can be got by email.

One last reference to Monasteraden, where his roots always lay. On his last visit for Phyllis’ ‘do’ I found him one day deep in conversation with Fr John Doherty and other local priests in the hotel in Ballagh- now sadly no more.  I said I had bought an egg basket in Drury’s Pub and it had been made by a local man named Hanley – and without a second’s hesitation the man who had left with the butter box over sixty years earlier said  “ Not Hanley, Hannon – that would be Johnnie Hannon who  makes the baskets.”

( I rang Drury’s to corroborate this story the other day and I was told that Johnnie Hannon is in his 80’s and is still making baskets. So place your orders now.)

So, you can take the man from Monasteraden….but today he returns home