Fr Paul Surlis Funeral Homily

Fr Tomás Surlis, nephew of Fr Paul, R.I.P., was Principal Celebrant at the Funeral Mass in Monasteraden. The following is the text of the homily he preached during Mass.

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Paul first asked me to be the celebrant at his funeral Mass here in Monasteraden on the evening of the celebration of Sr Phyllis’ Golden Jubilee in Ballaghaderreen – four years ago now. He briefly outlined his desire for a simple celebration of the Eucharist in the presence of his family, friends and neighbours in the church where he was baptised into the great family of faith: the family for which he cared so deeply and to which he ministered with passion and dedication for 53 years. No fuss, no frills, with an Irish flavour before he is buried in the land that shaped him in the shadow of the church he loved. 

Caring and passion were the hallmarks of Paul’s life as a seeker after truth and a minister of the Gospel of Christ. Throughout his priestly ministry and especially during his tenure as Professor of Theology at St John’s University, New York, Paul was a caring and passionate advocate of the rights of the poor and oppressed. His frequent visits to Latin America – especially Nicaragua –deepened his profound and abiding passion for justice and peace and his care-filled concern for those who found themselves on the periphery – of both society in general and of the Church in particular – and he was never afraid to say so!

Paul and I did not always agree on matters theological. I recall a conversation we had in Uncle Aidan’s house in Crofton about six years ago about the biblical basis for priestly ordination which, as a relatively-recently ordained priest I found particularly challenging! But among Paul’s great strengths was that he could challenge without censure, discomfort without undermining and invite to deeper reflection without destroying the sincerely-held beliefs of another. My whole life long, I learned from Paul. My whole life long I will be grateful for his priestly presence, his scholarly mind and his pastoral heart. In him, no pharisaic dissonance existed. In fact, there was a profound consonance between the man’s words and the man’s life. He sought always to feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, clothe the naked, bring hope to those imprisoned by false ideologies and to offer welcome to those who so often find themselves the objects of distrust and fear. Above all, Paul refused to simply conform to perceived or generally accepted norms. He would not – or, better, could not – bow to the status quo and although this sometimes made conversation with him difficult, it never made him overbearing or proud. For Paul, the inherent goodness of the person was primary and the right of all people to have a voice, to be heard, to have a place, was of paramount importance. As I say, I may not have always agreed with his conclusions but I have always deeply admired –indeed cherished – his motivations, his unassailable logic and his caring and passionately beating heart.

There was an element of the restless longing of his apostolic patron in Paul, a missionary zeal that even serious illness did not quench. Dissatisfied with easy solutions, Paul spoke out courageously against unfettered power – both political and ecclesiastical. I believe he truly sought to answer Christ’s call to respond to the cry of the poor wherever and whenever he perceived it. Sometimes this was not well received but most often even his most critical hearers recognised the caring and the passion in his voice. “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” For Paul, it was impossible to be a Christian and not take these words of Jesus to heart. They call for the only response possible to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. They demand that we look deeper than the merely superficial with which our Western World is currently so obsessed. They challenge us to look for and find the face of Jesus in the pain-filled expressions of the hidden, the lonely, the sick, the poor, the dispossessed, the misunderstood, the angry, the disillusioned. For if we do not recognise Jesus there, we have no hope of recognising Him in the elevated host and the rhythms and cadences of liturgical prayer.

Paul knew the truth of these words of Jesus but he also knew that the treasure of faith we have been given is carried within earthenware vessels – beautiful, though fragile; precious, but easily broken. With each one of us, eternity beckons because the life of God pulsates in our hearts and minds and souls. We are called to not merely exist but to live each moment filled with caring and passion for others and for God. We are called to recognise the gifts God has given us and to use them to be ministers of mercy for those whom life has tainted by half-truths and false promises. When we listen to the voice of Jesus calling us forth to do great things for God, all that we have learned of life and its meaning “will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven and those – like Paul – who have instructed many in virtue, as bright as stars for all eternity.”

This day, in this sacred place, we give thanks for the life and witness of Fr Paul Surlis and we pray that his words and deeds will inspire each of us to do everything we can to make the dream of God for a renewed humanity a reality in the patch of earth we call home. Amen.