Homily for Bob Kelly’s Funeral Mass

Fr Joe Keaney S.J.

St Ignatius Church, Lusaka, 11th March 2005


Yesterday in the afternoon I was talking to people over at reception and could hear the girl answering the phone  “It’s Fr Kelly, no, not Fr Keaney.”.  And I said, thank God.

Many years ago a young Jesuit in Ireland told me about a grumpy and somewhat depressed retired Father living in the next room to him. Every morning he heard the old man’s alarm clock ring.  A moment later he’d hear a loud sigh, “Oh my God, another bloody day”.

Most of you gathered here this morning knew Fr Robert Kelly personally.  Many of you would say, “I knew him well”.  I’m sure it comes as a big surprise when I tell you Bob suffered frequently from depression.  I’ve often heard people say, “. . .but priests shouldn’t get depressed!”. That’s like saying a doctor shouldn’t get cancer.  Let me assure you some of them do, and share the same problems, diseases and darknesses as anyone else.  It is important I tell a little about Bob’s darkness if are to understand the greatness of the man.  The Jesuits who lived with him already know this very well.

I came to Zambia in 1973.  Bob had been here 22 years by that time.   In my early years here I didn’t really know him but obviously was very aware of his reputation as an excellent teacher and influential Spiritual Father to successive generations of Zambian boys and girls in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s in Canisius and with the Christian Brothers in St Edmunds for most of the ‘70’s.

Towards the end of 1988, when living in the small Jesuit community in Kitwe we got the word that Bob was being sent to us.  He was to help out in the various works of the house and continue his work as National Director of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association.  Being a great friend of Mr Mosi and Johnny Walker myself in those days I wasn’t overjoyed at the prospect of such a renowned teetotaller in the community.

Very, very soon after his arrival, maybe even that same day, Bob and myself had a long chat, for well over an hour, standing outside in the cool of the evening.  A couple of years before, he had served briefly as Parish Priest of St Ignatius in Lusaka.  It was an assignment that clearly didn’t suit Bob with all the problems that go with administration and having to mediate in the strains and tensions of parish life.  Bob suffered quite a severe breakdown as a result and spent some time recovering from depression in Ireland.  It was during that period of darkness that his first book was born.

He told me about his darkness that first evening in Kitwe.  I had left Namwala in 1981.  After some surgery I was physically well but suffered chronic depression for about 18 months afterwards.  I knew straight away the darkness Bob was describing.  That common experience was the bond, the glue, the Tuff Stuff that formed the strong friendship between the two of us.  Many observers would later look on ours as a father/son relationship but that wasn’t really true.   In Ireland there is a term for a relationship called Anam Cara, - soul friend.  That much more accurately describes what we meant to each other.

That same evening Bob told me something very profound about my recurring times of darkness.  It’s too long ago now to remember the exact words but it was something like this:

Don’t be afraid of the darkness.  Resist it, yes, and fight it in so far as you can.  But don’t run too fast or too hard from it at any cost.  Many Jesuits, he told me, live in a kind of natural light.  They are very disciplined and ordered in their lives.  They say their prayers, do their work and enjoy their leisure.  They are healthy, well-integrated men.   Some of us though have to struggle in darkness.  But it is the darkness itself that becomes the door for the power of the light and love of God to enter.   It was many years later before I began to understand what he was talking about.

Soon though, I began to see Bob’s greatness.  He had no tolerance whatsoever for legalism, for pettiness, for narrow-minded people.  On returning from his trips promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Pioneers he would often speak with real pain for maybe Mrs Mulenga in Mansa, a lifelong pioneer whose marriage failed, who remarried outside the Church, and the subsequent call from some fellow pioneers that she be stripped of her badge and expelled from the Association.  Or maybe Mr Phiri in Lusaka being barred from holding high office at national level in the Association because he worked as an accountant in National Breweries. 

Very quickly the doorbell in Jesuit House began to ring.  I had a room with a view upstairs and could see the visitors approach.  All sorts of people, many from the old days in Canisius or St Edmunds – like the grey Alex Chiteba or the balding Mark Chona down there on the left.  It was so clear, just by observing, that they really loved him.  There were also many young ladies.  Beautiful young ladies I might add.  I’d rush down to greet these lovely flowers of God’s creation only to climb straight back up again.  “It’s for you Bob, again!”  These were girls from Roma, Chivuna, Fatima, Ndola, Ibenga,… from girls schools all over where Bob had such a powerful ministry giving retreats.  I swear they were all in love with him.

I used to scratch my head and wonder what do all these people saw in this aging specimen of a man.  His hair is falling out and he has these coke bottle spectacles.  What has he got that I don’t have?  I was even jealous.   Not really, but you know what I mean.

The thing is, I’d rarely heard Bob preach.  In Kitwe we all went different places for Mass and I was rarely at a Mass that Bob was saying.  Ten years ago, not too long after I’d been transferred to Lusaka, we invited Bob as director of the Novena of Grace which is going on as we gather today.   It was during that Novena of 1995 that my eyes were opened and I began to fully appreciate his greatness.  For me, and I say this with great conviction, he was the most inspiring preacher I ever listened to.  Soon afterwards he joined us here at St Ignatius and I heard him very often.  My room is just outside the side door there and I could hear his fine eloquent flow without even getting off the bed.

We chose the Story of the Prodigal Son as the Gospel for the Mass because it was, without doubt, Bob’s all time favourite.  One of the first times I heard him preach on the parable he asked the question, “What comes right after the part where the Father sees the boy while he was still a long way off?”  Hands went up and the popular answer was, “He ran to meet the boy”.  Bob pointed out 5 important words in between “he was moved with pity”.

He was moved with pity.  Moved with compassion.  The heart of God the Father himself breaking at the sorry state of his poor ruined son.

If asked to put Bob’s spirituality in a nutshell ,  I’d say it was contained in those 5 words.  He was moved with pity.  Fr Kelly experienced the gentleness of this compassion over and over again in his own darkness,  the heart of tenderness dispelling the gloom in his own soul.  The image of God’s heart moved with pity for all His poor sons and daughters crippled by guilt, weighed down by troubles, stricken with depression, trapped and burdened by obsession and sin. You know what it feels like when you are deeply touched by the sadness in someone’s life, when you really feel pity.  It’s like your heart is squeezed.  Bob’s God was a god of the heart not the head, a god whose heart is constantly squeezed as he looks down at us.

This was Bob’s message, always variations on the same theme.  The Father who created us to be joyful and happy is broken hearted at the sight of so many of his little children living in misery and darkness.  It was the constancy and conviction of this recurring message that brought so much light and hope to us, his listeners.

The God of the head is entirely different.   Any suggestion that the Creator was aloof, a tough judge, a harsh punisher like with AIDS or the tsunami was blasphemy to his ears.  He saw people preaching such a God as guilty of worshipping false images, guilty of idolatry.

Fr Kelly touched countless numbers of people preaching his beautiful positive theology and spirituality.  I must say something about his writing, his books. But there isn’t much more to say – just the same light, love and hope in the written instead of the spoken word.

I want to tell you about an elderly lady called Sarah in England who read one of his books several years ago.  She loved it, got in touch with Bob and asked for more and more to distribute amongst her friends.  As you know he had poor health for some years with asthma, congestive heart failure, and nearly died after open heart surgery.  About a year ago, when his health was already failing, this same Sarah nearly sent him to an early grave when she hinted she might come to Zambia to meet him.  He would not know how to entertain her, where to accommodate her, how to show her the sights.  He had a real bad panic attack.

Since his recent strokes and diminished health, I’ve been keeping Sarah informed.  She is quite a lady.  She raves about Bob’s books and about the huge influence they are having in the ever widening circle she is giving them to.  She told me that her project for Lent was to type out ‘Be Still and Know’ and put it on the internet.  She has already another of his books completed and up there.

On Tuesday I sent her a brief e-mail telling her of Bob’s death and the great blessing I’d received having had the chance to say goodbye to him the day before.  The following day she replied with these words:

‘Dearest Fr Joe,

Thank you so much for your news!  You may have said goodbye to him yesterday, but I can say hello to him this morning and your goodbye was only to the poor shell that was left, so you too can join me in greeting a wonderfully restored Bob today.

Even here he has brought many people closer to God with his writing and I am so happy to think he is now where he can meet his beloved Lord who has obviously been a most loving friend to him.  And, oh I do love to have yet another friend in high places!’

Isn’t that nice?

Increasingly over the past year Bob’s health has been failing and it has been harrowing for Michael and ourselves.  It was like he was going through a kind of purgatory until eventually as Sarah put it, he was just a poor shell.  Still God spoke powerfully to me throughout Bob’s illness. 

Less that an year ago one his past pupil, Laurence Bwalya, was dying and ending out his days in a very dark place of deep depression.  I brought Bob with me to visit, more to help keep him involved than having any expectation that he actively help in the prayer.  But the old Bob woke up for a while that day and for five minutes or so the old eloquence of God’s love and pity for his poor boy flowed out.  You could almost see the ice melt and the light return.  Laurence died a few days later, very much at peace.

Bob always loved Winnie who works with us in the parish office.  Every day it was ‘Morning Win”.  Instead of doing her office work she would spend hours with him chatting and I end up having to do the newsletter myself.  She helped him greatly typing his books and preparing for the printers.  She knew how cranky he could be when she was slow delivering the goods.  She would take him out for coffee to Manda Hill or to Urshula in Kabulonga..  She shielded him from the worst of the conmen and women who were apt to take advantage of Bob’s kindness.  He was a soft touch.  We will remember all that kindness and love, Win.

The last attack about 6 months ago left Bob totally helpless and with hardly any awareness or capacity for friendship.     At the time of that stroke John Chula house, the retirement home, was under reconstruction, the good Fr Klaus was away and we had to mind Bob right here.  People often said to me, “You are so good and kind to Bob”.  I didn’t feel that way.   Some days I found it very hard just to sit with him.   I simply hated seeing him in that dehumanised state and some days wanted to slap his face, shake him and say, “Come on Bob.  Fight this.  Come back to us”.   I’m the youngest of the Irish Jesuits left in Zambia and in my days of darkness I sometimes wonder if I will be able to stay, grow old and die here.  Will there be anyone left to love me or care?.  That was another of the great signs.  I witnessed such kindness for Bob given by Fr Mwelwa and Fr Chilinda.  They sat with him for hours, holding his hand, feeding him, cleaning up after him.  All this from two men who never really knew him in his prime.  When I think of such love from the young generation of Jesuits now taking over from the old I am greatly consoled.  I know now that if I have the companionship of Jesuit brothers like Gentle John and Cheeky Chilinda in my old age I will be truly blessed.  And I know that the Jesuit Province of Zambia/Malawi will be ok.

A last sign of God revealing his love through Bob was on Monday afternoon 15 hours before he died.  Another of his past pupils, Dr Wasa Kaunda (son of ex President Kenneth Kaunda) was driving past John Chula House when his radiator started to boil.

He pulled to let it cool and popped in to see his old teacher.  When I arrived I found the good doctor not tending to Bob’s laboured breathing but sitting quietly by the bedside saying the Rosary for him.   I though it was a lovely sign.

I was brought up thinking that holiness was to do with the number of hours one spent in front of the Blessed Sacrament or how hard ones knees got from praying.  Now I think it is much more to do with compassion.  Having sympathy and empathy.  Feeling for and feeling with.  Be holy, as your Father is holy.  Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.  Bob was that kind of holy man.  All the destruction of the past year has been made new.  He is enjoying the embrace of His loving Father whose heart has been moved with pity for Bob’s plight all this time.

And so to Fr Michael and Fr Joe, to Oonagh and Maureen’s older brother, to Fr Klaus’ old patient, to your old teacher, to our lovely Jesuit brother, to our preacher, our spiritual companion, go m’anam cara fein, my soul friend, I say in Irish, Go raibh mile maith agat.  Slan agus beannacht go fol.  Thank you, farewell and blessings for now.

Muzina lya Taata, alya Mwana, alya Muya Uusalala.   Amen.