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Homily for the Requiem Mass of John Bernard Girkins, RIP, 04.06.24

What strikes me first about John Bernard Girkins, going by the family eulogy, is just how full, and rounded, a life he led. His Jesuit education was providentially given the slight corrective, if I may say so, of a short time with the Franciscans! He had serious experience in flying with the RAF, in sailing as a Master of Seamanship, in hill-climbing, in fishing and in tennis, football and golf. Although he started his career plan in engineering, it was to the complexity of the human eye that he would dedicate his life’s work, a profession in which he excelled. But he excelled even more as a husband to Anne Marie and as a father to John William. Their love for him is as deep as it is patent. Even so, it has to be said that he excelled above all as a faithful follower of Christ and as a devoted son of Christ’s own Mother. Nor should we forget his work with the St. Vincent de Paul Society and his care for the physical and spiritual welfare of the sick of our Parish.

As will probably be the case for the vast majority of us, John, too, experienced in later life the fragility of the human condition. I hadn’t got to know him when he was well and active, but I did get to witness the serenity and acceptance with which he lived his suffering. When I would go to see him in Hutton Park care home, I really looked forward to it. His mind was fully alert, his conversation was quiet-spoken but always to the point and informed. He always had the newspaper at hand. He wasn’t short on irony or wit. It was usually politicians that were the butt of his ripostes, which I found delightful. Not a few times did I discover at the end of our meetings that what I thought had been a visit of 15 minutes had turned out to be much longer than that. When John received the sacraments, he would assume a calmly attentive posture and attitude and, afterwards, show a quiet joy which I think ran deep in his Catholic soul.

Even just a quick look at today’s Order of Service reveals the centrality of faith-in-Christ in John’s spiritual horizon. Hail, Redeemer, King Divine! The love of the Sacred Heart. Faith of our Fathers. The Lord is my light and my help. The good fight fought to the end for his righteous Judge. His Way, his Truth and his Life. Jesu, the joy of his desiring. John will have had his struggle with sin and temptation like the rest of us, but he fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith. There was something of the adventurer in John, the go-getter, outward looking and outward going. As he passed over from this life to God, his adventurous soul will probably have remembered that boat journey back to Helensburgh that ended up in Cork. I think John and Jesus will have recognised kindred, voyaging spirits in one another: John in search of Jesus, and Jesus in search of John, not because either of them was lost, but because both of them knew that the prize of all true adventure is to find eternal union in Christ.

John is now free from the suffering proper to this world. We must actually hope and pray that, unless he has already come before the face of God, he is now enduring the blessed suffering of those being purified for heaven. In that case, we know that his soul is free from death and that, therefore, one day, his body will also be free from death. Although removed from the perception of our senses, John, like all the faithful departed, is closer to us now than when our senses could register his presence. The dead who have gone to Christ are, by definition, with Christ and, indeed, in Him. They share in His vision not only of the Father but of the whole of creation. They share especially in the love of Christ’s heart for humanity as a whole and for each human person in particular. Death takes them from our sight, but gives them Christ’s sight of us, according to the Lord’s own mysterious dispositions. Remember that the dead are only dead to us, not to God. In some senses, it is we, not they, who are imprisoned by death, for we are still mortal. And in this mortal prison of ours, it is they who seek to help us not only with their one time love of here below, but with an eternally enhanced depth and power of love. Their love for us has not perished with them, just as our love for them has not perished. For true love cannot perish. As the Song of Songs tells us, true love is a flash, a flame of God himself. Their love now burns ardently in that flame.

Death would have been the end of love if Love Himself had not died for us. The torture of grief caused by the death of the beloved would be eternal unless the Eternal One Himself had not grieved for us and endured the torture of the Cross. The dead can’t live on in our hearts, for what life can we give to the dead but memories which inevitably fade? The dead live on only in Christ, or they don’t live on at all, for only Christ, who gave life to them in the first place, can sustain them in His own Risen Life until He gives life back to their bodies, too, in the Resurrection. “Angels, saints and nations sing – praised be Jesus Christ our King, Lord of life, earth, sky and sea, King of love on Calvary!” “The Lord is the stronghold of my life, before whom shall I shrink?” “There is one thing I ask of the Lord, for this I long, to live in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life.”

Here below is not the land of the living, but of the dying. It is the Lord Himself who is the land of the living, the Father’s House, and that is why we long for His appearing. In the Gospel, when he sums up His desire for us in prayer before the Father, His words are divinley simple: “I want those you have given to me to be with me where I am.” There is nowhere else to be if we are to live and love for ever. Death sought to prevent that, and that’s why Christ had to own death. And destroy it.

Sadly, in our search for heaven, we humans can be blown off course, and end up in Cork! Our eye can become diseased and misread completely the sign posts, until the divine ophthalmologist spots and heals the illness. Many people dismiss the Christian Gospel as inimical to human happiness and freedom. But what, pray, does the world offer instead? In the end, absolutely nothing. For were it not in God, it would not be at all.

That’s why the daily, ordinary, committed life of faith, hope and love for God, whatever life throws at us, is the way to virtue and to life in the hands of God. For such a life in John Bernard Girkins we give humble thanks and praise to Christ. As we commend him to God’s mercy, we ask for the grace to imitate his example until we ourselves set out on our final adventure as Christ graciously calls us to Himself.