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Donal O’Leary joined St Mary’s in the 1980s where he taught Theology and Religious Education for 20 years and became chair of the Religious Studies Department.
His friend Chris McDonnell, also an alumnus of St Mary’s University, wrote the following piece reflecting on Fr O’Leary’s life for the Catholic Times.
Following Chris’ reflections is the address made by Fr O’Leary’s student Dr Mary Mihovilović at his memorial Mass at St Mary’s University Chapel.
The Journey Man
Companionship on a journey gives rest and consolation when it is needed. It is what friendship is all about, a lift on the way, a helping hand when the going gets hard, an opportunity to share joy. It is the never ending task of teachers and poets. They offer moisture to parched lips. In recent weeks we have lost both an Irish teacher and an American poet and we are poorer in the event.
The teacher, a priest of the Leeds diocese, well-known for his writing, a frequent contributor to the Tablet, a leader of many retreats both at home and abroad, was Fr Daniel O’Leary. He died in late January after illness.
I have known Donal over many years for he was the chaplain of St Benedict’s Secondary school in Leeds where I taught in the late 60s. When I left to move to Merseyside, our paths diverged and for many years my only contact with him was through his articles and books. Then six years ago we met up again and renewed friendship with the frequent exchange of emails, poetry and articles. Always a man to encourage with joy and humour, he kept me going.
He was forever on the move, giving talks, inspiring retreats and other gatherings. In one email he invented a donkey called Owen - why he chose that name I will never know - but Owen was his transport and the butt of his grumbles when he had any. He appeared every so often in our exchanges.
But there was much more to him than that. Writing of his passing on the ACP website, a Dublin priest, Seamus Ahearne, gave this appreciation of the man.
“He wrote with the beauty of the Irish language enriching the English. The warmth and richness of his incarnate God was sprinkled everywhere. His God was smiling. His God danced and sang. His God was alive and teasing. His God was alerting us to views we hadn’t even thought of. He was wonderful.”
And he was. He touched many lives and we were the better for his company.
A few days before he died, an award-winning American poet, Mary Oliver concluded her journey. A poet of distinction with many published collections, she was essentially an outdoors person, living much of her life near Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her poems are uncomplicated and so often reflect her experience of long walks and perceptive observation. In one of her best-known poems, “When Death Comes” she wrote:
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”.
Her words made a difference to many. Her poem ‘The Summer’s Day’ concludes with these few words,”Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
She showed us the world that is all about us and offered us a chance to share in its mystery. Her Selected Poems-‘Devotions’- were published in 2017 and is widely available.
So we return to our starting point. Donal’s home page on his website is entitled ‘Begin with the heart’. ‘Where then do we begin?’ Meister Eckhart was asked. ‘Begin with the heart’ was his response. And that is what both he and Mary Oliver share, an appreciation that life is the fullest expression of love and we have a responsibility to share it, one with another. On a journey help comes from our companions. The Emmaus story is the message of the Gospel in only a few words. These words of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nath Hanh are also on Donal’s home page: “I have arrived, I’m here, the destination is every step”. One step at a time.
My own response to the conclusion of his journey was to write a few words of reflection for having passed the same way. May he rest in the peace of the Lord that he showed each one of us.
journey-man, road-travelling companion
whose written word, crafted with care
woke so many mornings with a smile
whose faith was voiced with courage
lived from the humour of an Irish soul,
your destination firm-folded
within each stuttering step.
Your dancing eyes and joy-filled laughter
remain beyond the pain of immediate loss.
We gather the gifts you gave us
wrapped in language, lived through example
touched with tenderness and the compassion
of an open heart.
Gifts now ours to carry and to share,
each on our own Emmaus road,
this way we say goodbye to friends
lost in the drift of countless stars”
Memorial Mass for Donal (Daniel) O’Leary
St Mary’s University Chapel
I first met Donal O’Leary in June 1976 as a lower sixth former visiting St Mary’s College on a very hot day, similar to today. Our headteacher had asked him to show us around and he both informed and entertained us, looking back it was as though that was all he had to do that day. That attentiveness and presence was something I came to value immensely as I got to know him as a very compassionate and inspirational teacher and pastor. He taught us sacramental theology and supervised my teaching practice; throughout my teaching career he continued to enthuse and encourage me personally and professionally.
When we arrived in college he was on sabbatical leave and we heard rumours about the ‘pinstripe priest’ spoken of with great affection. When he returned the next year we realised that this related to his sense of fashion and that he did indeed wear a pinstripe suit. At that stage I didn’t realise that priests could tie ties. In so many ways he invited us to see things differently. In his words:
To recognise the heart of God in the heart of life,
to reveal the divine presence active in all human presences,
to decipher God’s signature written indelibly but often faintly across all of creation.
O’Leary (2008) Begin with the Heart, p.70.
He frequently reminded his hearers that ‘the task of identifying God’s presence in the most ordinary experiences can
only be carried out in the harsh reality of where people are at “in the here and now”‘; always mindful of the importance of ‘beginning with the heart’.
He was a teacher to his bones and continued to be so in all that he did, in diocesan roles, retreats, talks, books and his encounters with individuals. It was a dangerous thing to be in his class because nothing would ever be the same again. His starting point was that God comes to us disguised as our everyday lives; inviting us to recognise ‘the God of Surprises hiding and playing in the heart of life’. Life was never dull in Donal’s classes and he was really the Teacher of Surprises, known to climb out of the window on occasion if it would help him to make a point.
About 15 years ago Donal agreed to give the annual Catholic Teachers’ conference and as a few of us worked together with him to prepare the event it became apparent that his approach to planning was unique and didn’t include a precise timetable. We needn’t have worried: he engaged all the delegates and we lived time differently. Late at night on such occasions he would be found relaxing in the bar, at home with past students, Simmarians he had taught, spanning the mid-70s to the early 90s – all sharing hilarious stories and profound moments. His memory for his students was phenomenal and he was ever the storyteller.
His call was to authenticity: ‘You teach who you are’ (O’Leary, 2008, p. 126).
Donal, you were who you taught and we your students and all those we have ministered to are the richer for that. His ministry continued up until shortly before his death last January as he shared his last journey ‘Dancing to my death with the love called cancer’ in his final book, published posthumously.
In recent months I have reread several of Donal’s books and one metaphor above all keeps coming to mind and it is that of ‘midwives of mystery’ (O’Leary, 2008, p.134). He uses this metaphor when he speaks of teachers and catechists but I want to take that further and apply it to him:
And then, finally, comes the midwife, you, to complete the divine purpose. By the divine presence in you, you open and release the divine presence in those you serve. God intended in your birth and baptism that you should be in your radiant humanity the priest, prophet and teacher of God’s mercy in the classrooms of life.’
In the words of a prayer he wrote with some friends:
Like the artist who looks at the marble and sees the hidden angel,
like the farmer who looks at his winter fields and sees the waving harvest,
like the mystic who looks at the caterpillar and sees the butterfly,
like the midwife who looks at the distressed body and sees a beautiful wee baby,
like Jesus who looked into the hearts of sinners and saw their grace,
so too did you, DONAL, the teacher; look at your students and see the face of God.
You were, thus, the revealer, the midwife of the presence of God already hidden in your listeners.
O’Leary (2007) An Astonishing Secret, pp. 42-3
29th June 2019