In 1992, my second year in Collooney parish, there was a change of priests. Tommy Johnston was appointed Parish Priest in Mullinabreena bringing to an end one of the most enjoyable years I had in ministry - enjoyable in the sense that Tommy and I worked very much as a team, going places together, sharing ideas and trying to put them into action. We had good fun along the way.
Tommy's transfer brought me into contact with Joe Spelman who was appointed Parish Priest of Collooney. I'd known Joe for years but in a different setting, He was a Professor in Maynooth, a very intelligent man and we moved in different circles. My mother used to have an expression that spoke about a person's good qualities, she'd say "He'd never close his eye on you". I came to see that as a huge compliment, speaking to a person's character and, in particular, the truth that the person would always notice and acknowledge you. Joe fell into that revered category. I remember him walking "Joe's Square" in Maynooth and no matter who he was with, he always gave that smiling nod as you walked past in the opposite direction. Words, though sometimes used, were not necessary. Joe was saying "hello" in his own way and letting the other know that was the right thing to do.
In Collooney, our relationship was somewhat different. The "Professor" had become a priest in a parish, as had the student five years earlier. Now we were on the same pitch, wearing the same colours and walking in the same direction. Joe was very aware that it was his first taste of Parish life. He had retired from Maynooth's staff earlier in the year and came to Collooney, not to retire but to engage with a new phase of life. No more than myself, he was finding his feet in ministry and was not afraid to acknowledge that. "If it's not broken", he told me, "don't fix it". What he was saying centred on his belief that whatever was working well in the parish, whatever Tommy and I had set in place and was seen to be working would continue. He wasn't there to stamp authority or do it "his way" but to journey with people in the hope we were on the right road.
Bishop Flynn appointed Joe as Vicar General of the Diocese and with that came the title "Monsignor". Joe took the role seriously and was a very good Vicar General of Achonry. He took the title less seriously and never attached to himself any of the trappings or shades of the office. There was something strangely comforting about this. There was nothing surprising about it.
We had three years together and, when I moved to the Marriage Tribunal in 1995, I was sorry to be leaving Joe. I enjoyed his ways so much. He had a droll voice and an equally droll sense of humour but, and for me equally important, a sharp mind and the ability to dispense (without you knowing you were in the dispensary!) solid advice. One of my favourites was around a letter I had written about something that hurt and bothered me. I showed the letter to Joe. He read it carefully, handed in back to me and said; "Vincent, that's an excellent letter. What you say is true and you've every right to say it but if you take my advice you won't send it." Then he added "I've never regretted a letter I didn't send but I've regretted a few I did". It took a few minutes for it to sink in but the letter became pieces and the pieces were left in Joe's dustbin. The pieces led to peace!
I remember him writing to me the first Christmas I was in Galway. He told me bits and pieces about the parish, what was happening and how people were keeping. Before signing the letter he concluded with the words "I miss you". I was taken by those words because he could have pushed it out a little from himself and said "you're missed" or "the people miss you" or "it's not the same without you" but no, he made it personal "I miss you". I hope he never regretted writing those lines!! I never regretted reading them and they continue to console me in times of self questioning. His lines remind me that I have made a difference in people's lives.
Joe died on Thursday morning, June 23rd after a few years journey with the uninvited guest of "Parkinson's Disease" It took away much of the man's character, slowed his movement and perhaps most sadly of all, dented that great intellect with which he had been so clearly gifted. I visited him a few times in Dublin though not often enough. The more recent visits were difficult because there was no recognition and I found it difficult to see him like that. I had no sense of him knowing me or remembering anything of the road we travelled and shared. Hopefully I remembered for both of us.
At his Funeral Mass yesterday (June 25th) in Collooney, Bishop Brendan went back beyond Joe and opened his words to us with memories of Joe's mother who had been a teacher in Coolavin N.S. (Monasteraden). After her death in 1982 a past pupil wrote a tribute to her in a local paper. For thirty years she'd taught the junior classes and the writer said when they left home to go to school for the first time Mrs Spelman held out a hand that was "warm and welcoming". She, the writer recalled, taught the children "all we were able to learn" and she "etched" in their hearts a lasting love for God as she prepeared them for the Sacraments. I loved the line "all we were able to learn" - today they'd call that "differentiation" where the child's abilities are centre stage and teaching takes place in accordance with how much a child is able for. Mrs Spelman seems to have been ahead of her time. As Bishop Brendan introduced us to her, there was a sense of a woman who knew what she was about and who made a lasting impression. He concluded "I think her son carved a good niche too in the hearts of many people…"
So he did. He moved with people at their pace, prayed with people as they could pray and stayed for as long as he was needed. He was a good priest, a role model and thankfully a friend.
Back to that Christmas Card of 1995 and hoping he won't mind me stealing his words:
(Joe) "I miss you".
(Click here for Full Text of Bishop Brendan's Homily)
I included Horses and Plough as the Featured Image for this post. I did so because I've been thinking again of Kavanagh's great poem, "To the man after the harrow" which, I'm told, he wrote for a neighbour who was being ordained a priest. I love the idea that Kavanagh used his gift to create a gift for a neighbour's son. I am not 100% sure about this though I met a group of priests at a retreat one time and some of them knew the man the poem was written for. I'd hate to think the ordination was not the reason for the poem but whatever the reason, the words are great. I think, had it been written for Joe, Kavanagh would be happy that his advice was heeded.
To The Man After The Harrow
Now leave the check-reins slack,
The seed is flying far today -
The seed like stars against the black
Eternity of April clay.
This seed is potent as the seed
Of knowledge in the Hebrew Book,
So drive your horses in the creed
Of God the Father as a stook.
Forget the men on Brady's Hill.
Forget what Brady's boy may say.
For destiny will not fulfil
Unless you let the harrow play.
Forget the worm's opinion too
Of hooves and pointed harrow-pins,
For you are driving your horses through
The mist where Genesis begins.