St Thomas Aquinas Springwood Parish

Homily - Requiem Mass for Fr Peter Connelly


Homily of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP - Requiem Mass for Rev Fr Peter Charles Connelly, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta, Monday 9 September 2013

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A warm welcome to you all to St Patrick’s Cathedral. I would like to welcome especially Fr Peter Connelly’s family members: his siblings Sr Susan, Brendan, Adrian and Angela and their families. Our sincere condolences to you all.

Welcome also to Bishops Bede Heather, Kevin Manning and Robert McGuckin, to Vicar General Fr Chris de Souza VG EV and St Patrick’s Dean, Fr John McSweeney, and the clergy and people of the Diocese of Parramatta, especially parishioners of St Thomas Aquinas Parish and staff of St Columba’s High School, Springwood, and the Rector and seminarians of Holy Spirit Seminary, the places where Fr Peter most recently served.

I acknowledge with gratitude the presence of Sr Mary Quinlan RSJ, the Regional Leader of the Josephite Sisters to which Peter’s sister Susan belongs, and other daughters of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.


Homily - Requiem Mass for Rev Fr Peter Charles Connelly
Fr Peter Connelly, 2010.
Photo: Virginia Knight.

Last Tuesday, the Feast of St Gregory the Great, the last day of Fr Peter’s life, I was 10 years a bishop. It brought back memories of my ordination night but, surprisingly, more of the wonderful celebration on the night I was installed as Bishop of Parramatta. Because I was outside St Patrick’s Cathedral waiting to be welcomed by the Dean and Consultors, I didn’t get to see the hijinks of the clergy assembled within. But it was reported that two of my priests on motorised tricycles raced down the aisles and pirouetted in front of the bishop’s cathedra. One of those priests was, of course, Fr Peter and his sense of playfulness and humour to which I was introduced that night will always remain in my memory.

Fr Peter’s playfulness was boyish but also parental. He was very much a family man. That might sound strange in a lifelong celibate, but contrary to mythology priests don’t hatch from Martian eggs: they all come from families. Peter loved his and always spoke of his parents, Charles and Clare, with deep affection. I remember how affected he was when his Mum died last year. He also loved his siblings and their families. It must have been a great encouragement that one of them was a religious sister travelling a similar path to God to his. That a family might produce both a priest and a nun, as well as future Christian spouses and parents, is a sign that it was a true ‘domestic church’, as the Second Vatican Council called it, the church writ small and intimate and generative.

His ‘relatives’ extended to his students. In a sense Peter never really left school. After St Philip Neri’s Northbridge, Patrician Brothers’ Blacktown and Penrith High, he tried Springwood Seminary and later Werribee Seminary for a time. He took some time out of education to cultivate his famous love for horse racing, working at the Sydney Turf Club: I am reliably informed that he knew more about the horses than about the saints! But in the 1980s he returned to education big time, accumulating several degrees (BA, DipEd, MA) and teaching at St Joseph’s Newtown, St Dominic’s Penrith and Trinity Harden-Murrumburrah where he was principal. Even after being forced by ill-health to retire as Parish Priest at St Thomas Aquinas he maintained close links to the staff and students of St Columba’s High School, Springwood. Meanwhile, he took a role in teaching our seminarians Latin and catechism. This was a source of great joy for both Peter and the seminarians. So he was a father of many children, at many stages of life and faith. “If you love me, Peter, lead my sheep and feed my lambs.” (Jn 21:15-19)

By virtue of priesthood Fr Peter was able to make many families his own. After some false starts at seminary and trying other professions for a time, Peter entered the Kensington seminary for late vocations and was ordained by Bishop Bede Heather in 1994. After his ordination, he served at Richmond and Penrith, as Parish Priest of Springwood and as a Police Chaplain. His extended family now included the people of the parishes in which he laboured and in those places he was known as ‘Father’. Many times a year, Fr Peter poured water and uttered the names of God, declaring the vocation of a newly reborn Christian. He reminded the parents and godparents that Baptism is not magic and that it is their responsibility (as of the whole Christian community) to ensure that the child is raised in the Faith. Tenderly anointing the baby’s ears and mouth he declared the Church’s hope that the little one would in due course hear and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those aspirations were repeated by him in homilies and catecheses, for this former school teacher knew better than most the awesome responsibility and privilege that it is to educate children in the ways of the faith.

Family, parish and school are the sites where most people learn humanity and divinity. Fr Peter had a passion for all three doing their jobs and was not backward in coming forward if he thought any of them was failing the children. It was just too important, he thought, to do half-heartedly or slapdash or with mediocrity. Real fathers take deadly seriously the protection and upbringing of their children. And so Fr Peter took his part in bringing his spiritual children to birth and education, to absolution and communion. He preached and taught and visited them, married, anointed and buried them, fathered them in all the ways a priest can. When priests do those things most central to their priestly identity they stand in persona Christi, in the person of the new Adam, the new father of all mankind.

Parenting is not always easy. No mother or father getting up to a screaming child for the umpteenth time in the middle of another sleepless night feels warm and fuzzy about it. The new Adam is nailed to a Cross and his priests must be ready for their crosses too. A priest friend of Fr Peter heard him preach a powerful homily in Penrith one Sunday on the text “take up your cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). He explained that our ultimate joy would come in heaven and that for now, on earth, there will be sufferings even for those who submit like Christ to the Father’s will, perhaps particularly so for them. Our first reading talks of the sufferings and trials of the just man. When the time came for Fr Peter to experience the cross, through diabetes and septic wounds and terrible pain, through boots and wheelchair and declining mobility, through crumbling vertebrae and endless back pain, he did not complain. He endured it all with humility and patience as an offering to God. “When you are old, Peter, you will be led places you’d rather not go. You will experience crucifixion, as I did.”

Fr Peter had a great devotion to his namesake, St Peter, the Rock of the Church. He died on the feast day of one of Peter’s greatest successors, St Gregory, in only the 19th year of his priesthood and 70th of his life. Too soon. But he had been a great father, even to the bishop. As diocesan censor – whether self-appointed or, eventually, bishop-appointed – he was determined to defend the Catholic Faith from all error and so he sometimes came by motorchair to the Chancery to help improve the bishop’s own doctrine! As Christ had told his namesake, he was to feed not only the lambs but also the sheep – and, it seems, the shepherds too.

In his last will Fr Peter wrote to us:  It is my last will that you get your grieving over quickly. I loved life and I loved you. Be thankful for my life and get on with the living of your own to the fullest. The last time I saw him, Fr Peter was unconscious in intensive care. I prayed the rosary for him, wondering if I would ever get a chance to have another theological discussion with him. I hope I will, in that heaven where all are plunged into “the ocean of infinite love” and truth and where Peter may now pirouette for joy unimpeded. (cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi 12)

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