Father Tom McGivern, S.J.
Memorial Mass, St. Ignatius
28th January 2017
Fr Michael J Kelly SJ and a large number of priests concelebrated a Memorial Mass in Lusaka, Zambia for their friend and colleague Tom McGivern SJ. Presided over by Fr Emmanual Mumba SJ, Provincial of the Zambia-Malawi Province and attended by over 130 people including the Irish Ambassador Séamus O’Grady and his wife, a large part of the congregation were former students from four decades of Tom’s teaching and religious sisters with whom he had worked.
The Homily given by Michael J Kelly SJ expresses the deep appreciation of Fr Tom’s work and comradeship across the many years he served in Zambia.
Homily by Fr Michael J Kelly SJ
Friends, I welcome all of you very warmly to this memorial Mass for Father Tom McGivern who died in Ireland two weeks ago today. And as we remember Tom and celebrate his life, we think lovingly of his sister Mary and brother Eddie in Canada; of his nieces, nephews, relatives and their families in Ireland, Canada, and Switzerland; and of the thousands of people here in Zambia and elsewhere in whose lives he made such a difference for good. To all of them we extend our sincere sympathy. They have lost a great brother, a great uncle and a great friend, but they can be absolutely certain that Tom continues in his love for them and his concern that all should go well with them in every aspect of their lives.
It’s more than seventy years since Tom and I first met. The occasion was my arrival at the Jesuit novitiate in Ireland where Tom had already completed his first year. I remember it so well. It was five past four, the afternoon of Saturday, September 6th 1946, and Tom was the first Jesuit novice that I met. He immediately stretched out his hand – his hairy hand, I might say – and gave me a very warm welcoming smile, telling me that if he had stuck it out this long, then I should be able to do the same! That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted literally a lifetime and that was stronger than the brutal assault Tom experienced six years ago this very month, stronger than the death that took him from us two weeks ago today.
Most of us know what happened to Tom that fateful night in Chula House on the Airport Road – how when he was locking the security gate into the house a thief sprang on him and with an iron bar gave him a few hefty blows on the head. Because of his strong physique and the great care he got in hospital and subsequently in Chula House, Tom recovered to the extent that his life was no longer in danger. But damage had been done to his brain and as the months passed it became clear that he needed more specialized investigations and care. So it was that in September 2011 he was repatriated to Ireland, to Cherryfield, the Nursing Home there for elderly and infirm Jesuits. There he received the wonderful love and care that enabled him to live peacefully for the final years of his life, generally in reasonable physical health but with his mind gradually slipping away from him all the time. And it was there that, following a fairly short illness, he handed over his great self to God at half-past-ten in the morning on Saturday 14th January.
These were difficult years for Tom when he was away from Zambia and the people he loved, and when he could no longer remember people or events and needed nursing assistance in looking after himself. But some things remained with him: his great, broad beaming smile; his graciousness; his sense of fun; his gratitude to everybody who stretched out a hand to help him. And occasionally in the early days of his handicapped existence back in Ireland, I even heard Tom express this gratitude in Chitonga, as his faltering memory brought up words from the past: “Eh-hee. Mbubo.Twa lumba1.” Zambia was where he had lived for most of his life and Zambia was close to his heart up to the very end. And it was truly fitting that, although he did not die in Zambia, one of his many Zambian friends, Mable Chilenga, was with him, holding his hand when the time came for him to go home to God. Thank you, Mable, for being there at that time.
Here in Zambia we find it hard to think of Tom as being enfeebled, having difficulty in speaking, not being able to recognise people, weary and tired. That was not the Tom we knew. The Tom we knew was a vigorous active man; a great Jesuit and a wonderful priest; a loyal friend and delightful companion; a man of heart-warming kindness and immense concern for anybody in need, especially if that person was a religious Sister; always bright and cheerful; steadfastly loyal, true and trustworthy. And for more than fifty years he put all of these great qualities at the service of the people of Zambia, principally through education but also and more strikingly through the kind of person he was.
Tom spent almost twenty of his early years in Zambia at Canisius College in the Southern Province, as teacher, prefect, headmaster and Rector. Those who came under his influence there will always remember how he formed them into being persons of integrity and character, hard-working, honest, and fired with concern for others. It was he who established the Cadet Force at Canisius several months before Independence. As Captain the Reverend Thomas McGivern he had the privilege in September 1964 of marshalling these into a Guard of Honour for inspection by Kenneth Kaunda, who was then Prime Minister of what was still Northern Rhodesia, the very first Guard of Honour that the future President of Zambia ever inspected. And in later years, under Tom’s dynamic leadership, the Canisius Cadets won the top awards at army camps held at Arakan Barracks.
When Tom left Canisius he brought his vitality, practicality and deeply religious Christian spirit to his work at Mpima Minor Seminary and later at Mukasa in Choma. Through his life and work in both places he inspired many youthful would-be seminarians to commit themselves to following the Lord who had called them, wherever He might go. In this way, Tom played a significant role in bringing it about that today we have so many good Zambian priests. I don’t think he could have left us a finer legacy.
The next phase of Tom’s apostolic life saw him breaking altogether new ground, both for himself as a person and for Zambia as a country. This was when he launched out into the field of Religious Education. He has the distinction of being the country’s first Inspector of Religious Education and through his dedication in this area over a period of more than ten years, he established RE on a sound footing within the Ministry of Education, raised it to a status comparable with that of other school subjects, and gave the teaching of it a tremendous boost in the schools across the country. Moreover, with the help of a group of very dedicated people, lay and religious, he also developed a syllabus for RE that has stood the test of time. Given that his own academic and teaching backgrounds were in English and Geography, all of this was a tremendous achievement on Tom’s part. What for somebody else would have been the work of a lifetime, he just took in his stride, seeing this as his way of serving God at the moment.
From the Ministry of Education Tom moved to the Zambia Episcopal Conference where for a number of years he put his long experience as teacher, administrator and inspector of schools at the service of the Church as its Education Secretary General. During these years he consolidated much that he had initiated in the field of Religious Education and made good use of his understanding of the workings of the Education Ministry to help the Catholic education system adopt and adapt to emerging education policies and new directives.
Three of Tom’s great characteristics were his smile, his loyalty and his open childlike nature. In some ways he was the incarnation of a smile. It seemed to be there always, even when he had to reprimand or correct, as those who had him as a prefect of discipline can well recall. He loved a good joke – and loved to repeat back to you any good joke you might have told him! Maybe it was because he was born on Christmas Eve that he had such a good sense of humour, such a realisation that there was plenty to smile about in life, even if there were also sad and disturbing things.
As for loyalty, Tom’s was almost legendary. Loyalty to the Church, loyalty to the Jesuits, loyalty to his companions and friends, loyalty to Zambia. If Tom was on your side, you were safe. He would never let you down. He was always that way, but this became even more characteristic of him as he grew older. And this loyalty showed itself in a very special way when he set out to do something on behalf of religious Sisters. Sometimes you hear somebody like Mother Teresa being referred to as the saint of the poor. I think Tom will always be remembered as the saint of the Sisters, whether those at the Marian Shrine, or the Sisters of Charity in Kabwata or Roma, or Sisters wherever: if one of them let it be known that she had a problem, Tom would be off his mark at once, seeing what he could do to help, even to the extent of pestering you or somebody else to come to her help. Ever loyal, ever faithful, ever energetic on the Sisters’ behalf.
And Tom always embodied in his person the words of Jesus, “Unless you become like little children you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” He was surely one of the children to whom our Father in heaven revealed the mysteries of the kingdom, as we heard in the Gospel today. Tom was always a child and had all the loveableness of a child. I can still see his eyes opening wide when somebody would produce some sweets or a piece of chocolate, wide-eyed and expectant like a child. Indeed, we Jesuits sometimes joked among ourselves that at Canisius and elsewhere Tom always showed himself, not so much as a man among boys but more as a boy among boys! Again, maybe he had this most endearing trait because his birthday was Christmas Eve when God gave him to the world 89 years ago as a most delightful Christmas present.
And underlying all this and giving it life were Tom’s deep faith and his total Christian commitment. Always and everywhere he was a man of God and a man of prayer; a man who endeavoured to praise, reverence and serve God in everything he turned his hand to; a man consumed in very practical ways by the love of God and who was always concerned that he should let that love have its full way with him.
Friends, I could go on forever talking about Tom, a man who was such an inspiration and model for all of us Jesuits, the kind of Jesuit St. Ignatius of Loyola would have wanted him to be, the kind of person our heavenly Father had in mind when He created him. But let me end by going back to my first meeting with Tom and that warm welcoming hand extended to me nearly 71 years ago. It is my earnest hope and prayer that when I too am called to our Father’s home Tom will be there with his lovely smile, stretching out to me the same hand, welcoming me home, and both of us hearing the reassuring words of the Lord Jesus, “In my Father’s house there are many places to live in. Your place is now ready for you. That’s why I am taking you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”
Two weeks ago today, after a long and faithful life, Tom’s place was ready and the Lord Jesus came to take him to himself, so that where Jesus is Tom also might be. That is our assurance. That is our faith. And we express it in a short prayer in the Irish language, a language Tom knew and loved so well: “Ar dheis laimh De go raibh a anam dilis,” words which mean “may his lovely soul always be there at God’s right hand”.
Mu zyina lya Taata, ilya Mwana, ilya Muya Musaante2. Amen
Author: Fr Michael J. Kelly, SJ
1. Eh-hee. That’s it. Many thanks.
2. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.