Homily at funeral Mass of Fr Luke Dempsey OP, 14 Feb. 2020
(Donagh O'Shea OP)
We gather around to say a solemn and heartfelt farewell to our great brother, Luke; or Uncle Bill as he is known to his family. We say that farewell in the context of the Mass, the re-enactment of the death of Jesus. It’s the right place for us to be, at this moment. The death and resurrection of Jesus are like the DNA of our Christian identity. St Paul said, ‘With Christ I hang on the cross,’ and ‘We have gone down into the grave with him.’ It is very striking language; it could hardly be more powerful. Our life as Christians is so identified with the life of Christ, and with his death and resurrection, that we instinctively turn to him when death takes a beloved brother.
Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta, without Luke? He embodied joy, and humour and profound goodness; and hospitality without measure – even to the point of bringing trouble on himself at times, and a train of difficulties. His openness of heart and his generosity of spirit were legendary.
Many of us here were his students in years gone by. The philosophy and theology here at that time were based on the works of St Thomas Aquinas, but often came through in a neo-Scholastic style (with some notable exceptions). That was a rough diet for young palates. It made no concession to imagination or beauty; it was high on logic and proofs, and even more so on disproofs. Luke’s classes were a glorious exception. He revelled in language; he delighted in resounding words, the bigger the better. I used to write them down in the margins of my notebooks, like someone collecting rare specimens. His vocabulary was like a supplement to the Oxford Dictionary. Many Dominicans here remember the words that he used to describe Aristotle’s moral philosophy: ‘a eudemonistic ethic, teleologically suspended.’ And he told us that when we read the history of philosophy, we should watch out for three great pitfalls: ‘naïve solipsism, economic absorption, and mythological confusion or hypertrophy of religion.’ He said these things with humour; he exulted in language. It was like a glorious bubble-bath: all those beautiful words floating in the air, perfect and multi-coloured, and like all words, transitory; you wanted to catch them, but you couldn’t. In the spirit of Luke himself, I think I might just tell you that the word for that kind of usage is sesquipedelianism. But his delight in language was never a frivolous thing. It was subtle and challenging: you had to pay close attention, or you would feel very foolish very quickly. His looping style was like his handwriting: big and generous and fluid. He brought us relief, and humour, and imagination – factors that were sorely lacking in our early philosophical studies at that time.
He was the most gentlemanly man you ever met. He was genuinely interested in people, and always helpful; he was kindness itself. But he was no push-over! In his early days, apparently, he was no push-over on the football field. His large frame meant that he had all the best arguments. And in all other ways, too, he was no push-over. Yet he was never known to say an unkind word about those who gave him grief; nor would he even tell the details of it, even to his closest friends. That's the kind of Christian man he was.
At Christmas here in Tallaght, his party-piece was a ballad called ‘The Cremation of Sam Magee’. “Now Sam Magee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.” Luke would recite it from memory, all 13 verses of it. It must have struck a chord with us, because at that time the heating system here in the Priory was long past its prime; and without warning, it would retire from active service in the middle of the winter, when it was needed most. I think we were able to identify with Sam Magee; in the intense cold, cremation would have had a certain appeal for us, as it had for Sam. Then six years ago, on his 80th birthday, when sadly his memory had become clouded, I found the words of the ballad on the internet, and printed them off. He read it at the end of the meal. It was like a bridge between a long-lost time and the present. A great deal happened in his life between those earlier recitations and his final recitation of Sam Magee.
In 1968 he moved to Canada where he continued his teaching career, in Antigonish in Nova Scotia. He was accompanied by another Dominican, Fr Urban Flanagan. I asked Luke one day, about a year ago, if they were working in the same place, and he replied, ‘Well, we were about 100 miles apart, but out there, that counts as the same place.’ It was a flash of the old Luke, and a reminder of what we were missing. There were lots of such flashes. One day a few of us were talking about somebody who had a very unusual first name, and after a while someone asked, ‘Does anyone remember what his surname was?’ And suddenly Luke spoke, and he said, ‘With a name like that, who needs a surname?’ And another day, one of the brethren quoted (or rather, misquoted) a line from Shakespeare. When he misquoted it a second time, Luke held up his hand and said, ‘I have to correct you there!’ Those moments became less frequent, but he developed skills to conceal his memory loss. When a visitor said to him, one day, ‘You were very good to me in Rome,’ Luke (who clearly had no idea who she was) said, ‘Tell me more.’
In 1974 he became prior of San Clemente, Rome. A couple of years later, in 1977, while there, he oversaw the publication of the first volume of the San Clemente Miscellany, a much-admired piece of work, to mark 300 years of the Irish Dominican presence in San Clemente. In the early 80s he was prior of the École Biblique, a biblical and archaeological research centre in Jerusalem. He oversaw an ingenious reconstruction of the library there, as I remember. Later, he was appointed Rector of the International Convitto, a place of residence for priests who come to study in Rome. Luke was fluent in French and Italian, having studied in France and Italy as a young man; but I often wondered how people of other language-groups managed to follow his allusive style. In a lecture to students in the Angelicum, he spoke one day about a young man who was ‘fired with enthusiasm’ as he started on a new job. And a year later, Luke added, he was again fired… with enthusiasm. After his term in the Convitto, he returned to San Clemente, teaching all the while in the Angelicum university. In 1999 he was once again prior of San Clemente, and three years later returned as Rector of the Convitto, where he remained until he returned to Ireland in 2011. Soon after, he was assigned to this community, completing a full circle. About 2½ years ago he moved to Kiltipper Nursing Home, where he lived for the remainder of his life.
He was the youngest, and the last surviving, of a family of seven. This means that he stood at the graveside of his parents, and then his 5 brothers, one by one, and his only sister. That must add up to an immense amount of sorrow, bereavement. And yet he was a joyful man; life indeed was a celebration. Looking back on his life now, and all that we remember of him, the word that comes to mind is ‘ceremony’. His life was like a beautiful ceremony: with dignity, and restraint, and grace, and always a sense of openness and immensity. When you spent even a few minutes with him, you came away feeling that the world was a bigger place, and life was something grander, than you had settled for.
As you well know, he was from Kilcash, and only a year ago, or so, he was heard to recite the famous poem/song, Cill Cais, about his native place, in Irish:
Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad?
Tá deire na gcoillte ar lár.
Níl trácht ar Chill Chais ná a theaghlach,
Is ní cluinfear a cling go bráth.
Further on in that poem, there’s a reference to the Eucharist: [go mbeidh] an tAifreann binn á rá. That is what we are doing now: celebrating the ‘sweet Mass’, the mystery that encompasses our life and death and our hope of life eternal.
We pray for eternal joy for our beloved brother, for the consolation of his family and his many friends; and we give thanks to God for the privilege of having known him as a brother and a teacher and a friend.