Bishop Basil Meeking’s Homily at Requiem Mass of Father Finian Conway
St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral – 10th December, 2014.
An era has ended with the death of Father Finian Conway. He was the sole remaining Irish priest still in this country out of all of those, who for well over a hundred years, came here to our diocese to serve the Church and to save souls. As we think of Father Finian and all those young priests who left home and family and their beloved country, our hearts must be full of gratitude. They cared for our spiritual welfare and many of us learned the faith from them. None was more devoted than Father Finian Conway.
When those first Irish priests began coming here, even before Christchurch was a diocese, they knew they had the respect and support of the Catholic people and usually they won the respect of many who were not Catholics, people who, even if they did not really approve of the Roman Catholic Church, respected the dedication of those young priests. Today the atmosphere has changed; in some part that is due to the serious failings of some priests, worldwide, which has been given enormous media coverage; even more it is due to those, who want by any means, to translate uniquely Catholic doctrine and morality and spirituality and practice into forms acceptable to the prevailing secular unbelieving culture.
Without doubt the Catholic priest today finds himself in a new and difficult situation. Our best and really our only practical response can be our faithful, intelligent and unashamed living of our authentic priestly vocation. In order to be able to do that effectively we must hold fast to the abundant teaching of the Church’s Magisterium, based as it is on the Scriptures and on the Tradition, and we find hope in the witness of the holy lives of countless priests, men like Father Finian Conway.
The priest ordained by the Catholic Church, in his capacity as priest, is the sacramental image of Jesus Christ the Priest. Vatican II described the ordained priesthood as a configuration of the man being ordained to Christ the Priest. That is the teaching of the Church over the centuries. One spiritual writer of the 17th century said: “Jesus Christ alone can do in the priest what the priest does every day in the Church. That great teacher, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman once said: “Christ’s priests have no priesthood but his; what they do, he does; when they baptise, he is baptising, when they bless, he is blessing.” So the priest has always to be thinking: All that I do, I am doing with Christ. All my activities, however varied constitute only one vocation; to be together with Christ acting as a living instrument in communion with him. That understanding, that faith has been the motive force of the life of Father Finian.
That is what led Bishop Ashby on one occasion in a letter to speak of Father Finian’s great zeal in his priestly work. Recently in the diocesan files I found a letter I had sent to Father Conway after an episcopal visitation of his parish of Halswell in 1988 saying: ” I admire the parish and its real faith and loyalty to the Church.It was a happy experience for me to be in such a solid parish community. I am aware of how much that owes to your efforts, to your pastoral zeal and love.”
Of course that was true not only of Father Finian’s ministry at Halswell but at all the other places where he had served since coming to the diocese in 1949. It is a long list: Hokitika, Hawarden, Ashburton, Akaroa, Runanga, Sumner, Akaroa, Rakaia, Hawarden, Sumner. Beckenham, Halswell. No, the repetition of certain places is not due to my advanced years; more than once he was sent back to places where he had been before. The bishops trusted him; where there was a vacancy hard to fill or some difficult situation Father Conway was sent there even if only for a short time; because he was a reliable priest.
That was the way he had been brought up in his home in Mullingar, Ireland, a happy home he once told me, where his father, a school teacher and his mother provided love and security and planted in him a taste for study and reading which stood to him all his life. This was further fostered at All Hallow’s Seminary in Dublin which prepared priests for mission all over the world. He also studied at the National university of Ireland and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. From All Hallows Father Finian received a sense of the mission of the Church, a mission he fulfilled so well in this diocese; but he also grasped the universal nature of that mission.
Moved by a desire to do more, in 1968 he asked to be allowed to spend five years in Latin America with the Society of St Columban. After due consideration, in the end Bishop Ashby understandably did not agree; Father Finian was someone he felt he could not spare. He was, for instance, one of several priests on whom the bishop relied for promoting continuing education for priests and preparing sermon outlines.
What kind of man was Finian Conway? He was a man of a certain culture; I don’t at all mean a dilettante. Rather, he could truly have said of himself in the classical Latin tag: “I am a man; nothing human is without interest.” He had a taste for literature and knew what he was talking about. He brought with him much that was good from the old country. He was a gentleman in Cardinal Newman’s sense of the word: he would never knowingly give offense. He respected himself as a person, as a priest and he respected those for whom he was pastorally responsible. He knew well that mutual respect is necessary for friendship to thrive. He was a gracious and affable man, perhaps again something developed in him while at All Hallow’s Seminary. I note that because it was a quality evident also in another All Hallow’s man – Bishop John Cunneen.
Father Finian was essentially a modest man; he never traded on his solid capabilities or his fine qualities; he did not seek promotion. He knew and valued the importance of being a parish priest in whatever parish; that was the sum of his ambition. His life was all of a piece. So he was not carried away by the spirit of the times which he recognised as all too often trivial and unworthy. He could see the quest for relevance in the life of the Church for the delusion it so often was. These were all the natural virtues that he had in abundance. But they were enlivened and had been transmuted into something for God by his baptism and by his ordination to the priesthood. He was a good man and a good priest.
Towards the end of his long life of 90 years, he retired very happily to Nazareth House; there he did me the favour of being my regular confessor. Then that was rudely disrupted by the earthquake of 2011 when he, along with other Nazareth residents, had to be evacuated overnight. This was a great blow to him but it turned out better than he had dared to hope. In the Wakefield Rest Home near Nelson where he was taken he found people who really cared for him and gave him friendship. That was also true of the Whareama Rest Home at Stoke to which he went after suffering a stroke. In Nelson he was well looked after spiritually by the local priests, and priests from this diocese went to visit him, until the end came last Thursday.
Let us thank God for our brother, our pastor, our friend, Father Finian Conway. May his memory continue to speak to us of the salvation that is God’s love and that was the light of his life and of which he was a faithful minister. To God’s tender mercy we commend him.
Eternal rest grant to him, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace.
Father Finian Conway
Born 10 February 1924
Ordained Priest: 10 June 1949
Died: 4 December 2014