Homily at the Mass of Christian Burial for Fr Michael “Mick” O’Callaghan
Parish of Baulkham Hills (St Michael’s Church)
17 March 2021
“Do not be afraid, I have redeemed you.”
These words of the first reading of today’s funeral Mass always echoed deep in the heart of Fr Michael Patrick O’Callaghan, Fr Mick or just Mick, We all know how private a person Mick was, and so, many of you may not be aware of Mick’s struggles in the 1980s.
Coming from the business world, and recognising that God was calling him to a priestly vocation, Mick entered the Carmelite Order in 1970 and was ordained a priest on 27 August 1976, St Monica’s feast day After a few years in the Wentworthville, he became Prior and then also Parish Priest of the Carmelite community at Middle Park. Suddenly burdened with too many jobs and demands on his ministry, Mick was finding it difficult to cope, became somewhat dissatisfied, depressed and very unsure of his vocation. He took leave from the Carmelites, and worked in Aged Care Facilities while discerning where God wanted him to be.
It was while he was managing Cardinal Gilroy Village at Merrylands, that redemption came, when he met Bishop Bede Heather, of the newly created Diocese of Parramatta. Through regular meetings with Bede over the next year, Mick rediscovered his vocation and his calling. He recognised that he could no longer live as a Carmelite, but wanted to work in the Diocese, and so with approval from his order, Bishop Bede appointed Mick as assistant priest at Seven Hills.
In his letter seeking to be released from the Carmelites he wrote, “God works in strange ways in my life – and the lives of all the people – and he has brought me thus far through the good times and the bad, and I know He will continue to guide and strengthen me in my resolve to serve him.”
That decision to join the Diocese has been a blessing not only for the Church but also for Parramatta. After Bishop Bede resigned from the Diocese in 1997 he wrote to Mick, “ Well there were some good decisions…and one of them was to accept you into Parramatta. Thank you for joining the Diocese so readily and wholeheartedly”. It is a sobering thought that Mick and Bede were called to God within a few weeks of each other, and they will be buried next to each other at Castle Hill Cemetery until the last day,
As Bishop Bede noted, Mick threw himself wholeheartedly into the vocation to which God had led him, serving in the parish communities of Seven Hills, Leura, Richmond, Baulkham Hills and Emu Plains, always being the much loved pastor, able to walk with the marginalised and those hurting, offering mercy, sympathy, kindness, compassion, support and reminding them always that there are “many rooms on my father’s house.” This has been shown in the many tributes to Mick’s work as a priest, and acknowledged especially by the Rainbow Catholics Interagency for Ministry, who have posted a wonderful tribute to Mick on their website in consideration of his almost 50 years of work amongst LGBTIQ Catholics and their families, especially at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late 80s and 90s.
So in his life he foreshadowed the worker in the field hospital, of which Pope Francis is always so fond. His ministry therefore imitated that of Christ the Good Shepherd who calls us, and who knows each of us by name – as indeed Mick also was able to do. His phenomenal ability to remember your name and family details, even after years had passed, endeared him to all, and what a wonderful gift God had given him.
However, life is not always “hunky dory”, as we noted at the beginning of this homily.
I don’t think I realised how often people had complained about Mick – mostly in relation to liturgical matters or sacramental programs, but there were quite a number of “please explain” letters from both Bishop Bede, Bishop Kevin Manning or the Vicar General at that time, Bob McGuckin. In only one instance was there what I would call an uncharitable response; every letter was always well argued and occasionally faults acknowledged, although his secretaries have told me that often he did not put his thoughts on paper, but preferred to verbalise them. This reminds us that Mick was not “superhuman”, but a normal human being who occasionally made mistakes, and acknowledged them.
In his ministry as Pastor, Mick always treated his parish staff well. Wherever he was, he supported and assisted those who were supporting him in his parish work. Always the gentleman, always helpful and very grateful for parish secretaries, parish managers and pastoral associates, he allowed them to do their work without too much interference. He trusted them implicitly, even writing to Bishop Kevin on numerous occasions asking that Margaret McMahon, his pastoral associate at Richmond, be appointed to look after the parish while he went off to Yamba, Kim’s or Pepper’s for his annual leave.
Indeed along with his good friend Fr Gerry Iverson, also buried at Castle Hill, Mick was always very supportive and took an active role in NAPPA – the Priest and Pastoral Associates Network, now known as the Pastoral Ministry Network.
He had many roles in the Diocese apart from those of Parish Priest as noted in the Funeral Booklet, and we as people and clergy are very appreciative of Mick’s fruitful and active involvement in the life of the Diocese.
As Episcopal Vicar for Clergy, he was without peer. He seemed to have the ear of all the clergy, and his constant support for them before, during and after his appointment, is something that the current Vicar is unable to emulate. Indeed many a phone call came to current occupant of that role starting, “I suppose you know……”, and of course I didn’t. He seemed to have a hotline to every priest in the Diocese, and we were grateful for that.
Parish families were important to Mick. While he supported them, they also supported him and he felt comfortable in their presence, especially when offered a good meal and a good glass of red.
Indeed in another letter he wrote, “Being a gourmand. I am very susceptible to dinner or luncheon engagements,” and of course the little diary he kept in the top left pocket of his shirt is littered with dinner appointments. It was his way of relaxing from the stresses of parish ministry..
For myself, I have lost a good friend. We first met in 1992 when I was appointed to Cranebrook and Mick to the neighbouring parish of Richmond a few months later, and somehow, we seemed to hit it off. We had a similar style of LOG ministry – liturgy on the go, i.e. go with the flow, but I didn’t have the facility for names, and I didn’t smoke – but that was OK. Within a year of his move to Baulkham Hills, I found myself at Castle Hill, and we maintained this friendship. We both loved classical music and for over 20 years went to the Opera together. For those of you who know opera and for those of you who know Mick’s “comfort” zone, it required some persuasion to get him to Dvorak’s “Rusalka”, Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt” and Prokofiev’s “Love for Three Oranges.” He did say afterwards he enjoyed them!
Indeed it was before a performance of “La Bohème” in January 2015 that we dined as usual at City Extra –Mick, as always, had ordered a well-done sirloin steak with mushroom sauce, hot English mustard on the side, well done chips and a wholemeal bread roll with butter, and a glass of Robert Oatley’s Wild Oats Shiraz. There we discussed the state of the nation, i.e. the Diocese and talk came around to Baulkham Hills, and within two weeks I found myself Parish Priest of Baulkham Hills while he went off to a happy ministry at Emu Plains. After six years, I’m still trying to work out what happened.
When Mick left Baulkham Hills, Bishop Bede in retirement on the Central Coast again wrote to him, “I remember our first meeting at Cardinal Gilroy Village and praise God for the good done through you down all those years since Seven Hills, Leura, Richmond and Baulkham Hills”. We here at Baulkham Hills and those from other parishes can attest to that comment , and which he continued to do good when he moved to retirement, or “lesser duties”.
He provided supply at many parish communities, but had a special affection for St Luke’s Faith Community at Marsden Park, which had just started. Living at James Dixon House at Harris Park he was also an active mentor for seminarians at the adjoining Holy Spirit Seminary.
We all know how private Mick was – “everything was always fine”. There were never any problems; even when you knew it wasn’t so, but he’d never let you know. It was a suffering that he took on as part of the “good fight”- an interpretation of today’s second reading; he hid everything well, but even he needed to share. In a rather extraordinary unlike-Mick opening up, he revealed to Monica, the parish manager at Baulkham Hills and myself that he had inoperable tumours and cancers, and that it was only a matter of time – some months, maybe a year. Stranger still, Mick also said I could tell people…he had come to terms with his mortality and indeed he often spoke about his readiness for death, for which he was ready, even more so in the last few days at Mt Druitt Palliative Care, when only Mark Buhagiar and I were his visitors. I saw him for the last time on Thursday 4th March, about 2 hours before his death. He said he was ready to be called from this life to the God who had called him through his Son and was now calling him home “to receive the crown of righteousness reserved for him which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to him”
I want to acknowledge, Mark and the Clergy Health and Wellbeing Team of the Diocese, the Doctors and Staff at Norwest Private Hospital, Westmead Hospitals and Mt Druitt for their support and care for Mick over these many years.
Now Mick is with his Creator, and for us who are left behind – including his sister, Maureen, brother Terry, sister-in-law Dot and their families, his many friends and parishioners, his fellow clergy, those here present and those watching this through live-streaming – we mourn the passing of this faithful minister of God’s mysteries – of Word and Sacraments, a good Pastor, a true gentleman and a good friend.
The Gospel reminds us to trust in God still and trust in Jesus – something which Mick did, even to the end.
Indeed, the concluding words of the first reading truly echo the story of Mick’s life and ministry and his desire for each of us, “You are precious in my sight, and honoured and I love you. Do not fear, I am with you.”
Fr Wim Hoesktra is a priest of the Diocese of Parramatta.