Homily given by Fr Wim Hoekstra EV PP at the Requiem Mass for Deacon James Thomas Phelan at St Michael’s Church Bauklham Hills, Friday 4 January 2019.
Fr Wim Hoekstra – “he exemplified that vocation to which he had been called.”
This morning we say farewell to a deacon of the Diocese of Parramatta, James Thomas Phelan. As I have already noted this is the first funeral of a permanent deacon in our diocese, and I’m honoured to celebrate this mass of Christian burial along with my fellow priests and deacons.
I first met James Phelan in the early 1990s. Already successful in his professional life, he had been chosen by Bishop Bede to become one of the full-time permanent deacons for the Diocese of Parramatta and I had been delegated by Bishop Bede to guide these men through their study program. I don’t remember too much about those days but I’m sure that if I was allowed to rummage through the rooms at James’ home in Dundas, I’d be able to find out those details. James was quite a hoarder and has kept everything from those days.
After successfully obtaining his degree, Bishop Bede ordained James as a deacon on August 17, 1996, at St Bernadette’s, Dundas Valley. The suggested homily from the Rite of the Ordination of a deacon outlined the ministry which James, with the support of his wife Patricia and family, was being called to. These words remind us that
‘As a deacon you will serve Jesus Christ, who was known among his disciples as the one who served others. Do the will of God generously. Serve God and people in love and joy. …. Show before God and mankind that you are above every suspicion of blame, a true minister of Christ and of God’s mysteries, a man firmly rooted in faith. Never turn away from the hope which the Gospel offers; now you must not only listen to God’s word but also preach it. Hold the mystery of faith with a clear conscience. Express in action what you proclaim by word of mouth.’
I quote this in full because this is exactly how James lived the 22 years of diaconal ministry – a ministry of service in love, firmly established in the faith, committed to preaching and living the gospel – in the parishes of Dundas, Winston Hills, Rooty Hill, Blacktown, Harris Park, Toongabbie and lastly here at the parish of Baulkham Hills. Additionally, as part of his Ministry, he was Pastoral Care Manager of Mt Druitt and Auburn Hospitals between 1998 and 2016.
He preached the Gospel, led communion and funeral services, celebrated the Sacraments of Baptism and Marriage, took Communion to the sick, the housebound, the nursing homes, cared for the clergy and was a great support for Fr Arthur Bridge whom he first met at Blacktown and then followed to Harris Park and Toongabbie and even while here at Baulkham Hills.
Over the years of his diaconal ministry in the Diocese, James took on various responsibilities in committees and councils and lately assisted in the Deacons Vocations Committee, and Deacons’ Formation program, where he and Pat were always present to support those already ordained to the permanent diaconate and those who were aspiring to that ministry.
James’ empathy, his humanity and his compassion were widely recognised by all who knew him, and this served him well in his ministry, especially at funerals. James’ calmness in times of crisis, his faith filled love and his care reflected the ministry in which Jesus guided him.
Those here today from the many parishes with which James was involved will have very many stories and memories of his ministry among you. I hope they are good ones.
The parish of Baulkham Hills was very blessed when James was appointed deacon in November 2017. His professionalism, care, concern and willingness to serve was very much appreciated by Zvonimir and myself. He took quite a bit of pressure of us, and he was always ready to take on a job at a moment’s notice, especially to administer the Sacrament of Baptism either here at St Michael’s or at Our Lady of Lourdes, or to take over a funeral.
As Sacramental Coordinator here, he led the Sacramental Preparation Team, but allowed other members of the team to deal with the complexities of Excel, Numbers, Word, Rosters and even Emails – as we all know he was not very computer literate.
A major highlight for James and Pat, who had supported him through all his diaconal ministry, was on 7th September last year, when Bishop Vincent was principal celebrant at their Golden Wedding Anniversary Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Little did those who were there think that four months later we would be gathering to say farewell to James.
It was late September that he began to feel a pain in his legs, which caused great discomfort, and he found it difficult to stand. He continued to work and visit the sick; his last baptism here was on October 16. The following month was very difficult for him – he wanted so much to do his ministry here, but his health would not allow him. Both Zvonimir and I immediately noticed how our workload increased when he wasn’t here. The Parish Team still miss his laughter, his cheese and cracker lunch, his deep voice.
Pat and he went on a cruise, booked earlier in the year, but as soon as he returned, he was laid up in palliative care at Mt Druitt Hospital, where he had served as chaplain.
Those visiting him there were encouraged and strengthened by his positive and faith-filled approach to the illness that would claim his life – totally trusting of what was to happen, aware that God was calling him, and if this was the case, he was ready to meet his maker. We were not surprised at this attitude.
For in this and in all things, he exemplified that vocation to which he had been called, which brings us then to reflect on the readings chosen for today’s funeral.
The words from Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, are there to support and comfort us, as they did James. “Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be impetuous in time of calamity. Cling to him … trust in him and he will help you.”
The Gospel which Deacon Tan read reminded us of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. It was the example of Jesus as the Good Shepherd that becomes the model for James to take on his role as deacon shepherd for the people of God. “I know my own and my own know me.”
The words from Paul’s second letter to Timothy focus on the faith which James has kept, and if there is one thing we can truly acknowledge it was James’ faith and trust in the God who had first called him to faith through baptism, and then the call to married life and parenthood with his wife Patricia, then the call to the permanent diaconate, and lastly the final call on 27th December 2018 having “fought the good fight, and finished the race and now awaiting the crown of righteousness.”
Priests are often called to anoint and give the last rites to a person who is sick; they are also called after a person has died to offer prayers for the deceased. Seldom are we there at the end. I’m sure that God guided me so that I was actually there, along with his family and Ian McGinnity, when he breathed his last and was welcomed into the kingdom prepared for him.
I want to conclude with a section of the prayer of ordination which Bishop Bede prayed over James that day in 1996 because it summarises exactly how James Phelan lived his life as a faithful Christian, a husband, a father and grandfather, and a deacon of the Church.
‘Lord, send forth upon him the Holy Spirit, that he may be strengthened by the gift of your sevenfold grace to carry out faithfully the work of the ministry. May he excel in every virtue: in love that is sincere, in concern for the sick and the poor, in unassuming authority, in self-discipline, and in holiness of life. May his conduct exemplify your commandments and lead your people to imitate his purity of life. May he remain strong and steadfast in Christ, giving to the world the witness of a pure conscience. May he in this life imitate your Son, who came, not to be served by to serve, and one day reign with him in heaven.’
James, I believe you have achieved that goal and that you have heard the Lord’s voice: “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.”
And so, thank you, James, for your ministry in our Diocese and our parishes and in the brief and valuable time that we had you here at Baulkham Hills -– we will all miss you, and thank you Pat, Mark, Justin and Anne-Marie and your families for allowing your husband and father to be such an important part of the ordained ministry here in our Diocese.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.
VIEW: Images from the Requiem Mass here.
READ: Vale Deacon James Phelan.