Homily of Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan for the Funeral Mass for Bishop William Lee RIP
Dear friends in Jesus Christ, we gather here in this cathedral beloved of Bishop Willie to offer this Mass for him in hope and in thanksgiving even if that is mingled with pain and grief.
Ultimately we are gathered by Christ since He was the one to whom Bishop Willie dedicated his life as His priest and later bishop.
Jesus gives meaning to our whole lives from beginning to end. Who are we without God?
William Lee was born in Newport, County Tipperary, on 2 December in 1941, the eldest of five children to John and Delia Lee. His spiritual and faith formation began in his family and was continued in the schools he attended and he learned gradually to keep saying yes to God’s will.
After primary schooling locally with the wonderful Sisters of Mercy, he went to Rockwell College run by the Holy Ghost Fathers who impressed him but somewhere along the line found that his calling in life was to be a diocesan priest and so he went to Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth and was subsequently ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Cashel-Emly on 19 June 1966. Each of us has a vocation from God. In following it we gain happiness and meaning here in this life and eternal happiness in the next.
The young Father William went back to Maynooth for further studies and then went to Rome to the Pontifical Gregorian University to obtain a doctorate in Canon Law. He would later sometimes describe himself as a lapsed canonist. He returned from Rome to take up various posts, including president, in Saint Patrick’s College, Thurles from 1972 to 1993.
He was appointed Bishop-elect of Waterford and Lismore by Pope John Paul II and was consecrated by his predecessor, Bishop Michael Russell, on 25 July, 1993, here in this Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity. He did not find the burden of office easy. He suffered a lot especially in his compassionate dealing with victims of abuse and often cried with them. He took child safeguarding very seriously. A good listener, he was respected by priests and people alike but as everyone knows there will always be people with whom we clash and things for him could be very difficult at times. He cared greatly for the Diocese and did his best, I believe, in caring for the priests and people for over 20 years. He loved the pilgrimage to Lourdes and we commend his work with CMAC which later became Accord and all his efforts at pastoral renewal across the Diocese. He retired on 1 October, 2013 on health grounds.
We all have our personal memories of Bishop Willie. I remember when I first met him in the sitting room of bishop’s house in February of 2015. He had retired about two years earlier due to ill health. He stood up to his imposing height and welcomed me warmly. He was most gracious and we became good friends for the next eight and a half years. I have pleasant memories of visiting him at his home in Ballinakill, and chatting about what was going on in the Church or lunches together on Saturdays in an Italian place here in the city. He was always calm. We got on well. He worried things that were happening and some of our last conversations (when that was possible) concerned Church matters and the confused state of Irish society. He took things to heart and sometimes found it difficult to be positive. But he battled on.
We think of his friendship too with his brother bishops especially those among his own age group – his friend Bishop Paddy Walsh who died just last week, Bishop Seamus Hegarty who died in 2019, and Bishop Donal Murray who himself is now unwell. In the past few days we have heard and read very lovely tributes to Bishop Willie. Now we present him back to God. In the end there is only one tribute that matters – the one from God. When in 1993 the then papal nuncio Emanuele Gerada asked Father William if he would accept the trust placed in him by Pope Saint John Paul he answered ‘Yes’. In so doing he was committing his life to the care of a whole diocese, an onerous task which he carried out as best he could in his gentlemanly manner.
In the 1st Preface of Advent used just a few weeks, we prayed that: “we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.” Bishop Willie had been watching for the day when the Lord would come to take him for the past several months. But in truth all life is an advent, a waiting for our definitive meeting with God. The essential thing is to be ready for that encounter, with our lamps lit and our hearts clean, to present to God a life of goodness lived not by our own merits but by the grace of God. Surely we can say that is the case for Bishop Willie? May we all be able to say the same when that day comes. We can examine our own hearts and see if we are living as the Lord wishes.
In his final days I celebrated Mass in his hospital room a few times. Bishop Willie had asked me some weeks before to look after him. He was anointed and wanted absolution. Though barely conscious he was happy to have the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist being offered in his room. His faith in Christ was still alive at the very core of his being. His ‘Yes’ to God was still active.
I conclude with a reflection by Saint Oscar Romero which I think is apt for today: because no life accomplishes everything. We always fall short. We are mere human beings however great or clever we may think ourselves to be. We are called to play our part and leave the rest to God. Bishop Romero wrote;
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.”
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”
And so it is with sincere love, and profound thankfulness, that we present Bishop Willie back to You O Lord to attain the fulfilment of his original ‘Yes’ to your will in the great hope that You will, as the Gospel states today, allow Bishop Willie to remain forever in your love, a phrase he which he chose as his motto. May you O Lord overlook any of his sins and shortcomings, and raise him up on eagle’s wings to hold him in the palm of Your hand eternally.