Funeral homily for Father Tom Shea — uncommon, intellectual, inspiration
EDITOR’S NOTE: Following is the full text of the homily at the April 28 funeral Mass at St. Patrick Church of Merna in Bloomington for Father Thomas Shea. His obituary is found here. The homilist was Msgr. Gerald Ward, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Morton.
“’Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or away from home or naked or ill or in prison’ . . . ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
When I was asked to give the homily at this funeral Mass for Father Tom and I reflected on his life and my experience of him, this Gospel passage kept coming to my mind and my heart. Maybe not one of the more common Gospel passages proclaimed at a funeral Mass, but then we are giving thanks to God today for the life and service of Father Tom . . . a man and a priest who didn’t live a common life.
To Father Tom’s family . . . our sympathy to you. And thank you on behalf of Bishop Jenky, my brother priests, deacons, many people from our parishes, thank you for sharing your brother, your uncle, our friend. Thanks for all who offered prayers and support for Tom particularly over the last few weeks and days. A particular thanks to those in this parish who visited Father Tom on a regular basis, who cared for him in the nursing home.
Father Tom came into my life in what might be called one of the last chapters of his life. In 2001, I had the opportunity to go on a sabbatical and Father Tom was living up north near the El Paso area and would help out here now and then. He offered to help while I was gone for a semester and, God love him, he moved out the farm in which he had retired to and bought a condo here in Bloomington and served this parish while I was gone. It was a particularly difficult time in our country since I began my sabbatical on 9-11-2001. Tom was here at this parish and helped this parish along in a very difficult time.
CALLED TO LIVE THE GOSPEL
Father Tom’s life began and ended here in Bloomington. I learned last night that he was two years ahead of Msgr. Doug Hennessy at Trinity High School. In fact, Tom taught Doug how to serve Mass. Wouldn’t that have been something to see? Mass then was a bit more complicated than it is today.
After high school and college, Tom became a successful businessman here in Bloomington and around 1969 answered the call to become a priest, attending the John XXIII Seminary outside of Boston. He was taught by Father Richard McBrien, whom some of us would know. Tom had an excellent theological foundation that endured the rest of his life. He was ordained a priest on Feb. 2, 1973. He was 37 years old.
Tom was a very intellectual man. He kept up on world events and read and read and read. He didn’t forget what he read and was able to clearly repeat a fact or two that he thought was important but you weren’t really sure why. He was a master storyteller, he had a story with nearly every homily. Sometimes long, and sometimes longer. And he was quick with the one liners that sometimes fit and sometimes you had to think, “Now what did that mean?” He had a keen sense of humor, liked to laugh, and was very Irish in the sense that he could easily get emotional and was not afraid to shed a tear often.
His ministry as a priest he served St. Monica’s in East Peoria, the Pekin Vicariate as Vicar and many years at St. Paul’s in Danville. Since the year 2000 when he was back here in the Bloomington area it was then that he served this parish and he served it well on a part-time basis. That gave him an opportunity to do what he always wanted to as a priest. He was a strong advocate for the poor, the rejected, and the forgotten. He was involved in many programs and projects in this area where he lived out his call to be a priest, a call to live the Gospel.
He was involved in the Clare House, Homes of Hope, built houses for Habitat for Humanity, and on the west side establishing the Jesus House. A parishioner told me last night that one morning she went to the Jesus coffee house to deliver some food and there was Father Tom, sitting around the table with a group of homeless people, drinking a cup of coffee, laughing and telling his stories. That was Father Tom at his best.
While involved here at St. Patrick he started the St. Martin November drive for coats. We would, and I believe they still do, collect hundreds if not thousands of coats for the homeless of this area. In that big man, with oversize feet, was a heart that was huge and filled with the love of Jesus.
One of his later and greater achievements was the effort he put in to bring the Bloomington city buses out this far east. His efforts paid off and he was able to bring people from the west side to find jobs on this side of town. He had tremendous determination and patience. And little by little, he made changes in society and in this world and all the time reflecting the love of Jesus: “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers you did for me.” That’s how he lived his life.
After he moved to Bloomington and after I returned from my sabbatical in 2001, he took up a ministry to the sick and hospitalized at OSF Saint Joseph’s. The ministry there was a natural for him. He was not much into the administration or institutional aspect of working in a health care facility, but his kind, gentle heart brought about much healing. He connected with the suffering and in particular those who were dying.
KEPT TO HIMSELF, PUT OTHERS FIRST
Father Tom would not put himself first in life. He was not a selfish man. His love of Our Lord and living that love for others was first. He would give away, and did give away, what he could to help others. I remember well that he would do anything that I asked him as long as he didn’t have to come to a meeting or go to any social function. He pretty much just wanted to keep to himself.
As Father Doug stated last night and was echoed by his niece Kathleen, Father Tom’s most difficult struggle in life was the end. And it was long. His mind was dying faster than that big body of his. He struggled to let others do for him what he could not do for himself. And he struggled with patience with himself. A man that lived a life independent of others became more and more dependent. Our hope is that in his mind and heart was a connection to the suffering of Our Lord, and that now he shares in the light of Jesus’ love in heaven.
Today, through this Eucharistic celebration, we remember this man who was a brother, an uncle, a friend, a faithful priest. He was unique, uncommon, intellectual, an inspiration to many, a prophet in many ways, a lover of the poor, and a man of the Gospel. Thank you, Tom, for the gifts that you shared with your family and with the church. Thank you for touching our lives and helping us know the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And thank you for giving us this opportunity to remember what we all have been called to, and how we have all been chosen and called to live out the Gospel in our lives.
Someone stated last night that Father Tom would hate all this attention. Maybe, but if his life and this time together today and our prayer help us to love Jesus more and for each of us to become more faithful to the Gospel, then Tom would love this time we have together.
Rest in peace, good and faithful servant. Enter now into the joy of our Father’s house!