I have known Eugene since 1975 when he joined the Pallottines in Thurles. He was tall, good looking, confident and a self-styled psychoanalyst, a trait that could drive you crazy. He was a talented musician and photographer. In music he taught my then 14 year old brother Harry some skills on the guitar and in that period he became part of our family story, spoken of and loved through the years even if opportunities for meeting were rare enough. Eugene also had a great way with young people and, while still a student, he gathered a group of youths around him in Thurles.
Our relationship over the years went from the fun of youth to the complexity of adulthood, to kindness, a kindness that was always there but often in a hidden way. Kind was my dominant experience of him in the latter years – years that none of us realized were latter.
Is he spiritual? Someone asked me this question about Eugene in recent weeks. You can’t be a priest and not be spiritual because we touch the centre of all spirituality every day – the Alpha and Omega, Aleph and Tav, Beginning and End. We become what we consume, we become Christ in an imperfect way in this life and, while someone like me might put words on that reality, others do it silently, in a more hidden way. Eugene didn’t show off the spiritual dimension of his life but it’s possible that he was much more spiritual than me. But it’s not for us to judge these things. Only God knows. I was told back in 1983 that there are two ways to union with God – prayer and suffering. Eugene walked the latter path in no uncertain terms. He suffered seriously in the end as he did many years earlier in Argentina.
During his final illness I would phone him and tell him that my heart went out to him in his pain, the pain of a broken shoulder, and he would simply say, “I’ve been through worse!” And that is true. He has suffered the worst pain of anyone I know. There’s a line that asks in Lamentations 1:12 that says, “Look around: Is there any suffering like the suffering inflicted on me… ” Eugene could well ask such a question – being trapped in a burning car as he was, his entire back on fire. My body still panics at the thought of it but I will never feel it, know the pain as he did, the pain that made him beg for death in the months of recovering that followed. I wasn’t there, didn’t witness the Calvary that he had to endure, never saw or heard his pain close up. And by not being there I carry some of the guilt of the disciples who turned away from the crucifixion. Not a rational guilt because I was living in Tanzania while Eugene was in Argentina. There are those who did witness, who stayed faithfully with, became bonded to to him in a love that those far away could not know.
The effect on his mind, heart and soul was considerable. And perhaps this is where I sometimes flinched, unable to stay with the discomfort of who he had become. He was one from whom we averted our gaze, so great was the suffering. Often I averted my gaze, turned away and turned back again – again and again.
But even in those years we drew close to each other and in private shared at a very deep level, at times allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in each other’s presence. Perhaps we know aspects of each other that no one else does. And in those years too there was still a lot of fun and affection.
The days since Eugene died have been very difficult, the sense of loss much greater than I imagined. It is partly so because his dying is similar to that of John O’Brien ten months earlier – similar age, two men in their sixties, our generation of Pallottines, being in hospital facing death during covid-19 with only one visitor allowed in, the speed with which they were taken from us. And for their families the awful pain of not being able to see their brother at the end of life. But these days are difficult too because I will not see him again in this world, this particular man like no other, and, while I was able to tell him some of what my heart holds for him, there are still things unsaid and time has run out.
For Tom Daly too this was a repeat of what he experienced with John. Too much, too soon again, to accompany and pray with your companion as he approaches the great mystery of death. Derry who has been a close friend of Eugene since their time in Argentina reminded me that we have lost so many of our generation in recent years. Six have died – Vivian Ferran, Noel O’Connor, Mick Cremin, Michael Clarke, John O’Brien and now Eugene. One of the moments of grace in Eugene’s last days is that an exception was made to allow his dear good John O’Connor visit and John was able to anoint him.
Many years ago when visiting Michael Clarke at home in Greenock I became aware of how much his family were sharing in the sacrifice of his life as a priest. Not sacrifice in the sense of giving something up but the sharing in the suffering, his own particular suffering and that of Jesus. And the sharing in the suffering is a sharing in holiness in the truest sense of the word, a holiness that is raw, naked and not pious in the sweet sense of that word. This is true of Eugene’s family too. But it is also true of the Pallottine community in which Eugene lived – various communities in Argentina and for many years now the community in Greenford. The internal community of the parish house and the wider community of the parish. Reading the comments on www.pallottines.ie and on facebook you can see the effect of Eugene’s spirituality and his human life.
Someone mentioned him singing Malaika, the Swahili song from Tanzania that he sang over the years even though he never went there, and he would often greet me in Swahili as a kind of mark of affection – “jambo bwana!” or “habari gani?” He did so in our last phone conversation.
Much of my remembering goes back to our days in Thurles, the messing, the pranks he played on all of us – speakers under the bed of an unsuspecting student, haunting noises in the night, scaring the life out of Vivian, putting me into a barrel full of cold water when all the kicking I did could not contend with his strength; the laughter he created, the fulness of life that was in him.
And I think of him now in the words of St. John’s Prologue – “the Son who is nearest to the Father’s heart”, resting near to the Father’s heart, knowing the Father as Jesus knows him, the only knowledge that matters in the end. And the freedom from suffering and anxiety that is offered there; the unique gift of Peace that is the gift of Christ our Lord. Rest in that Peace dear friend, in the best bed of heaven.