Noel in the old Mission House, Galapo 2009

It’s one of those moments when solitude bites – that most blessed gift of God that I treasure. It’s when loneliness overwhelms me and there is no one there to absorb it with me, no human face-to-face physical presence. And nothing on earth will relieve it, only God who doesn’t relieve it quickly but stretches it out so that I actually experience it. I’m not the only one and it’s not the worst loneliness going on in the world– but it’s mine, right now. And it hurts!

It happened following my visit to Noel in the hospice, something I’ve already written about but will repeat again here. His brothers JJ and Patrick and niece Fiona were there. Noel slept peacefully so the rest of us chatted until he stirred, woke and looked at us without speaking. I knelt beside his bed, we held hands, I placed my right hand on his head and we prayed.  It felt like we were intimately enfolded in one Heart. I asked Jesus to take our hands, our priestly hands and use them as His own, that the Light of His Love would fill Noel’s mind, heart, soul and body; that the Holy Spirit would pray in every breath he took. Then I prayed Psalm 131 – “O Lord my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great, nor marvels beyond me. Truly I have set my soul in silence and in peace as a child at rest – and then I started to cry unable to say the last line – in its mother’s arms, even so my soul” 

My tears came to me as a surprise, came from deep inside me. You never know what or who is going to make you cry. Was I perhaps looking at my own future, maybe even crying for myself?  His brothers and niece cried and I left the room a while because my crying was going to get out of control. That wouldn’t have been fair to Noel.

When I composed myself, I went back to say thanks to Noel, told him I love him, kissed his cheek and said goodbye in Swahili. Kwaheri, Mungu akubariki, God bless you. Asante, thank you, he replied with a little smile. Kwaheri. We will not get the chance to say these things to each other again. But it’s important for me that they were said.

We have known each other since 1972, though we were not regularly in contact, but there was a genuine affection between us. He was a physically strong sportsman and I am not, but we are kindred spirits, friends of Jesus and brothers in Him.

The word shelter comes to mind when I think of Noel. I was sheltered by him in the height and breadth of his great big hug, sheltered by him in some difficult moments when I was a young priest in Tanzania. Never more sheltered than when my brother Harry and I were in a car accident in July 1984. Harry had to be flown back to Makiungu from the hospital in Dodoma. Noel’s was the first face he saw as he was taken from the plane. The Medical Missionaries of Mary minded Harry, Noel minded me. He understood vulnerability, had the strength to be vulnerable himself and allowed me to be vulnerable in his presence without any embarrassment. When Harry came back to East Africa years later with his wife Elaine, they were welcomed by Noel at Mass in Dagoretti. He invited them up to the altar so the people could see them, got Harry to sing a song and walking down the aisle at the end of Mass he said to Harry, “did you hear that Tipp beat Cork?” His passion for sport mingled easily with his spirituality. It was rather apt that Tipp beat Cork again the day before Noel died!

Noel took me on trips around Tanzania – as far away as Iringa and to the beauty of Karatu where we stayed in what I think was Gibbs Farm. Up there in the beauty of God’s creation we celebrated Mass on a rock in the middle of a river, something I wouldn’t have thought of doing myself but again Noel had the breadth and imagination to do what is alternative while always remaining orthodox. Of course, he would say Mass in a river, being the fisherman he was, and why wouldn’t he!

I hear him laughing, the distinctive sound of his voice, see the brightness that broke out in him, the innocence and the simplicity of the dove, the craftiness that it sometimes hid. He was the best fundraiser I have ever met, standing there melting hearts with his words and his very appearance, his very presence. Truly a man of God!

One of my most treasured memories has to do with his mother Hettie, a woman of great warmth, heart, faith and a sanctity that was direct and had an immense capacity for joy. She always managed to make me laugh, sending me away happier than when I had arrived. The special memory I have is when the three of us were in her kitchen together. She got up to make tea, giving me one mug and putting another between herself and Noel. They both drank from the same mug, each taking alternate sips. It was so tender and intimate, reminding me of when I was a child and how I loved drinking tea from my mother’s cup. It always tasted better, more special. Noel and Hettie seemed to be tasting each other’s life, the other’s love. They were one body, one spirit in a certain way. Enfolded in each other in the most noble and liberating manner. It was that enfolding that came to mind as I prayed Psalm 131 with him, that image that made me cry. As a child at rest in its Mother’s arms, even so my soul, even so is Noel.

As I was driving back from London on Monday May 13th, I finished praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy just after 3.10pm. A few minutes later Noel breathed his last. Into the hands of the Father of Mercy.

With gratitude for the love, the friendship and great witness. I would dearly love to be there for Noel’s funeral on Thursday but, as Derry said, I was there when it mattered. Thanks be to God!

Noel wearing a hat standing behind me in the early 1980’s. The photo includes John Kelly, Bishop Mabula, Mick Timlin, Bishop Winters, Jim McCartan and Pat Dwyer