June 10, 2014 – Saint Columkille’s Church
Good morning to all of you, as we gather to remember, to pray for, and to celebrate the life of Fidelis, our friend, relative and Passionist brother. I suspect that we gather with a real mixture of emotions today: sad at the loss of someone so dear to so many, yet trusting that Fidelis is now with the God he loved so much and served so faithfully. It is a real privilege for me to be able to share these reflections with you today. Thirty years ago yesterday, Fidelis preached at my first Mass as a priest. So I hope that, in some small way, I will be able to do justice to his life and legacy.
In the Spring of 1979, I was a student at the Passionist college residence in Philadelphia, along with my classmates Jack Connor, Brian Kearns and John Moynihan. Our directors that year were Frs. Terry Kristofak and Paul Wierichs. Terry told us that a Passionist priest was coming to visit us. He had recently been appointed as the Director of the Passionist theologate in Jamaica, NY. After we finished novitiate, he was going to be our director, and he wanted to meet us. This new director, of course, was Fidelis Connolly. I distinctly remember what Terry told us about Fid before he came: he does not come with any special academic degrees, but he is a man of genuine wisdom. In getting to know Fid and being privileged with his friendship through the years, I came to see the truth of Terry’s words. Fid was a person of real wisdom, attained not simply by his study but through his experience of life and his ministry as a Passionist priest.
There is a lot that could be said about Fidelis – many stories and anecdotes, multiple dimensions of his life that we could relate. We could be here for quite a while. But as I was reflecting on his life, the word relationship came to the forefront of my mind. Fidelis was a person whose life was enriched by relationships with so many different people, from a variety of backgrounds: his strong bonds with relatives from his beloved Boston, whom he visited as often as possible; his lively relationships with fellow Passionists, some of whom, like Brendan Breen and Peter Hallisy, he had known since he was a boy; the relationships that he established as a military chaplain, some of which he sustained for more than forty years after he left the chaplaincy; I remember Fidelis telling me about former parishioners in the military who were still visiting him in recent years in Florida; and the many relationships he formed through his ministry as a leader of retreats and parish missions. In recent years, we have been hearing in the news that the United States Postal Service has been running a sizeable deficit in its annual operations. Well now, with the passing of Fidelis, the U.S. Postal Service is really in trouble! Fidelis was like a one-man subsidy for the Postal Service, especially with his Christmas card list.
Fidelis touched people’s lives very deeply, and he allowed his own life to be touched by others. He had that way of making people feel comfortable in his presence and thus free to open up with him. He established lasting bonds with people and allowed himself to be changed by those relationships. We are celebrating the funeral Mass for Fidelis during the week between the Feast of Pentecost and the Feast of the Holy Trinity. There is something very appropriate about that. This is the time during the Church year when we reflect on the God in whom we believe, the God whom we name as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Trinity is not a mathematical riddle or puzzle; it is all about relationship. We believe that God, in God’s very Self, is a dynamic, personal communion of life and love. God is all about relationship. Our belief in the Trinity is really a reflection of something more basic, more fundamental: that, as the New Testament teaches us, God is love. God is dynamic, relentless, unadulterated, faithful love. This was a core belief that Fidelis tried to communicate to others through his preaching and spiritual direction, and in his relationships with so many different people. In his speaking and writing, Fid often used the expressions, “our loving God” and “our good God.” He really believed that, and this belief was manifested not just in his words but by the way he related to others.
Near the end of the memoirs Fidelis wrote a couple of years ago, titled Two Priestly Brothers, he included a brief section with the heading, “My Spirituality.” It is deceptively simple. He says there, “I would like to think that my spirituality is like Jesus’ spirituality. Jesus’ spirituality was intimacy with God.” Further along, Fidelis wrote, “As I see it, intimacy with God is awareness of God always with us, always present. So in the morning first thing, I say: ‘Good morning, God.’ God and I are in touch all day long. We share an intimate bond. Of course I do most of the talking. I think God wants me to shut up and listen! Yet I think God likes hearing from me. We are forever friends.” My experience of Fidelis as a spiritual director and friend resonates with what he wrote there in trying to describe his own spirituality. He continued to impart that spirituality to others right up to the very end of his life.
Fidelis says about God and himself, “We are forever friends.” He chose the Scriptures readings for today’s funeral Mass. And they feature some important biblical friends of God. The character of Job who, despite what his friends say about him and even amidst the terrible suffering he endures, remains a friend of God, even when he cries out to God in honest, heartfelt lament. And Paul the Apostle, friend of God to the end, writing to the Corinthians to reassure them about Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead. And, perhaps most importantly for Fid, Martha. She, her sister Mary, and their brother Lazarus were evidently close friends of Jesus. You get the impression that their home was a place where Jesus could relax and get away from it all. And in John’s Gospel, it is Martha, not Peter, who makes the great confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading. Fidelis had many women friends who were important in his life. And he always supported and encouraged women who were involved in ministry in the Church. So it is appropriate that he chose this Gospel reading about Martha and her great confession of faith in Jesus.
I am sure that Fidelis impacted upon each of us here in different ways: as a cousin, a devoted member of his extended family; for many of us a fellow Passionist and a kind of “grandfather” in our community – someone who cared deeply about the well-being of our community; as a friend, mentor, spiritual director. All of us have our favorite stories and anecdotes, which we treasure at this time of his death. He had a great sense of humor and delighted in ribbing people, though he would worry if he felt that he had offended someone. He was famous for calling us his students the “Dopey students.” And he enjoyed giving his last rector, Paul Wierichs, a hard time, just to keep Paul honest. At the same time, he had a profound sense of gratitude for Paul and the Florida community, who provided extraordinarily compassionate care to Fidelis up to the very moment of his death. He appreciated simple pleasures, like going to Duffy’s, the sports bar down the street from the retreat house in Florida, and having a Bass Ale and a bowl of clam chowder – New England clam chowder, of course. He loved to regale us about the most recent book he had read, whether in spirituality or literature, especially Irish literature. In his earlier years, he would give anyone who was willing the deluxe, all-stops-included tour of Boston, leaving his visitors exhausted at the end of the day. And he enjoyed watching the news and making disparaging remarks about politicians with whom he disagreed (especially those of the Republican variety). Fidelis was a man of relationship, and because of that his life made a deep and lasting impact on us and on many other people
In his memoirs, he relates the very poignant story of the deaths of his mother and father. His mother’s unexpected death on the way to Carney Hospital, after the ambulance had broken down at the top of his street. The funeral Mass for his mother. And then his father’s death, on the very night after his mother’s funeral. He often alluded to that experience and its effect on Jim and on him. But he also shares a deeply personal memory of driving to pick up prescriptions that the doctor had ordered for his father after his father had shown signs of illness that evening. While driving, he had a sudden, palpable awareness of his mother’s presence and of her saying to him, “I have to take your father for his own good.” This was a remarkable experience, and it is a very compelling section of his memoirs. His brother called it a “vision”. Fidelis goes on to say, “Vision or not, that moment changed forever my sense of death. I no longer fear; and at times, I even look forward to it.”
What Fidelis says about that moment was echoed for me and others many times during his final years. He looked forward to the ultimate gift of gazing on the face of God, the God to whom he would say each day, “Good Morning.” The God whose faithful presence sustained him in his life. Fidelis believed what Paul wrote about to the Corinthians in today’s second reading – that God’s grace and love have the power to transform anything, even death itself. So, friends, at this Eucharist we give thanks for the rich life, the deep faith, and the bountiful ministry of Fidelis, Tommy Connolly. We pray that the God whom he loved to call “good” will receive him home, so that his thirst to see God’s face will be quenched. We also pray for ourselves, that the example of his faith and his life may make us more “fideles”– more “faithful” tothe God who loves us and calls us into friendship.
Thank you, dear Fid, for all that you were and all that you did for us. May you see the face of God, the God of inexhaustible goodness, and may you rest in God’s peace.
- Fr. Robin Ryan, C.P.