The priest who celebrated his own funeral Mass

Week III

When the well liked Fr Thomas Campbell, parish priest of Tynagh, Co Galway, died in 1983, there was a big turn out for his funeral. Michel Déon and his wife Chantal, being French, arrived at the church on time. As no one else was there they sat in the front row.

The Déons, who had been living with their two children at the Old Rectory in Tynagh since 1974, had got to know and like the polite Fr Campbell. From time to time he would pay them a visit. He would politely refuse the obligatory cup of tea, admire the garden, and leave again, ‘walking gently with his hands clasped behind his back’. He never once asked the religion of the family. They enjoyed his fleeting visits, his discretion, and his ‘unwavering inner calm’. Déon writes: ‘No one in high places had thought of him for a diocesan position; seeing out his days in this large rural parish with its modest unproblematic inhabitants did not do justice to this good man’.

Soon, however, the coffin was carried in and laid with care below the altar. The church filled to overflowing. Two altar boys preceeded the priest, and the funeral Mass began. Déon looked up at the celebrant’s face and gasped. The priest saying the Mass was none other than the discreet Fr Thomas Campbell himself. Sitting in the front row, Déon assumed that the entire congregation behind him were in paroxysms of horror and joy. The reason why his wife beside him had not cried out was, he believed, she simply had not noticed.

‘In this century of unbelievers, whether one was a believer or at least in the words of Pascal, a doubter, one had the right to wonder why the God of the Christians had awakened Fr Campbell who was sleeping so peacefully amongst the blessed. So that he could say his own funeral Mass? So that he could remind the living that death is also a beatitude, that Paradise is but a delicious pause, lux, pax, et refrigerium, before the great Resurrection?’

Poor Déon was so distracted at seeing Fr Campbell saying the Mass that he unconciously reached into his pocket for his box of cigarillos (his remedy for writer’s block ). He would have struck a match there and then but for a swift slap on his hand from his wife. Her look warned him to get a grip!

Déon struggled to come up with a logical, rather than a miraculous explanation. And of course there was one. The excitement of the strange ceremony was due to the fact that the priest on the altar was indeed Fr Campbell, the twin brother of the deceased. The two men, who shared the same voice and gentle manners, were ordained to the priesthood on the same day 50 years earlier.

Fastest in the world

Michel Déon, who lived more than 40 years in Co Galway, was a very successful French writer, who enjoyed living in Tynagh where he found ‘solitude and time to think’. His tribute to Ireland, Horseman, Pass By* is a collection of anecdotes and characters he met during his time here. He gave a lift to a countryman, near Ballinasloe, and as they chatted ‘a small car came hurtling down the middle of the road. Déon had to pull sharply to the left, and nearly ended up in the ditch. ‘In the brand new vehicle, there were four nuns. The one who was driving was hunched over the wheel.

I said, “The nuns are driving fast this year.”

“Irish nuns are the fastest in the world. Wait and see what they’ll be like next year when they get their driving licence”.

Ballinderreen

Déon who lived in Greece before coming to Ireland, claimed that this country ‘kept a hold ‘ on him. He tells the story about their postman Tim who in all weathers cycled from the post office in his native Ballinderreen to the rectory at Tynagh with packages, books, letters and gossip. It was a round trip of some 20 miles, a trip broken by frequent stops at farmhouses and cottages along the way. It was the highlight of the day when Tim was seen struggling on his old fashioned bike, down the avenue.

Then one day he was gone. His replacement arrived on a motorbike, and announced that Tim was in sunny San Francisco staying with his daughter, who had a hair salon there. He might never come back.

But some months later, on probably the wettest day of the year, when ‘water creeps even into the most waterproof of homes, and the air one breathes is so humid that you’d think you were in an aquarium’, Tim cycled down the avenue once again. Pleased to see him Déon asked how he got on in San Francisco.

‘My daughter wants me to go and live with her in her pretty house with a swimming pool. She’s a really good girl and her children are beautiful, but that city with all its ups and downs, and crowds and noise and sunshine and earthquakes - none of that is a patch on Ballinderreen.’

Michel Déon nodded in agreement.

Michel Déon - born in Paris, August 4 1919, died in Galway December 28 2016 (aged 97 ).

RIP

NOTES: * Translated by Clíona Ní Ríordáin, and published by the Lilliput Press (on sale €12 ), the writer briefly saw the book published before he died last December. Michel Déon wrote more than 50 novels and plays. His best known is The Purple Taxi, which was made into a successful film, staring Peter Ustinov and Charlotte Rampling. An Aer Lingus pilot told Déon that his romantic vision of Connemara ‘filled his plane for 20 years’.

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