EULOGY FOR FATHER DENIS HANLY, MM
29th August 1932 – 26th October 2014
OUR LADY OF LOURDES CHURCH, HK 3/11/2014 (MONDAY)
By Matthew Oram
O! Father, Father what will we do without you? We are your people, your flock, how can you leave us? How will we cope? So many of us loved you. And you loved us. For that, we can count our blessings. For haven’t we all been blessed knowing Father Hanly. He blessed us. He found us. He saved us. He taught us. He inspired us. And he loved us. But Gosh, it’s hard being left on this earth without him. I guess I shouldn’t be saying this. I am a grown man of 68, but I feel like a child who has just lost his father. I am bereft, desolate, heart-broken.
Yet, I also know Father would want us to be brave, and think clearly, not indulge in any breast-beating. Over time our grief will diminish. We can reflect on what he said, on the example that he set. And we are left with the fondest memories, and the resolve to lead good Christian lives. He wouldn’t want us to be gnashing our teeth and renting our garments. It’s so hard though when you love someone so much. And I know many of us, very many of us, dearly loved Father. Yes, it’s going to be hard. It is hard.
Maybe some among you have had a similar experience to my own. It was at the Mass at St Margaret’s held last Monday evening on the day he died. Before the altar was a photo of Father, in his priestly vestments, his arms held out, taken at mass fairly recently I think, and below the photo, his name in Chinese and English, and the dates of his birth and death. And as I looked at the photo and prayed for his soul, I realised I was no longer praying for him – I was praying to him, and suddenly I felt Father right beside me, so close, such a familiar, friendly, happy, comfort – a source of hope and love and strength.
So, you’ll understand if I talk about Father, in the present tense, as if he is here. And though I am deeply sad – I also feel joy. What a fine, good man. Our Father Hanly.
Denis John Hanly, a son of Irish immigrants, born in Brooklyn, New York on August 29th 1932 – in the heart of the Great Depression and on the feast day of the beheading of John the Baptist, hence his middle name, John, which was also his own father’s name, and his first name after another decapitated saint – Denis. He liked to joke about that.
Many of you will recall stories from his childhood, and his teen years, because he would often include them in his sermons. Here, at Our Lady of Lourdes, hardly a Sunday would go by, but a new detail would emerge from those early years. He shared his life with us. He loved being a parish priest. For him, it was the front line of the church. And he was the parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes for 14 years, or rather the assistant parish priest. For father was always a Maryknoll, missionary priest. His mission was to bring the good news to the Chinese people. He was happy to serve the diocese of Hong Kong, wherever he was assigned, but always in an assistant role, never as the leader, he was here to serve.
I asked Father about his vocation. But he never really talked about it in detail. It was private. But it must have come, when he was about 15, in his first year at Brooklyn Preparatory High School. Because at 16 he had won a scholarship to the Maryknoll Novitiates Class at the Venard in Pensylvania, before later moving to the Maryknoll Seminary in New York State. We can imagine the conversation he had had with his parents when he was only 15, and he the only son.
He recounted also how they lined up outside the Superior’s study immediately after ordination. He could have been sent to the Congo, or Central America, instead for you Denis John – China. First of all, of course, he had to learn the language – Fukienese and he was assigned to a remote country parish in the interior of Taiwan. This was the real China, the old China. This humbled him to witness the simple faith of the country people. Then after six years, he was summoned back to New York. His order wanted him to teach. He was a bright boy. He rather hid that light under a bushel. But he was a first class academic, well qualified in philosophy and theology. He was the Assistant Spiritual Director at the Maryknoll Seminary. But he wanted to be a parish priest. That’s where he felt his real strength lay, and that’s what he loved. He was assigned to the Church of Transfiguration in China Town, New York, where he also spent six years. He loved it there. But it wasn’t China. In 1977 he was reassigned again – this time to Hong Kong. First, of course, he had to learn Cantonese. I gather he never entirely lost his Fukienese accent. And in 1978 he began service at St Jude’s in North Point. Then late in 1982 he came here to Our Lady of Lourdes. You could say this was his main parish, he did spend 14 years here. Then in 1996, the centenary of Our Lady of Lourdes in Chi Fu, his time here came to an end, coinciding with the pilgrimage that he and Father, now Archbishop, John Tong led to Rome, Assissi, Lourdes and Paris, where the pilgrimage ended. Subsequently Father spent some quiet time at the Maryknoll house in the Holy Land. Perhaps he could have returned to New York, instead he came back to us. Not to Chi Fu, but to the Cathedral initially, then St Joseph’s and finally these last few years, when he was meant to be kind of retired, to St Margaret’s. And he was a serving priest right up to the end. 55 years a priest, a Maryknoll missionary priest. At the time of his 50th Jubilee in 2009, he was quoted as saying: “Looking back over my life, I am overwhelmed and humbled by God’s gracious and gentle kindness to me, and the generous outpouring of love I have received from His people in service to them.”
He is buried with his fellow Maryknollers in a beautiful patch of ground at the Maryknoll Seminary in Ossining, New York, high above the Hudson River. At this time of year, the Fall, the season he loved so much, is almost over. I’m sure they gave him a good send off, last Thursday. Sam and Agnes Yeung were there at his funeral, kind of representing all of us. Agnes’ brother was very ill nearby in Toronto. She had to make a sudden trip. The day after she arrived in Toronto Father dies in New York. It’s good that at least there was someone from his Hong Kong family present. Perhaps, in future, if any of us are visiting New York, we can make the side trip up to Ossining and lay some flowers at his grave.
Father did have his own family with him at the end. His sister, Peggy, kept vigil at his bedside, the final few days. And his sister, Ann, visited from California, then there’s their children and grandchildren. And his fellow Maryknollers, friends from childhood, parishioners from China Town. He would not have been alone.
Nor are we alone. We have each other and we still have him. We will always have him. He is with us.
I bless the day I first met him. Late in 1978 at St Jude’s. I was to be best man at my brother-in-law’s marriage. Father found out I was not even Catholic (I became one later) and Father was a bit of a stickler for the ceremonies – weddings, baptisms, you always had to do it right; yes, and we all knew he liked funerals best. So Father required to interview me, check me out. We read the same books, saw the same movies, we hit it off straight away. Not being catholic, I said, “what do I call you?” “You can call me, Denis or Father, it’s up to you.” I didn’t hesitate. I’ve often thought about it, looking back. “Well, I’ll call you Father, Father, if you don’t mind.” “No, I don’t mind,” he replied. So, as close as we were, and we were dear close friends – he was always, ultimately my father. We hung out a lot together. We talked about all kinds of things. Nothing was off limits. Later, just before I was married, and still not a Catholic, he heard my full confession. “Where do I begin,” I asked? “It’s up to you,” he said. “So,” I said, “alright, I’ll begin from the beginning,” and I left nothing out. We didn’t finish till near midnight.
Poor man. How I must have tested his patience. “Do you want absolution,” he asked? “I guess so” I had not really been exposed to that in the Anglican Church. And he absolved me. And he absolved you. He blessed me. He blessed you. He loved us all. Such a quiet, unassuming, unobtrusive, warm, gentle, familiar, cheerful, friendly, humble presence. How many lives has he touched?
He was a fine and devoted priest – disciplined. Rising each morning of every day between 3 and 4 to say his offices and carry out his devotions. Then he’d clear his emails and write letters, compose sermons, by the time the rest of us rose for another day, he had completed much of his formal work, instead he was available to be with people. He never turned anyone away, his door was always open. His own needs were modest. There was no vanity in him. His small priestly allowance was invariably spent on small gifts for others. Yet he never wanted for anything. He was frugal, he was generous. He was there to serve others. Though he liked to laugh, he was very serious about Church matters, scrupulous with the liturgy, actively promoting bible studies. He really did seem to be a natural at it. God’s gift to the priesthood.
He confided in me once – that the loneliness of priesthood was the hardest thing to bear. He missed the intimacy of family. Remember how lovingly he talked of his own mother and father, and his sisters. But you can’t have it all, at least not in the Catholic Church. And Father loved the Church, for all its traditions and its history, but most for its people. Over the years he found it easier. He was lonely less often, he was more fulfilled. As a priest, he had a different kind of family, that’s all. And a lot more of us, for a start. He had us all. One big family. And like a good father he loved us without reserve, without judgement and without end. We were his and he was ours. He is ours. Our Father.
I know many of us, wish we had told him more clearly, more dearly, more nearly how much we loved him. Especially because he went back to the States so suddenly a few months ago, when he’d become so ill. And then for him to die just 3 months later. But he did know we loved him, with that depth of instinct and perception that a good father possesses.
I last talked to him on the phone a few weeks ago. He still hadn’t had his biopsy report back, but I think he kind of knew it wasn’t good. But he sounded genuinely serene, calm and happy. He told me that the most over-riding feeling he had and it was very deep – was gratitude. He was just so, so grateful for everything. He didn’t spell it all out. But how sweet that he should go back to where he had begun, and he was so grateful for his life of service to God, to us. Such gratitude is known by an even shorter name as “Grace”. I’d like to think Father, our Father, who loved us so much and served us so well, had achieved a kind of state of grace – had been given the state of grace.
O good and faithful servant come home. Your time is up. You are ready for your reward in heaven.
Father Hanly was a great Clint Eastwood fan. In one of Clint’s cowboy movies he plays the part of a preacherman/gunfighter – like an avenging angel. He protects the weak, downtrodden and poor. As mysteriously as he arrives and sorts out everyone’s problems, he leaves, before anyone has time to say goodbye, or really thank him. One young teenage girl is so distraught to hear he has gone, she rushes after him out into the snow, and we see the Pale Rider in the distance, as his horse negotiates the rocks towards the trees and the ridgeline beyond.
The girl frantically calls out to him – “I love you, preacherman” – and her words echo off the mountainside. In one final goodbye, the girl desperately yells out – “We all love you, preacherman.” But he has gone, beyond the trees, beyond the mountains –
And he is with us now.