“Have no fear of moving into the unknown. Simply step out fearlessly knowing that I am with you, therefore no harm can befall you; all is very, very well. Do this in complete faith and confidence”. Pope John Paul II
I need to tell you a story. In 1981 I was employed by Brian McEniff as assistant manager in the Great Northern Hotel in Bundoran. I was 20 years of age. It was my first formal full-time employment.
I enjoyed Bundoran immensely. Obviously, Brian McEniff’s main focus was to transform me into a footballer with the hotel management coming second. I loved my work though and met a lot of interesting people and had a great relationship with the staff. I knew that my employees were my most valuable asset. I took time to get to know the staff. Even the seasonal employees did not escape my attention.
Fast-forward thirty years. Breda, my sister visited me late in 2011 and told me that a priest kept asking for me. She said that he wanted me to contact him. I perceived Breda as a ‘Holy-Joe’ who was a bit off the mark. I placated her by saying that I would contact this guy. My wife Maura had also seen the light and was a regular visitor to Medjugorje. To be honest, I had no intentions of contacting some obscure person, especially a priest. I was cynical about religion and especially priests.
A few weeks later Breda asked me if I had contacted the priest. I hadn’t. Then one evening I was loitering about my garden trying to find some mundane task to keep me occupied. Maura noticed my abstractedness and suggested that I contact the priest. I had nothing to lose. I rang him. At the other end of the ‘phone was a gentle and charismatic voice. “Come and visit me sometime,” he said. The following Friday evening I stood at the priest’s door in Falcarragh. “Don’t you remember me,” he enquired softly. It then occurred to me that this was Paul Gallagher a former work colleague from the Great Northern Hotel. “You’re a priest now sir,” I bemusedly enquired. “How do I address you,” I said. “However you want,” he replied. I was shocked and stunned. We sat down in his sitting-room and talked at length about the fun we had at the Great Northern Hotel.
After our chat he told me that I hadn’t been to confessions for a while. I didn’t take him seriously. “No I haven’t Father,” I said. “Ok,” he replied as he put on his stole, “let’s go into my oratory”. I began to sweat profusely. “I’m telling this guy nothing,” I said to myself as I walked behind him down his hallway. He told me that I wasn’t confessing to him but to Jesus himself as he explained that priests acted in the person of Christ, in Persona Christi.
Over the following weeks, months and years we renewed our friendship. He often told me how well I treated him in the Great Northern Hotel. He was skinny thirty years ago and I used to try to bulk him up by encouraging him to eat plenty.
Around Christmas time last year Fr. Paul rang me to tell he that he was diagnosed with cancer. He asked me to contact a few people common to he and I. He wanted prayer. Fr. Paul was to suffer immensely over the next seven months or so.
I took Fr. Paul out of the hospice in Letterkenny a few weeks ago for a bit of respite. He wanted to go to Tropical World. Here he was at peace with the beauty of nature. We talked about his impending departure from this earthly life. He told me that he didn’t fear death. He also said that he would never forget me and that he would always keep me in his prayers.
Since we renewed our friendship, he taught me so much and gave me an incredible insight into the meaning of life. He imparted a wisdom that was far beyond his middle-age years. His meekness, humility and selflessness were characteristics that he always had even as a nineteen-year-old youth in the Great Northern Hotel.
When we hooked up again five years ago these traits were even more evident. I knew the moment that I met him again that I was in the presence of a very holy and God chosen man. Since then, we had many long chats, travelled far and wide together and shared secrets and stories which only he, I and God above will know.
Fr. Paul was an avid sports fan. Athletics and Gaelic football were his main interests. Letterkenny’s Mark English was his hero. In 2012 he had an individual mass said for every player and non-players in the Donegal set-up.
His funeral was the most peaceful and heavenly experience that I have ever witnessed. It was the first funeral for a priest that I ever attended. He didn’t want any sadness or tears. He got his wish. A solemn yet mellow atmosphere prevailed.
To be honest, I am not lamenting or in deep mourning because he is resting on the “bosom of Christ” (Fr. Paul) as St. John did at the Last supper. Fr. Paul used these words recently to me as he described his peaceful sleeps during his illness. He said that he felt as though he was “sleeping on the bosom of Christ”.
His physical body is gone but his soul prevails. I am so thankful and blessed to have known Fr. Paul.
“I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith;” (2 Timothy 4:7)
God bless you Father.