The last word
Friday 19 July 2013
Fr John Cunningham's remains were entombed in the Priest's Crypt at Melbourne General Cemetery this afternoon, just around the corner from the Elvis Presley memorial. Given his sense of inclusiveness that would surely have been very welcomed by John. At the Ivanhoe Parish Vigil Service last night and the Funeral Mass this morning at his first parish of Saints Peter & Paul in South Melbourne many fitting things were said about his humility and greatness as a priest, the word 'great' not being one he would have approved. After all that was said of him at the Vigil last night covering his life as a priest and towards the end of the Service John was given a 'right of reply' via a video interview of him recorded by Sr Carmel Butler just before his retirement. He said things of honesty and wisdom that were both simple and very profound. He spoke very optimistically of a future church with a high level of lay participation. At the very end of the interview and in response to a question about the people of Ivanhoe Parish he said with feeling what wonderful people they are, then looking at straight at the camera concluded by saying to everyone, very poignantly and prophetically, the words that are often most difficult to say, "I love you all". UPDATE: A memorial booklet recording the many wonderful things said about John at and around the time of his funeral may be . It includes the 'last words' of Fr John as Parish Priest of the Catholic parish of Ivanhoe.
Fr John Cunningham John Costa (with thanks to Margaret Colangeli and others), Saturday 13 July 2013 (Vigil and Funeral details below)
Our much valued and loved former Parish Priest of ten years died peacefully this morning following an illness.
Fr John Bernard Cunningham was a humble and private man, though to most that didn't conceal the very faithful, thoughtful priest and caring pastor he was, driven in his mission by Christ's example. Greatly informed and influenced as well by his many experience of life, across time and two continents, through both difficult and happier periods, he was responsive and sensitive to the realities of humanity, being ever inclusive, supportive and encouraging. So often highly relevant personal experiences linked to Gospel readings brought his homilies powerfully and helpfully to life in accessible and contemporary ways. Sharing, more than preaching, he would characteristically then conclude with the question "does that make sense? - which almost invariably it did.
Many people bring stories of John Cunningham. They start in Derry Ireland where he was born on 17 April 1934 and where as a youth he enjoyed playing soccer. His journey to the priesthood began in 1952 when he left behind parents, brothers, sisters and friends for St John's College seminary in Waterford, Southern Ireland, spending the next seven years studying for the priesthood, followed by ordination in 1959. Departing then for Australia his first appointment as Assistant Priest was to St Peter and St Paul's, South Melbourne (1959 - 1966). This was followed by Sacred Heart Parish Oakleigh (1965 -1969), Annunciation Parish, Kingsville (1969 - 1973), PP Good Shepherd Parish, Mulgrave (1973-1980), Airport West Parish (1980 - 1986), Resurrection Parish, St Albans West (1985 - 1989), Administrator Sacred Heart Parish, Newport (1989), Caretaker of St Anthony parish, Melton South (1989), PP Mary McKillop Parish, Keilor Downs (1989 - 2001), PP at the Ivanhoe Cluster and in 2005 Ivanhoe Parish (2001 - 2011). Photo at Ivanhoe parish, 2010
Comments such as those that follow from parishioners during his time as Ivanhoe Parish Priest say more than mere chronology; "Some are physically young but mentally old. John by his own description was 'an old man', but mentally young and alert to the world, and in the church somewhat ahead of his time"; Not being highly social in public by nature Fr John would often exit functions after a respectable time with the words "I must get home to the wife and kids". Despite strong faith his wicked humour sometimes also lead him to ask parting congregation members after Mass such rhetorical questions as "what are you doing this afternoon - no more of this religious stuff I hope?"; and in a different vein one commented that "Humility and compassion are truly visible traits in John and he does so much for so many with little fanfare and no kudos".
Fr John has always shown particular respect for young people, concern for their needs and openness to their thinking. He re-established what for 6 years became a very successful Young Peoples' Group in Ivanhoe Parish. Recognising the reality of the times he listened to them more than preached, and responded thoughtfully and by his living example. At the 50th Anniversary of his ordination, which he was initially very reluctant to publicly celebrate, a Youth Mass actively engaging young people in liturgy, music and readings and even Gospel commentary, to his delight packed the church with young people and their families, and to his further surprise and gratitude some members of his family from Ireland. Honest messages from youth written to him on a large farewell card then poignantly made very clear what was already well acknowledged, that they greatly valued and respected Fr John. People of all ages, to whom he equally ministered, similarly appreciated his ever ready and non-judgmental support. Photo: Palm Sunday 2010 Ivanhoe Parish.,
With family long left behind in Ireland Fr John was fortunate to be befriended by a particular family from an earlier parish who duly 'adopted' him into their fold, allowing him to share something of regular family life, in the process also very much helping to care for him, and particularly in his declining health following retirement.
Amongst the many things that Fr John will likely be gratefully remembered for at Ivanhoe parish are his embodiment of the Parish values of Inclusiveness, Mission and Service, and to the extent possible for a private person, also hospitality. Another that has arguably had an even greater and more lasting impact on the Parish, and that might hopefully encourage like behaviour across the wider church, was to be so directly inspired by Christ in all that he did. In that context it was commented that "John has led and supported the involvement of the laity with the management of the parish in a collaborative model, Decisions are shared and in his absence, the Parish Leadership Team manages the parish. While some are concerned about the future of the church John is optimistic that the future of the church is one of strength for the followers of Christ. The formal church as it was in the past has gone. The current generation has different views, expectations and relationships with the church compared to its predecessors". Another person similarly commented that "For my part, I had already recognised that John was a priest who totally believed that we are 'the church' as had been set out so clearly in the documents of Vatican II". Also encouragingly Fr John was a 'yes' rather than 'no' priest, gladly welcoming and empowering those prepared to share responsibility. His passionate belief in the 'people of God', community, and importance of inclusive participation in church life by lay people has noticeably moulded the Ivanhoe Community as it continues down this path. Photo: Good Shepherd Parish, Mulgrave (1973 - 1980)
Much can be said about John, his wisdom and his impact. Here is a further quote; "I was complimentary about our new Parish priest and commented that we were fortunate to have John who appeared to be 'one of the good guys'. No sooner had the words been uttered when the newly appointed person informed me that this was a terrible thing to say about someone. This was my personal introduction to John Cunningham which reflected not only his wonderful sense of humour but also his humility.....I thank John for his unconditional acceptance, prayers, care and concern for both myself and my family". Photo: Derry Ireland c.1934
Towards retirement Fr John was adamant that this would be dependent on the parish finding a suitable successor. Around the time of such appointment John subsequently looked particularly pleased. A further debt of gratitude is owed to John by parishioners for helping to attract the best possible replacement. We are most fortunate.
No one is perfect and John would be the first to admit his warfare with technology, particularly church microphones. As for computers he felt destined to remain in terror of them despite best efforts by some persistent parish Primary School students to tame his fear.
As a priest who ministered to many at their deaths John was very comfortable with the idea of death. He sometimes spoke of the words he would ideally like for his own eulogy - "He came, he was here, he left".
To sum up simply, the following familiar words seem appropriate. "I was hungry you gave me food, I was thirsty you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me." Together with all else he did and for whom, John ministered well and with care to the sick and dying, and was well prepared for his own death. A debt of gratitude is owed by many. May Fr John Bernard Cunningham now rest in peace.
We express our sympathy to Fr John's family in Ireland, and to his 'adoptive family' in Melbourne.
Fr John Cunningham - Vigil Service and Funeral details
The Vigil Service
Date: Thursday 18/07/2013
Place: Mary Immaculate Church, Ivanhoe
Date: Friday 19/07/2013
Place: Sts Peter and Paul Church, 377 Dorcas St, South Melbourne (Near Montague St) Time: 10:00 am