Panegyric – Fr John Fitzsimons


by John Fitzsimons at Pat Keegan’s Requiem Mass at Clifton Cathedral on Thursday 15th March 1990

On October 13th, 1964, the 100th General Congregation of the Second Vatican Council had assembled in St Peter’s in Tome. Mass was over, and the more than 2000 Fathers of the Council were about to conclude their discussion of the first draft of what was to become the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. A murmur of anticipation ran round the assembly as Archbishop Krol, one of the assistants to the General Secretary, led a layman to the microphone. There was a good reason for the ripple of comment. Not only was this the first time that a layman had addressed this council. It was the first time that a layman had spoken at a General Council of the Church since the 5th Century. The layman was about to make history. It was Patrick Keegan, official auditor in the Council and International President of the World Movement of Christian Workers.

The bishops sat back to listen to a man whom they knew was not a theoretician but a man of action – one who would speak from hard practical experience. In fact a number of them had already met him in their home dioceses – not just in Europe, but in North and South America, in India, in Japan and elsewhere. He was fifty years of age, and in the previous twenty five years – apart from war service – he had travelled the world in the service of the lay apostolate.

It is interesting to note that several commentators on the speech singled out his emphasis on the need for close contact between priests and laity in a living dialogue. Now – a quarter of a century later – there is no doubt that this will loom large in the Synod, coming later this year, on the ministerial priesthood. There were two sources for his emphasis: one was the paradoxical dictum of Cardijn that in the apostolate the priest was all, and he was nothing. The other was his own experience, with Cardijn himself and with his own chaplains here in England. His own dictum was “two heads in one bonnet.”

His religious background was a potent mixture. From his Irish parents came his deep–rooted faith – and remember, in his childhood he spent a year with an aunt in Ireland – and – in 1965 – he was named Mayo man of the year. But he was also a Lancashire lad, with the tenacity, tradition and long Catholic history that this implies.

His home parish was one of the oldest in the archdiocese of Liverpool, founded by the Benedictines in 1650, and the school he attended opened its doors in the late 18th century. The third strand was Benedictine.

When Pat was a young altar server the Benedictines had already been in charge of the parish for nearly 300 years.

He was well prepared to respond to the grace and the ideals of the apostolate when they came to him. During the war what spare time he had in the RAF was given to making plans for building the YCW when peace came. He made his own the Cardijn definition of the movement as an organisation that would educate, serve and represent the young worker. Early in 1946, being appointed by the hierarchy, he was ready to start.

But first he made a retreat at Prinknash, and ended it on February 11th, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and also his birthday, with a double commitment. First, that he would give the next three years of his life to the movement, and second that during that period he would not marry.

This commitment could be reviewed on his birthday three years later, and he would decide whether to renew it or not. In fact, he went on renewing it for the next thirty years! A religious might do this and find security. But Pat was, and considered himself most emphatically to be, a layman. For this he paid the price of insecurity for the rest of his life. He did not complain, but the thought was always there – even up to the last weeks of his life.

He set out to build a national movement, but before very long he found himself with international responsibilities. Cardijn saw the potential that was there and decided Pat would be the lay opposite number to himself in working for the worldwide spread of the JOC/YCW. And so – in 1947 he became a member of the International Bureau, and then for ten years was the executive secretary of the YCW International. This took him all over the world, and especially to Rome, to the Secretariat of State, and to the Holy Father himself.

Thus, when he no longer held office in international organisations, he was appointed to various Vatican Committees and Commissions. The most important of these was membership of the Permanent Committee for International Congresses of the Lay Apostolate, and in that capacity was associated with work on the preparatory papers for the Vatican Council – especially the Commission on the Laity and that on the Church in the Modern World. On the last day of the Council Pope Paul VI issued two messages: one to the intellectuals of the world, the other to the workers of the world.

In an ad hoc ceremony he presented the first to the philosopher Jacques Maritain, the second to the worker Patrick Keegan.

His successes at the international level – and the justification of Cardijn’s choice – arose from the kind of person he was. Those who worked with him – those, that is, from other countries – appreciated his very great openness which came from a deep respect for them as human persons. This in turn made him extremely sensitive in his relations with others, with a way of being a good listener – and remembering what people had said. Of course at times – because he had only a smattering of other languages – this could lead to ludicrous misunderstandings. But he was always prepared to laugh at himself. A gift that he had all his life was the ability to talk to others of any age, from eight to eighty. The empathy always came into play – and it was real and natural.

When he was in his prime, his expenditure of energy was enormous: meetings, conferences, lectures. Travelling constantly from one place to another, from one country to another. But, for most of the time, he had an inner peace. Although, oddly enough, this would at times betray him into taking a laisser aller attitude rather than coming to grips with a difficult situation.

However he was glad in recent years when he had no further responsibilities. Rising blood pressure made his doctor warn him that he was not to get involved in things that would make him worry. He had to work at it – but he arrived there. These last years saw a great deepening of his interior life. He now had time for quiet and meditation, and he made the most of it. He rejoiced to sit and hear the command: Be still, and know that I am God. And now God has called him to Himself and he did not tarry.

Every Mass is a Eucharist, an act of thanksgiving, giving thanks for the life, death, resurrection and ascension into glory of our brother Jesus. In a Mass of Requiem we give thanks too for the life and death of the person who has died and pray too that he may enter into glory. Eternal rest grant, 0 Lord, to our brother Pat. May his soul and the souls of all the departed rest in peace.


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