Born: 17 October 1924, Tullamore, County Offaly
Entered: 07 September 1943, St Mary's, Emo, County Laois
Ordained: 31 July 1957, Milltown Park, Dublin
Final Vows: 02 February 1961, Canisius College, Chikuni, Zambia
Died: 08 March 2005, John Chula House, Lusaka, Zambia - Zambia-Malawi province (ZAM)
Part of the St Ignatius, Lusaka, Zambia community at the time of death
Eldest Brother of Joseph A Kelly - RIP 2008 and Michael Kelly - RIP 2021
Transcribed HIB to ZAM : 03 December 1969
by 1952 at Chikuni, Chisekesi, N Rhodesia (POL Mi) working - fourth wave of Zambian Missioners
◆ Companions in Mission1880- Zambia-Malawi (ZAM) Obituaries :
Fr Bob (as he was always called) Kelly was born in Tullamore in the midlands of Ireland on 13 July 1925. He attended the Christian Brothers’ school in Tullamore until he finished his secondary education. He then entered the Jesuits at Emo Park in 1943. He followed the normal course of studies in the Society but for regency he went to Northern Rhodesia in 1951 with Fr Joe Conway. They were the first of the Irish scholastics to go there. He began by learning ciTonga and then taught at Canisius Secondary School. Even then he seemed to have a flair for the language as he wrote a polycopied codex called ‘Tonga without Tears’, the first of a number of his publications.
Whatever Fr Bob did, he put his heart and soul into it. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1957 in Dublin, Ireland, and his tertianship, he returned to Northern Rhodesia in 1959 to Canisius Secondary School where he taught for ten years and was Spiritual Father to the boys as well. With his degree in English he was a very clear teacher. Apart from teaching, he developed the school canteen donning the cap of a busy shopkeeper, organized the films (cinema) for the boys, ordering them from Rhodesia and worrying if they were delayed in coming. In order to help the boys follow the films Fr Bob would write a long, detailed preview for them. When the school annuals began to appear, he would be prowling around with his camera! Whatever was going on in the school, Fr Bob would be there. He mixed well with the boys and had their confidence and trust.
He moved from Canisius to St Edmund's Secondary School in Mazabuka, again teaching and being Spiritual Father for nine years, bringing him up to 1978. As with Canisius he was so involved with the school that he even cheered for St Edmund's when they were playing football against Canisius!
The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association (PTAA) is an association to help others by voluntarily giving up all alcoholic drink. Fr Bob himself became a full pioneer just before he entered the Society in 1943. As the Association had begun in the Southern Province and was beginning to spread, the Episcopal Conference appointed him as National Director, a post he held for over twenty years. So ended his formal teaching after twenty one years and he moved to Lusaka. Again his thoroughness brought him around the country promoting the Association, giving talks, retreats, organizing rallies. He had to contend at times with Pioneer centres trying to introduce new rules such as: ‘we want a uniform, we must wear the badge over the heart only, smokers cannot be pioneers’!
He became parish priest at St Ignatius Church in Lusaka for four years and then moved to Kitwe from 1989 to 1991. School retreats and retreats for religious were a big feature in his life. He was a very spiritual man, a man of prayer and a very good preacher. So many people have been helped by him as he was a man of compassion.
Normally one would not associate Fr Bob with singing but he produced a booklet of charismatic hymns, ‘Songs of Praise’ which went into five editions. As director of PTAA, he produced a Handbook for the Association which was also translated into ciNyanja as well as a popular booklet ‘A Christian solution to a national problem’(drink).
Apart from Pioneer material, Fr Bob wrote ten books over the years: Planted in Love; Calming the Storm; Stories New and Old; Hidden with Christ; With Unveiled Faces; A Joy so Glorious; Fan into Flame; Be Still and Know; In Love with God; HIV/AIDS a Response.
He moved from Kitwe to St Ignatius in Lusaka again in 1995 helping out in the parish with pastoral work. He had a good sense of humour, liked a good game of cards in his earlier days and was endowed with a practical, realistic outlook on life.
His health began to deteriorate in 2004 and he moved to Chula House, the Jesuit Nursing Home. He died peacefully at 06.55 on the morning of Tuesday 8 March 2005. As his body lay in the chapel at Chula House before he was taken to the Ambassador Funeral Home, a beautiful butterfly was seen hovering over Fr Bob's body.
Note from Bernard (Barney) Collins Entry
In 1951 he accompanied the first two scholastics, Bob Kelly and Joe Conway, and Br. Jim Dunne, on their way to the then Northern Rhodesia.
Note from Joseph B (Joe) Conway) Entry
He arrived in Chikuni in August 1951 with Fr Robert Kelly, the first two Irish scholastics to be sent to the Zambian mission
Note from Bill Lane Entry
Not long before Fr Bill Lane died, he was chatting with Fr Bob Kelly at St lgnatius, Lusaka. A young lady whom they both knew had died in a very sudden manner at U.T.H. Fr Bill remarked, ‘You know, Bob, that's the way I'd like to go, quickly and without fuss’. And that is the way it happened.
Note from Ray Lawler Entry
Now at the age of sixty, Ray had a sabbatical in Toronto. Then came a big change in his life when he opted to come to Zambia, Africa where he spent two years teaching French and Scripture to the novices in Lusaka. Fr Bob Kelly went on sabbatical for a year and left his gleaming new car in charge of Ray whose talents did not extend to motor maintenance!
◆ Irish Jesuit Missions :
IRISH MEN BEHIND THE MISSIONS: BOB KELLY SJ
Jesuit missionaries and volunteers were remembered at the annual Memorial Mass on 30th November at Milltown Institute.
One such Jesuit was Fr Bob Kelly SJ who died in 2005. We continue our series Irish Men behind the Missions with Bob’s inspiring story, written by his colleague Fr Charlie Searson SJ.
An unusual mission in Zambia
Fr Bob Kelly SJ was born in Tullamore, County Offaly in the midlands of Ireland on July 13th 1925. After attending the local Christian Brothers’ school he joined the Jesuit Novitiate in Emo in 1943 and in 1951 was missioned to Zambia, then known as Northern Rhodesia. He spent 54 years of his life there.
Bob prepared himself to announce the Gospel by immersing himself in the local culture and language. As a scholastic and later as a priest, he taught at Canisius Secondary School near Monze where he was the Spiritual Father. His pupils remember his “office” as a place where boys could drop in for a chat or to read.
Bob developed the school canteen as a social area and he made sure that a film was sent up each week from South Africa. He took photographs and wrote articles about school life for the school magazine. He was later sent to St Edmund’s, a Christian Brothers’ Secondary School in Mazabuka, where he spent nine years in similar work.
Up until now Bob had followed a missionary path that is familiar to many Irish missionaries announcing “the joy of the Gospel” through education and pastoral work.
However his missionary life was about to make a major turn.
The Pioneer work begins
Since his schooldays Bob had been a member of the Irish Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. The Pioneer Association had been brought to Zambia in 1958 by Fr Barney Collins SJ and soon spread rapidly across the country.
Like Ireland, Zambia has an ambiguous relationship with alcohol. While some people drink very moderately there is a large group in both countries who drink far too much, causing grave harm to themselves and their families.
To address the problem of excessive drinking, the Bishops of Zambia set up a National Pioneer Office in 1978 and Fr Bob Kelly was appointed as the first National Director of the Pioneers in Zambia.
Bob gave up the security of his work in schools and parishes and took to the road. Zambia is a very large country, about 12 times the size of Ireland. Bob visited each diocese in the country several times over in the next 17 years.
Motivated by love and compassion
Bob was also involved in another aspect of missionary work which others often neglect. Before the era of computers, he spent long hours writing excellent manuals which put down in a clear, convincing style the purpose of the Pioneers. The title of one of his booklets sums up his dream: A Christian Solution to a National Problem. The Pioneers still depend on Bob’s books today. He was at pains to point out that the Pioneers are focused not on alcohol but on the love of God as revealed in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Pioneers are motivated by that love and by compassion for families torn apart by alcohol related harm.
The ability of the missionary to address a wide range of social issues — in addition to announcing the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments and calling people to a life of prayer — is a sign that the mission respects the culture while also evangelising it. Bob loved the local culture but was not afraid to challenge it. Drunkenness is never something to excuse or to joke about. For him, it was contrary to the Gospel.
Bringing fire on the earth
Bob was famous for his dynamic school retreats. His book of hymns Songs of Praise is still widely used today and has gone into its fifth edition. He wrote 10 very popular books on spirituality. Much of his excellent material is available on the web: http://bit.ly/rkellybooks (https://bit.ly/rkellybooks)
In 1995 he handed over the management of the Pioneers to Fr Paddy Joyce (from Galway, Ireland) but he remained active in parish work in Kitwe and Lusaka until his death in 2005 at the age of 80.
The life and work of Bob Kelly in Zambia over 54 years exemplifies in dramatic form the great missionary words of Jesus: “I have come to bring fire on the earth and how I wish it were blazing already!” (Luke 12:49). Through his teaching, retreats and parish work and his tireless dedication to the spiritual and organisational aspects of the Pioneers, Bob made a unique contribution to the integral evangelisation of Zambia.
Continuing Bob Kelly’s Pioneer work
After over 100 years of the Church’s presence in this part of Africa, most of the present missionaries are Zambian bishops, priests, religious and laity. They are the ones who are spearheading the missionary work.
In November 2013 the Ministry of Health in Zambia produced its first draft National Alcohol Policy. This policy has still not been approved by the Cabinet and implemented through the various line ministries. The work so well carried out by Fr Bob Kelly SJ still waits for missionaries to complete it.
Interfuse No 128 : Special Issue June 2006
Robert (Bob) Kelly (1925-2005)
July 13th 1925: Born in Tullamore, Ireland
September 7th 1943: Entered in Emo Park
July 31st 1957: Ordained in Milltown Park, Dublin
February 2nd 1961: Final Vows in Chikuni
March 8th 2005: Died in Lusaka.
From Newsletter for Zambia-Malawi:
Robert “Bob” Kelly was born in the midlands in Ireland in 1925 into a very devout Catholic family. He had three brothers and three sisters. He attended the Christian Brothers School in Tullamore until he completed his secondary education. He then entered the Jesuits in 1943. Two of his brothers, Michael and Joseph, followed him into the Society.
In 1951, he came to Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) for his regency, the first of the Irish scholastics to come here. He began learning ciTonga, for which he seemed to have a flair, later composing a polycopied codex of the language called, Tonga without Tears. After language studies, he taught at Canisius Secondary School.
In 1959, after theology, ordination and tertianship in Ireland, he returned to Chikuni. For the next ten years, he taught English at Canisius and was Spiritual Father to the boys. Apart from his very clear teaching, Bob developed the school canteen and organized the boys' cinema. When the school began producing annuals, he would be seen prowling around with his camera catching on film the activities in the school. He mixed well with the boys and had their trust and confidence. In 1969 he inoved to the Christian Brothers' school, St. Edmund's, in Mazabuka, where he remained as teacher and spiritual guide until 1978. Here, too, he had a great influence on the students.
When still a young man, Bob joined the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, making a promise to God that he would never drink alcohol. This was a life long sacrifice based on devotion to the Sacred Heart, the symbol of the heart of the human Jesus burning with love for us all. In 1978 he was appointed by the Provincial and the Episcopal Conference as National Director of the Pioneers. He moved to Lusaka and with his usual thoroughness, travelled around the country promoting the Association through talks, retreats, and rallies. He carried on this work, with a few brief interruptions, until 1995.
One of these interruptions happened when he was appointed Parish Priest of St. Ignatius in 1985. This was a job that didn't suit Bob and nearly drove him to an early grave. After a little more than a year at the work, he had to return to Ireland to rest and recover. While in Ireland, he wrote the first of his ten popular spiritual books among which were Planted in Love, Calming the Storm and A Joy so Glorious.
In 1988 he returned to Zambia and was sent to join the Jesuit community in Kitwe. All through his years as Pioneer Director he had been developing a very effective apostolate giving retreats to Religious and secondary school children. From Kitwe he continued this work and helped greatly in the development of the new parish of Our Lady of Africa, in Riverside.
Bob returned to Lusaka as Assistant Parish Priest of St. Ignatius in 1995. Without the responsibility, and shielded from the conflicts of administration, he flourished as a powerful preacher of God's unconditional love, and as a confessor and spiritual companion for many many people.
Towards the end of 2004, because of seriously deteriorating health, he moved to the Jesuit Infirmary, John Chula House, and prayed for us all until his death on 8th March 2005.
From an account for Bob's Family, written by his brother, Michael
Bob experienced at least four strokes, in September 2002, March 2004 September 20th 2004, and on September 22nd/23rd 2004. Although he recovered reasonably well from the earlier episodes, he never really recovered from the second stroke he got in September 2004. With some help, he could still look after himself, but his movements became very limited and he lost much of his ability to carry on a conversation (though at times he could recognise and acknowledge individuals).
With the slow deterioration in his condition he began to develop some aggressiveness which had to be controlled by medication. Throughout January and February he continued to decline, eating less and, because he did not use his glasses, seeing little if anything. But he was not confined to bed and was up each day, sitting in a chair or going to the refectory for his meals. At first he could feed himself, but later he had to be fed with a spoon, although he could manage to drink by himself from a cup or glass. This remained his pattern until Saturday 5th March, So until that day he was mobile, even though he had to be helped to get around.
On Sunday 6th March his breathing became bad (gurgly) and difficult. Next day, the doctor diagnosed pneumonia and prescribed anti-biotics. He also arranged for him to get oxygen, was able to clear one lung of fluids, and used a suction device to clear the chest of whatever Bob was able to cough up. All of this gave him great relief. Those who were with him say that this was the only time that he experienced physical distress and this was for a very short time. Other than this he had no pain whatsoever.
The doctor who looked after Bob on that last day was Dr Francis Kaunda, a former pupil of Bob's and mine and son of former President Kaunda. His arrival at his bedside was providential. Dr Kaunda's car had broken down, so he came into the Jesuit house for the sick and elderly to look for help and while there to look in on Bob. That was around midday. I'm told that he stayed attending to Bob until about 9 o'clock that night. Father Joe Keaney arrived in the afternoon and found him still there, saying the Rosary while keeping an eye on Bob in the bed.
Father Klaus sat with Bob throughout Monday evening and all through Monday night/Tuesday inorning. Bob was quiet and peaceful during the night. About 6.00 a.m. Klaus noticed Bob stirring and asked him if he would like a drink—coffee, a cup of tea, a coke, a fanta? He says that Bob answered loud and clear: “A cup of tea would be nice”. They were his last words. He slipped back into a kind of slumber and went away peacefully and quietly half an hour later, at 6.55 in the morning, Zambian time (4.55 Irish time).
Sister Lucy O'Brien, the great Holy Rosary Sister, Surgeon and helper of people, was always a great friend of Bob's. When she could, she would visit him and last saw him in Chula House some time in February. Because of her own infirmities and advanced years she begins the day later than some others in Zambia. On the morning that Bob died she woke at about ten to seven and then suddenly experienced a joy so glorious that it could not be described. She felt surrounded by joy and happiness, bubbling over with joy and gladness, and everything around her spoke a message of joy and peace and happiness. A very short time later, one of the other Sisters came into her room to tell her that Bob had died - and as it turned out just at the time Lucy had such an experience of wonder and joy. She is convinced that it was Bob's way of telling her that he had gone to heaven.
During that last hour of Bob's life, Father Vincent Cichecki was saying Mass in the Oratory next door. Vincent is an elderly Polish priest, a survivor of Dachau, so very much a realist. He told me that after his Mass, when he came back into the Oratory for a few prayers, he saw something on the ground just in front of the tabernacle, kind of pulsating. When he went up to it, he found a large beautiful butterfly, stranded and flapping its wings on the ground. He said he immediately thought of Bob and the way he was breathing - and that was the very minute that Bob died. When his body was brought into the Oratory later in the day, before being brought to the funeral parlour, the butterfly was still there, but now up in the air and flitting around all the time. But when the body was removed to the funeral parlour, they found the butterfly dead in the oratory and they are drying it out for me as a keepsake). When I heard all that, I thought of Mary and the white butterflies for her Dad. When I told Father Vincent about this, his eyes filled with tears and he told me that in Poland the butterfly is the sign of the resurrection.
After lying for some hours in the Oratory at Chula House, where he died, Bob's body was brought to St. Anne's funeral parlour for embalming and preparation for the funeral. That was on Tuesday evening. It remained in the funeral parlour until Thursday afternoon, by which time I had arrived back in Zambia. A number of us gathered there at about 3.30 and then at 4 o'clock left for St. Ignatius' Church. Quite a large crowd had gathered at St. Ignatius, a couple of hundred, very many of them young people.
Fathers Joe Keaney, John Mwelwa, Charles Chilinda, Clive Dillon-Malone and Jack Doyle were all there in vestments to receive the body. One of the prayers brought out that Bob had been a minister of God's word, and so a large Bible was placed on the coffin. A second prayer spoke of him as a minister of Christ's cross and mission and this was symbolised by placing a large Crucifix. Both Bible and Crucifix remained on the coffin throughout the funeral Mass next day, until it was taken for burial. Following the prayers the coffin was brought to the altar. Instead of being placed length-wise in the church, it was placed on a smaller bier right in front of and parallel to the altar, almost like a small altar lower than the main one. This was because the Novena of Grace was on and they did not want to take up space from the people who would be attending. But it was a lovely homely way to have the coffin.
From 4.30 to 5.30 those who had come for the removal of the remains took part in prayers and hymns. Great singing and many prayers! Then they had to give way to the Novena of Grace, which lasted until about 7.45. From then until close to 10 o'clock there was a vigil and wake for Bob. Coffins here are made in such a way that there is a panel over the head and chest and this can be taken off so that mourners can view the body. So that panel was removed and those who wished could go up and kneel beside him, looking at him and, most of them, talking to him. He looked very peaceful. Mouth firmly closed. No sign of strain or trouble on his face. Eyebrows bushy, but not too much so! Looked very like Paddy and the Sheehys.
The vigil/wake was not tightly organised. There were hymns, some short prayers, and periodically somebody would go to the lectern and share some memories about Bob. I told them of his difficulty in deciding what he wanted to do and then his decision to join the Jesuits, Mammy's great fear that he would not manage the food, but his determination once he had “decided to follow Jesus that there would be no turning back”. I also spoke of how hard it was on him when Mammy died just before he got home for leave in 1972 and the way he cried the time of her burial in Durrow. Finally, I thanked the people on behalf of us all for taking him to their hearts and for being so kind and good and loving to him all through the years, and I mentioned how it was the wish of every one of us that he should remain in Zambia and be with his people until the end.
Among the others who spoke were the two recently ordained Zambian Jesuits who were with him at St. Ignatius'. Finding it very hard to keep the tears back, Father John Mwelwa (gentle John) spoke of the huge influence Bob had on him and prayed that he and all the young Jesuits in Zambia might inherit some share of his spirit. The other, Father Charles Chilinda (cheeky Charles!), who is Minister in the house and in charge of the daily running, spoke of Bob's beautiful obedience - he might refuse to eat if others asked him, but Charles had only to say the word and he would take his food.
One of the lay people who spoke recalled how Bob liad comforted his family when his wife died ten years ago. And he could give every word of what Bob said to them then. Otliers spoke of what his books meant to them and how they knew they would always hear his voice when they turned to their pages. Once again, it was remarkable how many young people there were who wanted to give testimony to their love for him and share their appreciation of his life.
In closing the vigil, Father Clive Dillon-Malone reminded people that Bob's favourite scriptural passage was the parable of the Prodigal Son and invited us all to keep always before our minds the image Bob loved so much, the Father with open arms welcoming his son, just as now he was welcoming Bob.
The funeral Mass was celebrated in St. Ignatius' Church on Friday 11th March. It began at 9 o'clock and ended at 11.15. After that, in keeping with Zambian customs, the coffin was wheeled to the door of the Church, and the panel over the head was opened, to allow for body-viewing. This lasted for about three-quarters of an hour, and then there was the funeral itself to the cemetery, about 12 miles away,
The church was chock full for the Mass. It's hard to know how many priests concelebrated, but there must have been something between 60 and 70. Many were Jesuits, but they came also from the archdiocese of Lusaka, from other dioceses, and from religious congregations across the country. There was a huge number of religious sisters and male religious, crowds of women of all ages, and many past pupils from Chikuni and Mazabuka. The retired Archbishop of Lusaka was present (the current AB had to attend the beginning of a Catholic University, but he spent an hour with the Provincial offering condolences and has asked if he can have a special Mass for Bob when he is free some day soon).
I said the Mass, and Father Joe Keaney gave the homily, an excerpt of which is given below. I will say nothing else about it here except that it was powerful and gripped the attention and approval of people the whole way through. I began by saying that it was hard that this was the third of us who had died in a matter of eight months and that I was the only one of Bob's family who could be here at this time. I explained that much as they would have wanted it, age and poor health made it impossible for Maureen, Oonagh or Joe to be with us, and that they were feeling this very hard but were making the full gift of Bob to his people in Zambia, just as they had always done. I recalled how Mammy used to say that even though she loved having us around, she was happy that we lived far from each other because that way we would always remain close friends. This got a good laugh, but it also gave me a chance to stress how close-knit we are as a family and how that was one of the values that inspired Bob in his work, even though this meant being away so much from those he loved. Then I thanked the people again for taking him to themselves and for allowing him to minister among them, and I expressed the thanks of all the family to the people of the parish, and to those who had helped Bob in his recent years.
Then I went on with the Mass. Not knowing that it was going to be sung, I asked everybody to stand up for the Gloria and to shout it out with arms held aloft, as Bob used do. This went all right, but then a few minutes later the choir started the singing of it and of course the whole church joined in very wholeheartedly, It nearly lifted the roof off!
The first reading was taken by Winnie Nkata, one of the parish office workers and one of Bob's staunchest supporters. It was she who typed up all the material for his last book (and possibly even earlier ones). The second reading was taken by a Jesuit novice who has just returned from speech therapy-prior to this he could not put two words together, so bad was his stammer. But not a sign of it on this occasion! Bob's friend, John Mwelwa (gentle John), read the Gospel. After the homily there were about eight Prayers of the Faithful, but I'm afraid that my memory of them is fuzzy, so I have to leave them there.
Before the Offertory prayers and hymn, I said a few words and explained what I was doing. I said I wanted to put into the coffin a few mementoes of things that were important to Bob in his life, and I said a few words about each of these. First there was a small stand that used be on the altar to the Sacred Heart in Mammy and Daddy's bedroom in Tullamore: it had three small brass images on it, the Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, and St. Joseph. I said that Bob, like the rest of us, prayed before these as a child while at the same time he developed a strong faith from his great Catholic parents, and how it was his wish that Zambian parents would do as much for their children. Then I showed an old rosary beads of Bob's, well used and with some of the beads missing, a sign that he had used it a lot and of his love for the Mother of God. Next came a Pioneer Pin. Bob became a Pioneer in Tullamore long before he entered the Jesuits and was National Director of the Pioneers here for twenty years, so this was an important symbol of his life. Then I had a crucifix. Each Jesuit receives a crucifix when he takes his first vows. I said I couldn't find Bob's vow crucifix, he had so little left belonging to him that he had probably given it away. But I had my own and I said I was putting it in the coffin as a symbol of Bob's devotion to the Lord and of his commitment to the Jesuits. I also had a prayer leaflet that Joe got printed in 1963 when he was ordained, showing the names of Bob, Joe and myself, each of us ordained on 31st July, but in different years. I said this would be a nice reminder that his two Jesuit brothers were there with Bob all the way in solidarity and love. Next I had some of Bob's books. The first religious book he published was a hymn book, popularly known here as the Red Book; the last was Stories Old and New which was published in March last year. I read his prayer at the end of the Preface to this book: “I pray that this short book may encourage hope, faith and love in your hearts”, and invited the people to let his words become a reality in their lives. Finally I produced a rose. It was fairly bedraggled, but I explained that I had cut it in Luwisha House earlier that morning. But it was not an ordinary rose. Instead it was one that I grew on from a cutting that came from a beautiful yellow rose that is still growing in Maureen's garden. I told the people that Bob would say that if God can make a rose so wonderful, can we have any conception of what he must be like, and I also said that this rose was a symbol of the love of his sisters, what he meant to them, how much they loved him and how greatly they wished they could have been here today.
That probably took more time to read than it did when it took place on the altar! After that the Mass went ahead as usual. I think there were six of us giving out Communion for about a quarter of an hour, so that gives you some idea of the numbers who were there. Incidentally these included Pat Curran, the Irish Ambassador to Zambia, who stayed right to the very end, a great and generous tribute.
At the end of the Mass, the Provincial (Father Colm Brophy) thanked all those who were present and all the people associated with Bob throughout his life, but especially in the years since his health began to decline. The final prayers in the church (the Commendation) were led by Father Tom McGivern, a great old friend of Bob's. When these were concluded, the casket was wheeled to the door of the church for the body viewing. This ended at about midday or shortly afterwards (the service had begun at 9 o'clock). Because there were so many cars, the police had been asked to help direct the traffic and allow the funeral procession get under way. The burial took place in Kasisi, a Jesuit mission about 12 miles outside Lusaka (and this year celebrating its 100 years). All Jesuits who die in or near Lusaka are buried there, while those who die in the south of the country are buried in our cemetery in Chikuni. By the time the majority of the people arrived and the graveside service could get started it was nearly a quarter to one.
The prayers at the graveside were led by the Provincial, Colm Brophy, and he and I together blessed the grave. It was a massive one, about eight feet deep and ten feet long. Room for more than one there! After the prayers, the coffin was lowered slowly into the ground, while everybody kept silence. I was a bit surprised that the beautiful wreath of yellow and white roses and lilies that had been on the coffin since first I saw it on Thursday was left in place and buried. I wondered what would be left to place on the grave when it had been filled in, but I did not know then what was to follow. So the filling in of the grave then began. While the whole ceremony is very decorous and orderly, there is often some laughing and jesting at this part, with people telling the men to show their strength and not to be taking just the soft soil, and not to be putting it all into one place. Several times, new batches of men would take over the shovels, so that everyone could play a part. I took a shovel for a few minutes. I heard somebody behind me expressing misgivings, but then I heard one of the young Zambian Jesuits say "it's all right, he's a gardener!" It was indeed lovely to see these young priests themselves take the shovels, disregarding their shoes and clothes, and piling the earth in.
When the grave was nearly full, the women began singing quietly, and then when it was full and the mound built up to the men's satisfaction, the men drew back and gave way to the women. The women stood three deep all round and as they sang fell to their knees, patting the soil with their hands to flatten and smoothen it, all the time in rhythm with their singing. It was really a very moving to experience all this.
When the women had finished smoothing the soil, the Master of Ceremonies called for the laying of wreaths. The first was from the Jesuit Provincial, the second from myself. These were both huge wreaths, two interwoven large circles of cypress, with magnificent tropical flowers woven in and out. I am not sure, but they may both have been in the form of the letters B O B. Between them they covered the full length of the grave. Then followed wreaths from a number of others. After each one placed the wreath, they were given all the time they wanted for a quiet prayer. There were several hundred red and yellow roses, so after the few formal wreaths, all Jesuits were called. Each was given two or three roses (myself included) and we all stood around the grave, then all together stuck the roses in the soil or the wreaths, and then we stood up and sang in great voice the hymn of Saint Ignatius that Jesuits sing at the time of vows, Take Lord and Receive. This was very moving. After that it was the same with the staff from the Archbishop's office, religious sisters, religious men, the parish council from St. Ignatius', the Catholic Women's Leaguer, the Pioneers, the nurses and others who had helped Bob at Chula House and Saint Ignatius'. After they had placed their flowers or wreaths, each group would say its own prayers or sing its own hymn. Then lastly came myself, this time to place yellow roses on behalf of Maureen, more yellow roses on behalf of Oonagh, and red roses on behalf of Joe. We were all very much together at that lovely moment and all our Zambian friends appreciated it greatly.
People have told me that they never before participated in such a beautiful funeral. Fully Christian and truly Zambian. Fuil of sorrow at the going away of one loved and respected so much, but full of joy at the great accomplishment of a wonderful life and selfless service. And the bottom line of it all: God is love, so let God be God in your life, let love have its way with you always.
From the homily of Joe Keaney:
Most of you gathered here this morning knew Fr Robert Kelly personally. Many of you would say, “I knew him well”. I'm sure it comes as a big surprise when I tell you Bob suffered frequently from depression. I've often heard people say, “But priests shouldn't get depressed”. That's like saying a doctor shouldn't get cancer. Let me assure you some of them do, and share the same problems, diseases and darknesses as anyone else. It is important I tell a little about Bob's darkness if you are to understand the greatness of the man. The Jesuits who lived with him already know this very well.
I came to Zambia in 1973. Bob had been here 22 years by that time. In my early years here I didn't really know him but obviously was very aware of his reputation as an excellent teacher and influential Spiritual Father to successive generations of Zambian boys and girls in the 50's and '60's in Canisius, and with the Christian Brothers in St. Edmunds for most of the '70's.
Towards the end of 1988, when living in the small Jesuit community in Kitwe, we got the word that Bob was being sent to us. He was to help out in the various works of the house and continue his work as National Director of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. Being a great friend of Mr Mosi and Johnny Walker myself in those days I wasn't overjoyed at the prospect of such a renowned teetotaller in the community.
Very very soon after his arrival, maybe even that same day, Bob and myself had a long chat, for well over an hour, standing outside in the cool of the evening. A couple of years before, he had served briefly as Parish Priest of St Ignatius in Lusaka. It was an assignment that clearly didn't suit Bob - all the problems that go with adıninistration and having to mediate in the strains and tensions of parish life. Bob suffered quite a severe breakdown as a result and spent some time recovering from depression in Ireland. It was during that period of darkness that his first book was born.
He told me about his darkness that first evening in Kitwe. I had left Namwala in 1981. After some surgery I was physically well, but suffered chronic depression for about 18 months afterwards. I knew straight away the darkness Bob was describing. That common experience was the bond, the glue, the Tuff Stuff that formed the strong friendship between the two of us. Many observers would later look on ours as a father/son relationship but that wasn't really true. In Ireland there is a term for a relationship called Anam Cara, - soul friend. That more accurately describes what we meant to each other.
That same evening Bob told me something very profound about my recurring times of darkness. It's too long ago now to remember the exact words but it was something like this. Don't be afraid of the darkness. Resist it, yes, and fight it in so far as you can. But don't run too fast or too hard from it at any cost. Many Jesuits, he told me, live in a kind of natural light. They are very disciplined and ordered in their lives. They say their prayers, do their work and enjoy their leisure. They are healthy, well integrated men. Some of us, though, have to struggle in darkness. But it is the darkness itself that becomes the door for the power of the light and love of God to enter. It was many years later before I began to understand what he was talking about.
Soon though, I began to see Bob's greatness. He had no tolerance whatsoever for legalism, for pettiness, for narrow-minded people. On returning from his trips promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Pioneers, he would often speak with real pain for, maybe, Mrs Mulenga in Mansa, a lifelong pioneer whose marriage failed, who remarried outside the Church, and the subsequent call from some fellow pioneers that she be stripped of her badge and expelled from the Association. Or maybe Mr Phiri in Lusaka being barred from holding high office at national level in the Association, because he worked as an accountant in National Breweries.
Very quickly the doorbell in Jesuit House began to ring. I had a room with a view upstairs and could see the visitors approach. All sorts of people, many from the old days in Canisius or St. Edmunds - like the grey Alex Chiteba or the balding Mark Chona down there on the left. It was so clear, just by observing, that they really loved him. There were also many young ladies. Beautiful young ladies, I might add. I'd rush down to greet these lovely flowers of God's creation only to climb straight back up again. It's for you Bob, again. These were girls from Roma, Chivuna, Fatima, Ndola, Ibenga,... from girls schools all over where Bob had such a powerful ministry giving retreats. I swear they were all in love with him. I used to scratch my head and wonder what all these people saw in this aging specimen of a man. His hair is falling out and he has these coke bottle spectacles. What has he got that I don't. I was even jealous. Not really, but you know what I mean.
The thing is, I'd rarely heard Bob preach. In Kitwe we all went different places for Mass, and I was rarely at a Mass that Bob was saying. Ten years ago, not too long after I'd been transferred to Lusaka, we invited Bob as director of the Novena of Grace, which is going on as we gather today. It was during that Novena of 1995 that my eyes were opened and I began to fully appreciate his greatness. For me, and I say this with great conviction, he was the most inspiring preacher I ever listened to. Soon afterwards he joined us here at St. Ignatius and I heard him very often. My room is just outside the side door there and I could hear his fine eloquent flow without even getting off the bed.
We chose the Story of the Prodigal Son as the gospel for this Mass because it was, without doubt, Bob's all time favourite. One of the first times I heard him preach on the parable he asked the question, “What comes right after the part where the Father sees the boy while he was still a long way off?” Hands went up and the popular answer was, “He ran to meet the boy”. Bob pointed out five important words in between: “He was moved with pity”. He was moved with pity. Moved with compassion. The heart of God the Father himself breaking at the sorry state of his poor ruined son.
If asked to put in a nutshell Bob's spirituality, I'd say it was contained in those five words: "He was moved with pity." Fr. Kelly experienced the gentleness of this compassion over and over again in his own darkness. The heart of tenderness dispelling the gloom in his own soul. The image of God's heart moved with pity for all His poor sons and daughters crippled by guilt, weighed down by troubles, stricken with depression, trapped and burdened by obsession and sin. You know what it feels like when you are deeply touched by the sadness in someone's life, when you really feel pity. It's like your heart is squeezed. Bob's God was a God of the heart not the head, a God whose heart is constantly squeezed as he looks down at us.
This was Bob's message, always variations on the same theme. The Father who created us to be joyful and happy is broken hearted at the sight of so many of his little children living in misery and darkness. It was the constancy and conviction of this recurring message that brought so much light and hope to us, his listeners. The God of the head is entirely different. Any suggestion that the Creator was aloof, a tough judge, a harsh punisher like with AIDS or the tsunami was blasphemy to his ears. He saw people preaching such a God as guilty of worshipping false images, guilty of idolatry....
I want to tell you about an elderly lady called Sarah in England who read one of his books several years ago. She loved it, got in touch with Bob and asked for more and more to distribute amongst her friends.... Since his recent strokes and diminished health, I've been keeping Sara informed. She is quite a lady. She raves about Bob's books and about the huge influence they are having in the ever widening circle she is giving them to. She told me that her project for Lent was to type out Be Still and know and put it on the Internet. She has already another of his books completed and up there.
..... The last attack about 6 months ago left Bob totally helpless and with hardly any awareness or capacity for friendship. At the time of that stroke John Chula house, the retirement home, was under reconstruction. The good Fr. Klaus was away and we had to mind Bob right here. People often said to me, “You are so good and kind to Bob”. I didn't feel that way. Some days I found it very hard just to sit with him. I simply hated seeing him in that dehumanised state and some days wanted to slap his face, shake him and say, “Come on Bob. Fight this, Come back to us”. I'm the youngest of the Irish Jesuits left in Zambia and in my days of darkness I sometimes wonder if I will be able to stay, grow old and die here. Will there be anyone left to love me or care? That was another of the great signs. I witnessed such kindness for Bob given by Fr. Mwelwa and Fr. Chilinda. They sat with him for hours, holding his hand, feeding him, cleaning up after him. All this from two men who never really knew him in his prime. When I think of such love from the young generation of Jesuits now taking over from the old I am consoled. I know now that if I have the companionship of Jesuit brothers like Gentle John and Cheeky Chilinda in my old age I will be truly blessed. I know that the Jesuit Province of Zambia/Malawi will be ok.
I was brought up thinking that holiness was to do with the number of hours one spent in front of the Blessed Sacrament, or how hard ones knees got from praying. Now I think it is much more to do with compassion. Having sympathy and empathy. Feeling for and feeling with. Be holy, as your Father is holy. Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Bob was that kind of holy man. All the destruction of the past year has been made new. He is enjoying the embrace of His loving Father whose heart has been moved with pity for Bob's plight all this time.