The readings we have just heard were chosen by the Prioress and her Sisters, and they chose well. They reflect Fr Dermot’s passion: for truth and for God. The readings we have heard are all focused on the future, the Last Judgement, the ultimate focus of all our daily concerns, when the only justice that matters will prevail. The first reading from the Prophet Daniel looks forward to that day, when “the learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven, and those who instructed many in virtue, as bright as stars for all eternity.” Fr Dermot’s first passion was learning, more precisely historical scholarship. He was an erudite but humble man, who bore his learning lightly. His passion for truth and so for God led him eventually, after initial hesitation, to answer the call to the priesthood, where as a pastor and confessor, he instructed many in virtue and drew them close to God. He was renowned as a very popular confessor while he was a member of Newman’s Oratory in Birmingham, he was a much-loved teacher at the Newman College of Ireland, and in the short time he has been here in Cobh, many experienced through him the love of God. The love of God was the subject of the second reading from the First Letter of St John. Encountering him as a confessor or spiritual director, I was told by someone who knew him well, was to experience something of “the love that the Father has lavished on us”, as St John wrote in the second reading. The many people from all walks of life who came to pay their respects yesterday afternoon, when he lay in repose in front of the Blessed Sacrament, witnessed to the affection with which he was held, even though he had been in Cobh only three short years, and part of that was during the lockdown. He had the ability to listen attentively and with deep empathy to all one’s concerns, great or small, just as God listens and responds to our needs small and great.
St John’s Gospel, as we heard, spoke of the glory of Christ. What is that glory? It is the Cross that Jesus awaited, which he compared to a wheat grain that had to fall on the ground and die in order to yield a rich harvest, the Resurrection and sending of the Holy Spirit of love. The mystery of the Cross is at the core of our faith. The Cross was also at the core of Fr Dermot’s life. He, too, suffered in union with Christ and so his suffering brought life to many.
Born in 1941, the son of Dermot & Mary (nee Tutty) Fenlon. His elder brother Frank predeceased him. He grew up in Booterstown, Co. Dublin. After attending Willow Park Primary School and Blackrock College, he tried his vocation, as they used to say, with the Holy Ghost Fathers (the Spiritans) but then left and opted for the study of history at UCD, where he took his B.A. and
then M.A, under the direction of Professor Desmond Williams. It was around this time that he published for the first time on 17th-century Irish history in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.
He then went to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where his supervisor was the preeminent historian of Tudor England Geoffrey ( G.R. ) Elton (later Sir Geoffrey Elton). There he worked on Cardinal Reginald Pole (eventually the subject of his book published by Cambridge University Press). In 1969 he became a University assistant lecturer, later University Lecturer in history and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College. There he remained for 10 more years, when he published articles on Thomas More and the French historian Lucien Febvre. He enjoyed a universal reputation in Cambridge, a reputation that is untarnished to this day. A promising academic future beckoned to him, but then he abandoned it to study for the priesthood. What had happened?
Let me recall an anecdote.
In 2010, he was invited by his friend, the German author, Dr Jakob Knab, to talk to his students in Kaufbeuren, Bavaria, in the course of which he mentioned the turning point of his life, when he quoted these lines from Francis Thomson’s The Hound of Heaven:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Dr Knab wrote: “Fr Dermot told the students how he ran away from God, because he wanted to be free. Only when he gave up and surrendered and when he told God take my life, I’m all yours, he felt true freedom. My students were fascinated, they were grateful for his honest witness.”
During his time in Cambridge, he had developed a great interest in Cardinal John Henry Newman, who, after his conversion, became a priest in the order St Philip Neri founded, the Oratorians. This in turn led him to study St Philip Neri the great counter reformation theologian, scholar and poet. Not only did he become a world expert on the life and times of these two saints, but, it would seem, his study of them led him back to God.
In 1978 he entered the Pontifical Beda College in Rome. Ordained in 1982, he served as a priest in the East Anglia diocese. But his love of St Philip Neri and St John Henry Newman led him to enter the Birmingham Oratory in 1991 which had been founded by Newman. There he spent two decades as Newman archivist. But he was first and foremost a priest known for his clear and inspiring homilies and a gentle confessor. Many recall his love of the Blessed Mother and his gentle manner, which caused many local Muslim mothers to seek him out as he walked in the neighbourhood of the Oratory when they wanted prayers for their children. He listened carefully, promising his prayers and giving them one of the Miraculous medals that he always carried in his pocket for their child.
As archivist in the Birmingham Oratory, Fr Fenlon had been involved in preparing Cardinal Newman’s cause for beatification. However just as the beatification of Newman was in sight, a crisis arose in the Oratory and he was compelled to leave his beloved Oratory and so, to his great disappointment, was not present in Birmingham, when in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI beatified John Henry Newman.
Thus began what a friend described as his via crucis, his way of the cross. To quote from his obituary, Fr Dermot Fenlon, a good priest would now be offered the opportunity of sanctity. He would be stripped of his home, stability, reputation, books and research, and even his health. Just as he had walked away from all he had in the world to accept Christ’s call to the priesthood , he would now walk away from all he had in the Church to accept Christ’s call to take up his cross and follow him. Despite the hardship of adjustment, Fr Fenlon embraced the Cross under the mantel of Mary.
After a short time in Scotland and the USA, he returned to his native Ireland. He found a welcome in his alma mater of Blackrock College, before he went to help in the Dominican Priory in Waterford. He became a guiding light for the fledgling endeavour, Newman College Ireland, teaching eager students first in in Rome and for three years in Derry. During all this time, Fr Dermot was in a kind of ecclesiastical limbo until Bishop Philip Egan released him and incardinated him into for the Diocese of Portsmouth. And he allowed Father to continue his work in Ireland.
For his last three years, Fr Dermot ministered here to the Sisters of the Congregation of the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the so-called Cobh Tyburn Convent, and to those that come to this chapel for Eucharistic Adoration and Mass. The nuns assure me that this was a happy time for Father. His gentle, reassuring presence and unobtrusive offers of help and counsel touched the lives
of everyone he met: retreatants, the staff employed at the convent and the local residents, particularly any young person who was introduced to him. He manifested a heart as big as the world, taking a keen interest in its affairs and supporting every effort to change it for the better with encouragement and constant prayer. More than one person remarked on how he kept his own learning hidden so that others might not be shy too say what they knew, however little.
He was particularly devoted to the cause of the unborn child. He was also a generous benefactor of the persecuted church through Aid to the Church in Need, which organization supports spiritually and financially persecuted Christians in Syria, Iraq, and parts of Nigeria, among other countries. He could sympathize with those unjustly persecuted, since he too had known injustice and suffered for his defence of the Church’s divine moral teaching.
On the evening before he died he made contact with several of his close friends. He also left an email message for the Prioress in which, without in any way predicting his departure, he nevertheless encouraged the efforts of the community to make reparation to the Eucharistic Heart and imparted his blessing to them and their whole Congregation, thanking them humbly for their prayers. He spent his last years, fittingly, here in the Tyburn Convent of Cobh. Tyburn Convent is named after the square in London, where so many of his beloved Tudor martyrs were born into heaven and where St Oliver Plunket was the last to be martyred. This community has a precious relic of St Oliver Plunket, which must have given him great comfort. Fr Dermot went to bed on the eve of the Feast of Our Lady of Knock. In his sleep, he was called to his eternal rest. The removal of his mortal remains took place on the anniversary of Our Lady’s appearance at Knock, and he is being buried on the Memorial of Mary, Queen and Mother. He had a deep devotion to Our Lady.
As Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “Anyone who loves his life will lose it; anyone who hates his live in this world will keep it for eternal life”. We pray that Our Lord and Saviour may grant eternal life to Fr Dermot, who to our eyes at least, was a gentle scholar, a noble priest and a humble man of God. May he rest in peace. Amen.
Fr D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.
August 22, 2022