Called to serve
On the 18th June, 1961 three young men were ordained for service in the Archdiocese of Tuam, John Kennedy, Kieran Waldron and Fr. Joe Cooney.
The Second Vatican Council opened one year later, in 1962. It was a time of great change, excitement and hope which heralded great changes in the Church. This was the world which greeted Fr. Joe Cooney in the early years of his ministry.
St. Jarlath’s College, Island and Gaeltacht ministry
However, my first meeting with him was when he was appointed Prefect of Studies in St. Jarlath’s College after his ordination. I recall him as a man who was firm but very fair. In 1962 he moved from St. Jarlath’s to Cill Ronáin in the Aran Islands. He enjoyed island life and his ministry to the people of the island. He had very good stories of island ministry and the limitations with which priests coped in that situation. There were no planes serving the islands then, and islanders depended on the Naomh Éanna to get them to Galway. Fr. Joe had a great love for Aran and its people and he accompanied me on a number of occasions as I administered the Sacrament of Confirmation there. By plane it only takes 8 minutes from the mainland. He said that while he served on Inis Mór as a priest access to the island would have taken up to 8 hours on the Naomh Éanna in bad weather. It was very encouraging to see the way the people had such fond memories of his ministry there more than fifty years later. Then, after five years in Aran he was appointed to Carraroe for two years, an unusual appointment in that his uncle was his Parish Priest. His proficiency in Irish determined another appointment in the Gaeltacht, this time in Tully in the parish of Knock-Spiddal where he was to spend the next five years.
Tuam and Ballyhaunis
Fr. Joe’s organisational ability was called upon in 1974 when he was appointed to the Cathedral parish of Tuam, and fifteen years later he became the Administrator. During this time he put in place many of the structures which have served the Cathedral parish very well. Indeed, probably due to a good sidestep he succeeded in avoiding the job of Archbishop. In 1993 became Parish Priest here in Ballyhaunis. Here in the parish he summoned up his organisational skills and ensured that the parish was in a position to meet the challenges of the changing culture. He became involved in the renovation of the sanctuary area and the refurbishment of the church in so many ways culminating with the spire. Recognising that the Church is always a people before it is a building, he organised for the setting up of a Parish Pastoral Council and encouraged the participation of the laity in various ministries.
Broadcasting and Preaching
The presence of Canon Joe Cooney as Parish Priest of Ballyhaunis was very appropriate in view of the broadcast Masses on Midwest Radio. Using his organising ability he scheduled the Masses which are carried by the radio every Sunday, ensuring that the sick and the housebound would have the opportunity of tuning in to the broadcast Mass – something we have come to appreciate very much all across the diocese in the past week-and-a-half.
It was obvious to everyone that Canon Joe put so much work into preparing his homilies. There was always food for thought. They were well crafted, challenging, incisive and encouraging. In addition to his parish responsibilities Canon Joe also had a diocesan portfolio as a member of the Finance Committee. At national level he was a member of the Bishops’ Commission for Immigrants to which he contributed very significantly with his wide-ranging experience.
Centrality of the Word of God and the Eucharist
However, above and beyond all other things, the Eucharist was central to Canon Joe’s life. His ministry was intended to create a Eucharistic people, a people focused on Jesus Christ and whose relationships with each other are determined by their faith in God.
During the course of his priestly ministry the economic situation in Ireland changed very significantly and this had an impact on faith. In the midst of comfort God often appears as superfluous. In biblical times as the people wandered in the desert they recognised that they could not continue their journey without being sustained by the Word of God. This experience was to teach them that they could not live on bread alone: their very survival depended on the Word of God making new life possible for them. In many ways, during this current public health emergency we are experiencing something similar.
The sad reality of parishioners and priests not being in a position to gather as a community for the Eucharist today, and the necessary restrictions on those who can be present at Canon Joe’s Funeral Mass today, will, I believe, help us to more fully appreciate our need of the Eucharist and will bring us to celebrate it more enthusiastically when this pandemic passes and restrictions are lifted.
Illness bravely borne and Papal greeting
As you know, Canon Joe was presented with and carried the cross of illness for the last years of his life. Despite the physical restrictions his illness placed upon him, his warmth and welcome, his sense of humour, strong faith and sheer determination never left him. I think this was captured magnificently in a humorous video shared widely on WhatsApp after Pope Francis honoured us with a visit to Knock during the World Meeting of Families in 2018.
Joe was determined to be at the Shrine to witness this historic visit. On that occasion he used a wheelchair and he sat prayerfully and patiently before the Apparition scene awaiting the Pope’s arrival. The video clip shows us the Holy Father entering the Apparition Chapel and greeting pilgrims as he walked slowly up the aisle. At the top Pope Francis reached in to shake hands with Joe and it was clear from Joe’s face that this simple gesture meant so much to him. And we know now Pat Shortt’s commentary on that scene happened to put Joe’s name into the Holy Father’s mouth – much to Joe’s amusement when he saw it later.
Priesthood: God’s gift to the Church
As we lay Canon Joe to rest we thank God for the priesthood which the Lord has given to his Church and for the way in which Canon Joe shared in that priesthood, and for the way in which his priesthood shared in the sufferings of Christ over the past few years.
Thanks and Sympathy
Priests are very dependent on the support, encouragement, prayers and generosity of the people that he serves and I would like to thank all those people who are so good to Canon Joe and enabled him to fulfil his priestly responsibility, energetically and enthusiastically, and all those who cared for him during his illness. I want to thank his successor Canon Stephen Farragher for his kindness to Canon Joe and for the way in which he has built on the infrastructure which Canon Joe had put in place.
I offer my sincere sympathy and the support of my prayer to Canon Joe’s family, to his sister Nora, his nieces, nephews and the extended family.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilís.