The Spiritan priest who became leader of Concern Worldwide

Obituary: Fr Jack Finucane – Born: February 17th, 1937. Died: June 7th, 2017

Fr Jack Finucane  at the opening of an exhibition of Ethiopian photographs in 1995. Photograph: David Sleator

Fr Jack Finucane at the opening of an exhibition of Ethiopian photographs in 1995. Photograph: David Sleator

 

Among the metaphorical badges of honour pinned to Jack Finucane’s breast by those who knew him and served with him, was the virtue of wisdom, said to be placed by King Solomon above wealth, health, and all other things. The readings from the altar at his funeral last Monday morning included this from the Book of Wisdom:

“Like gold in the furnace he tried them,

And like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them.

In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,

And will run like sparks through the stubble.”

It was particularly apt. For when at full stretch, Fr Jack, as he was known to many, along with other nations suffering wars and natural disasters, sparked through Biafra, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda and the detritus following an East Asian tsunami. With his older brother Aengus and the stalwart support of his family, he bore hope into despair, poverty and deprivation, and, as general and quartermaster, supervised the setting up of aid stations. He always put first things first – sanitation and the provision of clean water – while simultaneously finding a food source, securing the services of like-minded and dedicated doctors and nurses to provide medical care, sourcing clothing, shelter and blankets as necessary.

Aengus, the more ebullient of the two, was intrinsically sociable whereas Jack, an imposing but somewhat austere presence, always cut an elegant figure, impeccably and neatly dressed even in the worst of situations because he believed that those served by Concern deserved no less.

He could be intolerant of scruffiness or an “it’ll do” mentality in both a work and a personal context. “Jack’s inspections” (of the state in which Concern volunteer housing was maintained, especially the hygiene within kitchens and bathrooms) were of military thoroughness; “Jack’s red pen” whereby he corrected the grammar and syntax of those whose English was slovenly when they wrote reports, was worked hard. Yet what almost always became clear, even to those who grumbled, was that his regime was permanently geared to the outcome of the work.

Highly empathic

He didn’t suffer fools – but even as a fool, you probably couldn’t tell you weren’t being suffered because except on rare occasions, he kept his opinions to himself, although when you got to know him you could recognise, by the thin-lipped nature of the smile, that what you were saying, or proposing, was not cutting the mustard. That being said, though, he could be highly empathic with those in personal turmoil. He would sit for hours listening to confidences and was a tender presence when moving through field hospitals, especially with children as fragile as dry twigs. And right to the end, he treasured small pleasures, rugby or hurling (he played for the Limerick minors), a walk on Dún Laoghaire pier, an ice cream from Teddys.

He was innately solution-oriented, pragmatic and highly practical: ‘You come to Jack with a problem, he thinks about it and comes back with the solution,’ was a refrain among those who worked with him in the field.

There is a story told that when someone from Concern’s Dublin headquarters needed to speak to him urgently about a supply deficit in Ethiopia, he was nowhere to be found in that country until, eventually, it was discovered that he was up-country buying up hundreds of donkeys – on the basis that jeeps broke down, supplies of fuel for them was expensive and hard to source in the wilderness whereas your average donkey was a reliable transporter of supplies.

Born on February 17th, 1937 in Limerick, he was one of seven children, three girls and four boys, including his twin, Jim, who died in 2015 . They attended the local Sexton Street CBS and he followed Aengus into the priesthood as a Spiritan, then known as the congregation of the Holy Ghost, to be trained over 10 years. He summarised this training as: ‘we entered at 18 and left 10 years later, still at 18.’

After ordination he was sent to Nigeria and with no ethnic-appropriate training whatsoever, found himself, alone, at the age of 28 as pastor of a parish covering a vast tract of that huge country, and then as teacher in a school where pupils came to class naked because their families hadn’t the wherewithal for clothing. “You learned fast,” he said of those experiences.

He learned, like Aengus, to plump for the poorest of the poor, and to trust, not what he had been taught in novitiates or seminaries, but his own instincts; that while he could in private thunder against despots, oligarchs and the corrupt, he learned to temper his views in public.

International criticism

Not always, however. Much later, there was international and local criticism when, after the subsidence of the worst of the Ethiopian famine of 1983-85, large groups of people were forcibly resettled from the north to the south of the country. Finucane, on hearing rumours that those resettled were not doing well, went to see for himself and returned to recommend that Concern should set up programmes to help. However, he found himself isolated within the aid community. Other agencies, media, and even some colleagues within Concern, believed that for the organisation to work there was politically skewed because it endorsed the regime. He defied even public opinion and on the basis that human beings were in need, set up programmes.

In the early days of Concern, Aengus had toured the country on a drive to recruit volunteers for Concern programmes abroad. He came into family homes like the father figure he was, so mothers entrusted their young daughters and sons to him and Jack because they were priests, acccording to Concern chief executive Dominic McSorley at the funeral last Monday.

But Jack took hard the fall from grace of a few of his colleagues, particularly as in recent years, report after report on clerical abuse ramped up the pressure on all priests and religious, however innocent. When he spoke about it, his expression did slip revealing the pain beneath.

He openly blamed the severely controlling regime common to novitiates and seminaries at the time of his entry into religious life, with individuality deliberately suppressed and sexuality almost never acknowledged.

He was very close to his family, and to Limerick – that he and Aengus were made freemen of the city was one of the proudest of many accolades for both.

His death has hit his family and friends very hard – he is survived by two sisters, Mary and Sr Patricia of the Mercy Order, his brother, Joe, his many nieces and nephews and a huge cohort of friends and people with whom he worked in Concern.