Today we remember with gratitude Deacon John McEwan, we commend his soul to God and we express all our sympathy to his family and all who grieve his loss.
This is the church in which he was ordained a deacon by the then Bishop Mario Conti just short of thirty years ago and the church from which eight years ago his wife Mary was buried. We are in the right place.
In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection we commend John to the Lord. We pray that the power of the Lord’s death and resurrection – his paschal Mystery into which he was baptised as an infant some 86 years ago – may complete its sanctifying work in him and bring him rejoicing, with everything forgiven, into the many-roomed house of the Lord. May he, who as an ordained minister of the Eucharist, fed so many, take his place at the banquet of rich food and fine wines Isaiah speaks of. May he rest in peace and rise in glory on the last day.
John was born in Hampshire and educated in Liverpool. He did a stint in the Royal Air Force. He was brought up an Anglican and became a full communicating member of the Church of England. But he was still searching for a fulness of doctrine and sacramental life. In 1957 he married Mary, a Catholic, and was received into the Catholic Church the same year. This marriage proved a most fruitful partnership with their three children and their countless good works and spiritual endeavours. They moved to Cromarty in 1968 and soon took a full part in parish life. Fr Jim Birrell, parish priest of Dingwall, now Fr Martin OSB of Pluscarden Abbey (and here today) described them as “a kind of Catholic SAS” and said that if they thought it would glorify God they would willingly climb Ben Nevis on their hands and knees. They supported every parish initiative, while also running a wholesale and retail craft business. Another strand was the Franciscan. Both John and Mary became professed members of the Secular Franciscans (the former Third Order). He had contact with Padre Pio, i.e. St Pio of Pietrelcina. Indeed, he and Mary were at the heart of developing the Order in Scotland and John served as the first regional minister for Scotland. Then again, ever since hearing that the Second Vatican Council intended to restore the permanent diaconate and to make it available to married men, John had felt a pull in that direction. When Bishop Mario Conti pioneered this possibility in the Diocese of Aberdeen, John was among the second wave of those who took the offer up. Thus a further richness was added to his life of Christian devotion and practice. As deacon, he acted as chaplain to the Prison at Porterfield for some 15 years, no mean mission, and for 18 years was a Pastoral Assistant at St Ninian’s, Inverness. He and Mary also ministered to the needs of the Catholics in Cromarty. After their business closed, he took on a variety of jobs – he was especially proud of being a Coastguard. He came through periods of ill health. In the words of Sam in The Lord of the Rings, he was one of those who just kept on. In the rite of diaconal ordination, there is mention of “unassuming authority” – that was John. I think he also realised a description in the Mass for Ministers of the Church and truly was “effective in action, gentle in ministry and constant in prayer.” There is something irresistibly attractive in such a life of quiet and consistent service within a small circle. In a funeral homily for a very local priest, preached in 1859 at St Mary’s, Oscott, St John Henry Newman said: “if we would really bring before us the highest blessedness in God’s service, and also in fact the ordinary portion of good men, we shall find it to consist in what from its very nature cannot make much show in history; – in a life barren of great events, and rich in small ones; in a life of routine duties, of happy obscurity and inward peace, of an orderly dispensing of good to others who come within their influence, morning and evening, of a growth and blossoming and bearing fruit in the house of God, and of a blessed death… Such has been the round of days of many a pastor up and down Christendom,… of many a missioner, of many a monk, of many a religious woman, of many a father or a mother of a family…- each the centre of his own circle, and the teacher of his own people, though more or less unknown to the world” (Sermons preached on Various Occasions, pp. 246-247). There’s a sanctification of place as well as time. When I visited John last October, there he was in his Council house in Cromarty, a man “of happy obscurity and inward peace”, largely confined to an armchair, cared for by his son, grateful for his life, with his breviary on the table beside him. Who can measure the value of such a life? How apposite too that this man of devotion should pass to the risen Lord on the Solemnity of his Sacred Heart.
Both Benedictines and Franciscans apply the word “transitus” to the passing of their respective fathers and founders, St Benedict of Nursia and St Francis of Assisi. “Transitus” meaning transition, cross-over, passing-over. Transitus because “for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended”. Transitus evoking the Passover of the Lord who passed from this world to the Father and so made it possible for us to pass over safely with him, “lest we pass away with this passing world” (St Augustine). We return to the Paschal Mystery, which this Eucharist renews . In that transitus of the Lord John was placed by his baptism. He took root in it. He grew into it in his spiritual search and espousal of the Church, in his marriage, his husband-hood and fatherhood, in his vocation as a permanent deacon, in his manifold services in his neighbourhood, in parish and prison, and to his fellow-Franciscans.
And so, as we move to the Sacrifice of the Mass, we can console each other with assurances of hope. And we pray that “John, your servant and Deacon, whom you called to be among those who serve your Church…may receive a share with those who have ministered well and enter into your joy.” Amen.