Martin Kennedy: The ashes of Fintan Farrell

Many people are waiting for the outcomes of the global Synod in Rome. Its first session was held this October, and its concluding session will be in October 2024. So, there is a year to wait. In Oughterard in rural Kildare an urn of human ashes sits in a family home, a symbol of that wait. They belong to Fintan Farrell who died unexpectedly on Christmas Eve last. In a will that came to light shortly afterwards, he asked to be cremated and that his ashes would be kept unburied by his family for an indefinite period. As a gay man, he didn’t want a Catholic funeral ritual until [quotes from his will are in italics] the Roman Catholic Church finally recognises the full dignity of gay people. If such were to happen, he wrote that he would like then to have a full Catholic funeral rite, with his ashes buried in the family grave. Fintan, of course, knew that there would have been no problem with his family having such a rite at the present time. His point was one of conscience. He felt that the official Church didn’t honour his integrity as a gay man while he was alive, and he didn’t want that glossed over at his death. He wrote that if nothing could come of his request, he would settle for his ashes being scattered in the vicinity of the Oughterard graveyard. Feed my ashes to the wind up there. That would be a grand resting place.

Fintan spent his life advocating on behalf of marginalised communities. His obituary in The Irish Times (Thursday March 2nd, 2023) gave a good account of the extent and significance of that work. It also placed in the public record his request regarding his funeral. Funerals are a huge part of Irish life. In taking this stance regarding his own death and burial, Fintan was offering a powerful call for a conversation within the Church about exclusion.

I think Fintan would have been hugely encouraged by the overall synodal process culminating in the global gathering in Rome. The conversations across the world were unprecedented because they included not just clerical leadership, but people on the ground. These have already raised the issue of structures within the Church and society that exclude minorities. These issues have been carried through national and continental reports and are now on the agenda of the global Synod. So, for instance at the European gathering of Synod delegates in Prague earlier this year, the Irish delegation’s address acknowledged the issue raised here in relation to sexual minorities. Those who are in loving relationships that don’t accord with Church teaching, including people identifying as LGBTQI+, spoke of their hurt, particularly about harmful and offensive language used in Church circles and documents. It acknowledged the depth of the questioning that emerged from the Irish conversations regarding church abuse and exclusion in general, and the depth of the response that is required. Their voice went to the very heart of what is needed in the Church: conversion. The address didn’t hold back on the implications of such conversion. This will demand the courage and wisdom of the Spirit to review and inspire any necessary doctrinal, structural, canonical, and pastoral changes without destroying communion and losing sight of the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.

As a life-long and strategic campaigner, Fintan understood that change towards inclusion is a process.  He wouldn’t have wanted his ashes to be a kind of iconoclastic symbol, a weapon in a culture war with the church. Instead, he would have wanted calm conversation and discernment. That is precisely what the global synodal process is seeking to achieve. The wider call for inclusion and change in the church which Fintan’s ashes symbolise has been followed in the Rome meeting by a hugely positive structure for engaging with these and other questions. What I think has been especially good is that the calls for inclusion have not been seen as simply ‘hot button’ issues marginal to the church’s mission. They touch on the very basis of that mission, the credibility of the church.

In an article in the Furrow magazine (June 2023) Whither the ashes of Fintan Farrell? I expressed the hope that Fintan’s ashes could be seen as a positive symbol for the many questions raised for the Irish church from its initial synodal conversations. And that it will lead to further and deeper conversations on these questions. But in the meantime, I do feel hopeful that by this time next year if the global process is sustained and respected, there will be some movement within the church. Movement that could enable Fintan’s family to bury his ashes in the family grave in good conscience that his wishes have been respected. We will wait and see. Whether his ashes are buried or scattered will itself be a powerful sign to and about the Church.  

Martin Kennedy

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One Comment

  1. Anne O' Brien says:

    Martin an excellent article.
    You have done Fintan justice. Fintan’s ashes speaks loudly and clearly. Fintan himself was a powerhouse of energy, justicemaking and compassion. Thank you.

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