Archbishop Buti’s Homily for Bishop Barry Wood
This is the text of the homily preached by ARCHBISHOP BUTI TLHAGALE OMI at the funeral for Bishop Barry Wood on 13 May 2017 in Pietermaritzburg.
In the Gospel of John, we read that Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “come and see”. When Jesus saw Nathanael coming, he said of him: “There is an Israelite who deserves the name, incapable of deceit” (Jn.1.47). For me, this image summarises the personality of Bishop Barry. He was a towering giant, soft spoken for a man of his size. I have often heard the word ‘gravitas’ tossed about. Now here was a man, a priest with a spiritual gravitas, always self-effacing and treating others with warmth that spontaneously came from his heart. Bishop Barry had the power of grace. He was good with people. He was more like Mary, the sister of Martha in the Gospel of Luke. When Martha complained about Mary, Jesus said: “Mary has chosen the better part,” the listening part. This is how Barry was. He naturally considered the other person who came into his space as a messenger of grace (Lk.10:42).
Bishop Barry had admirable spiritual qualities which distinguished him as a leader, pastor and formator. He was a good listener, a fair and wise leader, a selfless pastor, ready to forgive, kind-hearted, patient and compassionate. But these qualities are generally attributed to God. We read in the book of Exodus:
“turn to Yahweh your God again
for he is all tenderness and compassion
slow to anger and of great kindness” (Ex. 34:6)
Bishop Barry was extraordinary in his ordinariness. He possessed these spiritual qualities in a good measure. This explains why he has left such an indelible mark on his former students, parishioners and colleagues. He was a rich source of positive influence. This gentle man whom Jesus saw, whom we saw and named him: “one incapable of deceit”.
One of the exemplary commitments of Bishop Barry was his unwavering commitment to justice issues. He saw this as an integral part of his vocation as an Oblate Priest and Bishop. He spoke passionately about the unacceptable living conditions of the people who live in the informal settlements, the discarded people, Franz Fanon’s “the scum of the earth,” people who are excluded from participating in a more just and equitable society.
On the South African socio-political landscape, informal settlements, symbolise, not only abject poverty, but also abandonment and rejection. These are areas that are often without electricity, water, proper sanitation, security and other amenities. They remain an open wound that demands attention from those who claim to have a social conscience. For how long shall we run away from poor people? That suffocating stench; that rot won’t go away until we do something about our numbness, our indifference to human suffering.
Bishop Barry was convinced that our vocation as church is to be present in society by proclaiming the Gospel that liberates and that brings joy to the afflicted. A deeper and sincere involvement of a Missionary with the people he or she serves, is in fact a deepening of one’s relationship with God. St. Teresa of Calcutta used to say that working closely with the poorest of the poor is like touching Christ himself. Bishop Barry’s identification with the poor was a source of inner strength for him. This was his life-choice. Like Eugene de Mazenod, the founder of the Oblates, who, in his day, spoke patois to the French working class, Barry Wood spoke to the local people in fluent Zulu. In so doing he sought to bring them a message of joy and hope in spite of the chains of oppression, of exploitation, of abuse and the lack of opportunities. He preached on the mercy of God that “opens our hearts to a hope of being loved forever in spite of our brokenness and sinfulness” (The Face of Mercy, Pope Francis, no. 2).
I once heard him moan, with a touch of frustration, that after 20 years of democracy, the living conditions of most of the poor people have not changed; that some have even sunk deeper into poverty because of the bane of unemployment. This is the Barry Wood who insisted that the love of God, poured into our hearts (Ro.5.5) can only be shown by lifting the poor from the dung heap, by putting others first, by recognising the rights and dignity of others. This is who Bishop Barry was. He was not hireling who has no relationship with his sheep. He was a noble, authentic shepherd who enters by the door. “The doorkeeper recognises him and admits him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (Jn.10.30). This is how Bishop Barry related to people. He was gracious, affable and personable. And consistently so. There was no mood swings. At heart, he was a very private person.
During the past 20 years at the Bishops’ Conference, one of the most controversial topics was the celebration of 40 years of Humanae Vitae. Generally the Bishops sing from the same sheet. But not on this topic. The contents of the book, “God, Love and Sex” was to be published in memory of the encyclical, Humanae Vitae. The book underwent several revisions. Bishop Barry was of the opinion that it should not be published. He suggested, in not so many words, that Bishops should stay out of the bedroom. He advised that Bishops should be sensitive and not impose a burden on couples.
Perhaps this is said more eloquently by Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia; that the church ought to be “conscious of the frailty of many of her children”, that she should “turn with love to those who participate in her life in an incomplete manner” for true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” (nos. 291,296). Bishop Barry was a genuine shepherd, cast in the mould, if you wish, of Pope Francis. This does not mean that there should be no laws, no rules, no Commandments.
He was also a defender of the truth. He would not stand idle by when someone he knows is being unfairly, unjustly maligned. He defended integrity and honesty. He was never long winded. He spoke in clear, short and effective sentences. He intervened only when it was necessary to do so. The motto: “the truth shall set you free” – acted like a background refrain in his interventions. This man was a Nathaneal without deceit. He lived by the courage of his conviction.
Thorn in the flesh
During the past few years, Bishop Barry began to experience, like St. Paul, a thorn in his flesh. He sensed that his body was breaking up slowly. It was coming apart at the seams. That centre could really no longer hold things as tightly as it used to. He felt that he was gradually losing a grip on his own body. As a Missionary, he was increasingly experiencing weakness and fragility. And this was beginning to affect his ministry, his commitment to serve the people of God. He nevertheless showed a remarkable stoic resilience. He worked right up to the end. Barry Wood generally never used his inner suffering and affliction as an excuse not to show up at meetings nor not to attend to his duties. It appears that Bishop Barry secretly knew, again like St. Paul, that in his suffering and affliction, he experienced his spiritual strength (2 Cor.12:10). The words of St. Paul to the Colossians comes to mind:
“It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of His body, the Church” (Col.1:24).
Barry Wood experienced the tension between his affliction and the mercy of God. In this hour of darkness, we pray that he be accompanied by the light of the Easter Candle to meet the Risen Lord. We are gathered here in prayer for safe passage of Bishop Barry because we cannot presume on God’s mercy even though Pope Francis encourages us all by saying that God’s mercy is “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” (Amoris Laetitia, 297). Mary, Our Mother, Our Lady of Fatima, whose feast we celebrate today, we plead with you to intercede on behalf of your fervent devotee, Bishop Barry. As for Bishop Barry, his eternal longing, his heart’s restlessness, has come to an end now. For St. Augustine reminds us that our hearts will not rest until they rest in Thee.
Now all we are left with are the beautiful memories of an exceptional person, a special person, a noble Oblate Priest, a courageous Bishop who lived his ordinary life to a heroic degree.