James C Sheil, CM, class '26
1908 - 1989
The Church’s central message in every funeral service is the proclamation of Christ’s victory over death. The good news is that God desires life, not death, but the model of conquest over death is Christ’s life; the good news is the glorification of the human race in Christ Jesus. Ours is a resurrection faith. Before we can triumph we must suffer and die. Victory is not easy nor is grace cheap. Both are bought in the daily struggle of ordinary lives, but with extraordinary consequences. The divine – temporal and eternal – is found in the ordinary. Neither victory nor grace exist through any denial of the hard reality of life and of the grave. The resurrection is a prize to be won, not a gift from a magician – a phrase I remember from a retreat by Fr Sheil when I was in the seminaire. Life is achieved through death, but a death vanquished by the power of the cross and the glory of the resurrection.
The life and death of Christ reveal an enormously rich tapestry of human endeavour and effort to do God’s will. It was not a constant state of pain and punishment. The New Testament tells us he went about doing good — attending weddings, banquets and funerals. He talked and prayed with friends, strangers and alone. He observed the land, the sky, the trees, plants, crops and birds. He rested and walked, was tired and angry, he attacked the Pharisees and took authority to task. Christ was at pains to show that the life which led to the death on the cross and the resurrection was one lived in human endeavours to do his Father’s will in the good times and bad; but always in conformity with the Father’s will.
We come today to honour, and reflect on, the life of one who tried to model his life on Christ and St Vincent. Affectionately known to each of us by different titles: Father Sheil, Uncle Jimmy, James, Jimmy and J Sheil. Each title bespoke a different relationship but each relationship was enriched by a special sharing in his life and prayers. In St Patrick’s we were always aware and grateful that he was the powerhouse of prayer behind all our work in the college.
In his priestly life of fifty-six years he lived in eight communities. He enlivened and enriched each with his many gifts and unique contributions. He was always quiet but ever determined not to be sidelined. Community life did not deny him opportunities for singularly wry comments or gentle denunciations. In this give-and-take one had to be exceptionally adept to bowl J Sheil a googly; he was a superb deflector of pointed remarks. His convictions were significant but his victories were usually skilfully disguised.
His courage was remarkable, both moral and physical. Intimidation or denial of rights was abhorrent to him, but his slight build did not prevent him once from tackling a runaway horse. He was possessed of many talents, and a sense of taste and propriety which he so gladly shared with everyone. The talents he possessed were impressive in the fields of music: in ‘Knock he founded a society for classical music; art: when in the Irish College, Paris, he opened up the treasures of Paris to the students; literature; travel: He loved to hop on and off trains all over Europe, but in his latter days he often spoke with great feeling of his bicycle tours in Ireland with the confrères; nature study and, above all, a devotion to the history of the Church and of the two communities, the Vins and the Daughters.
He was a connoisseur of fine wines. One particular Christmas he had decided that the choice of the year should be procured for the Christmas dinner. A diligent search by the superior and bursar failed to secure it, but a different vintage was offered. Fr Sheil, with great devilment and applomb, pronounced it to be “a pretentious little wine”.
Fr Sheil was the quintessential Vin; the virtues of simplicity, humility, meekness, mortification and zeal for souls were visible for all to see, but not to comment on. As with every other aspect of his life
— even in his last illness he did not invite discussion about himself
— he was always eager to hear other people’s stories.
Perhaps one of his greatest loves was to search among the letters of St Vincent and translate those which he thought addressed community problems. Often these referred to superiors whom St Vincent had to reprimand, or to confrères whose conduct was eccentric and needed to
be reformed. During our retreats in St Patrick’s a choice selection was read by him at dinner; the spice in the advice was often a gentle hint to some of us.
Those of us who had him for class, retreats, nature walks, football teams, cycling holidays, or just ordinary talks, together with his inimitable humming and whistling accompaniment, will cherish memories of a kind, gentle and courteous Christian gentleman. In Glenart I remember his classes on Church History and the Old Testament. In the former the Church, though not without wrinkle, was not to be subjected to its dirty linen being washed in public. In the era of great advances in scriptural studies he exercised a gentle censorship over the books made available, lest some “zealous critics” would be led astray.
Fr Sheil always trained the under thirteens and under fourteens in ‘Knock. He aspired to train a cup team and commented that he “ought not to be deprived of the chance of losing a cup”.
In the more serious areas of his life he was totally absorbed in the Eucharist. His preparation for and celebration of mass were the highlights of his day. I know of nobody who remembered people so personally and continuously in his mass. In his later years he regarded his single contribution to the Church and the world to be his ability to pray for them, and especially for vocations to the twin Vincentian families.
In latter years he became somewhat withdrawn; his failing eyesight and hearing forced him into a certain loneliness, but one could never depend that he didn’t see and hear what he chose to see and hear.
In the order of his priorities one was never in doubt about the love he bore for his family. Their lives, joys and tribulations were in the forefront of his mind. Family was private to him and only rarely did he share with others his deep pride and real happiness in their achievements. The death of his brother Willie at a young age sorrowed him, but Michael’s took the heart out of him, to some extent.
His love of the community was most striking in his fidelity to community life, and in his personal and sincere enquiries about confrères’ work and families. The constant yearly reminders of birthdays and anniversaries were his most single proof of his continuing interest. Fr Sheil could always tell you where each confrère was, and what he was doing. He personified Vincent’s hope that the community would live together after the manner of dear friends.
There are many things which must be left unsaid, but one thing must be said: so many of us owe so much to him; perhaps he now will pray for us and forgive us whatever we left undone. He has left us a legacy of a quiet and gentle man and priest, self-effacing but remarkable as a man of prayer and piety, and a custodian of all that was civilised and beautiful in the world of human communication, spirituality, art and nature. He was a true son of St Vincent and is now at home with his friends in heaven, and his Eternal Father and Blessed Mother.
Simon Clyne CM
JAMES C SHEIL CM
Born: Dublin 4 May 1908.
Entered the CM: 7 September 1928.
Final vows: 8 September 1930.
Ordained a priest in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, by Dr Wall, auxiliary
bishop of Dublin, 10 June 1933.
1933-1934 Sacred Heart, Mill Hill.
1934-1935 St Vincent’s, Gateacre.
1935-1939 Irish College, Paris.
1939-1942 St Joseph’s, Blackrock.
1942-1953 St Vincent’s, Castleknock.
1953-1968 St Kevin’s, Glenart.
1968-1971 St Joseph’s, Blackrock.
1971-1989 St Patrick’s, Drumcondra.
Died 29 June 1989.