Monsignor Vincent Joseph Hunt

Every parent must look at a new-born baby, and ask what the future holds for the little one. ‘What then will this child become,’ as people asked when they looked at the newborn John the Baptist?

It would have been no different for James and Winifred Hunt on 14th July 1924 when their son Vincent Joseph was born on the family farm in County Roscommon. They too would have looked at their son, hoping and praying for him. I suspect they prayed he would become a good and faith-filled man because they were people of faith. But these parents could never have imagined that their newborn would one day become such an instrument for good and such a universally loved and respected priest here on the other side of the world.

The Gospel we just heard speaks of the seed that falls into the ground and dies, but springs up to new life. And certainly Vince lived and died many times in his 90 years. Or to put it in another way, his was a life marked by self-emptying that brought new life. Not that he spoke very much about it because he was such a private person, but from time to time there were indications that his goodness came from following the path of the crucified Christ.

Often I wondered about his life on the family farm – he never seemed to be a farmer at heart, but he did have a deep love of nature and of all living things. The world of scholarship was his milieu, fostered by the Cistercian Fathers at their boarding school in Roscrae. Certainly that time with the Cistercians explains something of his contemplative spirit. So it is not altogether surprising that on leaving school young Vincent joined the Columban Mission Society and began studying for the priesthood at Dalgan Park. Within a very short time it became clear that his health could not withstand the rigours of missionary life, in fact, he had developed tuberculosis, and was asked to leave. This was one of his early spiritual experiences of self-emptying and loss that God would use to bring new life. During his time of recuperation Vince moved to Belfast where he began studying modern philosophy at Queen’s University. From this study he developed a deep-seated respect for the human person, a philosophy that was confirmed by Jesus’ relationship with all kinds of people. So, Vince would speak of what he called, “The grammar of human relationships.”

After the illness Vince applied to a diocese in California – I think it was San Francisco – and was accepted to continue his priestly studies in their seminary. However, the ship from Ireland had to call first of all at Ellis Island in New York harbour. There he was declared an unsuitable migrant because of his previous TB and was promptly put on a ship back to Ireland. (It was something he seldom spoke about, but it pained him deeply). More self-emptying, but with the promise of resurrection. Back in Belfast towards the end of his studies he heard that a certain bishop from Auckland, James Michael Liston was looking for priests, and so Vince was invited to complete his studies for priesthood at St Patrick’s Seminary, Thurles in County Tipperary.

Finally, after ordination in 1952 he travelled to New Zealand . Incidentally, on board that ship was a 5 year old boy by the name of Philip Handforth, migrating from England with his parents. In the strange ways of Providence, Philip was later to follow Vince as rector of the seminary in Auckland.

To many, Vincent was distinguished as a philosopher. Incidentally, I make no apology for constantly referring to him as Vince or Vincent, because for him the name he received at Baptism was always his preferred way of being addressed. In fact, on one occasion recently, when a senior priest called him, “Monsignor,” he replied very gently, “My mother used to call me Vincent.”

His passion for philosophy goes back to his time as an undergraduate student in Belfast. He told me that there he discovered the 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, author of the highly regarded work, I and Thou. At the heart of the book is Buber’s conviction that human life finds meaning in relationships. That is why he would criticise any attempt at doing philosophy by “viewing the world through a key-hole,” as he called it. For him, as for Buber, true philosophy required an engagement with the other – not standing aloof, attempting to understand in a disengaged way. There was a short poem by the Irish poet, W B Yeats, that he loved to quote, making the same point: “God guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone. He that sings a lasting song thinks in a marrow bone.” To think in a marrow bone, not to think in a heady and disengaged way, but in the depths of one’s being. And isn’t this the way he related to everyone?  All the seminarians at Mosgiel loved his genuine concern for them and his ability to accept them just as they were. I often felt that he carried the pain of his own rejection when he was asked to leave the Columban seminary, and for that reason, he would never be responsible for making a student feel in any way unwelcome.

His kindliness as a professor is brought out in a story that is attributed to Vince. This particular student who struggled with philosophy handed in an assignment that was clearly copied from a book. According to the legend, Vince asked him to come up to his room to discuss the work. The first thing he asked was, “Is this your own work? Did you write it?” “No,” said the student, “I copied it out of a book.” “Well, I know,” said Vince. So he then asked, “What I want to know is, did you understand it?” “No,” said the student, “but I thought you would.”

This same genuineness and respect for his students in philosophy carried over into his later study of moral theology. He never thought of himself as a very good moral theologian, but his great strength in that field was his ability to understand and respect the human condition and the struggles people had. At that time he read and absorbed another Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas who insisted that people are responsible to one another in their face to face encounter. Or as Levinas preferred to say, philosophy is about the wisdom of love, rather than the love of wisdom.

And this talk of the wisdom of love draws us back to the love of Christ and the love of philosophy that in Vince’s life were inseparable. Always, in his homilies, he would include a subtle insight into the person and the human condition, and then show how the person flourishes through the grace of the Christ. His serious reading and pondering led inevitably to writing. Over the years he contributed to quite a number of journals and books, developing his thoughts in a simple yet profound way. In recent times Neil Darragh and others have been collecting and editing his written works for publication later this year, and our sorrow is that Vince will not be with us in corporeal form when that book is launched.

Though he was never a parish priest and worked only briefly in a parish, he was a priest of Jesus Christ through and through, with a sensitive pastoral heart open to all. How apt are the words of the first reading, that the life and death of each of us has its influence on others. He was such a gift to the Sister Disciples at St John Vianney House, and they in turn gave the gift to him of such very special care. And then St Paul adds, if we live, we live for the Lord; if we die we die for the Lord. Vince’s life and death touched so many of us, not the least during the final weeks of his illness. As he approached death he said that he found the Psalms more full of meaning than ever before. 

The Gospel we heard speaks of the seed falling into the ground and dying, but then springing up to a rich harvest. There were so many emptyings and sufferings in his life, and we knew only a few of them. There was his earlier struggle to become a priest with disappointment on disappointment. His ill health that led to part of his lung being removed. And what many wouldn’t realise, his own confusion about being named rector of a seminary. The day he was appointed he said to me in his typically self-deprecating way, “I don’t know why I was asked to be the rector; I’ve never organised anything in my life. I couldn’t even organise a brown paper bag.” But being a rector was not primarily about being an organiser, but a man with heart and soul, a humble man transformed by grace. In fact, I have lived with three saints in my life, and Vincent Hunt was one of them.

In the Gospel we heard, Jesus pray, “Father, glorify your name.” To glorify means that the grace and goodness of God may be manifest for all to see. And that is what we witnessed in the life of our dear brother, the power of goodness shining out through this frail and unassuming humanity.

 But then the voice from heaven replied, “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again.” What can we do to ensure that that glorification continues as God the Father promised? When I was a very young priest a much loved and respected priest of our diocese died. An older man said to me at the time, your mentor has died, but in the spirit of Elijah, why don’t you pray for his mantle to fall on you? In that story from the second book of Kings, the prophet Elijah was taken up to heaven, and as he went his disciple Elisha called out begging  that the great prophet’s gifts would fall on him, in the form of his mantle. That is what happened. Elijah’s mantle fell at the feet of Elisha, so that Elisha now shared in the gifts of his master, in fact, his shared goodness remained in two-fold measure.

So, I ask you to consider, what is one of the great gifts you admired in the life of Vincent Hunt? In the spirit of Elijah, why not ask today for that gift to fall on you, as our brother is taken up to the heavenly throne, where life is changed, not ended. Where the darkness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality.   May he there rest in eternal peace.

Mass Readings

Rom 14: 7-9

Psalm 23

Jn 12: 20-28