I will not normally be posting funeral homilies on this blog, but in this case I am going to make an exception.
We have gathered here this morning to pay tribute to a remarkable man. In the eyes of the world, James McCann was no more than an irritation and a tramp – but in God’s eyes… James was the image of Christ. As another James, an apostle of Christ, has written: “it was those who are poor according to the world that God chose, to be rich in faith and to be the heirs to the kingdom which he promised to those who love him.”
James was one of us. A Christian. A Catholic. A member of this church community – and, I suspect, no stranger to several other worshipping communities in Pontypridd. James was one who knew his faults, and sometimes admitted them. Your quintessential lovable rogue. And a believer.
Born to a Catholic family in Glasgow, James served in the army with the Kings’ Own Scottish Borderers. Later, he chose life on the road, and his favourite description of himself was a “milestone inspector”. Not for James the comforts of settled life under a roof; his preferred landlady was the one he called “Mrs GreenFields”.
When I first met James on coming to Pontypridd five years ago, he was an occasional visitor, hitching lifts on a well-worn circuit which took him to the Lake District, the Scottish Borders, Yorkshire, and, then back to Wales. He was a frequent caller at monasteries, known to the Benedictines of Pluscarden, the Cistercians of Caldey Island, and many communities of Franciscans up and down the English motorways. One place he yearned to visit but never did was the shrine at Lourdes in France – he loved to pray at the statue of St Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes in the grounds of St Dyfrig’s, and on occasion that grotto provided him with refuge from the rain, to spend a stormy night at the feet of the Mother of God.
In his final years, after suffering a couple of strokes, James declared himself to be “mentally, physically, and emotionally tired”. Our parish community helped James to obtain and furnish a flat on the road between Pontypridd and the Rhondda. For James, this flat was not a home, but a temporary shelter to rest his belongings in between road trips. I can’t imagine anything which would have horrified him more than the prospect of spending his final days in a comfortable bed; and in fact James’ body was found on the road from Cilfynydd to Mountain Ash, just after Easter: he died in the place that he loved, on the open road, journeying somewhere new.
In the Gospel, Jesus declared that whatever is done to any human being is done to him. Here in St Dyfrig’s parish, our community outreach group, called the SVP, has a prayer which takes this seriously. In part, it says: “Lord Jesus – you are the poorly paid, the unemployed, or the refugee; you live in a slum, you sleep under bridges.” In James’s case, we might dare to say: Jesus, you stink! Jesus, you’re drunk! Jesus Christ walked among us in the person of James McCann, and challenged us to love him.
The Gospel suggests that when Jesus is hungry and cold, we should give him food and shelter. What the Gospel does not spell out is how we are to love Jesus when he is blind drunk and has decided to send the night in the back porch of your vicarage, or strip naked and stuff his clothes into the washing machine in your outhouse. I am sure representatives of other Christian communities in Pontypridd could tell similar stories. The test of any Christian community is how we offer dignity to a person who has lost the ability to dignify himself. I think I speak not only for this Catholic parish but for the wider Christian community of Pontypridd when I declare that this man was our brother. He brought out the best from us. James was Christ among us. He allowed us to be the saints which God is calling us to be.
In the Catholic tradition, we believe that a soul does not enter heaven immediately, but first goes through an inner journey of coming to terms with all those faults which the mercy of Christ has forgiven. It is written that Jesus has prepared a place for us in his Father’s heavenly home. In James’s case, I suspect it may take him some time to reach that home, but being James, I suspect that he will be very pleased, before settling, to make the journey at a leisurely pace.
James McCann – Scotsman, soldier, milestone inspector, connoisseur of the open road, and latterly, resident of the Welsh Valleys – we send you on your final journey to the heavenly Highlands with our blessing. Thank you for being Christ among us. Rest in peace.