Homily for the funeral Mass of Fr John Nee
Fr John Nee was the quintessential Australian. Born in Ipswich on the 18th July 1935 to John Michael Nee and Ellen Agnes Rafter he was educated in St Mary’s College Ipswich and later St Columban’s College Brisbane. He graduated in 1953 and then moved on to Pius XII Seminary in 1954, a classmate of Bill O’Shea, Derm Casey, Dan Carroll, Kevin Ryan and Don Murray who are with us today and to whom we owe our deepest sympathy.
In the Seminary John was a genuine character, who aroused respect, admiration and humour among his fellow students. Late always for the line-up on the Seminary cloister before entering the Chapel for evening prayer, he was also the first student in the Seminary to wear a crew-cut, a rather brave action in the strict regime of the Seminary of the 1950s. John’s haircut marked him out in the midst of every group and won him the nick-name “nude nut”, a title he wore with pride and not a little courage. Despite his short height he was a tiger on the sports field, one who everyone normally expected to find at the centre of every rugby league skirmish that flared up. In cricket, using a rather unusual spin action as a bowler, he was spectacular but rarely troubled the batsmen. A fierce competitor in all sports, and this was particularly true of rugby and basketball, he later translated his passion for winning to the games of golf and cards, both of which he played with a certain skill and aggression. Father Charlie Casey from Ipswich told me that when John was a student at St Mary’s he inevitably turned up for athletics wearing spiked running shoes which rarely provided the speed for which he searched. Nevertheless one could easily underestimate John’s talent. He punched above his weight and as the well-known proverb says: “It is not so much the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog”. John was a formidable opponent in sports and in any argument he chose to engage in. Archbishop Rush praised him to me for his honesty, and located him among his distinguished group of people, whom he described as “straight as a gun barrel”.
When I came to Brisbane from Cairns in 1992 John told me face to face but without malice, I think, that he was of the opinion that most bishops are liars. He said it without animosity and it never interrupted our friendship. However his courage became manifest, as will happen with all of us one day, when he was diagnosed with serious illness. Despite its implications he did not flinch an inch. Rather he prayed for a quick departure from life but, to his disappointment, the joy of many friends, and the amazement of his doctors, the cancer that had appeared suddenly disappeared, but sadly returned savagely in more recent years. Despite the deterioration of his body his mind lost none of its sharpness. When I visited him at Duhig Court I was amazed by his physical deterioration but surprised also by the interest that he showed in whatever was happening in the Archdiocese. He expressed his opinion clearly and often sharply. Over the final painful months of his life he spent time in Wesley hospital, Mt Olivet hospital, and finally in Duhig Court. He made friends with his carers and he appreciated their love and care profoundly. He welcomed visitors especially those who would help him limp outside the building to have a cigarette. John Nee was a genuinely good person whom we will miss enormously. Rarely on time for Mass and other liturgical events, he must have frequently tested the enormous patience of Sr Kari the pastoral director of his former parishes. Overlooking his faults and failings Sr Kari loved this rugged character who lived beneath a rather tough exterior that attracted so many people to him. The Archdiocese is deeply indebted to her leadership and care for Fr Nee.
John’s easy-going familiarity with people amazed me and I was quite surprised some years back at Mt Gravatt when John walked onto the stage wearing a cowboy hat, holding a guitar under his arm which I didn’t think he could possibly play, and in his rusty voice began to serenade the CWL ladies in the hall beneath. They loved it.
John Nee did great things for God and shaped the lives of all people who came into his reach. I’m sure he now rests in the presence of God, his suffering over, as he rejoices in his life well-lived. The day before he died I saw John and there was little left in his previously solid frame. He was unconscious at the time, and a young woman who had experienced his kindness in life sat faithfully beside his bed saying the rosary as he moved ever so slowly into the presence of his all-loving, all-forgiving master whom he had served so faithfully over a lifetime. The scripture today, selected by Sr Kari because it was John’s favourite scripture when he farewelled others, indicates in the Book of Wisdom that God tests us all like gold in a furnace. John Nee was pure gold and faced the furnace of his sickness without the slightest trace of self-pity. Like St Paul the Apostle, John Nee knew exactly that “If we live we live for the Lord, and if we die we die for the Lord. Alive or dead we belong to the Lord”. He awaited his death many times in more recent years, realising always that his one true life was still to come. Like Jesus, John shared the good news of God with a multitude of people. He lived a life full of activity and energy in a large number of parishes. Starting as an assistant priest in Wooloowin, he then moved on through Greenslopes, Gayndah, Mt Olivet, New Farm and then became the first parish priest of Browns Plains. He moved on then to Holland Park until he took over the leadership of Holland Park-Mt Gravatt. He later stayed on as priest in residence and continued his ministry with the help of Sr Kari.
Today I offer my deepest sympathy to his sister Joan, his niece Katrina, and his nephews, and his multitude of friends, especially his priest friends with whom each Monday he enjoyed golf, played cards afterwards at Acacia Ridge, and argued with his friends throughout the night. They will miss him and I offer them all my deepest sympathy. If heaven is anything like life on earth I am sure that he will be searching now for a set of golf clubs and an easy fairway, followed by a good whiskey, and if possible a game of cards and someone to argue with. He has fought the good fight and finished the course. Vale John Nee, thank you for all you have done for this Archdiocese of Brisbane. May you rest in peace forever.
Archbishop John Bathersby
April 1, 2009