John’s health had been poor for as long as anyone could remember. He fell almost daily, did fall or collapse occasionally, was often in pain, had digestive problems, walked with difficulty and still survived and remained actively present in community. We began to think he was indestructible.
Then suddenly he was gone! On Thursday evening, September 21st, after a rosary walk with Jean Robitaille, he left the house for his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Pushing his walker across the church parking lot, he was knocked to the ground in a freak bicycle accident. That night, he lay in the hospital and totally in character telling Jean: “Get me out of here.” His brain was bleeding, however, and soon he fell into a coma. He died the next morning.
With a mixture of sadness, love, and gratitude, friends and colleagues gathered for memorial Masses in the US and in Scotland. In Scotland, there were former Young Missionaries, survivors from a group John helped found in his early years. In Florida, the community remembered him as a born leader, a steady presence, and a “go to guy.” Two Irish American men who met John only recently at AA mourned the loss of their new friend. They recalled his wise presence in their group. “John said little the first few times although there was something profound about his presence. One evening, the topic had touched “spirituality” and John stood up and leaning on the chair in front of him as everyone looked and listened: “Faith,” he said,” as he often did, “is nothing more than believing something on the word of another.”
In Washington, the Africa Faith and Justice Network recognized his major role there and everyone recalled his charm, humour, and wisdom. In all three places there was the shared memory of a dynamic priest. The love and respect for him was shared by all.
John Lynch was born in Newmills, Fife, Scotland on the 18th April 1936. After secondary school he studied at the Priory, Bishop Waltham. He studied Philosophy in Blacklion, Ireland and did his novitiate in s’Heerenberg (Netherlands). Four years of Theology in Carthage in Muslim Tunisia followed. He took his Missionary Oath there on the 27th June 1961. This would prove to be his longest stay on the African continent. He was ordained priest on the 30th June 1962 at Oakley, in the Archdiocese of Edinburgh.
At Carthage, though he fitted in well, he had a difficult time with his health. After ordination, he was appointed to Uganda but he was held in Scotland on doctors’ orders after major stomach surgery. He never really got over this loss. He served as bursar, teacher, Vocations’ Director and promoter of Missions in the various houses of the British Province, St.Boswells, Bishop’s Waltham, Dorking and Rutherglen. His football skills and youthful personality touched many young people. In 1972, he began his long service in the then American province. He did a little more vocation work, then studied counselling, earning a MA from Loyola University, Chicago. He served as counsellor and spiritual director to a large community of Religious Sisters in Michigan for five years. Returning to Chicago, he coordinated a modestly successful Associates program sending a handful of Associates overseas including an outstanding priest from Milwaukee, Father Jerome Thompson, who served for a number of years in Tunisia and other countries.
By this time, John was an important presence in the US Province. He was Provincial from 1987 to 1994 and in 1999 he became Provincial Treasurer and worked on the fundraising program. Feeling the need for lay expertise, he hired an assistant who now directs the fundraising effort.
John had a rich and interesting personality. He was always the first to welcome newcomers with that broad smile of his and to engage with them and listen to them. He loved being in community and loved being around people. Red of hair and complexion, he was not to be pushed too far or frustrated too much. He adopted America as his country yet remained a Scot. Never losing touch with his roots, he spent home leaves in Scotland enjoying time with his sister, friends, and with the Rutherglen community. Every once in a while, in America, he would regale us again and again with tales of the eccentric and cantankerous pastor of his youth. Then he would break into bursts of inscrutable and entertaining dialect. He loved to joke and tease, humour fuelled by a certain irony and near pessimism regarding human nature.
Without illusion, firm and tough though he was, he could be a soft touch for the hard luck story. His heart was too big. With confreres or “colleagues,” as he liked to call them, he was generous to a fault. He survived on indomitable tenacity, not without a streak of stubbornness. In the labyrinth that is the Washington house, you always worried that he would fall down the stairs. You could tell him to please take the elevator but he seemed to regard that as “giving in” and the day after your request you would meet him dragging himself up the main stairway.
Poor health not only took away his dream of Africa. He also suffered from alcoholism, a condition that became urgent early on in America. Humbled by this addiction in the 1970s, he had to accept treatment and, through AA, face the challenge of interior growth. There he learned to call difficult problems by their names and to acknowledge his own challenges. In his fading years giving homilies at Mass in the Washington community, he would sharpen his tone, naming something needing improvement in our life together. He would pause briefly and glance around the room daring us to deny it!
On a trip to Uganda in 1983, he gave a retreat to a group of diocesan priests amazing them by his open admission of his own struggles with alcohol. As Provincial and Provincial Treasurer, he had to confront very difficult situations and often painful decisions. This helped both individual confreres and the Province/Sector as a whole.
During the last fifteen years of his life, he suffered from painful back spasms, underwent knee and shoulder operations, had serious stomach ailments and reduced mobility. All this struggle and suffering, by the Grace of God, transformed him into an outstanding Missionary of Africa.
As a leader of Missionaries and a friend and counsellor to Religious Sisters, seekers and many recovering alcoholics, John channelled his struggles, illness, pains, and losses into a wisdom we could count on. He never stopped searching for depth of spirit. His book shelves were filled with the latest writings of Nouwen and Rohr and many others. He was the “Wounded Healer” of Henri Nouwen. In time of trouble we could go to him not for a pat on the back or cheap optimism but for authentic hope, the hope spoken of by St Peter in his letter. He would listen to us, respond, and then share from his own life. We missionaries would leave ready to continue our journeys on the road to healing.
Bob McGovern, M.Afr.