A man who thought about the world and prayed to God

Homily from Fr Ian Howell SJ's funeral given by Fr Brian F McCoy SJ, Thursday 5th May, 2022, St Ignatius Parish, Toowong QLD.

Ian Howells Funeral,
Thursday May 5th 2022, St Ignatius Parish, Toowong QLD

Ian died on Saturday night 23rd April at 11.45pm. Covid gently pushed his already fragile body from this life into the next.

The words of remembrance we have just heard paint the story of a very remarkable person that, in all sorts of ways, we have all been privileged to know. In his final year at Xavier College in 1948 his contemporaries included future Jesuits Peter Quin and theologian Gerry O’Collins and a future Governor of Victoria, Jim Gobbo. He could have achieved a rich academic life with international fame and status.  Instead, and to the horror of some of his University mentors, he decided to join the Jesuits. ‘Why did you become a Jesuit?’ someone once asked him. ‘It was what God was calling me to be’ was his simple reply.

While Ian was drawn deeply into his faith in Jesus, he also had the capacity to be drawn into incredible depths of awareness of the material world around him. Some stories are legendary. Captivated by a vapour trail of a plane, or the movement of satellites that began to orbit the earth, or a set of numbers, he could surprise many with his quick observation skills and his mental analysis of them.

His contemporaries tell the story of a train trip which Ian and another Jesuit in their early studies shared from Watsonia to the City of Melbourne in the early 1960s. They entered a carriage where people sat quietly or were reading the daily newspaper. The two Jesuits, one in his early twenties and Ian in his thirties were in their clericals.  As they headed towards the city another train passed by going in the opposite direction, with a whooshing eee-aww doppler effect change of sound. Ian (who had perfect pitch) was heard humming both notes up and down as he registered the change of frequency while doing some mental arithmetic. ‘The difference between our relative speeds was 45 mph’ he noted. Not surprisingly, heads rose from newspapers.

Earlier we heard those words from St Paul in the reading from 1 Corinthians: ‘I give thanks to my God for you … for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind.’ Today, we give thanks for Ian’s many, and some extraordinary, gifts which have enriched so many in our world.

Ian never used his academic qualifications to boast that he was dux of Xavier College and the top Catholic student in the State in 1948 at the age of 17; that he completed a Doctorate at Cambridge at the age of 28 or that his uncle, Sir John Eccles, not only was a Nobel Prize winner but also an Australian of the year. He never referred to his thesis and the interest it appears to have evoked within Russia and NASA. Russia, we might remember, had stolen an advance on America with the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. This was 1957 when Ian was 26 and studying at Cambridge. The title of his thesis: The Scattering of Waves by Turbulence, s study of complex movements in liquids and gases, now seems highly ironical considering Ian was the calmest of men.

Ian’s intellectual pursuits ran seamlessly alongside his pastoral and priestly ones. His exceptional mathematical skills were shared with the Universities of Melbourne, Adelaide and Queensland. His pastoral ministry was mainly based in the Jesuit University Colleges in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. He also served as Chaplain to the Universities of Adelaide, Brisbane Universities and Queensland. Apart from one year, 1989, he spent nearly the last four decades of his life in Queensland.

While he was renowned for his intelligence, he had the ability to converse on all sorts of topics, loved to sing and enjoyed music. He went about his ministry with peace and equanimity. It was if he could rise above mundane matters and what often concerned and irritated others. He never criticised or complained. Someone once asked him, ‘Do you ever feel stressed or upset?’ ‘No’ was the reply …maybe I should’. The latter said with a smile.

The prophet Micah asks: With what gift shall I come into the Lord’s presence? The answer: This is what the Lord asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God. Ian gifted our lives gently, humbly and with compassion for all. 

The year 2010 enabled us to celebrate Ian’s golden jubilee as a Jesuit and in 2017 his golden jubilee as a priest. In 2010, Fr Adolfo Nicolas, then the Jesuit Superior General, wrote: ‘Ian, you have made good use of your gifts of mind and heart. You have inspired many to see God in all things created and Christ as the goal. You have lived on the frontiers of expanding human knowledge, bringing a Christian perspective.  You have helped many, particularly students, to share this vision. At the same time, you have remained always a pastorally-minded priest, helping those who came to you with the common sufferings of life. In Jesuit communities you have been a very generous and cheerful companion’.

At one time, Ian was asked:

Do you think about your childhood? ‘Not really’.

Do think about your years at Cambridge? ‘Yes, occasionally’.

Do you think about your years as the University Chaplain? ‘Yes, sometimes’.

Do you think about God? ‘I don’t think about God. I pray to God’.

Ian Howells (Left photo: bottom right)

Ian’s health deteriorated several years ago and in 2016 he went into St John’s Aged Care. A cloud of dementia began to settle around him and yet he remained cheerful, positive and prayerful.

In the resurrection story that we have just heard from John’s gospel we can only imagine the power and intimacy of that moment when Mary Magdalene, in all her grief, pain and confusion, hears Jesus speak her name. And we know, and not just in our Australian context, how this pandemic has caused so much hurt when it separated, especially the elderly, from the presence and voices of those who loved them.  But this was not to be for Ian.

Only a short time before he died Ian came out of his mental fog and said to his faithful friend Kath: ‘You show God’s love to me’. A little later he added, ‘It’s true’. As if, like Mary Magdalene in the gospel, and despite all the barriers of lockdowns, masks, vaccines and PPE suits, God’s personal and loving voice broke through into Ian’s mind and heart. And, as Jesus reminded Mary about himself, it is now time for us to let Ian go and into that eternal embrace of the Father.

When covid finally took him from this world, he joined a company of more than 200 Jesuits from around the world, and thousands of other Australians, who have died with or from covid. Unlike many, he was blessed to die without pain or anxiety and with human care and divine companionship close to him.

As many of you know, and we have heard again today, when you visited Ian at St Johns and were about to leave, he would often say, ‘Blessings on you!’. On this day, as we take his body to final rest in this ancient land of the Turrbal and Yaggera people, I ask you to join me in asking the Lord’s rich and eternal blessings upon him.

‘Blessings on you, Ian!’

Fr Brian F McCoy SJ


Main photo: Fr Vince (left), Fr Peter Butler (middle), Fr Ian Howells SJ (right).