The death of Bishop Michael Russell will be mourned in great numbers by the people of Waterford and Lismore along with its Diaspora.
Throughout a distinguished lifetime of service to the Catholic Church, Bishop Russell was a highly respected figure, a steady handed type who exuded the sort of warmth not readily associated with men in such high office.
His death marks the severing of the link between the current Church and the Irish clerical group which attended the Second Vatican Council, one of the great Christian gatherings of modern history.
As a theologian, Michael Russell would have had a considerable grasp on his being witness to a moment of living history, guaranteed to provide long-standing implications for the great Catholic flock.
Among those who attended the opening session of Vatican II, which opened under Pope John XXIII, were four men who would later serve as Bishop of Rome.
These were: Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (Pope Paul VI), Bishop Albino Luciani (Pope John Paul I), Bishop Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) and a young German priest named Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI).
Father Russell, who was Professor of Moral Theology at Saint Patrick’s College in Thurles prior to his elevation, succeeded Daniel Colahan as Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, who had held the post for 22 years.
The appointment of a new Bishop remains a rare occurrence in the Irish Church; resignations, as anyone with an eye towards Cloyne currently, are rarer still.
To underline the rarity in changes at the top, Michael Russell was one of only six men to hold the Bishophood of this diocese during the 20th century.
For the record, the other office holders were the current incumbent William Lee (since 1993), the aforementioned Colahan (1943-65), Jeremiah Kinane (1933-42), Bernard Hackett (1916-1932) and Richard Alfred Sheehan (1892-1915).
And of this quintet, Michael Russell served the longest term of all, exceeding even John Paul II’s remarkable Papacy by two years.
By longevity alone, his unique standing in the history of the Catholic Church in Waterford is assured, but numbers tell only a small part of the tale of this much admired man’s life.
I remember well the excitement that coursed through my 12-year-old veins when asked to serve at the confirmation ceremony in my Portlaw back in 1991.
As a boy who took his serving duties very, very seriously (my 1992 Server of the Year win still occupies a proud place in my CV), the idea of serving a Mass said by Bishop Russell had me all abuzz.
Acting as a wonderful distraction to the acne that was just beginning to have me reaching for the Clearasil given my age, I got to Saint Patrick’s Church that Saturday in plenty of time.
Having been well drilled by our sacristan, Sister Teresa (RIP) into how to greet the Bishop upon his arrival, I was determined not to fluff my lines. I didn’t.
“Good morning, Your Grace,” said my diminutive self as the broad shouldered Bishop Russell arrived. I remember thinking that he seemed like a giant to me, but his voice was calming, welcoming and friendly.
“Sure we’ll all get on fine today, so you’ve nothing at all to be worried about,” he said to me, clearly sensing the apprehension at this big event in my life. Once he pulled his robes on, donned his mitre and held aloft his crosier, he seemed even more ginormous.
But, like one of my favourite book characters, Bishop Russell struck me almost from the off as a ‘BFG’ – a Big Friendly Giant.
And, just as he predicted, the duties demanded of me and my serving colleagues were executed without a hitch, something he made a point of mentioning once we’d returned to the sacristy.
Rest in Peace, Your Grace.