Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Fr James Brown SSC
April 29, 2010, 8:30 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , ,

Sermon preached at the Requiem Mass, Holy Nativity, Knowle, 28th April 2010

It is a slightly daunting task, to speak about Fr James. He requested that there should be no eulogy at his Funeral Mass, just a homily on the Resurrection. I am not so constrained, but I only came to know him when he came to Holy Nativity, so this will not be in any sense a survey of his life, but simply an impression, or appreciation, of him by a relatively recent friend.

The priest who gave the homily last Friday referred to people who had known Fr James as a friend, as a faithful priest and as a good man. Those three attributes give me three pegs on which to hang my remarks. First of all, I remember James as a friend. At first glimpse, he might easily have seemed a reserved and rather austere man. Indeed he was, but much more. When you got to know him better, you discovered a warm and kind man, good company and generous in his concern. Several times he was our guest at home, and he showed evident appreciation of our hospitality. Others can testify similarly. When Marilyn was having treatment for breast cancer, he was assiduous in asking after her health, obviously anxious and personally concerned. On occasion, we went for pub lunches together, and I would have liked this pleasure more often, but for the second of the qualities I mentioned.

James was a faithful priest. That meant his pastoral concerns always took precedence over his private pleasures. I have been told how conscientious he was in visiting the sick and taking the sacraments to them. His sacramental ministry was at the heart of his vision of priesthood. To offer the Holy Sacrifice for the welfare of his people, to minister to them the Body and Blood of Christ, this was, for him, what priesthood is about. These priorities are often not recognised or understood in today’s Church. Our job is to bring people to Christ, the Christ who is ever-present in the Blessed Sacrament. We are teachers, healers, reconcilers and more- but these particular ministries are just aspects of our over-arching calling to convey Christ to his people. Our success of failure is measured by this alone: have we shown Jesus to the world? Have we brought souls nearer to Jesus?

Priests can sometimes seem, to those who view ministry differently, as over-concerned with the minutiae of worship. This is because we see worship as the supremely important human activity, worth taking pains over. I did not understand why Fr James had asked for his funeral to be held at St Silas, Kentish Town, until I went there and experienced the beauty of their worship. Elaborate, yes; old-fashioned, yes; but undeniably beautiful and sincere. I understood, then, what worship (the Mass above all) must have meant to Fr James.

“O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” The beauty of worship is ordered towards holiness, to our total consecration in mind and heart to the God of infinite Beauty and Holiness. Fr James was our local Vicar in the Society of the Holy Cross. When he took on that office, one of the first things he did was to insist that at every meeting we studied a portion of our Rule of Life. Priests should be the first to practise self-examination, to reflect upon their calling and their shortcomings. He wanted us to deepen our understanding of Scripture, the handbook of our faith. Priests must know what they are talking about, and they must show it in their lives.

You cannot really be a good priest unless you are a good man (although it is certainly possible to be a good man without necessarily being good at ministry). Talking to some of Fr James’ friends after the funeral, we all agreed that he was a very self-effacing man. He did not talk much about himself. Someone said to me, he often talked about things that had happened to him, people he had known- but in the end, very little was about himself. I have been wondering why this was. The answer I am led to is that Fr James was a very humble man. Humility is fundamentally self-effacing. It was as if James was almost invisible to himself, since it was never himself that he wanted to put forward. It may not have struck him that we would have liked to know more about him. Perhaps our desire to do so says something about our imperfect attitude!

I think, myself, that James was a bit of a romantic. It came out in his love of beautiful liturgy; it came out, in a rather different way, in his delight in “Doctor Who”. I certainly got a new perspective on him the day I was shown into his study, to find a large bookcase packed with virtually every Doctor Who video! He was fascinated to know of our son Tom’s involvement with the programme, and it was a sadness to us that our plan to have him over after Christmas to meet Tom and share his enthusiasm was frustrated by his final illness.

It was a terrible shock, at the end of November, to realise how ill he was. There had been rumours all through last year that he had health problems, but he consistently brushed these aside. Another aspect of his reluctance to let anyone focus on him. He hated to be the centre of attention. We must be so grateful to Fr Martin Hislop, his friend, who took him in and cared for him during his final months. I last saw him on Advent Sunday, when I took him Communion at home and anointed him. I also gave him a big hug, because I feared I might not see him again.

Every priest must be a man of the Cross. Yes, we bring the Good News that the Lord is risen, but we also bring to those who suffer the consoling news that the Lord himself has shared their suffering, drinking the cup of sorrow to the dregs. There is no glory without the Cross. Fr James knew this. He said to someone, “I have been preparing others for death all my ministry: it would be a pity if I could not take my own advice.”

Fr James was a kind friend, a faithful priest and a good man. I have defied his wishes in one sense, because I knew you would want me to talk about him. And because there is one more thing that needs to be said, and which I am certain he would wish to be said. However kind, however faithful, however good we are, we are all human and full of frailty. It is an awesome thing to pass into the presence of God. In Newman’s “Dream of Gerontius”, the dying man finds strength in the prayers of his friends; and as he stands before the throne of God, conscious of his nothingness, it is the echo of those same prayers which reaches him and sustains him. We are here not simply to remember with thanksgiving, we are here to pray for our friend and brother. Only the Church has the competence to decide if one of the faithful departed is a saint in heaven, in no further need of our prayers for their welfare. For everyone else, we have a duty to pray that God will complete in them the work of their sanctification. The Sacrifice of Christ is offered not just for the living, but also for the dead- those we call dead, at least, because to God all are alive. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon him. Amen.


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