Funeral Homily of John Breheny

Fr John Breheny SMA

Funeral Homily – 25 April 2006

(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior at St Kevin’s Church, Keash, Co Sligo)

Readings: Isaiah 25: 6-9
1 John 4: 7-11
John 6: 35-40

If there is any such thing as a good time to die, then to die within the octave of Easter is not such a bad deal. These weeks the liturgy bombards us with resurrection imagery: the appearances of the post-resurrection Jesus the Christ testify that when he said while on earth “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again” he was not joking. The confidence with which Peter and companions go about healing in the name of Jesus and accounting for their actions with boldness before the Sanhedrin proves the truth of that extraordinary and eternal paradox of Christianity, namely, that new life can only come through death. During this Eastertide the Paschal or Easter candle is lit throughout, as it is lit at all funeral Masses. It is intended to be a symbol of the risen Lord among his people. His presence is light, shedding this light on the meaning of life. The candle is an invitation to those who seek this light in their lives to search the Scriptures if they wish to embrace the teaching of Jesus found there.

John Breheny has now embraced death, after a debilitating sickness that just sapped away at his powerful physique in a slow and relentless march towards decay. Our faith assures us that beyond this death he has begun a new life. John spent a great deal of his life searching the Scriptures; from there he embraced the teaching of Jesus. The teaching on the resurrection was one of the most profound truths that John embraced. With this faith he consoled the bereaved throughout forty-five years of missionary priesthood. It is with this faith too that we console the bereaved today as with confidence we pray John home into the God he tried to serve faithfully and well all his life.

Our opening reading this afternoon reminds us that in God’s plan the mourning vale would only be a temporary thing. Our Christian faith assures us that at death life is changed, not ended. We will reaffirm this faith in our Preface prayer of this Mass shortly. But even long before the coming of Jesus, God was assuring his people through the Prophet Isaiah that he was preparing for all peoples a banquet of rich food, that he was going to remove the mourning veil and the shroud of death enwrapping all nations because he would destroy death for ever. We know that he did this completely in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We know that God never reneges on his promises so we can be assured that our present mourning will pass into celebration and rejoicing.

Our gospel reading today contains a powerful reflection on eucharist and resurrection. “I am the bread of life”, Jesus tells us, “whoever comes to me will never be hungry”, and “the will of the one who sent me is that I should lose nothing of all that he has given to me, and that I should raise it up on the last day”.

John Breheny was born into a family of two boys and two girls in the townland of Knockoconnor in this parish of Keash over seventy-four years ago. He did his primary studies locally and some years then passed before the vocation to missionary priesthood took hold. Faith and religion were obviously revered in the Breheny household. Three of the four children joined religious life: Sr Assumpta joined the Mercy Sisters and Kevin was ordained with St Patrick’s Missionaries, Kiltegan, and gave many years as a missionary in Kenya.

At the age of seventeen John began secondary school studies at the SMA college, Ballinafad. This must have taken great courage, particularly for a man who was basically shy, to join a group of boys four and five years his junior. But he persevered with quiet resilience and this quality of perseverance in difficulty was to characterise his life right up to his death. Even in his sickest days John still refused to give up the fight.

There is a saying that goes“He does not believe who does not live according to his belief”. I said earlier that John searched the Scriptures and embraced the teaching he learned there. Another of these teachings is that we should “love one another since love comes from God and everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God”, as we read this afternoon in the second reading from the first letter of St John. John Breheny had a great love for people. For such a big, strong, physically powerful man he had an equally big heart. He had enormous kindness. In his quiet, gentle, self-effacing and at times even self-deprecating way he witnessed to the love of Jesus as he went about his pastoral duties. And nowhere was this love more evident that with the members of his own family. He had the facility to be equally at home with young or old. I’ve learned that during his holidays he would frequently go off for the day with his nieces and nephew either to the beach or some other place where they could enjoy a day of fun together.

After ordination in 1960, John was assigned to the diocese of Monrovia in Liberia. He was to spend the next fifteen years in various parishes in this diocese. He is still held in fond memory by the old folk in such parishes as Kakata, Sanniquelle, Gbarnga and Yekepa. On Saturday last, I talked to Fr Chris Bennan SMA as he was driving along the road from Monrovia to Yekepa. He told me he would relay to his people the news that John had died and was sure that the news would be greeted with sadness and mourning. But it would also be greeted, he was sure, by recounting stories of the missionary who with his own hands had physically established the infrastructure of churches, clinics, hospitals and schools. There must be something about this parish of Keash that produces missionary builders. Just last year at the funeral Mass here for Fr Rickie Devine SMA I spoke about Rickie prowess as a builder. John too was gifted with these skills. John was very gifted with his hands and so not only did he organise building teams to construct church plants but he frequently used his own strong hands to construct the buildings.

In 1975 ill-health was to force John to return from the tropics. The esteem in which he was held by all is well attested by the correspondence between the various superiors in organising his coming home. In fact, John’s file is one of the smallest in the Provincial’s office; a sign of a quiet presence, a ‘no palaver’ man. He was seen as a solid missionary who simply needed time to rest and recuperate. So, after a short time at home and a very short stint on mite-box collection here in the West of Ireland, in 1976 John was assigned to the parish of the Sacred Heart in Stopsley, Luton, England. That he was well loved by the people there is surely evident from the large numbers who have come from Luton for this funeral liturgy.
John was to spend the next thirty years in Luton. He enjoyed the place and the people; he was content and fulfilled in his priesthood; but the desire to return to Africa never left him. He made a number of requests to the Provincial to return. Apart from a short visit in 1986 his wish was never to be granted. John accepted the reasons given without protest, in his customary disposition of recognising that in life things don’t always go your way and at such times the proper response is acceptance because there may be very good reasons why one’s plans did not work out.

John had a huge knowledge of the parish and people of Sacred Heart. He spent the vast bulk of his time there as the co-worker of Fr Eugene Connolly. They made a good team; hard to replicate, and their service to the people was unstinting. One sensed that they had a rapport and a bond that was unarticulated and I’m pretty sure never discussed. It was not always rosy in the garden but there was a huge trust one of the other. In fact, one might even speak of a type of telepathic connection as when in the early hours of Saturday morning last Fr Damian was called for the second time to attend at John’s bedside he met on the corridor at 3.00am Fr Eugene making his way to John room. No one had called Eugene. It was as if he knew in some pre-conscious way that John was about to die.

When Fr John Brown took over from Fr Connolly as parish priest in July 2000, he found John Breheny to be an invaluable assistant. His knowledge of the parish and all things connected to the parish was remarkable. His meticulous attention to detail was legendary, whether it be filling financial returns for diocese or taxman or attending to the Board of Governors of the school. He devoted enormous attention to the schools. He was loved by both staff and pupils. It was very heart-warming to see the volume of hand-made get-well cards he received from the pupils of Sacred Heart schools in the last few weeks. Every pupil must have sent their own personal card. John’s interests ranged widely from affairs of church to the Vauxhall motor plant to Luton Town soccer club. I’m sure the people of the parish could talk for days of the different contributions John made to their parish. My memories are happy ones of visiting the parish to see how the deacons of the day were doing or later checking how the parish was fulfilling the criteria of an SMA parish. At every visit John was the essence of courtesy and hospitality. One could sit for hours in the kitchen just listening to his fond stories or opinions on this, that or the other.

In a real sense there is something profoundly timely in the fact that in June of this year SMA will hand back to the diocese of Northampton responsibility for the parish of Sacred Heart. John greeted this decision, as did we all, with sadness but resignation. What SMA has done in that parish will live long in the memory of its people. John Breheny’s contribution to that story was immense. The Father will not be short changed in gratitude.

John’s earthly journey has now reached its end; so, after his faithful and eventful life we are now ready to speed him home to God.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam dilis.