Fr Joe Brennan SMA
Funeral Homily – 3 March 2006
(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior)
Readings: Ezekiel 37: 12-14
1 Peter 1: 3-9
Luke 12: 35-40
“Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return”.
These words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy were prayed in St Teresa’s Oratory just two hours before Joe Brennan died, peacefully in his bed just two doors down the corridor from the Oratory. The words are a stark reminder of the inevitability of death. Ash Wednesday, perhaps more than any other day with the possible exception of Good Friday, is a reality-check day. On that day one cannot avoid the reality of one’s own mortality. We will all eventually decay as our bodies return to the state of dust. Joe Brennan had the fortune to die on Ash Wednesday. Even though in the end his passing was sudden, he had really been preparing to die for quite some time now. Given his general state of health when he came over to Blackrock Road from Wilton some four years ago, one could say that these years have been a real bonus. It is also, of course, testimony to the wonderful care provided by our staff in Blackrock Road, lay and cleric. Joe appreciated this care very much. It is only right today to acknowledge it.
A funeral ceremony would be a very morose affair if our focus remained on dust. A key ingredient that our Christian faith provides takes our mood from one of being morose to one of thanksgiving and celebration. Because our Christian faith asserts that for God’s faithful people life is simply changed, not ended. The state of dust to which our body returns is itself but a temporary state. We believe in the resurrection of the Body and Life Everlasting.
Even in the time of the Hebrew Scriptures the Prophet Ezekiel, some six hundred years before the coming of Jesus, was forceful in his declaration that God’s plan for his people was one of restoration. As our first reading this afternoon puts it, “you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your gravesâ€¦and I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live”. The focus here is primarily on the in-spiriting of the people and the restoration of the nation after the time of exile but it also evokes belief in a personal afterlife. This passage comes after that famous passage of the vision of the dry bones. The bones, being representative of the people of Israel, were dry because the people had no spirit in them. They had reneged on the promises through their sinfulness. But God never reneges on a promise. And so the bones will once again come to life and they will be resettled in their own soil. This will happen when God’s spirit dwells among his faithful people. The promise of this reading can also be interpreted on an individual level. God’s promise to us, in Jesus Christ, is that he will dwell eternally in spirit among his faithful people. This is a tremendous reassurance at the time of any funeral.
Our second reading from the First Letter of St Peter focuses on this theme in a much more direct way. St Peter tells us that “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has, in his great mercy, given us new birth as his children, by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, so that we have a sure hope and the promise of an inheritance that can never be spoilt or soiled and never fade away”. St Peter is in no way tentative about the proclamation of this faith position. We have a sure hope and the promise of an inheritance that will never fade away. This is a powerful expression of the Christian position. At death, then, we are not faced with doubt as to the future but rather with a conviction that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we too will rise from the dead. That is the faith we profess. That was the faith that Joe Brennan lived and taught all his priestly life. We take comfort in that faith today as we come to bury his mortal remains.
Joe Brennan was born over eighty years ago in Newcastle-on-Tyne in England. His early years were difficult. His father died three months before Joe was born. Some nine years later his mother died and Joe was then brought back to Co Kilkenny to be reared as a member of one of his cousin’s families. Ever since, he has been, as it were, adopted as a true member of that family. That there was a close bond among the members of the family is obvious from the fact that he spent long periods of time with different cousins throughout his life and from the frequent visits by various cousins during his years of illness. Attested to also by the fact that members of his family have come from very long distances and at very short notice to attend his funeral.
Economic hardship necessitated his going out to work at a young age. At fourteen years of age he was apprenticed to the coalmines near Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny. This was difficult work and it undoubtedly took a toll on his health for the rest of his life. He suffered from respiratory ailments for much of his life, probably caused by exposure to so much coal dust from an early age. After his time in the mines he worked for three years in the Irish Army, two years spent as a clerk in the Army Depot of Engineers and one in the Ordnance Survey unit. This was followed by some time working as a Postman and even a short period spent as a Bus Conductor with C.I.E.
Joe was accepted as a student for the SMA in 1951. Because he did not have a formal Secondary School education he came first for some months to the College here in Wilton. From there he went on to Clough-Ballymore and Dromantine. Throughout his student days he was regarded as a steady, generous, obliging, reliable and responsible student. The fact that he was eight to ten years older than his classmates did not deter him from participating fully in student life. He was a keen sportsman, being especially noted for his soccer prowess but had also through his Kilkenny rearing developed a keen interest in hurling, an interest he enjoyed right up to the time of his death.
After ordination in 1958, Joe was assigned to the Diocese of Jos in Nigeria. Here he worked in a variety of missions such as Akwanga, Pankshin, St Theresa’s in Jos city and Shendam. The tropical climate did not always agree with him but he soldiered on bravely until 1977 when he transferred out of Nigeria and eventually worked in pastoral assignments in the Diocese of Leeds in England. These next fifteen years or so allowed him to re-connect with family, whether back home in Castlecomer or in Leeds or Newcastle. In 1992, ill-health forced him into retirement to our community at Dromantine. He was to enjoy reasonable good health over the next six years, despite undergoing heart by-pass surgery in 1993. In 1998 it was thought best that he come South and so he moved to the Community here in Wilton. Further ill-health was to plague him with the development of the disease of Leukaemia. This necessitated frequent visits to hospital for blood transfusions. Initially such transfusions gave him remarkably renewed energy. Over time, however, they were to become less and less effective.
Throughout his sickness Joe continued to enjoy and exude a very placid and serene character. The question “how are you, Joe” often elicited the answer “terrible, Thank God”. He never lost his sense of fun or the ability to tell a good story [he shared his life story more than once with those who cared for him in St Teresa’s] and he could enjoy a good joke right up to the end. Perhaps more than most he was conscious of mortality but this did not deter him from living life to the fullest as long as it was physically possible. I don’t believe he had any great fear of death. This was because in the words of today’s gospel “he was dressed for action and had his lamp lit”. He may not have anticipated death to call quite so suddenly on Wednesday morning but my impression is that the master would have found him awake when he called.
Our gospel reading today is that familiar passage where the Lord reminds his disciples that they must be dressed and ready for action. This referred most probably to the necessity to be always ready to advance the kingdom; but it can equally be interpreted, as the Church has done so down the ages, as a reminder that we are not in control of life. It is in God’s hands to give and to receive. And, so, it is necessary to be prepared when the Lord sends that invitation. My sense is that Joe was ready for that call. Not in any morbid or compulsive sense but rather as something that would happen without fanfare in the Lord’s good time.
So, Joe will be missed. From listening to his family these days it is clear that you will miss his vibrancy and sense of fun. In the SMA we will miss his happy demeanour and his powerful voice as he attempted to state his viewpoint with some force at the Sunday Gaudeamus. And we will miss his refrain, yea yea yea. He will be greatly missed too by the staff of St Teresa’s who cared for him well and loved him dearly.
May his gentle soul now rest in Peace.