This evening we sang Vespers at Saint Joseph's in North Brookfield as a part of the Funeral Rites for Father William G. O'Brien, the pastor who taught me the most as a young priest. Here is the homily I preached.
Eighteen months after the founding of the Diocese of Worcester, in the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul, Bishop John J. Wright laid hands on the young Billy O’Brien from this town. Alice was there, and she would have heard the Bishop pray:
"…make this man a faithful steward of your mysteries, Lord, so that your people may be renewed in the waters of rebirth
and nourished form your altar; So that sinners may be reconciled and the sick raised up. May he be joined with his Bishop in imploring your mercy for the people entrusted to his care and for all the world."
And now, from somewhere beyond this valley of tears, I trust that Bishop Wright looks down on the Diocese to which he gave birth, and thanks God that his prayer was heard…his prayer for this good priest, the faithful minister of the mysteries, who fed us with the Bread of Life, freed us from our sins and prayed for us for sixty-five years.
Father Bill O’Brien was no ordinary priest and he had the greatest influence on me of any pastor I have ever known. It’s a bit ironic that when I arrived at Saint Leo’s as his Associate he was then the age which I am now. A man of keen intellect, ready wit and insatiable curiosity, he was ever striving for excellence…conspiring with Blaise for an ever more beautiful Church, laboring throughout the day at the Cape on an ever more glorious garden, or stirring an oversized pot for an even more perfect Coq au vin, or walking down a longer trail or a higher mountain, or devouring the latest theological or political controversy to master and retort for the benefit of all who would listen.
By the time I came to know Bill, as I mentioned, he was in his sixties, and no longer shared my newly ordained desperation to do everything or my relish for being at every meeting and event. On many a night, as I recall, he would come to one or two events and then retire to the Rectory, while I feverishly sought to renew the face of the earth. Usually between 10 and 11pm I’d return from my labors and hear from the top of the rectory stairs, “Good evening, would you like a little qual cosa?” And as I walked into his parlor I would witness a big pitcher of martinis and two hot hor d’oeuvres.” “So,” he would greet me, “how did it go?”
And I would spew forth all my brilliant ideas and passionate pastoral plans and he would patiently tell old stories and give gentle counsel. It was the best seminary any newly ordained could have hoped for.
One night I recall vividly, I had a particularly, though long since forgotten, insight into the field of catechetics. “I really think we should, Bill…” and I began my long proposition.
“Well,” he responded. “I don’t think so.” And he began to patiently offer me a mid-course correction to my plan. Then I tried a second time to make my case. To which he responded with an even slower, drawl-like exposition.
“Well,” I said, admitting defeat and lifting my martini glass in a kind of toast, “You’re the pastor!” To which we smiled and no one knew we ever disagreed.
But that’s not the best part of the story. Years later, upon becoming pastor in Spencer during some particularly challenging days, Bishop Harrington offered to send me any associate I wanted, to which I responded, I don’t want an associate, I want Bill O’Brien as my senior Priest. Friends of Bill’s and of mine told me I was a fool…he’ll never listen to you…he was your pastor when you were just a kid. He’ll never listen to you.
But it wasn’t, as one night sitting in his room assured me. We were talking about the Food Pantry, and Bill wanted to check government ID’s for everyone to whom we gave food. I gently suggested opposition to what I viewed as a particularly political approach to the enterprise, to which he replied with a more detailed and passionate argument. Somewhat hesitantly, I said, “no…I’m not comfortable going down that road, Bill.”
At which point he picked up his martini glass, raised it in my direction and with a wry smile said, “Well, you’re the pastor.”
And he said it because Bill O’Brien, lettered, cultured and brilliant, was more than anything else a priest of Jesus Christ, ordained not to preach Bill O’Brien, but Christ Jesus and him crucified for our salvation.
Being a priest was not what he did, but who he was, having been so conformed to the image of his Savior that it was through his hands that Christ fed us with his Body and Blood, and through his words that Christ forgave us our sins and through his preaching that Christ’s Gospel was proclaimed.
For you see the whole life of the good priest is devoted to conforming himself to the final words offered on the Altar of the Cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” All my hopes and my dreams…I commend to you, All my gifts and desires….I commend to you….All my fears and concerns…I commend to you….”Into your hands, I commend my Spirit.”
And winter by spring, on Altars in Worcester and Leominster, Spencer and Dennis, he offered the perfect paschal sacrifice, ever seeking to decrease, that the Paschal Christ might increase.
Which is why it is so good that we will return here tomorrow morning, where our Bishop and Great High Priest will offer the Sacrifice for Bill, for the forgiveness of his sins and his admittance to an eternity of refreshment, light and peace.
For, as the first Bishop of Worcester once preached at another Priest’s funeral:
‘The Mass to be offered tomorrow morning will be one of Requiem, but it is the same mass as Father O’Brien’s First Mass, sixty five years ago. The same Christ is offered. The same Priesthood is his instrument. The same Roman Catholic faith is expressed. The same God is pleased. The same persons present for this moment of passing sorrow as were present then on that morning of springtime priesthood.
‘The Mass which Father O'Brien then offered himself is no less efficacious now that it is offered for him. The same Christ with whom Father O'Brien was then united at the altar is even more intimately his life, united to him in eternity. Roman Catholic faith has been transmuted for him into a yet more perfect form of knowledge in the vision of that Divinity of which we saw only the broken reflections years ago.’
The last time I saw Bill was at the nursing home a couple of months ago. He was sitting there with his hat and coat, waiting for someone to take him home. Despite the confusion, he still recognized me, although I think he still thought I was his associate in Leominster. He stared. “That’s a rather tasteful hat,” I smiled at him. “I wanna go home. Someone better take me home,” he snarled at me. And then he smiled wistfully, relaxed and said, “but I can wait.”
He didn't have to wait long, as now, in the closing words of the Prayer of Ordination of a Priest, he has seen that place where ‘the full number of the nations, gathered together in Christ, has been transformed into Christ’s own people, made perfect in his Kingdom.”
And my only prayer is this, that the Divine Master might approach him at the heavenly banquet table, adorned with the finest and most sumptuous works of creation, saying, “Good evening….would you like a little qual cosa?”