04 April 2012

A tribute to a deceased priest-uncle

Tomorrow I will concelebrate the Chrism Mass in San Sebastian Cathedral, Bacolod City, with Bishop Vicente M. Navarra, whose Golden Jubilee of ordination to the priesthood falls on Holy Saturday. We will celebrate that on Easter Monday in the Cathedral.

During the Chrism Mass the priests renew their commitment in the presence of the bishop and of the people.

My brother alerted me to a beautiful tribute by rugby correspondent Matt Williams in yesterday's Irish Times to a recently deceased priest-uncle, Fr Brian Ryan of the Archdiocese of Sydney, Let's hear it for the Uncle Brians of this world. Fr Ryan, the son of Irish immigrants, was 85. His death led his nephew to reflect on his uncle's vocation to the priesthood. I've highlighted parts of the article.

FRENCH NOTES: Being part of a sport where the successful are lauded as heroes by media, we can lose sight of the fact that the real ones live anonymously amongst us, writes MATT WILLIAMS

IN THE midst of the glamour, drama and glory that is the Six Nations Championship, 10,000 kilometres away in Sydney, an old man died in his sleep and the world did not notice. He had never walked with presidents, captains of industry or prime ministers. He did not have the ear of the great. He held no media presence. He did not stride the world stage in any shape or form. He had never sought fame or fortune. Most of his days were spent with the humblest of society.

His life had none of what society would describe as success. Materially, he was poor. He owned no property and had little use of money. He was reliant on charity for more than 50 years. In that time nothing he did was measurable in terms of business productivity.

His actions never produced outcomes that accounts could label as profitable.

He died in great care, in a nursing home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Yet for six decades he was an agent of good in the lives of a countless number of people.

He had recently been given the use of a new TV in his nursing home and would have been looking forward to watching the Ireland versus Scotland game when he woke the next morning. A few hours before the Ireland match started, his life force left him. Brian Ryan died in the same way he lived. Humbly, gently and as far away as possible from the centre of attention.

The media laud the famous sporting personalities as heroes. The rich and the physically beautiful are placed on pedestals as examples of what to strive for. All too often the real heroes live anonymously amongst us. The ones whose lives have been lived for the good of others, they are the real heroes. Brian lived such a life.

He was a Catholic priest but I am not writing about religion. He was my uncle, my mother’s brother, but I am not writing about family.

Today I am writing as if in a fog of ignorance. I am trying to comprehend what would bring a man to give away the material world and give his life to an ideal of service of others in need. I knew my uncle well, but until now I never contemplated his life choice.

Since his death I have been contemplating the enormity of his sacrifice. To give your life so totally to the service of the weak and the poor is a commitment of indescribable proportions. His life was lived to the beat of a drum that is so radically different from what today’s society considers admirable that I had never fully comprehended the enormity of his commitment.

To ask a young talented person to dedicate their life to other people with no hope of material reward is almost unthinkable in today’s world. To be honest if it was your own child you would strongly discourage it. It seems a burden of unimaginable proportions. To give your working life on this planet to the poor, the sick, the broken and the lonely is to be considered strange or fanatical.

The Kardashians, Dragons’ Den and The X- Factor, these are what we hold up as templates for success. Material consumption, selfishness and physical beauty.

Brian chose to spend his working life ministering in the inner city working class suburb of Enmore. It has a large Portuguese migrant population. The tribulations of the migrants were well known to him, with a mother from Wicklow and his father’s family from Limerick. Typical of the Irish migrant, they valued education highly and Brian completed a science degree from Sydney University, before securing an interesting and well paid job with a large manufacturing company, only to inform his disbelieving parents that he was walking away from the material world.

This pathway led to a life spent helping the people of Enmore cope with an uncaring world; consoling a grieving family that faced an unstable future after the loss of its bread-winning father; helping parents cope with a drug addicted child; helping to heal the shattered heart from a broken relationship.

Some days were as vital as providing food for the hungry and safe lodging for the homeless. For years in hospitals it was holding the hand of those dying alone and helping them to leave this world with as little fear as possible.

For more than 50 years these were his everyday tasks. These are the tasks I hide from. The tasks I hope other people do. I don’t want to do them, they are too painful. It is too hard for me and let’s be honest, I am way too selfish.

I will give to charities. I attend some events to help the charity raise a few quid. This is like a balm on my conscience. In the last few weeks I have realised Brian’s commitment to his fellow man was simply staggering in its magnitude and mine is almost non existent.

He was not a religious fanatic. He never forced his beliefs on people. He was no “Holy Joe”. He was an ordinary man living an extraordinary life.

He loved his sport. He attended most games I coached for the Waratahs in Australia.

For years he was the unofficial chaplain of the Newtown Jets rugby league team. As he joked he did, “births, deaths and marriages”.

Newtown was the adjoining suburb to Enmore and “The Blue Bags” as Newtown were known, were the focus of the entire community for almost 90 years. Newtown had the same colour and jerseys as the Leinster team – the blue jersey and socks with white shorts.

They were demoted from top-flight rugby league in the mid 1980s as the number of Sydney inner city teams was reduced and teams from Queensland and Canberra were added to create today’s National Rugby League.

The pain and mourning in the community was massive. He told me once that the hurt done to the local people was immeasurable. A poor community does not have a lot to keep its pride. Having your local team competing with the best was a huge source of joy that was stripped from the people. I know he did a lot of forgiving in his life but I am not sure he fully forgave those who ended “The Blue Bags”. After a life of giving he had to live with the scorn and indignity that society unjustly collectively heaped on all priests after the emergence of the horrific stories of abuse and the shameful cover-ups.

He detested the abuses and the actions of those that covered them.

He saw justice and care for the victims and he bore the collective shame.

That took a lot of courage.

I saw him a few weeks before he died. After 85 years his legs were no longer mobile but his mind was as sharp as ever. He was happy and content. There was never a word of complaint, other than what the rugby referees are doing to the scrum.

Hemmingway said: “We are all broken by life, but some of us are stronger in the places where we were broken”.

Brian tried to heal the broken. Many of those he helped were stronger because of him.

Our world could do with lot more like Brian, but I fear his like are a dying breed. I am neither brave enough nor selfless enough to fill his shoes.

The planet is a much lesser place for his leaving, but humanity is far richer because of his commitment to it.


The Catholic Weekly, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Sydney, has an obituary of Father Ryan here.

Matt Williams's tribute to his priest-uncle gives me a boost as I prepare to renew my commitment tomorrow.

Prayer for Priests by Fr William Doyle SJ 

 Fr William Doyle SJ (born 3 March 1873, killed during the Third Battle of Ypres 16 August 1917)

O my God, pour out in abundance Thy spirit of sacrifice upon Thy priests. It is both their glory and their duty to become victims, to be burnt up for souls, to live without ordinary joys, to be often the objects of distrust, injustice, and persecution

The words they say every day at the altar, "This is my Body, this is my Blood," grant them to apply to themselves: "I am no longer myself, I am Jesus, Jesus crucified. I am, like the bread and wine, a substance no longer itself, but by consecration another.

O my God, I burn with desire for the sanctification of Thy priests. I wish all the priestly hands which touch Thee were hands whose touch is gentle and pleasing to Thee, that all the mouths uttering such sublime words at the altar should never descend to speaking trivialities.

Let priests in all their person stay at the level of their lofty functions, let every man find them simple and great, like the Holy Eucharist, accessible to all yet above the rest of men. O my God, grant them to carry with them from the Mass of today, a thirst for the Mass of tomorrow, and grant them, ladened themselves with gifts, to share these abundantly with their fellow men. Amen.


Anonymous said...

A very thoughtfull and thought provoking piece , thank you for sharing this .

Anyakee Peter said...