Fr Tony Brunning’s Golden Jubilee of Priesthood

Fr TB_2

On Saturday 24th May 2014, Fr Tony Brunning (OP 1958), a Cathedral Chaplain at Westminster Cathedral since 2008, celebrated the Golden Jubilee of his Ordination (23rd May) with a Celebratory Mass at Westminster Cathedral. Below is the Homily that Fr Tony gave at the Mass. Concelebrating with Fr Tony was Fr Bill Wilby (Chaplain to St Wilfred’s Convent, London) who will be celebrating his golden Jubilee on 19th July.

Homily

This Golden Jubilee Mass is offered in thanksgiving to God. God is the focus of our thanks. We thank God for being who He is. He describes himself in our first reading from the prophet Hosea, ‘I was like someone who lifts an infant close against his cheek’. This is the God who offers the invitation to the priesthood. No amount of human effort or wishful thinking can produce the positive response: Yes, unless God chooses to offer the invitation. Today Fr Bill and myself say ‘thank you’ to God for inviting us to be priests.

So where does the invitation, the vocation, the calling, come from? To answer that question I cannot speak of the priesthood in general so it has to be a deeply personal explanation. For me, a priest is one who witnesses to the compassion of Christ in what, in human terms, are the most hopeless situations. God communicates through his co-creators. For me that was Mum and Dad. The seed of my priesthood was sown in me, albeit subconsciously, at a very early age.

It was sometime after my ordination when I began first to realise this. My mother, for the first time, described to me what she remembered happening on the saddest day of her life. With instinctive foreboding, she knew why the policeman was knocking on the front door on a warm summer day in August 1940. He broke the news that my father was dead, killed in an air raid on Biggin Hill Air Base where he served as a trainee meteorologist in the RAF Volunteer Reserve. It was hardly unexpected as it was in the middle of the Battle of Britain but a terrible shock nonetheless because you never think it will happen to you. The policemen at once departed, his polite offer of help declined and the neighbours, a gentle, elderly couple next door, took care of two tiny children, my sister and I, so that my mother could grieve at home alone. A little later the curate visited. He was from our local Catholic church where I had been baptised some three months earlier. There was nothing he could do. He simply embodied the compassion of Christ by his presence. In fact, next morning, he offered Mass for my father’s soul, on reflection, an act of infinite compassion… but there were no practical arrangements of a funeral to help with. As older people will know only too well, there are no individual funerals for those who die in war. Only the horrific experience of body identification, followed, at a later stage by the burial of the remains, such as they are, in a simple but impressively dignified, war grave. In retrospect, the seed of my vocation was sown in those circumstances.

 

Ultimately, the person who offers you unconditional love is the person who helps you most to love God and to respond to that love, and that person was my mother, though, knowing my inadequacy as no other, she argued with God, so she told me, about his wisdom of putting the idea of being a priest into my head in the first place. Her support, however, both before and after ordination, is undoubtedly the main reason that the grace of God has preserved me in the priesthood these fifty years. We believe that death does not sever the bond of love so, beyond the grave she is still supporting me alongside my father who also loved me unconditionally but was given such a short time to show it.

 

As I grew up, I was well served by the three influences on which the seed of a religious vocation traditionally thrives: Catholic home, parish and School. Being an altar server at an early age was particularly significant for me. At first I was forbidden to serve the parish priest’s Mass. He was so ancient that, on transferring from a kneeling to a standing position, he needed a pair of shoulders to lean on and mine were neither broad nor strong enough. They were, however, when I was still serving as a teenager, but by that time, the parish priest was dead. So it was the curate, whose early weekday Mass I regularly served, who inspired me most. He was neither demonstrably holy nor heroic, but quietly loyal to, and totally absorbed in, the early morning Mass and at any other time of the day could be relied upon to visit the homes of those in any trouble or need. (I grew to understand that spiritual need is more painful than material need.) In some ways, he anticipated the recent words of Pope Francis: The priest as shepherd absorbs the smell of the sheep by being available to and by identifying with, the wounded and troubled sheep of his flock.

 

Since those early days I have been influenced by a whole host of priests… Just look around at the concelebrants on the Sanctuary. Thank you for the inspiration of your example… and you are but a tiny fraction of the priests whose support continues to inspire Fr Bill and myself on our continuing journey of priesthood. Too many to name… but I beg this exception… and cite Fr Michael Hollings, who died 17 years ago, as the priest who more than any other, helped me, at least, to enter the mystery of the priesthood of Christ.

 

You may think that his book ‘Living Priesthood’ published in 1977 is a bit dated now. It is, in fact, a timeless classic. But it wasn’t anything he wrote or said that inspired me – simply that he shared his priesthood with me. He was parish priest of St Anselm’s Southall for eight years. It was my privilege, for six of those years, as curate or if you like assistant priest, to be invited to share his understanding of the priest as servant shepherd of the people of God. Sharing in this priesthood of availability was simply the drama of the Incarnation: coping with a whole variety of persons demanding tea, sympathy and much besides at all hours of the day and night. It reminded me of the man selling bibles outside a cinema showing ‘The Ten Commandments’. His placard read: you have seen the film – now read the Book. If he had been selling copies of ‘Living Priesthood’ the placard might have read: you have seen the film – (which included life and death, farce and horror in every imaginable form) – now you have experienced for yourself the drama of living priesthood, you don’t need to read the book! I am eternally grateful to Fr Michael Hollings for sharing his priesthood with me and encouraging me to share my priesthood with him.

 

It would be the worst case of ‘clericalism’ if I said that only priests influenced me in the fulfilment of my vocation to the priesthood. Religious sisters of a whole variety of communities have greatly inspired and supported me along the way, not least of which are the Missionaries of Charity with whom I celebrated a regular ‘soup kitchen’ Mass whilst engaged in full-time hospital chaplaincy.

 

If, in giving thanks for fifty years, we were to limit our appreciation to priests and consecrated Religious, we would omit a huge number of people whose friendship has been a great influence, inspiration and support to our priesthood. A friend in need is a friend indeed! As vulnerable human beings, Fr Bill and I have always been ‘in need’. Thanks be to God for so many loyal friends.

 

Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading: now I call you friends…because I share with you all that the Father has given me… I give myself to you. The saying: ‘We give the little we can – God gives the rest’ are words describing the priesthood and attributed to St John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars – the only parish priest proclaimed a saint simply for being a parish priest!

 

Some people have said to me, ‘Oh, you have given up so much to be a priest’. I would rather say, it is not so much what you give up as what you exchange it for, for God says :- ‘You give me your time, I’ll give you my eternity. You give me your humanity, I’ll give you my divinity. You give me your death, I’ll give you my life’.

Yes, I have given a little, but thank you God, for the wonderful bargain I have received in exchange.

Amen