Homily for the Funeral Mass of Abbot Patrick Barry
[Readings: Isaiah 25.6-9; 1 Thess 4.13-18; John 11.17-21]
At the beginning of Abbot Patrick’s Funeral Mass I would like to thank you all for coming to Ampleforth to pray with us for our long-lived and much loved brother.
Before we begin the liturgy I would like to make a practical announcement: we had hoped to bury Abbot Patrick in the Monks Wood but there has been so much rain that the paths in the wood are too dangerous to use. We are therefore using the vault outside the Abbey Church. Here we have a different hazard: the steps inside and outside of the Church. Please take great care and do not rush: I will not begin the liturgy at the graveside until people have gathered. After the Mass and burial you are invited to make your way to the main hall where we will have lunch.
I would like to welcome a number of significant groups to the Abbey Church. First of all members of Abbot Patrick’s family. Many of you were here last year to celebrate his 98th birthday and I suspect many of us thought then that it would not be long before we met again. Then I would like to thank his many friends from far and wide who have been visiting him over these last years and who are now here to pray with us as we lay his mortal remains to rest. I thank brethren from so many of the English Benedictine Houses; from Downside, Douai, Stanbrook, Belmont, Ealing, Worth and St Louis; Abbot Christopher from Glenstal Abbey in Ireland and members of the Manquehue Apostolic Movement who represent, as it were, the wider Benedictine world. Lastly I welcome those Old Amplefordians and other friends who have made the journey to be with us. We have gathered to pray for this long-lived, remarkable man because we know that every human being who passes to the Lord looks to those who remain on earth to pray that their sins may be forgiven and that they may be admitted into the presence of the Almighty and Merciful God. And so that we may pray worthily for this intention we begin by pausing and asking forgiveness for our own sins.
Abbot Patrick returned to Ampleforth after twelve happy years in St Louis on 21 May 2009. He was nearing his 92nd birthday. He expected to die quite soon but as it was he lived for just over six years, dying on the 215th anniversary of the birth of Cardinal John Henry Newman to whose memory he had such a great devotion. In these last six years he frequently asked why God had given him such a long and full life – and why he was still alive when so many of his contemporaries had passed to the Lord. In this homily I cannot hope to answer such a profound question but perhaps it will be possible to begin to trace some strands which may, if we reflect on them, lead us to the beginning of an answer.
Abbot Patrick – he was always Abbot Patrick to me because he was elected to be Abbot in 1984, the year I came to the monastery together with Fr James and Fr Barnabas – knew the writings of John Henry Newman very well. When I asked him about the meaning of my life, he pointed me towards these words which are taken from Newman’s Meditations on Christian Doctrine: “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his”. A little later in the same meditation Newman continues, “Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about” (Cardinal JH Newman, Meditations on Christian Doctrine, March 7 1848).
Noel Barry was born in Wallasey, Cheshire on December 6 1917, the third of the five children of Thomas StJohn and Helen Agnes Barry. After two years at St Francis Xavier School, Liverpool, he entered Ampleforth College in September 1928. His father, a surgeon in Liverpool, had imagined that his son would follow him at the end of his schooling into the medical profession, but instead Noel decided to enter the monastery. He was clothed in the habit by Abbot Matthews on 22 September 1935 when he received the name Patrick. He made his first profession a year and a day later in 1936, his solemn profession of monastic vows in 1939 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1945. Brother Patrick had been sent to St Benet’s Hall to study Mods and Greats in 1938 and remained there until he took his degree in 1942. Returning to the Abbey he immediately plunged into work in the College teaching Classics and serving as Librarian. These were tough years in the College. No one had entered the community between 1941 and 1946 and so the community was very stretched. Patrick served under two headmasters, Paul Nevill and William Price, the appointment of the latter in 1954 leading to his own appointment as Housemaster of St Wilfrid’s. In 1964 Abbot Basil appointed Fr Patrick as Headmaster of the College, a post that he held until January 1980. A year later he was serving as an assistant priest in St Mary’s, Cardiff until he moved from our parish to the Worth Abbey project in St Peter’s, Dulwich in November 1983.
It could be argued that one purpose of a funeral homily is to try to make visible – insofar as one can – the workings of God’s grace in an individual life. One does that by looking at the life of a person one knows through the eyes of faith and in the light of the Gospel. Those members of this congregation who have a mathematical brain will have realised that in about 250 words I have summarised the outer lines of the first 65 years of Abbot Patrick’s life – what one might regard as the working life of most people. I want to suggest that these seemingly important appointments barely begin to define the real Patrick Barry. Instead I would draw your attention to three themes which I believe ran through these years: apprenticeship, immersing oneself in a tradition, and that creativity which is associated with those who know who they are and the tradition to which they belong.
Early in his monastic life Patrick began to learn about words. He learned about words and language in his study of Latin and Greek and continued this study of words and meaning in, among others, the writings of Newman and von Balthasar. He also learned about words as a man who cut letters in stone: first in the memorial stones to our brethren in the graveyard, then in the College Library and in this Abbey Church. Patrick immersed himself first as an apprentice, then I dare to suggest as a Master craftsman. His apprenticeship in words, in script, in letter-cutting and in printing paralleled an immersion in the spiritual life. Every apprentice encounters moments of unexpected success but also times of set-backs, even of anguished failure. Every apprentice suffers as he comes to know himself, his personality, his limitations, and, in the case of the spiritual life, his failure to follow in the footsteps of the Master, Christ himself. Whatever the outward trappings of success – and there were many – it seems to me that it is very clear that in these first 65 years Patrick encountered times of real suffering and trial which were graven deeply into him and formed him as a man and as a spiritual guide.
I think that it is important to stress this willingness to be an apprentice, this dogged determination to master a tradition because it was a characteristic which remained until the end – how many other men does one know who mastered the computer in his 70s, learned a new way of reading in his late 80s and discovered the new possibilities offered by voice-recognition software in his 90s? I stress this importance of being a willing apprentice in a living tradition because it is mastery of the tradition – insofar as we are ever “masters” – that sets us free to be creative and to follow the Spirit where it is leading us. This creative Spirit was, I believe, a characteristic of the later years of Abbot Patrick’s life to which I now turn.
Fr Patrick was elected Abbot at the age of 67 on April 5 1984. He led the community through 13 challenging years – but years which were also blest by new life entering the monastery and the first beginnings of the changes in our way of living the monastic life which continue today. In these years the community established a pastoral centre in York and a dependent house in Zimbabwe; there were the first significant changes in our relationship to the College and Junior School; and our relationship with Manquehue Apostolic Movement, initiated by the meeting of José Manuel Eguiguren and Fr Dominic, began to deepen and become a two-way exchange. As a young monk I believed, and still believe, that I had found a holy man, a spiritual teacher, to lead me into a deeper relationship with Christ – and I think that there were many in these years who thought the same. It seems to me that this emergence of an abba in our midst was quite a surprise for many of the community who had seen more of the intensely shy, formidably professional, headmaster and all that went with that role than I ever saw.
Abbot Patrick retired as Abbot in 1997 when his steadily progressing deafness increasingly cut him off from easy communication with the community he loved. In his years of retirement he resided for some 12 years in St Louis Abbey. We owe the monks of St Louis a great debt of gratitude for permitting him to discover a new and more relaxed persona. Freed at last from the burdens of office he could teach young monks and pray – two tasks which meant a great deal to him. He also deepened his relationship with the friends he had made in Chile and helped to set up the Cunaco group – men and women united in friendship, in the Benedictine tradition, and in the love of imparting knowledge and a Christian way of life to the young. There is something of a paradox here: for it seems to me that he was at his most creative and happiest in the evening of his life.
Permit me, please to turn now to the Word of God which has been proclaimed to us and the words of the liturgy in which we are participants. As you will be very well aware, when we are speaking about death Catholic tradition underlines the resurrection of the dead and I have chosen the readings today with that very much in mind. In doing this I am not trying to assert that Abbot Patrick has already been taken into the bosom of God the Father. We all knew him well enough to be sure that he was not perfect. We all know that he could be moody and complex – and that it could from time to time be quite uncomfortable for those on the receiving end of a rebuke or a withering comment. We are all aware of some of the sufferings that afflicted him – I think in particular of his close encounter with serious illness and death in October 2005 – when he was not always the easiest of men. But our imperfections are not the sum total of our story. My intention rather is to remind us all that our life on earth is but a beginning. In the Preface we shall sing, “… for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended…” (Roman Missal, Preface I for the Dead). We need to believe that, to live it as a reality. For our life on this earth does have a meaning as Cardinal Newman asserts and as Patrick accepted. And we do well to spend a little time when our brethren and friends die trying to read the Gospel in their life; seeing Christ at work within them. If we do that then we will pray for them as we are praying for Patrick: knowing that they are sinners just as we are all sinners – but not mourning as those who have no hope, for we believe that Christ is Risen, the firstborn from the dead, and He has promised to take us from where we are to where He is. This was the truth that Patrick tried to make visible in his life.
I have tried to underline also two other characteristic features of Christian discipleship which were important to Patrick, and which I believe to be of increasing importance in our world today. First I point you to the Gospel and within this Gospel to the deep and abiding friendship that Jesus had with Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Patrick understood, and I pray that we understand, the importance of deep friendship in leading each other into the presence of the God who is love. Often our world seems to be so inhuman because it has forgotten what friendship means. Our Christian life, our monastic life, urges us to rediscover the importance of friendship and plant it anew in our rather pagan culture. It was Martha’s deep friendship with Christ and the knowledge which that friendship gave that enabled her to say, “If you had been here my brother would not have died, but I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God he will grant you”. It was that same friendship which allowed her to say – even before the raising from the dead of Lazarus and before the resurrection of Jesus – “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into the world”. Our friendships, especially our friendships with other believers, are important because they can hold us true to our own declaration of faith – we human beings need deep and abiding friendships if we are to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
And finally I would point you to the importance of a shared meal. Centuries before Christ the prophet Isaiah spoke of the heavenly banquet as an experience of the presence of God. Christ himself took the festal Passover meal shared with the disciples and transformed it into the Eucharist of His Body and Blood. We are called into communion with Him and with each other through the medium of the meal – the heavenly meal and the earthly meal. In family, in monastery, among friends and in the community of the Church we are called to deepen the bonds of godly fraternity as we eat together.And so, dear brothers and sisters, let us pray for our brother, Abbot Patrick; let us offer this sacrifice of the Mass in his memory, begging the merciful Father to release him from all his sins, and to accept him into the heavenly kingdom; let us commit his body into the earth – and then let us share a meal together before we go our separate ways.