Homily for the Funeral of Fr Aelred Burrows
[Readings: Romans 8:14-23; Luke 22:33, 39-43]
Dear brethren, brothers and sisters, we have gathered today to pray for the repose of the soul of Fr Aelred Burrows who died peacefully on 18 February in his 77th year. He was born a native of Warrington and educated by the Xaverian Brothers at Xaverian College in Manchester. He first joined the community here straight from school in 1957 but left in the course of his first noviciate and went to read History at Manchester University. He returned to the monastery in 1961 and has been a monk of the community ever since.
Our community has some curious traits - one of which is to focus quite closely at monastic funerals on what members of the community have done. There is a positive side to this habit: it is right to celebrate the gifts that almighty God has bestowed in the community through the men he has called to live the monastic life here. Aelred was a talented man: a well-read teacher who had a gift for shaping the ideas he had read and transmitting them in a form which was easily assimilated. He first put this talent to use in the College when he taught History and Religious Studies for over 25 years. From 1976 until 1984 he was the respected housemaster of St Hugh's House. Shortly after his election in 1984 Abbot Patrick took Fr Aelred from this life as a teacher to be Novice Master. It was classical of our way of doing things at that time that he was given no preparation for this radically different role. I think that it is probably true to say that he was found preparing men for the monastic life in the late twentieth century to be well outside of his comfort zone and it was probably a relief to be spared this task after five years. Fr Aelred then began teaching again - this time giving retreats to lay people, priests and religious as the Warden of the Grange where he served for seven years before being sent on the mission, firstly to St Austin's, Grassendale, and then to St Joseph's, Brindle. Sadly his time on the mission was cut short when he suffered a small but devastating stroke in early July 2008. With great patience he lived the life of an invalid in the monastery infirmary until his death. You will probably have understood from what I have said that I want to underscore his talent as a teacher and his patience in eight years of patient suffering in the monastery infirmary.
Fr Aelred had a great love for sacred scripture. Sadly I did not ask when he was well what scripture passages he would want at his Funeral Mass so I have chosen two passages which it seems to me are appropriate for this moment. Fr Aelred had a great devotion to the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord. This was expressed in particular in his love of the Mass and Eucharistic Adoration. For many years he had a special relationship with the Benedictine nuns at Tyburn - he would visit them during his holidays, he gave their retreat on more than one occasion and he wrote extensively for them on the Eucharist. Alas, I have been unable so far to find those talks. What I am saying to you is confirmed in a letter I have received from Mother Xavier, a great friend of his for many years. She affirms what we all knew: that Fr Aelred's life was centred on the person of Jesus Christ and the saving work he undertook for our salvation.
The Gospel passage that I have chosen focuses our attention on the crucifixion of the Lord and on one particular episode in the passion narrative which is found only in the Gospel of Luke, namely the conversation with the criminals crucified alongside Him. It is a reading which speaks loudly to me - and I daresay that it speaks loudly to all of us. Each one of us, surely, is aware of our own sinfulness; just as Fr Aelred was aware of his sinfulness. Each one of us longs for forgiveness - and longs also for eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. Here, at the climax of his suffering, just before he breathes his last and yields up His Spirit, Jesus tells the repentant criminal that he will have a place in paradise. This is the great hope that we must take away from this Funeral Mass. This is the great hope that we find in the Eucharist - that we, repentant sinners, are friends with the Risen Lord, who will take us to be with Him in paradise.
It is into this context that we must place our sufferings. Fr Aelred suffered more than most of us. A gifted speaker and teacher he was robbed of the ability to read, to write and to speak freely and easily of what he knew and had experienced. The Church has taught from age to age that the sufferings of the members of the body of Christ are never wasted for they are joined to the redemptive suffering of the Head, Christ himself. It is my belief that Fr Aelred was buoyed up in these long years by what the Apostle tells us in the first reading today, "I think that what we suffer in this life can never be compared to the glory, as yet unrevealed, which is waiting for us" (Romans 8:18), it is my prayer - and I hope the prayer of each one of us here - that he is now experiencing that glory of God by which he was inspired and which he preached during his life on earth. I say this because in these years in the infirmary a person emerged who was quite different to the man I had known when I was a novice under his care. This Aelred allowed people to minister to his needs. He was a person who was usually smiling, usually placid, usually grateful for the fact that someone was there, for what they said and what they did. I want to pay an especial tribute at this Mass to the care offered by our infirmary staff. Without their patient and loving care I do not think Fr Aelred would have survived for those eight years.
And now what about us - for at every funeral it is important first to pray for the one who has died and then to take to heart the lessons that have been offered to us in the life of our brother. In this Lent, as we prepare for the great feast of Easter, I suggest that we seek to renew our love of the Mass - preparing carefully to hear the Word of God. I suggest that we prepare for the reception of the Eucharist with great care remembering the saving actions that are contained within it. I suggest that as we receive the Eucharist we ask the Lord to give us the strength to walk faithfully in the footsteps of Christ, including such sufferings as he might share with us, in order that we might be worthy to hear him address us at the end of our lives with the words he bestowed upon the repentant thief, "I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).