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RIP – DAMIAN SSF

Damian SSF

From a homily preached by Br Samuel at the funeral of Br Damian

‘Jesus the Master speaks, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit”. John 12.24.  So begin the Principles of the Society of St Francis which are read by us day by day through each month.

What a host of memories of Damian have come together for his funeral today: our memories as brothers and sisters of the First, Second and Third Orders, we who have lived and worked with him, who have laughed and cried with him; memories also from beyond our Franciscan family – from different parts of the UK and abroad, from parish visits and missions, from retreats and conferences which Damian has led, and from other religious communities; from his time as an accountant with USPG before he joined SSF. And before that, of course, there are memories of home and family in East Grinstead and Hertfordshire.

What a remarkable person we have known in Damian. I’ve worked out that, since joining SSF just short of fifty years ago, he has lived in seventeen different SSF houses, and one might add, all stops between as he travelled, or rather swung, like a trapeze artist between them. When I succeeded him as Minister Provincial in 2002 I inherited his car. It was a good car, as it needed to be for there were nearly a quarter of a million miles on the clock! He was a man of great energy and ability. Over the years he held all the major offices of the Society of St Francis; the only office that passed him by was that of Computer Advisor!

And that was just within SSF. In his wider ministry he was at various times hospital chaplain, parish priest, chair of school governors, trustee and often treasurer of a number of charities, a key member of the Bishops’ Advisory Council for Religious Communities, and an ecumenist between different churches and religious congregations; all this besides being a prodigious letter writer, a friend and spiritual guide to seemingly countless people, and let us not forget, a fan of Doris Day! No wonder that he often arrived at meetings and engagements close to the deadline and rather out of breath, or that he managed over the years to collect an embarrassing number of speeding tickets.

However, it wasn’t how much Damian did that is most significant; it’s how he did it. Within all the energy and ‘bounce’ there was huge warmth and compassion. He had the gift of reaching out to people in their vulnerability and loneliness, in their sorrow and desolation, with kindness, sympathy and understanding. Like Jesus, the Master, he touched people at their point of deepest need. I expect that most of us here have been recipients, beneficiaries, of that gift of kindness at some point of our lives. We have experienced his generous, patient, compassionate friendship. There was nothing shallow or fleeting in such companionship for it was always sustained and followed through with great faithfulness. He was hugely loyal, not just to individuals but also to institutions, to SSF and to the Church in particular.

Nowhere was that ministry of compassion exercised more intently than during his time as chaplain at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast during the 1980s. Out of that ministry Damian wrote a short book, ‘Windows into caring’, a collection of encounters which, as a handbook of pastoral care, can hardly be bettered. I’m not going to quote from that here, but I do want to share a letter sent by someone who is unable to be present at his funeral. She asked me to read this:

‘During the last 30 years the companionship of Brother Damian on my faith journey has been what I can only describe as a priceless and very special gift. During one dark and difficult time he wrote the words, “This comes with a longing to share God’s love with you and to assure you of our union with Him through the tough times and the joys, sometimes so incredibly intertwined.” I have called these words to mind at various times since.’

In all this there went a joyful simplicity, a delight in God’s providence, and a sense of fun. His car, when he was Novice Guardian had the number plate NRO, which he said stood for ‘Not Really Ours’. As Provincial Bursar he was never tight with the community’s funds, he just didn’t believe in us spending much money on ourselves; he preferred to give it away to someone else. The readings for this service, from the prophet Micah about doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God, and from Luke’s gospel about putting aside anxiety, considering the lilies, and seeking the Kingdom, are those set for the feast of St Francis, and a more truly Franciscan brother it would be hard to meet.

At the heart of this deeply Franciscan life, was Damian’s relationship with his Lord. He came from a Scottish Presbyterian background and an evangelical understanding and commitment stayed with him throughout his days. Every time he received the sacrament he would whisper, ‘Thank you Jesus’. This was no pious affectation for it arose out of a deep sense of gratitude to God in Jesus Christ which formed and shaped his life. He wanted, quite simply, to live the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in and for the world – to lose his life with Jesus in order to find it in the heart of God.

‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit’. That was what it was all about for Damian – practicing/rehearsing the ‘secret of fruit-bearing’ for fifty and more years – so much so that when the diagnosis of a brain tumour was given him at the beginning of last year he didn’t have very much more ‘practicing’ to do in order to hand his life calmly and gratefully back to God. Those who have cared for him over the past year, both at Alnmouth and at St Oswald’s Hospice in Newcastle, have remarked on the peace and joy of his last days. It’s appropriate that the 17th January, the day Damian died, was the anniversary of his profession in life vows forty three years before, the day when he gave away his life to God as a Franciscan brother. Now that ‘giving away’, that self-offering, is complete.

Thank you Damian, dear brother, for showing us how to do it; and thank you, Jesus, that we now have another brother where it counts, close to the Father’s loving, compassionate and joyful heart.

 

Brother Damian SSF died on 17 January 2016, and his funeral Mass was held at St Michael’s Church, Anwick. He was aged 75 and in the forty-seventh year of his profession in vows.