There will be an opportunity to Gift Aid your donation, and/or to direct your gift to the brothers, or sisters or a particular house, after you have completed the final page on PayPal (PayPal account not required).

Sermon preached by Br Samuel SSF at Br Damian’s Requiem Mass

CY7D9EjWMAALR_5Homily preached by Br Samuel SSF at the funeral of Br Damian at St Michael’s, Alnwick, Wednesday, 3rd February, 2016

‘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.

The place where Damian and I first met was in a field near Bamburgh, at Budle Bay overlooking Holy Island. The occasion was the Franciscan Northern Camp, begun at Wooler in the 1920s by Fr Algy for young people from the North East, continued at Budle Bay after World War 2 by Br Edward, and then taken on in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s by Br Damian and others. At the time of that first meeting in 1972 I was neither a brother nor a member of the camp but a curate on pilgrimage with others from Liverpool to Lindisfarne. Our last stop before our destination was at Budle Bay and it coincided with the final Eucharist of the Northern Camp. The marquee was full of young people and Franciscan brothers and sisters; Br Michael, then Minister Provincial, presided and preached, and Damian accompanied the songs on his ukulele. As he played he bounced – from the beginning I’ve remembered Damian’s bounce!

What a host of memories of Damian have come together for his funeral and requiem Mass here today. Memories of brothers and sisters of the First Order, we who have lived and worked with him, who have laughed and cried with him; memories of Third Order brothers and sisters, and those of that fellowship of former brothers and sisters which we sometimes refer to as the ‘4th Order’; memories also from beyond our Franciscan family – from Scotland and Northern Ireland, from Birmingham and London, from Hilfield and the Channnel Islands and elsewhere; memories 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. Mavis, we are very conscious of your own memories of your beloved brother, known to you by his baptismal name of Roger, and we hold you very much in our thoughts and prayers this day.

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 around the country, 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. 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: Provincial Secretary, Provincial Bursar, House Guardian (a number of times), Assistant Minister and Provincial Minister – at one point managing three of them at the same time. I think that the only office he didn’t hold was that of Computer Advisor – and I can’t quite imagine him doing that! 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. I remember, when I was a novice, going to see Damian (he was then my Novice Guardian) to tell him that I felt under pressure from being overworked – the perennial cry of novices in every age – to be told by him that we both shared a vocation to burn-out by the age of forty five. It wasn’t totally consoling, but I’m glad that he lasted and flourished a good many more years than that.

However, it wasn’t what or how much Damian did that is most significant; it’s how he did it; for within all the energy and bounce, in harness with it, there was huge warmth and compassion. He had the gift of reaching out to people in their vulnerability and loneliness, in their weakness and brokenness, and in their sorrow and desolation, with kindness, sympathy and understanding. Like, Jesus, his 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. 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 stories of encounter which, as a handbook of pastoral care, can hardly be bettered. I’m not going to read from that here, but I do want to share a letter sent by someone whose life was touched by Damian and 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 precious 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.’
There was nothing shallow or fleeting in such companionship for it was always sustained and followed through with great faithfulness. One person, in prison on a life sentence, Damian visited once or twice a year for 39 years, zig- zagging across the country in his car to whichever category A prison the man had been transferred. He was hugely loyal, not just to individuals but also to institutions, to SSF and to the Church in particular. Nor was there any false condescension in him for he had a humble courtesy towards all people. Did you ever notice how he followed what these days might be considered the rather quaint custom of addressing men older than himself as ‘sir’?
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.

Having said all this, I’m aware that the half has not been told, and I’m sure that our sharing of memories and reflections will continue long after this service. But at the heart of it all, 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 of his life, is complete.

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