In his latter years, Mgr Robert produced – with Anne Oliver’s help – a pleasing booklet, Priests I have Known. Well, he is a priest all of us here have known and many more than us and over no small stretch of time. He was prepared for priesthood at Blairs and then at St. Sulpice, which left him a permanent French connection. Ordained in Dufftown by Bishop Walsh on the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, 29 June 1952, just under the canonical age of 24. “Mummy – a child is supposed to have said returning from a Mass he celebrated in those early days – one of the altar servers said the Mass today” – so young did he look. Yes, a priest people have known: at St Peter’s in the Castlegate, Kirkwall (not his favourite appointment), Dornie, Elgin for so many years, Inverness, and finally in retirement at Fochabers. “You have described the perimeters of the diocese”, as Archbishop Mario expressed it with characteristic eloquence. And always that memorable voice, the gentle availability, the friendliness and helpfulness towards his fellow-priests, his generous loyalty to this Abbey of which he was an oblate, the acceptance of diocesan tasks (he was Treasurer for 23 years). “The pastoral dedication and gentle courtesy”, as Bishop Peter well expressed it. The fund of stories, often concluded with “Oh, dearie me!” A simplicity which made him an easy companion on episcopal holidays. A passion for lemons which did strange things to his teeth. Like his brother, a priest wholly of this diocese, embodying its uniqueness. It’s touching he was born and baptized (three times!) and confirmed and made his first Holy Communion in Dufftown, was ordained in Dufftown and died in Dufftown and will be buried there this afternoon – Dufftown, the town built on Seven Stills, Upper Banffshire, the Moravian heartlands, and also, thanks to Mortlach, the historical cradle of our current diocese. There was not a hint of the Central Belt in him, certainly. As so often, the last years were not easy, and much gratitude is due to all who helped a sometimes recalcitrant Robert through them, not least his sister Sr Monica – described to me as “the only person he would listen to”!
Somewhere, St Thomas Aquinas uses the phrase simplex sacerdos, ‘the simple priest’. There is something beautiful to it. Recently there has been much to remind us of priesthood: the passings of Canon Bill Anderson, of Frs Bernard McDonald and Peter Macdonald, of Canon Stanley, the ordinations of Frs Raf and Emmet and the jubilees of a bishop and two other priests. Now the passing of our man. ‘Priests I have known’: be it as Father or Canon or Monsignor or Provost or simply Robert, it is as a priest he was known and will be remembered: simplex sacerdos. And here we have it. ‘From the rising of the sun to its setting, you never cease to gather a people to yourself’. “My Father is working still, and I am working”, the irreversible opus Dei. And it’s no small thing to have ministered as a priest to those the Holy Spirit has gathered for some 65 years. No small thing to have proclaimed the Gospel and lifted up the Body of Christ day after day through those years and all their changes, social and ecclesial. No little thing to have said to numbers past counting, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, ‘I absolve you from your sins’. We can be grateful. It’s no waste of a life to have allowed the living Christ to live in word and sacrament in this one corner of time and place, for this small portion of humanity, over one long life-span, and to have done so simply, consistently, and – generally – gracefully. Praise the Lord, as the charismatics say.
Or think of the prayer of George Mackay Brown:
“[St] Magnus, pray for priests
In this time of hate
(Never such hate and anger over the earth.)
May they light candles at their altars
This day and all days
Till history is steeped in light.”
That’s what Robert did, simplex sacerdos: he lit the candles day after day. And now the Paschal candle, sign of the risen Christ, guards his coffin.
“In every church, says the old Irish Rule of the Celi De, the priest is to provide the rites of baptism and the Sacrament of Communion, and intercessory prayer for the living and the dead, and Mass every Sunday and every great solemnity and feast-day; with celebration of the canonical hours…It is right to show reverence to ordained priests…seeing that it is through them that the Kingdom of Heaven is to be won, by baptism and Communion and intercession, and by the Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, and by preaching the Gospel, and by building up the Church of God, and by unity of law and rule; and this is what is pleasing to God on earth.” Such was the life we are remembering.
Today would have been his 90th birthday. Today – feast of the Annunciation – is also in a way the first feast of the priesthood. The Fathers of the Church locate the priesthood of Christ in his humanity, the humanity assumed today of his virgin Mother. ‘You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation, prepared a body for me. You took no pleasure in holocausts or sacrifices for sins; then I said, just as I was commanded in the scroll of the book, ‘God, here I am! I am coming to do your will.’ Here the Letter to the Hebrews envisages Christ’s first human fiat, as the Gospel recounts his mother’s. It’s natural to think then of the sustained fiat of Robert’s life. Mary offered her body, her self, to the cause and call of God: ‘I am the servant of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.’ And when at the Last Supper, Jesus would say, ‘This is my Body which is given for you’, wasn’t it an echo of his mother’s self-giving? And when a priest says those words in turn, he knows very well their implications for his self, his body, his life. And so in the Church, which Origen calls ‘the house of obedience’, there is this continuity in God’s will. So the Incarnation is perpetuated, the Holy Spirit never ceases to gather and the Body of Christ grows in the world. Mgr Robert, the priest we have known, served that continuum. We thank him. It was good to have had him as one of the priests we have known. May angels carry him now to the heart of the Trinity. May the will of God be completed in him. May today’s Eucharist and the prayers of the Mother of God wing him to his rest. ‘God, here I am! I am coming to obey your will… And this will is for us to be made holy by the offering of his body made once for all by Jesus Christ.’ Amen.