St Mary’s, Blairs, 3 July 2018
Wisdom 3:1-9 – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 – John 19:17-18.25-30
We’d all much rather we weren’t here and this wasn’t happening. Who’d have thought that two years and two weeks after his ordination to the priesthood, Peter would pass away? It’s a shock. St Paul says, ‘Don’t grieve like the pagans do’. But we do still grieve. His family, and we his other family, the family that had grown round him during his years in this diocese as a layman, a deacon, a priest, involved in so many ways in the life of the local Church and of people here, and further afield. Peter called Bernadette’s death untimely. We can say the same of his.
Yes, we’d all rather we weren’t here. Still, we are, and we’re doing a good thing. This is a moment to remember Peter, give thanks for Peter and pray for him, for his final repose, all stress and worry past. This is a moment when we can comfort one another’. It was in this church on 28 October 2011 that the funeral of Bernadette was held. The songs and readings are the same as were used on that occasion. She was everything to him. It was surely thanks to her that he was baptized and received into the Church on 21 September 1972, a month before their marriage. It was she who supported him in his choice of the diaconate. It was she who said to him, Should I die before you, I think you should go on to the priesthood. She was part of every major decision in his life, and probably most of the minor ones too. He missed her dreadfully. He was, in many ways, lost without her. Well, love is as strong as death, says the Song of Songs. It’s good to bring Bernadette into our grief over Peter, because she can help here too. She can change it into hope. That great Victorian poet of married love, Coventry Patmore, ended his poem Farewell like this:
“Perchance we may,
Where now this night is day,
Making full circle of our banishment,
The bitter journey to the bourne so sweet
Seasoning the termless feast of our content
With tears of recognition never dry”.
He wrote on the back of the leaflet for her funeral: “Bernadette’s faith was so strong, despite how we might feel, we should not be too sad at her death because she truly believed the words of the Lord: Í am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ Let’s believe them too.”
“The souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God, no torment shall ever touch them. In the eyes of the unwise they did appear to die, their going looked like a disaster, their leaving us, like annihilation; but they are in peace…for grace and mercy await those he has chosen.” So the Old Testament already. Peter, we could say, spent his life being chosen: chosen for faith and baptism at the age of 25, chosen to be husband and father, chosen to be a deacon and ordained in St Peter’s in the Castlegate on 18 March 2000, chosen to become a priest in St Mary’s Cathedral on 13 June 2016, chosen finally, abruptly, for eternal life. “Grace and mercy await those he has chosen.” Peter is one of those rare birds in our Western Catholicism who received all seven of the sacraments, and that as an adult, all the way to his final anointing by Fr Gabor last Wednesday evening. “One of the best of our students”, said his tutor for the diaconal course. But I liked the tribute from a Rector of Allen Hall, where he did most of his studies for the priesthood. There he was, thrown among younger men, back at essay writing after years away. “But he was like a grandfather to the young seminarians”. In his discreet, no nonsense way he encouraged many of them. It was typical of his practical kindness. He was just such a doggedly decent man. And talking of grandfather, who can forget how at the end of his priestly ordination a grandchild ran out to embrace him? Yes, it’s good that he’s taken to his rest, as it were, by the same Gospel as was his beloved Bernadette. By the cross of Jesus stand two families: his mother and his mother’s sister, his family by blood. And also Mary of Magdala and the beloved disciple: his spiritual family. Just as we do today. And “after Jesus had taken the vinegar he said, It is accomplished; and bowing his head, he gave up his spirit.” After the vinegar of his last days, Peter too could say, It is accomplished, and give up his spirit. He did so on the feast day of St Cyril of Alexandria, champion of Christ, the Word incarnate, and of Mary, Mother of God, and also a great commentator on the Gospel of John, including the very scene of today’s Gospel, and those words, “he gave up his spirit”. “He meant, said St Cyril, that he gave it into the hands of God the Father, because this is what Jesus himself had said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. Our own hope – says Cyril – is founded upon these words, for thanks to the goodness and mercy of God we surely have every reason to be confident that, when they leave their earthly bodies, the souls of the [righteous] are surrendered into the hands of a most loving Father. They do not haunt their tombs waiting for libations as some unbelievers imagine; nor are they, like the souls of sinners, thrust down into hell to suffer eternal punishment. Instead, they pass swiftly into the hands of the Father of all, along the way opened up for us by Christ our Saviour. Christ surrendered his soul into the hands of his Father to give us a firm faith and a sure hope that in him and through him we too shall pass when we die into the hands of God and to a life that infinitely transcends our life in the flesh” (Commentary on St John’s Gospel, in loc.).
Peter was deacon, a humble servant. He was chaplain to hospitals, including the children’s hospital, and to prisons, both Craiginches and Peterhead. He used his professional accounting skills, honed over many years at Shell, as diocesan treasurer. He administered this parish as deacon. Over years too, he was an active member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul. When applying for the priesthood, answering the question, Why?, he ticked two of the boxes: ‘I want to serve…I feel God is calling me to this.’ As priest, he had charge of our Lady and St John the Baptist, Ellon. He loved that parish and its people and they loved him. There was such a down-to-earth goodness about him. He would be a priest for only two years. Not his plan, not our plan. But during those years, he celebrated the Eucharist. Every time he did he would have taken the people he had care of, the living and the dead, Bernadette and the family, into the great Eucharistic Prayer. Now, Peter, we can take you into the same Prayer and present you to God the Most High. ‘It is accomplished’. Peter, thank you for all God gave through you. May he complete his work in you and, with those you love, bring you to the fullness of joy. ‘The best is yet to be.’ I quoted that line of Browning at your priestly ordination. God has made it true, not in our way, but in his – far better. May you rest in peace and your peace comfort us.