More than a year ago, Father Brian O’Higgins was home in Ireland.  We met for a meal and as we sat chatting afterwards he asked me to preside at the celebration of his funeral.  I was a little taken aback and I said:  ‘Sure Brian, I might very well be dead before you’.  ‘Well’, he said, ‘that is my wish in any case’. It was typical of the man that he had that amazing maturity to face reality – the reality of his illness and to make preparations accordingly.

Father Brian has indicated that today there should be no eulogies.  Not even from the Homilist.   I am quite happy to respect his wishes in this matter. At the same time, we know it is the wish of the Church that on occasions like this, the homily should help all present to see God’s love and the victorious death and resurrection of Jesus Christ present in the life and death of the deceased.  That makes my task much easier because the love of God and love of neighbour were the outstanding features of Father Brian life.

Since he returned to Ireland some weeks ago, Brian wrote a letter to his beloved parishioners in St Michael’s Parish, East Ham.  I think it deserves to be quoted in full and you deserve to hear it all…….

My dear friends,

By the time you read this, I will have left St. Michael’s Parish forever.

When I was in hospital last week, I was given the bad news that my cancer was much worse than previously believed, and that (at that point, and if I didn’t respond to the treatment they were giving me) I had possibly only days, and at the most weeks, to live.  Happily I responded to the antibiotics – but that hasn’t altered the fact that my time is now very short indeed.

So I have now gone to Ireland to be with my family, and in due course I will be admitted to a Hospice in Dublin where I will die.

I am sorry that I could not face the ordeal of saying good-bye to you all, but I lacked the courage and the physical strength to do so.  It would be too much for me, and too emotionally draining, because I have come to love you all, and to feel very much at home here.

I want to thank you all for the love and support that you have given me throughout my six years here in East Ham, and especially for the understanding and patience with which you have accepted, over the last three years, that due to illness, I was limited in the service I could offer.

I must thank all the people who help in the parish – Eucharistic Ministers, Readers, Servers, Singers and Musicians, Catechists, Flower Decorators, Launderers, Church Cleaners, everybody who helps in any way, but especially, I want to thank Christopher Lukose, without whose generous and constant help I could not have remained here so long. 

I am not afraid of death – I believe strongly that none of us need fear death, because we have a God who loves us and – far from seeking reasons to reject us – has already gone to considerable trouble to save us.  He has after all invested the life, death, and resurrection of his Son in order to save us.  He is not going to let us go easily

So my dear friends, I bid you farewell, full of confidence that we will meet again.
Brian O’Higgins

That letter says so much, so well.  ‘I have come to love you all and to feel very much at home here’ he says.  He loved his native land – its culture; its history and its literature and, above all, he loved its people and especially he loved his family.  But he also loved his adopted country – England – and above all, he loved his parishioners. 

I had the joy of visiting him in Chelmsford and in East Ham.  It was simply wonderful to see how easily and how affectionately Brian related to people of all ages and of all nationalities. 

I was preaching in his native Dundalk last Sunday.  It was Good Shepherd Sunday.  I said there that when I think of a good shepherd – I think of Brian O’Higgins.  Christ said:  “I know mine and my own know me”.  I know of nobody who exemplified that Christ-like quality better than Father Brian O’Higgins.

I first got to know Brian over forty-four years ago.  He had been ordained that summer and had been asked to go to Rome to do post-graduate studies at the Angelicum University, while living at the Irish College.  Today I want to thank God for these forty-four years of treasured friendship. We are here in the great missionary College of All Hallows – the College of all the saints – both living and dead. 

•    Here Brian studied and was ordained priest. 
•    Here he came to know and respect and admire so highly the Vincentian Fathers.  They were his friends for life.  This was a place that was especially dear to him. 
•    Here he built on the solid foundations of faith and love which he had received from his parents and family on the Carrick Road, Dundalk Foundations  which he had developed at the Christian Brothers Schools, Dundalk.
•    Here Brian learned to meet the Risen Christ in word and sacrament, in people he met and in the events of life.
•    Here he chose to follow the gentle spirit of St Brigid rather than the more aggressive one of Cuchullian.

In Rome Brian studied at the Angelicum University – or the University of St Thomas – to give it its full title.  Twenty years earlier one Karol Wotyla, the future Pope John Paul II, had also studied there under the learned care of the Dominicans.  Their motto is “Truth”.  In a lovely biographical note Brian’s friend, Father Stewart Fosters says:  “To the end Brian was a scholar, a voracious reader and wise counsellor”.  He researched meticulously and prepared diligently.  Father Stewart delightfully recalls once meeting Brian in the Catholic Central Library, Westminster. On asking what he was doing there, Brian bashfully replied that he was doing some research, on cricket.  He had been asked to preside and preach at the Memorial Service for the late President of the Essex County Cricket Club.  He felt his knowledge of the sport had grown a bit rusty and needed brushing up. So he decided to do so by looking through John Harriott’s columns in back issues of the TABLET.

Father Brian died on the Feast of the great Dominican saint, Catherine of Siena.  She once wrote in her Dialogue: On Divine Revelation: ‘With the light of my understanding, in your light, I have tasted and seen the abyss, which you are, Eternal Trinity, and the beauty of your creation’.  With the light of his understanding, but always in the light of divine revelation, Father Brian had also tasted and seen the abyss of the Eternal Trinity.  He certainly loved and admired the beauty of God’s creation wherever he found it whether  in people – in nature – in literature – in works of art. 

This came home powerfully once when went on holidays together to Scotland. It was most enjoyable because of all the people and all the information Brian had about everywhere we visited.  We visited gracious nuns in Largs – who had links with Tyburn in London; called on some parishioners in Ullapool; toured the Queen Mother’s palace in Mey; sipped some neat Scotch at John O Groats before embarking on a tour of Cistercian Monasteries in Moray and East Lothia.  It was quite a tour de force. 

Typically on his last visit to Armagh Brian came bearing gifts.  He had brought with him some original sketches commemorating the inauguration of His Holiness Pope John Paul II.  They were taken from the original sketches made in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, October 22nd 1978 by a distinguished Polish artist, Feliks Topolski.  Brian had ordered these from Blenheim Fine Arts Ltd and I now treasure them as wonderful mementoes of his many kindnesses to me. 

I think that Brian would not consider it inappropriate that his funeral is taking place in between the Mass celebrated last Wednesday at Arbour Hill here in Dublin for the executed 1916 leader and the Church of Ireland Synod this weekend in Armagh.  Right in the middle, in Dundalk, comes his funeral.

I can just imagine a sparkle in his eye and a chuckle in his voice at the idea – which I think he would regard as totally appropriate. For he was well aware and proud of his family’s Fenian and Parnellite  roots – as the wealth of volumes on Irish political history in his vast library indicates.  At the same time he was vitally interested in ecumenism, having served on the Catholic-Methodist Committee and as a Consultant to the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.  Bridge-building came naturally to Father Brian O’Higgins with his warm personality and respectful courtesy to all.

One of the prayers in the booklet at his bedside in the hospice was Lead Kindly Light by the servant of God, John Henry Cardinal Newman.  It goes as follows:

‘Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me

So long thy power hath blest me,
sure it still will lead me on.
Oer moor and fen, oer Craig and torrent till the night is gone
With the morn those angel faces smile which I have lost
Long saints and lost awhile.

  • May the kindly light of the memory of Father Brian’ life lead all of us on during these days.
  • May the kindly light of his patient endurance of suffering inspire us in our times of suffering.
  • May the kindly light of his admirable serenity in the face of death give us courage too.

Cardinal Basil Hume once wrote a piece about death:  He said:

“First thoughts of death are normally ones of fear and dread….But there is another voice that speaks within us.  It is not a voice that depresses and frightens.  It has a different message.  You have loved so many people in your life; are you to be frustrated and denied that love which you have sought throughout your life?  It is not so.

This is an instinct which speaks of hope leading to life after death…That instinct beckons us…Then faith finally takes over and triumphantly declares ‘It is so’.  The instinct for survival is a true one.  It does not deceive.  How could it be otherwise since it is God given?  Faith brings the reassurance which instinct was seeking’.

Father Brian O’Higgins could have written those words – he certainly believed them and he lived them.

May he rest in peace