In memory of a true shepherd … homily given by Fr. Tod Nolan, Newport, at the month’s mind for Fr Pat Burke (Westport, 25th July, 2018)
You might recognise the readings we chose for this evening’s Mass. They are the first reading and the Gospel from last Sunday. I chose them because there’s s a lot of talk in them about sheep and shepherds and when there’s talk about sheep and shepherds I can’t but think of Patrick Burke, for whose month’s mind we are here today. In the first reading God promises to ‘raise up shepherds to look after his people’ and in the Gospel we are told that Jesus had pity on the crowds who followed him because they were ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. Traditionally as church we have understood such references to refer to priesthood and the priest as the shepherd to his flock. The relationship between the shepherd and his flock is likened to that of a priest and his people.
I know of no priest more worthy of the title ‘shepherd’ than Fr Pat Burke. The last time he visited me in Newport, having just come from farming down in Kilmeena, he literally smelt of sheep. Pat loved nothing more than shepherding sheep. It was where he was most at ease and where he found great joy. But of course I exaggerate! Pat loved one thing more than shepherding sheep – he loved priesting his people. That was where he found his greatest joy and his deepest fulfilment. Patrick was a good priest, a holy priest, a caring priest. Patrick was a good shepherd. His loss to his family and to the communities he served is devastating, his loss to priesthood, to our diocese and to his fellow priests immeasurable.
One evening last week the priests of the surrounding parishes met in my house in Newport to pray, to share some food and to chat about Pat and how his untimely death has affected each of us. Usually any such gathering will fizzle out in about an hour or two – we are very busy you know! Our gathering last Tuesday night week lasted six hours. In that time we shared memories, we laughed and we cried, we were upset and we were angry, we acknowledged our pain and we took comfort in our silence, we told our stories as we listened with our hearts but above all we recognised our communal and profound gratitude for having had the privilege of sharing an all too brief a part of our priestly journey with our friend and colleague Fr Pat Burke.
In a way Patrick, unknown to himself and to us as priests, had represented our hope for the future. He was at the same time the last of one generation of priest and the beginning of another. He personified an assumed and unspoken assurance that the priesthood which we shared had a future, and he represented that future. In a strange way his sudden death has left us, as priests lost and looking for a shepherd.
Where do lost shepherds find their shepherd? Where will we find a flicker of light in a time of darkness? Where is our hope?
As priests our hope is in the people we are so privileged to serve. It is in your faith, your generosity, in your humanity. Our hope lined up in their hundreds to pay their respects to Patrick and to offer their sympathy not just to his mother and father and his family and but also to his family of fellow priests. Our light in this time of darkness comes in the faith of our people which sees beyond our weaknesses and limitations, that allows for our obvious inadequacies and which supports us and sustains us with their faith when we need it most. When we are lost you shepherd us.
We shepherd each other through our friendship, care and concern for each other. Priests can sometimes feel isolated and alone – outside of and cut off from the flock. One of Patrick’s greatest gifts was his dedication to visiting and simply wasting time with his fellow priests. A few of us sat down for a cup of coffee some weeks before Patrick died. As he left his parting remark was ‘We must do more of this’. We – all of us, lay and ordained, shepherd, guide and inspire each other through the authenticity of our lives, the quality of our love, the witness of our faith and the support of our prayers.
And like Patrick, we find our hope in the Good shepherd, the Lord and God, we serve. We, both priest and lay faithful, turn to him, as the source of our lives and the origin of our call. It is the Risen Christ who is our light in times of darkness, he is our haven when we are adrift, he is our hope when we are lost.
The death of Fr Pat Burke may have left those who mourn his loss searching for a shepherd but it has taught us that the shepherd doesn’t always wear a collar or carry a crosier. God has raised up shepherds for us. We are called to be those shepherds for each other.
As we gather with Fr Patrick’s family this evening we give thanks for and seek God’s blessing on all who accompanied and shepherded them and us over these past weeks, we give thanks for the support and comfort and love in which they continue to be enveloped and we pray that, inspired by Patrick’s memory and recognizing his presence in our hearts, we will continue to shepherd each other as we learn to cope with such unimaginable grief. But above all we pray that the Good Shepherd who inspired and guided Patrick in this life may now lead him safely home to eternal life.