Bishop John, Brothers, My Dear People, Good Morning
Brian Davies was not your stereotypical priest. He was not one for the Gamarelli well-cut suit, with the diamond cuff-links and high clerical collar. In fact he didn’t look much like what you expect a priest to look like. With his close-cropped hair and stocky build you might have expected to see Doc Martins on his feet and a bulldog tattoo peeping through his shirt. He would not thank you for a gin and tonic; he did not spend his Mondays at the golf club; and his Black Country accent, which despite years in exile he never lost, was always a surprise to hear in these parts. In short he was not what most people, even in South Yorkshire, expect their priests to be like. But if he didn’t look or sound the part, he most certainly lived it. He would do anything for people; and there was no distinction between folk. If you had a genuine need Brian would try and do something to help. He was a man from the working class who never lost his identity; a man of the ordinary people.
Brian was born and brought up in Bloxwich, in the Black Country, north of Birmingham. He didn’t follow an expected path to the priesthood. Many of us in our generation were born into devoted Catholic families; went to Catholic schools and there was an expectation that there would be priests or religious in the family. There probably were one or two already among the uncles, aunts or cousins. Brian had a happy upbringing, with hard working parents and sister, but not a religious one. He left school at sixteen and began a series of jobs, beginning as a painter and decorator, working for neighbours. They attended the local Catholic Church in Bloxwich and Brian began to join them. He embraced the Catholic faith. He thought about the priesthood. He was dissuaded from applying to the diocese by his parish priest who thought his first priority was to stay close to home and help look after his mum who was very ill. He considered a life as a religious; the Sons of Divine Providence were based at Skelmersdale, but upon discovering that they were serious about poverty and that included a no smoking policy, he quickly gave up that idea. He had a series of jobs, as a machine operator, making “Keep Left” signs, as manager of Rumbelows, and all the while he helped in his local parish. Eventually he took the step, applied to the Archbishop of Birmingham and was sent to Campion House, Osterley in order to learn how to learn and get some certificates. At Osterley he was told by the rector, Fr Kelly, that he would never make a priest. Now either the good father had noticed that Brian was out-spoken and didn’t naturally conform to rules whose existence he didn’t comprehend (obedience being the chief virtue for a priest); or, I prefer to think, he was using clever psychology as nothing would motivate Brian more than be told he would not succeed as something he set his heart on. Let’s hope it was the latter.
Brian survived Osterley and Oscott, the major seminary in Birmingham, and was ordained in his parish Church of St Peter in Bloxwich on June 29th, the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul in 1982. His first appointment was very happy with a kindly parish priest, Fr O’Shea. But his death and the arrival of a new parish priest led to less happy times. I am sure Brian let his views be known, clearly and directly. Then in 1985 came a letter from the Archbishop, Maurice Couve de Murville, informing Brian of a new appointment – to St Marie’s Cathedral, Sheffield.
The Vicar General of Hallam at that time, Monsignor Michael Keegan, had been asked to go to the English College, Vallidollid, in Spain to teach. The Bishop of Hallam, Gerald Moverley had pointed out that he did not have many priests and Monsignor Keegan was rather an important one. Couve de Murville said he would replace him, on a temporary basis. Thus, three years ordained Brian found himself worth a Vicar General in the transfer-market. And he had to look in his atlas to find out where Sheffield was. Whether the worthy Archbishop thought this was a good career move for him, or was getting rid of ‘a turbulent priest’ is not recorded.
Brian arrived at St Marie’s where I had recently been appointed administrator. We got on. And he got on with the good folk of Sheffield. St Marie’s, then as now, was a busy place, lots happening. And Brian, and Bill Bergin, were wonderful supports, with Eric Newbound covering the Hallamshire Hospital. I was much involved in school work at that time and frequently absent, but I knew that things were well looked after at base.
Brian showed in those early days a penchant for making money for the parish. He decided, in the spirit of St Francis (he would later have dogs and cats) to try and have a crib set in each home. So he bought the moulds and mixed the plaster of Paris and began to make and sell. They took off, so Brian talked a senior member of the parish to set up a workshop in his cellar and Brian handed over the task. Deft footwork! His keenness on cribs was reflected here where he built the crib each year with, with simplicity and power. But back to St Marie’s for a moment. He took over the bottle stall at the Parish Fayres. A vaster array of glassware has seldom been beheld. Here in Wombwell, you’ll remember, how Morrison’s were selling coffee cheap but in limited numbers to each shopper. Brian said he would reimburse anyone who brought the coffee at the discounted price for the parish. Many brought the coffee. Few accepted payment; and for ages the parish had ‘free’ coffee supplies.
Eventually Brian decided that his future was in South Yorkshire and he was incardinated into the Diocese of Hallam.
Brian moved from St Marie’s to the Manor, Sheffield, St Theresa’s parish, first as assistant to Fr Pat O’Connor and then he took over the parish. Brian was a man for the Manor. They were his sort of people. Then he came to Wombwell, and you became his sort of people. Gradually his sphere of influence extended, and took in the parishes of Goldthorpe and Hoyland and he forged them into the single parochial entity of Corpus Christi. How successful that has been, and the burden it placed on Brian, you know better than any of us. But he willingly took on each task.
Brian was not your stereotypical priest. How many of us, dear brethren, would go on holiday with our parishioners? Ever? Brian’s holidays were always with parishioners, to Lourdes or to Spain. He organised; he led; he smoked. He brought back the duty frees! He also cooked for the parish, and for the needy here – he was skilled in the kitchen – though I’m told he managed to burn the turkeys one time. And he could run up curtains, no problem; painting and decorating, a breeze.
In his youth, he had travelled to India to take provisions to Mother Theresa’s sisters in Calcutta. He regularly went to Lourdes, firstly with Across, then with parishioners, and appropriately his final journey was to Lourdes. There, a fortnight before he died he celebrated Mass and preached in Bartres.
Our readings spoke of the theological virtues: Hope, love and faith – things to which a priest must give witness in his living, and in his dying. The first reading from the Book of the Apocalypse, told of the new heaven and the new earth – our hope. The second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians spoke of the love in which we must be clothed; and the Gospel, the story of what happened on the Road to Emmaus, tells of faith; or rather of faith destroyed and re-ignited.
Dante thought the story of what happened on the Road to Emmaus to be one of the most beautiful stories in the whole of literature. It is a wonderful story because it speaks on many levels. It tells us about a charged encounter; it speaks of the Eucharist; and, if we hear it with perception, it tells us about ourselves and our own experience.
Most of us have walked the road to Emmaus; and if we have not, we will. It is the walk away from shattered dreams and soured hopes. The world has collapsed and in the numbness of shocked disbelief all we know is that we have to get away. The pain is too much to bear where the associations are so strong. But wherever we move the pain moves with us. Wherever we look the future is black.
The two disciples, only one is named -Cleopas and we know nothing more about him; but whoever they are they are not first rank apostles. They are among the minor characters. This is a story about us. The common person; the little person; everyone. Similarly Emmaus is anywhere. No one knows its precise location, though three places in the Holy Land claim it as theirs. But Emmaus is everywhere and nowhere. It is the place to which we flee when our world has shattered.
These two disciples are getting away from a scene of horror. With the death of Jesus their lives have ended. Their future has disappeared into the tomb with his corpse. Who wants to know, who wants to employ an ex-disciple of a dead messiah? All they had hoped for ended with the cross. They had believed Jesus to be a great prophet. He had proved himself by the signs he had done and the things he had said. But the authorities saw him differently. They had him eliminated. His followers had hoped he would set Israel free yet their own leaders had cooperated with the Romans to keep them bound.
The stranger who joins them is unknown to them. He enters their conversation. What are they talking about? They are for a moment shocked to a standstill and dumbstruck. There is only one headline on their news programme. Surely the whole world knows when the world has fallen apart? But this man seems oblivious to it. So they tell their story and own up to their misery. Cleopas and his companion’s anguish is palpable, but with an audience they become garrulous. They admit the hopes that they held and the brokenness that now overwhelms them and has hastened their steps away from the source of the pain but the pain will not be left behind. No where else do we hear from the inside what the disciples felt as their world fell apart. It is a fascinating insight into the grieving process. Having described their destroyed hopes they add a description of the strange events that morning, the women, a vision of angels. All so confusing. No wonder they wanted to get away. A mad world was getting more insane.
It is a heart-break we can all surely identify with. The walk to Emmaus is the walk from the hospital when we have been told “I’m sorry, it’s terminal…. It’s inoperable…. You may have only a few months.” It’s what happens when you have a policeman knock at the door and they have that look which itself tells you something very bad has happened. Many people in the Ukraine, many in Syria, in Gaza, are walking that road now. People in Africa walk the Emmaus road everyday. And if we have not, we surely will.
Fr Brian walked the Road to Emmaus. Perhaps the Road to Sheffield had aspects of that journey, that experience. Was he being expelled, punished? What did the future hold? Would the Lord be with him as an unseen companion? Certainly he trod the path to Emmaus in his final illness, the diagnosis, the treatment, the time in hospital. Hopes diminished; the future dread-filled; faith coming and going in waves. There is a desire to run away, but we cannot get away from the pain, the numbness, the grief, the emptiness. We cannot understand how the wide-world continues to function when our world has stopped. Yet in our loneliest moments we are not alone. There is always someone who walks unseen beside us. Luke gives us the essence of the Resurrection-message; and he does so in the structure of Eucharist, Word proclaimed and bread broken and shared. Jesus present but unseen. Hope breaking into a world saturated by despair. Truly one of the most beautiful stories in the world. A priestly story. A priest must live a life giving witness to faith and hope in love even in our darkest moments.
There is a quotation from St Thomas More which appears on many a memorial card. He speaks to his daughter Meg, “Pray for me and I shall for you and all your friends that we may merilly meet in heaven”. Now we won’t meet Fr Brian again in heaven; not in heaven. He will greet us on the stoop, the porch of heaven where he will be having a fag. Being Brian he will probably have got the Archangel Gabriel to roll them for him, as he got the Blessed Becky to roll them for him down here.
He tried, but he knew he was not going to give them up, so he enjoyed them; to the end. Very Brian. Never your typical priest. May he rest in peace.
Mgr John Ryan