Homily at the Funeral Mass of Fr Reginald D Bessler, RIP
by Fr Mark McManus, Parish Priest, The Annunciation, Chesterfield
at The Immaculate Conception Church, Rotherham, 17 December, 2014
We are here to offer the Holy Mass; to make Thanksgiving. In offering to our loving Father the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, we seek today to give particular thanks for the life of a much-loved priest, Fr Reginald D Bessler.
Today, 17 December, marks the beginning of the second part of the Advent season. The part where we assert Christ’s future coming in glory by beginning to focus upon his first coming to us in his Incarnation. In coming into existence as God-Man, Jesus entered our world of time and space, of flesh and the senses. In meditating upon this truth one of the early Christian Fathers, St Irenaeus, proclaimed that people may truly give glory to God only by being fully alive, Gloria Dei homo vivens.
Fully alive is how I think of Fr Bessler. His inner-child never truly died. Even when he reached ninety years he proclaimed he still felt fourteen inside. Indeed, when he left this parish in 1999 at the age of seventy-seven to take up, what he called ‘retirement with ministry,’ he treated himself to a low-slung, two-door sports coupe and enrolled himself on a course for home computing so that he might not only conquer the road but the information super-highway also.
In the aftermath of World War One the Besslers were a very modern looking European family with Franco-German-Irish roots. Born in Sheffield on 27 July, 1922, to William and Edith Bessler, the young Reg, along with his older sister Marie-Antoinette, enjoyed a happy childhood. He always expressed a deep and abiding gratitude for his parents, the upbringing they had given him and for the family life that he and his sister shared. His sense of family remained very important to him and he remained close to members of his family, visiting them in Cheshire, London, Berlin, Paris and the Bahamas. He was proud of his family and their achievements.
At the age of six he was taken to see the Speedway at Owlerton Stadium, Hillsborough, and he never looked back. He discovered a lifelong passion for motor bikes and motor cars that endured until the end. When he left De La Salle School at fourteen he went to work on the bikes at Owlerton as an apprentice electrical-mechanic and he was eighty-nine before he reluctantly gave up his season ticket. A well-known fixture at the Thursday evening meetings, he had held his season ticket for sixty years. He was also a regular at the annual British Grand Prix. Usually parking in the owners’ compound – he normally displayed a card on his windscreen that said RC Chaplain – he once parked next to Bernie Ecclestone.
Indefatigable, Fr Bessler loved to travel. In his early years he travelled by motorcycle – many of his brother priests travelled with him sat on the pillion – and he once made it as far as Rome. In the latter years he became ever more adventurous and well into his eighties he travelled to China and, on another occasion, to the island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean. He loved new experiences, especially meeting and talking with people. He was at his happiest sat at table, sharing a meal and chatting with others – especially his family or brother priests.
His home was filled with books and he possessed an enquiring mind that was always seeking to learn about things, about how they worked and why. His Germanic surname, Bessler, has its origins as an occupational name for someone who does odd jobs, a tinkerer or a hobby worker. Certainly, his home testified to his penchant for collecting things and for never throwing anything away – with inescapable logic he once assured me that though a saucepan had a hole in it, the handle might still come in handy.
Blessed with artistic talent – he displayed a particular gift for painting. His skill with his hands was revealed in his beautiful handwriting – a script that spoke of talent inherited from his draughtsman father. He possessed a charm, humility and almost childlike innocence that could sometimes leave you wondering if his wit and wisdom were the result of accident rather than intent, but his insight and sagacity were genuine and the fruit of much thought. He could turn a memorable phrase and for a number of years he was the orator at gatherings of the clergy. His sparkling bon mot and perfectly timed asides brought roars of laughter from many of us here today. That cheeky smile and resonant, sonorous voice that echoed in our churches are easily and vividly brought to mind. I well recall on his fortieth anniversary to the priesthood he decided to wear his biretta for his Mass of Thanksgiving. In his words at the end of the Mass he made mention of his biretta and the fact that it was black on the outside and red on the inside. “A pity,” he said, “that it isn’t red on the outside too.”
I cannot, of course, fail to mention Father’s love for food and especially his sweet tooth. In our first reading the prophet Isaiah foresees a banquet of rich food prepared for us by the Lord. I would be hard pressed to think of a person more enthused and indeed equipped for an eternal banquet than Fr Bessler. For truly, the eternal banquet did enthuse and equip him because in his foretaste of that feast here on earth, he was dedicated and nourished in his Christian life by the grace of the Holy Eucharist.
I spoke earlier about how St Irenaeus urged us to become fully alive. Our present age, which worships at the altar of self-fulfilment, tends to corrupt Irenaeus for he goes on to say that the life of man is the vision of God. So that “living” or being “fully alive” is in actuality rooted in the beatific vision, that is, the life of the Most Holy Trinity in Heaven. Fr Bessler understood this, he believed it to be true and he lived in the light of this truth. He believed that in time and space, in flesh and senses, we might come to know, love and serve God in this world. His Catholic upbringing stirred his soul and even as he worked on his motor-bikes at Owlerton the young teenager heard the Lord call to him and invite him to follow him in service of his holy people.
Fr Bessler spent ten long and hungry years at Ushaw deepening and forming his vocation to the priesthood. Despite its challenges, he loved his time there and he spoke with great fondness for the institution that was Ushaw College. Ordained priest at St Anne’s Cathedral, Leeds, on 24 April, 1949, the twenty-six-year-old began a priestly life that would last for over sixty-five years. He was first a curate – junior to five others in the presbytery – at St Patrick’s, Leeds, before moving on to spells at St Mary’s, Bradford, St Stephen’s, Skipton and this parish here: Immaculate Conception, Rotherham. After more than sixteen years as a curate he became a Parish Priest in October, 1965. He was appointed first to St Mary’s, High Green and in that office he went on to serve at St John’s, Bradford, The Sacred Heart, Goldthorpe, St Catherine’s, Sheffield before he eventually returned here for his final ten years until his retirement in July 1999.
History records that while in Bradford, he commissioned a photographic portrait of himself; the copies of which he then sold to his parishioners. It says much for his charisma that his flock willingly paid for such a treasure. Many were the priests in that city who for years after, while visiting people in their homes, were greeted with the sight of a radiant Reggie beaming down at them.
There are not so many now who can remember him as anything other than as a priest. This is surely appropriate for he was above all else Fr Bessler, a priest of the Church. His fervour in proclaiming the Gospel and celebrating the Sacraments are well known to us. So too his good example and gentle, dignified service. Following his retirement he lived for another fifteen years. Twelve of those years were spent at The Annunciation, Chesterfield but he also lived at St Anne’s Residential Home, Burghwallis, before finally returning to his native city at The Mother of God parish. To the end he remained what he was: a good and faithful priest, still able to help and inspire others.
He absolutely loved the priesthood and its brotherhood and he stood as an example of what our Holy Father, Pope Francis, so often speaks of: joy. Yes, he was a real character but above all Fr Bessler was a joyful man. Happy and humble, it seemed to me that he could be content almost anywhere for along with joy he was also a man of deep gratitude. He was always saying thank you. Like us, he acknowledged that he was a sinner, at times a man of weakness and failings but we loved him for the person he was and for what he meant to us. He was indeed fully alive because he held in his heart the vision of God.
So what now that sense be dumb and flesh retired? Coming to knowledge and love of God in this world brings with it for a Christian the vision of life to come. Today’s Gospel – the only Gospel reading that the Church offers to us both in the readings given for Sacred Ordination and in Masses for the Dead – reminds us that it is the life given, the life offered, that ‘yields a rich harvest.’ Renouncing life in this world we ‘keep it for the eternal life.’ To be in God’s presence is to have followed him for ‘If anyone serves me, my Father will honour him.’
To return to St Irenaeus again we find that he shows us that Christ became like us so that we might become like him. The fulfilment of our flesh and the senses, of our use of time and space is the Resurrection. Revealing himself to us in this world Christ now calls us to himself, beyond the horizon of physics, to share in his Divine life. In our second reading today St Paul calls to mind the fact of the Lord’s death and resurrection and that ‘it will be the same for those who have died in Jesus.’ In flesh, across time and space, Christ Jesus suffered, died and rose for Reginald Bessler. We ‘do not grieve … like the other people who have no hope’ says St Paul for ‘we shall stay with the Lord for ever.’ Let us then comfort one another ‘with thoughts such as these’ and assist Fr Bessler with our prayers.
When celebrating Mass in his later years, conscious, as his sight and memory began to fray, that not everything had perhaps occurred in the usual order, Father would pause before the final blessing and simply say ‘Thank you for putting up with me.’
Surely we would want to say to him ‘well done, good and faithful servant’ and pray that, as he heard at his priestly ordination all those years ago, so he may now hear again the words tu es sacerdos in aeternum, ‘You are a priest forever, a priest like Melchizedek of old.’