Fr Brian (Pius) Kiernan, O.Carm. (1930 – 2015)

Given at the Funeral Mass in Terenure College, Dublin, on December 1, 2015, by M.R. Kelly, O.Carm.

We gather in prayerful solidarity with the Kiernan family as they grieve for their brother Brian, priest, Carmelite and great missionary. We gather to commend him to the tender mercy of our God, to pray with and for his grieving family: Mona, Mary, Lauri (who is unable to be present), Trudi, Andrew and Paul; to express our faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and in the hope that we will be united at the banquet of rich food that the Lord has prepared for us.
I’m reminded of what Pope Benedict said at his inauguration on the passing of Pope John Paul II: He crossed the threshold of life into eternity but he did not do so alone. He was greeted by his brothers and sisters in the faith, who awaited his coming. Then Pope Benedict added “the one who believes is never alone neither in life nor in death.” A reminder to us of the Communion of Saints. Brian will be greeted by his good parents, people of great faith and generous hearts, by his brother Paddy and his sister Anne. His school pals – Gerry O’Connor and Enda Ryder – might welcome him with a bar from Molly Malone’s Cockles and Mussels.
He came here as a boarder in 1944 and was followed by his brothers (Andrew and Paul) while his older brother (Paddy) had gone to Blackrock. Times were tough. It was the era of the ration book – rationing of basic commodities such as tea, sugar, etc. Today it might be called austerity. He was House Captain here in his final year.
Brian joined the Carmelite Novitiate in Kinsale in the Holy Year in 1950: an ascetical experience, cut off from family, friends and the outside world, studying the Carmelite Directory written by a very strict German, alongside study of the Carmelite Constitutions. An intensive life of prayer and manual work.
Novitiate was followed by nine years in Gort Muire while studying for a B.A. in University College Dublin and Theology in the Jesuit School of Milltown Park.
He set off for Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1960. After spending some time learning the Shona language he was, like many other young missionaries, assigned temporarily to a number of missions including: Regina Coeli, Namaropa, Mount Mellerary, St Benedict’s, St Michael’s Tanda and St Killian’s Mission, deep in the rural area, where he was principal of a new primary school.
Brian had many gifts but teaching and school principal was not among them. A young Presentation sister from the west of Ireland sat him down and told him: “Brian, you look after the people, I’ll look after the school”. Brian launched into pastoral ministry to which he gave his all for almost fifty years.
His next assignment – for seventeen years – was to the location or settlement area of St Joseph’s, Sakubva, a suburb of Mutare, where Africans had to live outside the city and needed a pass to enter and leave the city to work as servants or attendants. It was high density housing, some of which were named Singles. The Singles were one room houses for men who had to leave their wives and families in the rural area, about the size of a garage in a suburban Dublin house, with a semi-circular asbestos roof. There was curfew at sundown.
Brian formed a great pastoral working partnership with the late Conal Collier, O.Carm. They built a fine church while the Dutch Sisters of Charity provided a first class primary/secondary school building plus a small hospital, which is now used as a HIV clinic. The clinic has a large banner over the entrance with the inscription: Men have yourselves circumcised!
During his first holiday, after seven years, he went to New York, made his way to the Coca Cola headquarters and met one of the executives. He came out with a cheque to buy instruments for a band. A man without a note in his head was going to start a band.
He and Conal lived through the Liberation War years, the late 70’s, and served the people during very violent times. He was also chaplain to the large prison in the city. His memory lives on there.
His next stop was Hatfield, Harare, from where he ministered to the large community in Hunyani, while being parish priest at St Alois, Chitungwiza.
With the Prophet Elijah he could say: “With zeal, I have been zealous for the Lord God of hosts.” He exercised a ministry of service long before that word was incorporated into the charism of the Order. He anticipated what Pope John Paul II wrote in Pastores Dabo Vobis: “I will give you Shepherds. Of special importance in the ministry and life of priests is the capacity to relate to others. This is truly fundamental for a person who is called to be responsible for a community and to be a man of communion.” Brian was that kind of person, priest and Carmelite.
Brian had an extraordinary capacity to relate to people. I had first-hand experience of this. In1996 the Centenary of the Diocese of Mutare and the Golden Jubilee of the arrival of the Carmelites in Rhodesia was celebrated and the late Michael Hender, O.Carm., wrote a booklet for the occasion. The booklets were held up at Harare Airport. We went together in the afternoon. He seemed to know every worker in the Airport. He greeted them ‘Masakati’ (good afternoon). We were allowed into a large storeroom where there were hundreds of parcels and leftover luggage. We found what we wanted. A young African man carried them to the truck. Brian slipped him a note with the words ‘Mazviita’ (Thank you).
Alongside his ministry was his daily commitment to the Community Eucharist and Prayer of the Church. He would leave in the morning for St Alois with a large bunch of keys in one hand and the battered volume of the Prayer of the Church in the other.
He loved his Monday weekly game of golf in Royal Harare while also enjoying leisure time with Chris and Carmel McCormick and their daughters. Chris, a medical doctor, looked after the medical needs of the brethren and many other priests and religious, free of charge.
The past six or seven years were difficult for him with the deterioration of his health. However, we could apply to him the words of Isaiah (52) in the Suffering Servant, which we read on Good Friday in Holy Week: “He suffered much but he opened not his mouth.”
The love and care which he shared with the African people over his years of faithful ministry was reciprocated a hundred fold by the nursing and catering staff in Gort Muire, by the brethren and especially by the members of his family, who sat with him on a daily basis when he was unable to speak or communicate in any way.
In the Gospel of Luke we have Jesus’ final words from the cross: “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” Tradition has it that a Jewish mother taught her child that line from Psalm 31 – “Into your hands I commit my spirit” – as the first prayer just as a mother today might teach her child the Sign of the Cross. Jesus, as he was dying, added the word Father: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” The prayer that Mary taught Jesus as a child was on his lips as he died.
A Daily Prayer by John Henry Newman – now Blessed John Henry Newman – which we said in the Novitiate, Kinsale, sixty or more years ago:
May He support us all the day long,
till the shades lengthen and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, in His mercy
may He give us a safe lodging,
and a holy rest and peace at the last.
That is our farewell wish for Brian. May he rest in peace.