Remembrances for our Deceased Brothers
Rev Dr Patrick (Thomas) Burke, O.Carm. (1923-2008)
Given at the Requiem Mass in Whitefriar Street on 2 April, 2008, by C. O’Donnell, O.Carm.
Fr Thomas Burke or Fr Tom as he was known in University College Dublin and by his family, was called Fr Patrick, Pat or Paddy by Carmelites. We come together today to pray for his welcome into heaven by the God of creation. We pray in thanksgiving for his life, for his diverse achievements and for the gift he was to us all gathered for his obsequies. People will have their own memories. He was close to his family, to his brothers, to his sister Maire who died last autumn, and to his nieces, nephews and their families. He encouraged them and took great pride in their achievements. They have their own sorrow, their own precious memories, and their own gratitude for what he has meant to them.
Radiating out from his family, he discovered the Carmelites here in Whitefriars Street, where he was an altar-server and where his Carmelite uncle, Brother Gerard, also lived for a time.
The texts chosen for today’s liturgy invite all of us to look beyond what can be seen to God at work in our world. There should be no genuine conflict between religion and science if each respects the autonomy of the other. At the time of Galileo the Church did not respect science; no less at fault are people like Richard Dawkins who do not respect faith. Both have their own truth and their legitimacy. In the case of faith and science the human mind cannot stay still. We must continue the search of understanding. In his recent encyclical, Spe salvi, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the small hopes, the things of everyday life, which surely have their value. But he said that we have to go beyond them to the true foundation of all hope and all knowledge. Jesus blamed first century meteorologists for not applying their intelligence to searching for God’s plan in the world.
The issue of faith and science did not seem to interest Paddy very much; he rarely spoke about it. He was at home in both science and faith. His attitude was to look at God’s handiwork, examine it, understand it and give praise to its Creator. There is a wider plan, some unification that is still sought by theoretical physicists. But even if this, as yet, elusive unification theory is eventually formulated, people will have to look beyond still further to the Author of all. These readings are then a guide to our understanding of Fr Patrick’s life, and can show us how we might learn from him.
Thomas Burke was born 4 November 1923. He was educated in Synge Street Christian Brothers School in Dublin. He joined the Carmelite Order and was professed in 1942 with the religious name ‘Patrick.’ He studied in University College, Dublin, gaining the degrees of Bachelor of Science, and then Master of Science and Doctorate in quick succession with two theses on atmospheric physics. He studied at Milltown Park and gained the Baccalaureate and Licentiate in Theology there in 1952. He was ordained priest in 1951. He soon completed the Higher Diploma in Education in 1953. He taught physics and mathematics at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, for two short periods in the late forties and early fifties.
I had him as mathematics teacher in Terenure College in 1953. He introduced us to some of the mysteries of calculus and coordinate geometry, but he also talked about many things besides. He seemed particularly interested in a Belgian priest, Mgr. Georges Lemaître in Louvain, who was one of the early proponents of the Big Bang theory. Another time he showed us an experiment with a Geiger counter, which was very fascinating once he managed to start it! The effect on me anyway was a desire to study science. But he also spoke about the Carmelite Order – I wanted that too. His influence on young people was huge.
He lived and taught in Terenure College over a period of nine years; he was Prior and Headmaster 1958-1961. In 1960 the College celebrated its centenary and the National University of Ireland, wishing to recognise its century-long contribution to education, awarded Paddy, who was then prior, an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD). From 1962-1988 he was a member of the Physics Department at U.C.D. until his retirement in 1988. In that period we can mention his research projects, many with his friend and former pupil, Dr. Tony Scott. Honours and recognition in the area of physics led to his being appointed a Chartered Physicist, and later a Fellow of the prestigious Institute of Physics in recognition of his published research.
He was inspirational for a generation of young scientists. In the current debate on teaching versus research, Fr Patrick’s sympathies sided with those of Cardinal Newman: education was for both of them the most important function of the university. Research indeed has its place, but if we don’t teach young school-leavers to be scientists, where will future researchers come from? At the university he was extremely student-centred.
Young Scientists Competition
In 1963 Patrick and Tony Scott were both engaged in research in New Mexico where they encountered a local science fair. They had a Eureka moment when they saw the possibility of having a science competition for Irish secondary schools. This would give expression to their joint aim: “to take science outside the classroom and to show that it is everywhere around us.” Returning to Ireland, they established the first Young Scientists Exhibition in 1965, which attracted 230 entries in the Mansion House. It soon had to move to the more ample space of the RDS, and now attracts 1,300 or more entries annually. Many entrants and winners of awards in the Young Scientists Exhibition have gone on to have distinguished careers throughout the world. When honouring Dr. Burke and Dr. Scott with the honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy, the Dublin Institute of Technology citation described the Young Scientists Competition as “a national treasure.”
All that might seem a respectable life’s work for an academic, but it wasn’t the half of it. There are many more sides to his life. A feature of Fr Paddy was what I would call his restless intelligence. Though he kept a reasonable six or seven hours rest, he managed to stretch the remaining seventeen hours to about twenty-eight! What he was doing was never enough for him.
An example of his diverse energies was his interest in giving retreats, especially to religious. When the new Code of Canon Law came out he immediately seized on it. This was in 1983 when the 1917 law of the Church was revised in the light of the Vatican Council which had taken place twenty years earlier. It was a radical revision. The English text was slow to come out, so we in Gort Muire had several courses explaining it, using the Latin original. Fr Patrick and I later went around the country giving courses on the Code, neither of us however being a trained canon lawyer. His grasp of the quite new legal culture of the 1983 text was impressive. When you are going around hearing a colleague lecture for the umpteenth time, you do not listen too carefully – not that Fr Patrick would ever be quite the same twice. I took one afternoon to watching his syntax; I noted that he went a whole fifteen minutes without ever finishing a sentence. His lively mind kept moving on ahead of his speech. It sounds odd, but it did not overly spoil his communication: his incomplete sentences had their own intelligibility.
Later he went to Zimbabwe for, I think, two months in the mid-eighties to help the Zimbabwean Handmaids of Our Lady of Mount Carmel rewrite their constitutions in the light of the new canon law.
There was a very important side to his life that was known mainly to his Carmelite brothers. He was profoundly committed to fraternal Carmelite values in a somewhat traditional mould. For years he would arrive back in Gort Muire just in time for the midday prayer of the Divine Office with the community. It lasts only about five minutes, you might think hardly worth coming back for, but he made it daily. His Carmelite life was marked by impressive fidelity. For a few years as Novice Master he had the responsibility of passing on the Carmelite tradition to young men joining the Order.
For many years also he liked to do gardening at the back of Gort Muire. He was not too keen on company whilst he was gardening and he certainly did not appreciate botanical questions that he could not answer. If you asked him the name of some obscure plant he might say: “mind where you are walking there.” If you knew him, you would look to your feet and leave it at that. The more incautious who pursued the topic would get a long answer only tangentially related to the plant.
He contributed wholeheartedly to Carmelite community life. He had a simple life-style; his room had few luxuries. Over the past few days one Carmelite recalled his taking part in charades possibly at Christmas time. He described Paddy on the floor, trying to communicate the name of a film, fully taking part in the fun. Like many a Carmelite bachelor, he was not a morning person. At breakfast you would learn if perhaps the night had gone badly. He had acute hearing and at times experienced difficulty in sleeping. Sparrows dancing calypsos on the flat roof above him might have kept him awake, not to speak of doors banging anywhere on the Ballinteer Road. But once he got whatever annoyed him off his chest, it would be forgotten.
He seized eagerly the idea of having a Carmelite Association at Gort Muire in the 1980s. When this failed to develop, he later devoted his attention to the Carmelite Secular Order. He was national Director in the 1990s. Between 1999 and 2005, he almost single-handedly published The Carmelite Family, a Bulletin for lay Carmel. He managed to bring out 23 issues before his health deteriorated.
Another area that he found time for was visiting women prisoners in Mountjoy jail. I remember him telling me last Autumn how much these ladies appreciated being respected as persons.
In the 1980s a one-year courses for public health nurses took place in Gort Muire. Fr Pat became interested in nursing education, initially in public health nursing. With Ann Flynn, who was engaged in the administration of the course, he worked for the accreditation for Public Health nurses. He was founder and first Chairman of the Institute of Public Health Nursing. In recognition for this work Fr Patrick was conferred with an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, its highest award – other recipients include two Irish presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, along with Nelson Mandela, Fr Peter McVerry and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
He also enjoyed two spells of teaching theology. When a theological school was established at Gort Muire, he taught the systematic tract on creation and original sin (1962-1964). That was just on the sideline of his duties in U.C.D. Then the General Council of the Carmelite Order appointed him Regent of Studies at St. Albert’s International College in Rome. He was asked to bring some order to a theology school that by the early 1960s was beginning to fall apart. He also taught some theology there, but this role of Regent of Studies was not enough to satisfy his energies. He took up a research professorship at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Rome (1965-1968), where among other matters, he worked with the Italian Air-force on ways of dissipating fog.
We began with allusion to Scripture texts about the wonders of God’s creation and first century Jewish meteorology. Fr Paddy exemplified the search for scientific truth and the applications of science. Frequently in homilies one could detect his excitement at scientific discoveries proclaiming the glory and majesty of God.
We can liken Fr Patrick’s faith and his science to two parallel lines which, of course, meet in infinity. In Fr Paddy’s case these lines are like railway lines, joined by sleepers. These sleepers represent his own personal experience in which faith, along with science and his many other activities, bonded and interacted and became a living reality. As the parallel lines meet infinity, Fr Patrick can now look down with a new divine knowledge on the mysteries of faith and of science which he pursued with wisdom and integrity.