Fr Philip (Gabriel) O’Brien, O.Carm. (1927-2008)

Given at the Requiem Mass in Whitefriar Street Church on October 10, 2008, by D. Byrne, O.Carm.

The central part of our lives is our daily Eucharist. So, it is not surprising that Fr Gabriel Philip O’Brien should have chosen Jesus’ words on the Eucharist from the Gospel of St. John for his Funeral Mass. The Eucharist is our bread of life. It is not an accident that we celebrate the Eucharist as we bid farewell to the mortal remains of a servant of God.

Philip grew up in John Dillon Street, a good stone’s throw from Whitefriar Street, and he served Mass in Francis Street Church. He was brought up with his two brothers and sister in a Dublin very different from today and it was here that his vocation was sown. Along with Fr O’Hea he took his vows in the Carmelite Order on October 3, 1946. After his Ordination in 1952 he went to the Missions in what was then called Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. It was here that he blossomed as priest, teacher and carer. He was to work on the Missions for sixteen years including St. Barbara’s, Triashill and St. Benedict’s.

The Ireland that he returned to had changed – so too had the Church. But he was ideally placed to cope with the change since he had come from a culture of discovery and new ways. He now ministered as chaplain to the Meath Hospital and to St. James’ Hospital. He brought his gifts of caring for the sick to this ministry. At the same time, he was much sought after as a retreat giver both to parishes and to religious communities. A lot of his talks had been inspired by the writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Gabriel introduced me to her life and writings. We both had the same edition of her works, so he would frequently refer me to a certain page, for example, page 27: Celine said: How is it that God can be present in a small host? The little one said: That is not surprising, God is all powerful. What does all powerful mean? It means he can do what he wants.

At a time when most of us would think of slowing down Philip became more animated. He discovered a gift for art – mainly watercolours – acrylics was for cheats! His room became more like Francis Bacon’s studios. To me, one brush is the same as another. He once brought me to an exhibition in St. Stephen’s Green and pointing to the collection he said that is not the way to paint. Our friend Fr Anselm Corbett, of happy memory, encouraged him to write poetry. Reluctant at first but this was another area in which he was to excel. More of that later!

It was while we were on retreat many years ago that we both learned a lot about contemplative prayer from the writings of the Benedictine – John Main. While reading to him one day we came across the line: the language of God is silent — everything else is a bad translation. He confessed that he had wasted so many years in babbling to God and I replied – better late than never.

We enjoyed many happy moments together — mainly over meals. He visited our Carmelite community in Beaumont at the end of July. We strolled around Howth and bought fresh sardines for supper. When we got back, I put them under the grill. Fr Brian McKay, Philip and myself milled into them leaving a plate of bones in the middle. He followed them with a glass of wine. He thanked us by saying – this is the way to live.

When Philip was no longer able to drive, Dan Callaghan brought him out for drives. One of his favourite places was the pier in Dun Laoghaire. Both of them were enjoying a ‘99’ when two Mormons approached them; would you like to learn about our religion? they asked, to which Philip replied: No, I’d like to learn more about my own.

Tennessee Williams Blanche wrote in “A Streetcar Named Desire:” I have always depended on the kindness of strangers, and that is so true in an ill contented society. We depend on the kindness of our brothers. For being kind to the least of our brothers we are kind to the Master.

To Philip’s siblings, Tom and Rita, you have lost a brother and so have we. But we all have lost a friend. I conclude with his own words:
God doesn’t see from day to day
Or even from year to year
With Him there is no past;
The future is already here
A mystery of the present
To last and last and last.
Timeless Love (10, May 2004)

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam Dilis.