Honouring Berkeley

By  Lubomyr Luciuk, Catholic Register Special
  • May 4, 2007
I wasn’t there for Berkeley Brean’s funeral. In fact, I hadn’t seen him in decades. I heard he married but I never met his wife, or their sons. I did not know, until I got his obituary, that he endured cancer for three years before he died on Nov. 4, 2006.
High school friends mentioned his passing, in passing. They thought I knew. By then all I could do was think back to how I was but a boy when I met him, in 1967. It was my first year in what was then an all-boys high school, Kingston’s Regiopolis College. I remember a tall, handsome, athletic — even somewhat mischievous — Jesuit novice. He asked us to call him Berkeley. We did. He was a fun guy, a big brother. We looked forward to his class.

Many of our other teachers were older priests, strictly committed to ensuring we got the best possible Catholic education. That meant encouraging us to ask intelligent questions, to which they gave frank answers, albeit always conforming to the tenets of the faith. I might not then, or since, have agreed with their views on the pitfalls of the “Playboy philosophy,” or the metaphysical speculations of the Jesuit theologian and geologist, Teilhard de Chardin, but we discussed such matters at Regi, in Grade 9. It was a great school. Not that we said so, not at the time.

Religion was Fr. Peter Ambrosie’s domain. His classroom was across the hall from Berkeley’s. It was graced with a large painting, usually shrouded, unveiled every Sept. 21. Depicted was the torture of two Jesuit missionaries, Fr. Gabriel L’Alemant and Fr. Jean de Brebeuf, captured March 16, 1649, by Iroquois warriors. How L’Alemant met his end I never did learn but, according to a contemporary, Christophe Regnaut, whom Ambrosie quoted at length, the charismatic Brebeuf endured horrific mutilations, ranging from being scalded with boiling water in mock Baptism to having his heart torn out and consumed, by “the savages.” In 1930, eight Jesuit martyrs, canonized by Pope Pius XI, became the patron saints of Canada. Ambrosie was particularly reverent when recalling their suffering for the faith.

I was not. I wanted to know what these Frenchmen were doing in Huronia, why they thought they had any right to convert Indians to Catholicism — as if the locals did not have their own creed — and, furthermore, why anyone should care about mid-17th-century busybodies?

Ambrosie chucked me out of his classroom. That commotion brought Berkeley into the corridor. I remember fearing that I was about to go on pilgrimage to the principal’s office, where Fr. Granville would surely order my expulsion. Others had suffered that fate. I began to think upon what I had done. And I knew, even then, that my words had hurt Fr. Ambrosie, and Berkeley too. I had mocked martyrdom.

My two teachers soon came back. I was told to return to my seat. Nothing more was said, until later. Berkeley took me aside. He told me that while learning was about asking questions, teaching was about giving answers, as best one could. I should remember, he said, that there are no stupid questions but that questions can be asked stupidly. I haven’t forgotten. I tell my students the same thing, 40 years later.

I got to know, and like, Ambrosie. I went with him to the Martyrs’ Shrine, at Midland, Ont., and travelled in the countryside around Kingston, as this good priest visited remoter parishes, hearing confessions, a few Regi boys keeping him company. He drove us even as his faith drove him.

Berkley did not become a priest, but he kept the faith, and is remembered as a great teacher and coach. When I learned he died I began thinking about what I need to do to honour him.

First I went to St. Mary’s Cemetery, to say goodbye. That trip reminded me of how important it is not to lose touch with those who make a difference in one’s life. There is something holy about saying “thank you” to those who deserve to hear it, from your lips, while they still can. On that score I failed Berkeley, but I know he forgives me.

In his memory I also made a donation to the Southeastern Ontario Cancer Centre, at the Kingston General Hospital. Berkeley gave of himself all his life, and wanted others to. I should try.

And I will return to the Martyrs’ Shrine. The church’s servants are, these days, routinely derided as pederasts or propagandists. Their critics never record the good deeds of men like Brebeuf and Ambrosie and Brean. It’s time for me to go to a place made sacred by faith, to think quietly about my own.

(Prof. Luciuk teaches at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont.)

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