Fr. Brennan Photo by Dan Cere

Fr. Brennan’s funeral was wedded with joy

  • September 14, 2023

In June of this year, I wrote an article for The Catholic Register on the life and ministry of Fr. Charles Robert (Rob) Brennan, SJ. At the time, Fr. Rob was in palliative care at the Jesuit residence in Pickering, Ont. In my opening sentence, I noted that in 2020 he had said that the only vocational aspiration that remained to him was a “good death.” As it turns out, his prayers, and the prayers of his many friends, were answered and Fr. Rob enjoyed, indeed truly relished, several months’ worth of dying.

At his funeral that was celebrated on Sept. 9 at St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish in Montreal, fellow Jesuit Adam Pittman recalled in his homily that Fr. Rob had told him shortly before his death, “There is one thing I want you to tell the boys” — the “boys” being the students at Loyola High School in Montreal, the private Catholic schools whose origins date back to 1848 and where Fr. Rob spent over 30 years teaching, coaching, administering and, most importantly, ministering.

“What is that, Rob?” Pittman asked.

“I want you to tell them that I never imagined you could have so much fun dying!”

For as long as I knew Fr. Rob, close to 15 years at the time of his death, he had been suffering with the debilitating effects of diabetes. He walked with a cane, had many stints in hospital and was close to death several times. I visited him in a rehabilitation centre last January and was taken aback at his description of the state of his feet and legs — bone fractures, open sores and sepsis. It was shocking to me that a man who must have been in constant pain remained so even-tempered. At no time, at least that I ever saw, did Fr. Rob allow his physical state to curtail his work, become an excuse or to alter his steady, quiet focus on the people around him.

When he said that he enjoyed those last months of his life, it was not because they were pain free.

A little over a month before he died, Fr. Rob sent an email to my husband. He thanked us for our support and prayers, and he asked to be remembered to our four sons and daughter. He wrote, “God is so gracious towards us that we hardly comprehend it, and it inspires us to be grateful.”

I imagine he must have sent hundreds of such emails in those last months. We were friends, but not particularly close friends, so if he was taking the time to write to us, he was certainly doing the same for all those former students, brother priests and families to whom he had pastored over the years.

Fr. Rob also told Pittman that the “he wanted his death to be a teaching moment.” When Pittman enquired as to how he was supposed to accomplish this goal, the response from Fr. Rob was, “You’ll figure it out.”

Fr. Rob had already done some of the work, providing detailed instructions for the funeral. He knew what he wanted — the readings, the music, the fact that it would be the Maroon and White’s, the prefects of Loyola, who should serve the funeral Mass, just as they had done at the school Masses that he had celebrated in the auditorium over the years.

It was important to him that it should be the school choir, directed by his friend Marthe Lacasse, who should sing at the funeral. They all came: former students, current students, staff members. It was an alumnus, now in his mid-20s, who was the cantor for the beautiful Ignatian prayer that begins, “Take Lord, receive, all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will.”

There was one piece of music that provided, I think, the key to how Fr. Rob approached his death and the funeral that followed. The recessional he chose was “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by J.S. Bach — a composition familiar to most people because of its use at weddings. I think that his coffin being escorted out to the triumphant strains of a wedding march is just the kind of “teaching moment” Fr. Rob desired. I think that those months of deliberate, joyful planning were in preparation for the highly anticipated moment when “after my skin has thus been destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.”

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