Professor Patrick Johnston

Homily

Funeral Homily for Professor Patrick G. Johnston

-Msgr David Diamond


Iseult, Seamus, Eoghan, Emma, Harry and Abigail, Nial and Raurie, on behalf all of us who are gathered here with you this morning I offer our most profound condolences at what is certainly a very dark time for us all, and especially for you. Our presence here today is testimony to our prayerful support for you and prayers on behalf of this great man whom God has, for reasons beyond the understanding of any of us, called to Himself.

Many of you here have a longer history of friendship with Paddy than I have. I first met Paddy and Iseult Johnston when I was studying at The Catholic University of America and was fortunate enough to gain a residence in a parish in Bethesda; their parish. Paddy and Iseult and their four young boys were parishioners. Paddy was with the National Institutes of Health; as you know a cancer research doctor whose accomplishments in that field have been hugely significant. We all became friends. Visiting them at their home for dinner and cycling with Paddy through DC became a regular part of my life.

I invited them, along with another friend, to my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Later they told me that was the occasion, which served as a catalyst for them to reflect on the significance of family and led them to decide to go back to Ireland. So back they went and I visited them in Belfast and in Donegal. Among the most memorable visits was the time they asked me to celebrate Mass for their 25th wedding anniversary. Paddy had landed a position on the faculty at Queens University.  He was soon appointed dean of the Medical School and then just a few years ago became Vice Chancellor.

This past Sunday, Iseult called me with the incredible news that he had died.

Words at this point are weak. But the Word, Jesus, is strong beyond our strength as individuals and as a community. Celebrating funeral Masses is a very important part in the life of a priest and I take them very seriously. When it is a friend with whom I shared so much and for whom I had deep admiration and love; well, it brings me to a new level of profound sadness.

When tragedy strikes, and an occasion of tremendous sadness beyond understanding will hit all of us at some point in our lives, through the darkness, the grieving and the crying, consolation comes through faith. I do not know how people without faith survive in a world marked by irrational and seemingly meaningless loss.

The great statement in the preface to the Eucharistic prayer for funeral Masses offers a powerful consolation as well as a challenge: Lord, indeed for your faithful, life is changed not ended. The consolation is in believing that Jesus offers us eternal life. The challenge is to wrap your head and heart around the belief that death is not the end for anyone of us.

Marking Trinity Sunday this weekend, along with this personal tragedy, causes me to reflect that we are already a part of that Triune community and because of that all things are different. My friend Paddy is gone and all things are different.

Seamus Heaney once wrote:

“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme”

As faithful disciples of Christ, we have to believe hope and history rhyme. They rhyme in the lives of the people whom God has given us in love. We are a people of hope and that hope will not disappoint. We have Jesus’ word on that. Hope and history did rhyme in and through the life of Professor Patrick Johnston.

It is no ordinary set of circumstances that has led us all to be here today. Yes, family and friends gather in a grief that at times may seem overwhelming and all encompassing. You may be here because you know Paddy or are related to or a friend of the family. However, you may not know others who are here this morning because of their sadness and their sense of loss in which you share. In all probability, we do not all know everyone in this church. We are gathered, not because we are experiencing some phenomenon like the famous six degrees of separation. We are here because we are all united in grief, in that one aspect of humanity in which we all share – the reality that death is the end of our earthy life.

For the world, the contemporary society in which we live, what we celebrate here this morning is something to be avoided, something not to be discussed, and something ever to be denied. For the believer, what we celebrate here this morning is to be recognized as one more facet of the mystery we call our life. We do not gloss over the sense of bereavement. That would be foolish. We do not ignore it but we cannot so fully embrace it as to allow it to dominate our lives. When faced with death there is a gloom, a melancholy and a suffering that is like none other. We do not ignore the human reality of sorrow. In John’s gospel, we are told that when Jesus heard of the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept. In that way, He blessed all of our tears as we may weep in sadness at the loss of a singular good man; so filled with talent, intelligence and good will. A faithful disciple.

It is the even appearance of heartbreak that the world rejects because the world has no category for what we celebrate here today. We appear here in sadness but believe in a far greater good and a far more powerful reality. St. John, the author of the Book of Revelation knew this centuries ago as he wrote:

…whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord of the dead and the living.

Because of the Christ event, his life giving death, resurrection and ascension we are renewed in that relationship. It is that renewal, that transformation that we pray Paddy now enjoys. That transformation is something that the world cannot give. It is only available through a life of faith; the faith towards which we turn this morning as we commend Paddy to eternal life.

We have heard from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans in which he explores the relationship with have with Christ and how that relationship, unchanged in life or death, binds us to one another and to eternity. St. Paul picks up this theme in the Second letter to the Corinthians in which he addresses what has been a central aspect of Paddy’s work and his faith. In the passage, St. Paul reflects on the burdens of this life and in it he uses a peculiar phrase, the weight of glory.  

Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.

No one would think of cancer as a light affliction. Through his work, his research, his care for his students and his patients, Paddy tried to lighten their affliction. In his famous sermon on this phrase, C S Lewis noted in his own spiritual life and his own prayer life that there is a resistance to completely giving oneself to Christ for fear the God will ask from that individual more than he or she is willing to give. St. Paul assures believers that God's justifying action in Jesus Christ is a declaration of peace. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ displays God's initiative in certifying humanity for unimpeded access into the divine presence – the weight of glory.

Paddy bore that weight in this life manifested through the manner in which he lived his life for others. Primarily as a husband and father, a doctor and lastly his administration of Queens. Unlike C.S. Lewis, I believe Paddy gave himself fully to whatever endeavor in which he was involved. Through his life, he gave of himself fully to others: his family, friends, students, colleagues and patients. This is one of the central and ironic mysteries of the Christian faith. If you want to fully be the best person you can be you must give yourself fully to another. This is a central teaching of Jesus though the gospel.

There has been a lot written on the section of Matthew’s gospel passage called The Beatitudes. Some scholars have presented it as identifying Jesus as the New Moses who is giving a new law. Just as Moses ascended a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, Jesus ascends a mountain and gives forth a new set of commands. The imagery fits to a degree but certainly Jesus is more than Moses and the Beatitudes do not abrogate the Ten Commandments. Some have said that what Jesus is doing is presenting to His followers an impossible ideal. These are the virtues and goals we are to pursue but sadly will never achieve them. Then there are those who hold that the Beatitudes are exactly what Jesus wants of His Disciples. 

Those characteristics that are to mark the life of a disciple are not mere personality traits or idiosyncrasies that a good person accidentally possesses. Those virtues are to be identifiable in the earthly life of a believer and come to fullness in the eternal life of a believer. Meekness, a hunger and thirst for holiness, mercy, purity of heart, single heartedness, peacemakers, righteous. These have been found in the earthly life of a true believer. They are to be more fully realized in the eternal life of a true believer.

For those of us who remain, the question is to be asked: If these qualities are not of our earthly life, by what logic do we expect them to be part of our eternal life?

There is no article in any publication that can adequately summarize and encapsulate Paddy’s life: husband, father, grandfather, friend, physician, teacher, writer and administrator. The tributes have been heaped upon him in life and now the words of praise and gratitude, as well as shock and bewilderment, have sounded long and loud since this past Sunday. His accomplishments, amazingly earned in one brief life time, would require lesser men to live three or four lives. How many people now live because Doctor Johnston has lived? How many people’s lives have been profoundly changed because of knowing Professor Johnston? In so many ways, people have been deeply and intensely affected by this great man.

When Vice Chancellor Johnston began his term of administration, he shared with me that he picked up a copy of John Henry Newman’s work, The Idea of a University.

Newman is eminently insightful as well quotable in a manner that can lead to reflection and prayer. One of the most significant is this:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.

He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work.

I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place,
while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.

Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.” 

I know Patrick believed that and I believe that he saw his work, his extraordinary work, as a means of being that link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons and angel of peace, a preacher of truth. We are all immensely saddened by the shocking suddenness of his death. If there is any consolation it is in the evidence of his life. Your presence here this morning is testimony to the manner in which he lived and loved and worked and cared.

At the beginning of his life, on the day of his baptism, Paddy was brought to church by his family and friends. According to tradition he would have been covered in white. He would have had water poured over him, washing away original sin, establishing him as a member of the Church and instilling in him the Grace available to God's children. At that time, his parents received a candle and were told to keep the flame of faith alive in his heart.

Today at the end of his earthly life, he is once again brought to church by his family and friends. He is again covered in a white cloth. Water is sprinkled over him. And the Easter candle continues to burn.

At the end of the day, at the end of our lives we place ourselves in the hands of a Loving God who has created us, with His power, redeemed us by His blood and sustained us in His love. We celebrate the faith and love that this man shared with his wife his family his friends, patients and colleagues.

We now pray for mercy, everlasting mercy and offer our prayers for our friend, the great man we honor today in this Mass of Christian burial.

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace.

Amen.