A Personal tribute to Fr John O’Brien by Sr. Veronica OP

Father John O’Brien SAC who died on February 18, 2021 age 65 years

I am sure many people will have their own personal memories of Fr. John at this sad time since his recent passing from this life so prematurely. I have pondered for many hours in recent days, my mind filled with memories dating back to my first encounter with him in 1982 (all be it in an accidental form!). I had at the time been involved in a fatal road traffic accident and was in a state of shock and anxiety as I learnt of the death of the very elderly pedestrian who has walked out in front of my car. I had been sent home from hospital with very minor cuts and scrapes but emotionally I was a wreck. At the time I was not worshipping in Greenford but in Hanwell a neighbouring parish so I was not known to the priests in Greenford (although one of the priests of the parish was visiting my elderly housebound parents each First Friday with Holy Communion). Realising my need of spiritual guidance the hospital chaplain contacted the parish in Greenford and suggested one of the priests come to visit me at home a few days later. 

Fr John arrived unannounced on my doorstep. He came with the sacrament of the sick and prayed with me. It was really comforting and I was grateful especially as I was not really active in his parish. I never saw him again until 2 years later when I was in Rome in 1984 with a youth pilgrimage from Westminster following the Papal visit to England. We were visiting for the opening gathering of the pilgrimage at the Basilica of San Silvestro in Capite (The English Church in Rome) It was administered by the Pallottine Fathers. Fr John had been sent to Rome for further studies and was based at this church. To my surprise he recognised me and spoke with me remembering our last brief meeting under somewhat different circumstances. Our path never crossed aging unto 1989 when he was assigned to Greenford again on his return from Rome after a brief spell in Texas USA. He had come to fill in the gap left by Fr. Michael Cremin who had recently left to do further studies in Clifftonville in Kent. By this time I was quite actively involved in the Church in Greenford working as an admin volunteer in the office covering the evening slot on a Thursday. I met him in the presbytery kitchen as we washed coffee cups and reminded him of the first time we met a number of years previously. He still remembered that first meeting; something which really surprised me. It showed me that he really did care for those he ministered to. I started going to the prayer group he was leading in the parish and we became firm friends in a very short space of time. I used to enjoy the time we spent in the social club afterwards having a social drink together with the group. Fr John was great for meeting people where they were, there was no false airs and graces. He was very ordinary and full of common sense. I sometimes felt he did not suffer fools easily and could be quite blunt in telling people exactly what he thought about some things. But it was always said from a heart rooted in Christ and a desire for the truth to be spoken. 

I was at this time undergoing immense family difficulties as the chief carer for my aging and disabled parents. I really appreciated the opportunity to offload onto someone who had a listening ear and many words of wisdom to preserve my sanity at this time. He taught me how to pray from the heart rather than just using formal words. He helped me to develop a friendship and deep relationship with Jesus Christ. His own love of the priesthood flowed from him. Something I admired and greatly respected. Especially since this was the time of much upheaval in the Church as experimentation with the “new ideas” from Vatican II grew. I sensed I was in the presence of someone very holy and rooted solidly in his ministry, always putting Christ at the centre of everything he did or said. There was nothing lofty about his love for Jesus. His feet were firmly rooted on the ground as he walked in a deep friendship with the Lord. His prayer life was genuine and real and this I am sure is what sustained him and protected him at a turbulent time in the Church. Our time together was always rooted in prayer. He was a great confessor full of much wisdom and understanding for the human condition. I am sure this stems from his own experience of suffering he shared with me that lost his mother shortly after ordination and he found it hard to understand, that someone so young should be taken so prematurely. He seemed to have much sympathy for people who suffered from cancer. You often sensed something deeply human in the way he talked about this event in his life. He was a deeply private person but I know that once he gained the trust of another person he would share those inner thoughts revealing s tender human side of his nature. He was a deeply loyal friend and expected as much from those he cared for. He liked to challenge people in their spiritual journey. He had a deep sense of justice and would speak out if he felt something needed to be said. I remember telling him that whilst on holiday in Canada on holiday that I did not attend Sunday Mass since I did not want to upset my friend who was lapsed from the faith. It seemed a step too far to expect her to take me to Mass! He rebuked me in no uncertain terms reminding me of the Sunday obligation and a missed opportunity for evangelising!! I was greatly humbled but grateful for the admonition and learnt a valuable lesson. 

John moved on from Greenford after a short time with us to Clerkenwell. He invited me to continue our monthly sessions once he had moved. We would meet and have time to chat and pray together and sometime have lunch. It was during this time he suggested to me that I should consider the possibility of a vocation to the religious life. I have to confess it was not something I really wanted to hear. It was not on my agenda. I was quite content with my little world doing what I wanted to do and doing my bit for the Apostolate. He was so determined that I should consider this path that I remember in between one of our monthly session he wrote me letter urging me to give this matter some real thought. He felt that I was called to some sort of contemplative life. After much discussion we reached a compromise! He suggested that perhaps I should look into the possibility of becoming a consecrated virgin. It seemed a good compromise. I got to “live the life of a religious” but still remained active in the world. I suppose at the time I was not ready to make that huge step of faith into religious life. He supported me through this process and after two years of formation with Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue it finally happened. The journey had its ups and downs but he remained at my side to support me through it all. 

Shortly after my consecration John told me that he was moving to Ireland to become Rector of the Retreat house in Thurles. This was a trying time for me as I was forced to a change in the current set up of our monthly meetings, but John prepared me well and I realise that the journey I had undertaken was about my relationship with Christ not about my spiritual relationship with John. Just as he was leaving for Ireland we had a final meeting in Clerkenwell. I wanted to give John something as a gift but was stumped as to what it should be to show my gratitude for all he had done for me. At this time I had managed to lose the special ring I wore as a consecrated virgin in the form of a crucifix whilst gardening. So I bought a new ring to replace it. A few weeks after this I saw something shining in the grass cuttings. It was my ring!! However it was a mangled mess after doing battle with the lawn mower and not fit for purpose anymore! But then I had an inspiration which I am convinced came from the Holy Spirit. At our last meeting I presented this mangled mess as a special symbol and gift of our special friendship over the years. It may have been mangled and not fit for its original purpose but the gold that it still contained was still precious and valuable. It seemed to summarise what life was about. We are broken people mangled by our life of sin and the trials we face each day; but we are still regarded as precious and valuable in the eyes of the Lord no matter how mangled our lives may be. This is a lesson I had learnt from John over the years, to value and treasure the gift of myself as created by God himself. 

About a year after John moved to Ireland I received an invitation to come a stay in Thurles whilst I was visiting some friends in Dublin during my summer break. I decided to make a retreat with John as the retreat Master and stayed with him for 5 days. Imagine my deep surprise as John showed me a ring he was wearing on his finger looking like a double of my special consecration ring! He told me he was so touched by my gesture when he left England that he had had the ring repaired and now he wore it on his finger all the time. I welled up with emotion on hearing this. I had never imagined he would go to such trouble. The last time I saw John in December 2019 he was still proudly wearing this ring. It had become a symbol of our spiritual friendship. 

My trips to Ireland became a regular event at least twice a year during my October half term break and again in the summer. During this time I came to the conclusion some 10 years after he first suggested it that I did indeed have a calling to the religious life. I was somewhat slow in the uptake! In his absence I had discerned with the help of a new regular spiritual guide come to a decision. I was going to enter what has become my present community. John was absolutely delighted even if he jokingly said what took so long!! At my final profession in 2005 I read the letter to everyone present that John had written some 15 years [previously. I had kept in a safe place for this moment). His constant prayer and patience saw me realise this goal at the age of 45! As he commented Better late than never! 
John was not able to be present for my First profession in September 2002. He was moving from Ireland back to England that week and was very busy with the move. However he did invite me to come and stay for a few days in Hastings immediately after my profession. It was my first major trip outside of the Priory since entering the Community. I was in need of a break after the profession just to become accustomed to my new state in life before I went onto visit my family and friends. It coincided with John’s Birthday on 20th September. I particularly remember that John gave me time and space to adjust to that new stage in my life. We went for long walks together along the sea front. I have to confess I was not as fit as John who was used to such walks on a daily basis. He humbly realised this when I started to tire and lag behind the pace he set suggesting that it was time to walk back to the car!! 
I remember the advice he gave me that I should learn to relax and take time for myself in the next two weeks. I really enjoyed praying the Divine office with John during the day and attending Mass with him. Having been secluded for almost three years it was a strange experience being out in “the world” again. He helped me to adjust to this and taught me that living the religious life was all about keeping a balance between the rigours of religious practice and the time to enjoy life as well. This is something I know John practiced himself to have the correct balance between his prayer life, his ministry and taking time out for pleasure and relaxation with family and friends. It is something I have tried to emulate. 

In 2008 my mother sadly died at the age of 94. I was very touched that John had heard of her death through the Pallottines in Greenford. I was even more touched by the fact he took the trouble to travel from Hastings to West London in order to concelebrate her Requiem Mass with Frs. Tom Daly, his good friend, Bill Hanley (who had recently anointed her in her final days) and newly ordained Seamus Stapleton the priests in the parish of Greenford. I felt uplifted by the love and support of the Pallottine family at this time. 

In recent years when John moved to Barking I was able to visit more frequently since my brother lived close by in Romford. Whenever I paid a visit to my brother I visited John, popping in for Mass and a cup of coffee and sometimes staying on for lunch. John had the knack of providing welcome hospitality and a sense of the spiritual. Our conversations usually ended with the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and a time for praying together. Over all the time I have known John the penance allotted was always the same- to pray the Magnificat. On the last occasion that we met face to face he asked me to send him some writing I had undertaken of my own personal reflection on this prayer of the Magnificat which had come about after many years of pondering this prayer. I sent this to John enclosed with my Christmas card in 2019. John replied immediately to say he had been moved to tears by the words I had written. He never realised the full impact this prayer had had on my life. 

During this last year the whole world has been in the grip of this dreadful pandemic. Lockdown and travel restrictions have meant I have not been able to meet face to face with my family and consequently with John. We did however keep in touch via e mail. He took great interest in how we as a community were growing in the midst of the crisis. I was particularly touched that he forwarded on my humble efforts at making a video of the Life of St Vincent Pallotti to the Pallottine provincial in Dublin and his beloved friend Fr Eamonn Monson in Hastings.. If nothing else John has brought the spirit of Saint Vincent alive in my life. He fits so well with my life as a Dominican. We are Apostles of the Eternal Father preaching the Good News to the world! 

I suspect John struggled somewhat with the effects of lockdown and the inability to serve his people in the usual way. He was a people person and needed people around him. He mentioned this several times in our email conversations. He was however really encouraging towards our community to continue the work we had begun with our new online ministry that lockdown had made happen. He also was very understanding and concerned for one of our sisters who was undergoing treatment for her 3rd bout of cancer during this pandemic. Her prognosis was not good last year as we went into lockdown. He bewailed the fact that the lockdown was delaying diagnosis and treatment for cancer patients. The last time I saw John in December 2019 he looked ill and had lost much weight. But he never divulged his own suffering. In fact it was only three weeks before his sudden death that I learnt of his condition from Mgr. Tony Harris our mutual friend. This was so typical of John he did not like attention drawn to himself but always was concerned for the other. 

His final days were not easy during this time of lockdown. There was I am sure a great sense of the loneliness of Gethsemane as the end approached. It was a cruel time to face death. But John I believe was already on a journey into the unknown and this last year and month, cruel as it may seem perhaps prepared him for that final journey with the Lord. I am grateful he had the company of his closest friends in those final days. I was with him inspirit as I prayed a special Rosary for him each day as he was passing over to the Lord. Just before I entered the Dominican way of life he very seriously said that it was time for me to start praying the Rosary since this was central to the Charism of a Dominican! He knew that until then I had a great aversion to this way of prayer!! But I was faithful to his command and it has served me well, particularly when words fail me and I do not know how to pray. It was all I could do for John in these last weeks of his life. 

May he now rest in the arms of Jesus and in the presence of St. Vincent Pallotti and his beloved parents. 

Sr. Veronica
Video presentation on St. Vincent Pallotti by Sr. Veronica