HOMILY for Funeral of Fr Chris Barnett PP, 6 January 2004, St Mary’s East St Kilda
We have come to give thanks to God for you, Chris, and to thank you for a life well led. Although you shied away from praise and compliment, we want to pay public tribute to you before the One to whom each of us must give an account. Your many friends have come to pray for you and we ask you to pray for us that we may merrily meet again in heaven.
How did you feel almost fifty years ago when you arrived at Port Melbourne on a blisteringly hot summer’s day and looked across the shoreline to the city of Melbourne which you had chosen because of some passing comment made by your father? You had left Ireland but Ireland never left you and the memory of her history remained strong in you. You loved her and felt for her in her sorrows and wished to “raise the mourning veil” from her face. Even though you eventually took up Australian citizenship you never ceased to be Irish.
Did you have any inkling, as you stood on the deck, that you would live through one of the greatest upheavals in the history of the Church as it rediscovered itself? In the tumult of those years your faith did not fail for you felt “raised up on eagle’s wings and born on the breath of dawn” held up by the faithful God to whom you were ever faithful. You kept in touch with change and read widely. Even at Bethlehem Hospital, fifty years later, shortly before the end of your earthly journey, you were reading from The Furrow, the Irish theological publication you admired so much.
On that hot summer’s day you carried in your baggage the breviary in Latin to be replaced eventually by the breviary now placed on your coffin. Even in your last days you were faithful to the Divine Office and prayed it as you sat breathless and exhausted on the hospital bed. In the words of the Second Reading, you “have fought the good fight, [you] have finished the race, [you] have kept the faith.” Prayer was indeed a significant aspect of your life. You formed part of a small Jesus Caritas group, including Paddy May, Leo Saleeba, and myself and we would sometimes meet in your house at Corinella on Western Port to pray and celebrate Mass and solve the problems of the Church and the world.
As you stood on the deck of the ship that brought you from Ireland, you looked across to the city but never really left the sea. You loved to launch your small boat and fish in the unpredictable waters of Port Philip or else in the sea at Goleen in Ireland near your beloved sister-in-law’s house. You loved the ever-changing face of the sea and you loved to touch the stable earth and draw vegetables from unpromising soil in Burwood.
As you stepped ashore, were you made welcome? Probably, but you have certainly welcomed us. In your life you lived out the promise made in the first reading: “The Lord will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines”. For example, each fortnight in the Parish of Burwood for over two years you hosted dinners to which all the parishioners were personally invited. For many years you provided the annual dinner for the Irish priests and the bishops of Melbourne on St Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas. Each year at St Mary’s you provided a Christmas dinner for a large number of parishioners on the front lawn under the trees. You welcomed me as a boarder under your roof for six years at Burwood and later for three years at East St Kilda. In your delicate way you extended your friendship to all who would accept it and felt the hurt deeply when it was rejected.
You extended this same hospitality to the many who came to the door at St Mary’s. In fulfilment of the text in today’s Gospel, you “fed the hungry and welcomed the stranger.” How well you spoke at Vincent’s funeral – Vincent, unwashed and unkempt, whom you allowed each week to serve at Mass. You respected him where others may have looked askance. How well you treated Gabrielle who startled all who saw her. You helped her find happiness and companionship. At this very moment the words of the King are surely being addressed to you, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. ”.
You left the ship and presented yourself to Bishop Arthur Fox, who sent you first to Fairfield. Though your stay there was temporary, the Parish Priest of the time gave you valuable advice, which dovetailed with the pastoral orientation that was the particular strength of the seminary at Carlow. Your balanced approach and sound opinion, which I often called on, was appreciated by Archbishop Little who involved you in many significant committees. About these you were reticent for it was not in your character to brag or boast. You did not push yourself forward for you had confidence in yourself and wished only to serve the Church and your people. The Archdiocese welcomed your wisdom and stability and appointed you to difficult situations confident that you could handle them. Your solid frame was inhabited by a solid character.
Thus you lived out your pastoral life firstly in South Melbourne. How did you cope, fresh faced and innocent, with the colourful personalities of South Melbourne about whom you told hilarious anecdotes? Few had your range of stories suited to every circumstance and few could tell them so well.
Then you went to Armadale where you managed the Parish Priest with skill. After that in East Melbourne and Ivanhoe then Diamond Creek where you lived in the side room of a small, old church; then in Burwood at a difficult time, and lastly in East St Kilda one of the most diverse parishes in Melbourne. You constantly thought about Parish life and developed imaginative strategies. You knew your people and fulfilled the words of last night’s Gospel, “I know my sheep and my own know me”.
Aware that you could not longer continue full time you presented the medical report to Archbishop Pell who was shocked at its contents. Your natural reticence meant that few in your family knew of your illness. Some of them have been able to come here and their presence shows the affection in which you were held. Despite your illness you continued nevertheless to supply. Your diary was full. Even in the last days of your life you expressed your wish to continue. You died with your boots on, a true pastor to the end.
On the cover of the funeral booklet is the photo that captures your character so well and which was reproduced in the thousands of brochures sent to all the Parishes as part of the annual appeal for retired priests. Through the photo and its accompanying words Archbishop Hart wished to acknowledge the dedication of the many Irish priests in Melbourne who had left the green fields of home to serve in this far away land.
It is not possible to capture a life in a few words. Indeed there is only One who truly knows you. He will proclaim to us what you have been and what you will be. You came from Ireland to the ends of the earth. You are now on your last, your greatest journey. We have gathered around you to speed you on your way, and where you are going we hope to follow. We ask you therefore, Chris, to prepare a place for us, and when our time comes welcome us to the hospitality of heaven.
(Fr John Dupuche)