News

Tribute to Fr. Brennan, SJ

November 7, 2023

Memorial Fund

 

Here is the touching memorial service speech delivered by Eric Vani '91 on October 4, 2023.

Dear Friends,

Years ago, I was blessed to share a quiet moment with a wise ol’ man – we ruminated over the purpose of life and death. Indeed, a profound and intimidating topic, especially a week before Christmas Break. Our impromptu chinwag began with me laggardly making my way to the Chaplain’s office housed within a tiny corner of the weathered, yet ornate, Old Building that was, is, and will always be Loyola High School. There I was, all fifteen years of me, sardonically asking the sage: “Hey Padre, how do we know that Jesus’ story is real and not just the greatest tale ever told?” After he rebuked me for my paganism, his sharp wit sprang into action by responding, “You’re here, aren’t you!” At the time, his words baffled me more than his reaction to my smart aleck question. Despite my poor excuse for adolescent humour and what I thought was a veritable JUG-able offense, the wise ol’ man did not scold or patronize me; instead, he saw an opportunity to meet me where I was in my own Faith journey. And, there it was – the twinkle in his cerulean-tinted eyes, his ethereal voice, and the ease with which he was able to convey wisdom without hubris. The conversation morphed into a humbling experience that ventured into the eternal cycle that is death and resurrection – life’s “big picture”, as he called it. Fast-forward almost thirty years, I am sitting in a sparsely decorated office, save for a couple of beautifully painted images of Mother Mary staring pitifully at me, asking Padre about my purpose on earth and my mortality. “It’s true,” he said, “death is an inevitable part of our temporal existence in this world but what awaits is so much more.” When I asked his thoughts about the hereafter, he artfully replied, “I don’t really know, no one ever returned to tell me about it!” Again, Padre was able to take tedious topics, simplify them into amusingly digestible bits, and leave me feeling enlightened and loved. Of course, the didactic bit came in the form of an e-mail at the end of the day. It was a link to Emily Dickinson’s powerful poem, Because I could not stop for Death – the first stanza summed up our conversation quite well:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

Dickinson’s words remained buried in my psyche for several years later, when they were resurrected upon hearing of Padre’s passing on September 2nd of this year. This sad news stung and left me reeling for answers, once again – What is the purpose of life? – What is the meaning of death? In an instant I saw his jolly bearded face and piercing blue eyes smiling at me – Fr. Rob Brennan SJ, a genuine pillar of Loyola High School, a true person for and with others; reminding me that my many memories of him are everlasting…indeed, immortal.

Born on August 28, 1945, in Toronto and ordained a Jesuit priest in 1979, Fr. Brennan dedicated his life to helping others and making the world a better place. He spent close to four decades at Loyola, ensuring that tomorrow’s generations were conscientious, committed, competent and compassionate. No doubt, a tall order in this very paradoxical world we live in, yet one he did most graciously. Ask any graduate or person who knew him well and they will say that his non-judgemental and sincere approach made him the go-to person to speak with about any topic and, I mean, ANY TOPIC – from the existence of God to the harsh vicissitudes of teenage relationships, to the best football team in NFL history – nothing was off the table with him. He listened attentively, never used platitudes, and always ended discussions with, “I will pray for you.”

Padre wore many hats at Loyola, serving as president, administrator, teacher, chaplain, coach and, most importantly, companion. He dedicated himself to his students and ensured that he journeyed with each of them. He was a master teacher, who was more interested in the development of the whole person – he taught the individual first, then the subject. He was an open-minded visionary in the classroom who introduced modern technology, discussed contentious global issues, and offered hope for the future. His lessons were all founded on LOVE - love for his students, love for the topics he shared, and love for life-long learning.

This guitar before me perfectly personifies Fr. Brennan’s obsession with taking care of the entire person. A young Mr. E. Hein and an even younger Mr. C. Hein know only too well of his benevolence. As young students the brothers Hein would often make their way to the Chaplain’s office at lunch to strum a few keys on this very same guitar and share their passion for music with Padre. To ensure that their love for playing the guitar flourished, Padre would send it home with them during Christmas Break, March Break and even Summer Break! You see, Fr. Brennan saw who they really were as unique individuals beyond the simple label of ‘student’ - he saw their soul. The Heins would go on to pursue their love of music as adults. And as fate would have it, many years later, when Mr. C. Hein began his teaching career at Loyola, Father Brennan called him down to the President’s office to “talk” to him; naturally, Mr. Hein’s first thought was, “Did I do something wrong?” -  Nope! -  Fr. Brennan grabbed the worn guitar case and presented it to him, saying thoughtfully, “Take care of it for me.” Mr. Hein stood amazed, staring at the case he had not seen in years. Padre continued, “Chris, I know you’re busy coaching football but DON’T lose the music.” This was and IS Fr. Brennan: PERCEPTIVE - CARING - REAL.

Beyond the hallowed halls of Loyola, Fr. Brennan shared his goodness with the world. He rarely declined requests to officiate weddings or baptisms for former students, regardless of how hectic his schedule was or how treacherous the travel would be to get to his destination - he always presided with an energetic smile and a willingness to serve.

And serve he did - most notably, alongside Saint Mother Teresa, tending to Kolkata’s most marginalized community. Fr. Brennan dutifully served men, women and children who suffered from leprosy. The photos of the deplorable conditions he lived and worked in continue to haunt my thoughts and remind me - us - about the importance of being grateful for all that God has blessed us with. In 2011, Padre spent his March Break tending to the needs of citizens in Fukushima, Japan, after giant waves flooded nuclear reactors in the area, forcing over a hundred thousand people to flee from the radiation. Indeed, another reminder of Padre’s desire to care for others by giving and not counting the costs.

In the early 2000s, author, Mitch Albom, wrote an inspiring tale entitled The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which recounts the story of Eddie, a ride operator who dies in an amusement park accident and is subsequently sent to Heaven. While in Heaven, he encounters five people who had a significant impact on his life. I remember sharing this book with Fr. Brennan without telling him the real reason why I gave it to him  - it was my way of saying THANK YOU for being such an influential part of my life, as well as the lives of countless others, both in this room and far away…

You see, the story truly reminds us that life does not end with death; instead, it is the beginning of a ‘real life’ immersed solely in JOY and PEACE.

So, today, we are not really saying goodbye to Fr. Rob Brennan: Our beautiful memories of him will live on; this guitar will continue to play dulcet tones in Room 216 to remind us of his indelible presence and the following words - his words - will forever echo in our minds: “Caring and compassion can hurt. […] But when you demonstrate care and compassion, not only are you doing something special, you’re becoming something special.” (Fr. Brennan, S.J., August 29th, 2018)Vani

Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2023 edition of the Loyola Today.

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