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Remembering Father John O'Brien

When my sons were elementary- and middle-school ages, I'd drop them off at St. John Catholic School and sometimes I'd step into the almost empty church to have some quiet time with the Lord.

Invariably Father John O'Brien would be sitting in the alcove on the right where the morning sun was streaming inside, dimly lighting the expansive sanctuary. Almost always he had a book in his hands. Whether it was the Bible or some other holy book I don't know, as I never approached him during this time.

"I love those who love Me, and those who seek Me diligently find Me" (Proverbs 8:17).

The scripture instructs us to seek Him early, and with a parish whose flock had swelled to 900 families under his tenure, Father O'Brien wisely had a standing early morning commitment to refresh and refuel himself in order to properly carry out his duties.

Many of the duties are joyful occasions - weddings, baptisms, first communions, confirmations - but many are solemn and difficult.

When it was apparent my late father-in-law was squarely in the middle stage of Alzheimer's, Father O'Brien met with my husband's family and frankly told Mr. Amiot, "Bill, it's not going to get any better."

My husband later reflected that it is the nature of many people not to hear the truth from their families and another source is needed. Father O'Brien showed up when needed, gently and firmly admonishing the family to face what was coming.

He'd often weave a "deal wit' it," in his homilies, delivered with his lilting Irish brogue, and it was indeed time for the Amiot family to deal wit' it - no useless candy coating or phony sunny optimism dispensed.

Father O'Brien then spoke with Mr. Amiot privately in the kitchen, seated at the same round family table where the seven Amiot children had gathered for countless meals during their childhood. Afterwards he reentered the living area where the adult children were waiting and announced, "Bill is ready."

Indeed, that is Father O'Brien's priority: encouraging the faithful to get ready for eternity and to deal matter-of-factly wit' the earthly tribulations along the way.

In 2003 I witnessed mercy embodied when Father O'Brien graciously greeted a Protestant pastor who'd disappointed many by having an affair. Father O'Brien's reaction was to walk up to the man, embrace him briefly, then while holding his right hand look him in the eyes and ask sincerely how he was doing. This brings tears to my eyes every time I recall it.

It was a moments-only encounter, his words characteristically brief, but Father O'Brien did what Jesus would do. He saw the goodness still in the man. He silently acknowledged it was a mistake anyone could make. He offered no condolence or condemnation. He touched a flesh-and-blood human being and reconveyed to him that even in our failings, God's love is unfailing.

Immediately afterwards, Father O'Brien took a seat to my left and sat through the funeral of my mother who was eulogized by a down-home Southern chaplain. It mattered not to Father O'Brien that my late mother was not one he had shepherded through any part of her life, yet he cared enough about one person of nearly 2,000 in his flock to take an hour out of his life and see her through saying goodbye to her last parent.

I originally thought I'd write a letter to Father O'Brien describing the moments that mattered most to me during his 12 years at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church but I wanted others to have yet another glimpse into the life of a man who emigrated to a country sorely in need of priests, leaving family and a country he loved to the bidding of the Lord.

Father O'Brien has had his share of scrutiny, criticism, even persecution, sadly enough from some of his own, yet he carried on faithfully.

Among too many other kindnesses to mention, he leaves Valdosta having helped reinforce a slowly-building bridge between Protestants and Catholics in the deep South.

"Let another praise you, and not your own mouth - a stranger, and not your own lips" (Proverbs 27:2).

I've never heard Father O'Brien sing his own praises, but a good ol' Southern Baptist undertaker once took the time to tell me how much he admired and respected Father O'Brien as an individual and in the way he carried out his ministry to the bereaved Catholic community. I am hard pressed to find any higher praise to add to that.

Well done, Father O'Brien. (Matthew 25:21)

(Leigh Amiot is a Valdosta freelance writer. This column originally appeared in the Valdosta Daily Times in June, shortly after Father John O'Brien left Valdosta to become senior pastor at Columbia County's St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church. Father O'Brien died last Thursday in a car crash in Evans.)

Web posted on Thursday, August 09, 2007

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