An Advent Eulogy for Uncle Peter - 1st Sunday of Advent, Year B

The word ‘eulogia’ is the Greek word for a blessing, not to be confused with the word ‘eulogy’ which is a speech or a piece of writing in praise of, or in tribute to, someone who has just died. Yes, Uncle Peter has died, and what is more, during the month of the Holy Souls, the 7th of November to be exact, but I want to refrain from tabulating a list of his achievements, because his life was worth much more than a ‘list’ of anything tangible such as a litany of temporal, secular successes.

In liturgical terms in the Eastern Churches, the word eulogia has been applied to a ‘blestobject’ and occasionally in early times to signify the Holy Eucharist, and it’s in the context of ‘blessing’ that I want to share his legacy of blessings. Although he most probably never realised it, on first meeting him, one met the whole man including his character. Attractively self-effacing, warm smiling face, unpretentious, a non-malicious sense of humour, an aura of trust and keeper of confidences, a person in whose company one instantaneously felt comfortable and completely at ease; in so many ways, irrespective of any human frailties, knowing Peter was a blessing.

Peter was an uncle by marriage. He married my mother’s young sister Juliet (always known as Auntie Biddy - only the Lord and the deceased know why) and although they met in Bristol where Auntie Biddy was a regular visitor to our home, after their nuptials, Peter and Biddy spent the first year or so of their blest union in Bristol, but then moved to Manchester, the birthplace of our mother, her siblings and her kith and kin. Needless to say, I saw little of Peter and Biddy after their marriage as I was away at school, but was always kept informed by Mother of the to-ings and fro-ings of their family including the birth of their two children Peter Francis [to ensure a distinction between my cousin and his Father] and Catherine. It wasn’t until I had left school and started courting that Uncle Peter’s influence began to have a profound effect on my life.

For those among you who remember their own courting days, there was always the problem of trying to be alone with one’s belovéd without the company of friends, as when a gang of us were together, all one seemed to do was to fend off personal questions about our relationship, Mary and mine, that is, which although many questions were humourous jibes, they didn’t merit an answer. I was living in ‘digs’ at the time, and the difficulty was in trying to find somewhere away from prying eyes, and as Mary still lived in her family home, that was a non-starter when it came to prying eyes. Necessity drove us [excuse the pun] to purchase a car, a 1950 (blue) Ford Zephyr Mk 1, which released Mary and me from a nomadic pedestrian courtship. As I have just mentioned, I was in digs at the time being sheltered by the wonderful Loftus family who had rescued me from homelessness after four of we charming, well-behaved young men, had been evicted from the flat we were renting in Harrow Weald (another innocent tale to tell), and as the Loftus household was also the meeting place for the ever-expanding St Joseph’s Dramatic Society, and was always full of ‘hopefuls’ there was little chance for Mary and me to be alone. So the car, a rust-bucket but with a built-in radio on the dashboard (which was the only thing that never packed-in!) gave us an opportunity to escape the madding crowd.

The question was .... where to go? ..... it had to be far, far away! ... Yes! ... Manchester! And so a pleading phone call to Uncle Peter and Auntie Bid asking for sanctuary for 24 hrs from late on a Saturday night or whatever time was convenient for them to ‘put up’ with us, was joyously granted, and from then until we married, Mary and I popped up to Manchester once every two or three months for a 24 hour jolly in a relaxed, happy and thoroughly rewarding environment, free from the cares of life.

We usually arrived before midnight, and were presented with a table full of food, far too much for the four of us. We sat at the table, and eventually, after we had seemingly all been talking at one and the same time for goodness knows how long, the bottle of whiskey Mary and I brought as an ‘offering’ was opened, which Peter and I supped until the bottle was empty. You may have guessed that the serious discussion was enhanced by the opening of the bottle, and without fail, the topics revolved around the Church, because that is what mattered to us: morality, conscience, sin, married priests, [there is nothing new in the Church, and as many of you will be aware; the Catholic Eastern Rites, with the Pope as their head still have, and always have had married priests] and of course, not forgetting the deliberations of 2,500 Bishops who, at that time, currently were attending the Second Vatican Council taking place at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. [Vat II 1962-65] It was an exciting time to be a Catholic.

I looked upon our occasional small family group get-togethers in Manchester as a privileged group, as not only had we been brought up in ‘the Faith’ but Uncle Peter, after leaving school, had spent six years in a seminary, namely St Joseph’s College Upholland, [founded 1880 – closed 1991] which is practically due west of Wigan in Lancashire. His knowledge of Philosophy and Theology was refreshing and eye-opening, particularly with his experience of married life brightening the discussions, let alone the excitement being generated by Vatican II.

It is on such relaxed and informative occasions that the night is too short and the Sun rises too soon, and once my young cousins were awake, it was time to take a pause from our theological meanderings and walk the two hundred yards across the common to attend Mass at Corpus Christi. Not a wink of sleep, and yet, not a hint of tiredness, but rather a loving sadness that the conversations had come to an end until the next visit. Those trips to Manchester were blessings, sheer goodness and joy, living the faith with fun and laughter, hope and satisfaction.

After Mary and I married, our trips ‘up-North’ were less frequent, but, facilitated by the occasional telephone call, the bond that had developed between us retained its strength.

As we share joy and laughter in a family or community, we share also sadness and tears, and in 1983 Auntie Biddy died after many years of suffering poor health. Her wake was, to put it mildly, a noisy affair, not with weeping and wailing, but with chatter and laughter and clinking glasses. Her open coffin was in the back room, and relatives, friends and neighbours swarmed around, exchanging anecdotes and sharing photographs of charabanc trips taken shortly after WWI and into the 1920’s.

They were celebrating the life of a member of the community who was born in the parish and who had died in the parish, ... one of their own, ... and they paid tribute to Peter who had become one of their own too. It was a joyful and memorable occasion, and when the time came for the coffin lid to be fixed in place, and for Biddy’s body to be taken to the Church for the Vigil and Reception of her body, those who had been celebrating this not-so-solemn occasion in the house, then accompanied Biddy’s short drive to the church by walking alongside the hearse. To my complete surprise, our cortege entered a church packed to the rafters with those who knew my aunt, and they demonstrated their affection for her by their attendance. After the Rite was concluded the whole congregation, as a body, went to the Parish Hall, which was full of tables laden with food. It was a parochial expression of genuine affection and a tribute to Biddy and Peter from a loving community.

Thankfully, the story didn’t end with death, because just as the 2nd. Vatican Council brought a ‘new beginning’; a ‘risorgimento’; and breathed welcome fresh air into the lungs of Holy Mother Church, Peter met Wendy who in her gently spoken, relaxed and confident manner, redirected his life towards a new beginning and profound love. They married with the blessing of the church, and with Wendy’s teenage son Ben, alongside Peter’s children Peter Francis and Catherine,- by now in their late twenties - this reformed, amalgamated family began a new life together.

When two such families unite, it is not uncommon for a child or the children from a previous union to be upset, and Peter’s daughter, who by then must have been in her middle 20’s was upset - and that is an understatement - that her Father had remarried. There were difficult times, but perseverance in resolving an inter-family upset often strengthens the bonds of love which united the families in the first instance. Peter and Wendy weathered the storm, and eventually some sort of armistice or ceasefire evolved. You may appreciate the scenario I have just described is guesswork, as Peter and Wendy have never disclosed any details of such difficulties, and I wouldn’t dream of asking them, but I do know from similar situations in other families that such painful and seemingly intractable situations can arise, and wounds received in such confrontations do leave scars.

Peter and Wendy had known each other for 36 years, and I guess must have been married for 35 of those years. Peter’s son died shortly after my ordination, and Catherine died a couple of years ago. Neither had married.

The only person who truly understood Peter was Wendy. Lovingly she will have shared his problems and anxieties, and together they celebrated their love and their faith. Wendy’s son Ben said at Peter’s requiem said that as a result of his mothers’ marriage to Peter, her own family had benefitted from Peter’s open-hearted warmth and affection, and Peter had become both a father to Ben and a grandfather to Ben and his wife Pam’s children.

To have known Peter was to have been blessed by him, and along with scores of others that blessing is now eternal.

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