Friday, October 19, 2007

Funeral of Br. John Johnston, FSC

Br. John Johnston, FSC, former Superior General of the Brothers, was buried this week in Memphis, TN. As one of the representatives from the District of San Francisco (along with Gery Short, Br. Dominic Berardelli, and Br. Ronald Gallagher) I traveled to Memphis for the services. Of course I took along my small but versatile camera so that I might take pictures to share with readers of the blog and others.

The Brothers of Memphis were excellent hosts for us. They found accommodations for all the Brothers who arrived from different parts of the country and the world for the services, either at one of the communities or at local hotels. And they made sure that transportation was provided whenever it was needed.

Most of the pictures on this page are of the Funeral Mass that was held on Thursday. Both services were well attended by Brothers, students, Lasallian Volunteers, lay Partners, affiliated members, faculty members and administrators from the Memphis region, and many others whose relationship to Br. John may be known only by him. Several drove for many hours from as far away as Minneapolis in order to attend the services and pay their respects. I'm not sure if Br. John would have been in favor of all of the efforts made on his behalf, but I'm sure that his family and the Brothers were all very appreciative of the outpouring of affection for him as he was laid to rest.
Arriving in Memphis in the mid-afternoon on Wednesday, I settled into the hotel and then at 5:30 PM joined two Brothers in a ride to the Cathedral, where about 60 Brothers and relatives had gathered already. After paying my respects at Br. John's coffin, there were many whom I greeted and spoke with, both Brothers and others from the Memphis area and beyond who knew Br. John. His three brothers, of course, were there with their families, as were Br. Alvaro, Br. Tom Johnson, Br. Robert Schieler, and a number of the Visitors from the Region. The atmosphere was respectful, but also relaxed and prayerful in a not-too-pious way. Gradually more and more people arrived. At one point, when the Christian Brothers High School band began to set up, the person with whom I was speaking remarked: "You know, if John were here, he'd notice right away that those kids were coming in and he'd be making a beeline for them to talk with them."

During the memorial service at 7:00 PM there were remembrances by a Lasallian Volunteer, a representative from the Lasallian family, a family member, and a Brother. Each had unique things to say, and all were very sincere and touching. I'm sure that their talks will be made available at some point. Some snippets: Br. John's brother, Joe, spoke about the memories he had from when they were children, when John (or "J.C." as he was known in the family for all of his life) systematically taught him how to be an altar boy, training him in how to say the Latin prayers and playing the "priest" in their practice Masses, with his other brother assisting... or how he would take him out to the field to practice catching ground-balls when Joe was trying out for the baseball team. Br. Bernard LoCoco spoke about the key image of "drinking of the cup" in Br. John's later years - how Br. John had collected all the references in Scripture related to that image and had them gathered in a ceramic chalice in his room, in order to remind him of his relationship with God's will.

The Christian Brothers High School band played various musical pieces at different times in the service. All of them were very appropriate, including a special musical reflection composed by the band's director just for this occasion in honor of Br. John. One of these pieces included a clarinet solo, which was the instrument that Br. John played when he was a member of that same band in high school. Afterwards, when I spoke with Andrew, the student who played the solo, he told me that he was both quite nervous but also found it a real honor to be able to be there and play it. The presence of those students gave the whole ceremony a wonderful quality that John would surely appreciate.

Although the memorial was probably longer than planned, one wouldn't know it from those who were there. All of the elements and talks were to the point, poignant, and appropriate. By the end of the service it was clear that the whole thing had been very well-planned and well-executed.

The Mass on the next day was equally well done and well appreciated by those who were there. The Brothers gathered outside of the cathedral for at least an hour before the 11 AM beginning. Br. Alvaro and others were there to greet and speak with the many people, lay and religious, who arrived to participate. Again, the mood was more celebratory than morose, with appreciation shown for John's life and his vocation as a Brother, friend, leader, and inspiration. Two bishops, including the bishop of Memphis, were there, and the Mass was concelebrated by about fifteen priests, with John's brother, Fr. Mike Johnston, as the principal celebrant.

The Mass begin with the CBHS band playing Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." For those of you who know it, this was absolutely appropriate and an inspiring choice. I know that it moved me to hear that music coming from inside the church as the Brothers began to process in. All through the liturgy, the music and participation of the congregation was authentic and almost "natural" to the occasion. Br. Vincent Malham had received special permission from the bishop to give the homily, and he used Br. John's own words from his writings to weave a first-person narrative of who he was and what he stood for. Throughout the Mass, things just fit well, and everyone appeared "there" with the mood of the day - prayerful, appreciative, and glad/sad. At the end of the Mass, there was a reflection by another of Br. John's brothers, and Br. Alvaro had some very warm and sincere words about Br. John's character, spirituality, and influence.

Many of the talks expressed great appreciation to the Brothers in Memphis for being so supportive of Br. John during the last year. The nurse practitioner for the Brothers there, Patricia Bader, who grew particularly close to John and accompanied him on this last journey, was especially pointed out by several of the speakers.

After the funeral Mass, the bishop did the commendation service, also expressing the appreciation of the diocese for having had Br. John there - a real active presence among the religious communities in the diocese. The coffin was then brought outside of the church, with six students as the pall bearers, and was blessed with holy water by Fr. Michael Johnson, by the bishop, and by Br. Alvaro. Br. John's coffin was brought in a car procession to Calvary Cemetery where he was laid to rest, beside the other Brothers of his District.

Afterwards, everyone returned to Christian Brothers University for a fine luncheon in the Brothers house (Lambert Hall), where several tables were on display with photographs, mementoes, and personal items from Br. John's room in the community. I was particularly taken by one black-and-white photograph that showed him and his three brothers when they were quite young. John has a wonderful smile on his face as he is looking at the baby brother that he holds in his arms, while his two other brothers face the camera. The picture is below - it quietly captured something of the person that Br. John was to both of his families.

The other pictures that I took may all be seen at