My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Welcome to this weeks Bishop’s Blog!
I would like to share with you the homily given by Mgr. Canon John McManus at Bishop Brian’s Funeral!Bishop Brian Noble, 10th Bishop of Shrewsbury, 11April 1936 – 21 October 2019
Requiem Mass….Wednesday 6 November 2019 at St Michael and All Angels Woodchurch
It was about five years ago that Brian asked me to preach at his funeral. When I met him the following day, he said: ‘I suppose you have written it by now! Typical Brian Noble humour!’
We offer our deepest sympathy to you, Tony and Mary, and all your family. We know how close you were, and how he enjoyed his visits to your home, often continuing to other favourite places like Boarbank in his beloved Cumbria and Parbold where he celebrated Sunday Mass at least once a month. We also offer our sympathy to his friends who have supported him so loyally over the years, just as he always supported you. We pray for you today as well as for Brian.Brian was born on 11 April 1936 in Lancaster. He went to the Cathedral primary school, then the Catholic College, Preston, before studying for the priesthood at Ushaw College. He was ordained a priest on 11 June 1960. Having been an assistant priest in Preston and Maryport, he became chaplain at Lancaster university from 1972 -1980, when he took up the post of Director of Pastoral Studies at the Beda College in Rome.On his return to the Diocese he was appointed Parish Priest of St Benedicts Whitehaven, and was ordained Bishop of Shrewsbury on 30 August 1995. He chose as his motto ‘Thy Kingdom come’. On the prayer cards, what might almost be a description of his aims and objectives, from the prophet Micah : ‘this is what the Lord asks of you, only this; to act justly, to love tenderly, to walk humbly with your God’.He said he intended to be a happy Bishop. I wont reveal the identity of the Bishop who said’ Don’t worry, Brian, but I promise you that wont last!’Just four years later, on 12 July 1999, he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, which had spread to the stomach. He was told he had just a couple of months to live, but a chance social meeting gave new hope, and the offer first of all of a course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and then major surgery. Brian knew that if he woke in intensive care, the operation had been a success; if he was on the ward, he had only days to live. How he struggled at that time, constantly saying he had only been a Bishop for such a short time, he had so many plans, so much to do, and implicitly what did God think he was doing.As we all know the surgery was successful, over half of his stomach having been removed in a 12 hour operation, and he went to recuperate at Boarbank. On 22nd February 2000, he made his first appearance back in the Diocese, here in this Church, for the funeral of Fr Ivan Burke, who at the age of 50 had himself died of oesophageal cancer. Brian wasn’t well enough to celebrate the Mass, and he had to return to Boarbank afterwards, but there he was in choir dress, a glimpse of the courage that marked the man. In 2006, on his 70th birthday, he once again needed life saving surgery.The reading from Ecclesiasticus, chosen like the other readings today by Brian himself, explores various facets of fear of the Lord. Fear of the Lord brings together faith and works, knowledge of God and behaviour, love of God and love of neighbour, ‘faith’ in the sense of fidelity to God. ‘If you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal. Trust him and he will uphold you. God is merciful so we should be faithful.’ There were certainly times in Brian’s life, most particularly at the time of his diagnosis that those words would resonate with him, calming his fear, his loneliness, his vulnerability – ‘if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal. Trust him and he will uphold you’. I wonder if those were the words in his mind as he waited for help, as his final illness reached its crisis, as he approached the last day of his life on earth.The story of the apostles on the road to Emmaus is the bridge between the disciples’ experience of the death and consequent absence of Jesus, and the joy when they meet the Risen Lord. Here we see the two disciples gradually moving from their dejection to a new awareness, a realising that Jesus who was crucified was now the Risen Christ. ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he spoke to us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us’. For the Emmaus disciples the change began in the conversation with the stranger who came and walked beside them. Gradually they were reminded of truths that recent events had caused them to forget. They continued their journey still not knowing their companion. ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he opened the Scriptures to us’. Recognition of Jesus and awareness of the Resurrection was yet to come, but their outlook and frame of mind had now changed. And as they invited the stranger to stay with them he took bread. He blessed and broke it. He gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognised him. But there is more to it than that, for recognising him they got up at once and turned back to Jerusalem. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jerusalem is specially significant. Jesus’ ministry is largely presented in his journeying there. So in turning back, the disciples had recognised the full implication of the breaking of the bread. ‘If you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal. Trust him and he will uphold you.’ Brian spoke often of Eucharist. This is my body broken for you, my blood poured out for you…and like the disciples at Emmaus he helped us recognise the full implications of it. For Brian surely lived this story in his suffering, in his journeying, in his teaching. Today we pray that he truly recognises the risen Lord. As a Bishop, he was very supportive of our Catholic schools, and was strongly committed to ecumenism. He felt privileged and honoured to be chosen as an ecumenical Canon of Chester Cathedral.
He continued the work of his predecessor, Bishop Gray, and with the Green and White papers of 1999 and 2000, presented after a vast amount of consultation, his pastoral plan. This included closure of churches and amalgamation of parishes. He thought he could just about get away with not facing these problems, but he was determined to face them then and not to unfairly burden his successor. Bishop Mark has kept those plans alive, he uses them still, and continues to build on them.Brian was chair of the Bishops’ Conference working party on sacramental initiation, which produced the document ‘On the Threshold’. The document concentrated on the importance of walking with people on their journey through life, meeting their needs and not making demands. It obviously became a key part of the approach in Shrewsbury diocese.I remember Brian speaking to a group at Easter time, as they took steps towards being received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He said: ‘I make an act of faith every day. It is called getting out of bed in the morning’. He often used that sort of self deprecating humour to put people at their ease. He then had the group in the palm of his hand. He was pragmatic, down to earth and not demanding. He also had a strong sense of duty, deeply aware of his responsibilities as Bishop. More recently as chair of the spirituality committee he was responsible for the hugely successful resource book ‘Do you love me?’
After retirement, he put his energy into retreat work, for clergy, religious and laity and continued to immerse himself in the life of our Diocese, helping Bishop Mark with confirmations, and always being there for him, ready to offer wise counsel and prayerful support.
Many a priest was grateful to him for being ready to supply for them, and if necessary he thought nothing of celebrating four parish masses over a weekend, even into his 80s. He was renowned as a spiritual director. His own spirituality, his wisdom and insight, his warmth and humility and his ability to listen qualified him uniquely for the task.
‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he opened the Scriptures to us’.He loved music, especially by early 20th century British composers, and he was a regular visitor to the Liverpool Phil. His other leisure pursuits included art, poetry, and in his younger days walking the fells in the Lake District. He was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable bird watcher. He enjoyed his apple orchard, He grew his own vegetables, he made his own bread, he was a good cook. Were there no bounds to this man’s talents?But let me come back to the spiritual, lest he come from the coffin and shout at me…for in his last instructions, he wrote: The preacher must tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, and added, ‘that means staying close to the Scriptures’.
Like his master, whom he served so well, he poured out his life for us. His love for and interests in other things were but a shadow of his love for the Risen Lord. He had been fragile these past few weeks, and whilst those who visited him were not aware of how serious his illness was, I think, looking back on his words, that he may have suspected it. ‘If you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal, trust him and he will uphold you.’From his days as a young priest he took those words ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ as a personal motto always believing that our task in life is to contribute to the establishment of God’s reign, his purposes, his Kingdom. And what he always emphasised was that what was most important wasn’t so much what we did, as the spirit in which we did it. In the life of Jesus himself what really mattered was total willingness to do the will of his Father. ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ swiftly followed as Brian would point out by ‘Thy will be done’.He would say that from a Kingdom point of view it didn’t matter whether he lived or died. What did matter was the generosity with which either possibility was accepted. It is from that material that the Kingdom is built. Every journey is different, no two travellers the same. But illness or grief cannot cripple love, cannot shatter hope, cannot kill friendship, cannot shut out memories, it cannot lessen the power of the Resurrection. If anyone taught us that, surely it was Bishop Brian Noble, our pastor and teacher and friend to his very last breath. Please pray for him. And dear Brian, thank you so much. For everything. May you rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.