Hundreds of people gathered at St Chad's Cathedral on Thursday 23 January for the Funeral Mass of Canon Gerry Breen, who died last month.

Archbishop Bernard Longley was principal celebrant and delivered the Homily below.


His kindnesses are not exhausted; every morning they are renewed.

Our friend and fellow pilgrim, Canon Gerry Breen, would have been so pleased at the gathering that has assembled here at St Chad’s today to pray for the repose of his soul and, each in our own particular way, to bid him farewell and commend him to God’s loving mercy.

He would have been grateful that we had wanted to be here beside his brother and sisters and their families, together with his aunts and other family and close friends to offer them our prayerful support at this important moment as they too offer prayers for their dear Ged’s everlasting happiness in the Kingdom of God.

Canon Gerry would have relished an occasion that drew together so many representatives of the Church - his many priest friends from other dioceses, fellow Deans from other cathedrals in England and Wales, his colleagues and friends from the national association of Lourdes Pilgrimage Directors, as well as parishioners from Coventry, Kings Heath, Stourport and Sutton Coldfield whom Canon Gerry had served in the course of his priestly ministry.  He would have been glad that the Cathedral Parish and the Catholic family of our Archdiocese have welcomed such a gathering today.

It is impossible to reflect on God’s forgiveness and mercy or on the principle reason for celebrating this Requiem Mass without capturing for a moment an image of the lively, cheerful and faith-led character for whose life we give thanks and for whose eternal happiness among the blessed we are praying.

To say that Canon Gerry loved to be in the midst of things, in the thick of the action, where people were gathered together with a common purpose and where their energies were focussed – this isn’t a casual observation about his personality.  These characteristics reveal a deeper truth about his life.  Through his baptism and at the heart of his vocation he was driven by an inner calling to follow the Master who knows us through and through and who wants the best for us.

St John Henry Newman, for whose canonization Canon Gerry had longed and prayed for many years, expressed this calling very powerfully and with great sympathy for our fallen human nature:  God beholds thee individually, whoever thou art.  He ‘calls thee by thy name’.  He sees thee, and understands thee, as He made thee.  He knows what is in thee, all thy own peculiar feelings and thoughts, thy dispositions and likings, thy strength and thy weakness.  He views thee in thy day of rejoicing, and thy day of sorrow.  He sympathizes in thy hopes and thy temptations.  He interests Himself in all thy anxieties and remembrances, all the risings and fallings of thy spirit.  He ‘calls thee by thy name’.

When the Lord sent his messenger to call Canon Gerry by name on the Sunday before Christmas it is fair to say that he took many of us by surprise.  Although Gerry had borne his illness patiently, without fuss or apparent anxiety, over the last few years, none of us could have foreseen that he would begin his final journey so suddenly.  I have a feeling that that is what he would have preferred – though he must have been very grateful that his family were able to be at his side as his earthly pilgrimage drew to a close.

This was not uncharacteristic of Canon Gerry.  He was a true pilgrim – a pilgrim by nature, always on the move, but never uprooted.  Although we are strangers and sojourners on the earth we need to find a place where we can be inwardly anchored, where we can be ourselves.  For Canon Gerry this place lay in the life of prayer, where his priestly ministry was anchored in a dialogue of friendship with our Lord.

Although he was a pilgrim on the move, Canon Gerry was never uprooted.  He had strong family roots in Ireland – and we remember with gratitude today his parents Peggy and Jeremiah - but his own life of faith was first nurtured at the Sacred Heart and St Margaret Mary Parish in Aston where he was baptised.  Gerry never forgot those roots and he was proud of his roots in Aston, just as he was proud of being an alumnus of St Mary’s College, Oscott.  It was very fitting that he should one day become the Dean of St Chad’s Cathedral and a Canon of the Metropolitan Chapter, here in the heart of the city that he loved.

But Canon Gerry was always on the move.  He was usually on his way somewhere whenever we met – on his way to do or fix something, on his way to see and spend time with somebody.  As a priest he was generous with his time – he spent it for the Lord, and he liked nothing better than to spend it with people.  This, together with a strong devotion to our Lady, made him a natural Lourdes pilgrim, and it suited him ideally to take up his responsibilities as our diocesan Lourdes Pilgrimage Director over many years.

Lourdes was one of the special places where Canon Gerry could be fully present to those around him, being attentive to those who needed a listening ear, giving his time to the most vulnerable.  He took to heart the invitation of our Lord to St John which we heard in today’s Gospel reading and which he heard as Dean sung every Good Friday here in the Cathedral: to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother’.  And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home.

If we welcome our Lady into our homes then we must also make a place for all her children.  Our Lady of Lourdes made Canon Gerry tender-hearted to those who were most in need – and this was clearly illustrated to me in his commitment to St Chad’s Sanctuary.  He saw the morning queues of asylum seekers and refugees, often with their children, waiting to find a place in the Sanctuary.  He was often moved to take an interest in individual cases, securing any additional support that might assist an application for leave to stay.       

Over the last few years Canon Gerry’s trust was tested though the trying circumstances of his illness - but his hope never flagged and it was sustained by the support he received from his family and from Dr Pat Clarke and Dr Dan Ford and by the many prayers that were offered by his friends. 

He loved the priesthood and his faith in Christ was firmly rooted in the Catholic Church - yet he also appreciated the spiritual riches with which other Christian communities have been blessed.  He worked hard to develop the friendship between St Chad’s Cathedral and Lichfield Cathedral and he was immensely grateful for his installation as an Ecumenical Canon of Lichfield.  He would have been deeply grateful for the presence of ecumenical friends here today. 

When the moment came upon him, we should think of Canon Gerry’s experience of death as the final turning point on his spiritual journey – a pilgrimage that began nearly sixty-three years ago.  Now his eyes are fully opened and what he helped others to glimpse from time to time, and especially through his love for Our Lady of Lourdes and St Chad, will be forever clearly before him.  The full meaning of his fruitful life on the move is now uncovered and the glory of God is revealed to him.

As one of his brother priests said: whatever memories we have and hold dear of our lives with Gerry – we keep in mind that his life was sustained and strengthened by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The grace of sacred ordination gave Gerry’s great personal generosity a new direction as a priest, a servant of our Lord’s sacraments, and a pastor to his brothers and sisters.

We pray for the repose of Canon Gerry’s soul and for the forgiveness of his sins.  We entrust him to the mercy and loving-kindness of the Father whose kindnesses are not exhausted; every morning they are renewed.  Those words from the Book of Lamentations echo Canon Gerry’s confidence that wherever his pilgrimage led him he would always rest in the loving presence of God.  His goodness shall follow me always, to the end of my days.