Dom Dominic Blaney January 27th 2010
“There is one thing I ask of the Lord, for this I long, to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to savour the sweetness of the Lord, to behold his temple.” These wonderful words are from today’s Responsorial Psalm. They express what we all know to have been at the very heart of Fr Dominic’s faith. He could have written them himself, for they are the summary of his prayer, the fullest expression of his desire.
It’s fashionable today no longer to speak of a Requiem Mass. It’s quite usual to be invited to “celebrate the life” of whoever it is, lying there in the coffin. We should, of course, celebrate the lives of the faithful departed, but what we remember above all is their faith in Jesus Christ, who offered the sacrifice of his life upon the Cross and who rose from the dead to break open for us the gates of heaven, inviting us to see the face of God and so return to the very source of our being. No matter how good we might be, and Fr Dominic was very good, a just man in the biblical sense, we still need the prayers of our brethren and loved ones in death as we did in life. We pray today, believing as we do in the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting, that God in his merciful love will grant him the eternal rest for which he longed.
Today’s readings were chosen from the Lectionary because they help us to understand the depth of Fr Dominic’s faith, the integrity of his Christian life and his total commitment to the Benedictine vocation. The Book of Wisdom tells us that, “They who trust in God will understand the truth, those who are faithful will live with him in love; for grace and mercy await those he has chosen.” All who knew Fr Dominic as a schoolboy or young monk, as a house master or head master, or parish priest speak of his trust in God, that basic, fundamental, non-questioning, traditional Catholic faith, into which he was born and raised and from which he never strayed, no matter how difficult life became. Trust in God and fidelity to the Church marked Fr Dominic’s life from beginning to end.
But there was something more: an extraordinary humility. “The Lord is my light and my help; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; before whom shall I shrink,” sings the psalmist. Humility is grounded in reality. Fr Dominic had no pretensions, no complexes. He was comfortable with himself, calm and at peace, because he knew where he stood before God and that God was everything to him. We have all inherited original sin from our forefathers, but Fr Dominic was one of those rare men in whom this sin was least apparent. There was a purity of heart that was out of the ordinary and in stark contrast to those around him, to those with whom he lived and worked. We all experienced this unique gift of God as it showed itself time and time again in his kindness and gentleness, the simplicity and unclutteredness of his life, the very ordinariness and quiet efficiency with which he did everything, never boasting, never lording it over others, but reflecting the peace and generosity of God.
James Blaney, or Jim as he was known to everyone, was born in St Begh’s Parish, Whitehaven, the eldest child of John and Mary at the beginning of Advent 1929. His family lived less than a stone’s throw from the magnificent parish church. Whitehaven, not far from the medieval Priory of St. Bees, had been an English Benedictine mission since 1701and in 1929 was still an incorporated parish of Downside. In 1934 it was transferred to Belmont, so from the age of five it was Belmont monks that Jim, like his parents and sisters, came to know and love. He was a pupil at St Patrick and St Gregory’s, Quay Street, until he went to St Bede’s College, Manchester, in 1942. He was brought up in a world that has, sadly, all but disappeared: a staunchly Catholic home, parish and school. Although in later life he would become politely ecumenical and make friends with non-Catholic ministers, he was unflinching in his Catholic convictions. It was fascinating to see how, towards the end of his life, when Alzheimer’s was taking its toll, how he could remember Latin prayers and chants, the Salve Regina, for example, whereas he had lost even the Lord’s Prayer in English.
Now Whitehaven is rugby league country, but at St Bede’s Jim fell in love with soccer and became a key player in every team throughout his school career. In the sixth form the First XI were trained by Matt Busby and Johnny Carey of Manchester United. They saw in Jim, who was captain of the team, a first class player with a good future in the game. But it was Manchester City that he was to support for the rest of his life. In the years ahead Jim would turn his hand to every ball game going, both as player and coach. In fact, he didn’t consider ball-less games as real sport. However, he had been sent to St Bede’s (where, incidentally, he was taught French by George Patrick Dwyer, future Bishop of Leeds and Archbishop of Birmingham) because he felt called to the priesthood and religious life. So when he left school in 1948 he came to Belmont. As it turned out, there was another teenager on the train from Manchester to Hereford that day going to Belmont to try his vocation. It was Charles Holdsworth, who would become Fr Stephen. Everything in life is part of God’s plan for us: Stephen was the first person Dominic met when he came to Belmont and the last he saw, just two days before he died, and they were to remain close friends.
Jim was clothed on 14th September 1948 by Abbot Anselm Lightbound and given the name Dominic, not after St Dominic, founder of the Dominicans, as most people think, but in honour of the Italian Passionist priest Blessed Dominic Barberi, who received Newman into the Church. He made his first profession on 15th September 1949 and his solemn profession, also at the hands of Abbot Anselm, on St Michael’s Day 1952. In spite of the precarious financial situation at Belmont, Dominic was sent up to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, to read History. He took his M.A. but was remembered more for his sporting achievements. Philosophy and theology were studied here at Belmont, combining those studies with teaching in the school and coaching sports. Typical of Dominic, he changed over without a murmur and with great success from round ball to oval ball though in his heart of hearts he always preferred football.
Dominic was ordained to the Sacred Priesthood by Bishop Pearson at St. Begh’s on 2nd May 1954. The assistant master of ceremonies on the great day was a young man called William McKenzie Moore, Billy for short, the future Fr Bede. It was that ordination that set him thinking seriously about a Benedictine vocation. After ordination, and in obedience to a succession of abbots, Dominic worked in our schools: Alderwasley, Belmont and Llanarth for 33 years until he became Parish Priest of Belmont and Subprior in 1986. He taught history and coached rugby, tennis, squash, cricket, golf, table tennis and badminton. He was not the most inspired or original of teachers, but he never missed a class, nor did he ever miss a trick. As a young man he had served as secretary to two head masters: Abbot Alphege Gleeson and Fr Christopher McNulty. He served at Alderwasley from 1955 to 57 and then at Junior House. He was house master of Vaughan and then of Kindersley. In fact, I succeeded him in Kindersley in January 1976, when he returned to Llanarth for a second period as head master. This move back to Llanarth was not easy for him. When he was asked to go back by Abbot Jerome, he broke down and wept bitterly but he obeyed. What marked Dominic out from the rest of us was that he always obeyed, even when it hurt. He never complained and always did his duty and his very best. He was head master of Llanarth from 1967 to 1971 and from 1976 to 1986.
The many letters I have received from staff and pupils are a testimony to the strong affection in which he is held by so many and of the gratitude for his many kindnesses. He was a warm, gentle and affectionate man and, to many, a real father. Of course, on the pitch or in the court, it was quite another story. Dominic would not and could not lose a ball game. He underwent a radical transformation once out of his habit and into his kit. Just because he was kind and gentle, it didn’t mean that he was weak or evasive, anything but. He had a very strong sense of justice and of correct behaviour. He would stand no nonsense, either from the boys or from his brethren. He had a clear tenor voice and was a cantor for many years. One morning he confronted the fearsome choirmaster, Fr Bernard Chambers, in the presence of the brethren. That day Dom Bernard also happened to be the superior in choir, so there was a constant re-pitching of the note. As often happened in those days, choir was a battle ground. Dominic turned round and said to Fr Bernard, “Why don’t you grow up and start praying instead of giving us that note none of us can reach.” The outburst reduced everyone to silence, even Dom Bernard. Dominic, in his quiet and disarming way, wasn’t afraid to stand up and oppose powerful characters in the community and he always spoke his mind, though with courtesy and a twinkle in his eye. He had a good sense of humour and was a tease. He was honest and straightforward. There was no side, no deception. As Jesus said of Nathaniel, he was a man “without guile.”
In 1986 he became Parish Priest of Belmont, where he also served the Community as Subprior. Then he was appointed Parish Priest of Abergavenny. In both parishes he was much loved and appreciated for those same human qualities and Christian virtues he had shown to the boys and staff in our schools. He was faithful and assiduous in his parish duties and particularly as chaplain to the various hospitals in and around Abergavenny. However, it was here that the first signs of Alzheimer’s appeared. Gradual loss of memory and other manifestations of that cruel illness made it impossible for him to continue and early in 2000 he was brought back to Belmont by Abbot Mark. To begin with he was able to join in the life of the Community, but little by little this became more and more difficult. He was cared for by Br. Bernard and Mary Jo Donnelly, who at the time were also looking after Fr Aelred in the Infirmary. It was not easy with Dominic, because you never knew what he was going to do next. On one occasion, while in Hereford Hospital for tests, he signed himself out, got into a taxi and returned to Belmont in his pyjamas. On another he was found at Lock’s garage at six o’clock in the morning, having walked the four miles along the Abergavenny road in the dark. On yet another occasion he went missing a whole day. That evening he was found in a bus shelter at Altringham, a short distance from his sister Kathleen’s house. With no money in his pocket he had gone down to Hereford station, caught a train to Manchester and then a bus. Eventually, we were advised that he needed fulltime nursing care. This resulted in him going into a nursing home not far from Weobley. It was here that we celebrated the Golden Jubilee of his priesthood. Then for the last years of his life he took up residence at Oakland’s Nursing Home where he was well cared for by Matron Pamela Newman and her excellent team until the Lord took him suddenly but peacefully and painlessly early on the afternoon of January 14th. It was a blessing that his physical sufferings were few.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are, of course, a great mystery to us, difficult to understand and hard to accept. We are helpless and can do nothing to prevent what is taking place before our very eyes to a loved one whom we have known to be so active and intelligent. You see everything being taken away, disappearing bit by bit. Though he was eighty when he died, Dominic looked much younger. It was impossible to know what he made of our attempts at conversation, and yet it was clear that enjoyed company and, above all, that he still liked his food, especially anything sweet. I remember one birthday Br Bernard bought a delicious carrot cake in Tesco’s on the way to Oaklands. Once we’d greeted him, Bernard cut three small slices, one each, but Dominic just took the rest of the cake and ate it in a flash. He was still too quick for us. For a long time you could pray with him and give him Holy Communion, but eventually he stopped taking an interest in our prayers and blessings. Even so, when you looked into those penetrating blue eyes, you got the distinct impression that he could see right through you and, just occasionally, there was a flash of the old Dominic
As Christians how can we begin to understand? I think the words of St Paul to the Romans can help us penetrate the veil of this particular form of suffering. “Neither life nor death, nothing at all can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our relationship with God is not a matter of the mind but of the heart: the soul is undiminished by the disintegration of mind and body. St John tells us that the Father glorified the Son in his passion and death and that the Father was glorified in the Cross of Jesus. In his suffering Fr Dominic glorified God and in turn God will glorify him with the gift of eternal life once the purification of Purgatory is done. Jesus did not say to the good thief, “I will lessen your torments and take away your suffering and death.” No, Jesus died alongside both thieves. He shared their suffering and total degradation, he shared their pain and anguish, their agony and death. When asked, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus replied, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Dominic’s cross lasted not an afternoon but ten years. There can be no doubt that Jesus will keep his promise, “Today, dear Dominic, faithful and true, you will be with me in paradise.” Amen
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