One summer evening at the coast in South Carolina, a mother took her three children outdoors. It’d been a difficult time, financially and otherwise, for the young family, supported by an abusive father who operated a shrimp boat. As the sun set in the west, the moon rose in the east, a beautiful but fleeting moment. Momma, said the daughter, do it again!
The scene was from Pat Conroy’s novel, “The Prince of Tides.” The Rev. David McBriar relayed the story to his congregation one Sunday to illustrate a scripture reading.
The mother had given her children some hope during an arduous journey. For them, he said, she hung the moon. “In today’s gospel, Jesus hung the moon,” McBriar said. “For whom do you hang the moon? For whom do you bring a little bit of joy, a little bit of hope? The gospel challenges us to hang the moon for someone.”
McBriar gave that sermon in the late 1980s at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic church in northwest Wake County, my parents’ church. I was there and was captivated by his storytelling and message. I returned week after week to listen to his consistently excellent sermons. Eventually, I wrote an article about them, sneaking a small notebook into church each Sunday to jot notes.
After 30 years in the Triangle, mostly at St. Francis but including nine years at Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, McBriar, 82, is leaving to semi-retire with a community of Franciscan priests at Siena College outside Albany, N.Y.. He will say his last Mass at St. Francis this weekend.
Bring them in
McBriar’s departure is, for me, a reminder of how important our faith leaders are to our religious communities; to our civic life and public discussion; and to us as individuals and families trying to make our way as best we can through challenging times.
I first admired McBriar through his preaching, but he played many roles at church and in the community. Among them was ministering to inmates on death row at Central Prison. When he arrived at St. Francis, a church member was being tried for murder. He was convicted and remains on death row. For much of his three decades in the Triangle, McBriar has visited inmates weekly.
McBriar likes St. Francis’ exhortation to preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words. “The question that’s driven me: What does the city need and how can we help?” McBriar told me this week in a soft, measured voice. “I think that’s the reason for our being: Go out to the highways and byways and bring them in. That’s Jesus’ admonition. Don’t sit around the fire.”
My sister, brother and I knew McBriar in another role: In recent years he ministered to our parents, whom he had known since the 1980s, as their health faded, regularly visiting them and ultimately burying both. How comforting it was to know that our parents, who were part of McBriar’s flock for so many years, would be led spiritually to their earthly end by a good shepherd who knew them for years and cared about them.
Our faith leaders consistently say that their work is not a job but a vocation, a calling. I’m sure that’s true, but at times it must seem like a job and a tough one at that.
We ask so much of them. To visit the sick and comfort the grieving. To counsel and solve disputes. To memorialize our departed loved ones. To articulate a vision for the future of the church, synagogue or mosque. To give stirring sermons. To raise money and be a top-notch administrator. The demands never end.
And yet, Father McBriar told me, the rewards are great. “The people I’ve met have changed me,” he said. McBriar, as a Catholic priest, was not able to marry or have a family; he misses that and not having grandchildren. But after more than 50 years as a priest, he would do it again.
McBriar admires the work of author and poet Francois Mauriac, a fellow Catholic, who once wrote, “No love, no friendship, can cross the path of our destiny without leaving some mark on it forever.”
As a good man and loyal servant departs our community, let’s remember those people of faith who lead, guide and comfort us. In giving so much of themselves, a part of them stays with us forever.