Family, friends, colleagues of Brian Johns.
The other morning, after Brian had died, it came to me, so this is the end of a conversation that endured for more than sixty years. Then I recalled that one name had dominated our earliest talks together, all those years ago, the name of Dorothy Day. Dorothy Day? Who was she? She was an American Catholic radical who, when she died in 1980, was given lengthy obituaries in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books and all the other leading papers. A significant figure in American culture. I can tell you her life in one sentence: she believed literally in those words of the Lord Jesus I have just read from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: feed the hungry; give a drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; give the poor a home; visit them when they’re in hospital or prison. It’s Christianity in its purest form. So during the Great Depression she did just that; set up houses of hospitality (as she called them) where the poor could find a home and food and drink, houses of hospitality that spread across the United States; she started a monthly paper, The Catholic Worker and a movement around it. She did jail time for protesting against American militarism and promoted an ethic that said everyone was worthwhile. Dorothy Day.
When we were young, Brian and I came across a long article about her that ran across two issues of The New Yorker. It began: ‘Many people believe that Dorothy Day is a saint, and that one day she will be canonised.’ She said: ‘You can’t dismiss me as easily as that.’ But for Brian she became a seminal influence, his idea of a Catholic saint, someone who took the Lord’s words seriously and followed them until they hurt.
Did you notice something about those words of his? Jesus was a Jew, of course, and he’s quoting from one of the great books of the Hebrew scriptures, the Book of Isaiah (read for us by Ben Patfield). You must have noticed how Jesus takes Isaiah’s words and transforms them into a mystical identification between himself and the poor:
‘I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I needed clothes…. As often as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
That identification between Jesus and the poor gives a religious energy to the corporal works of mercy (as we call these activities).
Here’s something else about the corporal works of mercy: they are not only individualistic – here’s a piece of bread, here’s a cup of cold water, here’s a pair of trousers… oh yes, we must do those things – but we must also work hard to change our society:
- Give bread to the hungry? Yes, but also create social and political structures that reduce poverty and give the marginalised respect;
- Drink to the thirsty? Yes, but also take the decisions together that ensure clean, unpolluted water, particularly in the Third World, and act to restore a balance to the world’s ecology;
- I was naked? Yes, clothes are needed, but think also of those stripped psychologically bare in our society or prone to be addled in our drug culture;
- I was in prison? Notice that Christ doesn’t say, ‘I was in prison unjustly,’ he says, ‘I was in prison’ – justly or unjustly. Think too of those oppressed by other forms of imprisonment: domestic violence, sexism, racism, class distinctions… We need to change societal attitudes on those fronts too.
- The homeless: ah, refugees, asylum seekers, the unwanted, those different from us…
So Christ’s summons to the corporal works of mercy is a call not only for individual responses, it is also a call for radical changes in our society and our world, to make them fairer and more just. It is a call for social justice.
Brian learned this, years ago, from Dorothy Day and he based his life on it. She gave him his compass points to steer towards what he became – the champion of a better Australia. Which is why we salute him today.
This was the homily that Fr Edmund Campion delivered at the funeral service of Brian Johns at St Canice’s Church at Elizabeth Bay on 7 January 2016.