The music from a violin accompanying the quiet repetition of the words, The Body of Christ, and the patient movement of people coming forward for Communion at his Requiem Mass, provided an unrehearsed, but wonderful summary of the life and priesthood of Fr Bernie Hehir.
A priest, for whom the Eucharist ‘meant everything’, Fr Bernie was an accomplished violinist and broadcaster, a friend in all seasons and a most faithful servant of the Word of God.
St Teresa’s church in Karori was packed on Monday October 13, when the archdiocese farewelled this much loved priest.
Tributes flowed through the days following his death the previous week to well beyond his funeral and told of deep and wide affection, far reaching gratitude and treasured faithfulness. Nearly 58 years of priesthood, lived with great optimism, brought Fr Bernie into countless lives. He shared himself without hesitation or compromise. He was a priest for people.
Ordained in 1950, he was quickly able to develop his interests in photography and the spoken word. He was among the first priests in New Zealand to make use of public radio and saw, very early, the potential of television as a means of making the Word of God more accessible and relevant to people.
His long tenure in Karori—51 years—was due in large part to his commitment to the media apostolate, working fulltime as director of the Archdiocesan Media Centre. His skill and enthusiasm also assisted in the establishment of the Catholic Bishops national office for media, Catholic Communications, in 1976.
As the first editor of Wel-com, he built up the paper with professional competence, to the point where it became—and has remained—a monthly publication of great credibility within the local church.
People of all ages warmed to his presence. Everyone who knew Fr Bernie felt they knew him ‘very well’, and yet he remained, in many ways, a private person. The gift he made of himself was often at the expense of opportunities for personal time and space.
The Eucharist indeed took pride of place in his life and, it seemed, only hospitalisation could keep him from Karori’s weekday 6.30am Mass which, with typical humour, he referred to as ‘The Dawn Chorus’!
He was affectionately known as ‘The Hehir’ and there are innumerable drawings, clay models, and statuettes of ‘hares’ in and around the presbytery and office. Suggestions flow that the hare symbolises how hard Fr Bernie was to pin down; that he was too fast for even time to catch him; that you never knew when he might appear! I like this one: there is something warm and cuddly about a hare and when you’re lucky enough to hold one you don’t want to let go.
In preparing this article, I asked some of his colleagues and close friends to give me a one-line memory of Fr Bernie:
- He had an enthusiasm and passion for life—even in his sickness.
- A most compassionate man.
- Very wise.
- Unfailingly positive and cheerful.
- He was like one of those ‘round-bottomed dolls’—they can’t be knocked over; they always bounce back!
- I was surprised to see him at work and said, ‘I thought you were in hospital’. His reply: ‘That was yesterday!’
- I always felt comfortable in his company.
- He couldn’t say ‘No’!
- He was ‘timeless’—yes, he didn’t keep time very well, but I see him as a man who didn’t need time. He was just always there!
In his homily for Fr Bernie’s Requiem, Archbishop John Dew spoke of him as a man of hope.
‘His hope came through his prayer, through his priesthood. Through that, all of us came to love and respect Bernie, to enjoy his company, appreciate and accept him—even if some of us are still waiting for photos, videos or DVDs to be completed!’
Archbishop John, noting that affection for 82-year-old Bernie was shared by every age group, referred to the quote from Cicero that had been used for the previous day’s Respect for Life theme: ‘The burden of age is lighter for those who feel respected and loved by the young.’
And he drew on Pope Benedict’s encyclical letter on hope ( Spe Salvi) to emphasise the witness Bernie gave: ‘to have hope means to know that we are definitively loved and that, whatever happens to us, we are awaited by love’.
Fr Bernie lived this hope and gave it to so many. May he rest in peace.