|FATHER BRENDAN MINNEY came to Belmont from
Swansea as a twelve year old schoolboy in 1922. It was the old Alumniate
he came to: fifteen boys, destined, so it was hoped, to "join the
monastery", fifteen boys of all ages and sizes, thrown into the cloister
in their scout uniforms and their silly little scapulars.
School Photo 1922?
Their faces, indefinably different and
the same, still peer out at us, self- conscious and somehow pleading, from
the earliest faded school photograph. Father Brendan himself described his
coming to Belmont Abbey School as a "retrograde step" : "It took me from
the twentieth to about the fifteenth century . . . For all my immaturity I
could not but notice that the schooling was odd". However, he progressed
smoothly enough, by dint of inflexible self-
Alumniate, Novitiate, Simple Vows, ecclesiastical studies : all at
He never went to University : we were too poor in men and
resources in those days to send monks to university. He had no sense of
loss about this, no feelings of inadequacy, jealousy or sour grapes. He
was so effortlessly distinguished that it is inconceivable that anyone
would have commented on, or even noticed the absence of "letters
his name". He reached Solemn Profession in 1931 and Ordination in
1933. The bulk of his life thereafter was spent outside Belmont on our
various parishes : Whitehaven 1935-36, Hereford 1936-41, Whitehaven again
1941-48, Redditch 1948, Whitehaven again 1949-55, Redditch again 1961-67,
Harrington 1967-72, Swansea 1972, Whitehaven again 1972-78 and then
Harrington again. And it was at Harrington that he died, of incurable and
inoperable lung cancer, on 6 September 1978, just two days after the
fiftieth anniversary of his becoming a monk.
For six years,
however, he had been in residence here at Belmont, as Headmaster
(1955-1961). He took the post with reluctance, he relinquished it with
alacrity : his heart was always in parish work. Parish work : meticulously
conscientious and regular visiting of every Catholic home in his district
. . . enormous enthusiasm for his unrivalled polyphonic choirs . . . love
of company : especially relaxed, amicable and loving cameraderie in
working men's clubs, with old familiar faces and old familiar jokes. But
it was as Headmaster that I knew him best, it was during his time here as
Headmaster that most of the monks now living at Belmont came to know him
best, and this is, after all, primarily a school magazine. So what should
be said about Father Brendan, in this obituary of the fifth Headmaster of
Belmont Abbey School ?
Obviously, he was not a great Headmaster.
What is a great Headmaster ?
I suppose a great Headmaster is
somewhat similar to a great Pope : he is a man who encapsulates and sums
up in himself, as our Spokesman, as our Representative, the moral
atmosphere, the underlying lifestyle, the philosophical outlook of the
great corporate body of which he is both the ultimate leader and the most
abject servant. But Father Brendan certainly did not sum up Belmont Abbey
School, in the sense that, for example. Father Roger did. He was too
independent, too quirky, too idiosyncratic. He had no over-riding vision
of the school, no all-consuming energy on behalf of the school, indeed, to
be honest, no very deep love of the school. He suffered boys with
controlled patience and whimsical detachment. At times they amused him,
rather more rarely they consoled him. But the gawky grace of adolescence
held no appeal for him, the pathos of innocence taking its first baby
steps in cosmic thinking did not move him. Fair enough. It is, after all,
not everybody's cup of tea.
But in one sense, his six years stint
as Headmaster was the most fruitful of his life. Let me explain. We go to
school, Chesterton said, to study schoolmasters. Long after we have
forgotten all our notes on chlorophyll or Chaucer it is the personality
and character of our Biology master and our English master that we
remember. Casual mannerisms, off the cuff remarks, chance allusions, all
the incidentals of every day life : it is these that are studied in detail
by schoolboys gazing impassively at their schoolmasters. And the effect
can be almost devastatingly lasting and profound.
unforgettable : he is unforgotten. The host of anecdotes and quotations
are proof of this. He was the Headmaster who appointed me to the staff at
Belmont as a lay master, and he was the most frightening man I have ever
met.. . The paralysing dread which seized me when I had to knock at that
door in Palm Court, and when I heard that single nasal command, Come . . .
The way he petrified otherwise mature and worldly-wise seventeen and
eighteen year olds at a School Meeting by threatening to defend vandalised
St Michael's statue: "I shall see the boy from my window. I shall take a
gun. And I shall shoot him.". . . The day he baffled Remove, a form not
noted for its command of the higher flights of elegant English, by
describing them as "an arena of opportunity, not a limbo of opprobrium" .
. . The way he made certain adjectives for ever his own, quintessentially
Brendan : like shifty. "Brocklesby is a shifty boy : I do not care for
shifty boys." Immediately one saw whole generations of
slinking past him, avoiding his eye.
He detested shiftiness. He
loved integrity and courage. He loved elegance: which is basically
cleanness and economy and precision. He loved truthfulness, and, indeed,
truth. He loved tradition, because tradition is a bulwark, some think the
only bulwark, of civilisation itself. He loved what he called on a famous
Speech Day (1959) "sober, unpretentious worth", and he loved beauty. And
in that same speech he roundly proclaimed his life's creed : "These two,
the recognition of worth and the perception of beauty, are hallmarks of
civilisation." And, of course, it is true that we do eventually become
what we love. He loved civilisation, he loved gentlemanliness. And so he
became a civilised gentleman.
But, in the last analysis, in the
end, civilisation and gentlemanliness are not enough. Father Hilary, a
fellow pupil ofBrendan's back in 1922, concluded his passionate panegyric
at Brendan's funeral, with the enigmatic sentence : "At long last, Father
Brendan, we have found you out." He did not elaborate on what he meant.
But I think that sentence went home instantly to all of us present, who
had known Brendan and loved him. Here was a man of quite exceptional
talents and quite distinctive charm. Here was an eccentric and a
gentleman, here was an intellectual and an artist and a musician. But all
of this was peripheral, all of this was secondary, all of this was
inessential. I helped him pack his possessions last July for his last
journey, his last posting, to Harrington, where he knew he was going only
to die. And I saw for myself that he took very little with him. Very
Because, at the last, all was stripped away.
Crosswords ... I have known only three
men in my life who could
complete Ximenes Crossword in the Sunday Times. Brendan was one. (The
Times, of course, he tossed off in fifteen minutes after breakfast).
Television and cinema .. he became an addict, totally undiscriminating,
but always slyly cynical. Cigarettes . . . fifty a day, remorselessly.
Music ... piano, violin, organ, and above all, polyphonic choir. Books ...
omnivorous : from Victorian poetry and Edwardian belles-lettres to
gangsters, spies and cowboys. Cartoons and Christmas Cards . . . His
beloved silent Latin Mass . . . Quick wit and repartee . . . and always
the laughter and the love of friends.
And all these things were
stripped away. All these faded away. In fact, were not all these things
only elements in an elaborate facade, designed to conceal the intensely
private Brendan, lurking far behind ? In the end, there is only one thing
that matters. He was too reticent, too shy to tell us what this was : but
Father Hilary spotted it. "Christ and Brendan : how close these came
together when the crown of death preceded the crown of glory".
"At long last. Father Brendan, we have found you out". You
were, after all, just a holy monk.