This morning's obituary brought some sad news. I learned that Fr. Robert Bradley, one of the former pastors of my childhood parish (St. Peter the Apostle, pictured above) had died. Reading through his obituary brought back many memories of this good and holy priest.
I was in the fifth grade when Fr. Bradley became our pastor. My first meeting with him left me with some fear and trepidation. He was a tall and imposing figure clad in a cassock. He was very by-the-book to the point that I remember an incident where my mom and I had arrived late for Mass (the city bus had broken down) and we got yelled at by him during the course of the liturgy. I was in tears and my mother was upset. However, some time after the incident, both of us decided to go back to the parish for Mass. We got there earlier than usual and were met by Fr. Bradley. I don't know who was expecting the worst of this encounter, my mom and I, or Fr. Bradley. He shook our hands and apologized for what had happened and he told us that he was happy to see us back. From that point on, we resumed our regular spot in the back pew.
Later on, as I got to know Fr. Bradley, I realized that there was more to him than the gruff exterior. He was a good and holy man who had a particular fondness for cats. It was amusing to see an orange and white feline scurrying out of the rectory whenever he opened the door and then heaving him yell at it to come back as soon as possible. He also had a keen appreciation for sacred music. On many occasions, prior to hearing confessions on Saturday, he would go up the choir loft and play the organ. His usual repertoire consisted of sacred music (my mom would sometimes quietly sing along).
I worked up the nerve to ask Fr. Bradley if I could serve Mass (after all, other parishes had altar girls). I remember the look he gave me. I may as well could have asked him if my pet dog could come visit his cat at the rectory. He politely declined my request, but, he said that I could help around the sacristy. My mom and I would get to church early and I would help the sacristan (a man of great patience) clean out candles, set the books in order and do other odd jobs. I don't know if he meant to, but, Fr. Bradley gave me my first glimpse into the liturgy. From Fr. Bradley and the sacristan, the kindly Mr. Jordan, I learned what that big red book on the altar was. I also learned about incense and how it wasn't used to make the whole church smell good. Both of them also taught me how the Church uses color to define the liturgical seasons. In short, I think that I probably profited more from these small lessons than anything else. They helped give a concrete, tangible component to what the good Salesian sisters were teaching me.
Fr. Bradley's departure from St. Peter's came almost at the same time as my graduation from the Salesian school. I had two reasons to cry my eyes out. I did not want to leave the safety of the nuns and I did not want Fr. Bradley to leave. Fr. Bradley saw some irony in all of this. We both remembered how he made me cry the first time. Now, the tears were returning because I suppose both of us knew he was not going to come back to the parish. He said that he would pray for me, especially since he knew that I was going to make the tough transition into the public school system. I told him that I would pray for him, too.
I regret that as much as I appreciated Fr. Bradley, I never got the chance to thank him and that, we did not keep in touch as, perhaps, we should have. When my dad told me that Fr. Bradley had died, I felt as though I were 14 again and saying good bye to him at the parish hall. Now, his departure is permanent.
Fr. Bradley was not a cradle Catholic. But, as he often told us, there was something about the Church that drew him. The obituary was right on target about him:
As a high school student, Father Bradley, a lover of music and the organ, fell in love with the liturgy and beliefs of the Catholic Church and was baptized into the faith.
That strong and immense love is what made Fr. Bradley such a great pastor. True, there were times when he could have been just a tad more "pastoral", but, whatever he did or said was never mean-spirited. It was always with the intention of trying to help us see things in a different manner. He was also an excellent homilist and a staunch traditionalist. Towards the end of his time at the parish, he re-introduced the faithful to the use of the communion rail.
I wonder what Fr. Bradley made of all of the "reform of the reform" work that Pope Benedict XVI has begun. Had this occurred some 30 years ago, I think that Fr. Bradley would have been at the forefront of things down here in the South Texas hinterland. Maybe, the parish would have had Mass celebrated in what we now know as the Extraordinary Form. In any case, without Fr. Bradley knowing it, or meaning for it, he was ahead of his time, so to speak.
I pray that Christ, the High Priest, will welcome Fr. Bradley into the joys of the heavenly Jerusalem and that the souls of the many faithful that he guided while on this earth will serve as his merited crown.