- January 2002
|© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001
Brother Aidan SSF, RIP
Brother Aidan SSF died on Holy Cross Day, Friday 14 September 2001, in Dorchester Hospital,
after a long illness. He was aged sixty-eight years and in the fortieth year of his religious profession. Brother
Damian announced his death and led the brothers and sisters in the Commendation just before the closing Eucharist
of the European Provincial General Chapter at Swanwick in Derbyshire.
His funeral and requiem took place on Thursday 20 September 2001 at his beloved Hilfield Friary.
The text of the sermon preached at the funeral requiem by Brother Damian SSF:
You must work, not for the perishable food, but for the food that lasts, the food of eternal life. (John
Barry Thompson was born in Bradford in Yorkshire on 23 July 1933, the younger of two brothers. His Dad sadly died
when he was only seven, and his mother, a Geordie from Wallsend, took the two boys back home with her, where they
grew up, Alan who went down to the shipyards, and Barry who got his first job as an Assistant in the local library.
But at 18 he took the King's shilling and signed up with the Royal Artillery, only to be invalided out 18 months
later with an injured back. With what he had keenly learnt as a boy scout, and built upon in his experience in
the Army, Barry was now looking for a way to combine his youthful experience and his creative talent with his Christian
conviction. And so he fell under the influence of one of our famous curates of St Luke's, Pallion in Sunderland
where he received the indelible mark of a Companion of SSF, undertaking the rigorous four Obligations. Barry had
committed himself to work, not only for the perishable food, but for the food that lasts.
One of the realities of Barry's character was simply that he was larger than life: Br Edward remembers that while
he earned his living in his early 20's as a taxi driver, he was also building up quite a reputation on the circuit
as a stock-car racer, with intrepid skills. His cousin, Barbara, recalls his turning up back in Bradford on a motor
bike sporting a Scottish kilt. (The mind boggles!) On that same bike, at the age of 24, once he had resolved to
ask to join SSF, he rode all the way from Wallsend down to Dorset looking for Br Michael, was told he was on a
mission to Stafford Prison and went in search of him there, and was interviewed as an aspirant inside those prison
And what a shot of Geordie talent and charm arrived here on 1 January, 1959, where he was appropriately given the
name Aidan by Br David. It seems that wherever Aidan lived in SSF, he brought innovation and improvement, and,
let it be said, we experienced his strong measure of determination with it. I could go further.! Yet he was a popular
friar: a man's man, and a lady's man. A man, you might say, for all seasons. And I can hear more than an echo of
appreciation from countless wayfarers, colleagues in AA, so many who respected him deeply..
Just as he built the bell tower for us here outside the grounds of Clare House, so he made his mark when he was
sent as a young professed brother to Alnmouth by constructing their chapel bell tower that has stood the test of
time. He also built, virtually single-handed, that bridge between the house and the chalet guest wing. Alongside
this practical ability he built up a huge reputation in schools and colleges, leading school-leavers' weekends
and retreats and preaching with power. Michael once went down from Alnmouth to see how Aidan's preaching was going:
he crept in the back and recognised Aidan was preaching one of Michael's own sermons, but said Michael, 'He
preached it far better than I did.' He learnt how to deliver the message, and what a reminder we had
only a few days ago when he read Murray Bodo's chapter on St Francis at Kevin's life Profession, 'At every fork
in the road, there was a narrow, difficult way, and a wide, easy way to travel'…. He took great care in reading
in public, and particularly the scripture lessons, as he would share the word conscientiously, feeding people with
food that lasts. Even when I joined in '66, I recall his reading of the lesson was masterly edifying. I held him
in awe and in my second week in SSF I was put to work with him in the maintenance department, but he sacked me
after a few days of my fumbling with a lathe and spluttering with the smoke from the Woodbine hanging from his
Aidan was a builder in every sense. And of course, in 1967 he went on to build air-strips at the Mission at Fiwila
in Zambia, with Tristam and Noel, Francis and Stephen Lambert and Desmond and where, for seven years, he made bricks
and built roads, and drove the mission transport, and did his theological training - Zambia must have been a time
of great fulfilment, combining all his abilities and where one further dimension was added, which brought about
a change of direction for Aidan. Oliver Green Wilkinson, then Archbishop of Central Africa, ordained Aidan as a
deacon in Lusaka in 1969 and as a priest in 1970, and thus he grew into his new vocation to feed the people with
the sacramental food that lasts. Ordination creates its own opportunities, and its own freedoms, and he got a taste
for independence when he was appointed to a parish on the Copper Belt.. There for two years he served the people
of Chifubu in Ndola, until it was time for SSF to pull out of Zambia, and some of the Brothers turned to Dar es
Salaam in Tanzania. The Friary was built a few miles out of Dar, but Aidan took over the Seamen's' Mission in town,
and earned himself a considerable reputation as their Chaplain, with a useful connection in the harbour master
who was another Geordie.
Aidan went on to give twenty years' service with the Mission to Seamen, as a Brother attached to Plaistow Friary.
He was loved everywhere, South Korea, Egypt, Gravesend, Dublin, Port Headland, sometimes being commissioned to
close with sensitivity a Mission where changes had been required. Those years, particularly the last ten at Vlissingen
in the Netherlands, were a mixed blessing, and his dependence on alcohol, a commodity frequently present in the
life of most seamen, became a bane and caused him to lose his grip, not in the club bar but in the secret seclusion
of his chaplaincy home. Aidan admitted that he had never been able to overcome the sense of loneliness that lay
beneath his vocation and undermined his confidence. Alcohol slowly clouded his vision and threatened his ability
to live out his ministry. On one famous visit of the Secretary General of the Mission to Seamen Aidan gave his
usual worthy reception; next morning, following his routine, he made some strong coffee for them both, lit a cigarette,
then inadvertently stabbed his toe on the table leg, reached down to minister to the injury, lost his balance and
his back-side went flying through the glass of his dining-room window. It was a memorable performance.
He was a generous host and so many of us here have enjoyed his hospitality, and we also feared as we saw him drifting
out of his depth. Only his unquenchable grit and perseverance, - he would say, only the grace of God and the borrowed
strength of friends, saved him from drowning. I am sure he heard the gentle words of Jesus, coming across the water
to him, with hands outstretched, Do not be afraid which came alive and healed a desperate Aidan at that
time. After the intervention, Galsworthy House did its marvellous work and set him up for a recovery, introducing
him to the 12-steps programme of AA. One early report which I received from him said this: 'what has been truly
liberating is that I don't have to be lonely any more'. That simple declaration, that discovery, this new discipline
brought a renewal of life, of vocation and ministry. He had fallen, and was standing again. He had been lost and
was found. And with his typical directness of character he began to live a Gospel freedom and to witness to a sobriety
which he maintained every day for the rest of his life. He promoted AA meetings here and turned what was a scourge
into a means of evangelism among his many new-found friends.
Addiction is a mysterious thing, and especially for Aidan there was always the tendency towards excess. Perhaps
it goes with giftedness, or with a flamboyant personality, but we watched as he also broke the habit of smoking
and even curbed his intake of biscuits. Of course his health was cracking and these last years have been a trial
in itself. He kept going, and even with apparently everything against him, he never gave in. He had food that lasts.
He had friends that cared. He had faith and the future he left in God's hands.
Our Minister General likened you, Aidan, to the Brick in one of Michel Quoist's Prayers of Life which he found
last week near your bedside.
The bricklayer laid a brick on the bed of cement.
Then, with a precise stroke of his trowel spread another layer
And without a by-your-leave, laid on another brick.
The foundations grew visibly, the building rose,
Tall and strong to shelter men.
I thought Lord of that brick buried in the darkness at the base of the big building.
No one sees it, but it accomplishes its task, and the other bricks need it.
Lord, what difference whether I am on the rooftop or in the foundations of your building, as long as I stand faithfully
at the right place?
Whether Aidan was playing to the gallery, or whether he was hidden in the foundations of the building, Michel Quoist's
prayers consistently accompanied his inner journey. I noticed that the marker was nearer the back, in the section
of the stations of the cross, by the second station, Jesus bears his cross: Aidan died, of course, on Holy
Cross Day: in the fortieth year of his profession.
Lord, You had no cross, but you came to get ours…
I would rather fight the cross; to bear it is hard.
The more I progress .. the heavier is the cross on my shoulders.
Help me to understand the most generous deed is nothing
unless it is also silently redemptive.
And since you want this long way of the cross for me,
At the dawning of each day, help me to set forth.
Aidan, Christian soul, our brother with Francis, go forth with the food of eternal life, into the dawn of your
new day. f