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 | By Father Brenden McGuire

Humor and Faith Until His Last Breath

Homily delivered by Fr. Brendan McGuire at Bishop McGrath’s Mass of Thanksgiving, Saint Frances of Cabrini Church, May 17, 2023

“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6 NABRE). Bishop Patrick Joseph McGrath, or PJ, absolutely and completely believed those words; it was his gospel of all gospels. He lived these words completely and abundantly in own life, even more so in those last days when he died peacefully. He was so gracious about dying, which itself was a powerful witness to his faith and many of us were witness to it.

When the doctors informed him that the pneumonia had spread to his other lung, and there was nothing more that could be done, he was very peaceful about it. He said, “Brendan, actually I’m fine with this. I’m ready to go to my Father’s house. Now can I have a piece of chocolate!” He got his piece of chocolate! Bishop PJ died as he lived: full of grace, humor, and faith till his last breath.

I would like to focus my reflections in thanksgiving for his life on three of PJ’s most well known and most important character traits: graciousness, humor, and faith. PJ would want me to preach in that threefold manner because he was a closet Jesuit, and the Jesuits always preach in three points.


Every one of us present here today knows how gracious and kind he always was, almost to a fault. Earlier this week, which was our clergy study week, Fr. Sergio, one of his closest priest-friends, shared that PJ was so gracious that he would rather risk being taken advantage of than  be unkind. When his friends would express concern about this to him, PJ would reply, “Yeah, yeah, I know. That’s okay. But I would rather be too kind than too harsh.” That was PJ’s way. Graciousness and kindness were his superpowers.

Msgr. Willie, at our meetings these last few days, quoted Maya Angelou and it was one of PJ’s favorite quotes, "People will not remember what you said or what you did, but people will remember how you made them feel.” My friend PJ, my bishop, our friend, our bishop PJ, you made us feel loved and you were gracious in doing that. A chance meeting with PJ would end in a lifelong friendship. Everybody left him as his special friend. That is why this church is so full today! His love and gentleness was genuine, straight from the heart. It was truly authentic. He did not have to try hard. It just came out of him naturally.


He was a master of using humor with his bone-dry Irish wit. But you had to be careful as you could get the wrong end of it. He had an amazing gift of being able to disarm a roomful of hostile people with a single joke or story. He would use self-deprecating humor to disarm  difficult situations. He never lost his humor even on his last day.

The night before he died, his best friend, Msgr. Dan Whelton, along with nurse Karen and myself, were awaiting the arrival of his nephew Patrick. PJ expressed wanting to receive anointing with the commendation of the dying.

Preparing for that moment was beautiful, but it was hard. Since Patrick had still not arrived, I checked whether PJ wanted to do the commendation at that moment or after Patrick arrived. He said, “Well, let’s wait till Patrick gets here. Then I could have a little chat with Patrick and with some family back home in Ireland one last time. Would that be okay? Or do you want me to die right now?”

I assured him, “No. PJ, that’s okay. We can wait. No need to die right now!” Humor right up till the last moment. We eventually gave him the commendation. Trying to ease the difficulty of that moment, Patrick asked him, “Uncle PJ, how did Monsignor Dan do with the anointing?”

He answered, “All right, I suppose. Not bad. But a bit long.” Then PJ looked directly at Monsignor Dan and asked, “Dan, did you use the long version?”

Dan responded with a humorous exasperation, “PJ, I used the proper version!” Nothing but the proper version was good enough for his friend PJ. To which PJ retorted, “Yeah! I thought so. He used the long version; I thought I was going to die before you finished!”

Humor to his last breath. You must understand that was PJ the whole way! Right until his last breath, he was full of humor, full of life. The reason: he was full of faith. For him, there was no shadow of a doubt about where he was going.


There’s no question that he was a man of profound faith. We hear in today’s first reading that Abram left his land, relatives and friends went where the Lord asked him to go. So too did PJ who left everything— family, friends, and Ireland, his homeland — to faithfully serve for his entire life here in California. While he believed in, loved, and served the Church, PJ’s first love was Jesus and he believed completely in God’s love and God’s mercy though Jesus.

On the earthly side of things, PJ also loved John O’Donohue, the great Irish writer, poet, and theologian who had this to say about death and dying:

We are often told that the physical body holds the soul, so when the body dies, we ask, “Where does the soul go?” But we believe that it is the soul that contains the body. The soul lives forever and continues the journey home to the Lord. In that way, the deathbed is a special and sacred place, and it is more an altar than a bed where we offer up the flesh and blood of our loved one who is transformed into eternal spirit.”

Yes, PJ truly believed in eternal life. Just as his soul will live forever, PJ’s love will remain forever with us. I want to conclude with something PJ concluded every confirmation with. These words were addressed to the Confirmandi, “If you remember nothing else from what I said today, remember this: You are loved by God. Yes: loved. In all your weirdness and strangeness. You are loved. If anyone else tells you otherwise, they are liars. Yes, liars. Remember that you are loved by God.”

Well, PJ, I say to you today, if you remember nothing else from us, you are loved by God in all your weirdness and wonderfulness. You are loved by God and us. Rest in peace PJ, my friend. We love you.

The original text was edited for length and reformatted for print publishing.

Father Brendan McGuire is current pastor of Saint Simon Parish and worked with Bishop PJ for 12 years as one of his vicar generals.

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