20 April 2017, The Tablet

Now I had to be not just a priest but a grieving brother


Among the hardest things a Catholic priest has to do is to bury a member of his family. While by law or custom most professions are discouraged from looking after their own family, a priest is often expected to minister to his. And on the whole we want to. Baptisms and weddings are joys. Funerals, however, are tough gigs.

I have just buried my 56-year-old sister, Tracey. I have done many tragic funerals – the deaths of children, of suicides, of the victims of car accidents and murders among them – but Tracey’s Requiem Mass was the most demanding of any liturgy at which I have presided. I have acted as the family’s priest on other occasions, empathetically pastoral I hope; but now I had to be not just a priest but a grieving brother, alive to all the history that had brought us to this day, and alert to all the tensions it held.

Tracey’s life and death were more complex than most. After graduating as a nurse in 1981, she immediately left Australia to work with Mother Teresa in the House of the Dying at Calcutta. All up she spent three years in India over two stints, and she loved it. On her return home she ran the health centre at Wadeye, a remote aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. Bush nursing and Tracey Leonard were synonyms.

It was there, aged 28, on 23 October 1988, while doing a favour for some of her friends, that her car broke down. As it was being towed away, her vehicle rolled off the road and hit a tree. Everyone else got out without a scratch.

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