The words of the Minister Provincial at Br Peter Hooper's Funeral Mass:
Some people who are used to the way the beatitudes have traditionally been expressed are not happy with ‘happy.’ Our reading said, “Happy are the poor in spirit” and they prefer “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.” I suppose they feel that people who are poor in spirit and much less those who mourn are not necessarily bouncing with happiness. They are however blessed because they are displaying the right attitudes; attitudes that are heading towards happiness. The attitudes described in the beatitudes are the attitudes Christ showed in His life. They are attitudes that lead to God. In the context of Peter’s funeral I think happy is fine because it is an attitude I associate with Peter. The picture on the service sheet and memorial card tell the correct story about Peter; he laughed a lot. Another word related to happiness that I associate with Peter is celebration. Peter studied and taught liturgy. Liturgy is the celebration of our life in Christ. It both celebrates the life we have already and promotes a growth in that life to what could be in God’s plan for us. Peter enjoyed his life for the most part and he gave thanks for it and that prepared him for a life that is changed not ended; one that is transcended. Let’s trace the pattern of his life in which we will see things we share in common with him and others that are unique to him.
Peter was born 60 years ago in Singapore and he was baptised in the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. He started his schooling there but when he was still in primary school the family moved to this country to live in Plymouth. There he attended Keyham Barton Primary School, a small Catholic School and then went on to St Boniface Plymouth. He did well in his O level, passing in nine subjects, but at A level he did not do so well. In 1968 he came as a novice to Chilworth. The friars had given a retreat at his school and Father Austin Kinsella got him into the novitiate as a late entry. The comments made about him by his novice-master speak of him as ‘affectionate and warm hearted’, ‘a sense of humour and happiness’, there is, ‘a goodness of spirit about this boy.’ I was told by a visitator in the novitiate that "the novice you are - that is the friar you will be." It sent a shudder down my spine. Peter had no worries on that score. He moved on to East Bergholt for studies but was there very little time when the move was made to Canterbury where he was to spend most of his time in the Order. There the formators spoke of him being too self-conscious and as having self doubts. They also spoke of ‘softness’ and ‘fastidiousness.’ Sometimes in those days when friaries could be like a barracks, fastidiousness could have been seen as a positive virtue. He writes that he was not keen to go to university but it was expected that someone of his ability would go and he went unwillingly. However it seems to have done him good. They then start to talk of him coming out the shadow of other friars and becoming his own man. In a letter to the Province he comes out boldly in defence of a fellow student whose Franciscan life had been questioned. He also made a great contribution to the community by his cooking. He even received the nickname Hop Quang, the name of a local restaurant. Following the completion of his studies and ordination, Peter came to Chilworth as Assistant Priest.
Peter’s contribution to formation and studies in the Province started in 1979 when he went to study liturgy at the Institute for Pastoral Liturgy in Carlow. This year was not sufficient to fit him to teach liturgy so in 1983-4, he went to the States and took courses at the Catholic University in Washington, at Notre Dame, Indiana, and at Collegeville, Minnesota, and he gained a Master's Degree. Peter in a letter admits to being scared of teaching but he returned to the Study Centre and did well. Teaching liturgy in the 80’s was not a comfortable situation as liturgy was often a cause of division in the Church. An ex Provincial speaking of the liturgy at Canterbury said, “An airport lounge. That’s what the liturgy at Canterbury is like.” He lived in days when an airport lounge was a place to relax in, not a place in which to recover from the trauma of having passed through security. What he was referring to was the practice of Mass in the houses not in a formal chapel. In my experience the gathering round the table was far from irreverent which was the implication of the airport lounge remark, but it was concentrated and the attention was genuine. Peter was given a rocket for saying a Eucharistic Prayer of Reconciliation on a weekday because it seemed to him to be the most suitable text to use and he had to defend himself stoutly. On another occasion he took part in a liturgy that was inappropriate. He was told off roundly and he openly admitted his fault and apologised without any attempt at self justification.
He had a gift, perhaps learnt from his mother, of using things, for example a single flower in a vase, or a simple symbol that created a prayerful atmosphere. It would be just right, uncomplicated, one pointed with Franciscan simplicity and using things as a vehicle to aid the communication of God.
At the Study Centre Peter served as the Principal from 1986-1992. The Study Centre has always been much more than an academic centre. There has always been a warm sense of community and good all-round care for the students a fact that was noted in a recent report by an independent body. On Peter’s watch he enhanced that and put the encounter with Christ in the liturgy at the heart of the life of the Centre. The Centre has always been under financial constraint. I am not sure that Peter helped in that regard. Part of Peter’s love of creation was that he liked nice things and that led to extravagance. The Definitory questioned his expenses in the States. He sent in a detailed account that is so human. It is in some sense a justification of the expense but he is also feeling he ought to apologise but is not sure that he will. It is a marvellous mixture of contending values.
In 1997-9, he again sent to the States to study but this was a change of subject. He went to St Bonaventure’s in New York State to engage in Franciscan studies. The University is set among wooded hills alongside the Allegheny River. It is a lovely campus and the colours of the leaves in the autumn are amazing. He loved the place. On his return the present Rector of the University, Sister Margaret Carney, phoned Father Austin the then Provincial, to say that Peter should have a full medical. There had been hints of something wrong in the early and mid nineties. Father Quentin mentions excusing Peter’s presence at the Definitory because he was not over an illness and Father Austin insisted that Peter take a good long holiday before he set out for St Bon’s to get over a persistent illness. The medical that Peter had on his return resulted in the discovery of Huntington’s disease; a slow degenerative path to death.
Thus started the final journey of his life and here he showed his strength and his faith. He simply got on with his life, enjoying all he could. In his illness he brought out the love and the care in so many people. He sat in the common room in the Centre with his companions and delighted in holding court there. He liked to see the life going on around him. As the illness progressed he came to be more and more at risk. He would get up at 2 am and dress to go over to the Centre for prayer across that dangerous lane. The community of friars had to do night duty to watch him and also had to do some simple nursing. A nurse friend of mine told me that nursing is 90% toilet. That is a very earthy side of our nature and our community managed this with dignity and humour. The ‘bully Seamus’ led the care. According to Peter he was bad, evil, but he was the only one he let near him to trim his beard. The professionals said that Peter’s disease had not progressed as fast as expected because of the loving care he received. The community of friars have a right to be proud of this achievement. However things were getting beyond their capacity to cope. Then our great friends, the Franciscan Sisters of Littlehampton offered to care for him. To do this they had to change the license of St Joseph in order to be able nurse him. They also had to arrange training for their staff so that they would understand the nature of the disease. This stopped them worrying about his shouting and falling into the crib as he did at Christmas.
In his last days the care assistants and nurses under the guidance of Sister Angela, the sisters, Father Seamus Hester and Seamus kept watch until at 8 a.m. on Friday 3rd July he died. He was an affectionate son, a beloved friar whose greatest witness came in illness and helplessness. This shows why St Francis cherished the brothers with their dignity as children of God. No life is useless. No human life is useless because in our response to it is our path to God. Peter has gone to God. His witness has helped many of us on our journey to Him.