My grandfather Daniel Joseph O’Brien, Jr. – the man for whom I was named – has gone home to God, at the tender age of 90. And as I read through the comments and tributes from family that were springing up on Facebook and elsewhere, I saw the same ideas recurring: he was a hero; he was an example; he was a guide. I started to think about the idea of heroes, and (being me) when I think of heroes, my thoughts turn toward the saints. They are, in a sense, the heroes of the Church. Theirs are the lives we are to emulate, the models we are to follow. On the spur of the moment, I decided to make a brief look-see at some of the saints associated with parts of my grandfather’s life.
First of all, he bears a saint in his very name: Saint Joseph, guardian of the the Holy Family, the patron of fathers and workers. My aunt Donna remarked that “he was not a touchy, feely guy but there was never a day that we were not loved.” He was indeed a devoted father to his three daughters Donna, Kathie and Judy, as well as a loving uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather. He was also, as the long-standing “Mayor of Gwinnett Street,” a true friend, neighbor and helper to those around him. For many years he wandered up and down the street, or wound his way to my parents’ house, to fix what was in need of fixing or to provide a helping hand when one of us needed it.
Saint Joseph, it must also be noted, is also the patron of happy deaths. And just as Saint Joseph must have rejoiced in his heavenly reunion with our Blessed Mother whom he watched over and cared for in his life, I know my grandfather is rejoicing at being reunited with Lorraine, my grandmother, his wife of 57 years whom he’s dearly missed since her death almost 10 years ago.
My grandfather was born on July 24, 1923. At that time July 24 was the Feast of Saint Christina, a girl of ancient times who converted to Christianity at a very young age, and when she smashed the Roman idols in her room her father tortured her to death. Her brief but virtuous life later inspired harrowing elaborations of the kind of tortures she suffered, and of the wrath that God visited upon her torturers. But the essence of the story remained the same: through it all she never wavered in her faith, and never submitted to the pagan gods.
After serving in the Army Air Corps during the Second World War, he served on the Boston Fire Department, specifically “48 Engine!” in Hyde Park. The patron saint of firefighters is Saint Florian, a Roman solider who organized Rome’s first military unit devoted solely to fighting fires in the city. For his refusal to judge and persecute those of the Christian faith, to which he had converted, he was sentenced to be burned alive. When Florian was placed on the pyre, he dared the soldiers to build it higher so that he could climb to heaven on the flames. His executioners, afraid that such a thing might actually happen, changed their mind and drowned him in a river.
Why am I going on about the lives and deaths of these seemingly perfect people, some so tenuously connected to my grandfather? Because these are the lives we are called to live. We are called to be saints, to build up the race by leading lives that are to be modeled. Not other people, not more “worthy” people. We are. The saints are the heroes of the Church not because they were perfect, but precisely because they were not – they provided guidance and example despite their imperfections. Saint Joseph was ready to divorce Mary when she was found with child. Christina disrespected her father. Florian was a soldier and an official in one of the most brutal armies in history. And on top of those things, they were all human beings just like us. Yet great stories were told of them, and continue to be told of them. They are remembered and celebrated not for how they fell down, but for how they make us rise up.
Like the rest of us, Daniel Joseph O’Brien, Jr. was not perfect, but he was indeed one of the best, noblest, most Christian men that we who were fortunate to be his family and friends have ever known and may ever know. He didn’t let his flaws stop him from trying to be more perfect in the way he lived, and in the way he loved. Every encounter with him was teachable moment after teachable moment; my brother remarked this week that “he was always teaching.” And while he was not a particularly religious man, his every interaction with you betrayed that God-given grace and love from which it was undoubtedly born. In fact, he was someone who (to paraphrase Saint Francis) if he were confronted with the Beatific Vision itself and you knocked at the door thirsty, he would beg the Almighty’s pardon for just a moment, answer the door, and ask if you wanted a Pepsi (which was nice and cold in the fridge) or some iced tea (which he’d probably just made). If we are all called to be saints, is not such a disposition a very model of saintly behavior?
His date of death, April 23, is the Feast of Saint George (dragonslayer extraordinaire reporting for duty!). Like Saint Florian he was a soldier of the Roman empire and a convert to Christianity, and he refused the emperor’s edict to make sacrifice to the Roman gods. After several protestations and persuasions by the emperor himself, no alternative was left but to have the rebellious soldier executed, and Saint George was tortured repeatedly and then beheaded. When he was declared a saint at the end of the fifth century, the pope described him as being one of those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” I think that, for all the stories we can tell of him – and everyone in the family has his or her favorite – that descriptor is the perfect summation of my grandfather’s life, and the goal for all of us left here who are still called to be saints. There is not one person whose life he touched whom he did not affect, who did not learn something from him, who is not somehow in his debt. And now he’s gone to have that long talk with his Maker, which we all must have about those acts known only to Him, and to receive the reward of a true and faithful servant.
The heroic and exemplary life of Daniel Joseph O’Brien, Jr. has reached its end. But the legend and legacy of Obie, Joe, Uncle Danny, Grandpa, Papa Dan, Dad, D.O.D., the Mayor of Gwinnett Street – and yes, Chauncy Farquar III – has only just begun.