A young Christchurch priest has been killed only six months after his ordination.
Fr Graeme Blackburn, 33, lost his life on January 15 as the result of a road accident involving a car and a motorcycle on Purau Port Levy Rd on Banks Peninsula.
Only six months earlier he had been ordained as a priest, alongside Frs Alister Castillo and Huynh Tran, on a joy-filled mid-winter day at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Christchurch.
On January 20, that same church was filled to overflowing on a blazing hot summer Saturday for a Requiem Mass for the young priest who had been an assistant at Our Lady of Victories in Sockburn (where Requiem Masses had been celebrated every day after his death up to the funeral).
Although the community had come together at St Mary’s with Christian hope, it was evident that many were struggling to come to terms with what had happened.
People, including Fr Blackburn’s mother Erin, his four older brothers and sisters and other family members and friends, were welcomed by Christchurch diocese administrator Fr Rick Loughnan.
“With you, we his diocesan family and friends in Christchurch deeply grieve his death,” Fr Loughnan said.
He introduced Msgr Bernard Kiely, Auckland diocese vicar-general, who was the principal celebrant at the Mass. Principal concelebrants included Bishop-elect Paul Martin, SM, Fr Michael Pui, Sockburn parish priest and Frs Castillo and Tran. Bishop Stephen Lowe from Hamilton also concelebrated – he had been a formator at the seminary when Fr Blackburn was studying for priesthood.
Fr Loughnan noted Msgr Kiely’s support of the Auckland-based Blackburn family for many years, in their joys and sorrows – the latter including the sudden death of Fr Blackburn’s father Graeme, senior, in 2013. Mr Blackburn’s ashes were later interred with the mortal remains of his son at the priests’ section at Bromley Cemetery.
Msgr Kiely started his introductory remarks by saying “Six months ago, we would never have dreamed we would be here today”.
“We are united in our grief and in our tears,” Msgr Kiely continued. “To Erin and your family . . . we carry you with as much love and prayer as we can muster today. To Graeme’s presbyteral family here in Christchurch, we know that his sudden death has struck something very deep within us all as priests. So we acknowledge the sadness that unites us today.”
The monsignor also noted the presence of a new nephew of Fr Blackburn’s whom the deceased priest had never met and would never meet in this life.
But he noted that “ . . . I think if anybody in the world would hate being the centre of attention, it would be Fr Graeme Blackburn”.
A eulogy was delivered by Fr Blackburn’s older brother Phillip, and it traced the path of the youngest child in the family from school in Auckland to being a qualified pilot and flying instructor in Christchurch, gaining a political science degree and preparing for priesthood.
“In his brief time on earth, and even briefer time as a priest, ‘G’ made a positive impact on so many people from so many different walks of life,” Phillip Blackburn said.
“He was truly a humble and selfless man who put other people’s needs before his own. He was such a good friend to so many, and he was blessed with the grace of acceptance of others. No matter what, he inspired people to do better. “Little ‘G’ was fun, fun-loving and mischievous, and I have heard stories, over the past day, he brought real laughter and joy to people, a little bit of shock to others, but genuine joy.”
Phillip Blackburn also noted that his brother was a “deep thinker, spiritually and philosophically, and went about his life quietly supporting those who needed it”.
But “he did hate the limelight almost as much as he hated having his picture taken. He would really think that all this attention is both unnecessary and awkward”.
Near the end of his tribute, speaking through tears, Phillip Blackburn said “Somewhere, some day, we might get an answer [as to why he died so young], but I don’t know why.”
“To his family and friends and people whose lives he has touched, please cherish the memory of a bloody good bloke.”
The esteem in which Fr Blackburn was held in the community was shown in a two-plane fly-past by the Canterbury Aero Club as the casket was leaving the church.
In a media report on the Stuff website, Canterbury Aero Club chief flying instructor Nathan Clarke described Fr Blackburn as “a quirky guy with a dry sense of humour”, an outstanding employee and respected friend to his colleagues.
“He has the ability to communicate with his students and put himself at their level. If they were from the wrong side of the tracks, he wanted to make sure they were OK. Pastoral care was one of his outstanding attributes.”
In his homily at the Requiem Mass, Fr Loughnan, a former vocations director for Christchurch diocese, acknowledged the struggles Fr Blackburn sometimes had on his path to priesthood, but he also spoke of his courage and determination as a seminarian.
“I always thought that the words of Jesus to Nathaniel – here is a man incapable of deceit – could be applied to Graeme.”
In terms of the daily exercise of his priestly ministry, “he was only really getting used to it”.
“I have received, as so many others have too, many wonderful emails and texts appreciating the priestly ministry that Graeme entered and lived these last six months,” Fr Loughnan said.
“He was loved for his preaching, his thoughtfulness, even already as a confessor, for his humour and down to earth honesty.”
Fr Loughnan said that “through this accident, Graeme’s priestly work here and the witness of his life on earth has come to an end”.
“But in confidence we pray and remind ourselves that in heaven, in the Lord Jesus Christ, his priestly work will continue. God is never outdone in generosity. God wastes nothing of the tragedies of our lives. All he asks is for us to come to him, to wait, patient in faith and sometimes great suffering, for the darkness to clear, and gradually the light begins to pick out a whole new way to see the events of our lives.”
Fr Loughnan referred to a quote from a homily of Fr Blackburn’s preached just before Christmas.
“Remember that God is always faithful to his promise. Regardless of what adversity we face, there is always a way through. Put another way, there is always hope.”
This quote was on the front page of the order of service at the Requiem.
Bishop-emeritus of Christchurch Bishop Basil Meeking, who prayed the prayers of commendation and who led the committal, also spoke briefly about the young priest he had ordained last year.
“Even in the short time since his ordination, it has been evident to all of us that he has been such a good priest,” Bishop Meeking said.
As the white casket was taken from the church, a lone bagpiper played on the far side of Manchester Street.
And as if to acknowledge the loss of the whole community, early on the morning of January 20, before the Requiem, a small earthquake struck Christchurch.