By Bishop James Conley
“Time is short,” Blessed John Henry Newman once wrote, “and eternity is long.”
Newman meant that we must use our lives to prepare for eternity; that we must seek to know the Lord, to follow him, and to love him, during the short time we have here on earth. Though we might fall along the way, or doubt, or struggle; we are made for eternity with God, and our salvation should be foremost in our minds, guiding our choices, and giving us hope.
I have thought a lot about Newman’s words in these past few months, as a dear friend, Dr. Don Briel, spent time preparing for his death.
Dr. Briel was the founder of the esteemed Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., a program that sparked a renewal of faithful intellectual formation at Catholic colleges and universities across the country. He later helped the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., develop a program of Catholic Studies and, until his death, Dr. Briel held the Blessed John Henry Newman Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Mary. He was a scholar, a friend, and a gentle, steadfast disciple of Jesus Christ.
Don’s life was not without disappointments or difficulties, struggles and challenges. But he loved the Lord, and his Church, and he sought to use the gifts that God had given him for the mission to which he was called.
In January, he was diagnosed with two kinds of acute leukemia, and was told he might have a month to live. When he gave me the news, he told me; “I am surrounded by grace and care.” Indeed, he was. Students and friends visited with him. Mass was celebrated daily in his home by priests who were his former students. Sisters from the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus, a new religious community of women comprised of a number of his former students, helped with hospice care for him at his home as he prepared for death.
“I am richly blessed,” he said to me in our last phone conversation.
I was richly blessed by Don’s friendship. We had long been fellow admirers of Newman, and had developed an enduring friendship over the years. We first met at a Newman Conference at Oxford University in England in 1990, at a two-week summer school program marking the 100th anniversary of the good Cardinal’s death. We attended Newman’s beatification together in 2010 in Birmingham, England. During my years as Auxiliary Bishop in Denver, I would visit the Denver seminarians at St. John Vianney college seminary on the campus of University of St. Thomas University, many of whom were students in the Catholic Studies program. On those occasions I would always visit Don and, on one such occasion, he graciously invited me to teach one of his classes on Newman.
Dr. Briel also played a crucial role in the establishment of the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture in the Diocese of Lincoln, serving on the founding committee. In fact, it was Don who came up with the name for the institute. He often gave me advice, or insights, or encouragement. This past summer Dr. Briel taught a course on Newman for six of our diocesan priests who are enrolled in the Master of Educational Administration graduate program at the University of Mary.
And on Aug. 9, as part of the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture “Reborn in Wonder” lecture series, he gave probably one of the finest lectures on the life Blessed John Henry Newman that I have ever heard – without a note in front of him! (Click here for video of the talk). He was, indeed, a remarkably good and generous man.
As he prepared for death, he told a reporter that he had long prayed that he would have about a month’s notice before he died, and he took consolation that the Lord had given him that grace. He said that he could see the Lord’s Providence in his diagnosis.
He said his time preparing for death was a “combination of prayer — an intensification of prayer — and seeing so many former students and colleagues.”
Don died Feb. 15, almost exactly one month since he’d been given the diagnosis.
I will not soon forget his friendship, or the witness of his holy and beautiful death. I hope that I will go into eternity with as much trust in the Lord’s mercy and goodness as he did. And I pray that he will rest in eternal peace.
Since his death, I’ve thought of another reflection from Newman:
“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work.”
Don knew his mission. It was to be a teacher, to form young minds to know, love, and serve the Lord and his Church. He was indeed a bond of connection between persons. He was indeed created for some definite service, entrusted to no other. And Don, indeed, did good. Truly, he did the Lord’s work.
Each one of us is called to some definite service in this life. God calls us to discern it, and to be faithful to it. And each one of us will pass from this life. We should be prepared, as Don was. May the Lord bless Don, and each one of us, with his everlasting mercy.
Time is short, and eternity is long.