Graham Francis, priest

On January 4, we commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Fr Graham Francis, a beloved former parish priest of St Mary’s. In memory of him, here’s the homily preached at his funeral by Fr Dean Atkins

Let me take you away, for a while at least, from the hill country of Judah where those two women share an intimate moment of joy, amazed at what God is doing in their lives and for the world, away from the hills where an unborn child leaps at the presence of another and where the air is filled with a song of Magnificat proportions, to another hill country of the Rhondda to that mountaintop Shrine of Our Lady of Penrhys, and a childhood memory.

It was after lunch, as people gathered for the afternoon devotions, that he enters the church, walking swiftly, at speed, down the north aisle, one step ahead of others muttering prayers aloud. I didn’t know who he was, although in my childhood mind and memory, he must have been quite important. As I knew him later in life, he was then likely muttering the rosary on the go or slipping in an office of the day, a quick Afternoon Prayer. Many people’s first or significant contact with Fr Graham was through pilgrimage, particularly pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham where he was a member of the Order of Our Lady of Walsingham and where he led pilgrimage for generations of people.

It was in another aisle, this time on a coach to Walsingham, as he made one of his many routine journeys up and down, from seat to seat, chatting to people, that he hinted aloud several times, that he should be training up another priest to help him. I was just a curate then. I laughed and thought no more of it, until a year or so later, he said ‘When are we meeting up so I can go through the Walsingham stuff with you?’ I soon discovered this was how he worked.

In 2010, Fr Graham celebrated his Golden Jubilee year as a pilgrim, making pilgrimage more than once every year without fail, arriving in Walsingham for the first time at the age of fourteen, a year after the death of Alfred Hope Paten, restorer of the Shrine.  This year would have been his sixtieth.

I remember him being visibly moved when the image of Our Lady of Walsingham first made pilgrimage around the country, emerging from her wooden travelling box in Llandaff Cathedral.  He held back the tears.

I saw him similarly moved last year, in perhaps a more private moment, praying alone at the grave of Fr Paten, perhaps wondering himself if this was to be his last visit to England’s Nazareth.

With Fr Graham at the helm of our pilgrimage, and in its midst, it made it almost impossible for his enthusiasm and love of the Shrine and of Our Lady, not to inspire and move us.

Pilgrimage to Walsingham has always been a massive part of the Francis family life, shared by their children and grandchildren who read and serve and sing there and consume amazing amounts of lemon drizzle cake in the Norton Room.”

Graham’s own pilgrimage through life began in Port Talbot. And, for so many of us who didn’t know him then, a memory or two from his sister, Linda:

“Graham was born into a household that comprised his parents and his paternal grandfather, who had been born in 1872 and maintained the dress and bearing of a Victorian until his death in 1953.  In his early childhood, Graham spent many hours in the company of his Grandpa Francis. They’d walk to Taibach Memorial Park where they’d meet some of Grandpa’s contemporaries and sit with them on a bench while the older gentleman talked over old times and Graham, one imagines, enjoyed their company.  Graham recalled being taken to the Darby and Joan Club, and to funerals.  It would seem that he was an exceptionally well-behaved small child as no snacks or inducements would’ve been used in those days.

Maybe this was an early manifestation of the skills he used so well in his ministry.”

Joking at himself which he could so easily do, he claimed to be ‘a weird teenager,’ travelling around South Wales, visiting churches immersed in the catholic faith, his path to priesthood assured perhaps, his vocation mapped out and firm, one of the many priests to emerge from St Theodore’s at the time.

In fact he always spoke of having two vocations, one to the priesthood and one to the married life.  Both were intertwined so beautifully, knit together so naturally that, for so many people, his family became our family, their door always open, the welcome always warm.  There was no border or boundary between home and church between priesthood and private life.

Graham and Eleri met in 1969.  Graham was in his final year in St Michael’s College, and Eleri came to Cardiff to work as Field Secretary for Wales for the Student Christian Movement.  They married on the last day of 1971by which time Graham had been priested and was Curate of Cowbridge. Here, Illtyd and Catrin were born and in 1976 the family moved to Penrhiwceiber with Ynysboeth.

Here Graham came into his own as he put into practice many of the things he’d planned and dreamt of during his formation training, with an array of feasts and festivals and fireworks.  Oh, and Bingo too.  Graham didn’t simply start the bingo, he called the numbers too. As Canon Arthur of Aberdare said, “He was a trailblazer for Bingo!’

Penrhiwceiber was the place where his family grew up, a home filled with love and happiness, and so much fun and humour, and where many friendships were nurtured. It was where he officiated at the marriage of Kate and Pete.

‘Although he wasn’t technical,’ said Kate, ‘he loved gadgets. Whenever we visited, there would always be something new he’d bought which he’d want help to set up, from a digital camera and photo-frame to electronic weighing scales.  These devices would remain largely unused, but by far the most useful item was the new, fangled microwave oven he bought in 1981, which survived until just a few weeks ago breaking down on Christmas Day at the grand old age of 38.  Not being able to drive, he was known for walking everywhere, and always set a brisk pace.’

‘Our family holidays’ says Kate, ‘consisted of staying in cities and towns and walking great distances to visit churches and church bookshops; unsurprisingly, Rome 1985 was probably where we hit ‘peak church!.’

Graham’s name and memory runs through Penrhiwceiber not so much like the fine wine running through the mountains of Isaiah’s prophecy, but perhaps more, for him, like good beer, real ale.

When Fr Graham was told he could receive no treatment for his illness, he quickly set to work – after all there was a funeral to organise, and in typically Graham style he wanted things done properly, not just the readings, the hymns, the celebrant, who would sit where, or wanting to proof read the Order of service,

or choose the photograph for the front cover but also a reminder to check such things as the microphones,

the speaker system, and the bells. And he also gave Fr Ben and I a list of who we should contact when he died: the Shrine at Walsingham, the Guild of All Souls, The Society of the Holy Cross, the Bishop, Diocesan Office, the RB and others and last but not least – CAMRA – the Campaign for Real Ale!

Yes, he loved Real Ale, and would return to the bar to get his pint topped up if he was unimpressed by a beer head that was too large – working out how much pence a pint he was being overcharged as a result.

His need for preciseness perhaps influenced his liturgical skill.  For decades he served as a member of the Church in Wales Liturgical Commission, and never missed a meeting, with a knowledge of liturgy which he put into practice.  He loved a rubric.

The last few moments of someone’s life is, of course, such an intimate, fragile, private moment but I hope Eleri and the family won’t mind me sharing one thing.  Called to Graham’s bedside that night, we said the rosary, pronounced absolution, celebrated The Laying on of Hands and Anointing and, unsure how long it would be before he breathed his last, wondered when we should say the Prayers of Commendation, and we decided to do it then.  Fr Graham’s liturgical timing and efficiency worked to the last.  As we took to our lips the Litany of Saints and I uttered those words of Commendation his breath became more shallow, and within moments of the prayer, he had gone from this world, he had breathed his last.  His timing perfect.

On his desk, he’d left a folder, useful documents and bits of paper to help with arrangements after his death. Amongst details of the grave, legal documents and newspaper clippings was a leaflet entitled, ‘Children and Bereavement.’  He thought of everything.

Perhaps I can say that he both hated and loved being ill, and could gain a great deal of attention and sympathy from even a common cold.  One day, when he heard of someone diagnosed with a particular illness, with a great sense of disappointment, he said. “Hmm, I never get anything serious.’

Of course, this is a homily and not a eulogy, and one must preach the gospel, one must preach the faith, but Graham would have been disappointed if he ever thought that I wouldn’t say anything or enough about him. He was the kind of person who loved having his photograph taken, was confident in his own abilities, knew what he was good at, could boast of it affectionately, but could also defer to others if he thought they could do some things better.

Last year, as he told me some anecdote about himself, I laughed and said, ‘That’s something for the funeral homily.’  ‘Oh, I thought you would have written it by now,’ he said.  I think he would have liked that, to have read it first –  maybe even proof read it for mistakes and inaccuracies, corrected my grammar.

Some time ago, now, we left the hill country of Judah, and Mary’s Magnificat song, as she proclaims the greatness of the Lord, as her spirit rejoices in God her Saviour.

The Magnificat song was more than familiar to Fr Graham.  His life moved to the rhythm of the Church’s Prayer: the Daily Offices, the Angelus, the Rosary, and Mass every day.  In his retirement, he took a GP referral to his local gym, and was asked by the Instructor what he’d like to achieve.  ‘I want to be able to genuflect at Mass again,” he said.

The Daily Mass had been central to Graham’s life, beginning in the Cowbridge Days when he said Mass at home with Eleri later sustained in Penrhiwceiber with the help of a few parishioners who ensured there was always a congregation.

In that gospel reading, as Mary makes her way to the hill country, she is the first Christian pilgrim, moving with Jesus, feeling his growing presence, physically moving in her life, stirring her heart, changing the way she sees the world, changing the way she sees herself, changing the way she sees God.

Talking one day about how the city of Cardiff was growing, in typical Graham morose style he said, ‘Hmmm, I’ll never get to see Cardiff finished,’ as though there’d be a time when developers would stand back and say, ‘There, all done.’

The world continues to change.  We continue to change. What’s important is how we change the world around us.  Graham, by being in this world, by faithfully ministering as a priest, by celebrating the sacraments, preaching the Kingdom, building community, caring for others, giving people such an experience of worship, accompanying them on their pilgrimage, being a faithful and loving husband, Dad and Taid, has changed the world.

He could laugh until he cried.  walk at a pace often difficult to keep up with, was energetic and busy, had many, many colourful phrases, and colourful language, especially in a crisis. He was an excellent teacher, too, able to explain Christian doctrine in a way that was easily understood. And for so many questions, there was often a simple answer, ‘Well, that’s what the Church teaches.’

There was no room for an individualistic faith – he believed what he believed because it was what the church believed and what had been handed on to him, and which he himself passed on to others.

He loved being a priest here in Butetown and Grangetown.  It was like a homecoming, his time with St Mary’s beginning in his student days. And it was whilst he was priest here that Illtud and Nia were married, and his four grandchildren born, and so this place will remain firm in their memory and love of their Taid.

Here, Graham took his place in the catholic narrative which has clung to this parish for almost 150 years but his life as a priest in the catholic tradition had ripples of influence well beyond it.  His friendships cut through difference.  He was equally at home with both catholic music and rousing chapel hymns, loved an evangelical chorus and, at the Youth Pilgrimage, could dance at the disco and the Mass.

When his retirement ‘eventually’ came he and Eleri moved to join the ‘Splott Lot’ which was a great joy for them and where there has been so much love and laughter which is sure to continue in their support of Eleri.

And so his work is over, his job done, as he makes his journey heavenward.

As Mary said ‘Yes’ to God’s plan for her, a yes which changed her life and changed the world so we are called to change the world, to see and be the transformation, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord, to let his kingdom come.  It comes, of course, through blood and sweat, and the outstretched arms of our Lord upon the cross, through swords of sorrow and suffering which pierce the soul. Although we feel the pain of death, we believe that death is not the end.

‘We are already the children of God,’ says St John, ‘but what we shall be in the future has not yet been revealed.  All we know is that when it is revealed we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is.’

The Magnificat song of Mary lingers still. It echoes through the ages. It is a stubborn song that never goes away.  A song which speaks of change, of a new way, of God’s way, a way that Graham loved and laboured,

and to which he remained faithful.  If we truly believe the words of St John, both Graham and we have much to look forward to, and many changes ahead.

It’s time to stop talking now for fear that this Mass will take longer than an hour to celebrate, and that would never do, not in Graham’s eyes. So Farewell, Graham, our friend and fellow pilgrim.  May flights of angels carry you home safely, and may the Prayers of Our Lady of Walsingham and all our prayers, cause you much rejoicing, as you proclaim the greatness of the Lord until we meet again, we pray, when God will gather us all into his heavenly kingdom.

Fr Graham Francis, October 30th 1945 to January 4th 2020; Ordained: August 6th 1971; Funeral: January 22, 2020

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