I still have vivid memories of the first funeral I attended. I was seven and my grandfather had passed away. He was an unchurched man with a Southern Baptist background, whom I loved very much. 

The strangeness of the quasi-religious ceremony notwithstanding, my initiation into the world of funeral, and of loss had begun. Besides giving me a universal aversion to the oh-too-sweet smell of flowers, it served as training for all the funerals that lay before me. 

As the years turned over, my expertise with funerals increased. My ability to mourn though has never been on an even keel and that is a fact I have come to accept. Still, there have been funerals I’ve seen that I would categorize as sad, with few people in attendance, happy, knowing the person who had passed had fought the good fought, and epic. … 

Yes, like the one I had the good fortune to attend this summer. 

A funeral that can be life-changing, affirming? The acknowledgment of a death and a commemoration of a life that leads to life-altering thoughts, and hopefully action? How very Catholic.

And so it was at the funeral of Catholic priest Father James Melley. 

Father Melley was not your average archdiocesan priest. Come to think of it, I don’t believe he officially “belonged” to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I’ll leave that for the “higher ups” to figure out — Father Melley certainly did. 

I believe he may have been a priest of the Archdiocese of Miami, but for whatever reason, he spent the last 12 years of his priesthood as a kind of “freelance” parish priest, and many of those years he was entrenched at my home parish where I had the opportunity to get to know him.

I still remember the first sermon I ever heard him give. I didn’t know we were getting a “new” priest to help at the parish, but out came this guy with a strong personality and persona of joy. 

Now, being Irish, I have a natural sense of distrust for anyone who exhibits too much joy. Father Melley’s ease with the congregation and seemingly constant smile made me nervous. The first words out of his mouth of his first sermon I ever heard really put me on edge. 

He said, “Heaven is filled with forgiven sinners. …” I thought I was about to get a full broadside of platitudes and mush. Then came the punchline, delivered with pinpoint accuracy: “Hell is filled with forgiven sinners.” 

I sat up a little straighter in the pew, and was moved and challenged in the best way good priests can move people and challenge someone’s status quo. Similar homilies were to come.

There is nothing worse than going to a funeral and hearing eulogies that make you think you’re at the wrong funeral. This was not the case any of the hundreds of us gathered to pray for the repose of the immortal soul of Father Melley had to worry about. 

Over the years I got to know Father Melley as a man of great joy. He loved life and he loved people. 

Everyone else at his funeral knew what I knew. All the eulogizing rang so true. He was the same person to all of us, and had the incredible capacity to make any person feel like they were the most important person in the world, as far as Father Jim Melley was concerned.

He loved jokes. He loved movies. We shared our love of both many times. Father Melley was always interested in new movies and even movies that may have not been for the faint of heart.

He regularly wove those themes into sermons and in general discussions, turning what was basically just entertainment into something to really think about as it related to our lives with Jesus. Father Melley inspired me to do the same thing, with somewhat less profound results.

When one of my sons was in the hospital with a serious but not, thanks be to God, life-threatening issue, my wife and I stepped out of his room for a cup of coffee. When we returned, there was Father Melley.  Didn’t even know how he found out our son was there. But I would wager you could have polled the hundreds of people at his funeral and gotten a similar story of grace, love and charity.

He was a navy man, having spent four years as an enlisted man, and then returned to the navy after his ordination to be a chaplain for 20 years, so he could talk in rather salty language, even while he was dispensing absolution in a confessional. 

As the saying goes, you can tell a lot about a man by the enemies he makes. But you can also learn a great deal more about the friends he gathers. And for this unique priest, a man who always seemed to dance to the beat of his own drummer, the friends in Christ and for Christ he made as he journeyed to heaven have now become his great legacy. 

I can’t think of a better epitaph for a priest.

Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.

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