Remembering a Fellow Columban Father
Retired Christian Brother, Brother Reginald Whitely, shares memories of his Columban brother, Fr. Lynn Whitely who died from hepatitis in Chile in 1971 at the age of 31.
Fr. Lynn's classmates, Columbans Sean O'Connor and Don Hornsey remember Fr. Lynn as an outstanding sportsman, singer and musician. In Santiago he is not buried in the Columban mausoleum but in a local cemetery, lovingly cared for by his parishioners and ever close to them.
Just before mum died, Fr. Lynn gave us a great surprise, when he arrived from Chile at home in Perth, Australia. He just walked into mum's room. He wanted to say goodbye to her. When asked by mum about his own illness, he said, "I just want to keep on living at the moment. There is so much to do."
Fr. Lynn had contracted hepatitis from drinking contaminated water in Peru. He died on January 14, 1971, just five months after mum. It was all so sudden and very hard on the family. Considering what happened to some of his friends when the military coup occurred two years later, maybe it was for the better.
We were a family of four brothers, one became a diocesan priest, myself a Christian Brother, Fr. Lynn a Columban priest and the fourth a family man. Fr. Lynn had a beautiful singing voice and frequently won first prize at the competitive music festival. He completed his top A grade piano qualifications while in the seminary.
My last memory of Fr. Lynn was when he celebrated Sunday Mass after visiting mum. The text of the homily he preached was from Romans, 12:16, "Be not condescending to the poor."
Fr. Lynn had made a tape for mum before she died. It was such a treasure saying goodbye, "This is the last tape I will be sending, mum." We used it in the 45 minute radio program we made about Fr. Lynn after he died. This program was repeated three times due to popular interest.
In the tape, Fr. Lynn said to mum, "You trust me, mum and that is so important to me. Perhaps you think me a 'commie' and that doesn't worry me but let me tell you about a little family I know in my parish in Chile where this young chap has a wife and a couple of kids. He is a skilled carpenter and got a job making door frames and window frames. Do you know how much he was getting for each door and window frame? Less than a penny! Now he can only buy a little milk for the baby and some bread and tea for everyone else."
After ordination in St Mary's Cathedral, Perth, in 1964, Fr. Lynn was sent to the Columban parish of San Martin de Porres, Lima, Peru. His name in Spanish was "Padre Lino." His education really began there.
When a parishioner said to him, "You people only come here for two years and leave us. You don't love us," Fr. Lynn became determined to stay. Later on in Chile, Fr. Lynn would tell his family he would never come home to work but would spend the rest of his life working there amongst the poor.
After two years, Fr. Lynn was sent to the parish of San Marcos, in the southern periphery of Santiago, Chile. He worked there with English Columban Diocesan Associate, Fr. Dick Harding. At that time, the Chilean economy had collapsed and farming families were moving to the city. Hundreds of families squatted in makeshift settlements around the parish.
In 1968, the Latin American Bishops met in Medellin in Colombia. The Medellin Document called on the Church to develop a real option for the poor, to form Base Christian Communities, promote biblical reflections and develop a shared ministry between clergy and laity. Frs. Lynn and Dick began sending for tapes on Liberation Theology and any reading coming out of the Medellin Conference.
Several Columbans in Chile at that time had made a commitment to combine parish ministry with the idea of working alongside parishioners in voluntary labor. In order to help families in the squatter camp, Fr. Lynn set up a workshop to make slippers. He worked there himself with the families. Fr. Lynn, along with other priests in Santiago, worked in a bicycle repair shop. Fr. Lynn joined the local Fire Brigade and became the driver for the fire engine up until his death. Later the Fire Brigade formed a guard of honor at his funeral.
"So you are Padre Lino. All the way down from Lima, I have heard of you. So tell me what you are doing!" With these words, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal John Heenan, greeted Fr. Lynn, on his pastoral visit to the English priests working in Peru and Chile. He had been appointed to report back to Pope Paul VI about the new theological movements of liberation in Latin America.
Fr. Lynn sat with the Cardinal in an old truck outside the presbytery until one o'clock in the morning explaining the need to be close to the people. He said that some weekday Masses had been replaced by lay led liturgies using Biblical themes. The Cardinal grew alarmed. He asked Fr. Lynn, "Were not your family faithful Mass goers and did they not say the family rosary?" He concluded by saying, "I do admire your zeal however!"
Fr. Lynn would often camp out overnight on mountain sides with university students who helped in the parish. Here Fr. Lynn would offer reflections on his favourite piece of scripture, Romans Chapter 8. They would make kites, tie them together to make one giant line and then release it into the mountain air. Fr. Lynn wrote about it, "It just makes you want to live. There is so much joy and happiness in life."
Pope Francis would be proud of one of his priests who got out of the sacristy, to get "the smell of the sheep" on him. Yes, Fr. Lynn made his mistakes, but the Pope says it's okay to take risks. His life was more powerful in death than when alive.