Homily given by Fr Ian McGinnity at the Funeral Mass for Fr Eric Burton at Christ the King Parish, North Rocks, Tuesday 18 September 2018.
Funeral homily for Reverend Father Eric Edward Burton, 24 October 1925 – 5 September 2018, aged 92.
Son of John and Mary Burton. Brother of John and Reverend Father Kevin Burton and brother-in-law of Marie (all deceased). Loved uncle of John, Neil, Robert and Mark and their families.
Ordained to the priesthood on 22 July 1950 and appointed assistant priest at the parishes of Fairfield, Rockdale, Earlwood, Dee Why, Woolloomooloo and Balgowlah. In 1970, Father Burton was appointed founding parish priest of his much beloved North Rocks, where he remained until his retirement in 2014.
The Gospel we have just heard extols the virtues of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, who knows his own and whose own know him. The Good Shepherd, personified in Jesus, is contrasted to the hired hand who does not care for his sheep and runs away when the going gets tough. The image of the Good Shepherd is fitting also for the life and ministry of Father Eric Edward Burton.
I have known Eric since at least 1977, when my parents moved into the parish, just after I entered the seminary at Springwood. When seminary holidays came around, he offered hospitality to me as a seminarian and had already visited my parents and siblings at home. Many of you here have known him for a lot longer. He established the Parish of Christ the King, North Rocks in 1970, Eric and his close friend and contemporary David Scott, both set about establishing new communities in the Hills area, David at Winston Hills.
They did many things in parallel to one another. Establishing schools with the Holy Faith sisters from Ireland, building churches, that later became halls and establishing new and permanent places of worship. Typical of the generosity of Eric, he built a new presbytery in 1976, at 1 Statham Avenue and then handed it over to the Holy Faith sisters as a convent as their numbers grew and he returned to the old cottage in number 17 to live, until he built new accommodation in 1980 at number 10.
Eric determinedly set about to meet the sheep of his newly established Parish; spending a lot of his time knocking on doors, visiting people in their homes, Catholic or non-Catholic alike. He knew, as Pope Francis has reminded us, how critical it was for the shepherd to smell the sheep, to know the sheep and for them to know him. In his later years, when I arrived as parish priest at the end of 2013, Eric was better than the proverbial computer in knowing something about the stories of the hundreds of parishioners, current and past, from this parish. Eric had accompanied these people through the good and the bad times.
He had baptised many and had lived long enough to baptise their children. He had witnessed them process through primary and secondary school. He had officiated at many weddings of parishioners and he had importantly journeyed with individuals and families in their tough times: when people got sick, when relationships broke down, he had represented Jesus’ and the Church’s forgiveness when people felt unworthy, cared for those dying and when loved ones died, supported the bereaved. Eric’s greatest ministry was his sacrament of presence. He was the golden thread connecting people to God and the love of Jesus.
Eric was indeed the Good Shepherd who selflessly laid down his life and his own interests for the sheep of this pasture. Eric also knew his weaknesses. He would not wish to be idealised, whilst he was a good shepherd, he was not a perfect one. He could be stubborn and single-minded and his sparring partner Sister Catherine, founding principal of the school, would let him know so at times. Whilst he may not have had the eloquence of a Dominican preacher or the communication expertise of his brother, Kevin; (and at times we could be exasperated by his delivery, because by nature he was a shy and retiring man), his preaching was done through the goodness and humility of his life.
The words of Ecclesiasticus in our first reading are appropriate: “When you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing. Set your heart right and be steadfast… Accept whatever befalls you, and in times of humiliation be patient. For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable, in the furnace of humiliation… put your trust in him.
Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him.” Eric always put his trust in God and in God’s mercy especially in the testing times of which I know he had a few. Particularly with the loss of his older brother John and his wife Marie, as well as the death of his brother Kevin in 2009, who had been ordained with him, and the illness and death of Dave Scott his close friend and golf companion.
Eric was one of the first priests to implement The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in our diocese. As he himself said “one of the big challenges in today’s church is to inspire laity to become involved in the life of the parish and to assist the priest in his ministry and especially in the new evangelisation.” In earlier days, his ministry, prior to arriving at North Rocks, included working with many young people who continued to be lifelong friends of him into old age.
He had served at Earlwood, Dee Why, Woolloomooloo (living at St Mary’s Cathedral for some time with Cardinal Gilroy and others on the staff) and Balgowlah prior to his appointment at North Rocks. In all these appointments he fulfilled his duties with dedication and commitment.
Father Eric loved his sport, particularly Rugby league and especially golf, his hobby and recreation from the earliest days of his priesthood. He played regularly at St Michael’s golf course on his day off and loved nothing better than to go off with his companions on holidays to Tugun and play golf daily. Even as he was becoming frailer, he still had a passion for playing a few rounds of golf as parishioners here can attest to.
He loved to read, particularly biographies and history, to listen to music and had a great interest in aviation. He was delighted when his computer was set up with Microsoft flight simulator, so he could mimic, with a joystick, flying a variety of aircraft.
Eric loved his family and took a great interest in the lives of his 4 nephews and their families. He formally retired as pastor in 2011 but remained in North Rocks ministering until August 2015 when ill health forced him to move into Rosary Village, Yennora. He was very appreciative of the care given to him by the staff there, by the health and well-being team of the Parramatta diocese, Bev and subsequently Mark, Ellen and Virginia, his family and the multitude of parishioners who kept ongoing contact with him.
The words of Paul to Timothy could well be Eric’s: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
In terms of physical presence Eric is gone. In terms of his spiritual influence, he is still with us and will be to the end of time. May his witness inspire us here to continue on so that his legacy will not be lost, but live on in the lives of his family, his parishioners, all people of goodwill, into the future.
For Father Eric the most important thing was that our lives reflected Jesus living amongst us, risen from the dead, the hope of our world. May he be reunited with his parents, John and Mary, his brothers John and Kevin, his sister-in-law Marie, his ordination classmates of 1950 (Father Eric was the last survivor) and those who he has ministered to who have gone before him, in the life of the world to come.