Fr. O’Brien to Return to Ireland in Retirement

On the floor of his office, there are dozens of books that made the cut for a trip "across the pond" to Ireland at the end of June. Father Cornelius O'Brien, retiring pastor of St. James Church in Falls Church, points at his books with affection and explains with his soft Irish brogue that these are his research material for the book he hopes to write.
With a touch of sadness in his voice, he explains that he is leaving the majority of his "library" at the parish to remain open for all the priests of the diocese. There is only one condition to borrow those books.
"They have to read what they take," he said.
Father O'Brien was born Jan. 16, 1932, in Ireland. He attended St. Patrick Seminary in Carlow, Ireland, and was ordained by Bishop Thomas Keogh on June 5, 1955. He moved to America and started serving in the Diocese of Alexandria, La., before he moved to the Arlington Diocese in 1976.
After 51 years as a priest, Father O'Brien is now retiring and returning to the land of his birth. The way he sees it, he is switching from the active ministry of pastor to the active ministry of writing.
For more than 50 years, including doctoral work at the Catholic University of America, Father O'Brien has studied the Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas. During his retirement, he hopes to write a book about the philosophy of the human person, based on St. Thomas.
Father O'Brien is a teacher and a preacher.
"Our Lord said … the truth will set you free," said Father O'Brien. "That is why I teach. I teach Christ who is the truth."
He has taught metaphysics and history of philosophy at universities, given retreats for priests and nuns, taught for the diaconate program, and also lectured within the diocese. He was involved with the birth of Christendom College in Front Royal, where he served as chaplain for 25 years.
Father O'Brien is known for the seminar programs he has offered on many topics - the Summa, the cardinal virtues, the human person, the Shroud of Turin and, his favorite, the philosophy of St. Thomas.
"Anything that is the truth deserves to be taught," he said. This is true of his homilies as well. If the people in the pews can understand the truth of the faith, they will live fuller lives, he said.
From the pulpit he has discussed issues such as the sanctity of life from conception until natural death and the beauty of temperance, especially in regards to sexuality. He is not afraid of pulling out the fire and brimstone homily when necessary. Father O'Brien preaches this way because he does not want to explain his failures to Christ when he meets Him face to face.
Before being incardinated into this diocese, he served in Louisiana. In 1976, former Arlington Bishop Thomas J. Welsh asked Father O'Brien to become part of the newly formed Arlington Diocese, and he agreed.
He was assigned as parochial vicar at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More from 1975-79, and at St Agnes Parish from 1980-83, both in Arlington. He served as assistant at St. Lawrence Parish in Alexandria, 1980-83, and was pastor at St. Timothy Parish in Chantilly, 1983-99. He became pastor of St. James in 1999.
According to Servant of the Immaculate Heart Sister Teresa Ballisty, principal of St. James School, Father O'Brien is an "advocate of Catholic education."
He always welcomed the classes at daily Mass and added extra Masses for holy days and special school events. He has worked to keep the tuition affordable to families and offered his advice to the administration when needed.
"I hope he's able to enjoy that little piece of heaven in Ireland," Sister Teresa said, adding that she hopes that he is able pull his years of research together for his book.
"He's a very deep thinker," she said. "He has much to share with people."
Father O'Brien is also famous for his priestly fishing trips. A day off with Father O'Brien meant a day near a river or lake with fishing rod in hand. Over the years, many priests in the diocese have spent time fishing with Father O'Brien.
"He taught me how to fly fish and to appreciate Thomas Aquinas," said Father Christopher Mould, pastor at St. Lawrence Church in Alexandria, who served with Father O'Brien at St. Timothy Parish while he was still a seminarian in 1987. He has remained in contact with Father O'Brien since then.
"He has been a great friend and mentor to me, and I wish him well in writing his book," Father Mould said, adding that he will buy a copy when it comes out.
"The diocese will have a loss when he leaves," said Father John De Celles, parochial vicar at St. James, who also served a summer as a seminarian with Father O'Brien at St. Timothy Church. "There are not many like him."
Like something from a poem by W.B. Yeats, he will return to his home in West Cork, Ireland, to a little valley far away from cities and villages. A river flows through it where wily sea trout and salmon await encounter with man and where Father O'Brien can reflect on the mystery of permanence and change.
He will live with his sister and be near the rest of his family. It is the place of his parents and grandparents, and now of the eighth generation of O'Briens.
"It is home in so many ways," he said. He will find peace there.
Father O'Brien asks that people continue to pray for him. He hopes to return to the diocese occasionally to visit his many friends.
Being separated by an ocean does not make a difference to Christians, he said. "We're all one in Christ." Angela E. Pometto can be reached at apometto@catholicherald.com.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2006