Brendan McKernan is president of the Armagh and Craigavon area of the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
Q. Tell me about your background.
A. I am 39 and I was raised in Keady, where I still live and where people are kind and caring. My dad, Brendan, died in 2011, at 57. He was a wonderful father. I am the eldest of seven children and my mum, Veronica, works in retail. In true motherly fashion, she is always there for all the family. I was fortunate to have grandparents living practically next door. My grandfather, Victor, was a keen gardener, musician and storyteller and I have very fond memories of him. Both grandmothers were bakers and I enjoy trying to replicate their recipes — unfortunately, with limited success. Recently, I became the proud uncle of Alyssa and Lorcan and this blessing allows me to relive my childhood.
Q. What about your education and early career?
A. I was educated at St Mary’s Primary and High schools in Keady. I was not the most academic, but I made my way through to an acceptable level thanks to the teachers I was blessed with having, one of whom I am glad to count as a friend. I have worked in retail, as a classroom assistant, then a short stint in fundraising and now in administration.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis, or a gnawing doubt, about your faith?
A. No. While I may have drifted away from God at times, He always calls me back and I am grateful for His love.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God?
A. I had a brief time, perhaps an hour after my grandmother, Mary, died, when I felt let down by God. She had cancer and was given months to live. I had a school trip to Knock shrine in Mayo and she insisted that I go on the pilgrimage. I told her I would ask God to heal her, but she replied, “Never pray that God will heal someone, just that He will do the best He can for them.” I did as my grandmother asked, came home and told her about Knock.
She died peacefully a few days later. I was devastated and, for a short time, I felt that God had let me down, until I heard the words of my granny, reminding me that I asked God to do the best for her, but what was best was not what I wanted. I am always reminded of that. My other granny, Teresa, lived happily until she was 102.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church, or denomination?
A. I am very proud to be Catholic and I always think of the priests and religious sisters and brothers who care for the millions of people throughout the world, especially those who have and continue to risk their lives helping the poorest and deprived people, who so many people have forgotten about.
Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?
A. I will be saddened to leave the family whom I love. However, I know I will be going on my journey back to my dad and grandparents.
Q. Are you afraid of hell?
A. No. I think of the beautiful Psalm 23, which I read just after my dad passed away. It reminds me, “If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear.” At my death, the Lord will be with me. He has never let me down in life and I know He will not in death.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection?
A. Totally. We will all be with our loved ones with no worries, no sickness, no illness, just happiness — like the family trips we took to the beautiful beaches in my childhood. I sometimes wonder, when I look at the ocean, or the forests, if God is giving us a taste of Heaven.
Q. Are the Churches fulfilling their mission?
A. We can get confused at times and forget that we, as individuals, are the Church. We try to do what is right and we have many great leaders, but the world changes rapidly and it is difficult to always make the changes at the right time.
Q. Why are so many turning their backs on organised religion?
A. I don’t believe they are; people are turning away from a lot of things, because they don’t feel they can make the time. Once, we all knew our neighbours. Many of us now don’t, because we are too busy to say “Hello”. People are too busy for lots of things, but I still believe faith is there just waiting to be restored.
Q. Has religion helped, or hindered, the people of Northern Ireland?
A. Helped. All Church leaders have consistently promoted peace through their preaching and asking people to live out the Gospel message of love and kindness. Those who have hindered are the people who decided to use violence as a means to get what they wanted. It’s sad to think that so many families did not grow up with parents because someone decided their opinion was wrong.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music?
A. Film: It’s a Wonderful Life. Book: Agatha Christie. Music: Irish country music and The Drifters.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. With St Vincent de Paul, I am privileged to meet many people in need and many other SVP members. In this work, I feel that I am building up my friendship with God, whether I am supporting a family in crisis, or chatting to another person. We are all made in God’s image.
Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
A. My friends know I like to talk, so they will understand why I could never have an inscription on my grave. It would simply be too long.
Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?
A. None. I don’t believe there is any benefit looking to the past. It only holds us back from enjoying the present.