On Sunday, I got up early and gathered the family. We jumped in the car and drove up the M1 to Birmingham to Maryvale for a special day celebrating the life of Canon John Redford. He has developed Pancreatic cancer and is increasingly unwell. It was wonderful to have a day like this, perhaps before he withdraws completely from public life.
Maryvale is an International Catholic Distance-Learning College for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education. It has been erected by the Holy See as an Ecclesiastical institute so that it can also offer degrees of the Holy See, at undergraduate and postgraduate level.
I studied theology at Maryvale for five years, graduating in 2011 with a level 2:1 BA (Hons) in Divinity (73%). I had lots of questions about my faith and found a lot of the more controversial aspects challenging and difficult to accept. I think like many people, I had slipped into a position where, never having heard the reasons for the Church's teaching on IVF, contraception, social welfare, the right to work, abortion, etc. I considered that some of the teaching was outdated. In an effort to discover if there was any basis in reason for these positions, I had stumbled across a book called Catholicism-Hard Questions by Canon John Redford. This book was exactly what I was after. Intellectual engagement with some of the difficult questions I had been struggling with. I started reading all kinds of books, hungry for more. Some that I found really useful included Crossing the Threshold of Hope by Pope John Paul II and a couple of books by Pope Benedict XVI; Truth and Tolerance and Introduction to Christianity which, far from an introduction, felt like a Masters course from the intellectual position I was in at the time!
Through my reading, a friend, now Father Dominic O'Toole CSsR, kept suggesting that I study and eventually, more than five years after he began prompting, and largely due to his example in priestly formation, I relented and asked him for more details. He suggested Maryvale and I called to ask if I could have a prospectus on which courses were available. Without much process, the lady who answered the phone told me I wanted the BA Div course and sent me an application form. As I only had 1 A Level (in addition to some BTECH stuff) I had to write an essay, which I was very nervous about. I received a response from Canon John Redford himself, who was the course director, who said I was just the sort of chap they were looking for and I should come up to Birmingham for the first residential that weekend!
Chapel of the Sacred Heart was inaugurated.
In 1846 after the removal of the college to the larger purpose-built premises three miles away, John Henry Newman and his community who had recently been received into the Church were granted the former seminary as a house of retreat and study. You can read some of the history here.
The accommodation has been vastly improved since I started and is positively luxurious by comparison. Still I felt very alone and afraid on that first residential, unsure of myself, whether I could meet the academic standards required to study theology at degree level, and whether I could make any friends from the eclectic mix of prospective students present.
In the midst of all this was Fr. John who welcomed me as soon as I entered the institute. He was at least as tall as me (so very tall) had a familiar London accent and a personable manner. I immediately felt I had made a friend.
Fr. John was very confident, he knew exactly what was going on and conducted the proceedings with a natural confidence which I have become very familiar with in the years since. He is the man who kept me coming back to Maryvale because I knew I would have him to welcome me, to advise me and to support me.
I came to know him very well and I feel he has been a true spiritual father to me. I know that might sound crazy, but he has this way about him, ever proper, never inappropriate, never condescending, always concerned. He is a raconteur of epic proportions and the teller of some of the best Catholic stories I have heard, the sort of person you could listen to all night, as he tells you of his adventures, people he has met and places he has been. His experience is vast, and he can pontificate on a broad range of subjects without the need for any sort of reference or consultation. He has the sort of mind that is able to recognise the key issues-the things every day people will find concerning—and the kind of mind that wants to engage with those issues and make them accessible to everyone; he is driven by a need to demonstrate why Humane Vitae is reasonable, prophetic even. He understands and can communicate the Church's teaching on abortion, or contraception, on education, papal infallibility, Tradition and Scripture. He is a Biblical scholar of enormous importance I think, although this may not be fully understood and recognised for several years. His major contribution to the debate regarding the historicity of the Gospels is played out in three major works, Bad, Mad or God, Born of a Virgin and Who Was John?
When I approached my studies, one of my main aims was to resolve my utter confusion about Scripture. I was undoubtedly a Marcionite and could not understand any sort of link between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the new. In fact I would go as far as to say that any association with the God of the Old Testament left me cold— violence, magic, prophecy, warfare. My faith was about love, beatitude, doing unto others...etc., etc. My questions were deeper than this though. To what extent can we trust the Scriptures? Surely they've been translated so many times they bear little relation to their original form (as indeed Islam asserts). Even so, weren't they written hundreds of years after Jesus' life by people who didn't even know Him?
Studying Scripture with Fr. John was one of the most comprehensive changes of understanding I have experienced in my life. Of course, we didn't just have Fr. John. We also had the man who was my tutor and now a dear friend, Fr. Robert Lettelier. The Pauline scholar Fr. Michael Cullinan, whose understanding of Pauline ethics led me to a whole new intellectual vista. Fr. Peter Edmonds on Paul and Acts, Bishop David McGough on the Trinity in Scripture and Mgr Paul Watson on the Synoptics. As well as this of course, Scripture ran through all of our studies, Christology, Ecclesiology, Moral Theology, Mariology, are all inseparable from the Scriptural base which informs & directs them. The depth and beauty of this nexus is really quite staggering in its infallibility, its consistency and its profundity.
|Fr. John & I after a lecture in the Dwyer Room at Maryvale, June 2010|
Fr. John's 'division' was what I would now refer to as 'dry bones'. What do we know and how do we know it. External sources and commentary. Pure history. Challenges and counter challenges. Fr. John broke it all down, utterly deconstructing the argument for the Sacred nature of Scripture and separating the historical Jesus from the Jesus of the Bible using the arguments of Reinarus, Straus, Bauer, Spinoza, Holtzmann, Wrede, Schweitzer, and Bultmann. And then he blew them away, utterly destroying their theories systematically with clear, evidence based assertions. I remember coming to a point where I almost felt like pleading for mercy, so utterly was I convinced, I felt embarrassed that I was ever in a position to think the way I had done, so ignorant was I of the depth and weight of the Bible. My own hubris and arrogance was laid bare and it was a watershed moment for me which vanquished my doubt utterly and left me in awe of the texts I had taken for granted for so long.
Now I was able to put aside my search for facts, history and proof, that thirst having been utterly slaked. I was free to concentrate on the spiritual depth of what was being revealed in the Scriptures. You can share on this journey to some extent by enjoying Fr. John's legacy. Bad, Mad or God sets out his case for the divinity of Christ by means of a cogent and coherent confrontation of the reality of the historicity of the Gospels, particularly the most tricky, i.e. John. (If you know Fr. John, you will know that this would not be an appropriate tribute to him if I did not plug his books!).
Fr. John went on to head up a new project as director of the MA in Apologetics, a very important new course which was his brain child and speaks to an enormous need currently in the Church in this country. Despite his no longer being my Course Director, he would always ask me up to his flat at Maryvale whenever I was there, have a cup of coffee with me and a long chat about how things were going after Ruth's death. All the staff were very supportive, but especially Fr. John and Fr. Michael. In fact I don't think I would have finished my degree if it wasn't for Fr. Michael's empathy, faith and firm yet gentle encouragement.
It has been a great honour and joy to know Fr. John. Even now, at the end of his life, he serves as a true inspiration, who can truly feel comfort in the nunc dimittis:
At last, all-powerful Master, you give leave to your servant to go in peace, according to your promise. For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared for all nations, the light to enlighten the Gentiles and give glory to Israel, your people.Of course, such a life touches many, many people. I said this to him on Sunday, that he could have no idea how much difference he had made to so many people. His labour in the vineyard has indeed brought forth fruit of great vintage. If you know Fr. John, or have been touched by him or his writing in some way, please do leave a comment.
I thought this blog post described well the calibre of the man.