catholicism

Walking with the saints: an interview with the Revd Richard Coles

fathomlessIn his riveting autobiography Fathomless Riches (review here), pop star turned Catholic convert turned Anglican priest Richard Coles happens to mention, briefly and in the midst of it all, the fact that he once attended a vocations weekend with the Jesuits at Campion House, Osterley Park. Naturally, I couldn’t let this pass unexamined. I wrote off to Fr Richard with a plea to hear more of the story, and he kindly set aside time to meet with me in London and tell me all about it.

Perhaps you could start by telling me more about that vocations weekend at Osterley Park?

Like most people of my temperament and background, if you’re floating around the Roman Catholic Church, I think that sooner or later the call of the Jesuits will sound. Quite a lot of the stuff I read, I found I was reading Jesuits. And there’s a particular affinity between certain kinds of Anglicans and Jesuits, so I kept meeting Jesuits who were floating around in Anglican circles, in a way which is rather atypical. You didn’t meet that so much with the secular church and didn’t so much with the religious orders. Also, because I was at King’s College London, and there was an overlap in academic fields. There were people like Frederick Copleston at Farm Street; people working around there.

And also, part of the reason, when I converted to Roman Catholicism, was that I was very much bedazzled by the glamorous qualities of the English literature of the nineteen-thirties and forties and fifties. You think of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and Ronald Knox and people like that, and I thought…oh, I get that. I love the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. And there’s a sort of toughness, and a rigour, and a commitment—and a track record—about the Jesuits that I continue to find very attractive. I thought the commitment particularly to the gospel for the poor in Latin America was very powerful.

And they were always slightly surprising, and counterintuitive, so that was good. And they do good things. I remember going to Castel Gandolfo and seeing the socking great observatory there, which is a Jesuit thing. So from this point of view I was fascinated. And I met some Jesuits, who were very nice; and so I went to Osterley Park to see if that might be for me. I can remember staying and talking to a very nice Jesuit in his house which was flown over by a 747 about every fifteen seconds from five in the morning until midnight, and they seemed, rather amazingly, completely inured to the sound of these aircraft that were going across about twenty feet over our heads.

Discipline!

Discipline. But I found it rather distracting. They had a lovely wisteria, and I liked the wisteria—that was good. But I got into the nitty-gritty of talking about my vocation and who I was, and I began to see that it was not for me. I think I was rather romantic and dazzled in those days, and thought that Roman Catholicism was rather glamorous and you realise that, while it is indeed all those things, that ain’t enough to keep you…That ain’t enough to keep you. It was a wake-up, actually. A beautiful wake-up. And I did not become a Jesuit. I’d have been terrible at it—an awful Jesuit.

And was this the beginning of the end for your Catholicism, in a way? Was it on that path?

I think it helped something to come into focus. I don’t think I’ve ever reached the end of my Catholicism.

Your Roman Catholicism, I should say.

Well, I’m not sure I’ve reached the end of that! Well, no, I have to now—I suppose I’ve made too emphatic a departure to ever come back. But, you know, I think that where I am most at home is with the Benedictine monks. I was at Quarr Abbey a few weeks ago, making a documentary about chant [listen to it here], and when I was there I thought that if God would be more biddable to my sense of my own needs and delights and comforts, I’d be a Benedictine. That’s more of the vocation—well, not the vocation, but community and form of life that suits me best, I think. I’d be a terrible liberation theologian. I’d have been too tired. Also, I wouldn’t be brave, so if the army came round with guns I’d have said: “Oh, I repudiate everything. Whatever you want me to say, I’ll say, so long as I stay alive!”

It’s a very Jesuit thing, isn’t it, that commitment unto death—and on the margins.

Yes. I’m not a hero. I don’t do heroics.

Are you still in touch with the Jesuits?

Oh, yes. I’ve been reading Francis, yes. He’s rather fascinating, I think. Not just delightful—and I think he’s wonderful—but fascinating. It’s very odd how un-Jesuit he is in the world’s eyes. You start off as a Jesuit and you become The Pope, and it’s like being a monarch—well, he is being a monarch, isn’t he? So I think what’s lost is the CV. It seems to me that with John Paul II you had more sense of his CV, of his being Polish, and coming from a place and a time; while you get the sense with Pope Francis that his Latin Americanness and his Jesuitness, in particular, is a bit more obscure.

I wonder if that reflects a bit on popular misconceptions about the Jesuits—and the Latin Americans.

The wily Jesuit.

The wily cunning Jesuit. Which he is, a little bit—he’s canny.

He’s canny. You don’t get to be Pope without being a bit canny, I think. And I love the sort of…there’s a little simplicity about him, which is slightly—well, calculated sounds wrong. I don’t mean it’s fake at all, but I mean that yes, he thinks it through, and I think he’s conscious that he sends a message.

It’s meant.

Yes, exactly, it’s meant. He reminds me of that President of Uruguay—José Mujica—whom I adore. I think that he’s really embracing the world and making that connection, rather than retreating into the fortress. I mean, he’s the Pope, and Popes have certain jobs to do. It would be foolish to imagine that he’d be the good cop, and Benedict XVI would be the bad cop, and I wouldn’t fall for that for a second. But it’s a change of mood, a change of atmosphere, which feels like an aggiornamento.

How did you feel when Francis was elected?

Well, the first thing I thought was: “Who the hell is he?”. The second thing I thought was: “He looks like Ted Berry”. And then the third thing I thought was “Oh, the Holy Spirit might be surprising us”. I thought he was fascinating. Lots of friends of mine who are much more conservative than I am were rather expecting it to be business as usual, if you see what I mean: a papacy that would be continuously a conservative entity like that of Benedict XVI, and when he said “Francis” they all assumed it meant Francis Xavier. I remember that realisation spreading on Facebook: no, it’s Francis of Assisi, not Francis Xavier. That was just so fascinating, to have made such an interesting choice of name and tradition. And then they said that he was a Jesuit, and I thought: “Ooh, Jesuit pope, that’s a new one!”

Well, it was supposed to be an impossibility, or that was the received wisdom.

You can be Patriarch of Venice, can’t you, but that’s as high as you get. So he’s surprised people; and he seems to be making a serious effort at engaging with the more problematic aspects of the papacy of Benedict XVI, although I’m fascinated by Benedict XVI, too, and find him endlessly captivating.

Do you have a favourite Jesuit saint?

I’d have to say my favourite Jesuit would be Gerard Manley Hopkins. Well, I say he’s not a saint—not formally. I think it may be a while! I don’t think he was a happy Jesuit—I think he was rather a wretchedly miserable Jesuit. That’s a bit unfair, perhaps, but I don’t think he was ever someone who was easily going to be absorbed into a culture like that. One of the stories—quite a heartbreaking story, actually—is of him in community, being rather ignored or overlooked because they all thought he was a bit thick, because he used to just stand sometimes stock still, staring at a wasp or a blade of grass. He did have this intense focus.

Also, I have a parish connection, because Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great unfulfilled passion—I think it was unfulfilled—was with the extraordinarily vivid character Digby Dolben. He was the son of the Lord of the Manor of Finedon, and he’s buried in my church. He was an extraordinary figure and rather eccentric. He started wearing a habit and calling himself Brother Dominic and wandering around in that, which in the Victorian Middle English circles that he lived in was quite surprising. And then, I think when he was at Eton, he disliked having his hair cut and used to singe the ends off with a candle. What’s that about? And then he wrote a rather arch and very passionate series of poems, which are quite wonderful, actually—as juvenilia, I guess—and inspired the passion of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who adored him. And then he drowned at the age of nineteen. He was swimming in the river Welland with the son of his tutor, and the boy got into trouble, and he went in after him and just drowned. Prefigured in one of his poems in which he writes about drowning in a river—an extraordinarily prophetic thing. Anyway, that’s the end of Digby Dolben, as a teenager. A tragic loss.

And he’s buried at your parish church.

He’s buried in my churchyard, yes. And also, I have a connection with Gerard Manley Hopkins because my point of entry to the church as an adult was St Alban’s, Holborn, where Hopkins used to worship before he converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Jesuit. I don’t know, it’s not an entirely rational thing, but we can feel that we walk with the saints.