A Tribute to Ft John Edwards SJ, 1929-2012
William Massie FAITH MAGAZINE March-April 2013
Fr William Massie, parish priest in Scarborough, pays tribute to a great Jesuit.
John Edwards was a gunnery officer on a naval frigate during the Korean War when thoughts of the priesthood first began to form in his mind. They followed a deeper conversion of life brought about when he learned from a pamphlet picked up randomly from the back of a church about the extraordinary miracle of the sun witnessed by several thousands during the Fatima apparitions of 1917. "If this is true then God is real..." Fr James Hanvey SJ preaching at Fr Edwards' requiem Mass in December told how, speaking recently about his vocation, Fr Edwards had reflected thus:
"Now, it occurred to me that this was a just war and we were fighting it well, but [what] would [make] more sense, rather than trying to blow people up, [would be] to try and make them better: to be a doctor or a nurse; rather than inflict a blockade, [it would] be better to grow food for them and, because I was a practising Catholic - although not a good one - I realised that the centre of the whole thing is sin actually. If you want to get to the fulcrum point and do something about that, you start with yourself. I thought of being a monk, but then I thought the idea of forgiving sin, just once, just one venial sin, was so tremendous, that it would be worth anything trying for the priesthood."
Fr Hanvey commented: "Though the manner in which he expresses himself is fairlystraightforward, there is nothing naive or simplistic about John's reasoning or his insight. It is his response in faith to the evil in the world. It is a direct and personal response to a direct and personal experience and I believe it was with him throughout his life. He understood then that the answer to the deep evil in the world and the suffering that we inflict on each other cannot, in the end, be some clever argument. It must be God himself and His Church and the capacity which only God has to bring 'a greater good' - as John expressed it in his writing - out of situations which seem completely lost. ... It was to that co-operation with God's work that he gave himself with all the supernatural resources of the priesthood, the sacraments and the spiritual exercises of Ignatius."
That "co-operation with God's work" touched many lives and transformed them. If the ministry of a priest is "tremendous" were he only ever to absolve one sin, then the ministry of Fr John Edwards was rich indeed.
John Edwards was educated at Ampleforth and then entered the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, at 13. He went to sea in 1947 but left the Navy in 1953 to seek his vocation with the Society of Jesus. He was ordained a priest in 1964 and continued his studies in Rome. Already as a young priest he was acquiring the skill of explaining the faith in ways fresh and convincing yet true to tradition. In a letter to the Jesuit community in Farm Street read out at his requiem, Archbishop Nichols recalled Fr Edwards giving a day of recollection to English College seminarians in the late Sixties. He recommended a method of prayer, centred on the gospels, which owed much to eastern methods of mystical contemplation - the rosary.
Fr Edwards worked as a parish priest in north London for some years but entered into his stride when he began preaching missions - in parishes and schools - up and down the country. He also conducted retreats for many religious congregations and groups of clergy and lay people. In a preface to one of his books, a former bishop of Paisley, Stephen McGill, recalled a retreat given by him to clergy years before, in the strength of which he felt certain he had been stepping out briskly on the paths of the Lord.
Retreats and Missions
So what was so special about Fr Edwards' missions and retreats? First, no one ever complained that what he said went over their heads. Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto, later Pope St Pius X, warned against sermons "preached from the lofty heights of the pulpit" that were "nearer to the organ pipes than to the hearts of the faithful". He advised priests: "Preach to the people with simplicity and piety; give them the truths of the faith and the precepts of the Church; tell them the meaning of virtue and the danger of vice." And this was the style and content of Fr Edwards. On one evening of a typical mission he would speak of the "geography of the afterlife" and encourage people to pray for their beloved dead. He explained indulgences as the "healing of the mutilations left by our sins though theyhave been forgiven". Then he would invite people to come forward with names of their deceased loved ones on scraps of paper to lay before the monstrance on the altar. That showed true pastoral care. The truth that not only can we still have contact with those we have loved who have died but we can also help them is immensely consoling to the bereaved. At another time he would retell the story of the woman recorded in Luke's gospel, chapter 7, who bravely forced her way through to Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee to weep for her sins at Jesus' feet, wipe his feet with her hair and be told that her sins, her many sins, had been forgiven. Fr Edwards would comment: "We might think, 'Lucky girl... to go to Jesus and be told that.' No, not really. We can do the same when we go to Jesusand get our hands round his body, the Church, in the Sacrament of Penance." With such beautiful and faith-filled ways of getting close to the Jesus of the gospels and finding there the Jesus of faith, of the Church as we live in her today, those who heard him were struck to the heart. Fr Edwards would hear confessions during the Sunday Masses of a parish mission (a practice some priests frowned upon until John Paul II gave explicit recognition of its legitimacy and value in his 2002 Instruction Misericordia Dei) and it would touch the hearts of priests to see their parishioners making their way to the confessional - some of them, one suspected, for the first time in years.
Faithful to the Truth
Fr Edwards would often give repeat missions in parishes and re-visit priests once they had been moved on. As a result one often knew what he was about to say before he said it. But then he taught many a young, inexperienced priest how to speak about matters which otherwise are rarely spoken about in the contemporary Church, or at least not in ways that are pastoral and convincing and true! So to make sense of "the Church's teaching -God's teaching actually" about sex and loving he would imagine listening to two experts, to two young lovers who have just had sex for the first time, who were two real lovers, who want the best for each other. For the girl it would go something like this:
"For this to be true and complete, I must know that you understand what it means to me. Because of what we have just done, I am now a different person. Not just in my body... but in my very self. It is not just my body which I gave you and which has been changed, it is my very self. It is I, totally, who have been 'possessed' by you. And I see now why they use that word: I can never be the same again now. And I want you to know that I am very, very glad. Glad to be possessed by you; glad to have given myself to you; very, very glad that it is you who have changed me."
Unfortunately Fr Edward's book Ways of Loving is out of print, but I can assure the reader that all the ends of marriage were very adequately discussed and that his conclusion - "outside of marriage: no deliberate, willed,intended experience of sexual pleasure at all" - was clear and coherent. Even the Lord's prohibition of lust was made attractive as "an enormous compliment to women". And his final remark won general if painful acceptance: "Tell me the Church's teaching on sex and loving is hard and I'll agree with you; tell me it's not beautiful and I'll tell you you're a liar!" When the history of the Church in our times is written, the question will be asked why, after the summer of 1968 when Humanae Vitae was published, restating the truths on the need for sex to be open to life and within marriage, men like Fr John Edwards were not asked to travel the length and breadth of our land, to publish in our Catholic papers, to speak to our diocesan catechists and teachers.
Son of Ignatius
Some of those who first encountered Fr Edwards at a parish mission then had the privilege of being guided by him through the Ignatian Exercises. The Jesuits are surely on home territory when preaching the Exercises and Fr Edwards was skilful and deeply inspiring. His conferences were never dull. Just as Admiral Lord Nelson urged his fleet to get alongside the enemy and engage, the retreatant was told to get alongside Jesus Christ and ask for intimate, internal knowledge and union. Those familiar with the Exercises will know the form: daily meditations on the entire history of salvation - from the creation of the angels, and their fall, to the creation of the universe and man, and our fall, to the arrival of Christ the Great King. "Crack, crash... watch out, here comes our Lord.Terrifying? No - he comes... as a baby". Once again, Fr Edwards' skill, born surely of his own prayerful meditation on Christ's life and work, was to explain the mystery of Christ with convincing insight and beauty. Here too was practical advice. More on ways of praying: the acronym for remembering the stages of lectio divina was odd but strangely memorable: Royal Marines are Politically Correct - Read, Meditate, Pray, Contemplate. There was more on how our sufferings, even when brought about through our own sins, can be a call on God for grace. For as the Church prays, the sufferings we endure, if taken to Christ in the Sacrament designed for forgiveness, can bring us "increase of grace and the reward of eternal life", or, quoting from St Vincent de Paul, "the throne of God's mercy isset on my wretchedness". Here was immense encouragement to virtue alongside warnings against vice. "Does the Lord admit us into his presence with caution as a 'remedial apprenticeship'? Not a bit of it. He bounds towards us and says, 'Follow me!' Imagine his choice of Levi, a man hot in his sins - a traitor, an apostate." And to those who have been disciples and have let their Lord down time and again there were presented the scenes of Jesus after his resurrection. "St Ignatius says the Lord always comes as Consoler. The disciples fleeing Jerusalem for Emmaus deserved to have their shoes blown off them... Jesus rewards them with the Mass. Thomas doubted for eight days - he publicly denied a truth of the faith taught by the Magisterium [of Peter!]. The Lord says 'Peace be with you' and thepunishment was the invitation, 'Touch me - more closely than anyone except my mother and the soldiers.'"
Several of those who took part in the most recent retreats were discerning their vocations with an eye to priesthood. The priesthood was not stressed, but the discernment of spirits was offered and explained in a way simple and enlightening. If we're "blundering towards God" we're led by consolations: "joy, peace, high spiritual morale, hope in high things". If we're pulled out of this direction the result is "desolation and low spiritual morale, darkness, doubt, depression, scrupulosity". If we're "blundering away from God", willingly or unwillingly, "the devil incites us - sweet and plausible reasons given. The voice of the good Spirit can then be sharp! The spirit of darkness can disguise himself as an angel of light but he will give himself away by a cloven hoof - excitement andcompulsion rather than peace and tranquillity". If uncertain as to a course of action, "experiment if you can and see if God 'rewards it'. But never change a previous good decision in a time of desolation."
Oh, and advice for priests labouring in the vineyard, apparently with little success: "If our work should be marked by self-emptying and humiliation, that's 'promotion'. Then we're really identifying with our Master, whose life was marked by the crib, poverty and crucifixion."
Perhaps Fr Edwards was saying in his missions and retreats little that had not been said by countless good Jesuits over the years. But, thanks be to God and the Society of Jesus, he was saying these things. He once remarked that he had only ever had a few things to say but was discovering that he was now "fashionable" again, and to an ever younger audience. His audience from Youth 2000, from the Faith movement, in parishes in England, Ireland and Scotland, his loyal group of those who attended Mass in the Extraordinary Form at Farm Street, were happy to fill his days with meetings and gatherings and a considerable correspondence. May this loyal son of the Church, son of St Ignatius, son of God, rest in peace.