Priesthood and Wisdom

By Andrew Nash

In 1967 the good Lord and the Archbishop of Southwark sent Fr. Roger Nesbitt to teach at the John Fisher School. To us boys he was a cricket-playing chemistry master (to whose chemistry teaching I was, alas, utterly immune). He was induced to take some of us on brass-rubbing expeditions to Surrey churches; and when invitations came from the Christian Unions of local non-Catholic schools, he took us along for ecumenical discussions.

The religion Fr. Nesbitt talked began to grow on us. For the first time we heard the case for the Faith put with clarity and in a way that wasn’t ‘old’. Suddenly, it was the Church’s teaching which seemed obvious, and the world’s mess was explained. And with the zeal of the young, almost of the neophyte, we now wanted to go out and do something about it all. Little did we know that behind Fr. Nesbitt there was somebody else, down in Portslade-on-Sea, who had already decided that the time had come to start a new youth movement.
It wasn’t going to be ‘Faith Movement’ at first; it was going to be ‘72’ (after the disciples whom Our Lord sent out to spread the Gospel in Luke chapter 10). This was the title of a typed document by a certain Fr. Edward Holloway which Fr. Nesbitt gave me to read, asking for my comments on it. With the confidence of my seventeen years I wrote a detailed critique, full of criticisms of course. Then we met the great man. There can only have been a handful of us, squeezed into Fr. Nesbitt’s very small room with this big priest. 
A priest in full flow
I can’t remember what he talked about — it was his presence that made the impact. Here was a priest of extraordinary natural authority. Yet he took one seriously and would answer anything you asked him with a more complete answer than you had ever heard before.
It was the first of many times that I sat at the feet of Fr. Holloway. And I began to learn that he had something profound and exciting to offer us: a new synthesis of science and the faith, which the Church and the world urgently needed. I even took the plunge and read his book. The Faith Group was launched, and by the summer of 1973 we held the first ‘Summer Session’, a residential conference for young Catholics.
By now I was getting used to listening to Fr. Holloway in full flow. And what a flow it was — a pouring forth of wisdom, in that breathy, asthmatic voice. When he talked about the sweep of evolution, you were swept along with it. I don’t mean in an emotional way; it was intellectual exhilaration that one felt. For the first time one ‘saw’ a coherent cosmic vision, with Christ as the Heir of the Ages. I had never heard the Scotist view of the Incarnation before. How wonderfully it opened up the unity of creation and revelation. It unfolded for me an intellectual framework which has held good for the rest of my life.
Just as striking was hearing him talk about the moral teaching of the Church. I had certainly never heard any priest who was prepared to address directly the whole question of sex and love. Although I must since have heard and read him on this subject many times, I still have a very vivid memory, as I sat next to him as Chairman, of his talk at Herne Bay, Every word felt as if it was directly addressed to me: how terribly embarrassing ! How could he know my teenage anxieties?
The Summer Sessions became an annual fixture, as did the Faith Retreat for which I and my wife Dora were later to become the organisers for some years. It was on those Retreats, mostly at Aylesford Priory, that one got the full impact of pure Holloway for a whole weekend. They also sometimes occasioned the explosive tellings-off that anyone who worked with Fr. Holloway would get from time to time (aptly summed up by Fr. Nesbitt in his funeral sermon as ‘mostly for one’s own good’). Nobody is going to pretend he was a saint.
Retreats and conferences
Liturgy could be particularly vexing, since Fr. Holloway was no respecter of an M.C. and was likely to give a lecture to the thurifer in mid liturgy. A cleric at his funeral apparently expressed surprise at the lack of Latin; he didn’t know Fr. Holloway — I was always trying to persuade him to let us sing more plainsong which he claimed was ‘dreary’. When he read the Gospel, we would get a customised Holloway translation — he could be very funny on the banalities of the Jerusalem Bible. We were all waiting for the sermon, of course. It would always be long, sometimes very long. He actually said Mass in rather a workman-like way. There wasn’t the slightest hint of the Wogan-style chattiness that is the bane of modern liturgy.
Throughout a whole retreat, with several conferences each day, he spoke extempore, indeed without any notes at all. Famously, he would go off the subject but then check himself with “...but we can’t go into all that now.” Yet his delivery was marvellously listenable-to. As he developed his theme, his style would become almost rhythmic, with a rise and fall in the cadences of his sentences. The effect was (if the comparison is not disrespectful) almost Johannine.
He had thought so long about the words of Our Lord, especially in the Last Supper discourses, that they had become part of his language. I suspect that patristic writings, especially Augustine, had also influenced his style. I think too that he was a natural poet. He had a knack for coining a key word, such as God being the ‘Environer’ of Man. Yet he could also be wonderfully colloquial: ideas would be illustrated with stories from his own experience. For instance, I remember how in a talk on the Redemption he gave the moving example of a mother whose son had abandoned his wife taking her son’s guilt on herself as she apologised with tears to her distraught daughter-in-law: “I’m so sorry.” At that moment, I understood how Jesus who is of our stock says sorry to God for us.
But perhaps it’s the humour one remembers most. He would do the voices of characters wonderfully, sometimes giving whole dialogues. There was the loveable dimwit, “Yes, Farver. No, Farver. Dunno, Farver.”; there was the gin-and-jag belt patronising parishioner, “I’m afraid I haven’t got time for Marss, Father”; and there was an excellent imitation of the late Archbishop Cowderoy telling him “You’re a modernist, Father.” He was a superb mimic.
An outpouring of wisdom
It was that pouring out of wisdom that was so striking. He had an extraordinarily synthetic mind: everything would be drawn together into that unified, coherent vision. Scripture and the Fathers, always quoted from memory, would be drawn in, creating a wonderful richness. He would often quote from the Confessions, paraphrasing, sometimes somewhat earthily, in a way that made it completely contemporary. Texts and sayings stick in one’s memory, such as Augustine’s comment on the effect of being in coarse or worldly company: “When I have been among men, I come back less of a man.”
This was theology as it applies in one’s life, in the demanding, tempting world, and how it had applied in his life. He was alarmingly frank about his own experience which gave complete authenticity to what he said. His theology, which some might term scholastic, was actually existential. There was no division between the dogmatic and philosophical and the devotional and spiritual.
On one retreat at Aylesford we came to the slot on the programme for Stations of the Cross; we hadn’t realised that Fr. Holloway had decided to preach them. I count it one of the most moving, cathartic, spiritual experiences of my life. As we moved from Station to Station, he took us through what the redemption meant: the sweat of blood, the vision of sin down the ages, the dereliction of the cross. It was theology in dramatic meditation. We emerged from the chapel, stunned, wrung out. “I think we’d better skip the next talk,” he said.
He didn’t beat about the bush in Confession; the central issues were dealt with straight away, with directness and frankness. He could be uncannily perceptive: he knew what you were on about within a few stumbling words. It could be a fairly terrifying prospect, but one knew one would go eventually. It was one of his sayings that a person’s spiritual state and personality was revealed in the very expression of their face. He could indeed sometimes ‘read’ people in this way. Those who knew him more personally will better be able to tell of his profound ability to give advice, but I can give my witness that his counsel proved itself sound. He came up to speak at the Chaplaincy while I was at Cambridge, and I remember rushing back to my rooms to meet him and finding him perched incongruously on the worktop of my minute kitchen, buttoned up in an enormous coat and sporting a Russian winter hat. We had a long conversation before we went off to the meeting, and the maxim he gave for taking a decision in one’s life has stayed with me ever since: “Positive for peace” — that is, do that which gives you the deepest peace in your innermost self.
Later, when Dora and I were married and we had a first pregnancy that went wrong, he wrote us a deeply consoling letter: the shadow of the cross, he said, hung over the stable of Bethlehem; and when the Martyrology listing the feasts of the Church is chanted, at the mention of the Nativity the tone switches to that of Passiontide. (So he did appreciate chant, actually).
A true priest
Fr. Holloway was completely the priest. He had a powerful physical presence - if he hadn’t been a man of God, I think he might have been fairly intimidating. At Summer Sessions in the long, warm evenings, you would meet him strolling around the grounds (we were at Digby Stuart College, Roehampton, in those days), deep in conversation with someone, collar undone, sleeves rolled up to reveal massive forearms. It gave him an aura of priestly strength, like a Confessor from the early centuries or an Old Testament prophet.
Or he would be sitting at the centre of a group in which there was a mixture of laughter and theology; he had a natural affinity with young people, from the schoolchild to the earnest undergraduate. Yes, he could have the temper of a Jerome, but he had the lovability of a Philip Neri and the courage and the wisdom of an Athanasius.
When someone dies, you always regret that you didn’t see more of them, show your appreciation of them. As the years went on, and we handed over retreats and sessions to younger successors, and as the Faith Movement grew beyond those early, amateur days, I had less contact with Fr. Holloway, though he always wanted to know how our children were getting on. (When our second child proved to be a rather wakeful baby, he wrote that we were evidently suffering from ‘weeping and teething of Nash’). He is best known for his forming of priestly vocations, but he formed us in the greatness of the vocation of marriage and the family.
There are now many people who can tell in much greater detail of his teaching, his lifelong dedication to his mother’s vision and of his theological legacy. Dora and I both know that our faith, our work as teachers and our marriage have been deeply affected by the impact of Fr. Holloway on our lives. And there are many, many people who have come into contact with the Faith Movement who would say the same. Thank you, Father, for what you did for us and for the Church.