The formation of Bishop Crispian



Homily by Monsignor Nicholas France at the Mass of Thanksgiving for the Golden Jubilee of Ordination to the Sacred Priesthood of Right Reverend Crispian Hollis, Bishop Emeritus of Portsmouth, on 9 June 2015 in St John’s Cathedral, Portsmouth.


Juravit Dominus et non paenitabit eum : tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundem ordinem Melchisedech. The Lord’s promise of priesthood in aeternum, about which we sang in the first Psalm at Vespers every Sunday in seminary, was fulfilled for Crispian Hollis, our Jubilarian, at his ordination on 11 July 1965, when, after the laying on of hands, he was anointed for priestly ministry by Cardinal William Heard, a fellow Balliol man. This took place in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows at the Villa of the Venerable English College in the Alban hills above Rome.

While 50 years is but a short time in a priesthood, that is forever, it is not a bad start. So it is, that we give thanks to God today for His faithfulness to this priest, who has also enjoyed the fullness of priesthood, praying for Crispian as he lives out his priesthood in being, as well as doing, until that day when the Lord shall call him home.

Today is a celebration of priesthood, the priesthood of Jesus Christ.While our ministerial share in Christ’s priesthood is essentially unchanging, the manner of its pastoral exercise is constantly developing, according to the times in which we live and the places in which we exercise the mission given us by our Bishop.

It was quite a different world, the 1960s when Father Hollis (we didn’t use Christian names for priests in those days), was ordained. ‘The times they are a-changin’, sang Bob Dylan. And how right he was! They were exciting days of change both in the Church and in society. For us young men those were days in which we shared in the vision of a new Pentecost, which had been the prayer of good Pope John in preparation for the great Council. Our heroes were Congar and Rahner, not forgetting younger men like Hans Kung and Joseph Ratzinger. It was Pope Paul, however who brought the Second Vatican Council to a conclusion, a few months after Crispian’s ordination. Naturally we felt part of this amazing time in the history of the Catholic Church. All this, we claimed, was the work of the Holy Spirit, so Dylan appeared right in also singing ‘The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind’.

Many young priests at that time took seriously the words of Isaiah that ‘the Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me’. Why? Because ‘He has sent me to bring good news to the poor; to bind up hearts that are broken’. Rejecting the mould of clericalism, we wanted to be servant priests, in a humble ministry to God’s people. For this reason and for their benefit we welcomed celebrating mass in English rather than in Latin, participating for the first time in civic and ecumenical activities, and in establishing pastoral councils so that our people might have a voice in parish affairs. I have to admit that not all this was appreciated by everyone, especially when the doers in a parish criticised the talkers.

The first appointment of Father Hollis was to the rural town of Amesbury in the middle of Salisbury Plain. He has written of the contrast this was with the “glamour and excitement of Rome during the Council”. However, he welcomed the experience, being taught by his parish priest the importance of fundraising, in which he needed to be involved. It was necessary, for example, in order to build a parish school. Perhaps this was remote preparation for him launching the diocesan “Living Our Faith Appeal” 40 years later, a truly golden egg he laid to benefit our future.

After only a year this new curate was pulled out of parish life and moved to Oxford to be assistant to Father Michael Hollings in the University chaplaincy. Crispian has since written “at every stage of my life the next move has always been the one I wouldn’t have chosen. I think there is a good lesson there somewhere. It means that you will always be stretched. Someone else thought that you could do this job, so you get on with it and do your best”

During those years not everything was welcomed by parishioners, especially by those who had felt encouraged to think for themselves, and we priests were illprepared in 1968 to respond to the arguments of married couples, who were opposed to the teaching of Humane Vitae.

The 1960s ended in disillusionment for some priests, especially those who might have expected change to the celibacy laws or had hoped for quicker structural and pastoral reform in their dioceses or had merely fallen in love with someone they had met in the more open society in which we exercised our ministry. So the dropout rate with priests seeking laicisation was considerable, which could be quite demoralising for us survivors. This loss was less dramatic in smaller dioceses like Clifton and our own, but in large dioceses, where archbishops had a less personal relationship with their larger body of 3 clergy, the departure rate was high. Some clergy also experienced an identity crisis, deriving from an unclear theological understanding of the two ways of participating in the priesthood of Christ. This sometimes would lead to the clericalising of laity and the secularising of clergy.

The early 70s, like the late 60s were a time of “interim” in many things, firstly with interim translations of the Tridentine missal, followed by ring binders for altar use of the interim translation of the Missa Normativa. Much welcomed was the blue, plastic covered “interim” translation of the Divine Office, which we affectionately called the blue book of plastic prayer.

In 1974 we greatly welcomed the English publication of The Roman Missal, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, which we grew to know and love, and daily prayed, an affection not all of us have transferred to the more recent translation. When it came to the Divine Office we were disappointed to hear that ICEL had abandoned the idea of a translation as apparently “American clergy no longer say the Breviary”. We were relieved when the English bishops authorised a translation of their own, which after 40 years has hardly dated. Many priests hope they may be allowed to use it for the rest of their lives.

Crispian has always spoken of the necessity of prayer which must precede all our pastoral activity. He learned this while being assistant to Michael Hollings at Oxford. He writes about that experience “I learnt from living with Michael that you can’t really be an effective priest if you don’t pray. For three years I lived with this guy who was up at 5.30 every morning to pray for an hour and a half. An example like that has to be catching. He taught me by example to see that prayer and priesthood are inextricably linked – and it’s not just about saying your prayers, it is about being alone and one-to-one with God”. He also learned from that open door chaplaincy, “an enduring vision of priesthood as being about relationships and not just about function. Pastoral work is all about relating to people”. This was a lesson he tried to teach us by example during his years as our Bishop, especially in his devotion to contemplative prayer each morning and in his dignified celebration of the Eucharist.

Not every priest during those years had a good experience of working with another priest or a happy relationship with their Bishop. They found The National Conference of Priests an outlet for their concerns, complaints and recommendations. The NCP also sought the views of the priests on various issues, including one questionnaire, I remember, which was about the wellbeing and experience of priests in Presbyteries, especially if they were curates, 4 as, in large archdioceses at that time, you could be a curate for over 25 years. I recall being at Park Place with Bishop Worlock when members of the NCP Standing Committee met to open the results of this questionnaire. Some replies were very sad. Some were very amusing. I remember that to the question “Do you receive any transport expenses?”, An old priest replied: “I only have a bicycle, so I pay for my own trouser clips”. To the question “Do you have any community life in your Presbytery, one priest replied “Yes, after lunch we go into the housekeeper’s room for coffee, we being the parish priest, myself and the cat”. To the question “Do you pray together in your Presbytery?” Another priest answered, “Yes, at the end of grace after meals we all say the “amen” together”!

Following the year of three popes in 1978, we priests experienced a new sense of confidence in our priesthood with the advent of John Paul II, not only a great evangeliser, but also a great priest for his fellow priests. For this reason we greatly appreciated the letters he wrote to priests on Holy Thursday each year. When he came to Britain in 1982 it was a boost to our morale that we were able to concelebrate mass with the Holy Father at various places across the country. This reaffirmation of priestly identity was further enhanced by the adoption in the Clifton and Portsmouth dioceses of the Priests’ Ministry to Priests programme -the lasting benefit of which some of us still feel.

During those years priests learned to welcome or accept the ordination of married men to the permanent Diaconate. Bishop Crispian always recognised and valued the contribution deacons have made and are making in our church today, and the majority of our current deacons were ordained by him during his episcopate.

Sometimes priests have to take on administrative work or specialised chaplaincies, which can involve some personal sacrifice. Earlier in the 1980s before he became a bishop, Crispian Hollis became a name in the media world as Catholic adviser to the BBC. This was a new experience of pastoral work. It certainly made him media savvy, which proved to be very useful, for example, when as a Diocesan Bishop he was frank and open at press conferences or during radio interviews, in a proactive response to any child abuse cases involving priests. However, those years he spent in London with the BBC were time away from the normal spiritual and social support that priests give to one another. It wasn’t always easy. So when the offer came from his home diocese to become the Administrator of Clifton Cathedral and 5 Vicar General of that diocese, it was a move that was welcomed. He felt it was good to be home again.

For Crispian and for many of us the late 80s and early 90s corresponded with our middle years of priesthood. Conscious of the noonday devil, in the challenging nature of our vocation to celibacy and the temptation to seek material comforts and an easier life, we had to take to heart St Paul’s reminder that we heard today, “to fan into a flame the gifts that God gave you when I laid my hands on you. God’s gift was not a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power and self-control”. This, surely, must be our frequent prayer to counteract any despondency, failure or disillusionment. It also challenges us priests to look for priestly fraternity and for bishops to do the same with their regional episcopal colleagues, which Crispian enjoyed in his Portsmouth years.

Priests often say they feel tired. This, however, may mean different things. In his Mass of the Chrism in Rome on Holy Thursday this year, Pope Francis spoke about the tiredness of priests he said “Do you know how often I think about this weariness which all of you experience? I think about it and pray about it often, especially when I am tired myself. I pray for you as you labour amid the people of God entrusted to your care. When a tired priest entrusts himself to the Lord, he will not fall but be renewed. Jesus says to us ‘Come to me all you who labour and are heavily burdened and I will give you rest’. Remember that people love their priests; they want and need their shepherds! The faith will never leave us without something to do, unless we hide in our offices or go out in our cars wearing sunglasses”. The Pope went on to say: “There is a good and healthy tiredness. It is the exhaustion of the priest who wears the smell of the sheep, but also smiles the smile of a father rejoicing in his children and grandchildren. It has nothing to do with those who wear expensive Cologne or who look at others from afar and from above. Jesus is shepherding the flock in our midst, we cannot be shepherds who are glum, plaintive or, even worse, bored. The smell of the sheep and the smile of a father… Weary, yes, but with the joy of those who hear the Lord saying, Come, O blessed of my Father”


We priests felt a new commitment from Crispian to us, when after 10 years among us, he indirectly learned that, through being outspoken on various issues, he would not be acceptable to Rome as the next Archbishop of a metropolitan see, the name of which I couldn’t possibly mention. Then began a time of our Bishop working more closely with his priests and deacons, in consultation with the laity of the diocese, to prepare a pastoral plan to meet the future needs of our Diocesan Church, resulting in the Reading Pastoral Congress of 1995, which sought new ways of providing pastoral care and local leadership within the diocese. When we priests stopped thinking about our prerogatives and independence, we came to realise the advantages of the new pastoral structures, which have enabled us to share resources and attempt new expressions of ministry. The blueprint for this became the vision document “Go Out and Bear Fruit”.

It is relevant to this day. Among the most fulfilling experiences of a bishop’s life are the liturgies he shares with his priests, deacons and people. Chief among these is the Chrism Mass each year. Another would be the Rite of Election. These were always two of Crispian’s favourite liturgies. In addition, the frequent visitations he makes to parishes provide a Bishop with opportunities to take time out to enjoy the company of his fellow priests. Today, perhaps more than ever, a Bishop needs to give time to the bonding of the clergy in his diocese, when priests from other countries, rites and cultures are joining his Presbyterate. This was a process that began in our diocese under Bishop Crispian when he welcomed priests from our sister diocese of Bamenda, reciprocating the gift of priests from our diocese to Cameroon over 40 years ago.

And what of the future, for the priesthood in our diocese and country? Is it to be the more liberal path of greater flexibility in liturgy and in the pastoral pastoral application of moral theology, with perhaps no longer the obligation of priestly celibacy? Or should we retreat into the comfort zone of neoconservatism and clericalism, which is so often promoted in imitation of a clerical church no one can truly remember, except those of us who had thought we’d seen it die? Or shall we merely retreat inwards and be content with just being chaplains to our local Catholic community, something about which Bishop Philip has challenged us when calling us to evangelisation. I believe the answer can be found in what Pope Francis said to his fellow Cardinals before the conclave at which he was elected: “Evangelisation is the Church’s reason for being. The Church must not become wrapped up in itself; it must not be self-reverential. The Church is called to come out from itself and go to people on the periphery of society where there is sin, pain, misery and injustice to bring them the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ’. These words I believe challenge us to be faithful to Christ – in all the fullness of his life, love and teaching. I pray that, alongside Evangelisation Strategy Groups, the recent formation of Caritas Diocese of Portsmouth will inspire all of our pastoral areas to establish a local branch of Caritas to ensure that we become 7 that outward looking Church and priesthood that our Holy Father, the Pope, is calling us to be.

There are two major experiences of obedience in the life of the priest. The first is the pledge he makes of respect and obedience to his Bishop on the day of his ordination. In his homilies at the ordination of priests, Crispian always tried to stress the impact of the promise of obedience as a two-way relationship between him and the ordinand. He used to speak about how Jesus saw his life and mission as obedience to the will of the Father. So it should be with us, when we see that obedience to the Bishop is obedience to Christ and to the Father.

The second understanding of obedience can be found in Christ’s words to St Peter in today’s gospel “I tell you most solemnly, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go”. Surely these words can apply to our final years of active priesthood when we obey the Church in offering our resignation from pastoral office, whether we like it or not. It was an experience Crispian was able to embrace graciously, particularly due to a serious illness and operation, which had so clearly reminded him of his mortality and dispensability. It is a lesson we will each have to accept in our own time. We shall need to learn to be, rather than to do, to see ourselves as having a ministry of prayer for the Church with pastoral ministry only being in answer to the needs of our active fellow clergy.

As we give thanks today, on this golden anniversary, for the priestly life and vocation of Bishop Crispian Hollis, we thank him for the years in which he shared his priesthood with us, and we pray that he may know the grace of final perseverance in the years that lie ahead. And whether we ourselves reach 50 years or 60 in the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, let’s pray that each of us may be unstinting in our response to Christ’s continuing call, wherever it may lead us.

Whether our life now, be long or short, may St Paul’s words to Timothy become the words of each of us in the later years of priestly ministry “My life is already poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to be gone. I 8 have fought the good fight to the end; I have been run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown righteousness reserved for me.”

And, when at last, in his mercy, we see the face of God, may we hear him say to us once more: “Tu es sacerdos in aeternum”




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