Acar rolls through the streets of 1960s Sheffield. Inside sits a young man and, next to him, his father. A voice is blaring out through a loudspeaker on the roof: “Vote for Kenneth Arnold, your Conservative Party candidate.” The youth looks at Kenneth Arnold, his father, with quiet pride: the successful solicitor is on his way to becoming a city councillor and one day the city’s Lord Mayor.
Bishop John Arnold recalls this scene vividly, and with a touch of self-deprecation. “I don’t suppose I understood very much of what was going on,” he says. But that seems unlikely: he was a bright young man determined to follow his father into law. Then something unexpected happened that led him here, to an airy corner office in Archbishop’s House, Westminster. He faced a fork in the road and, as in the Robert Frost poem, he chose “the one less travelled by”.
Today, aged 56, he is an auxiliary bishop, trustee of Cafod, chancellor of Westminster diocese and holder of the titular See of Lindisfarne. Those who have followed his rapid rise, and know him as an efficient administrator and fluent preacher, may be surprised to learn that the path to Archbishop’s House was anything but straight.
He was the youngest child of Mary and Kenneth Arnold. His mother had a “private, but very deep” Catholic faith and was “very meticulous about keeping house and home”. His father, an Anglican, was a hardworking partner in a Sheffield legal firm and a Conservative councillor. He had a clear plan for his only son.
“He felt that the legal profession would be something that would benefit me,” Bishop Arnold says, “that would provide a good living for me and any family I might have, as it had for him. And that it would also be a place where I might find I was attracted, as he was, to local politics.
“It was certainly my plan, from the age of eight, to become a solicitor. I used to go down to the office on Saturday mornings and lick stamps. I thought that that was what being a lawyer was all about.” When he turned 16 there was a slight change of plan. His father decided he should aim to be a barrister. “And of course I changed my mind straight away,” Bishop Arnold recalls.
But the obedient son felt the stirrings of another vocation. As a boarder at Ratcliffe College in Leicestershire he was impressed by the Rosminian priests and Brothers he met, including Fr Michael Waters, “an outstanding man in terms of social conscience” inspired by Mother Teresa’s mission to the poorest of the poor. He discussed his possible calling with another priest at the school, who told him: “If you can get to university, go. If you have a vocation it will be there at the end of that.”
At Trinity College, Oxford, he was a “pedestrian” student of law who plodded through reading lists but struggled to see the bigger picture. Did he get a 2:1? “I didn’t do that well,” he smiles. “I got through.”
After graduation he moved down to London to continue his studies. There, he reached a great fork in the road.
“I remember going home just before Christmas in 1975 and saying to my father I was thinking of being a Rosminian. And he was disappointed.
“I think perhaps I was a little bit callous. I assumed that this was my life and this was what I wanted to do with it. And I didn’t probably consider the feelings of my family very much.”
But the decision did not create a rift with his parents. His mother was quietly supportive; his father never tried to dissuade him. He now views his son’s vocation with the same quiet pride the young man felt accompanying his father on the campaign trail.
The following year John Arnold was called to the Bar, but chose instead to join the Rosminians. While reading works by the order’s founder, Blessed Antonio Rosmini, he came across an idea that was to prove “terribly important” to him: Providence.
“I am a bit of a worrier,” he explains. “But it allows me to stand back and to recognise that God has a plan and we are part of it. It’s rather like that business of ‘we work as if everything depends on us and pray as if everything depends on God’. Believing in God’s goodness and his plan have been very important to me.”
He concedes that his tendency to fret may be rooted in perfectionism, the irritation that well-organised people feel at the messiness of life. “I have to admit I get rather frustrated with the imperfections that are there,” he says.
After taking temporary vows with the Rosminians he was sent to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He reached another unexpected crossroads there.
“I was studying for an exam on a February morning in the college in Rome. I was looking out of the window and I thought: ‘I’m fairly clear about being a priest, but I don’t think I’m in the right place.’ And it never bothered me after that. I had to tell people and deal with one or two people’s disappointment. But I was just very calm about it and absolutely sure I was doing the right thing, though at that stage I had nothing to go to.”
He met Mgr Ralph Brown, a vicar-general of Westminster diocese, who spotted his potential. “You’re a lawyer,” he told him. “You’ll be a good canon lawyer. Come to the diocese.”
He transferred to the English College and, after seven and a half years in Rome, completed his studies in theology and canon law at the Greg. Cardinal Hume ordained him deacon in the English College chapel in November 1982 and he was ordained priest in July 1983.
He got a testing assignment on his return to Britain. He was appointed chaplain to Westminster Hospital as the country was gripped by the fear of Aids.
“We were going through all that business of people refusing to touch an Aids patient,” he says. “Their cutlery and crockery wouldn’t be used for a second time. Everybody thought the level of contagion was so much higher than it was.
“There was a great deal of anger about because people had contracted an illness they didn’t even know existed. I remember one or two of the first deaths of the Aids patients. But I also remember the real sense of compassion.
“I was a pretty young priest, fairly inexperienced, but learning from being a hospital chaplain where care is given to all with great compassion and without judgment.
“What was going on in those days gave birth to that wonderful apostolate in the Catholic Church regarding Aids victims all over the world. Something like 27 per cent of the aid given to HIV and Aids is given by the Catholic Church.”
In 1989 he was named subadministrator of Westminster Cathedral, then four years later he became parish priest of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St George in Enfield. In 2001 he was appointed chancellor and vicar-general of Westminster diocese. And five years after that Pope Benedict made him a bishop. Those who followed his fast-track career were unsurprised. But to him it was a bombshell.
“For several months I was in something of a daydream,” he says. “People would stand up at a formal dinner to make a toast or a speech and say: ‘My Lord Bishop, ladies and gentlemen…’ I’d think: ‘Where’s the bishop?’ It took a lot of adjusting to.”
Is he comfortable in the role now? “I’m more used to it,” he replies. “I think ‘comfortable’ is quite a big word because things change so much and there’s always new aspects to the work and new challenges to encounter for the first time. So I don’t think it’s really possible to feel comfortable, because I’d probably reproach myself and think: ‘Well, what haven’t you noticed and should be attending to?’ ”
But despite this heavy sense of responsibility, which sometimes gives Bishop Arnold a tense, preoccupied air, he does relax. He plays racquetball (“old man’s squash”) a couple of times a week and enjoys reading biographies. He’s about to tackle Reconciliation by Benazir Bhutto, a contemporary of his at Oxford. He once met her at a tea party and she informed him that her father was the president of Pakistan. “It’s difficult to carry on the conversation after that,” he says, though he could have replied: “Well, I’m the son of the Lord Mayor of Sheffield.”
Bishop Arnold: ‘I am a bit of a worrier. But believing in God’s goodness and his plan have been important to me’
When asked to name his personal heroes he mentions Burma’s democratically elected leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the Archbishop of Canterbury. “I stand in awe of Rowan Williams,” he says. “I’ve heard him speak on a number of occasions and on different subjects and he has such a grasp of his material. He strikes me as so evidently a holy man.”
Bishop Arnold has a distinctive preaching style, which he used to great effect during the visit of St Thérèse’s relics. He spoke candidly of his struggle to see the spiritual value of saints’ bones, an admission that gave the uplifting meditation that followed a striking authenticity. He says he’s only prepared to preach about what he truly knows and argues that spiritual growth begins when we are honest about our shortcomings.
“It’s a painful process for every Christian to discover their limitations, their faults, their failings,” he says. “But it’s an essential part of the discovery of who they are and who God is for them, with them. He created us and he works with us and through us.
“I don’t think there’s any shame in recognising that we get things wrong. But we will strive to do what we can do and do it to the best of our ability.”
There can be no doubt that Bishop Arnold is striving to do just that.
This article first appeared in the May 7 2010 edition of the Catholic Herald