The death of Mgr Mark Langham in January has left a void in many people’s lives, for his influence was immense. Urbane, witty, humane and immensely capable, but for his leukaemia his distinguished Vatican work at the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity might have led to a diocese or a nunciature. The Telegraph thought that “he was one of the outstanding Catholic priests of his generation, and his early death has robbed the Church of one who would surely have played a major role in future years.” Perhaps he might have succeeded Alan Hopes at East Anglia; we shall never know.
What we do know is that of all his varied and exciting ministries, none delighted Mgr Langham more than his last: that of Catholic Chaplain to the University of Cambridge. Reflecting on his life’s work in his final days, he concluded that “I have had a wonderful and varied ministry and priesthood, and undertaken extraordinary tasks, but none has thrilled me and delighted me like the chaplaincy at Fisher House.”
He was one of the outstanding Catholic priests of his generation, and his early death has robbed the Church of one who would surely have played a major role in future years. – The Telegraph
Addressing the students to whom he had ministered since 2013, he assured them that “the opportunity to encounter and influence the finest young people, to be fired by your enthusiasm and holiness, and to build the wider community, has given me great hope for the future of the Church and of our society. Thank you for this wonderful experience.” As messages of prayer and gratitude flooded in, one student simply wrote: “Thank you for opening the door to my faith.”
Students are a fickle flock: at once grown-up and immature, simultaneously inquisitive yet inflexible, concurrently endearing and infuriating. A chaplain must preach without hectoring, must sympathise without compromise in their struggles against the world, must convert without bombast, and must cherish equally the teenager armed with a Liber Usualis and the septuagenarian professor who wants to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer.
As a student at Oxford I was an excruciatingly pious young Anglican who benefitted immensely from being knocked into shape through the remarkable ministry of Pusey House. Nevertheless, through friends I also became a regular visitor to the Catholic Chaplaincy on St Aldate’s; how well I remember genteel tea in the Blue Room on Wednesday afternoons, and those hearty Newman Society dinners. One of those friends, now a priest, recalled that the approach of the then Chaplain, Mgr Jeremy Fairhead, was very much that of James Joyce’s Here Comes Everybody.
“There was provision for students of all stripes and sensibilities,” he wrote, “but beneath the various events and activities lay a profound sense of common purpose. This all flowed from membership of a confident Catholic community, willing to take on the intellectual challenges of the day.” Crucially, he found the Chaplaincy “an important source of spiritual support and a place where abiding friendships formed”. That is a priority that seems more urgent than ever in the febrile environment of today’s universities, where to be a practising Catholic is increasingly to be counter-cultural.
Another friend from those days, Fr Rupert Allen, who is now Catholic Chaplain to the University of Bristol, also noted the hostile environment in which many Catholic students find themselves. He observed, nonetheless, that “it is the most outstanding privilege to be a university chaplain; to see students become who they are; to enjoy their real joy and enthusiasm for the Church; to help them navigate through difficult times; to form them so that they know their faith and really, really know God.”
University chaplaincy is a unique ministry that calls for outstanding priests.
“In many ways the Catholic chaplaincy is the most diverse space in any university,” he continued. “All these young people from all over the world, whose trust you have to win. It might be a pastoral conversation that turns a young person’s life around, or it might be making sure that the French students have galettes des rois for Epiphany; all life is here.”
University chaplaincy is a unique ministry that calls for outstanding priests. There are few better nurseries of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, or for raising up the lay leaders of tomorrow. Writing in these pages in March, the veteran Rome correspondent Philippa Hitchen observed that “[Mark Langham’s] warmth, wit and wicked sense of humour made him the life and soul of every party, as well as an inspiration to young students and colleagues of all denominations.”
As a legacy it leaves little to be regretted; it also represents something of a job description. The news that Mgr Langham’s successor at Fisher House is to be Dom Alban Hood, of Douai Abbey, is to be greatly welcomed.
Serenhedd James teaches ecclesiastical history at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and is Hon. Secretary of the Catholic Record Society.