I first got to know the late Mgr Mark Langham in March 2013, half a year before he began working at Cambridge as the university’s Catholic chaplain. At the time I was a PhD student spending a few months in Rome to look at manuscripts in various libraries.
That spring, I went daily to the station Masses organised by the Pontifical North American College: 200 or so seminarians, clergy and religious would gather for 7am mass at a different ancient church every morning. On the first Wednesday in Lent, we were all locked out of Santa Maria Maggiore, and ended up waiting over half an hour for the sacristan to arrive and open the building. The priests and seminarians milled around with varying degrees of patience. Some of us laymen got fed up and left; others began lighting cigarettes.
I joined the smokers. A seminary professor struck up a conversation. When he found out I was studying at Cambridge he insisted on introducing me to Mgr Langham, or “Father Mark” as he was universally known. Father Mark was telling jokes to a group of clerics; his first instinct on meeting me was to insist on lunch as soon as possible, since he was running back to his office immediately after Mass.
We established a rapport, and saw one another frequently, so that by the time he arrived in Cambridge that autumn I thought I knew him fairly well. We also kept up a steady correspondence. His emails were always witty and informal, but also delicately tactful (unlike my side of the conversation, which could be recklessly indiscreet).
In re-reading them now after his death, I see how, despite being on very friendly terms, we were never quite friends. Not in any usual sense of the term. Yet we remained in close regular contact for almost eight years, until shortly before his death in January.
We call priests “Father” for an excellent set of reasons. A priest might not spend very much time with you, but he gets to know you more deeply than any of your friends do. This is at least true if he hears your confessions week after week, comes to learn your habitual sins, and helps you identify your predominant fault. He also finds out how strong your will is, and how easily you fall back into destructive habits.
Usually we think of a “clericalist” priest as rule-bound, reactionary and obsessed with hierarchy. Yet the most destructive clericalism these days is generally found among priests who are embarrassed to be called “Father”, and agonise about exercising authority over anybody else.
Priests like this invariably end up misusing their power. In shrinking from or downplaying their responsibilities, they can transform into mere passive-aggressive versions of the very tyrants they claim to reject.
There was none of that with Father Mark. He knew that he had to herd his sheep into Heaven; and this task is always much harder than it looks. It requires strict boundaries, particularly in terms of relationships. Good clergy can make you feel as though yours is the only soul worth saving; but this is just a feeling, and the idea is dangerous if taken seriously. Also, it can lead to long queues behind you as you indulge in your Dark Night of the Soul while others are waiting to make their weekly confession.
If you have children, you know that your every move is watched. This makes you afraid to be caught picking your nose in case your child concludes that this is worthy of imitation. Clergy are under similar pressures every day, though not all of them realise this. We, the faithful, rely on priests’ examples of reverence and charity especially, because we have so few others around who can teach us these virtues. You can read about the saints and learn from them, but really you want to see virtues embodied before your eyes, by people you know.
Father Mark’s closest relationship was with God, as he made clear in the last year of his life. Most people only began to suspect something was wrong at the beginning of the pandemic, when he vaguely mentioned a “weak immune system”. His illness became obvious in the autumn; though it was a shock to learn that he had first been diagnosed with leukaemia a dozen years ago. But he had other things to talk about, right up to the end. May we learn from this example, and bravely die a good death.
Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a contributor to the Catholic Herald
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.
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