On the website of the Diocese of Portsmouth, there is a video of Bishop Philip Egan delivering his October 2016 pastoral letter on the future of the Catholic schools under his charge.
A casual visitor to the site could be forgiven for thinking that here was a bishop of England and Wales straight from central casting. The 61-year-old Egan is unassuming in manner and appearance: he has the white hair, ruddy face, soft northern vowels and Irish surname of countless pleasant-but-ineffective British Catholic prelates since time immemorial.
But within a couple of minutes it is clear that something is different. The bishop’s demeanor turns from affable to positively joyful as he announces a revolution in Catholic education in Portsmouth – one of our largest and most oddly shaped dioceses, stretching from the Channel Islands to Oxford.
In essence, education in the diocese is going to become much more Catholic. “Our schools are wonderful!”, the bishops begins – before making clear that, having visited all 73 of them, private as well as state-funded, he intends to make them vastly more wonderful in the near future.
Bishop Egan’s vision of Catholic education is one in which all teaching, “especially the sciences and humanities”, is Christ-centred. “I would like all children, from Year 5 upwards, to have regular periods of Eucharistic Adoration, contemplative prayer and lectio divina,” he says.
When Portsmouth’s cheerful shepherd says “I would like”, he means “I expect”. He is not one of those bishops who, on being appointed by the Holy Father, announce that their priority is to “listen” to their flock – and then spend the rest of their time in office echoing the slogans of diocesan activists.
Since his installation in September 2012, Philip Egan has worked to turn Portsmouth into a powerhouse of the new evangelisation proclaimed by St John Paul II. His plan for Catholic education, fully articulated in 2016, is startling evidence of a bishop intent on honouring his spiritual manifesto.
That is why the Catholic Herald’s editorial staff and board of directors have named Bishop Egan as our Catholic of the Year.
Our choice will raise some eyebrows. The Bishop of Portsmouth makes some people feel uncomfortable. In some cases, their feelings are understandable: the bishop has challenged the status quo in his diocese and that has upset Catholics attached to the old way of doing things under his predecessor, the gifted but easy-going liberal Bishop Crispian Hollis.
Other critics of Bishop Egan simply fail to understand him. They assume that he is a stickler for traditionalist liturgy who belongs to a conservative faction in the Church. Those assumptions are wrong and it is time to set the record straight. On some issues, Bishop Egan reflects the concerns of Benedict XVI; on others, those of Pope Francis. But there is no subject on which he deviates from the teaching of the magisterium.
Admittedly, the same is true of his brother bishops of England and Wales. So what is special about the eighth Bishop of Portsmouth?
His pastoral care for priests is a good starting point. He sends each of them a card on the anniversary of his ordination; he will often clear his diary and head off immediately to visit sick clergy in hospital. He loves to go to the cinema with priests and seminarians.
The lay Catholics of Portsmouth, meanwhile, find themselves with new and fulfilling responsibilities. Under Bishop Egan, the emphasis has shifted from employed “professionals” in the diocesan curia to parish volunteers.
Worshippers are encouraged to develop their own areas of expertise – as marriage advisers or ministers to the poor, for example. The bishop is a great believer in the power of intercessionary prayer: you can now put in a request to the diocesan website for such prayers – a typical Egan innovation.
He was the first English Catholic bishop to master Twitter. The daily tweets from @BishopEgan burst with enthusiasm for his faith, his friends and his diocese.
They are generously sprinkled with exclamation marks: “Hope you can join me in Abingdon for the end of the Holy Year. I’m going to rededicate the Diocese to St Edmund. Oremus!” “@radioimmaculata launched today in Gosport. Please pray for this important new venture. Ave Maria!”
And here is his perfectly judged reaction to the most surprising news of the year: “What an extraordinary US election result! Let us ask the Holy Spirit to guide President-elect Trump especially these next few months.”
As American Catholics are well aware, the most orthodox bishops are often the most innovative: one thinks of Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, whose Word on Fire ministry has found refreshing ways of introducing sacred tradition to mass audiences.
Bishop Egan is a less high-profile figure than Bishop Barron – but, like him, has grasped the evangelistic potential of digital technology. Also, both bishops are fully trained theologians, something that is more unusual for a British bishop than an American one. Bishop Egan has a PhD in theology from Birmingham University and was a post-doctoral fellow at Boston College in Massachusetts before becoming vicar-general of the Diocese of Shrewsbury.
The bishop’s theological expertise helps explain the confidence of his pronouncements. In the middle of his pastoral letter on education, for example, he says: “I now want to offer some authoritative teaching on Catholic education and how we should understand it.”
This is not how most English and Welsh bishops express themselves: they prefer to debate and suggest things. Bishop Egan uses the word “offer”, but does not believe that faithful Catholics are entitled to reject teachings whose authority derives from Jesus Christ.
He made this very clear in 2014, when he said that Catholics who voted for same-sex marriage “shouldn’t be receiving Holy Communion”. Conor Burns, a gay Catholic Tory MP who had unexpectedly voted for the legislation, described Bishop Egan’s comments as a “tragedy” and said that he felt he could no longer receive the sacrament in Portsmouth, his home diocese. Mr Burns added that he would look instead for guidance from Pope Francis – unaware, perhaps, that the Holy Father has denounced gay marriage far more ferociously than the bishop.
The truth is that the dividing lines in the Church are difficult to locate, and Bishop Egan refuses to be pigeonholed. He is a champion of Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ and put his diocese on “environmental alert” in order to persuade Catholics to heed the Pope’s warnings. That is hardly the act of a reactionary – but it is typical of the urgency with which the bishop approaches his mission.
Portsmouth has become a fast-moving diocese, run by a man who is not afraid to use the full authority of his office to reverse long-term decline. He has invited the Oratorians to take over a parish in Bournemouth – not because he is especially attached to their style of worship (he isn’t) but because their orthodox evangelism bears fruit. Philip Egan’s message, appropriately for the bishop of a naval town, is “all hands on deck”. Put simply, we need more bishops in his mould.
This article first appeared in the December 16 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here