Mgr Augustine Hoey will celebrate his 100th birthday on December 22. But that is no excuse, clearly, for letting standards slip. In Walsingham, where he went to live at the age of 97, he leads a busier life than many have ever led. His figure is a familiar and striking sight to villagers as, impeccably dressed in cassock and cloak and his trademark Cappello Romano, he makes his way to each of Walsingham’s churches to carry out his exacting daily round of intercessions for Christian unity.
“Well, I just carry on much as I always have done,” he tells me when I ask about his routine, as if, at pushing 100, nothing could be more natural. “I am on a sevenfold Office, so I get up at 4.30am for the Office of Readings at 5 am and continue from there, ending with Compline back at my house at 8 pm.”
Walsingham, he says, is a village the size of a postage stamp. “And yet it has seven different Christian plots – Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Methodist – so the divisions of Christianity are very visible here. I believe that Our Lady weeps at these divisions. So I pray in each of them daily for Christian unity.”
And in between the prayers? “Oh well, of course, plenty of people come to have their confessions heard, and so I see people and direct people and that sort of thing. But that’s only what I have always done.”
Mgr Hoey was appointed a Chaplain to His Holiness by Pope Francis last month, to the delight of his countless friends and much, he says, to his own surprise. He is talking to me in his house in the centre of Walsingham, where his desire for a life directed to intercession was awakened in a moment of intense spiritual encounter during his first visit in 1937, when he cycled there with his college chaplain when he was up at Oxford. “I was caught,” he says.
I had written to him asking if I could come and interview him. I had not met him before, but had once heard him preach, memorably and without notes, when he was already well into his nineties. Little did I expect that he would himself type and sign a letter of reply by return of post.
“I shall be very happy to welcome you,” he wrote. “Don’t expect anything special. I shall be 100 in December so my memory is all over the place… and there is also the strong possibility that I may have died.”
In the event, I find him very much alive, kind and warmly welcoming, his memory intact.
Mgr Hoey’s life is now immortalised in a recently published memoir, Trembling on the Edge of Eternity (published by St Michael’s Abbey Press). He has spent most of it as an Anglican priest and monk of the Community of the Resurrection.
He converted to Catholicism and left his community at the age of 79 (the catalyst being the ordination of women in the Church of England). He was ordained as a Catholic priest and became an Oblate of St Benedict at the suggestion of Cardinal Basil Hume, who later asked him to assist at Westminster Cathedral, which he loved. (“I have him to thank for everything,” he says.)
Mgr Hoey is well known as a confessor. People flock to him from great distances for counsel and absolution. They say he expects Christians to be totally committed in their discipleship, yet remains deeply compassionate and quite unshocked by sin.
His life has been packed with prayer and with people. He is a bon vivant with friends in high places. Yet he is equally at home living in the slums of Sunderland, Manchester or the East End of London.
He is drawn to high drama and to silent, hidden prayer.
It is remarkable that Mgr Hoey should have made it to 100. He has never been healthy and very nearly died from pneumonia at the age of three. He has narrowly escaped violent death, too, on several occasions. He recalls the time that his East End clergy house took a direct hit during the Second World War when he was giving instruction for Confirmation and the occasion, years later, when he was preaching in a packed church in a colliery town in South Yorkshire and a vast coping stone fell from a pillar, missing his head by inches. “I felt the draught as it came past my face and, mir-aculously, fell with the most terrible crash on a space on the floor where no one was sitt-ing. I really don’t know why I am still here.”
We talk about the great parish missions which he organised for decades from the 1950s and for which he became famous.
A year of meticulous planning would come to fruition when he and his team descended on the chosen parish. They stayed for up to
a week visiting every home several times, preaching in the streets and the churches, praying and performing. The missions were dramatic affairs which drew people nearer to God by engaging their hearts. Real undertakers and a real coffin would be produced when the theme was death; a live rabbit for a children’s mission teaching how to pray.
He talks about his time in South Africa where his community sent him in the late 1950s during the worst days of apartheid (“The Africans had so much to teach us Europeans,” he says. “Tranquility, how to be still… no sense of time, except for the sun.”)
I ask him about his friendship with the Queen Mother and he tells me of his gratitude when she arranged for him to live in the Charterhouse in London when he left the Community of the Resurrection and, for a while, had nowhere to go.
His face glows with pleasure as he talks. Especially so when he describes the friends he made in the houses of prayer he set up for his community in the 1970s, first in a block of flats in the slums of Manchester and later in the east end of Sunderland.
“Most of the people in the block in Manchester should have been in prison because they were professional thieves.
They were terribly skilful. One wondered how they could possibly manage, for example, to steal three turkeys. But they were very open about it and very friendly. They used to come round and offer us the stolen food and they would offer to fix the electricity meter for us so that we could get £50 worth of electricity for £1. It was terribly clever, but we didn’t really feel we could accept.”
I ask if he ever felt it was part of his Christian duty to turn them in. “Oh good gracious me, no! They were terribly friendly and quite religious. They were always asking us to pray for various things. Then there was the woman on the other side. She was a bit faded – a prostitute, really – and she had an African live-in. They had terrible rows and then she would throw him out and pour buckets of water at him from the window. But they were such nice people.”
He has talked for over an hour and shows no signs of tiring. But another visitor is on the way to see him and I am aware that I must draw this delightful conversation to a close.
By the time I arrive back in London, he will be just setting out for Evening Prayer at the Anglican shrine…
Catherine Utley is a freelance journalist