The mentor who showed me how to be a priest
I knew a rather egocentric girl at university who, when the conversation flagged or wasn’t to her liking, would utter the conversational gambit: “Anyway, getting back to me …” It has become a sort of family code we use to indicate that you are being self-absorbed and tiresome. So if I start off by saying that I suddenly feel rather stressed and aware of my own limitations, I hope it will become clear that this is not the occasion for a prolonged “Anyway, getting back to me” kind of reflection. But this year I have been a priest long enough to witness some of my seminary contemporaries made bishops, more of them fall ill from stress, and now one, Fr Dominic Rolls, die.
Seminary can feel like starting at school again, because one is at the beginning of a process of formation in which almost everyone there knows more than you do and has established a place in a complex social hierarchy. Some of them even want to make you aware of that. Not so Dominic, who was like a kind and beneficent sixth-former to my new boy and as such became a friend and mentor in the least patronising way. He was completing a long postgraduate course in biblical theology, which meant that he returned to the seminary as a newly ordained priest. After exams in June, as he was preparing finally to leave seminary and I had just completed a momentous and challenging first year, Dominic proposed a gita (jaunt).
Terracina is a small city on the Mediterranean in Latina about 50 miles south of Rome. It’s noteworthy as the city that marked the southern frontier of the Papal States, with ancient walls, a barbican and an attractive historic centre with a duomo and a bishop’s palace. Though the bishop took his title from there, the population centre of the diocese had moved, and he with it, but Dominic had somehow obtained permission to use the palace in Terracina when seminarians needed a break. Five of us stayed in the palace for a few days.
I have always looked back on those days as a time of exceptional grace and peace. It is probably a mistake to try to dissect what it is about certain memories that seem to gild them with exceptional joy, but only now as I contemplate Dominic’s death do I realise that his presence was a significant part of what made it so blessed.
It was glorious summer but the stone walls of the palace held pockets of cool shade when we came back from the white sandy beach. We found pleasure in the simple tasks of cooking and shopping for ourselves after a year of institutional living. There was a well-equipped kitchen and we ate local produce of a freshness which I don’t think I have tasted since. I still remember confusing the Italian words pesce and pesca and asking a bewildered greengrocer for 10 fish, instead of 10 peaches. On a terrace outside the kitchen grew pots of waist-high basil and scarlet tomatoes. Evelyn Waugh describes smells as the “needlehooks of memory”, and the scent of fresh basil always reminds me of gloriously hot evenings sitting on that terrace chatting and drinking the bishop’s mild white wine (with permission).
All of this began and ended with prayer. Dominic celebrated Mass in the small house chapel for us with the reverence of a newly ordained priest which, in fact, he never lost. Morning, evening and night we prayed the Office in there, and he was there silently praying at other times. Subliminally I learnt from him so much about priestly identity in those few idyllic days. He taught me how it is this intimacy with the Lord that sweetens all things, and that there is no true recreation outside of Him; and also that an essential part of priesthood is true fraternity: mutual sharing and encouragement in life’s joys and sorrows, struggles and laughter.
Reflecting on coping with his terminal illness, Dominic, the least self-absorbed of men, wrote: “The key is to love yourself enough. I find loving myself is a struggle, and I often fail. But I need to recognise this daily struggle as beautiful and for the greater glory of God.” Then he quoted St Ignatius Loyola: “Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to strive and to seek for no reward save that of knowing we do your will.” Rest eternally, dear friend.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London