A robber who was guillotined in 1957 for shooting a police officer might be considered an unlikely hero for most archbishops.
But the Most Rev John Wilson, the new incumbent in Southwark, is not the first of his rank to see merit in the story of Jacques Fesch; the Frenchman’s Cause was opened by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris in 1987 on account of his intense religious conversion while on death row.
The fact that Archbishop Wilson is proposing Fesch as a model of sanctity indicates a certain originality of thought, which grows increasingly evident as we sit in his library in London discussing the saints in general, soon after returning from the canonisation of St John Henry Newman in Rome.
The insights he shared, demonstrating courage and clarity, reveal that the Catholics of Southwark might be entering a fascinating period in the life of their Church. The archbishop does not hesitate to assert, for instance, that St John Henry should be declared a Doctor of the Church, and specifically “the Doctor of Conscience” – a proposal made last month by Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney.
Newman’s sainthood, he adds, should encourage Catholics to pray with greater fervour not only for the canonisation of Blessed Dominic Barberi, but also for that of the many beatified English martyrs of the Protestant Reformation, a hope seldom expressed by bishops in these sensitive ecumenical times.
There are also contemporary figures, Archbishop Wilson says, who may never be canonised but whose lives could be celebrated as enduring sources of inspiration. They include GK Chesterton and Caryll Houselander, the 20th-century Catholic lay woman “who has written incredibly about Christian life, so beautifully, and has made
a powerful contribution to the Christian life of our country”.
“We have some fantastic witnesses to the faith,” he adds.
Yet St John Henry appears, for him, to retain pride of place, a figure who has loomed large even in the formative years of this archbishop.
Born into a nominally Anglican family in Sheffield, the young John Wilson only discovered active Christianity when introduced to a Church of England parish by a friend he knew from school choir.
He developed an interest in the meaning of the Eucharist and it led him by degrees to join the Catholic Church at the age of 16, along with an inchoate “sense of priestly vocation”. This crystallised at Leeds University, where as part of his degree course he attended a seminar on the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, St John Henry’s 1864 defence of his conversion. His student friends “had the courage” to tell him he had the qualities to make a priest.
At 21, he entered the priesthood for the Diocese of Leeds after graduating with a religious studies and theology degree.
While at the English College in Rome, he completed a baccalaureate in sacred theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and obtained a licence in moral theology at the Accademia Alfonsiana. He was ordained in 1995 and worked in parishes, hospitals, hospices and prisons and served as vice rector of Ushaw College, Durham.
When, in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI called Bishop Arthur Roche from Leeds to Rome to serve as secretary for the Congregation of Divine Worship, Fr Wilson was asked to run the diocese for nearly two years.
In 2015, Pope Francis appointed him as an auxiliary bishop of Westminster, and he was given pastoral oversight for the western part of the archdiocese, which includes all of London north of the River Thames. He smiles as he recalls the moment he learned that the Pope, just a few years later, had named him as successor to Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark.
“Listen, if it is a surprise to you, it was a big surprise to me too,” he says.
He was only 50 at the time and young even to be a bishop. Installed in Southwark on July 25, three weeks after his 51st birthday, he is now the leader, for possibly the next quarter of a century, of a vast metropolitan archdiocese stretching south from the Thames through London and into the south-eastern counties of England.
“I am very honoured,” he says, “but it is slightly daunting.”
He remains the youngest of the bishops of England and Wales. But clerics who know Archbishop Wilson saw in him qualities that commended him for swift promotion.
Certainly, he has experience of running two dioceses, but is by no means merely an effective administrator. He is a genial and sharp-witted man capable of expressing himself in a clear, calm and sincere manner. He has promised not to be a “boss” but a pastor, a brother and a friend to the Catholics of Southwark.
Perhaps such qualities equip him well to address some of the more troubling issues of the day, the difficult questions that range from safeguarding from abuse to the doctrinal crises threatening the unity of the Church.
When we met he was about to embark for Scotland to lecture on Amoris Laetitia, the 2016 apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis, which some have interpreted as allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion.
For Archbishop Wilson, the document “doesn’t change the law of the Church or the truth of the Gospel but perhaps it asks us to be much more sensitive to how we help people draw closer to Christ and His Church and the way in which they can do that according to their circumstances.
“Everyone focuses on a footnote in that document which is open to different ways of interpretation,” he adds, “but it is open to interpretation in a way which is entirely consistent with the tradition of the Church.
“But the document is more than a footnote. The whole approach of the Pope to the vision for the human person, for marriage and the family, there is something very fresh in that which I think we need to take on board in a very positive way.
“Within that there is a particular pastoral approach that is encouraging us to be much more generous about people in particular circumstances. The Church has always done that but I think it is encouragement from the chief shepherd.”
On the subject of marriage, he is equally thoughtful about Humanae vitae, the encyclical of Pope St Paul VI that forbade contraception, and which was published three weeks after the archbishop’s birth in 1968.
“I think it is a prophetic document,” he explains. “I think it is a document which articulates the teaching of the Catholic faith, though I don’t underestimate that for many people it is a document which is quite
difficult to live [with].
“It requires conversion of heart, good teachers and witnesses,” he adds. “The moral teaching of the Catholic Church requires a harbour of faith in which to dock. If there isn’t that harbour of faith it just looks like legalism. But once you understand it as integral to the fullness of life then it becomes something that is a positive proposition and not an imposition.
“The people to witness about the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality are those who are living it positively and show it to be possible and life-giving.”
The perennial issue underpinning all contemporary controversies, says Archbishop Wilson, is one of faith in Jesus Christ.
His determination to preach the faith was clear in his installation homily when he appealed to the faithful to “ask our Blessed Lady to draw me, through her Immaculate Heart, ever closer to the Sacred Heart of her Son”.
Archbishop Wilson is a man of vision and hopes changes will come under his stewardship, albeit gradually. But his priority for now is to acquaint himself with the people of the archdiocese. He dines with groups of four priests on a weekly basis and celebrates at least one Mass in the parishes on Sundays. He wants such churches to be alive and emboldened by the message of the Gospel, and to be led by happy and holy priests.
He wants the people of Southwark to grow in holiness and prayer, to encounter the Sacred Heart of Christ in their own hearts and to carry out the mission of the Church knowing they are loved by Him.It is a confidence which comes from the conviction that Christ and the Gospel are extremely attractive, even to robbers, and that “to be a Catholic today is a beautiful thing”.
Simon Caldwell is a freelance journalist