Seven is the number of perfection, of fullness, richness. January 15 marked the seventh anniversary of the death of Fr Henry Charles – theologian, ethicist, seminary rector, journalist, attorney-at-law, mentor and friend. In his tenure as lecturer/rector at St John Vianney Seminary he shaped the lives of a generation of priests, several of them now bishops and vicars general. I thought it fitting to reflect again on his influence on me with respect to living a full or rich life.
One of his favourite sayings at the occasional evening talks was, “How do you get from here to there?” He was very respectful of psychology, as was his predecessor Fr Michel de Verteuil. In fact, he said Fr Michel once told him that many people say the problem is out there – gesticulating in different directions – but Fr Michel said, “No; it’s all here” pointing to his chest. Unresolved inner conflict, no healing of memories – whatever you want to call it – is a sure recipe for never getting from “here to there”. When you get from here to there the whole self moves, the whole self experiences healing.
He felt spirituality and psychology were bedfellows. St Teresa of Avila observes: “[The soul] must not be compelled to remain for a long time in one single room – not, at least, it is the room of self-knowledge” (Interior Castle). For him Jesus helped people to attend to the self – Peter, Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman etc. It is striking that for all his vast knowledge his only solid publication, Ongoing Conversion: From Good to Better was not in the area of ethics or theology but spirituality i.e. a book on homilies.
The very title of his book of homilies echoes Matthew Kelly, a highly popular Catholic writer and author of The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic – the Christmas 2019 giveaway. Kelly often speaks of “the best version of yourself”. To become the best version of yourself is to constantly strive for good to better, always aiming at the best, but the best version of ourselves is really in heaven. The homily was a task Fr Henry took very seriously. He would have smiled at Pope Francis: “For many of our faithful, in fact, this is the only opportunity they have to grasp the beauty of God’s word and to see it applied to their daily lives. Consequently, sufficient time must be devoted to the preparation of the homily. A commentary on the sacred readings cannot be improvised” (Aperuit Illis).
He often spoke to us of “remote preparation” and “proximate preparation”. He would start preparing his homily for the next Sunday on the Monday after the previous one – “remote preparation”. “Proximate preparation” is when we prepare Saturday for Sunday. Regarding the preaching that followed that kind of recklessness, he remarked: “People will always know when yuh talking stupidness!” He felt people always appreciated a somewhat muddled homily that showed preparation and struggle than one that struck them as simplistic and ephemeral. He pointed out: “You want to know a man’s theology? Listen to him preach.”
Both Frs Henry and Michel felt that one of Jesus salient qualities was his freedom. He struck us as a free man, encumbered neither by material goods nor the opinion of others. Fr Henry travelled widely but acquired little, except books. His dress code was rather predictable – white, short-sleeved shirt tucked into his black pants, black shoes and socks and a shining belt buckle. He expressed what he felt and people were intimidated by the breadth of his intellect and depth of his conviction. He told me one Caribbean bishop cautioned him, “Henry boy, be careful not to muddy your waters.” He seemed to pay him no heed. I like to live like that too. He was a free thinker and always felt if you were afraid to think about something then what you had was not faith. Faith sometimes demands losing faith into order to have faith.
Finally – and I can say much more – Fr Henry’s writing in his final years was geared towards reaching the unchurched – something we’re hearing constantly from Matthew Kelly, Chris Lowney, Rick Warren and many others. He told me when he finished A levels he wanted to read Greats at Oxford but the then Archbishop told him: “My son, you will go to a Catholic university” and so he went off to Dublin. While quintessentially Catholic he wielded it under a different guise in his Guardian pieces. He spoke about moral, philosophical and theological matters in an indirect way, trying to gain traction and credibility not so much by quoting from above but by returning to first principles. Thinking things anew is an urgent task of the Church today. We neglect it at our peril.