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Sermon for the Funeral of Fr Bede Bailey OP

Saturday, October 04, 2014
Sermon for the Funeral of Fr Bede Bailey OP, 19th August 2014 

by Fr Richard Conrad OP

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9 and John 6:51-58

With the death of Fr Bede Bailey at the age of 97, we have lost an important link to a key part of our English Dominican history, for Bede was the last surviving Dominican to know, personally, Fr Bede Jarrett, who, as Provincial, brought us back to Oxford and Edinburgh. I presume David Bailey, as he then was, met Fr Bede Jarrett through growing up near Hawkesyard. His mother became a Catholic early on; his father, courageously, did so some years after her, and was instructed by Thomas Gilby. David Bailey was schooled at Ampleforth, but he decided to join the Order of Preachers. That was at the time Fr Bede Jarrett was ill, too ill in fact for David to visit him in hospital. Bede Jarrett died in 1934; David entered the novitiate a year later, and was delighted to “inherit” the earlier Fr Bede’s religious name. This went well with his veneration for what might be called “continuity of line”.


Priory Church of St Dominic, Newcastle, where Fr Bede was Prior in the 1950s

Bede studied at Hawkesyard and Oxford; he was pleased that his “ordination line” took him back to Archbishop Ullathorne and, through him, to the Vicars Apostolic – a precious part of English Catholic history.

Bede’s ordination was followed by a dizzying series of moves, eight in sixteen years. In each place he was assigned, he held several jobs at once. Often he was cantor, owing to his musical voice and, I guess, the feel for the chant he had picked up at Ampleforth. For some of the time he was in Edinburgh where, decades later, he taught the novices to sing, and used to encourage them to “soften their endings” – not always with success.

The job of guest-master was also often undertaken by Bede, going well with his sense of hospitality – and with his skill at being “conversible”. When I was in Edinburgh with him, I noticed that if he was away we didn’t always know what to talk about at supper, whereas when he was present there were no embarrassing silences.

Bede also had a pastoral streak: he was often assigned roles such as curate or air-force chaplain – and (in those early years and later) he was sometimes chaplain to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He had a real concern for the poor: when he was Prior in Newcastle he was proud that the men’s club in the parish had good, and cheap, beer; and he was assiduous in visiting the poor.

During a short time in Oxford around 1948, Bede worked with Conrad Pepler for Blackfriars Publications, and, because of Conrad’s Ditchling connections, I’m sure this helped develop Bede’s interest in Eric Gill and David Jones. But his interest in the work of these craftsmen would also have struck a family chord, for Bede’s father had been managing director of Royal Doulton.

At that same period, Leonard Boyle was a student in Oxford, and remembered later how easy it was to tease Bede, who was rather solemn, and very English.

When I was Prior in Cambridge in the early 90s, Bede visited and complained, “When I was young I had to kow-tow to the old, and now I am old I have to kow-tow to the young.” But he glossed over the middle period of his life, when he made something of a career of being Prior himself in various places! – though I am not sure to what extent people did kow-tow to him, given that he always seemed to have to take on himself several jobs he should have been able to delegate.

This phase of Bede’s ministry began in 1956, when he became Prior of Newcastle; he held that post for six years. After two years as parish priest in Woodchester, he was Prior in Oxford for three years. Then after three years as university chaplain in Leicester he was Prior there for three years. He spent two years as chaplain to the Dominican nuns in Carisbrooke, then returned to Newcastle as curate and after two years was elected Prior there again.

It was in 1965, when he was Prior of Oxford, that Bede became Archivist of the Province. He was given two shoe-boxes of materials, and set himself to build up the archives. He was not trained as an archivist – he used to boast that he only had two letters after his name, O.P., and none of these pretentious doctorates – but several publications emerged from his time as Archivist, notably the entry on Gerald Vann in the great Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, and of course the letters and other papers of Bede Jarrett that he selected for publication in “Dominican Sources in English”. Bede had a profound interest in our heritage, and a passion for its preservation. His time as Archivist began traumatically: we had closed our novitiate house at Woodchester, and a certain brother sold off a great deal of the library, including some rare books that were very valuable for our history. Bede tried, without much success, to recover some of them, and years later was still trying to make good some of the gaps. He went to Rome once or twice around 1990 to obtain replacements for some items, and was received kindly, but was much distressed at the state of the library in our mother-house at Santa Sabina: “The library,” he wrote, “is in a most disgraceful state, and is used more by the [book]worms than by the brethren.”

After his final three years as Prior in Newcastle, Bede returned to Carisbrooke. I visited the nuns there a couple of times, and put up some extra shelves for the archives. There were two friars living there: Bede – and the brother who had dispersed the Woodchester library! I was amazed at how kind and solicitous Bede was to the older brother, despite what had happened. He could be critical, he could recognise mistakes and injustices; with a deft turn of phrase he could sum up people’s foibles (he sometimes referred to the Provincial Council as “that quango”) – but he was also aware of the need to forgive, and to put the past into the past. When he was around 75, he wrote about the importance of “denying oneself the right of disappointment even for five minutes or so,” and about how brooding can destroy one’s obedience to the brethren – and can even destroy oneself in some degree.

When Carisbrooke closed, Bede and the archives moved to Edinburgh. He filled a huge basement with material relevant to our history, to the context of our history, and illustrative of our influence.

Bede’s interest in our past went with an interest in people – a wide-ranging, and largely non-judgmental interest, an attitude which also made him a very kind confessor. All sorts of people came to visit Bede and the archives.

Of course Bede was upset by things like betrayal of confidence, and by the Order’s failures to appreciate and cherish its past and the people who were important to it, notably David Jones. He was (rightly) angered by stupidities and injustices in the Church. It was notable that along with his interest in the past, he was in many ways forward-looking. He was struck by the work of Conrad Pepler at Spode House, and how this prepared English Catholics for Vatican II. Bede was aware that many old rigidities and fussy rules would have to go – I guess he saw them as unnecessary, un-Dominican, un-English. His three years as Prior of Oxford, 1964-67, were rather traumatic, and I am not sure he ever referred back to them.

Bede was also interested in ecumenism, and when he was in Oxford set up some joint lectures with Pusey House. Later he invited Michael Ramsey to lecture in Newcastle. Bede was himself a visiting lecturer for a term at Lincoln Theological College.

In 1996, at the Diamond Jubilee celebration that Bede shared with Columba Ryan and Bernard Jarvis, Malcolm, then Provincial, spoke of the determination that had kept them faithful for 60 years, a determination born of love of the brethren, love of the project set for us by St. Dominic, and above all love of the Divine Word whom we have to preach. That determination kept Bede faithful during tough periods. But a few years earlier he had written, “I am quite convinced that I have been given more happiness by the Order ... than most people in life experience, and I am happy and hope to help in other people being happy… our province is blessed more than most in that. On the whole we don’t seem to bicker.” Then he added, “One has to prepare for old age just as one has to prepare all the time for dying, and dying happy.” That fits with a story Bede sometimes told of a renowned monk and teacher at Ampleforth, who was asked what he was concerned to impart to the young, and replied, “I prepare them for death.”

Almost exactly 10 years ago, Bede reported that his doctor had said he might live another ten years – “A prospect that does not fill me with enthusiasm.” But he was given all of 97 years. I feel that the last eight or so of them were years of waiting, in the spirit of our first Reading: “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.” So we pray that Bede will “be glad and rejoice in [God’s] salvation.”

A great deal of Bede’s ministry was of course sacramental, and he had a profound sense of the power of the Sacraments. He once remarked to me that if we had to choose between keeping Mass going without preaching, or keeping preaching going without Mass, the Mass would do more to build up the Church. It is that Eucharistic Sacrifice that we now offer for the repose of his soul, that Eucharist which, as we heard in the Gospel reading, is the pledge and cause of the final resurrection. Here, the Word who became flesh still lives among us, to impart grace and love. This grace and love must “take flesh” in the fabric of our lives and relationships, in our historical “locatedness”. Bede could see how grace and love “took flesh” in the lives of real people, not bypassing their characters and their connections, their strengths and their foibles. He could see how grace and love had to “take flesh” in the life of the Province, the Order and the Church – and often had to empower the forgiveness of mistakes, betrayal, injustice, enabling us to build for the future rather than brood on past hurts. We saw grace and love “take flesh” in Bede’s own life and ministry, not bypassing his own talents and foibles. So we pray that God “who began the good work in” him, may “bring it to completion in the Day of [our Lord] Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).

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