During his long career, Bishop Victor Guazzelli who this weekend enjoys the double celebration of 50 years of priesthood and his 75th birthday has been regarded as something of a maverick. Murray White finds out why.
To vlsrt BIslioP Victor Guazzelli is not like visiting many other bishops. The house of the area bishop in east London is a modest affair, set next door to crumbling council flats just five minutes' walk from that 1990s equivalent of the Tower of Babel, Canary Wharf, on the wrong side (as the property developers would have it) of the tracks of the docklands light railway.
Bishop Victor answers the door himself and insists on helping with this writer's overcoat. As he leads into an unassuming sitting room, the voice of a housekeeper reaches him from the kitchen: "Is that tea or coffee,father?" One suspects it has been an awful long time since a ring was kissed here.
The long-time auxiliary bishop in Westminster diocese in May, Cardinal Hume will celebrate Mass at Westminster Cathedral for the Silver Jubilee of his episcopal ordination has been regarded in English Catholic circles as something of an agitator, a "maverick" as he himself grins.
His outspoken utterances in the last two-and-a-half decades on everything from nuclear disarmament and the FaIldands conflict (which prompted a Tory MP to call for his defrocking) to contraception have taken him into territories where few bishops dare to tread.
On the latter, for example, he has once or twice caused a stir by suggesting it was okay for married couples in certain cases to use contraception. How so, given John Paul ll's continued hard line on the subject?
"I've never questioned Humanae Vitae at all. Pope Paul VI did something which in conscience he had to do and he was right to do that.
"But what I question is the way its been received by people. People immediately felt that because there was condemnation objectively of an act, therefore their involvement in it was a mortal sin they were cut off from the sacraments that is not true.
"Mortal sin depends on three things. You've got to know what you are doing, you've got to want to do what you're doing, but you've also got to be free in the doing of it.
"And there are all sorts of pressures on people these days bad housing, unemployment, redundancy, a lot more. Such people's use of contraception under these kinds of pressure is not a mortal sin. That has to be said to free people. It's nothing outlandish, it's just good theology?, In fact, the social evils of joblessness and poor housing, Bishop Victor argues, are the "basis for most of the malaise" he see in his patch in east London, and in our wider society today. "There is a sense of deep insecurity around," he shrugs, and suggests that at least some of this is down to a loss of community. He warms to a comparison with the Basic Christian Communities of Latin America, where he says there is a greater desire to, say, help someone out financially if they lose a job.
Here, again, he is happy to stand on the margins. The Basic Communities, where the influence of Liberation Theology has incurred the wrath of Rome, have been unfairly maligned. "These groups are not necessarily against authority. They are communist, but in the sense that they have a sense of community."
Bishop Victor is not, it should be stressed, a rent-aquote prelate. In fact, listening to his soft-spoken reflections, one is struck more by his modesty and gentleness than anything. His shortness of physical stature, is matched with a large heart for justice. "I am happy with that image. If! feel strongly about something, any kind of injustice, as a bishop I feel a sense of obligation that something has to be done," he says.
Victor Guazzelli left his east London home at the age of 15 to study for the priesthood at the English College in Lisbon. Thanks to the intervention of the Second World War, he did not get to see his mother again until after being ordained on 17 March 1945. He taught History and Scripture for ten years in Lisbon, before becoming subadministrator at Westminster Cathedral during the turbulent years of Vatican II.
"We were so surprised and overjoyed by what happened," he says of the time. "When Pope John XXIII talked about opening up the windows, we really understood what all the fresh air was about. It led to a whole new era of lay ministry, of collaboration.
"But of course we priests and bishops were not trained for Vatican II. It did lead to some mistrust. Some do think that Vatican II overdid it, I think they're quite wrong, but..." Ile shrugs again.
He thinks that John Paul II has been unfairly blamed for the actions of others in the Vatican curia putting a halt to progress. "When the brakes were put on widespread general absolution, for example. There's no doubt it worked. But there was a fear at the Vatican that we were in danger of losing personal confession. In fact that had already begun to diminish," he says.
Have we lost a fear of hell, then? "1 don't think so. But people are groping for a sense of sin. We've always been considered to be guilt-ridden. I think we're shaking that off gradually.
"In the old days we would go in with a shopping list of sins without any sense of the serious reflection which makes it possible to change lives."
As a bishop, Victor Guazzelli personified the phrase "care in the community" long before it became political newspeak. In the '70s, he oversaw a pastoral plan for the area which put as much emphasis on improving race relations and the quality of local schools as on the establishment of good catechetics. He recommends the formation of "small groups" in parishes which allow people to get to know one another needs and study the scriptures together ("It's the future of the Church"). Last year, his support was instrumental in the community inter-faith campaign to oust racist BNP councillor Derek Beackton from the Isle of Dogs.
But he is not a tireless workaholic. When he does get the occasional chance to relax, he likes nothing better than to stretch his legs on the golf
After taking up his episcopal position in East London, Bishop Victor was invited to play at Shooters Hill across the Thames. At first, membership seemed an impossibility; there was a five year waiting list and the fees were prohibitive.
Then the club secretary discovered he was Bishop of Lindisfarne (his titular title) and allowed him to join irnrnediately as an overseas member. He only had to pay a token fee.
The irony is that this has been the only practical benefit of being Bishop of Lindisfarne,
the island off the coast of Northumbria which one of the great cradles of English Christianity. The honorary title confers no real power, the island today falls in the Hexham and Newcastle diocese.
"But," he points out, "there is a psychological benefit. I can look back on a line of bishops and there are nine saints among them.
"No other bishop in England can do that!"