THE NAME of Michael Joseph Canavan was not a household word; I don't suppose many, outside the little walled garden of the Institute of Charity in England had ever heard of him. Yet his passing on Sunday May fi at the age of 78 will leave a void in the lives of all those who knew and loved him.
The manner of his death was surprisingly public and dramatic for such a private and inner directed person. It took place al the golden jubilee celebrations of Grace Dieu, the preparatory school for Ratcliffe. There were two guest speakers — Fr Michael and myself. The golden glory was rendered more lustrous by the fact that it was also the fiftieth anniversary of Fr Michael's entry into the Rosminian order.
That morning I had attended his last Mass with him. With the usual English optimism, a triumph of hope over experience, the school authorities had set up the altar for the celebration on Grace Dieu's beautiful lawns.
But the weather too was typically English and Fr Michael and I followed the Mass from the headmaster's study, which thus was transformed into a combination of private oratory and medieval squint. As Augustine Birrell once observed, for Catholics "It is the Mass that matters", and it matters for a priest most of all. So I was privileged to share slich a sacred moment.
Afterwards when he came to introduce me on the platform he chose as his theme the purpose of Christian education, which he declared was not financial gain nor even academic success but, in the words of the penny catechism: "To know, love and to serve God in this world and to be happy for ever with Him in the next," These were his valedictory words: immediately afterwards he lost consciousness and that evening he passed into eternity.
No one who knew him could doubt for a moment he is in God's presence. He had a rare combination of gifts, not always found in religious people, that of a loving human kindness with a deep personal spirituality. Most of his life was passed in teaching at Ratcliffe, Grace Dieu and elsewhere and what he imparted was precisely what he out lines in his final words — the primacy of the spiritual.
There must be many men today in different parts of the world who are grateful to him for that initiation into the secret life of the Spirit. As he said himself in his farewell address: "It is one thing to know about Christ, another thing to know him. You can't teach this: you catch it."
Michael Canavan was headmaster of Grace Dieu from 1948 to 1956, then after a gap he returned as spiritual director for more than a decade, before finally coming back again in 1979, for what was styled retirement but was full of activity and service to others. He even developed an apostotate in the United States, which he visited every year, and balanced the fevered American extroversion with his own serene contemplative spirit.
So it was at Grace Dieu that his life's work unfolded. He loved the place. He had a delicate response to the beauties of nature and a sense of history.
He appreciated the importance of Grace Dieu as a centre of the nineteenth century Catholic revival in England, the house which was long the home of the Gothick enthusiast Ambrose Phillipps De Lisle and from which the passionate and ascetic Gentili carried out his mission to the villagers of the Midlands, surely one of the most extraordinary episodes of the Second Spring.
There is a holiness of places as well as of persons and in Fr Michael's residence at Grace Dieu they came together.
He was imbued with the serenity of the Rosminian spirit, at the heart of which is found an abiding trust in divine providence. This is not a form of quietism, although it is sometimes misrepresented as such — Rosmini's own tempestuous career gives the lie to that, but a willingness after all the effort and engagement to leave the result to God.
Rosmini never tried to write both sides of the equation: he never forgot that God often prefers to write straight with crooked lines.
So Fr Michael maintained his trust in Providence to the end and received a last gift ..of graciousness in being granted not only a happy but a painless death. A death in such circumstances might at first sight seem shocking but it was nothing of the kind. It had its own proportion and fittingness. it came at a moment of achievement and fulfilment, amongst the people and place he loved.
One looks back to that day not with sadness but joy. His friends will miss him profoundly but they will be consoled by the thought that they have gained an advocate at the court of courts before the King of Kings.
REQUIE,SCAT IN PACE.