1921 in Weilderstadt, Germany. Not long after his birth his family settled in England. He would spend his Saturdays dressed in a white apron serving in his father’s butcher’s shop in Portobello Road. To the many houses and convents in the Bayswater area Bert would go delivering orders. After the start of World War II he went to study for the priesthood at the English College, Rome (1940-1946) (transferred temporarily to St Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst) and gained his licentiate in theology. On February 10 1946 he was ordained priest. Three years later he graduated from the Biblicum in Rome with a licentiate in Sacred Scripture.
In 1949 Bert was appointed professor of Scripture at St Edmund’s College, Ware, where he taught for 15 years. While at Ware he re-edited Ronald Knox’s translation of the Psalms, making the prayers more accessible and encouraging readers “to make these prayers our own... if we are to approach our Father in heaven as Christ did”. He also worked, as a principal collaborator, on the Jerusalem Bible (1966). While undertaking these tasks he began a series of talks to the Sisters of Sion. From this came invitations to meet groups elsewhere in the country. One of the largest groups comprised more than 500 people and assembled each week at the French church in Leicester Square. His audiences were moved by his commitment to making known the message of the scriptures, by his sensitivity towards peoples’ search, and his humility and reverence when approaching the things of God. His contributions to various journals, such as The Furrow, Scripture and The Clergy Review, of which he was assistant editor, demonstrated that he was ahead of most of his contemporaries in his understanding of theology.
In 1964 Cardinal John Carmel Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster named Hubert Richards principal of a new institution: Corpus Christi College, London. The college would offer priests, religious and laity the opportunity to study Scripture, theology and catechetics. Before it opened Bert went around the country gathering information on the ways in which colleges were managed and guestlecturing at a new institution, Christ College, Liverpool. When Corpus Christi College opened in 1965 Bert was returning to scenes of his childhood. He informed the international student body that, as the college was situated strategically between the rich and the poor world – half in Bayswater and half in Notting Hill – “it is just about the best place to be!” With the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 Bert, his staff and the international team of visiting lecturers, including Gregory Baum, Herbert McCabe, Donald Nicholl and Edward Schillebeeckx, understood their task to be one of spearheading new approaches to religious education. For the next seven years students from across the world, many having senior leadership roles in the Church, came to the college ready to engage with the challenges posed by the programme of studies. In 1970 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate judged the college to be “doing admirable work”. But it was the students’ judgment which meant the most to Bert. Many described their year at the college as the most formative time of their lives. The influence he had on them is seen today in the work they are continuing to do for the Church world-wide, as advisers, bishops, priests and teachers.
Despite the college’s success some within the Church put pressure on the Hierarchy and expressed severe disapproval with the style of teaching at the college. In 1972, the staff resigned because they no longer felt able to develop the kind of religious education which they felt was appropriate for today’s world. Undeterred by such events, Bert went on to become senior lecturer in religious studies at Keswick Hall, later the School of Education, University of East Anglia. There, his passion for the scriptures became legendary, with recruitment to his courses over-subscribed. Students valued his meticulously prepared sessions, his patience with their attempts to grapple with perplexing theological problems, his sense of humour and the glint in his eyes giving constant assurance. The genial pipe-smoking tutor fitted easily into university life. Like others before them, the students appreciated the quality of their lecturer, not least when he concluded a teaching session by strumming his guitar and singing one of his Gospel songs.
Following his resignation from the priesthood in 1975 he continued to teach, to lead pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to publish books which addressed key questions about life and death. His marriage to Clare Milward and the adoption of twins, Pedro and Blanca, gave him new opportunities to speak of love incarnate and share unexpected insights into the mystery of the fatherhood of God. In retirement he maintained a modest teaching programme, giving scripture courses to sixth-formers, university students, Anglican readers and members of various Christian denominations. For over 20 years he was chairman of the Norfolk Theological Society. Throughout his life, Bert developed warm friendships with members of the Jewish community which were dear to his heart. His publications, over 60 in number, ranged from theological and scriptural texts to children’s books, Gospel song books and pilgrim guides. Each in their own way confirmed his passion for the scriptures and his fidelity to God’s revelation.
Filled with remarkable insights into the ways of God he believed that because Jesus of Nazareth became the incarnate Word of God all human experience has the potential to reveal divinity. Frequently, he quoted words of Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully living!” Many would say that he epitomised this glory particularly as the years passed and he became frail. Yet, for one who had always lived simply – “Why buy a new shirt, when an old one can be patched?” he would say, and “Why buy a new pencil, when this one has not yet become a stub?” – he never lost his ability to welcome the stranger, to penetrate the heart of a problem, to accept whatever life brought as gift and, never, within reason, to complain.
Even when deafness impeded his ability to be the humorous raconteur of earlier times he refused to seek sympathy. A friend once asked him: “Doesn’t this deafness bother you?” His reply captured something of his wit: “Not really! The one thing I do worry about is if it prevents me from hearing the final trumpet call on Judgment Day!” Still writing at 85 he described The Four Gospels (2007) as his last will and testament. For Bert, the gospels were never information, but always an invitation to join the pilgrim way. That is the legacy he leaves behind.
He died, as he had lived, peacefully, on the eve of the Annunciation of the Lord, at home, surrounded by his beloved family.