Page 8, 28th February 2003

28th February 2003
Page 8
Page 8, 28th February 2003 — The faithful priest who showed that wealth does not always corrupt

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Organisations: English College in Rome
Locations: Birmingham, Oxford


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The faithful priest who showed that wealth does not always corrupt

Personal view

Richard Mullen Fi4 merging into the cold after a Requiem Mass for an elderly priest friend I pondered two questions, one general, one specific. How had priests of his generation coped with all the changes in both Church and society?

He had been ordained almost 57 years before. We are too apt to forget not only the long service of such priests but the inspiring fortitude they have shown. Yet my friend faced a more specific dilemma. He bore a famous name, a name that lifts millions into a different world. For my friend was Fr John Tolkien, eldest child of the celebrated author.

As an historian and biographer, I have often wondered how someone lives in the aura of a celebrated personality. One only has to recall Randolph Churchill to see how damaging that can be. To know that almost every day someone will ask "are you his son?" and to wonder if people cultivate your friendship to grasp some relic of fame.

For several years before I met John I was a close friend of his sister who was my neighbour. I only got to know him at the end of his long period of service in churches in the Birmingham archdiocese, when he became parish priest in Eynsham. near Oxford.

From what I could see he was a good and popular pastor and he used his own money to provide the church with a parish hall. Indeed he was always generous with that money. He had already built a home for unmarried mothers in Staffordshire. Once he joked: "Of course, people will imagine it was named after my father."

No doubt some perfervid Literary critic will proclaim this as an example of filial resentment. In fact, whenever John mentioned his father to me it was always with affection and regard. He and his sister, Priscilla, wrote a charming book about their father, centred on the family photograph collection. Once I recall sympathising with John about his life-long bouts of insomnia. I said I thought childhood sleeplessness was particularly unfair. "Well," he said, "if I had not had my sleeping problems then my father would not have told me his stories and if he had not done this — I would not now be so comfortable!" With that reflection he took me off to a nice meal.

This sensible attitude of acceptance of life as it is marked as his behaviour in so many things. One of his parishioners was appointed Education Secretary and he asked his pastor for advice. John had had long experience in running schools and in being a university chaplain at KeeIe. "Don't keep changing things" was his advice. Unfortunately, it was not followed.

Fr John had a deep Catholic faith but he was remarkably ecumenical In Eynsham he took particular delight when the ruins of the old Benedictine Abbey were excavated in his garden and he enjoyed discussing this with a neighbour, a retired Anglican bishop and the local Baptist minister, John was a man of simple tastes and in Eynsham or later in his retirement in Oxford he would invariably be dressed in a battered old jacket. Although he enjoyed a good meal, I think he regarded butterscotch sauce as one of the chief achievements of culinary genius.

Following his own Oxford degree John Tolkien had gone to the English College in Rome which confirmed him in his love of history and liturgy. Sadly he never wrote down his delightful anecdotes describing his escape from Italy after Mussolini declared war in 1940. The young Englishmen were helped by a friendly communist neighbour who used his fire tender to move some of their possessions into the Vatican. An Anglophile train driver provided more assistance on their escape to France and he even showed them an old British war medal hidden under the lapel of his Fascist uniform.

The increasing popularity of JRR Tolkien's books has led to wildly inflated rumours of great riches and naturally this has provoked envy and rumour. Father John Tolkien suffered from this in his final years especially when his health began to fail. He is now beyond the reach of any malice. I shall myself remember him as a kind man and a good priest who for more than half a century strove to serve God's people. May he rest in peace.

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