Living Beyond Conformity: Eulogy for Fr Owen Hardwicke

Fr Owen Hardwicke

Fr Owen Hardwicke

Fr Rob Esdaile gave the following eulogy at Wrexham Cathedral on Thursday, 24 January 2019, at the Requiem Mass for Fr Owen Hardwicke.

I am very aware that there are many people in this room far better qualified than I to speak about Owen, but I hope that I can voice for you something of the qualities people found in our friend and something of the task which he would have us continue to pursue in this divided land and on this fragile planet at the beginning of the Third Millennium.

I first met Owen on a Christian CND march to Molesworth in 1985. It was a great encouragement as a greenhorn peace campaigner about to head off to Rome to spend 6 years as a square peg in the round hole of seminary life to discover that there was a priest willing to spend Holy Week not in church but on the road, being Church and bringing Church to people with the most varied views and lifestyles.

Owen was very much at home among ordinary people and had a profound understanding of the value of those whom others (including others in the Church) might dismiss as not worth wasting time on. Think of his achievement in building a youth club in his parish in Ruabon in the 1960s with over 100 members - eight of them Roman Catholics! Think of his own lovely label for troubled kids, as 'disorganised youth'. Think of his reflection on his 15 years of enormously hard work in that first parish: "we were trying to remember that the church exists for the world, and that we should register our presence positively in the local community." (LBC, 56)

The thing is that when Owen left he did not leave behind. Becoming a Roman Catholic was not a rejection of the Anglicanism of his youth and it certainly wasn't a rejection of the spirituality of his Quaker friends. As he put it in Living Beyond Conformity: "I just discovered that there was more to the 'universal' tradition than they displayed and I wanted to be part of that tradition." (LBC, 10). In the notes he made about his funeral arrangements, he states: "I long ago ceased to be a 'denominational' man."

Owen's non-combatant service as a Conscientious Objector in the Friends Ambulance Unit touched him deeply and was doubtless the basis for all his later work for peace, here in Wrexham and elsewhere, and he remained a registered Attender at the local Meeting of the Society of Friends.

He did not leave pastoring behind when took leave of absence from parish work in 1969, either. He simply found a larger, less comfortable and richer parish beyond the walls of liturgical space and the confines of Canon Law, among the lost and hurting young people he served and then, later, amidst a rainbow coalition of those who shared his profound commitment to peace-making and reconciliation and his rejection of violence.

If Owen was a non-conformist, he was not a contrarian, though his freedom of spirit and fidelity to conscience at times got him labelled as "a priest of the awkward squad." But you can come to love (as well as respect) 'Awkward'. As his by then Bishop Emeritus wrote in a message for Owen's Diamond Jubilee: "Sometimes his prophetic voice intruded on authority's comfort zone, but Owen's personal integrity as Catholic Christian priest was never in doubt. He is a shepherd with 'the smell of the sheep'!"

Reading Owen's various beautifully composed letters to his superiors on various difficult topics, both his innate courtesy and the careful thinking through of big issues from first principles shine through. Owen did not shoot from the lip. He spoke from the heart.

Unsurprisingly, many others have spoken from the heart in response since his death. So here are some of their comments:

"These little vignettes may be helpful: Owen unobtrusively picking up litter from the pavement outside the Peace and Justice Centre; Owen relaxing with a family over from Hungary, sitting on the kitchen floor, enjoying their first encounter with clothes being swirled around in suds in a washing machine; Owen digging in his garden, for he loved the soil, enriched with his home-made compost; Owen replying to the question of whether any of his street friends ever thanked him with: "Aren't they carrying enough burdens without our adding the extra burden of gratitude?"

"At any community-style celebration he slipped naturally into the role of servant and you were hardly aware that the dishes had been cleared."

"Owen supported us all in our brokenness, and helped us to sense the loving support of God, too. I know that he helped me to 'tune-in' to the person I continue to be in the process of becoming, as a Catholic, Christian and Human!"

"For me, Owen didn't just involve himself in Peace and Justice - he lived it. Never, in my 25 years of regular contact did I hear him criticise anybody -neither clergy, who seemed to be wary of his eagerness to live a gospel life, … nor lame ducks and those who'd broken the law."

"His intelligence and generosity were matched by his patience and compassion. His sense of humour and need to stand up for justice and peace made him the special person he was."

Yet the great sense of loss is matched by a sense of relief. "I also feel an enormous sense of peace and gratitude that at last his long dark night is over. It wasn't easy for him to retire, as you know, as his life was totally given to others, mostly the underprivileged. I heard him say in recent years that he suffered deeply from depression, which always lifted around 8pm in the evening. Well, from now on, it is always after 8pm for Owen, who has entered into the fullness of LIGHT and LOVE …"

And again: "For me these ten years of anguish for Owen have, in retrospect, been ten years of glory. He lived his life of love for the vulnerable and inadequate people - and then became one with them. Owen, for me, has revealed Jesus. The warmth of Owen's humble love - universal in its outreach - has been a magnet and a privilege to feel."

Pope Francis, drawing heavily on the thought of the French theologian, Yves Congar, has taught us that true reform comes about when the periphery is allowed to shape the centre. That is the basis for his call for a Church of missionary disciples: "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets [to] a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and concerned about its own security." That was Owen's vision half a century before Papa Bergoglio wrote those lines.

So let me finish with my own little vignette, from the time when I served with Owen on the National Conference of Priests. Owen wanted us to send a letter to some European body, about some important question of the hour; I think something to do with sharing communion with the divorced and remarried. I forget all the details except that Owen's beautiful and impassioned text spoke of those left "dancing on the margins of ecclesial life." Some grumpy old cleric objected: "You can't send that. How can you translate that into French?" "I've already translated it!" exclaimed Owen, without missing a beat: "dançant sur les marges de la vie ecclésiale!" and proceeded to do a little hop and a skip back from the lectern to his place.

Les marges de la vie ecclésiale, the periphery where Christ, who is the centre, is to be found. That's where Owen danced and dwelled, always Living Beyond Conformity - a brother who, conscious as he was of his sinfulness and dogged as he was by depression, brought life to so many of us. That life we thank God for today as we return him to his source. 'Owen the Peace' (as you were known in these parts), you rest in peace now, and rise to the music of eternity. Amen.

Father Rob Esdaile is parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes, Thames Ditton

Tags: Owen Hardwicke, Wales, Fr Rob Esdaile, Fr Owen Hardwicke, Rob Esdaile

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