Obituary: Fr Wilfrid McGreal O.Carm - Carmelite Friar, author, broadcaster

  • Kevin Alban O Carm, Prior Provincial

One of Father Wilfrid McGreal's favourite quotes was from Elias Lynch O.Carm: "Carmelites are kind, they preach the love of God. There is no harshness about them; they understand the grace of God in everything." This could well sum up the life and apostolate of Wilfrid McGreal who died on 23 September. Although Elias Lynch had a reputation as a formidable fundraiser, he impressed the young man visiting his uncle, Brother Anthony McGreal, in Faversham in the early 1950s. All his life Wilfrid tried to live out this kindness and find the grace of God in everyone. In a personal note to one of his confreres he wrote, "…you can never lose by being generous, magnanimity is a great virtue."

Born 16 April 1939, Martin Joseph Wiswall McGreal grew up in Blackley, a suburb of Manchester, just four miles to the north of the city. Son of an Irish father and an English mother, after primary school, Martin attended St Bede's Grammar School on Alexandra Park Road. This institution had been founded in 1876 by Bishop Herbert Vaughan, the future Cardinal Vaughan, archbishop of Westminster and founder of the Mill Hill Missionary Society in north London. At the time Wilfrid attended the school, it was run by the Holy Ghost Fathers, or Spiritans, a missionary congregation founded in France in 1703. Besides being a regular secondary school, St Bede's also functioned as a minor seminary recruiting candidates to train as priests. Martin was inevitably exposed to the concept of a priestly vocation and it would have been natural for him to join the ranks of several hundred diocesan priests and missionaries educated there.

It is at this point that the Carmelite connection asserted itself. Martin visited his uncle Anthony in Faversham over the course of a number of summers. He was impressed by the kindness and concern of Brother Anthony for the Director of the Shrine of St Jude, Elias Lynch O Carm. One of three brothers who were Carmelites, Elias, the eldest brother, suffered from diabetes and consequent liver failure. Anthony took care of Elias, and in later life, Wilfrid recalled that Anthony would buy a "nice bit of steak" for Elias and cook it for him. This was the beginning of Wilfrid's Carmelite vocation rooted in a very practical manifestation of faith and community. Wilfrid often used to say that the Carmelite charism was not only marked by a contemplative and mystical dimension, but also by hospitality and generosity. Eventually, when Martin left school in 1957 he joined the Carmelite noviciate in Aylesford, Kent.

This ancient priory originally founded in 1242 and suppressed in 1538, had been purchased by the Order in 1949 and re-populated with friars and lay people from several European countries. The prior, Father Malachy Lynch, younger brother of Elias, was a charismatic figure, determined to restore Aylesford and indeed Catholicism in that corner of Kent. Wilfrid, as he became in religious life, was again deeply impressed by the intelligence, culture and drive of Malachy. His novice master was Father Michael Wall O. Carm. with whom Wilfrid lived much later in Allington Castle. Wilfrid made his simple profession of vows on 8 September, 1958. After two years of philosophical studies in Llandeilo, South Wales, in 1960 Wilfrid moved to Collegio Sant'Alberto in Rome to study theology. A strongly formative influence during Wilfrid's four years in Rome was the Carmelite theologian Bartolomé Xiberta, a Catalan by birth, but a long-term member of the Order's study house since the 1930s. Wilfrid would often quote Xiberta's dictum that "grace is nothing more than the life of God within us" - a typically Carmelite approach.

The greatest and most lasting influence on Wilfrid in Rome, however, was the Second Vatican Council, which opened in October 1962. He often recounted what a creative, exciting time this was to be in Rome. Throughout his life, Wilfrid taught and lived the renewed theology of the Church, its sacraments and the religious life.

Wilfrid was ordained a priest at Aylesford on 19 July 1964 by Bishop Cyril Cowderoy of Southwark. After ordination, Wilfrid moved to the Gort Muire student house in Dublin and read for a BA in English literature at University College Dublin. On his return to Britain in 1967 he was assigned to the retreat centre of Allington Castle in Kent, just down the river from Aylesford. Wilfrid continued his literary studies for another year at the University of Kent at Canterbury, earning an MA.

In all his postings, Wilfrid had a particular care and concern for ministry to young people: in Allington (1967-1978), Whitefriars, Cheltenham (1978-81), More House Chaplaincy (1981-87), Hazelwood Castle (1987-1990), Aylesford (1990-2005, prior from 1997) and Faversham from 2005 until his death. This concern for ministry to the young manifested itself in Wilfrid's commitment to education both at the secondary level and the tertiary.

It was a happy coincidence that Wilfrid's command of English as a student of literature could be combined with the need to give an account of a "new" way of doing theology. In essence, he was able to give voice in an intelligent and convincing way to those eternal truths which were clothed in a new language. One of his most important contributions to Carmel, and to the wider Church, was to take complex and nuanced ideas and re-express them in an accessible and attractive way. This ability stood him in good stead and brought great success in the academic world and beyond. Most introductory courses to Christian spirituality would recommend now that any study of the Carmelite school began with At the Fountain of Elijah (1999). In a most unusual development, Wilfrid's study of St John of the Cross (1997) was translated, among many languages, into Spanish, so appreciated was his grasp of the Golden Age mystic. Wilfrid also wrote a book on the process of liberation from feelings of guilt (Guilt and Healing 1994), as well as a number of smaller books on prayer and spirituality.

In the late 1980s and early '90s Wilfrid worked at the BBC in the Unit of Religious programmes. It was there that he learnt to be a producer and left a lasting mark on radio in this country as a member of the first team that conceptualised and brought to fruition the ethical issue programme, "Moral Maze", now continuously on Radio Four since 1990.

Later Wilfrid brought his experience in broadcasting to BBC Radio Kent in many programmes as producer and presenter. He was an occasional speaker on Radio Four's "Thought for the Day" and a regular guest on Terry Wogan's morning programme on Radio Two. From March 1997, Wilfrid became a member and then Acting Chair of the Catholic Media Trust, the communication agency of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.

One of Wilfrid's other great passions was the work of fostering ecumenical relations. He worked at both a regional and national level and became firm friends with a series of archbishops of Canterbury. Perhaps the climax of his commitment to ecumenism was his appointment as an Ecumenical Canon of Honour in the diocese of Rochester in 2001. Wilfrid was also Chair of Churches Together in Kent and all his pastoral work had a strong ecumenical dimension.

Despite an intensely active and engaged dedication to the apostolate, Wilfrid was acutely conscious of the need to attend to the interior life. In an interview with The Tablet in 2008 he observed that, "Silence is meant to give us the energy to have something to say when we are with people. Unless you've got that reflectiveness you are just rushing and going headlong." Wilfrid appreciated the beauty of nature and the incredible potential of humanity. His vision was an integrated one and in no way did Wilfrid disdain the material. Indeed, he loved a decent meal and a glass of good wine.

It was appropriate that Wilfrid returned to Faversham in 2005 as Parish Priest, the place where his Carmelite vocation was nurtured. It is no coincidence that Wilfrid published a biography of Father Elias Lynch based on correspondence with another Irish Carmelite, Father Cathal "Tommy" Gallagher. (2007) This was followed in 2016 by a biography of Elias' brother, Malachy Lynch, the first prior and restorer of Aylesford in the 20th century.

The British Carmelites had one last surprise for Wilfrid: he was elected prior provincial in 2008, at the age of 69. When most people are winding down and thinking of retirement, Wilfrid threw himself into this difficult and unrewarding job with his customary vigour and enthusiasm. Some people said he had been elected 20 years too late. He was exactly the right person at the right time. However, it is probably true that the demands of his office took their toll on Wilfrid from the physical perspective: he took the train whenever possible to conserve his energies, for example. During his time as provincial he showed great kindness to all with whom he came into contact. He left office in 2014 and gradually made his way on his final journey.

Perhaps Wilfrid should have the last word: "The teaching of the mystics is we live in the present moment of God now. Each moment is grace-filled. The past cannot be the agenda of the future. It is not allowing God's spirit to surprise us."

Martin (Wilfrid) McGreal was born in Manchester on 16 April 1939, entered the Carmelite Order in 1957 and was ordained priest on 19 July 1964. He died in Canterbury on 23 September 2019. Wilfrid is survived by a younger sister.

Kevin Alban O. Carm.

(Prior Provincial)

Tags: Fr Wilfrid McGreal, Aylesford

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