Robbie Low on life in the Catholic Church and what he has been up to since he and Sara left the NEW DIRECTIONS team
It is exactly five years (to the very issue) that Sara vacated the editorial chair at New Directions after twelve hugely exciting and tumultuous years. Together, in 2003, we had already slipped quietly into the West (Cornwall) and then, in 2005, across the Tiber.
Not a day has gone past when we have not prayed for our old ‘comrades in arms’ in the Church of England and very few days when we have not heard from at least one of them about the latest ecclesiological brouhaha or, more interestingly, personal, family or parish news.
A spiritual experience
Most friends assumed that becoming Catholics was a long-term plan. Nothing could have been further from the truth. My resignation from my living was separated from our reception into the Catholic Church by nearly two years. Indeed for the first year home in Fowey we continued to worship at the little Anglican FiF church at nearby Charlestown. I, for one, had no intention of becoming a Catholic until overtaken by a profound spiritual experience at the tomb of St Peter and then overwhelming conviction at an audience of the late Holy Father, John Paul II.
We returned, spoke to our old friend and vicar Fr John Greatbatch, who was very understanding, and began to attend the nearest Catholic church where we were blessed to find an amazing and brilliant young parish priest who could not have been more helpful. All the time we were engaged, first of all, in caring for Sara’s mother, who lived with us and whose long years of dementia were about to end in a peaceful death. Then my own mother’s heart started to fail and we were up and down the street caring for her for two years. No sooner had she died than my father’s terminal illness began and we were on daily duty again for nearly two years.
To be honest ordination never crossed my mind – there wasn’t time – but I was used in teaching and Sara’s administrative gifts were quickly picked up.
A house of prayer
Left at last with an empty nest, no ‘aged Ps’, and a very run-down house in a beautiful setting, we prayed long and hard. We had always had a background sense that one day we might be able to have ‘a house of prayer’. We both value retreating hugely and have a real desire that the Faith be taught and encouraged so that people become more confident in their witness.
Sara is immensely good at the practicalities that make something work and a sometimes intimidating (at least to me) eye for what is needed spiritually. In the end the decision almost took itself, as things often do in prayer. The terrifying becomes the obvious and most natural thing surrounded by a profound sense of peace.
We spent a year refurbishing, reroofing, reflooring, rewiring, replumbing/heating, new kitchen, bathrooms, chapel, loft conversion, decorating, carpeting – you name it, we did it. The end result of our praying, much encouragement from our PP and every last penny we had (and some) is Fowey Retreat
In 2009 we opened the doors for retreats, educational courses in the faith, holidays, cell groups, chaplaincy awaydays, youth groups, private retreats. The Retreat itself is in a quiet country lane above the beautiful harbour town of Fowey and the house looks down the secluded garden directly out to the ocean.
The aim of the Retreat was to give people a place to come and pray and be at peace before the Lord but also to give teaching opportunities in the Faith, to help people grow in confidence in sharing their faith. Last year we ran retreats and courses on
‘St Paul – Teacher of the World’, ‘The Beloved Disciple – Meditations on St John’s Gospel’, ‘St Peter the Fisherman’ and ‘Four Last Things,’ amongst others. This year we have another selection, as well as days of preparation for the Passion and the Nativity.
Thanks to the technical know-how of a keen supporter, every talk is now recorded and each retreat or course is available as a boxed set of CDs. Last year we sold 300; not enough to worry Simon Cowell but encouraging nonetheless.
As I write this we are preparing for a small youth group weekend on ‘Vocation’. Next month we will take this group on a two-day Rosary walk along the Saints’ Way, using each station to offer the intentions of those who have asked our prayers, and ending with Mass at the Retreat, a hot shower and a hearty feast!
When the house is not being used for retreat we have been delighted to see it used by families and small groups of friends for holidays.
You’d be amazed how many use the chapel for prayer or simple quiet time, peruse the religious bookshelves and want to ask questions about the Faith. On changeover day I have regularly had to rescue Catholicism for Dummies from bedside tables or the top of cisterns! The Lord moves in mysterious ways.
We have hugely enjoyed our first year working closely together again in the ministry and, an added bonus for me, I’ve started writing again – over 100,000 words so far and all about the Faith.
In all this we have been greatly encouraged by our parish priest and the Vicar General. Other priests in the deanery have invited me to come and talk, lead retreat or give teaching courses. I’ve even been able to give a teaching course to an ecumenical Lent group.
Next month I have been invited to speak to an Anglican parish on the Ordinariate. I am sandwiched between the Director of Forward in Faith and the Diocesan Bishop in a four-week course. What to say? I might start with my phone call to one of the Flying Bishops asking to be readmitted to the Anglican Church so that I could become a Roman Catholic on considerably improved terms! I would want those who come to know that few things have been higher up our prayer list over the intervening years than the life and witness of our Anglican friends.
To be honest my experience is that no one can be dragged kicking and screaming into communion with the Universal Church. Sara and I are eternally grateful to all our Catholic friends who patiently bore with our agonizing over inordinate time and just prayed and hoped and listened when they must have longed to say, ‘Oh, for goodness sake, just come!’ So I shall leave the technicalities to the aforementioned dignitaries and try to sketch out what it may be like for those listening if they decide that it is God’s call for them.
Some worry about the authority of the Pope. Most people confuse it with the teaching on infallibility. In practice, that authority is best spelled out by John Paul II in two instances. He remarked that the Pope himself needs constant catechizing – he also goes on learning the things of Christ. And, in his encounter with Archbishop Carey on the subject of the ordination of women, the Holy Father had to confess that, constrained as he was by the teaching of the Church, he had no authority to do what George was proposing and depart from the example of Jesus. The Magisterium is a guarantee against doctrinal and ethical chaos, not an arbitrary tyranny.
Then there will be Our Lady. Without an understanding of Mary’s place there can be no real understanding of what it is to be the Church. I have witnessed the delight and astonishment of a good number of evangelical Protestant friends when that penny has dropped. But even greater has been their amazement to discover that the Catholic Church not only has Bible, Bible, Bible, for her liturgy but that she declares it to be ‘inerrant’. (From my old congregation the overwhelming majority of those who have become Roman Catholics are the evangelicals.)
Some have been troubled about their orders. I have simply seen this as God’s problem, not mine, and do not doubt for one moment the extraordinary blessings on the ministries of faithful Christians. Nor, having worked for a bishop who didn’t believe in priesthood, do I have any difficulty in making assurance doubly sure for the sake of the Church and the Sacramental life.
These and many other concerns will, no doubt, be aired. For ourselves all we can say is that life in the Catholic Church, in the wonderful ordinariness of parish life and as laity, has exceeded our deepest hopes. Every day has been a joy and a relief. We have been astonished and delighted at the treasures we have discovered.
There has been no moment of regret and our only backward glances have been for our friends in travail still with whom, we pray, we will one day kneel again before the same tabernacle and receive the medicine of immortality. God knows we need you and long for you. In the meantime and beyond, we would love to welcome you to Fowey. ND