Virginia Barton

Believing the new Bishop of Portsmouth


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Catholic Herald, 10 February 1989




Just after Christmas I invited the new Bishop of Portsmouth, Crispian Hollis,  for tea. No boast this, rather an example of my temerity and his generosity. I am not in the habit of asking bishops for tea, but this one is welcome any time so easy and informal is he.

A month later, on January 27 I was present at his installation in St John’s Cathedral. The two very different circumstances have stirred up a positive melee of thoughts; some of which I intend to share with you in this Chronicle.

In the cathedral I was one of more than a thousand. The setting was triumphant, organised (beautifully) to the last comma – a public affair of pomp and circumstance. About 200 priests, 30 bishops and archbishops, our cardinal, the papal nuncio, serried ranks of civic dignitaries, and representatives of other churches, they all welcomed the seventh Bishop of Portsmouth to his new home. Great gusts of organ music and a splendid choir heightened the solemnity of the Mass and the simple ceremony of installation.


Packed cathedral

The cathedral was packed – an enthusiastic congregation expertly marshalled into every available nook and cranny. Your intrepid chronicler had an excellent sideways (as is her wont) viewing of the proceedings, by dint of standing on a pew at the back of St Patrick’s Chapel. Its walls were plastered with primary school paintings by Sean, Donna and that ilk, illustrating the theme that Jesus Loves and Cares. A diminutive blonde had a happy time splashing like a sparrow in a little font of holy water. Her squawks (which ruined my tape-recording) added an unscripted touch to our otherwise sober corner. Hey ho, suffer the little children . . .

Distractions apart, it does one good from time to time to leave the familiar for a spiritual shot-in-the-arm. To be a part of a large congregation, all fervently hoping and praying towards the same end – in this case God’s care of our new bishop – is an uplifting and serious experience.

Two stray comments overheard afterwards capture the mood. One, from an Austrian, referred to the warmth of welcome this bishop received – marked contrast to recent events in the Swiss diocese of Feldkirch.



Very different to these well-planned and joyful proceedings was the chat over the tea-pot I referred to earlier. “Mind your head” (he’s a tall man) was my alternative to the fanfare. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t kiss his lovely ring, but he’s not the sort of man to thrust it at you.

Very approachable and apparently with all the time in the world to put at one’s disposal, he is a communicator par excellence. He has the secret of this process: speaking and listening in equal measure. His work in the field of the media is well-known and it’s good news that he will continue his involvement with the IBA, Channel 4 and local broadcasting at least until the new regulations come into force.

One couldn’t help noticing during the installation how many grey-headed clergy processed up the aisle. Concern over the number of new vocations must be widespread, but I shall resist the temptation to be side-tracked into a “where have all the young men gone” rasp. Bishop Crispian referred in our talk to a “middle-aged Church” – parish activities tend to be organised by the stable (middle-aged) element in the community whereas youth is usually on the move. Nevertheless the bishop would like to see young people at least participate in day-to-day parish affairs which need not be as “boring” as they imagine.

He cited the huge response the young make to the challenge of such places as Lourdes or Taize. I am sure that initiatives put forward by the laity would receive a sympathetic hearing from this bishop. In fact the laity in Portsmouth can expect to move into top-gear. Their bishop is a noted administrator, keen to delegate to his team.

But whilst he would like to promote the development of lay ministries to help with the shortage of priests, he stresses that this should never conflict with family life. Like all good priests, he is a great family man and sees the primary ministry of the laity within the realm of the family circle, which should always take precedence over church affairs. Parishes, with the priest as the central lynch-pin, should be a reflection of a well-ordered family life with a place for everyone. These are positive, creative opinions which should lead to “the congregation taking possession of the parish,” as he imaginatively puts it.

Voice of Christianity

Equally positive is Bishop Crispian’s view on the place of Catholics in today’s society. He believes that far from being a persecuted minority, Catholics today represent the voice of Christianity. It is time to take our place, without diffidence or timidity, in the vanguard, and articulate the values essential to our faith. Let us be positive, not separatist – “the leaven in the batch.” Areas such as Parliament, trades unions and the media should be well-peopled with Catholics unafraid to enter public life.

Bishop Crispian was very touched by the warmth of his reception by all denominations on his appointment, and expects full participation by Catholics in post-Swanwick joint action – hopefully with minimum bureaucracy! His background, experience of every shade of belief met with in TV and radio studios, and a fine sense of humour, should contribute to the excellent relations that already exist between the different churches in the Portsmouth area.



The impertinent journalist can never resist questioning his subject on “early influences.” My subject is clustered about with saints. Hugh is his confirmation name, Ignatius had a hand in his education, St Thérѐse of Lisieux is a favourite patron, and he was installed on the Feast of St Angela, founder of the Ursulines. The English Martyrs are close to his heart for he feels that he and his contemporaries reap the harvest of their sacrifice.

And he has taken his motto from St Benedict: Per ducatum evangelii – Under the guidance of the gospels. These are the sources of inspiration.

But he attributes the greatest influence in his life to Fr Michael Hollings. He it was who taught Bishop Crispian about living as a priest, living with other people, and about prayer. A splendid tribute.

The new bishop will begin his episcopate with a whirlwind tour of his parishes, knowing that his first task is to get to know his clergy. Fortunately he looks pretty fit and he’s only 52. “Look after your bishop” exhorted Cardinal Hume to the groupies hanging around Bishop’s House hoping for photo-opportunities.


Worthy successor

Portsmouth may have lost the much-loved Bishop Emery but his crozier is, literally, in the hands of a worthy successor whose concern is that the Church, or that part of it with which he has to do, should have a human and compassionate face.

“Christ was the most human of human beings” said the new bishop, “and that should be reflected in a community where all people feel welcomed, useful and affirmed, albeit this may mean loose-ends and frayed edges.”

Here is a man who makes you feel that life is not such a raw deal. I hope that this Chronicle shares with you some of the confidence in the future that he radiates. Just what we need as we enter the severe season of Lent.



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