Virginia Barton

Father Rod: Charting an ordered map in a personal, spiritual landscape


Catholic Herald, early March 1986


Review: The Catholic Faith by Roderick Strange (OUP, paperback, £3.95; hardback, £12.50)


A new book on Catholicism comes out this week which puts me in mind of St. Luke writing to Theophilus: “after carefully going over the whole story from the beginning, I have decided to write an ordered account”.

Father Rod, as he is familiarly known to his Oxford flock of some 1300, has certainly written an ordered account. His book, The Catholic Faith, is written with precision and lucidity but above all with absolute conviction. These qualities make it not only informative but also a very spiritual book, assuring it of a much wider readership than that which the author initially intended – those  who are receiving instruction in Catholicism.

This article is the result of a discussion about the book I had recently with Father Rod.

strange_23152761_0E_3_1386cThe need for such a book becomes obvious if you try to buy one for an enquiring friend. I did just that on my way to visiting Father Rod (there’s a good bookshop next door to his house) and found a rather meager choice. Plenty of volumes on different aspects of Catholicism, the controversial catechism of course, or large and learned tomes that would flummox the average reader.

This book, on the other hand, is concise (186 pages) and divided into chapters of a dozen or so pages, each of which could be absorbed and digested after a hard day at the office.

Father Rod is a very busy man and it is tempting to write about his life and his work. But the book is so much the fruit of that life and work you can know the man through the book. This 40-year-old priest from the Wirral has what people call true blue eyes, is quietly energetic without flapping, is of a delicate sensibility yet with a ready sense of humour.

He .was educated at Stonyhurst, the Gregorianum and Oriel College, Oxford, where he took his doctorate. His thesis, entitled ‘‘Newman and the Gospel of Christ”, was expanded and then published by OUP in 1981. (One is aware of the subtle and gentle influence of the great Cardinal when reading The Catholic Faith.) 

Father Rod was ordained in 1969 and has been senior chaplain at Oxford since 1983, the latest in a long line of distinguished priests which includes Ronnie Knox, Val Elwes, Michael Hollings, Crispian Hollis and the much-loved Walter Drumm. The Catholic Chaplaincy to Oxford University where Father Rod lives and works comprises some fine 16th and 17th century buildings – The Old Palace – plus a large modern complex housing a chapel, lecture hall, library and living accommodations for 16 undergraduates.

It is the lively venue for many activities where all are welcome, the five Masses on Sundays during term providing a focal point. An assistant chaplain (a priest whom I mistook for Michael Caine) and two Teresians give much valued help with the heavy work load.

When I asked Father Rod why he’d written this book he modestly described himself as a dispenser of information. He may spend up to 20 hours a week giving instruction (a word he doesn’t care for) to people wishing to become Catholics. The majority of these are young and intelligent (as you would expect in a university town) and who have usually found their way to the Chaplaincy via a friend.

These days almost half of the enquirers have not been baptised into any religion, but baptised Catholics who never received any religious education or the sacraments beyond baptism also come. Then there are the young couples preparing for marriage and other callers of a less obvious category who call in for help, and homilies and talks to prepare.

The book is the result of all this pastoral experience. These people, and those who regret the passing of the “old way”, those parents who are worried they or their children “don’t know the faith”, and the student who complained, “I know what I believe but I don’t know how to say it”, will all find comfort and courage in the simple, straightforward way Father Rod sets out the Catholic faith.

The book is fundamental and unfussy, full-blooded in its allegiance to Rome and Vatican II, but at the same time it is a very Christian book, based solidly on the scriptures which makes it deeply ecumenical, written as it is with love and concern for both subject and reader.

Unlike some writers on Catholicism, Father Rod doesn’t  base his on the catechism or the creed. Rather, he sets off from the central figure, Jesus of Nazareth, from whom three themes emerge: the Church, the Sacraments, the Virtues. Our belief in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, at once human and divine, makes us members of the Church, founded on His incarnation, death and resurrection.

As members of that Church we are nurtured and nourished by the sacraments and our self-knowledge, our identity, is deepened by living the Christian life as characterised by the virtues. From all of which emerges our perception of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Like a map in a spiritual landscape, the book charts the route with pointers and clues along the way. I suggested to Father Rod that it may be criticised for not including lengthy discussion on such contemporary issues as the ordination of women or euthanasia; he explained that this is in part due to restriction of space and also because he prefers to deal with these questions on a one to one basis during individual sessions of instruction.

Interestingly, it seems that the commonest obstacles for the would-be Catholic to hurdle are still the Papacy and the role of Our Lady in the Church. These “problems” are dealt with in separate chapters in a convincing and intelligent way.

Because the book is written in the spirit of love and is rooted in Jesus Christ, the Catholic faith emerges as something intensely lovable and precious; a religion to illuminate, guide and comfort a weary pilgrim. This is what will make it so valuable to both teacher and pupil, to those who hunger for the truth, to those who are fearful of the future, to those who have lost the way.

(Talking of teachers, surely those involved with religious education will find this volume an excellent aid. A confident well-informed teacher is more likely to communicate Catholicism in a vibrant, realistic, valid way. As Father Rod said, young people ask mature, subtle and sophisticated questions – which are easier to understand than the answer is to give intelligibly!)

Father Rod talks a lot about “interior disposition’’. His book will not only inform, enlighten and renew, but also encourage the perfection of that disposition – and what else is the Catholic faith for?

He has prayed over the writing of this book. I urge you to read it and do the same.


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