I’ve known Canon John Redford since I was an eleven year old school boy when he came as a curate to Holy Cross Church, Carshalton, and also worked as a lecturer in Old Testament studies at Wonersh seminary in the Archdiocese of Southwark. Fr John taught me and other altar servers to read from the lectionary at Mass, and helped us learn to pronounce difficult biblical words. He also taught us how to project our voices so people could hear us at the back of church because our parish priest Canon Albert Ryan was reluctant to go to the expense of installing microphones and a PA system. Fr John also gently encouraged me and other boys to consider a vocation to the priesthood, arranging a coach trip to Wonersh to play foot ball. He also ran a Youth Group where Catholic girls and boys could meet and took us away on retreats to Allington Castle, and Aylesford Priory, on the river Medway. And all the while he was working in Holy Cross parish he was commuting back and forth from Wonersh Seminary to teach the seminarians.
As I got older, and he was sent to other parishes we lost touch for awhile. Our paths crossed again when he was the Director of Tooting Bec Catechetical Centre, when he took a sabbatical at one of the Oxbridge universities to work on his magnum opus on the historical Jesus. Again our paths crossed when he was working with Rowanne Pascoe at The Universe on the Faith Alive series, which was a very popular introduction to the Catholic Faith. It was eventually published as a successful book in various editions.
Life took us on our separate ways again until providence brought us together for our most significant and life changing encounter when my wife and I enrolled on the BA Divinity course at Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, where he was the BA Divinity course director. It was during this time that I began to appreciate as an adult the depth of his knowledge as a scripture scholar, and his passion to teach the fullness of the Faith as a Master Catechist. One of his most memorable series of lectures was, naturally, on the historical Jesus, and I remember him methodically taking apart Rudolph Bultmann’s sceptical exegesis of the Gospels from the perspective not only of the Catholic tradition of exegesis but also a very South London down-to-earth reason and commonsense.
Fr John loved the Second Vatican Council Dogmatic Constitution on revelation, Dei Verbum, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He told me once that when the bishops of the world were working on the drafts on the Catechism he was part of the team in Southwark who went through the text for Archbishop Bowen. He, and the Archbishop’s team, wrote back to Rome to say, among other things, that there was nothing in the Catechism about the Senses of Scripture. He took great pleasure in the fact that the next draft included paragraphs 115-119.
During his time running the popular and demanding distance-learning BA Divinity course, moderating essay and exam papers, mentoring students and designing and resourcing residential weekends and weeks, Fr John also made time to write books and articles. He used to get up every morning at 5am to work on his latest project, writing a series of scriptural apologetic books, ‘Mad, Bad, or God: Proving the Divinity of Christ from St.John’s Gospel (2004), Born of a Virgin: Proving the Miracle from the Gospels (2007), ‘Who was John? The Fourth Gospel Debate After Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth (2008). During his last illness he worked on and completed his final scriptural apologetic book on the historical basis for believing that Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Church.
After he stepped down as Director of the BA Divinity course Fr John put his energies and talents into creating a new and much needed MA course in Apologetics, collaborating with modern Catholic apologists such as Fr Marcus Holden and Fr Andrew Andrew Pinsent. It had been hoped that Fr John would have been well enough to attend the 2013 Graduation Ceremony at St Chad’s so that he could see his former students receiving their MAs in Apologetics but sadly his health deteriorated during the week and he died early on the morning of Graduation day. During his final illness Fr John’s indomitable spirit enabled him to work for the Bishops Conference of England and Wales on the draft of an adaptation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for our local Church.
Forty odd years after first meeting Fr John I became one of his colleagues when I was employed in 2012 by Maryvale Institute as a member of the Catechetical team, and later Head of Diaconal Formation, working with Dr Caroline Farey and Dr Petroc Willey. One of the joys of my dream job was being able to spend time with Fr John over meals or chatting with him in his flat. When I was able to assist him at Mass as a deacon Fr John used to enjoy introducing me at the opening of Mass as his old altar server from Carshalton. Through God’s providence my life had gone full circle.
The last time my wife and I saw Fr John we spent the evening with him in his flat watching a DVD of Daniel Barenboim’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Die Walküre , accompanied by Fr John’s explanations. It was a magical evening, which we’ll never forget as we watch our newly purchased copy of Daniel Barenboim.
Canon John’s death on the morning of the 2013 Graduation Ceremony and the resignation of so many staff and associate staff over the past two weeks marks the end of an era for Maryvale Institute. These passages from St Paul come to mind that convey something of the sadness and the consolation that is around both endings, ‘ in all our troubles I am filled with consolation’ (II Cor 7:4) & ‘If you have hope, this will make you cheerful. Do not give up if trials come; and keep on praying’ (Rom 12:12).
I will finish this tribute to my friend, and mentor with a quotation from one of his last books, ‘Treasures of Dei Verbum’ (2011):
‘It is a great privilege to have lived during the sessions of a General Ecumenical Council of the Church. There have been twenty-one in the whole history of the Catholic Church during the two thousand years of its existence. That means on average one per century; and a Council only lasts on average for about ten years. So the law of averages says that each Christian has a good chance of being alive during one Council of the Church’.
But I was even luckier. Not only did I live through all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council,which met from 1961-65. Even more, the Council took place in Rome while I had the great privilege of studying for the priesthood at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh, from 1961-1967, after which I was ordained priest by the Archbishop of Southwark. Studying theology was unbelievably exiting at that time. We were receiving weekly reports of the Council not only in the Catholic papers but also in the national press. What a change from our somewhat dry old Latin textbooks!
Fr John concluded his commentary of Dei Verbum with these words:
‘We saw right at the beginning that the Council Fathers did not just wish to defend the truth of divine revelation in this document. They wanted to draw the whole Church into a greater awareness of the purpose of divine revelation, which is to make us sharers of the divine nature. But if, as recent Popes have emphasised again and again,the Church exists to evangelise, then the prime instrument of evangelisation is the Bible itself, to draw more and more men and women of our time into that koinonia.
Thank you for your patient reading of my commentary, which I hope will draw you more and more back to read Dei Verbum itself. And remember of course, even more, ‘The best book to read is the Bible….’!
A prayer when you begin the reading of scripture: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”. [I Sam 3:9]. This is the response of the little boy Samuel, serving in the Temple, who heard the voice of YHWH calling him by name during the night.