My life and times – Father Charles

To celebrate Father Charles’s 76th birthday, the website team requested an interview so he could tell his life story

“Downside has been a rock of stability my whole life”

I was born on 29 January 1941 in Dublin, which is where my mother had been sent for safety during the War. My father was in Iceland as a colonel in the Royal Engineers. Both my parents were Irish. Of the Fitzgeralds and the Lombards, Lombard is the key name – a Norman family in Co Cork since the thirteenth century, and thus is what might be classed “gentry”. We lost a fortune during the Easter Rising because property they owned in Dublin was destroyed.

I had two older sisters, and a brother six years younger than me. My early childhood was spent in East Africa (Kenya). It was great to be there in the sunshine at the tail end of the existence of one of Great Britain’s better-run colonies – better than the gloom and rationing of post-war Britain.

“My youth was happy and idle”

 At eight I was sent back to England to Worth, which was then Downside’s prep school. I didn’t mind this as it was what you did in those days. I then went on to Downside at 13 after Common Entrance. I must say I didn’t work very hard: I never could get the hang of passing exams – except my driving test! I enjoyed mending fuses and all things electrical; I also looked after the beagles at school. I wasn’t sporty, except for squash. I was always more interested in the practical side of things, how they worked, and later in life I built an internal telephone exchange for Downside. That sort of thing was a hobby.

James Michael Hubert Fitzgerald-Lombard, aged 14

There were intimations of vocation as early as Worth, but that may be because we were asked about the possibilities of being a priest very young. I didn’t think that odd at all as I came from a deeply Catholic family, and it was taken for granted that there would be priests and nuns in every generation. I had three aunts who were nuns. Nevertheless, more teenage preoccupations did kick in at Downside…

On a 1928 Ariel 500cc

I left school at 18, and started a training course with a firm that was pioneering the development of computers. I worked in Croydon in what was essentially management training. I just missed the possibility of National Service by 29 days, though I did join the Territorial Army as I had enjoyed Cadet Corps at Downside, where I played the B flat trumpet. I didn’t stay long in the TA.

My sisters, who were in London, got me invited to balls and parties, but I never really enjoyed that. By this time my former housemaster Fr Ceolfrid O’Hara, whom many in the parish will remember, was priest in Bungay, and I used to visit him. It was he who suggested I apply to the novice master at Downside, where I was in the habit of visiting regularly.

I entered on 1 April 1962 as a postulant, though Old Gregorians were fast-tracked through the postulancy because of their familiarity with things monastic, and I joined the novitiate in September 1962. At that time there were 60 members of the community, including one Brother Peter Harvey.

Vatican II – the most formative event of my life

I took my final vows in 1965, and after studying theology at Ampleforth for two years I was ordained priest on 20 March 1968. It was an exciting time in the Church as the Second Vatican Council was just ending. To my mind this was the greatest and most formative event in my life, and it transformed me from an essentially conservative traditionalist to a much more flexible liberal. Maybe if it had not happened I might not have persevered.

I have never regretted joining. A monastic community provides you with a family, something and somewhere to belong to. Diocesan priests don’t have this, and their life can be lonely. When I came here I had been a monk for 44 years and I thought it would be a terrific wrench, but to my surprise it hasn’t been at all, though occasionally peace and quiet can be at a premium. I had a fair bit of independence at Downside, apart from the constraints of attending the Divine Office.

I did some teaching at Downside – religious studies, geography – and I was a house tutor. I was in charge of the cinema and all things technical, and squash and swimming. In 1975 the new Abbot appointed me bursar, although I had no training for it, at that crucial time of high inflation. I did this job for 16 years, and thoroughly enjoyed it, looking after the buildings, the farms – and the money.

Working the Downside Cinema

In 1985 I had a few months sabbatical and went to Sant’ Anselmo, the Benedictine college in Rome. This was for an in-service course called “Recyclage” for middle-aged monks. Here there was much more formal – though liberal – theology, and I enjoyed it. Soon after this I enrolled for an M.Phil at King’s London where I prepared a thesis on the Clergy of England and Wales, a sort of biographical dictionary of all priests ordained between 1801 and 1914. This was later published as a book.

Eight years as Abbot of Downside

 But then to my genuine surprise in 1990 I was elected Abbot, though I had never been an elected member of the Council. I was young for the post at 49, but I guess I was in the right place and age at the right time, but in many ways a bursar has more power than the Abbot because he holds the purse strings. It’s certainly more fun and stimulating. An Abbot has people complaining all the time. I wasn’t sorry when my eight-year term was up.

Portrait of Abbot Charles by Michael Noakes, 1992

Normally an ex-Abbot leaves the monastery for a time, but I stayed on in semi-retirement working on The Downside Review, and as head of the publishing house. This was quite a relief after my term as Abbot. But then – out of the blue in 2006 – Richard Yeo (former parish priest here and then Abbot) asked me to go to Bungay, as Fr Edward was going to the Benedictine abbey in Washington. I think Richard thought I wasn’t particularly engaged in doing anything, and that because of Fr Ceolfrid I had a previous connection with the parish.

Starting life as a parish priest at 65

Well, I wasn’t ordered to go, but I wasn’t thrilled, though I must add I wasn’t at all devastated either!

So…my Downside workshop was put into cold storage, and Fr Edward handed me the parish keys on 6.6.06, a somewhat ominous date!

With hindsight I am grateful to Richard for this new lease of life because I was drifting into retirement, and just filling in for people. People were most welcoming here, which surprised me because I believed Fr Edward had been so popular. The transition has worked well, because I go back to Downside regularly, for every Chapter and retreat, and at Christmas, so I have retained the sense of belonging to the community there, but here also there is a true Catholic community in Bungay and Harleston.

So there are many pluses in my situation. Is there a minus side? Well, I am bound into the routine of the parish, which makes it difficult to go away. My health is good here, which is a blessing as it is not easy to find a stand-in priest. Dealing with diocesan authorities can be frustrating. Of course I’m not used to taking orders, and they come thick and fast, often to be corrected or countermanded immediately.

“I can truthfully say there are no regrets”

Have I any regrets? Have I ever doubted? No, I can truthfully say I have never regretted joining the Downside monastic community, with all that it has brought me.

The Rt Rev Charles Fitzgerald–Lombard, Titular Abbot of Glastonbury from 1999, and parish priest of St Edmund’s Catholic Parish Bungay and Harleston from 2006.