by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation.
Father Paul: My parents were married in 1938, both pharmacists – my father became Catholic, from Jewish background, after meeting my mother and wanting to know about her Catholic faith. He received instruction far away from her an eventually returned to ask her hand in marriage. He told me, “being baptised Catholic was the best thing I ever did, apart from marrying your mother”. The faith of both of them was convincing, active and committed, yet also quite rich in diversity.
I was born away from our city of Liverpool – my mother was evacuated into Yorkshire countryside because of the War. In the cottage in Gisburn my mother’s mother, “Nana”, had much influence on my early formation. She was an independent character, solid in her faith and a good teacher about prayer. On return to Liverpool – I was almost 4 – I attended the local church and school of All Saints, Anfield, a lively parish which was a strong influence on my early formation. I loved our church and enjoyed being part of all the prayers and services.
In the primary school I received basic Catholic teaching and formation, but it was always linked with what was given to me/us at home. Our priests in the parish were father-figures, very much part of the community. At home we were taught the ways of prayer, and night-prayers were a key daily event. I/we were always taught to say “thank you, God” for the day, to make special requests – we always prayed for Cardinal Midzsenty in Hungary “to bear his sufferings, to get out of jail, or to die in peace”, and for “a nice day tomorrow”.
An integral part of my early Catholic formation was family life, with 2 older brothers, 3 younger sisters, a much-present grandmother, and my parents. Values inculcated were honesty and respect, diversity, helpfulness and generosity, contribution to household tasks, trust in God especially in adversity, fulfillment of school duties, enjoyment of God’s creation.
Dr. Knight: Please tell us the significance of your high school years in formation.
Father Paul: From 7 years of age until 16, I attended the all-boys St Edward’s College, Liverpool, a part fee-paying “Grammar School”, directed by the Irish Christian Brothers, one of a numerous group of such single-sex boys’ and girls’ colleges across the city of Liverpool. Transition from junior school to senior “high” school was almost seemless, but included the State-based “scholarship” or “11+” examination which achieved state grants for fees. Education and sport were dominant in the secondary school, but religious formation and expression was everywhere.
The teaching was both disciplined and mentally challenging (i.e. urging us to think, to remember, to express ourselves). This included the religious teaching and culture. It was clearly very Catholic, aimed at making us/me good citizens in a land that was not Catholic in culture, to be part of society yet firmly Catholic in faith and practice. I only came to realize the importance of this when I moved to the all-Catholic culture of Rome and Italy. I spent 10 years of my life in Italy, but I never lost the upbringing challenge of “Catholicism does not mean everybody. You may be a small minority”. I enjoyed my years in senior school.
Your question is asking about the “high school years”, which means much more than just the school setting. A formative triangle was composed of home – parish – school. For me, all three were co-coordinated and operated in synchronisation. Church: I was very much part of the life of my Catholic parish, attending early morning Mass every day by choice and desire from age 13 and becoming an altar-server. Gymnastics: In school I was not comfortable with the compulsory sports of rugby, cross-country and cricket, but turned very happily to gymnastics at age about 14-15.
Our instructor was an ex-rugby star, and he made sure that our gymnastics was a group thing as well as individual. Swimming: I remember vividly my enduring fear of the water, and my inability to swim, unlike my 2 older brothers and my Dad. I was ashamed. The fear stayed with me until I faced it – alone! – in the summer holidays when I was 13: I went to the public baths at Norris Green every day until I conquered the fear and learned to swim. I thought nobody knew of my personal battle, but I now think that they did know, but kept quiet. Music: I enjoyed choir singing at school, but my serious musical development was on my father’s cherished piano, with personal lessons every week from 7 to 16 (when I left home). I became quite competent on the piano, doing various grade-exams and music festivals, and adapted this to playing the organ after I left home to join the Servite Order.
Dancing: Outside of school I had firm friendships with a number of school friends. In my last year before leaving home I joined friends every Sunday night at young people’s dance evening on the northern side of the city. It was a parish dance in the early days of Rock and Roll, and very enjoyable, especially for a light-footed gymnast! Magic: another passion of mine, from 14 to 16, was “magic”.
My friend Brian and I both like conjuring. But a lodger at Brian’s was a professional magician, and he gave us some excellent items and good training. We became quite ‘professional’, even to doing a full performance before the entire school at St. Edward’s. Magic taught me to always think, “what do you want others to see? What do you think they are seeing?”, a good lesson for public liturgy in church. Holiday: At home my “formation” was enhanced by family holidays – I remember from 1949 (Isle of Man) to 1957 (Cornwall) each year’s grand adventures.
Being self-consciously smaller than my father and older brothers, I was not drawn to long-distance cycling – indeed I often think that I hated it. But I was obliged to do during two summers, and the intense struggle of “keeping up and keeping going” has stayed with my attitudes throughout my life. As others would say rather often, “it was good for you”. I’m still not ready to agree with that. And from swimming and cycling I still feel that my whole life is ruled the struggle to “keep up” and “keep going”. Perhaps the good thing from all that is that I do, in fact, keep going. I do push myself quite intensely.
Dr. Knight: You went to college and joined the Servite seminary. How did you make that decision?
Father Paul: As my teens developed, I was more and more attracted to consecrating my life to God as a priest and – after some discernment – as a religious in the Servants of Mary. When I was 14 I met the Servites at a Vocations Exhibition held in Leeds attended by schools across northern England, including my own school – we travelled across the Pennines in a coach. At the Exhibition all the orders and dioceses had promotional stalls and we collected their information and met their representatives.
This Servite Order dedicated to Our Lady attracted me. So did the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and I had heard of the Salesians from my Grandmother, so I looked at them too. But the Servants of Mary had a representative who showed personal interest (Father Paul Knowles) and enrolled me for an informative newsletter. A bond was established which developed and grew. I already wanted to move from home, called “going away to be a priest”, from the age of about 14.
My father and his priest friend (Fr George Songhurst) and our local priest (Fr Frank Goulbourn) advised me to finish studies to ‘O’ Level (16+) and I accepted this. I had already made up my mind to do so, but had not made an application to the Servite Order, when I was taken on a family pilgrimage to Lourdes at Easter 1958 (this was by my mother’s sister, my “Aunty Ree”, who was my godmother. While in Lourdes I wrote a postcard to Father Paul Knowles asking to join the Servite Order – he was a bit of a showman, and used a slide of that postcard in his vocations’ literature, to my great embarrassment! But my decision was made, and my family and parish were in agreement. So, on 6 August 1958, after my O-level Latin exam, I boarded the train from Liverpool and left home. I was just 16½, but felt that I had waited patiently and was now on course.
Looking back, it was the right decision and a good blessing for me and others. I should note here that the Servite Priory of reception was 200 miles from Liverpool, quite a long distance in the 1950s. But my father and mother diligently travelled to visit me for the start of noviciate and to see that I was alright. Similarly Father Frank Goulbourn drove all that long journey to check out his adopted godson. I had left home, but they did not leave me! And for years of formation, 1958 to 1965, there was exchange of letters almost weekly between myself and my parents. The Servite Order was quite insistent on this communication.
Dr. Knight: You were called by God to be a Servite. What is the significance of your call to be a follower of the mission of the Servites and Jesus Christ?
Father Paul: Everyone with a generic calling must then find its specific form, and in my case everything focused itself on the Servants of Mary. It has never been any different, and I recognized the stages of my commitment as part of a well-focused calling. More and more I have come to realize how Our Lady directs her devotees (“servants”) to focus themselves on her Son, Jesus Christ.
Christ has always been at the centre of my life, most explicitly since I found myself passionately involved in Holy Mass – in my teens as a daily Mass goer, and additionally then as an altar server. My training as a Servite was focused on being a priest to celebrate Holy Mass (for people, and with people, always, but always focused on Jesus Christ at the centre of everything). During my 63 years in the Servite Order I have given special study and attention to the “Role of the Virgin Mary in the Mystery of Christ and his Church”. This has confirmed my basic sense that consecration as a Servant of Mary always directs me to Jesus Christ, in the reality of his People, his Church.
Dr. Knight: You spent formation finding out your abilities and gifts through discernment. How was your discernment helpful to you personally?
Father Paul: Your question is modern language, even jargon, that I would not have understood in my young days. Of course I understand it now: my “formation” was supervised by a number of splendid guides and teachers. Mostly the philosophy and theology, scripture, logic, canon law, patristics teaching served as stimulus, expecting me to draw out whatever I could, and to be humble in the face of enormous values. I was challenged, stretched mentally, and seriously delighted with what was on offer – I am still in that condition!
I have applied my abilities and gifts in reflection, retreat work for deeper appreciation of faith, counselling and accompanying new religious, musical contribution to common prayer, secretarial and administrative contributions to the practical life of my religious order. I notice a gift with words and with language – included other languages Italian, French, Latin – and a love of Sacred Scripture: these become focused in leading public worship (= presiding at the Eucharist), and preaching (10 minute homilies and also 1 hour reflections). If I were asked, “where are you at your best?”, I would answer, “when presenting the Gospel at Mass”, but also “when offering musical accompaniment for community worship in song”.
Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts?
Father Paul : Rather than “mosaic” (and I love mosaics!), I would prefer to say “a kaleidoscope”. What you see through a kaleidoscope is always, always new, well balanced, comprehensive and beautiful. I appreciate my different gifts; I am not vain about them, because I know they are gifts, passed on to me from a variety of sources, originating in the Creator and finding their fulfilment only in the Creator. I delight in my different gifts, without claiming or wanting to be a “superstar”. And I strive to use those gifts in an outgoing way, for the benefit of others. At the same time I see myself as just a small, well-formed star in a vast universe of beautiful stars.
Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview about being a Servite? About living in community?
Father Paul: That’s two very different questions! (1) About being a Servite? As my Dad said about becoming Catholic and marrying my Mam, “it’s the best thing I ever did”! I look back across over 60 years and I see some quite stressful, painful phases, but those were relatively short-lived and soon resolved, while almost all the time I can say, “I am well-blessed, even super-fortunate to belong among the Servants of Mary”. (2) About living in community? It’s a fine balance between being my true individual self and being a brother in the community.
At moments of personal suffering, which always isolate a person, I hear the guiding voice telling me, "Stay close with the brothers”. Indeed, community life has always offered corrective challenges for any vanity or egoism, plus an easily accessed forum for exercising generosity, regularity in prayer and practical ways of serving the wider Church and Society. Community life keeps you human, keeps you human, keeps you humorous, keeps you spiritually and practically safe.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?
Father Paul: “The Church” is far too vast and generic a reality to warrant simple answers. I have always challenged myself and the Church of which I am part to be genuinely human, predominantly spiritual, endlessly joyful and hope-filled. The temptation to be elitist or ghetto-ish is an invitation to preserve open doors, while still offering a spiritual sense of stability and security (how easily Church realities fall into false securities of a worldly type and inflexible, rigid dogmatism with little human compassion!).
The challenges of the future Church for me include more diversity across the world – i.e. encouraging different types of ecclesial communities other than stereo-typed parishes; much more openness to the Ordination of women, more “temporary priesthood” (this needs a long explanation!). In truth, I find that under Pope Francis quite a lot of my longings for the Church are, in fact, happening, but in necessarily “hidden ways” – his approach, which I value, is to leave room and scope for believers to find new ways of living the Gospel and let them flourish.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as a Servite follower of Christ?
Father Paul: Again, a long question, surely warranting a long reply! But I’ll be brief: (1) The joy of receiving a practical focus for my life of consecration, a joy which grows and grows. (2) The joy of so much encounter with Sacred Scripture in the 3-dimensional context of prayer, that is endlessly nourishing. This makes actual study of Scripture useful and fruitful rather than burdensome and obligatory. (3) Practically I found myself introduced by the Servite Order to deep study of the Fathers of the Church (Patristics) and to deep study and appreciation of Sacred Liturgy.
In Liturgy I’ve been allowed to be a pro-active composer of liturgical texts, and a tireless translator of texts into English, making me almost a poet! (4) For much of my life as a Servite I have exercised a helpful role in assistant-leadership i.e. not the one in charge, but like a close advisor to the ones in charge. This has made me quite wise, helpful and discrete. I am genuinely uninterested in power, but very committed to promoting what needs to be done.
Dr. Knight: As a Servite what are some of the duties that you perform/pray?
Father Paul: Up to recently I served as the Prior Provincial of the Servites in England and Ireland, a kind of CEO! This is a pastoral service to the brothers, traditionally called “major superior” – caring, supervising, organizing, leading, working with a “Provincial Council” in regular meetings, also as principal trustee of the Order as a Registered Charity. With internet and phone, the personal contact with the brothers is much easier than years ago when I was the Prior Provincial in 1991-1997.
The task included connection with Servite Friars and Servite other branches (sisters, etc.) in other countries. I still act as ‘communications officer’ for the brothers in England/Ireland, maintaining links with overseas Servites. This involves various languages. For most of the past 35 years I have cared for the record-keeping department of our religious order in England, Scotland, Ireland. Once again, computers have made this less onerous!
Pastorally my service included full-time hospital chaplaincy in central London from 2002 – 2007 and 2010 – 2012, a particularly rich service of compassion and care. I have given care and service to many children and young people in a variety of Catholic schools since 1966, in Italy, Oxford, Swindon, London and Manchester. I have proclaimed the Gospel and its message at Mass regularly across the years, and continue to assist the local parish in this way. I served for 3 years in Jamaica, supporting Servite Sisters in directing the parish of Lucea, Hanover with the sisters effectively ‘in charge’. While I was there I gathered all my notes from Sunday Mass homilies across the years into useful 4-page summaries of Reflections for every Sunday of the 3-Year Cycle, and also special Reflections for the weekdays of Advent, Lent and Eastertime.
These I now share on a weekly basis with about 100 recipients. I also promote understanding and teaching on the role of the Virgin Mary in the mystery of Christ and his Church, by direct teaching (I have offered courses in Italy, USA and Uganda as well as England and Ireland), and by internet teaching and communication. I promote the specialized Servite Liturgy for its significant feast days in the calendar, with liturgical aids and texts. My present apostolic services are restricted by senior age and pandemic restrictions. But the service of prayer is increased, particularly the praise of God in the Liturgy of the Hours at morning, midday and evening, all including prayer of intercession for others, especially those in distress. An important part of my present-day apostolic service is the support, teaching and encouragement of younger members of the Servite Order. I do this within my own community and also by internet communication.
Dr. Knight Thank you so much for offering us this interview and letting us see all the good works that the Servites do for us all.