Ampleforth Abbey

14 December 2017

Funeral Mass of Fr Justin Caldwell OSB

Fr Justin Caldwell

The following homily was preached by Fr Terence Richardson OSB, Prior of Ampleforth Abbey, at the Funeral Mass of Fr Justin Caldwell OSB on 9th April 2013.

“The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”.  This is, of course just what we have been celebrating in the last fortnight, the lifting up of Jesus on the cross, the exaltation of the Son of Man.  For St John this is the sign to us of healing and salvation that has now been opened to us – to you and to me, and to Fr Justin.  This is what we believe and what we celebrate in the liturgy, and most especially in this Easter season.  This is a saving mystery – the Lord offers us the grace to join him.  As St Paul wrote, (1Thess 4:14) “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and that in the same way God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.”  It is in this faith that we are gathered here today to pray for Fr Justin, who died on Good Friday, the day the Lord himself died.

John Caldwell was born in April 1929.  According to his birth certificate this was in somewhere called Walton Inferior, but he generally used to say he was born in Warrington.  Aged nine he came to Gilling and then moved through to the Junior House and on to St Bede’s House in the Upper School.  He came straight into the monastery in 1947, aged 18, where he received the name Justin.  He was sent to Oxford to study Modern Languages at St Benet’s Hall and then returned to Ampleforth where he completed his studies for the priesthood while beginning to teach and act as assistant housemaster in the Junior House.  He was ordained priest in 1956 and the following year was moved to Gilling Castle to teach the youngest boys.  In those days Gilling had only three years - what we would now call year 4, 5 and 6.  Fr Justin remained at Gilling for 24 years, taking over as headmaster in 1971.  His gentleness and sense of fun were just right for these young boys and he flourished there.

His health, however, gave cause for concern.  He suffered a heart attack in 1974 and was off-work for four months.  He returned to the Castle and resumed the role of Headmaster, but the death in 1980 of Fr Bede Emerson was a great blow, and the following September, Fr Justin moved on to the parishes where he remained for eighteen years, first at Lostock Hall, then at Leyland (where he was chaplain to Wymott Prison), then at Brownedge (where he looked after the sick in St Catherine’s Hospice), but finally for ten happy years at Workington, where he was chaplain to St Joseph’s High School and worked hard in the parish.  One of our parish fathers remembers working with him: “He was shy and reserved and often not very effusive, but when he was enthused or felt free he could be very jolly, friendly and also supportive.”  Fr Justin was definitely happiest when working as part of a team, without heavy overall responsibility.  He remained close to the heart of the community and its works, just as he remained close to his family in all their generations.

In 1999, at the age of seventy, he moved back to Ampleforth and fitted back into the life of the Abbey.  He helped out by supplying on parishes, he was appointed assistant chaplain to St Martin’s Ampleforth (as Gilling Castle had become in a new incarnation), and then finally chaplain to his old house, St Bede’s from 2006 until 2012.  St Bede’s was by now a girls’ house and in a different location to where it had been when he was a boy.  But he flourished and once again his gentleness and friendly smile were great assets.

All his life Fr Justin had played chess, and taught chess, and run chess clubs.  A talented and experienced player himself, he was inspirational to others.  Ten times between 1991 and 2009 he was champion of the Clergy Correspondence Chess Club – they used to play by sending postcards to each other, but latterly they changed to email.  One Old Boy emailed us this week to say “It is with great sadness that I have heard of the death of Fr Justin.  I will remember Fr Justin as a selfless, kind and thoughtful monk, whose dedication to chess at Ampleforth was honourable and commendable.  Fr Justin inspired my chess playing and provided a welcome break from other studies.  He is in my thoughts and my prayers.”  I am sure he spoke for many others.

Fr Justin’s health continued to be a worry.  He was operated on for intestinal cancer, and then underwent a further operation on his right lung last year.  Recently he had been told that the cancer in his colon had reappeared, and that this was likely to be fatal.  So it was in a way merciful that the Lord should have taken Fr Justin with a heart attack early on Good Friday morning.  He had concelebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday and prayed at the altar of repose.  From there he went back to his room where he suffered an attack of angina.  Shortly after midnight this seems to have eased, but later that night he had a further heart attack and died on the day that we celebrate the death of our Lord Jesus Christ himself.

The first reading today gave us a glimpse of what life in the early Church was like, or more likely, a glimpse of what it was like at its best.  Passages such as these from the Acts of the Apostles have inspired Christians down the ages to live together in community, holding their possessions in common and caring for each other and for the poor.  Such was the inspiration of St Benedict, and such also was the motivation behind the secret life of Fr Justin.  He was happy just living here with his brethren, coming to choir and joining in the prayer, occasionally acting as cantor.  We loved him.  We knew his funny ways, just as he knew ours.  We knew how he liked the toast to be cooked, which lights should be on, and which windows and doors should be closed.  He was a neat man – everything in his room was in perfect order (and alas you can’t say that for all monks).  And if ever he was frustrated by the disorganisation of other people, he would find his way quickly to forgive and that grin would break out across his face once again.

We shall all miss him.  Just twelve days ago he spent the afternoon in the Main Hall, welcoming our guests as they arrived for the Easter Triduum Retreat.  He would greet each one with a broad smile find the right room for them.  Fr Justin truly loved the Lord Jesus; may the Lord welcome him into paradise with an even broader smile and find him the place where he may rest in peace.