Obituary: The Right Rev Joseph Gray

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The Independent Culture
JOSEPH GRAY was one of Ireland's greatest gifts to English Catholicism in the second half of the 20th century. His long ministry of 55 years as a priest, 30 of these as a bishop, was spent in the Midlands and on Merseyside and the Borderland.

He was born in 1919, the second of the eight children, four sons and four daughters, of Terence and Mary Gray of Finternagh, near Bailleborough in Co Cavan, and from his youth he knew his calling. Well educated at Patrick's College in Cavan, he entered the serenity of St Mary's Oscott, Birmingham, in 1937 as a student for the Archdiocese of Birmingham. There was great excitement in the Gray family in Ireland when he was ordained priest in the Cathedral of St Patrick and Felin, Cavan, in the middle of the Second World War.

His first appointment was in 1943 as assistant priest of the Sacred Heart Church in Aston, Birmingham, where he served for five years. His thirst for knowledge of the Church's Canon Law was insatiable and so he decided to enter Dunboyne Institute at Maynooth College, Co Kildare, in 1948. After receiving his Licentiate in Canon Law in 1950, he returned to Birmingham and was appointed to an administrative post, as Secretary to the Archbishop, and a year later he was given more responsibility as Diocesan Chancellor.

In 1955 he returned to be a parish priest, this time at St Michael's in Birmingham, but still combined with his responsibilities as Diocesan Chancellor. In 1959 he was invited to Rome, to study at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, where he wrote a thesis for his Doctrinate in Canon Law. A bonus of his two-year stint at Rome was that he gained first-hand experience of the administrative life of the Vatican. When he returned to Birmingham, though still in charge of St Michael's Parish, he was made Vicar-General. Further church honours came his way when he was invited to be the Papal Chamberlain.

His future by the mid-Sixties was obvious to those within the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The great moment came on 16 February 1969 when he was consecrated as Titular Bishop of Mercia and Auxiliary Bishop of Liverpool by the saintly Archbishop George Beck. Bishop Gray was received with great enthusiasm in Liverpool and in particular in the rugby league heartland of Wigan and Leigh.

It was in this period that I came to know him on ecumenical and civic occasions. Gray was regularly in attendance, an excellent conversationalist and with a handshake that one did not forget. In 1976 he was invited to be President of the Liturgy Commission of Bishops Conference of England and Wales; he served for eight years.

In Liverpool he won great admiration for his devotion to the priests and parishes (some 55 of these), and his admirers were glad when he was appointed Bishop of Shrewsbury in 1980 after the retirement of Bishop William Grasar. It meant a trip across the Mersey, for the Bishop's residence for the Diocese of Shrewsbury was in Birkenhead. For the next 15 years he was extremely busy, travelling a great deal to Rome, and in particular making pilgrimages to Lourdes. He was known to thousands as "our pilgrim leader".

Gray began a thorough reorganisation of his diocese, reorganising Catholic schools, giving the young a voice by establishing a Diocesan Youth Centre, and encouraging lay people by the formation of Deanery Councils. He was encouraged by the opening of new churches. Outside his diocesan duties he became in 1984 member of the Episcopal Committee with responsibility for close contact with the Major Religious Superiors, and in the same year he became Chairman of the Committee for Consecrated Life; this summed up his own personal philosophy.

Gray retired in 1995 but continued to live in the diocese and to give support to his successor, Bishop Brian Noble.

Joseph Gray, priest: born Finternagh, Co Cavan 20 October 1919; ordained priest 1943; Diocesan Chancellor, Birmingham 1951-69; consecrated Bishop 1969; Titular Bishop of Mercia and Auxiliary Bishop of Liverpool 1969- 80; Bishop of Shrewsbury 1980-95 (Emeritus); died Birkenhead, Merseyside 7 May 1999.