The Right Rev Victor Guazzelli

Liberal and campaigning London Catholic bishop
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The Independent Online

Victor Guazzelli, priest: born London 19 March 1920; ordained priest 1945; Assistant Priest, St Patrick's Church, Soho Square 1945-48; Bursar and London Lecturer in Church History and Scripture, English College, Lisbon 1949-58; Chaplain, Westminster Cathedral 1958-64, Honorary Canon 1964, Sub-Administrator 1964-67; Parish Priest, St Thomas, Fulham 1967-70; Vicar General of Westminster 1970-98, Auxiliary Bishop 1970-97 (Emeritus); Titular Bishop of Lindisfarne 1970-2004; died London 1 June 2004.

Victor Guazzelli, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Westminster for more than 30 years, was a passionate and outspoken campaigner for social justice and probably the most liberal Roman Catholic bishop of his generation.

He was born in Stepney, east London, in 1920, the son of Italian immigrants - and it was as bishop with pastoral responsibility for the East End of London that he made his mark. He frequently spoke up for those on the margins of society - amongst them homeless people, refugees and asylum seekers. But he was also a man of international vision - fighting for oppressed communities in the developing world. Within the Catholic Church, he challenged prevailing orthodoxies about compulsory celibacy for priests and about contraception.

His early education was at the Commercial Road parish school, Stepney. In spite of warnings from his father that pursuing his vocation as a priest would mean the end of the family name, he left London at the relatively young age of 15 to study for the priesthood at the English College in Lisbon. The outbreak of the Second World War meant that he was to remain in Portugal for 10 years in all, until his ordination in March 1945.

After a brief spell as curate at St Patrick's Church, Soho Square, a cosmopolitan parish in the heart of the West End of London, he returned to the English College in Lisbon in 1948 and spent another 10 years there teaching church history and scripture.

In 1958 he was appointed to the staff of Westminster Cathedral and in 1967 became parish priest of St Thomas of Canterbury church in Fulham, where he relished the challenges of implementing the dramatic changes in the liturgy brought about by the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Paul VI named him an auxiliary bishop in the Westminster Archdiocese in 1970 and he was consecrated in Westminster Cathedral by Cardinal John Heenan. He took particular delight in the titular see of Lindisfarne to which he had been appointed - even more so when he persuaded the Shooters Hill Golf Club in south London that Lindisfarne should be recognised as an off-shore island. This enabled him to qualify as an "overseas" member and indulge his lifelong passion for golf at an affordable price.

In 1976, following the death of Cardinal Heenan, the incoming Archbishop Basil Hume organised the Westminster Archdiocese into four pastoral areas. Guazzelli was given responsibility for the eastern area, covering the boroughs of Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Islington. It was an area with which he felt great affinity, and he introduced a new style of parish mission, encouraging a team of young priests to concentrate on building up local communities and house groups.

Nationally he campaigned against nuclear weapons - as president of the British section of the international Catholic peace group Pax Christi he led a delegation to Downing Street in 1994 with a 50,000-signature petition calling for a nuclear test ban. He was also a vocal opponent of the first Gulf war and of Britain's continued deployment of Trident submarines.

In 1990, then aged 70, he joined politicians, soap-opera stars and schoolchildren on the steps of Westminster Cathedral to sleep in a cardboard box for the night to raise awareness of the homeless. He knew that one night on the streets could only ever be a gesture - but managed to raise several hundred pounds for homeless charities by getting parishioners to sponsor him.

Throughout the 1990s he was a vocal critic of the Conservative government's policy on asylum-seekers and refugees, and regularly lobbied on behalf of individuals and groups facing deportation. He was an ardent supporter of Cafod, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development. His fluency in Portuguese led him to take particular interest in Cafod's work in Brazil, and in the situation in East Timor. He twice visited Bishop Carlos Belo there during the long civil conflict before independence and campaigned in the UK for the rights of the East Timorese to self-determination.

In the early 1990s Guazzelli was the only bishop to attend the London launch of a support group called Christian Survivors of Sexual Abuse. He was deeply moved by the stories told by some of the survivors at that event and remained steadfast in his support for the group.

Following the 1992 decision of the Church of England's General Synod to ordain women priests, Guazzelli was one of the Catholic bishops involved in receiving large numbers of disenchanted Anglican clergy and lay people into the Roman Catholic Church. One Anglican parish in his East End patch ended up converting en masse. But their new bishop caused something of a stir when he said that if they were only thinking of the ordination of women priests, they should "forget it".

"We don't know what the Holy Spirit will do in 20 years' time in our own church," he told them. Whilst he never actually went quite as far as espousing the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, it was a mark of his independence from the Vatican's increasingly authoritarian line on this issue that he was prepared even to canvass the idea.

He firmly believed that the time had come for the Church to review its position on the ordination of married men - and to allow a greater role for the many hundreds of men who had left the priesthood to marry. He also caused controversy by suggesting that the Catholic Church should relax its strictures on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of Aids.

Guazzelli retired from active duties as bishop in 1998, three years after the normal retirement age, and moved back to Westminster Cathedral, where he continued to play an active role in the life of the parish until a few weeks before his death.

He was the sort of bishop who could induce apoplexy in conservative Catholics but his championing of radical causes was never simply for the sake of a headline or to be fashionable. His theology was permeated by the values he encountered in the Gospels, values which have been described by Latin American liberation theologians as the "option for the poor". As one of his fellow bishops said, you could appreciate Victor Guazzelli's life and service by adding one word to this phrase, to make it read "joyful option for the poor".

Paulinus Barnes

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