Obituary: Dom Columba Cary-Elwes
Tuesday 22 March 1994
WHEN a correspondence on ecumenism developed in the Times in late 1949, Fr Columba Cary-Elwes wrote a letter, calling for windows not wall, perception not polemic, which was greeted with some acclaim. The initiating letter from a Catholic, written anonymously by Fr Aelred Graham, like Fr Columba a monk of Ampleforth Abbey, in Yorkshire, could evoke no personal response; so Fr Columba's attracted a shower of letters. He became for a moment the authentic Catholic voice for the future of developing relations between Christian denominations.
As a result Fr Columba was invited to two international ecumenical conferences convoked by such leading scholars as Yves Congar OP and Henri de Lubac SJ, one at the Orthodox Grottaferrata abbey, south of Rome, in 1950, the other at a Swiss Protestant seminary in 1951. He in turn in 1953 led a remarkable first 'Ecumenical pilgrimage to Rome', encouraged by the Abbe Coutourier: some 40 of several denominations spent 10 days praying at Rome's holy places 'for unity among Christians'. Fr Columba went on to write a small study of Christian reunion, The Sheepfold and the Shepherd (1956).
He was born Evelyn Cary-Elwes in 1903, into land and the wine trade. He was one of eight children of Charles and Edythe Cary-Elwes, and his father and maternal grandfather, Sir John Roper Parkington, were champagne shippers. They all had fluent French (subject of Fr Columba's degree and teaching). Schooled at Ampleforth, Evelyn tried his family calling for a couple of years, until in 1923 he tested a vocation at Ampleforth, his abbot giving him the name Columba.
Up at Oxford, at St Benet's Hall, for six years, he read Modern Languages at the university and his theology course at Blackfriars, a Dominican contemporary being Henry St John, who later wrote much on approaches to Christian unity. In 1933 Fr Columba was ordained and then appointed a monastic librarian, and soon also priest-in-charge at Helmsley, six miles from Ampleforth.
In the college he taught French and Spanish and later the Church's social doctrine. During his 14 years (1937-51) as a housemaster he was judged by the boys in his care 'a spiritual inspiration' and better with the older ones. His House Laws he turned into a small book, The Beginning of Goodness, copies of which he gave to his leavers thereafter. He found time to write a study of obedience, Law, Liberty and Love (1950). His elder boys benefited from his interests and appreciated his self-deprecating humour.
As librarian in 1936 Fr Columba had come to know the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee, who lived locally and sent sons to Ampleforth. A now celebrated correspondence grew between them, published as An Historian's Conscience (1987). They show a unique progress of friendship from 1937 until Toynbee's death in 1975, where their relationship grew more equal and intimate, and encompassed Toynbee's two marriages.
Asides from emerging ecumenism, two other interests marked Fr Columba's earlier days. First, he was, with Fr Henry St John, co-founder of the Quadragesimo Club at Oxford; and he carried into his teaching a keenness to master emerging social doctrine of the Papacy, from Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (1891), to Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno (1931), and so forth. Secondly, he took up a study of Matteo Ricci and the missions to China, eventually researching in the library of the Missions Etrangeres; so that, after '25 years of work' he was able to produce a book of significance, China and the Cross (1957), never quite replaced.
In the mid-1950s Ampleforth, eager to establish a foundation abroad, was offered by the Catholics of St Louis, Missouri, that if they could send over a dozen monks they would thereafter be short of neither building funds nor vocations. The abbot sent out his Prior - for Fr Columba had been that since 1951 - to be the founder Prior of St Louis Priory and School. Monks did tours over there, others stayed as citizens of the United States; Fr Columba completed a dozen fruitful years in the US before being recalled in 1967 to Ampleforth. In that period, drawing largely on lectures given at St John's Abbey, Collegeville, in Minnesota, he published Monastic Renewal (1967).
Reunion and renewal (mainly monastic) were to occupy Fr Columba's last long period of life. At Ampleforth he was asked to develop diocesan ecumenism. Catching the mood of Christian reunion of those days, he convoked a gathering of religious to discuss in depth the key issue: 'Ecumenism and Authority'. During July 1968 abbots, vice-provosts, deans, wardens and the rest met to share theology. Fr Columba called a more influential conference in 1972: leaders of the Second Vatican Council and ARCIC I (Bishop John Moorman being, with others, from both) predominated. Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher offered a paper on 'Full Communion'.
From his mid-sixties, Fr Columba took up travel as a missionary, a monastic founder, and a retreat-giver, being increasingly in demand. In Nairobi he spent a year helping to keep going a large seminary; in Cameroon he helped to found another; in Nigeria he helped the Irish monks of Glenstal establish their small monastery near Enugu; in Australia he gave retreat conferences and helped nuns to renew; in India he gave prayer conferences at Bangalore monastery, before visiting Dom Bede Griffiths' Christian Ashram in Kerala. Coming home at last, he became a successful master of lay oblates to the Abbey, a spiritual father to the younger monks, a confessor to the laity, and an example of devout observance to all.
Throughout his long life, Fr Columba remained young at heart and available to others - to other people as to other and far-reaching experiences. This was a gift, surely an ingredient of sanctity, which to the end attracted all kinds of people to him, regardless of age or gender or race or calling. He grew old with grace, living to celebrate his 90th birthday as Titular Abbot of Westminster. His last book was suitably entitled Experiences with God.
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