Obituary: The Rev Michael Hollings

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The Independent Online
"Bless This Mess!" The sign, in huge black Gothic, swung on an Anglepoise over the desk.

As desks go, this desk was less messy than most: a mass of sprawling files, running correspondence, refugee stationery, a surface busy with work in progress. Next to it, however, on the floor, by the chair with the bursting stuffing, by the box of very miscellaneous bottles, lay a heap of books collapsed like the victims of some unimaginable natural disaster, a sea of pamphlets and paper so deep that from month to month their surface hardly rustled. Clothes hung on the door. A sleeping bag lay on a sofa which had long seen better days. This was the room in which Father Michael Hollings, Roman Catholic parish priest of St Mary of the Angels, Bayswater, lived and worked and slept and prayed.

His Notting Hill neighbour Father Francis Wahle described Hollings as "a near saint". His most vocal parishioner, the journalist Paul Johnson, called him "the best parish priest I have ever come across". Hollings was the "open house" priest who lived a famously ascetic life and turned no one away, the priest of the Notting Hill Carnival whose physical presence could still a riot, the man who first brought Mother Teresa's nuns to England.

In 1975, when Cardinal Heenan died, Hollings was ahead of Basil Hume in the betting to succeed as Archbishop of Westminster. Instead, he wrote a torrent of books, sat on committees on all subjects from the press to race relations, and devoted himself with a passionate concentration to the particular needs of his parish.

Hollings's passion could not be suppressed. He quoted St Ignatius - "I think the greatest battle in life is against self"; and his struggle to impose order on his private chaos was an obvious thread in his development - obvious, impressive and what made him immediately sympathetic and accessible. On the one hand, he had extraordinary gifts as a listener, a close focus and an ability to deliver accurate advice - always what to do next; on the other, a brisk impatience which was as bracing as it could be alarming. "Press on," he would say. "Press on."

Michael Hollings was born in 1921, in Camberley, the son of Lt-Cdr Richard Hollings, an Anglican whose family built churches in Yorkshire and wouldn't allow a Catholic in the house (his mother, Nina Hollings, was the eccentric sister of the formidable Dame Ethel Smyth), and Molly, nee Hamilton-Dalrymple, a Catholic and a Scot descended, interestingly, from a Cardinal, Thomas Weld, whose father gave Stonyhurst to the Society of Jesus.

Michael's father died of tuberculosis when he was six, leaving his mother to bring up three children on her own. He was educated by the Jesuits at Beaumont College (which he hated) and at 17, as war broke out, talked himself into Oxford, where he spent two years at the then St Catherine's Society, before attending Sandhurst and being commissioned in the Coldstream Guards. He spent four years in North Africa and Italy, and was awarded the Military Cross in 1943, for "devotion to duty" during a night attack on Long Stop Hill, Tunis, on 22/23 December 1942. He was still 20.

The citation records:

During the whole engagement, as on all previous occasions, this officer showed outstanding powers of leadership. Towards the end of the fighting he was shot through the throat but made no effort to obtain medical treatment and continued to carry out his duties until, as part of the plan of action, he had disengaged his Platoon from the enemy. The Platoon then had to march for some miles, during which time he kept insisting that his injury was of no consequence. When later he reported to the Regimental Aid Post and was evacuated, it was found that his wound was of the gravest nature and must have caused him great pain for many hours. A major operation was at once necessary to save his life.

In 1945 he was posted to Palestine, and it was here, after five years of unbelief, that Major Hollings MC, on guard duty in the Holy Land, decided he wanted to be a priest. He went to see his chaplain, who remonstrated, "But you don't even go to Mass!" Hollings said that wasn't the point. He wanted to help people.

Helping people remained consistently his mission. Privately, he established for himself, in the four years he spent training at the Beda College in Rome, 1946-50, "a life which put most of the weight on prayer and penance", as he affirms in his book Living Priesthood (1977). "I made a bedtime for myself, introduced sleeping on the floor and getting up to pray in the middle of the night." He took to the regime of the magnum silentium, he felt the lure of the monastery; he did his pre-ordination retreat with the Trappists at Tre Fontane, outside Rome. Prayer became the pivot, the still centre of his life, and a subject to which he returned repeatedly in his writing and broadcasting. Everyone should pray, he said; pray as you walk. Priests themselves should be "pools of prayer - serene and available".

At Rome he laid the foundations of a deep and enduring friendship with his first cousin Jock Dalrymple, his junior by seven years, later University Chaplain at St Andrews and himself a considerable writer. In time they were to take the idea of availability a stage further. The "open house" policy which they would each practise, Hollings in Southall, west London, and then in Bayswater, Dalrymple in Restalrig, Edinburgh, was radical. A priest, said Hollings, should be Christ-like; there should be no distance between him and his people. His house should be open to all comers, he should share his food, his space, his all.

This was not then usual policy among Catholic clergy in Britain; nor popular, nor safe; nor, indeed, is it now. Michael Hollings welcomed "street women" (as he called prostitutes) and "men of the road" as he would welcome his friend the Duke of Norfolk. He was no respecter of persons; or, to put it another way, he was an extremely unusual respecter of persons.

His first posting as a priest was in Soho. He spent four years as a chaplain at Westminster Cathedral (a penance; he couldn't bear the ceremonial) and a year as assistant chaplain at London University, when in reality he was unpaid Religious Adviser to ATV, before his first substantial appointment, as Roman Catholic Chaplain to Oxford University. Here he knocked down the Nissen hut he had inherited and engaged Ahrends, Burton & Koralek to design the versatile building which is the Catholic Chaplaincy today. Hollings spent 11 years at Oxford, enjoying its collegiate hubbub, before asking to be moved. He was offered St Anselm's, Southall.

Both Southall, where he spent eight years, and Bayswater, where he spent nearly 19, were complicated, multi-racial parishes. It was in the context of the predominantly Asian community of Southall that Hollings persuaded Mother Teresa to found a house there for her Missionaries of Charity, only the second house in Europe after that in Rome, and he and she remained close for the rest of his days. For Notting Hill's West Indian dominated annual carnival, St Mary of the Angels had its own float and Hollings assumed the role of peacemaker, notably as a negotiator with the police, in the carnival's troubled 1980s.

Michael Hollings was an inspiration to generations of priests and would- be priests as much as to the vagabonds, grandees and straightforward parishioners who made free with his presbytery. He made enemies; but he had a legion of friends across the world - his larger parish - to whom he was counsellor, touchstone, guide.

His various contradictions were his strength. He was tall, large-nosed, somewhat patrician in voice and manner; but quite without the caricature snobberies of the metropolitan Catholic priest. He had streaks of real vanity; but was possessed of an astonishing humility. His insistence on penitentially early rising could make him dangerously bad-tempered; but he had a sweetness and humour, a boyish grin, which disarmed. He was shy and abhorred small talk; but one-to-one was ever curious, even eloquent. His published writings are fast and furious, deliberately workaday rather than polite or polished; his homilies, on the other hand, were rich, pertinent and compelling.

One London priest discerns vividly two sides to Hollings: a holiness, the radical holiness of the 19th-century Cure d'Ars, the model of a diocesan priest leading a life of severe obedience; and an impetuosity, the maverick impetuosity with scant respect for church structures and orders, of an original, of a prophet. Hollings looked to intercommunion, ordination of women, rethinking of the Church's position on homosexuals, on remarriage, on clerical celibacy. He treated each issue, as he treated each person, open-mindedly on its merits.

For six of the last 18 months of his life Hollings was banished from his room in the great church complex of St Mary of the Angels completed for Cardinal Manning in 1857. In September 1995 the News of the World published allegations that, 25 years previously, a young man, "John", had been molested by Hollings while staying at St Anselm's. Nothing came of the allegations and a year ago this week Hollings was triumphantly reinstated. When Cardinal Hume announced the return of their priest at the parish Mass, the congregation spontaneously applauded.

It was not, however, his final test. For another four of those months, his last months, Hollings was in hospital, fighting an infection in his foot complicated by diabetes. He endured these hideous travails with the same stoicism that he had showed 54 years earlier at Long Shot Hill: but now with a new serenity. The battle with self was nearly over.

"Life," Michael Hollings wrote in Living Priesthood, "has been like a tightrope walk, a balancing between that obedience which authority accepted and an obedience which seems almost like disobedience . . . an abandonment to God." Hollings, in the manner of the early Christians, abandoned himself to God.

Michael Richard Hollings, priest: born Camberley, Surrey 30 December 1921; MC 1943; ordained priest 1950; Assistant Priest, St Patrick's, Soho Square 1950-54; Chaplain, Westminster Cathedral 1954-58; Assistant Chaplain, London University 1958-59; Religious Adviser, ATV 1958-59, Rediffusion 1959-68, Thames Television 1968; Chaplain to Roman Catholics at Oxford University 1959-70; Parish Priest, St Anselm's, Southall 1970-78, St Mary of the Angels, Bayswater 1978-97; Dean of North Kensington 1980-97; MBE 1993; books include Hey, You! 1955, The One Who Listens (with Etta Gullick) 1971, Day by Day 1972, Living Priesthood 1977, Hearts Not Garments 1982, Christ Died at Notting Hill 1985; died London 21 February 1997.