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RIP – Colin Wilfred SSF


Colin Wilfred SSF – RIP
Brother Samuel SSF

“The vision of Christ is the splendour of everlasting glory, the radiance of everlasting light, a mirror without blemish” (Fourth Letter of St Clare to Agnes of Prague).

I think that Colin would have appreciated the fact that his death and his funeral have been encompassed by two great Franciscan festivals.  He died on the feast of St Mary of the Angels, and today is the feast of St Clare.  Colin would have appreciated that synchronicity, because he was a person who liked patterns and who looked for order and shape.

Colin couldn’t be in a room for long before he had started to re-arrange it.  Whenever we’ve held conferences or meetings of which Colin has been a member the first thing he would do would be to move the furniture: he would place the chairs in different positions; he would take down the ugly picture on the wall; he would find a stool for the icon that he just ‘happened’ to have with him, and a piece of material to act as a backdrop which he had noticed lying around – all this, of course, accompanied by a running commentary because Colin thought out loud.  For Colin, shape, order, balance and beauty were very important matters.  It’s what made him such a good liturgist.  For him, liturgy was at least as much about what we see as about what we say; he was always irritated by people burying their heads in books during services rather than looking at what was going on, because the point of liturgy he would say is to help us to see, to glimpse, the vision of God, the glory of God, the beauty of God.

It was that search for the vision of God that led Colin Cherriman from his early days at St Mary’s, East Grinstead, through his training as a librarian, his National Service in the RAF and nearly a year as a patient in a TB hospital, to study for a general arts degree at Leeds; then to train for the priesthood at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield.  He then served in the parish of St Francis, Bournemouth, where his incumbent, the late Fr Alan Harrison, encouraged him to test his vocation to seek the vision of God within the Society of St Francis as Br Colin Wilfred.

Over the past forty two years Colin has played a hugely significant part in our lives, both within and beyond SSF, as a brother and as a friend.  He has been elected Guardian of four of our houses and has served as Minister Provincial in the Australia/New Zealand Province where his wisdom and leadership were greatly valued.  He has been a teacher, a preacher, a mission leader, a retreat director, a spiritual guide, a ‘Pilgrim of St Francis’.  He has been our librarian, our liturgist, our furniture arranger and, of course, our resident technophobe – Colin could just look at a piece of mechanical or electric equipment and it would stop working – all this was part of his, and our, seeking the vision of God.  It was when his gaze was turned during the 1980s towards those living with HIV/AIDS that the vision came to be more clearly focussed.  The recognition that the glory of God in Jesus Christ was to be found in those who were suffering disfigurement and fear, who were facing almost certain death, and who were often feared and outcast, was a transformative experience for Colin.  It changed the way he saw life, it changed the way he saw himself, and it changed the way he sought God.

Colin had long been aware of his own sexuality and sexual orientation, but as for most of us who discovered that we were gay in the ’60’s, ’70’s and early ’80’s, it was something kept secure, discreet and hidden from all but a few friends, those who could be trusted.  The HIV/AIDS epidemic changed all that for Colin.  How could he be silent when his brothers and sisters were being neglected and rejected, reviled and despised – often by fellow Christians? “All I want to hear from my mother”, said one young man dying of AIDS to Colin, “is that she loves me.” And all that the mother could say to Colin was, “How can I love him being gay?”  Though not quite as dramatic, it was a challenge on a par with St Francis’ meeting with a leper on the road outside Assisi. “When I was in sin”, Francis wrote in his Testament towards the end of his life, “it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers.  And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them…and what had seemed bitter to me turned into sweetness of soul and body.”

Colin’s ministry in those years 1985 – 1996 explored and drew upon the depths of our Franciscan vocation.  First in Newcastle where he helped to establish the first HIV/AIDS helpline in the UK, then in New York working with Fr Bernard Lynch, then in London’s West End at St Cuthbert’s Philbeach Gardens, working with Body Positive, then in the East End as HIV/AIDS Pastoral Support Worker at St Botolph’s Aldgate, Colin wholeheartedly committed himself to those who were on the edge.  He sat with the dying when others stayed away; and when in the early days some undertakers, being afraid of infection, were unwilling to do their job, he himself laid out the dead.  In one week he conducted fourteen funerals.  He also spoke out: “The Church has AIDS”, he used to say often.  He campaigned, he cried, he wrote, he preached, he lobbied, he led pilgrimages to Lourdes, he laughed, he did liturgy, and, of course, he arranged the furniture.  For him the crisis of HIV/AIDS – which was part of the crisis of his own identity – became a means of grace, nothing less than a revelation of the glory of God.  Colin’s life shows us that God’s beauty and glory is to be found most clearly in unexpected places, in the hidden recesses of our and other people’s lives, and that, like Francis, it is there that we may discover “sweetness of soul and body.”

We are always changed by what we see, which is why seeing clearly with discernment and compassion is so important.  We need to learn to look into the dark places and enter lands which may at first seem to be barren.  There were dark places for Colin – as there are for all of us – but praise be to God that he was given the courage to enter them, and that through going there he has been led deeper into God’s transfiguring glory.  Not long before he died Colin had finished preparing addresses for a retreat he was due to give for members of Affirming Catholicism.  His words at the end of the last address are evidence that the vision of God’s glory was in his eyes and mind and heart in his final days: “May God grant that as beloved disciples we may also perceive more and more that wider reality where love and life and light, glory and joy are to be found in and beyond all our imagining, all our daring, all our dancing.” And to that, dear brother, we join with you to say “Alleluia. Amen, Amen.”

Colin Wilfred died on 2 August 2011, and his funeral Mass was held at St Peter’s Church, Canterbury. He was aged 73 years and in the fortieth year of his profession in vows.