IN MEMORIAM

Mgr. Phillip Sherrington

13.VI.43 – 27.II.95

Mgr. Phillip Sherrington, Regional Vicar of Opus Dei in Britain, died in an accident while walking in the Connemara Mountains, in the west of Ireland. Mgr. Sherrington had been attending a conference for priests near Galway. Fr. Phillip Griffin was also there. His body was brought back to London and was buried at Gunnersbury Cemetery on 3rd March, following a Solemn Funeral Mass at St. James’, George Street, concelebrated by the Prelate of Opus Dei, four other bishops and numerous priests. Over 1,700 people attended the funeral.

After only a few months at St. Augustine’s (class of ’74), I had heard the name ‘Fr. Sherrington’ quite a lot. Above all, if my memory serves me correctly, it was those fellow choristers of the class of ’69 who spoke so highly of him, telling me I had missed the ‘best RE teacher’. At that time the idea of even a good RE teacher seemed something of a contradiction in terms to me, so for big burley Sixth Formers to be talking in terms of the best left me puzzled and curious: what exactly, had I missed out on?

Though I wasn’t to know it then, during the next twenty years, I would have many opportunities to satisfy my earlier curiosity. I had the good fortune to attend a number of courses and retreats given by Fr. Phillip, and went to him for advice and Confession on many occasions. Some of those encounters took place against a backdrop of media criticism of Opus Dei, which he bore the brunt of as its Regional Vicar. I never heard him speak ill of anyone. He showed an extraordinary disregard for his own good name, but didn’t mince his words if it came to answering lies or slander directed against the Church.

Fr. Phillip was the kind of priest it was easy to go to Confession to. The kind of person you wanted to have around when you needed some impartial, confidential advice. One always came away with an extraordinary sense of having been listened to, as well as some great advice. Talking to lots of other people who knew him well since his death, they all seem to say the same thing: he took a real interest in you and what interested you; he took you seriously; he was always infectiously good-humoured and kind with everyone.

Once I had started teaching, I did occasionally try to get him around to the topic of school, in the hope of gleaning some professional tips (I hadn’t forgotten his reputation among the class of ’69). Though he often reminisced fondly of his years at St. Augustine’s, he never once took the opportunity I was offering to ‘give forth’. I still find this amazing, since everyone knows the answer to the problems of education, and nobody waits for an invitation before ‘giving forth’. That he didn’t is a great testimony to his personal humility, and his high regard for the teaching profession. But it goes further than that. I think it was a way of telling me that good teaching is not merely a matter of what one has (by way of knowledge or a few ‘tricks of the trade’), or still less about one’s capacity to ‘give forth’, but about who one is.

Among the many occasions I heard him preach, one has stuck in my mind above all the others. It was at the beginning of a retreat, and he chose to preach using the prayer of St. Patrick: Christ beside me, Christ before me, …Christ within me … Christ in every eye that may look at me, Christ in every ear that may hear me. The devotion and intensity with which he repeated the words impressed me a lot at the time. It was a prayer that he didn’t just say; he really wanted it to be true!

I think it was. In that sense, despite feeling a great sense of loss at his sudden and tragic death, I can’t help seeing a happy coincidence in the fact that one who was so keen to live up to St. Patrick’s words should end his journey on St. Patrick’s soil.