Today we bid farewell for a time to one of the most loved of Belmont monks, Dom Wulstan Probert. In so many ways he exemplified the Scripture readings we have heard at this Requiem Mass. The Book of Wisdom reminds us that "the souls of the virtuous are always in the hand of God," that "like gold in the furnace he tried them" and that "he watches over his elect" with "grace and mercy." St Paul goes further and puts God's love for his chosen ones in the context of Christ's death and resurrection. "If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. You too should consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus." In St John's Gospel Jesus tells his disciples, "Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. He who serves me must follow me for where I am, there will my servant be."
God created us to share his love with us. He made us to know him, love him and serve him in this world and to be eternally happy with him in the next, as the Penny Catechism taught us. But eternal life does not come without cost and the price is a good life in this world, a life of obedience to God's will, of service to our neighbour and of sacrifice where we put God and our neighbour first, thereby allowing God to lavish his grace and mercy upon us. Jesus said, "I have come that you may have life and have it to the full." When Jesus comes to die for our salvation, although his soul is troubled, he says, "It is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name," to which the Father replies, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." When we die in Christ, in fact each time a Christian truly dies in Christ, God glorifies his name again. In the death of Fr Wulstan, the humble servant of God, the name of God is glorified, for Fr Wulstan, the man of faith, surely died in Christ.
Vincent James Probert was born at Evesham on 2nd March 1926, fourth son of Alfred and Jessie and youngest brother of Jack, Bernard and Denis. He remained close to his family throughout his life. He was proud to be Catholic and English and proud, above all, of being a son of Evesham and Worcestershire, born under the protection of Our Lady of Evesham and in the shadow of the great medieval abbey dedicated to her. Jim, as he was known, was a pupil at St Mary's Elementary School and then at Prince Henry's Grammar School. He loved reminding us that St Wulstan had been a pupil at the same school. He was a bright student and took his Oxford School Certificate, but Britain was now at war, so he served King and Country first of all at Evesham General Post Office and then, from 1943 to 1945, in the Royal Navy. After being demobbed he worked in the family business, Ashley & Co., as a vehicle body-builder. Jim was an amazingly practical man and could turn his hand to anything. He was also very strong. Like many Catholic young men at the time he began thinking seriously of a religious vocation and what better example to follow than that of St Wulstan, so in 1950 he applied to join the Belmont community.
He was accepted by Abbot Anselm Lightbound and, when clothed in the habit on 2nd October of that year, he was given the name Wulstan. He made his First Profession with Abbot Anselm on 10th February 1952 and his Solemn Profession at the hands of Abbot Alphege Gleeson on 11th February 1955. In those days Belmont was even poorer than it is today, so studies for the priesthood were all done in-house, often combined with teaching in the school. Br Wulstan was ordained deacon by Archbishop Michael McGrath at Belmont on 24thJune 1955 and to the sacred priesthood by Archbishop Francis Grimshaw at Evesham on 6th April 1956, the first Benedictine to be ordained there since the Reformation. As well as teaching and coaching various sports at Belmont from 1952 to 1959, Fr Wulstan was also Assistant Librarian and Assistant Infirmarian. He was the last Scout Master and started the Woodmodellers' Club, specialising in the production of balsa and tissue aeroplanes. Assisted by the novices, he began making heavy cedar-wood refectory benches, some of which are still around, and almost single-handedly he dismantled the old monastic grange down by the river and reconstructed it as a cricket pavilion for the school.
He was put to teach Physics, after all he had done school certificate in the subject and had served in the Royal Navy. What better training could there be? The problem was that by now he could remember next to nothing. The only solution was to learn his classes by heart and hope that no boy would stop him to ask a question. At the end of one class, obviously vexed and exhausted, he asked, "Did anyone understand that?" One solitary hand went up. Fr Wulstan looked at the boy and exclaimed, " I'm pleased someone did because I didn't." That was typical of his honesty, humility and good humour. He also taught Technical Drawing but what most interested him was History. By now he was famous for his long, complicated jokes and stories and greatly loved for his sense of humour, gentle kindness and personal holiness.
In 1959 he was sent to join the community at Alderwasley, our prep school in Derbyshire, where he spent twelve happy years teaching while at the same time developing his pastoral skills as Parish Administrator of Matlock Bath and Cromford. He would take afternoon tea with Dorothy Shaw, a custom he continued later at Llanarth. Even after his stroke he looked forward to a cream tea with Mary Jo Donnelly at the Pengethley. He took over the running of the scouts from Fr Hugh and would organise camping trips to France in borrowed coaches of dubious reliability, returning with a fund of new stories with which to regale us, almost until his death. He always looked back with nostalgia at the idyllic time spent at Alderwasley, something he was able to share with Fr Hugh, Fr Stephen, Fr Bruno and others, especially as they moved together to our second prep school, Llanarth Court, in 1971. At Llanarth he also helped Fr Hugh with parish work.
In July 1979 he went to St Mary's, Harrington, first as curate then as parish priest until January 1988, when he returned to Belmont for a short time to look after this parish. In September 1989 he went to Our Lady and St Michael, Abergavenny, as assistant to Fr Stephen. Here he remained until September 1995, when he came back to Belmont to join the resident community and do much needed supply work. For example, he took over the parishes of Dolgellau and Bala from Fr Cenydd and remained there 15 months. This gave him the opportunity to drive around and visit those parts of the country he most liked. From 2003 until he suffered his first stroke, he was also confessor to the Poor Clares at Much Birch. In fact, because of his patience and gentleness, he was much sought after for confession by the brethren and laypeople alike. Wherever he went and whatever he did, Fr Wulstan was loved by everyone. I have never heard a bad word said against him. Not many of us can say that, least of all if we are priests working on parishes, where parishioners can often be quite critical of their clergy.
You could say that there was nothing remarkable, nothing spectacular, about Fr Wulstan's monastic career. He enjoyed teaching, but wasn't really a teacher. He coached sports and he was better on the field than in the classroom. He excelled in extra-curiculum activities and was a great favourite with the boys. He really cared for their good and they appreciated this, but he never had favourites. He was a curate or parish priest in many places and did countless supplies. No one will forget his homilies, though he often got lost in them himself. You always came away wondering what were "these things" he kept talking about. There were no great achievements, and yet in so many ways he was the heart and soul of the Belmont Community simply because he was a good monk and a devout priest. He was obedient and did whatever the abbot asked. He did it without grumbling, without murmuring, and to the best of his ability. He often did the impossible, like teach physics. He never said no when asked. As St Paul tells us of the Lord Jesus, with Fr Wulstan it was always "Yes" to God's will, "Yes" to the abbot's request to do a job and "Yes"to the needs of the Community and the Church. He was in every way an exemplary monk and priest. But, as we all know, there was so much more. I've already mentioned his kindness and gentleness, his great sense of humour, his readiness always to step in and help out and, of course, the stories and the jokes, in which he'd not only lose his hearers but himself. But he never forgot where he'd left off and, weeks later, he would take up the story much to the amusement and confusion of his listeners.
It was for his fidelity to the monastic life and his example to us all as to what the charism and essence of the English Benedictine Congregation is all about that he was honoured by the Abbot President with the ancient title of Cathedral Prior of Worcester, a title of which he was justly proud. He loved to be called "Worcester" and to wear his cross and ring. Then last year the Dean and Cathedral Chapter of Worcester invited him to become an Honorary Canon of Worcester Cathedral. A group of us accompanied him to the impressive service where he was installed as a canon of the cathedral. He was still game for a day out and a lavish reception.
Unfortunately, after his stroke, Fr Wulstan had to give up driving, and, although he recovered remarkably well from it, he was saddened by his loss of freedom. No more could he make those day trips to Ross-on-Wye or take a short break at Church Stretton. He could no longer go out with guests and frighten them with his driving. His preference was for second gear but on a fast stretch, third! No longer could he go on holiday. Well into his 80s he would still take off alone and spend a fortnight swimming on a Greek Island or touring the South of Spain. He had always enjoyed his holidays with Fr Stephen or Fr Hugh and was a much travelled: Canada, the United States, Australia: you name it. He also read widely and enjoyed expanding his knowledge of the places he had visited. He was happy to share that knowledge with others. Like most monks he was an inveterate shopper and couldn't resist a bargain, especially in a pound shop. No matter what you might be looking for, he either had it in his room or knew exactly where to find it. An enquiry about a screwdriver or a battery always resulted in a knock at the door before the end of the day, and Woollie, as he was affectionately known, proffering the desired objected. "Here it is," he would say, "I knew I had one somewhere."
He had made such progress after his stroke (malady, as he called it) that his final illness came as a shock to us all. You somehow felt that Woollie would go on for ever. He looked forward to visitors and always made the effort to come down to Sunday Mass and to lunch and recreation every day with the brethren. This was much appreciated by the Community as it showed how much he cared for us and loved being with us. There were times when this must have taken a great deal of effort, but then, that was Woollie, warm-hearted and loving. Nothing was ever too much for him. Just as he showed us how to live a good life, so in his final weeks he showed us how to die a good death. Never once did he complain about his condition, but accepted the care of nursing staff and monks alike with patience, gratitude and joy. Towards the end, his desire to be with God grew stronger and his wish wasn't to be taken from him. To begin with he refused medication and then food and drink. Until he could no longer react, he smiled and nodded and enjoyed a joke with Br Bernard and Fr Andrew. On behalf of the Community I would like to thank the staff at Wye Ward, Hereford County Hospital, for the excellent care given to Fr Wulstan and for continuing to visit him at Belmont in his final days. He made friends even to the end.
It was a privilege for us to have known him and lived with him and to have been considered his brothers. May the good Lord now forgive him all his sins and welcome him into his Kingdom and may our Lady of Evesham and St Wulstan pray for him as he journeys to heaven. Amen.