How did you start writing? Why did you end up writing for CTS?
We asked these questions and more to Monsignor Paul Grogan, a parish priest in Bradford and former chaplain of Leeds Trinity University who has recently written a book for CTS on the Spiritual Works of Mercy.
From childhood, he has loved to write…
I love writing.
I remember once, at the age of 12, wanting to give a really good account of the Roman Empire but then my parents told me to go to bed so I carried on writing by the light of a torch under the bed covers so as not to disturb my brother sleeping in the bed beside me.
I loved finding out what polysyllabic words meant and then using them.
Of course, I was just trying to show off half the time. Yet, more positively, as I grew up I began to realise the sheer beauty of the precise expression of a thought or an argument or a scene.
Playing a musical instrument or fashioning a joint in carpentry or whizzing mentally through mathematical calculations – I couldn’t do any of these things. Nor was I great at writing.
I knew moments however when exactitude of language made my heart beat faster. Joining a drama group at school helped with that.
Then came a moment – when I was about eighteen – when I suddenly could not think of how to express myself at all. I was studying for a degree in English Literature at Cambridge University. I so wanted to write well that I became panic-stricken.
One summer’s evening I sat at our dining room table at home staring at a blank sheet of paper, endeavouring to capture my reader’s attention in the first few lines of an essay about the novelist Joseph Conrad. Various members of my family came in and out of the room while my humiliation mounted. I dreaded their asking me how things were going. Desultory lines were crossed out.
At the end of the evening I had no text at all to show for all my mental effort. How could it be that everybody else was so much more intelligent than I was?
What helped me to emerge from this imprisoning sense of incompetence was kind words. I remember my Director of Studies, Wilbur Sanders, once saying something which was not only quite complimentary but that was very evidently aimed at boosting my rather low self-confidence. That meant, to me, that he was on my side.
Now, as I tried to write well, I was trying to demonstrate that I appreciated his good-heartedness. The “showing off” side was no longer at the forefront of my mind: writing had become about our relationship. I felt his pleasure as I became bolder, more linguistically dexterous.
Then when a long essay which I had hoped would be really good proved overambitious and formless and I ran out of time so that I could not rectify things, I did not feel humiliated before him: I knew he understood that I had simply become overwhelmed. There would be other days.
Another key time for me was when I worked as a reporter for The Universe for nearly three years before I went to seminary. That experience made me aware of the need of brevity and of speed.
It also helped me to become less precious about what I wrote. Why agonise when the copy I wrote could effectively be rewritten by the copy editors? Many of my colleagues were more articulate than I.
That distressed me simply because my pride was hurt.
Again, it was a kind word that made the difference. Kieran Moore, the Deputy Editor, said to me once that different writers progressed at different speeds – I felt then that I was indeed making progress and that that was really all that mattered.
When I was asked to write for the CTS I was delighted.
I felt chosen.
I also felt alarmed.
The great thing about getting a bit older however – coupled with regular spiritual direction – is that feeling alarmed is much less alarming than it used to be.
When I am asked to demonstrate my worth by, for example, writing a pamphlet, I suddenly become aware that my incompetence is about to be laid bare before people who I wish would esteem me.
Then I think, “Oh yes, that feeling again. Right, I better get on with it now then.”
This means that writing is seldom easy for me. It is emotionally costly. It is the way that I make myself vulnerable, but also the way in which I learn about myself.
I feel honoured to be a CTS writer because I’m aware of the great value that the books and the pamphlets have, especially for people who are questioning quietly, edging towards fullness of assent.
Until last month I was Chaplain at Leeds Trinity University and we have two racks of CTS materials, one for booklets and one for pamphlets. I would often see students who would not go into the chapel browsing the material, caught between the desire to remain in control and the urge to ask questions.
I have often cited CTS books also in modules I have taught for the Catholic Certificate of Religious Studies. Now that I have begun to write for the CTS myself I feel that I am taking my place in expressing the magisterial teaching of the Church.
That feels wonderful.
I feel able to do it.