Fr Cyril Brooks OSB – Obituary

There are very few monks from our Community who have such a varied and distinguished past, such a wide variety of work, and whose life and ministry have touched so many different people. Fr. Cyril was born on 17 December 1929 in Newcastle on Tyne. His father Norman ran a chain of clothing shops in Newcastle and other northern towns until the war in 1939. Cyril was to be involved in the Leather trade in York with this family business when he came down from Cambridge. His Mother’s two brothers were highly decorated World War One heroes – Alan gaining two DSOs and 3 MCs in the Black Watch and Ronald two MCs in the RFC.- perhaps this service quality came out in Cyril’s commitment to his work in the CCF at Ampleforth. His mother’s neice Brenda married Robin Philipson who as President of the Royal Scottish Academy gave Cyril and his family entrée into the world of the Edinburgh festival which played a significant cultural role in his life.

Cyril was the younger of two sons born to Norman and Elsie Brooks. They lived in Framlington place and Embleton. From an early age the characteristics of his personality – his cheerfulness, his bonhomie, his concern for others as well as his quick temper and his capacity to focus on the issues at hand were clearly evident. Perhaps it was his elder brother Christopher, also a strong and talented figure, who gave Cyril a model and target to aim at and emulate. They remained close all their lives and Cyril would sometimes flee away to Christopher’s Mediterranean house on his holidays. Always his own man whether avoiding some of the excesses of youth at Cambridge or taking a lead in a group, he had the capacity to accept and incorporate the talents, advice and wisdom of others. He went to Newcastle Prep School which was evacuated to Eslington Hall, Whittingham. He joined his brother at Durham School and was a conspicuous figure – intelligent, lively and very talented on both the Rugby field and Athletics track. It was in this latter area that he was to achieve national fame. He was proud of his association with Durham school and kept in touch with friends whom he had met there.

After Durham he got a place in St. Catharine’s, Cambridge where he read history and took an active part in the University athletics. He came to national attention when in 1949 at the Varsity match he broke the British record for the 220 yards low hurdles. His time for the 220 yards low hurdles was 24.2 seconds – the same event in the varsity match of 2001 was won in 24.9 seconds. His name was linked with Bannister and Brasher at the time and though deprived of a place in the Olympic team by a late decision to halve the national funding, he was hailed in a contemporary newspaper as the greatest British hurdler of all time. In 1951 He accompanied an Oxford and Cambridge team to the West Indies . It was during this period that he first came into contact with Ampleforth. He was one of the athletes in the Achilles club who used to stay at Ampleforth to train on the school tracks in preparation for athletic meeting with the Scottish Universities. His main contact was with Fr. Martin Haigh and under his guidance and that of Fr. Kenneth Brennan he joined the Catholic Church. In 1953 he applied to the Abbot of Ampleforth , Abbot Herbert Byrne, to join the community and was accepted.

He joined the community with 9 others. They came from different backgrounds and experience and he soon delighted in the companionship and the challenge of the spiritual and monastic life. After 3 years he was ready to join the community in their work in the school. His History degree and his athletics and rugby skills fitted him perfectly for the work he was called on to do. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the work. His senior master was Fr. Hugh Aveling and he soon found himself challenged with A level sets. It was not always easy for him to work with a scholar whose mind was filled with Recusant history – but Cyril rose to the challenge of sudden changes of History syllabus at the last minute. Always one to have the highest standards in what he was asked to do, he burnt much midnight oil to prepare his classes. On one famous occasion he was given a week to get up an entirely new special subject. Oliver Cromwell. This period became one of great interest to him. and throughout his life he felt he knew Cromwell in a special way and gave robust, positive interpretations of this controversial figure. In the classroom he prepared thoroughly, produced notes for the students and taught from the front in lecture style. His sense of drama, his vigour of expression communicated the period so well that few ever forgot the experience.

Having had a period working with Fr. John Macauley in the Sea Scouts, Fr. Cyril joined the newly formed Naval Section in the CCF in 1963. For some years he was a forceful and energetic figure at camps and on the training days. He fitted well into the team of Commander Ted Wright and Eric Boulton.

He took over gamesmaster from Fr. Martin, but a bout of illness released him from this administrative burden so that he could concentrate on athletics. With Fr. Cyril Athletics became a summer sport and the quality of the Ampleforth teams improved immensely – new matches were held and a special triangular match with Downside and Ratcliffe took place at Ratcliffe. However this event did not prosper. Peter Anwyl was closely associated with him at this time and he writes: ‘Fr. Cyril had a balanced perspective on life and knew that sport had its place and no more in the scheme of education. He was always fair and drove the thletes on in a briskly in their training always leading from the front. He was competitive yet impeccable in defeat and took the occasional “home decision” on the chin.’

In 1968 Abbot Basil Hume asked him to take over the Junior House. This consisted of 100 Boys aged 12-14. He was replacing Fr. Peter Utley who had been housemaster since 1940. Fr. Peter had established a light rein over the boys and his strong personality kept the house flourishing, but now there needed a new style. Fr. Peter had little feeling for the new ways of praying and living the Faith which had come from the Vatican Council. Fr. Alban Crossley remembers how Fr. Cyril asked him to be in charge of prayer and liturgy and supported and encouraged him in all the new developments. He appointed the first layman to be on the Junior House staff, Ronald Rohan, an Irish bachelor with a vigorous approach to Latin, English and History. Under Fr. Cyril the house prospered. His energy and enthusiasm communicated itself to boys, staff and parents. If sometimes his temper erupted and caused distress, this never took away from his love and commitment to the boys for whom he would labour unceasingly .

He had always been an enthusiast for music and he had a pleasant and accurate singing voice, could play the organ and piano with accomplishment and had had some experience with the cello. Music in the Junior House was vigorously encouraged. He supported the Schola Cantorum when it was developed by David Bowman and was proud of the quality of the Junior House boys’ singing in the Abbey. A high percentage of boys in his house learnt a musical instrument. His style with the boys was vigorous and demanding. He was down at the games fields, teaching RS and Latin, handwriting (he taught himself the Italic style with the encouragement of his great friend and fellow Junior House monk Fr. Simon Trafford,) winning commendation from the Knights of St. Columba. His pupils featured as winners in the Society of Italic Handwriting school competitions. For the rest of his life his handwriting was formal, distinctive and correct.

He chose Ann Barker as his new matron. She remained with him throughout his time and they were a good team together. She remembers shopping trips to York to buy curtains and fabrics to mitigate the excessive hardness of the Junior House and create a more homelike feel to the house. He threw himself into the task of running a first class school and the effects were felt powerfully as his students went into the Upper School

In 1980 he was tired. He was given a short sabbatical which he used to attend a course at Hawkestone Hall. In the previous year he had attended a Charismatic renewal conference at Ampleforth and this had resulted in a new experience of his faith: a Renewal of Pentecost or Baptism in the Spirit. The fruits of this experience never left him and had a profound effect on his preaching and teaching. He described it as a real conversion, a resurrection job, a “rescue which has sustained me ever since and for which I am immensely grateful”. He shared and promoted the new found prayer experiences and frequently helped to run the Holy Spirit Seminars in parishes. He attended many of the Charismatic Renewal Retreats for Priests at Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds and was a much loved and appreciated figure there. . However it was the Redemptorist course at Hawkestone Hall which gave him the chance to study, develop and solidify this experience and allowed him to unite the two spiritual forces in his life – the early Anglican evangelical and the Catholic. Such a fusion was to be an important ecumenical influence in York, and Leyland in the final years of his life. Though this Charismatic movement in the Catholic Church was slow to gain recognition, by the time of his death its significance was becoming more widely known, accepted and encouraged.

Abbot Ambrose in 1990 felt that with his contact with young people, his spiritual background, and his contact with Charismatic Renewal, he would be an ideal leader of the novices. So began a short and valuable time for him as novice master.

As novice master he used to the full his character and experience. He was not a conventional teacher of novices and his main drive was to share his faith and prayer and link it with the psalms and the great teachers of the past. He appreciated the significance of the step which the novice had made to join the community, so he felt that encouragement was the main attribute for a Master to his disciples. He was valued by the Association of Novice Masters and Mistresses and as their chair brought together Fr. Fabian Cowper OSB and Esther de Waal in their meetings.

After his years as Novice Master in 1987 he was sent to join the monastic community in the new venture of St. Bede’s in York. He soon found his feet there and gave a very special dimension to the community. He learnt to cook well and for the rest of his life was quite a dab hand in the kitchen. He also became conscious of the need to attend to his clothes and again for the rest of his life he would look after his own laundry. He was active as chaplain to three schools during this time. He wrote a column in the Evening press for some months and had some airing on local radio. But it was his ecumenical contacts which were his special feature. Ecumenism, he said, begins with praying together and goes on to celebrate the gifts of the various Christian traditions. He would join different Churches in York for their evening services.. Such an attitude was profoundly encouraging to all the clergy and dedicated Christians in York. His preaching style, honed with the vigour and the clarity of a schoolmaster, soon made a impact especially with the Methodist community. One of the senior Anglican priests in York had no difficulty in saying that Cyril was the finest preacher in York. Once Fr. Cyril got a letter from the local Methodist minister who was a great friend – “I have a problem, please take the service in our chapel on Sunday at 6.30, Joan has the key, don’t forget to lock up afterwards.” There is no account of his sermon, but surely the punters went home invigorated and inspired. His name appeared in the Methodist directory for preachers. The climax of his ecumenical work in York came in 1991 when the Council of Churches together organised the One Voice mission to the City. With John Young, canon of York, and David Mullins, Methodist, Fr Cyril was the inspiration. Positive on committee, he animated the other two to fulfil the detail work. John Young says: “Cyril came across to those with whom he worked as an inspiration. He was a wonderful human being, full of warmth and laughter and with a deep concern to communicate the truth. He wanted to communicate his enthusiasm for the love of God. He was a wonderfully loyal friend driving over from Preston to York just to attend a party for me when I stood down as chair of One Voice. He was a highly regarded and much loved Chair of the York Council of Churches. However he was not a committee man and so he left the detail to us while he provided the inspiration and the enthusiasm”. To raise funds for this mission he cycled 2000 miles in 21 days at the age of 62 from York to Lands End, Lands End to John o Groats and back to York. Each day he telephoned an account of his journey to the Yorkshire Evening Press which was hailed as one of the most gripping items in the paper. This courageous feat raised him to the status of a cult-figure in the city, a position he brushed off as nonchalantly as his other achievements.

When St. Bede’s closed, Fr. Cyril was appointed to Easingwold as the Parish priest. This was a new departure for him and though he was dearly loved, the experience it did not suit him nor the little dog he was given. He found himself back in York frequently and he was still the chaplain to two girls’ boarding schools. He was not good at looking after himself and the strain weakened his heart so that after specialist advice, he went to rest in the Abbey and when better was assigned to the parish of St Mary’s , Leyland.

He revived in Leyland with Fr. Jonathan, Fr. Wilfrid, Fr. Alberic and Fr. Maurus. He was greatly appreciated in the local prison and his vigour and enthusiasm made his liturgies effective and memorable for the inmates. He did not feel constrained by the normal conventions in prison and the men relished it. In the parish he constantly supported ecumenical work, and his homily in Turpin Green Methodist Church during the Week for Christian Unity 2000 led to the beginning of a One Voice Choir which continues to flourish. He was an immediate success in the St. Mary’s Technical College with its two inspiring teachers. Chaplain Jimmy O’Donnell and Head of RE. Brendan Gardner. They became a powerful trio. They write. “We got the best of Cyril – there was no sense of foreboding about the future, rather it was a time of rejoicing, celebration, learning, friendship, prayer and fantastic fun. He hated boring people so his sermons were succinct, challenging and entertaining . He liked to bend the rules if it benefited the pupils. He gave general absolution at school Reconciliation services, or he would whip through a line of individual confessions in minutes. We once celebrated Mass with Cyril on a coach journeying back from Rome. His last Mass in school was in the sports Hall where Cyril busked the Eucharistic Prayer using projected images as his cue. His instinct was always for the people. On being challenged about whether he should really say Mass on his own, in light of Vatican 2 teaching. Cyril replied. ” I’m a Benedictine Monk. I can do what I like “. There was no waste with Cyril- every word and thought counted. He went on our pilgrimage to Rome, to our retreats, to Castlerigg Diocesan centre. He was a friend to staff, governors and friends of the school. Full of stories about his family’s tanning business, saying Mass for Bing Crosby, being a ship’s chaplain, Cyril was at his best when celebrating Mass – he was so focussed.. Little things which we remember: Cyril’s greeting: ” the Lord IS with you “: never seen in a dog collar – ‘confession is confessing our belief in God who has already forgiven our sins’ – ‘Lent was a time of joy in the knowledge of salvation – eat more sweets.’ ”

The silent side of Fr. Cyril is well illustrated in his holidays on the Isles of Scilly. He used to live in a tent for 3 weeks with his reading material which included Karl Barth whose massive chef d’oeuvre had pride of place on his bookshelf.

When abdominal pain took him back into hospital and an investigation was necessary, he knew that it would be dangerous. His family and brethren were there to see him off to the operating theatre. He came through with flying colours and returned to Ampleforth for recuperation where he died in his sleep.

His legacy has been the unforgettable impact he had on the people he met. The boys in the schools, the parishioners in the pews, the housebound in their bungalows, the ecumenical clergy everywhere. As his life went on he came to see things more and more clearly sometimes with rather challenging results. He could always be relied on to make a contribution to discussions and sometimes the theologians or the school masters paled at his vigour and insights. He was never completely comfortable with Catholic ceremonial and his liturgies were full of impact. He was ever anxious to bring people forward to where he thought they should be; he gave them a vision of the next step without fully appreciating where they were. He was not a man of deep reflection about himself or sensitive to subtleties of the interface between spirituality and theology and this could lead to misunderstandings. There was a fragility about his inner life which he kept well covered though it surfaced in a Marriage Encounter weekend, an experience he did not understand or enjoy. This led to the characteristic that he found criticism hard to take and he avoided areas in which he could not be a success. It also perhaps gave him the energy and drive for high standards through planning and rehearsal which we witnessed in all his public occasions. The young were oblivious to this and the fact that the Mini Vinnies (young Vincent de Pauls) continue to call themselves the Cyril group in St. Mary’s school bears witness to his contact with them and their appreciation of him. It was said that some people used to call him Thusfar (and no farther), because he discouraged the title Father (“call no man your father”). “Cyril speaking” was often his reply to the telephone.

We will give him the final say:

“The name Jesus means Saviour or Rescuer. His job is to deliver men and women from sin, to rescue us from being cut adrift from God, to save us from paralysis, sleep, blindness, deafness. And after that to show us how to grow, how to live, how to love, how to pray, how to heal people, how to reflect God – how to become Christ.”

May he rest in peace.