Abbot Emeritus Cuthbert Johnson, a key player in the “translation wars”, has died, aged 70, in his 51st year of religious profession. He had been ill in the Holy Cross Nursing Home in Sunderland (part of the “St Cuthbert” group of care homes, appropriately enough) and died this morning, as the official announcement said, “fortified with the sacraments of Holy Mother Church and with the support of his brethren”.
Cuthbert was a Wearsider, and carried strong vestiges of his native accent throughout his life. He was born on 11 July 1946 in Sunderland. After schooling with the Christian Brothers and the White Fathers, he entered Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight, a community of the Solesmes Benedictine Congregation, on 8 September 1966. He was ordained priest in 1973.
In 1975 he was sent to Rome to do further studies in liturgy at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute. Returning to England in the summer of 1983 with his doctorate still wet on the paper, he proved to be a radical with fire in his belly, enthusing many with his lectures at the SSG national summer school and elsewhere. All that changed. A matter of months later, he was summoned back to Rome to work in the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. Within a few months more, Cuthbert’s attitude had been transformed 180 degrees from forward-looking to backward-looking. He came to support what is often known as the “Reform of the Reform”, and was a proponent of increased centralism and reining-in of postconciliar liturgical intiatives, as seen for example in the controversial 2001 document Liturgiam authenticam.
In 1996, he was elected Abbot of Quarr in succession to Abbot Leo Avery who had died unexpectedly. His tenure of office was not without its controversial aspects, most notably the departure of a number of members of the community who found it difficult to live with him, and a visitation felt it necessary to call for his resignation which took place in 2008.
Cuthbert was by nature an academic liturgist. His publications list, many of them in scholarly journals, span over 35 years. A few were done in collaboration with his brother Stephen, but the majority were co-authored with Anthony Ward, an English Marist who also worked at the Congregation (where he eventually became the number 3 [Undersecretary] before being dismissed in 2014) and for Vox Clara. They form a rich vein of scholarship, particularly on the prayers of the Mass. A full list can be found on his Wikipedia page. He was elected President of the Henry Bradshaw Society in 2007.
In his retirement, Cuthbert moved around England, never staying anywhere for more than a few years — very much a monachus vagans. Starting in Rednal, with its John Henry Newman associations, his final years were spent in Bellingham, a village about 20 miles north west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the land of his birth. During this time, he continued as a consultor to the Congregation and to Vox Clara. He was very good company, and in demand as an entertaining speaker.
May he rest in peace.
UPDATE: The funeral plans, which are rather out of the ordinary for an abbot of the Benedictine order, are here. The reception of the body and Requiem Mass for Abbot Cuthbert will be held at St. Aloysius parish in the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle. Abbot Cuthbert had ministered in the parish of St. Oswald’s in Bellingham, in the same diocese, after he left the abbey. RIP.
[This is a revised version of the obituary originally published. Paul Inwood regrets if anyone was offended by the candour of the original version.]