I recently re-read the spiritual classic entitled ‘The Practice of the Presence of God.’ It was written by a 17th century Carmelite Friar and explores how, in becoming more aware of God’s loving presence, we can be that presence for others. Those of us fortunate to have known Fr Lawrence Lister can testify that his own awareness of God’s loving presence made him a loving presence towards us: towards his family, his friends, and everyone whom he served faithfully as a priest for over sixty years. We extend our sincere sympathy to his brother, Derek, and to his family; to his devoted housekeeper and companion, Millie; and to his many friends and former parishioners saddened by his death.
I was blessed to be sent to Fr Lister as a newly ordained priest in 1995. For three happy years I ministered alongside him, in the presbytery overseen by Mille, and shared by their pride and joy, Laddie, an overindulged Sheltie. At times it was a little bit like living on the set of ‘Bless Me Father.’ There was certainly a touch of Arthur Lowe’s Fr Duddleswell about Fr Lister, as I am sure all his former curates can attest. I remember the look on Lawrie’s face when he realised he had inadvertently booked three funerals on the same day at the same time. And when, on a parish trip to the greyhound races, he delighted in backing a winner every time. Only afterwards did he reveal he had put a bet on every dog in every race!
What stands out most, however, is Lawrie’s loving and generous care towards the people God entrusted to him. He was a big-hearted and unfailingly gentle pastor who believed kindness, especially to those in difficulty, could only ever make things better. Lawrie was an indefatigable encourager, sourced in his unshakable faith in God’s love. No matter how tragic or desperate a situation, he would find a way to lift people’s hearts. I once said to him ‘someone could come to the door and say they had just murdered the bishop and you would send them away feeling better about themselves.’ Little did I know then!
Lawrence Lister was born in Bradford on 2 June 1932. His parents provided a loving home for him and Derek. After attending St Patrick’s Primary School, he started junior seminary at St Cuthbert’s College, Ushaw, aged just 13. Going on to major seminary at Ushaw, he was ordained a priest in St Anne’s Cathedral, Leeds, on 19 July 1959. Lawrie spoke of his days at Ushaw as some of the most enjoyable of his life, perhaps not least because of his love of sport. Someone described him to me recently as a ‘kind and gentle man, but a force to be reckoned with on the football pitch.’ In later years this translated into animated armchair refereeing while watching ‘Match of the Day’ and putting everyone right.
Fr Lister was a priest through and through, in every fibre of his being. His first appointment as a curate was here at St Mary’s in Halifax, then to St Theresa’s, Sheffield, St Anthony’s, Beeston, and St John’s, Buttershaw. He was appointed a Parish Priest at St Theresa’s in Queensbury, where Mille became his housekeeper, then at St Urban’s, Leeds, St Joseph’s, Pontefract and, finally, St Cuthbert’s, Bradford, before retiring to St Alban’s Presbytery back here in Halifax where he continued to assist in the parish until his health deteriorated. The Mass was the centre of his priesthood, and Our Blessed Lady and St Therese of Lisieux his great spiritual guides. Whenever he made a home visit which wasn’t quite as successful as it might have been, he would toss a miraculous medal into the garden saying to Our Lady ‘now it’s over to you.’
Lawrie’s warm, straightforward humanity was the platform for a priestly ministry that touched lives and hearts with the beauty and compassion of the Gospel. He understood each of his parishes as a ‘family,’ with a place for anyone and everyone, and himself a father to all. From my time as his assistant I could recount endless acts of selfless service towards people in need – whether in sickness or in despair, Catholics or not – largely unseen by anyone else. His joyful pastoral ministry was a mosaic of simple acts of love, creating a picture of the very best kind of priesthood.
For all Lawrie’s jovial outward personality, there was a quiet holiness underneath, utterly convinced of the truths of the Catholic faith. He would never have described himself as a great theological thinker. But far more importantly, he was a believer whose heart was captured by the Lord Jesus. Lawrie was a priest who always remained a disciple, and who shepherded his people with the heart of Christ.
The day I arrived in the presbytery at St Joseph’s, Pontefract, Fr Lister took me out in his car on a tour of the parish. Wearing his trademark black cap, he pointed out the Catholic schools, St Gerard’s Mass centre, the hospice, hospital and nursing homes, and the different housing estates, all of which became places where I learned to minster as a priest. ‘I try,’ he said ‘to be an extension of the love of Christ in the service of His people.’ And that he certainly was – perhaps in more ways, and to more people, than he could ever realise this side of the grave.
‘The life and death of each of us’ says St Paul ‘has its influence on others.’ This is true of our brother and friend Lawrie. ‘If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die we die for the Lord.’ This is also true of Lawrie, our priest and companion. ‘So that alive or dead we belong to the Lord.’ This too is true of dear Lawrie whom we return to the Lord with such gratitude and esteem.
Like so many who would have wanted to be here, but are not able, especially Millie, our lives are better because Lawrie was part of them. He often used to quote a phrase, the origin of which I never found: ‘Effort is prayer,’ he would say, ‘and effort is love of God.’ It was in making the effort to do the very best he could – for the Lord, for His Church, and for His people – that Lawrie was both so lovely and so inspiring. He made an effort for others out of love for Christ. Over and over again, he made the effort to be an extension of Christ’s love in the service of His people.
I heard the sad news of Lawrie’s death while I was on holiday in Whitby. It was a favourite place of Lawrie’s, where a day off would always end with a great big stodge of fish and chips. It was there I was reading the spiritual classic I mentioned earlier, ‘The Practice of the Presence of God.’ As it happens, it was written by a monk called Brother Lawrence. In fact, to give him his full title, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. This is our prayer for Fr Lister. That the Lord in his loving mercy – to which Lawrie was such a great witness – will make him Lawrence of the Resurrection.
Dear Lawrie, thank you for everything you have been to us in this life. May it continue to be so. Even though you have now died, we believe, in sure and certain hope, that you are alive, a priest forever with Christ your friend, your Lord, and your Saviour.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in Peace. Amen