Canon Digby Samuels

Fr Digby’s requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral was a beautiful event, with the large congregation evidence of how much he had touched the lives of so many people in the Diocese of Westminster and beyond.

Canon Digby Samuels (Photo: WYM)
Canon Digby Samuels (Photo: WYM)

I left, though, with a feeling that something had been missing, and that was any substantive reference in the obituary or eulogy to Digby’s ministry to young people. So I want to try and make up for that.

I first met Fr Digby when he was appointed as lead chaplain to SPEC in 2007 or 2008: I was then director of The Loft, SPEC’s ministry to children of primary school age. At that time, I viewed my organisational hat as one of the most important that I wore, and I saw Fr Digby in somewhat utilitarian light as the solution to my recurrent problem of finding priests to celebrate Mass with residential retreat groups.

On returning to SPEC as Director in 2010, after a year’s excursion back in to teaching, Digby was still there as the lead chaplain regularly driving up from his beloved parish in Wapping to come and spend time at SPEC ministering to the volunteer missionaries, the staff and the retreatants.

My eyes were properly opened to the inner beauty of this holy man: in his own quiet, unassuming and ego-less way he taught and led me and my colleagues on a journey of discernment as we sought to implement our part in the Diocesan ‘Vision for Youth Ministry’.

Fr Digby unobtrusively led the core community to a greater commitment to prayer, supplementing reason in our decision-making with listening and discerning how God might want to move us.

He helped us to make decisions that might seem illogical but to which we felt called to make, and which ultimately bore fruit. It was a time of excitement and surprise in being radical in ‘docility to the Holy Spirit’.

It was also a stumbling beginning and we made mistakes in misreading or ignoring movements of the Spirit, but Digby was there to remind, encourage and guide us. He would also correct us and call us to order – firmly but with characteristic gentleness – should we err from faith, hope or charity.

He was an example of Christ within us, a conduit helping the Holy Spirit to move us in decisions over daily schedules and community routine, the rhythm of community prayer, managing the volunteer missionaries (especially as ‘family’ rather than workforce), formation, retreat themes and content, access to the Sacraments.

He took us on a faith journey that changed so many things and transformed so many lives, and which helped lead SPEC to a point where we were serving the retreatants primarily through the witness of authentic community, living working and praying together as brothers and sisters in Christ, providing a counter perspective to some of the ego-centric and less constructive cultural norms of our day.

Digby exemplified ‘servant leadership’, reminding me of Leo, servant to the League’s pilgrims in Hermann Hesse’s ‘The Journey to the East’: he’d be there, in the wings or in the confessional, at so many events, especially involving youth and young adults.

It was clear how important his vocation to minister was to him, and was what he prioritised his time for, and in which he found joy. Typical Digby phrases would be “shall we pray” or “do you want some ministry”.

Many a SPEC volunteer missionary and staff member will recognise some distinct fruit that emerged from their regular encounters with him, grateful that he always seemed to find time and make one feel not so much important, but important to be ministered to. Consequently many, like me, considered him a friend as well as a priest, spiritual director or confessor.

I’ll miss his words of wisdom and encouragement; his example of faith, trust and love of the other; his company and good humour – but I’ll ever be grateful for those years our lives intertwined.

So I should answer the call on his memorial card, a quote from St Thomas More’s last letter to his daughter, Meg: “Pray for me, and I shall pray for you and all your friends that we may merrily meet in heaven.”

Jon Rogers