Patrick Purnell SJ
A reflection from Roger Dawson SJ
I first came to St Beuno’s in 1997 when I was a novice for my Thirty Day retreat (the Spiritual Exercices). I was very fortunate to be directed by my Novice Master, Fr Patrick Purnell SJ, who proved himself to be a gifted, wise and compassionate guide through this formative experience in a novice’s life.
Fr Patrick died last month and his funeral was Thursday 12th February. I have been thinking about him a lot over these past few weeks, as well as praying for him, and remembering some of the things that he would regularly say to us as novices.
Two things have repeatedly come to mind, one on vocation and one on prayer. When God calls us, he once said to me, he calls the whole of us, not just the bits we are pleased with or feel are presentable. God knows what we are like and who we are far better than we do, and if some of that is work in progress or is still a mess or a muddle, then that’s up to God.
On prayer, he said, it is important to be 1,000% honest: it may not be pretty, or even commendable, but don’t give God the edited version. God only deals in the truth and reality; often we don’t.
Education – and in particular, Religious Education – was always high on Patrick Purnell’s list of priorities as a Jesuit. He worked in the field of catechesis in Scotland, as National RE Adviser for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and throughout the Province leading the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola.
Patrick hailed from Cardiff where he was born on 28 November 1923. He first encountered the Jesuits at school – Mount St Mary's College, Spinkhill near Sheffield – and decided to explore his vocation at St Beuno’s in North Wales, at the age of just 17 (September 1941). In addition to studying Theology and Philosophy at Heythrop College in Oxfordshire, Patrick also underwent teacher training at Roehampton.
He taught Latin at St Ignatius College, Enfield, from 1957 to ’65, and continued to study himself, undertaking a two-year course in Catechesis at Corpus Christi College, London. This, and his passion for the Spiritual Exercises, stood him in good stead for his teaching and ministering at the Craighead Retreat House in South Lanarkshire (1966-69), the Motherwell Diocesan Catechesis Centre (1969-78) and St Beuno’s Spirituality Centre (1978-80).
From 1980 to 1988, Father Purnell advised the bishops of England and Wales on issues of Religious Education. He continued to lead the Spiritual Exercises when transferred to Brixton (1989) and Southall (2000), and became a member of the Province’s Spirituality and Formation Commissions in 1991. He served as director of novices from 1995, introducing young Jesuits to the life of the Society, and worked closely with the Faith and Justice Movement at Tynemouth St, Fulham, from 1991 until 1993.
But many people will remember Patrick Purnell SJ for his writings. His books and articles for catechesis included Our Faith Story and To be a People of Hope (both published by Collins). He was also a prolific poet, writing for much of his life, although having only occasional poems printed. He had to wait until his 80th birthday for them to appear in a complete volume, published by the Jesuit publishing house, The Way, with the title Imagine.