Faith has helped me cope with cancer - Bishop Michael, diocese of East Anglia

The Rt Rev Michael Evans was told by doctors treating him for cancer that he had only weeks to live - three months ago.

The 59-year-old Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of East Anglia, covering Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, appears to be cheating death, temporarily at least.

“It is a complete mystery,” said the leader of 26,000 practising Catholics in the region.

“Having been told I’m dying, I have no idea what the journey will be. I expect one day I will simply not wake up.”

Bishop Michael was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer almost six years ago.

“I’ve known it was terminal since then. But I’m not sure the message got through. Over the years I got used to the idea.

“It was not until that moment when I heard I had just weeks left that it struck me.”

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For a man facing death Bishop Michael appears very much at peace with himself and the world - despite the 27 tablets a day and other forms of medication.

“I feel a sense of acceptance: I’ve spent five to six years living with dying,” said the Master of Theology who entered St John’s Seminary, in Wonersh, in Surrey, to train for priesthood aged just 18 and was ordained priest six years later in June 1975.

“Even as a small boy I always wanted to be a priest or a centre forward for Leeds United. I’ve never wanted to be anything else. I’m a life long supporter.”

Bishop Michael, whose surviving family members include his 95-year-old mum Jeanette and sister Susan, believes his inspiration was his uncle Piere Barbyer who was a priest.

For the last six years the Bishop has fought the inevitable and refused to alter his schedule, He has travelled to parishes for confirmations and special masses. He has even made the annual trip to Taize, in France, with the youth group - a cause he champions having been chaplain to South London Universities from 1987-1983 and during his “favourite” job as parish priest of St Augustine’s in Tunbridge Wells from 1995 until being appointed Bishop of East Anglia in 2003 at St John’s Cathedral, in Norwich.

In recent weeks, however, things have changed. His travels are restricted. He works mostly from his diocesan home at Poringland. He is frailer and walks with the aid of a stick. Sitting down and getting up from a chair were clearly an effort.

“How do I feel about dying? I’m not sure.”

“I’m still trying to do as much as I can.

“I have trouble with reading and writing as my eyesight is affected.

“That makes it a little difficult.”

Bishop Michael does not deny moments of despair when like anyone else he feels like throwing things in frustration.

“But my faith keeps me going.

“If I had no faith I don’t know how I would have coped.

“I see the diagnosis and the dying as a journey of faith: a journey of joyful hope.”

Living in the shadow of death rules out long-term planning, instead Bishop Michael sets himself little milestones.

On Sunday he attended the Rite of Election at which 100 people preparing for baptism and reception into the church at Easter were officially welcomed by him at the Cathedral.

The next is the Chrism Mass in the Cathedral on March 23. The Bishop will lead the service where three oils — the oil of catechumens, the oil of the infirm and holy chrism - that will be used by priests throughout the diocese are blessed.

“That would be wonderful. It will be quite moving for me as I had not expected to be there.”

Then it will be Easter.

“It would be nice to be there.”

Bishop Michael is proud of the changes in the Catholic Church and would like to see its “more relaxed and open approach” go further.

He is also a passionate supporter of Christian unity and inter-faith dialogue.

Would he do anything differently?

“I would like to be more joyful, like St Felix who converted people with his cheerfulness.

“And the people of Cambodia (the diocese twin). They have been through so much yet are always smiling.”

Is he prepared for what will come?

“You can’t prepare for it as you have no idea how it’s going to happen.

“I think it’s good to know that you are dying

“I know that It will happen but not in what way and when.

“In some ways I’d rather have that sense of the unknown.

“I have to just let it happen, which means handing myself over into the hands of God.

“People say it must be awful. But it’s not. I feel a sense of peace.”

Is he frightened?

“If I thought I would suffer weeks and weeks of pain I would, probably, be frightened. But I don’t, which is a wonderful blessing.

“I see it as the beginning of the end of a journey, but also the beginning of another joyful one.”

To best describe his “voyage of the unknown” Bishop Michael pointed to a paragraph in CS Lewis’s final novel in The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle.

‘And for us this is the end of all the stories...but for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures ... had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.’

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