Mgr Paul Grogan

Mgr Paul Grogan
Mgr Paul Grogan

Friday, 29 March 2013

Moved only by zeal for souls

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor celebrated our Chrism Mass in the absence of a bishop. "Look after yourselves; look after each other," he told the priests towards the end of his homily. We brothers looked at each other, some in the north transept, some in the south, with very little dark hair on anybody's head, and our responsibility for one another became newly clear. Just before we had repeated our priestly promises: we had undertaken to follow Christ, our Head and Shepherd "not seeking any gain, but moved only by zeal for souls." Our vocation really is extraordinary: our sole raison d'etre is to draw people towards Christ.
It occurred to me reflecting afterwards that the big temptation for us priests is to find some other objective to which to devote ourselves. I've recently been asked how many students at Leeds Trinity are to be received into the Catholic Church this year: none; and how many new students for the priesthood the diocese will have: precious few. We lack measureables to shore up our sense of self-worth.
Fortunately, zeal does not depend on manifest pastoral success. Nor need it degenerate into desperation when faced with rejection. It is an interior disposition, something that can be constantly renewed in prayer, something that is fostered by the fellowship of the presbyterate. Really nothing can rob us of our capacity to intervene in people's lives. Our strength as priests became apparent to me as never before on Wednesday evening. Pastoral "failure" humbles us, purifies our motivation, gives us a particular access to the cross and renders that quiet assurance that one glimpses in a really good priest all the more astonishing - the source of his self-confidence can only be divine.
Another highlight of recent days was this morning's ecumenical walk of witness in Horsforth. The Revd Richard Dimmery, Vicar of St James's Church in the town and the Chairman of Horsforth Churches Together, preached beautifully in the open-air to a good-sized group of people at the bottom of Town Street. He said more than that the cross reveals God's love; he described that love precisely and rhetorically: "eternal love, personal love; unconditional love," plus other adjectives. As I listened it was as if the fullness of God's salvific plan was unfolding before me.
When I got home after the Liturgy of the Passion at St Mary's, Horsforth - excellent choir and fourteen altar servers! - some students and recent graduates invited me to watch Mel Gibson's "The Passion" in the Chaplaincy Lounge. I had never seen this before; it is incredibly moving. A beautiful motif running through it is the relationship between Jesus and Mary: she is there throughout, supporting him with her gaze. There was complete silence in the room when the film ended. Everybody was emotionally exhausted! Then one of the students said, "Let's say Evening Prayer." After fish and chips some of us rounded the day off by watching the Pope's Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum.
Here is a picture of the Rev'd Dimmery and two Leeds Trinity men just before our outdoors service.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Envisioning parish life anew

Part of the joy of ministering here at Leeds Trinity is that so much of the work is, properly speaking, priestly. I am often talking to people about Jesus and listening to them recount their various religious experiences. The students may find it difficult to commit to worship, but many of them are very glad that I and a few others are doing it near them. Sometimes the Chaplaincy Lounge is full and then a single student will leave his or her peers and join me and one or two others for Mass. Others will look through the glass doors of the chapel, intrigued. I intuit that students are glad that religion, and more specifically Catholicism/Christianity, continue to matter. They have become friends of a priest and a religious sister and two committed laywomen in the Chaplaincy Team. And they have found a space in which they may discuss faith with each other. These are big, important things. They constitute significant contributions to the young people's personal and spiritual development.

When I was a parish priest at St John's in Buttershaw, Bradford, I used to feel frustrated because I could not find a way to reach out to people outside the Church. I remember thinking one evening: "Am I doing anything to evangelise this area?" Of course I was: I was ministering to my parishioners and together we were a sign of God's love and mercy. But I hardly ever spoke to anybody who was not a practising Catholic (apart from at baptisms and when visiting the families of first holy communicants) or other Christian. Hundreds and hundreds of people lived on two council estates in my parish and I talked to hardly anybody in them, nor indeed to anybody in the more prosperous areas, who was not already connected with the parish in the four years that I was there.

That is why I found so interesting a talk this evening by Rev Dr Philip Knights which the Chaplaincy co-hosted with Theology and Religious Studies here at Leeds Trinity. Entitled "Local expressions of Church and the New Evangelisation: Is the Catholic Parish fit for purpose?" Dr Knights critiqued common pastoral assumptions. The most exciting thing he said, to my mind, was that the parish needs to be ordered to the task of mission if it is to fulfil its purpose. He noted a tension between two ecclesiological models: Eucharistic communion and sacrament; if the former alone is considered important the Church can become a "holy huddle" whereas in fact the Church exists to intervene in the lives of people currently outside of its visible boundaries.

The Church needs to review its life. The key question is: How can we bring people to Jesus Christ? Often this can best be done in initiatives outside of the parish. To recognise this is not to denigrate the experience of parish life; rather it is to set it in its proper context; we cannot expect parishes to do more than that of which they are capable. Fr Knights contrasted our understanding of parishes with minsters in the Anglo-Saxon church in his home area of East Anglia - these were large episcopal churches with groups of priests and religious brothers and sisters attached which had daughter churches in surrounding areas to aid the spreading of the faith. He also noted that a lot of the new energy in the Catholic Church in the west was coming from extra-parochial groups like Youth 2000 and the Neo-Catechumenal Movement.

I'm conscious that some of what I have written above will be the thoughts that this excellent lecture provoked in me rather than what he actually said verbatim. I'm sure he'll forgive me. I've just given him my best boeuf bourgignonne, courtesy of Delia. Here is Dr Knights before the lecture with one of our finest theology students, Henry.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The beautiful Church

I went to a great training day today for those in the Church who work with young people. It was entitled "Called to a Noble Adventure," after the just-published report by the Catholic Youth Ministry Federation. It was organised with characteristic efficiency and imagination by the diocesan youth service and was held at our Youth Retreat Centre, Myddelton Grange, overlooking the beautiful Wharfedale valley.

It was good to be with highly committed competent lay people and to engage with them in purposeful activity. Being a priest has been a little difficult in recent days, given events. The brotherhood of which I rejoice to be a member has been painted as a dysfunctional clerical caste. The painful thing is that within this vicious caricature there is some truth. Clericalism does indeed infect our Catholic culture: it stifles true dialogue, personal growth and evangelisation. It is a social sin. We all want to get rid of it.
Today's training day showed how. It was an instance of the Church, in the words of the famous dictum, "always reforming." Through the multiple conversations that I had, I discovered the strength of lay involvement in youth ministry. In one workshop I attended, various catechists, youth leaders and coordinators of altar servers quickly swapped stories of what activities worked best, how to introduce prayer into periods of fun and what night of the week works best, all of them conscious that they only had a few minutes to impart and receive this information. In another workshop a female lay chaplain and a female parish youth worker spoke about the success of a sixth-form CAFOD group at St Mary's High School, Menston. In another a female parish youth worker gave a presentation on praying with young people. In another, an engaged couple provided tried and tested techniques for breaking the ice in youth groups. The keynote speech was given by a laywoman, Anne Trotter, our director of diocesan youth services; various prayers were led by a laywoman, the diocesan youth officer, Anna Cowell. Priests were in the mix: Fr Anthony Jackson, the diocesan youth chaplain, celebrated Mass and preached and Fr Christopher Angel, gave a presentation on some new Confirmation catechetical material which he has prepared.

All in all, everybody chipped in according to their different skills, charisms and ecclesial states and the day marked a significant step forward in the new evangelisation of the diocese. Lay leadership and clerical leadership were exercised simultaneously. When somebody next implies that I am part of a weird, all-male, celibate cabal intent on distorting the true teachings of Jesus, I'll simply say: "You need to participate in the life of the Church more." The ecclesial reality which is emerging, and which is being thrown into peculiar relief in this Year of Faith, is something beautiful to behold.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Returning to St John's, Buttershaw

At the weekend I was back in the parish where I was parish priest, St John's in Buttershaw, Bradford. Since I was there it has been joined to the neighbouring parish of St Winefride's so that the two now constitute the single parish of  Mary Mother of God, with just one priest to minister to both communities. It was with a feeling of some trepidation that I returned. A priest friend of mine remarked recently that it is is best not to spend too much time in your first parish because you make so many mistakes that you need to escape! After surveying the congregation at the beginning of Mass, however, and seeing so many familiar faces I felt at ease. The pressure is off when people know you well. What truly warmed my heart was when a good number at the end of Mass brought me up-to-date with their lives: I learnt about who was poorly, who was suffering in other ways and who had died; I heard about how the Union of Catholic Mothers now numbered just three women and how they could not longer bake the cakes which used to be sold every month to raise funds for the priests' training fund; and one grandmother brought a strapping lad up to me and declared "You baptised him!" while he, beaming very pleasantly, told me a little about himself. I went for a coffee after Mass in the church hall which bears the photographs of all the priests who have served at St John's during the 57 years since its inception and caught up with everybody who was there, if only briefly. This interaction between priest and people, at Mass and afterwards, and the myriad interactions among the people which the priest is only ever partly aware of - the music group rehearsals, the training of the altar servers, the maintenance of the bar, the meeting of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, the raising of funds - these constitute a complex process of building up the community, which is never a merely human event, but always one which is charged with salvific significance. When I was wondering whether to apply for a religious order or for the diocesan priesthood, it was the life of the parish which most attracted my imagination. I wanted to visit people in their homes (I positively loved the idea of cycling between house and house, of tramping streets in the rain), I wanted to chat with children, to spend time with them and, highest of privileges, I wanted to accompany elderly people in their last hours, indeed to the very moment when they would meet Christ. As a priest I have been able to do all of these things. There are particular houses within a radius of a mile or two of St John's where Christ worked through my poor human agency and built up his kingdom through his Spirit: in those moments Bradford, like Galilee, became a theatre of his miraculous activity. Had I not become a diocesan priest I would not have had such experiences. I am deeply grateful for the way the Holy Spirit revealed my vocation to me.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Invocation in the North 2013

We have launched an initiative which, please God, is going to contribute significantly to the evangelisation of the north of England, namely Invocation in the North 2013, which will take place between 14th and 16th June at Ampleforth Abbey .When I went to seminary in 1988 we lads from the north rather pitied the seminarians from the south. We had, we believed, a robust Catholic culture: an amalgam of passionately felt Irish faithfulness, steeped in centuries of devotion, and a strong regional identity, upheld in particular by a history of working class togetherness (part St Mary's Bradford, part Odsal Rugby League Stadium, Bradford). During the eighteen years of my priesthood I have seen that culture gently, in part, implode, while southern dioceses have been filled with staunch Indian, Portuguese and African Catholic immigrants. Well, frankly, enough is enough: we want to claim back the north of England for Jesus (while being properly mindful, of course, of the goodness inherent in other faiths). We want to stop the secularisation of our society, show up the vacuity of godlessness and give our young people a fair chance to access the beauty of the Catholic tradition.

That's the background. Invocation is an annual discernment festival for 16- to 35-year-olds which has run for the last three years at Oscott College, Birmingham. This year we are having a regional one in the north; there will also be a day later in the year in the Midlands. Invocation provides a unique opportunity for young people to reflect prayerfully on how they may embrace the challenge of being a Catholic in today's society. It is taken as a given that some of them will want to be priests or religious, just as it's taken as a given that the requirement of complete mutual self-donation in marriage is an awesome and beautiful sacramental reality. We're not seeking to pitch one vocation against another; we're trying to create an environment in which our young people can listen to the personal and highly differentiated invitation which the Holy Spirit is making to each of them.

Anyway, there is a sense of momentum building up. The event is being organised by all the vocations directors of the northern dioceses with the backing of their respective bishops - it'll be a truly unique ecclesial event. We have three keynote speakers - Bishop Michael Campbell osa of Lancaster, Sister Roseanne Reddy of the Sisters of the Gospel of Life and (hopefully) Fr Sebastian Kajko of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal - and six workshops on such topics as "Vocation in the Catechism" "Benedictine Spirituality" and "The Priesthood." The weekend will comprise beautiful worship experiences: Divine Office with the monks, Adoration through the night, a nocturnal Blessed Sacrament Procession, and bags of opportunities for confession. We're hoping that about 150 young people will come. It would be great if some readers of this blog would join us. You'd love it. I'm coordinating publicity. Our Twitter address is @invocationnorth. Here's one of our promotional pictures. Please come. It's £60 all in. There is no point in being Catholic and not being radical.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Belonging and not belonging

Nana and Kasumi dropped by to ask about Chaplaincy events. They were obviously at a bit of a loss about what to do. We chatted and as luck would have it our sports coordinator Sheila King was passing at that moment and she signed them up for golf lessons, table tennis and cycling (Sheila doesn't hang about!). After she had left we continued to converse over tea. Having looked at all the purely social activities that the Chaplaincy offers (covert ways of gradually softening students up so that we can talk to them about Jesus!) I said: "Do you have any faith?" "No faith," they said. "Well I don't think you'd be interested in our Lenten retreat then", I said. "What is Lent?" asked Nana. I summarised all the principle truths of our faith in about five minutes. They looked suitably interested. They attend a Catholic university founded by religious sisters in Japan, though only a few of their fellow students are Catholics. "Are you sure you have no faith?" I asked. "Do you pray?" "Oh yes," said Nana "I pray sometimes." And we were off. They told me about how they sometimes pray at Buddhist shrines or pray privately when they know that somebody close to them is in need. We read the YouCat paragraph entitled "Is prayer a flight from reality?" Then Kasumi said that she had recently read a book entitled something like "Why Japanese people are not religious." "We don't not have faith," she said, slowly, smiling with proper pride at managing a double negative, "it's just that we don't belong to a religion." Realising that these moments seldom happen again I launched into an account of everything I know about Japanese Catholicism, drawing on my reading some years ago now of a couple of novels by Shushako Endo and a brief account I've read of the martyrdom of St Paul Mikki and his companions. I made as if to place a crucifix on the ground and said "And the cruel emperor said, 'Simply tread upon the cross and your lives will be saved' but they refused so they took them out to the beach and crucified them there" (I had my arms stretched out dramatically at this point, rather self-consciously, as a long phalanx of students were filing past after their lectures). Then Nana said something very beautiful, in a slightly halting English which lent gravity to what she said, and her eyes were smiling as she spoke: "It's difficult to say where is the boundary between belonging and not belonging."

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The big Leeds Trinity same-sex marriage discussion

We had a fascinating semi-formal lunchtime dicussion today about same-sex marriage. It was organised by our Head of Student Support, Tim Leadbeater. I was rather nervous beforehand, and it turned out I had reason to be because I was the only person present who was opposed to the government bill! In fact on reflection it was a good job I turned up otherwise the conversation might have been a bit one-sided. The tone of the discussion was invariably courteous. We all sat round in a circle and the person holding a box of chocolates at any one time had the right to speak. A couple of times I was just warming to my theme and then I had to shut up as somebody made a move for the chocolates. Important things were shared. One person spoke very eloquently about the difficulties of being homosexual: for example, of "coming out" to one's parents. Another spoke of the feeling of being culturally marginalised: for example, there are no cards on sale for homosexual people to mark important anniversaries in relationships. I was assailed by strong arguments: how can gay people ever be at peace in the Church when their sexual orientation is considered to be disordered?; why is sexual complementarity in parenting so important when so many children are brought up by single parents and when those who are brought up by same-sex couples have lots of opportunities to meet people of the other gender?; if the state denies marriage to homosexual people is it not covertly legitimising their marginalisation in society?; why cannot Parliament change social institutions to reflect changing cultural mores? I pressed on and tried to give an answer to each of the points raised, but not to the satisfaction of anybody in the room. I felt a great relief at the end of the discussion that what I think we had been apprehensive of saying to each other we had now said. It was a great dialogue, very educative. I admired above all the way participants were able to be so frank about such a sensitive and personal area. Here's a picture of us afterwards; the smiles say it all.