Mgr Paul Grogan

Mgr Paul Grogan
Mgr Paul Grogan

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Batley Torchlight Procession

I'll begin again. I had a lovely summer and yesterday was the first day of term. In the evening a gang of us went in a minibus to the Batley Torchlight Procession. This dates from 1951 when the then parish priest decided to introduce a bit of the spirit of Lourdes into West Yorkshire. We gathered before the handsome frontage of Batley Town Hall and listened to a reading of the Annuncation and then a sermon by one of our own priests, Fr Paul Redmond, about the handsome frescos in the apse of the Catholic church in Batley, St Mary's. Then we were off, hundreds and hundreds of us, holding lighted candles, saying the rosary and singing "Immaculate Mary" as we processed through the streets of this handsome mill town behind the statue of Our Lady born aloft by parishioners - while children pressed their faces to upstairs windows in houses we passed and an Asian shopkeeper stood by his door to take a photograph of us - before gathering in the said church for Benediction, followed by a pie and pea supper and a pint of beer in the parish social club. The students, many of whom have just arrived at Leeds Trinity, looked like they enjoyed themselves. Here we are just before setting off.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A great start to our conference

Professor Tracey Rowland started our conference off in fine style this evening with a lecture entitled "Christ, Culture and the New Evangelization in the Vision of Benedict XVI" which she delivered to a packed auditorium. She analysed with forensic accuracy a post-conciliar tendency to accommodate Church teaching to modernity through a misunderstanding of Gaudium et Spes' affirmation of the automony of the temporal order. This has led to a downplaying of the need to be connected to Christ and had resulted in a profound crisis in terms of religious education. Dr Rowland, who is the Head of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia, noted that Pope Benedict has emphasised on several occasions that renewal in the Church can only happen through a growth of holiness in individuals. It was a wide-ranging and beautiful lecture in which she quoted with equal ease from Church Fathers and Papal encyclicals and it'll soon be available on YouTube. There is a real buzz about Leeds Trinity this evening. Cardinal George, the Archbishop of Chicago was present, as was Archbishop Roche. We learnt at 11am today that Bishop Roche, as he was this morning, had just been appointed by the Pope to be Secretary to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments in Rome, and has become an archbishop. He remains Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Leeds for the present. It's an extraordinary feeling: we are, in a sense, fatherless. He's been a great bishop and we'll miss him - but more of that on another occasion. I've got to get to bed to prepare for Archbishop Fisichella's lecture in the morning. Incidentally, there are a few no-shows so if you'd like to come to the conference (even though it's technically full) I'd just telephone and plead.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

An outstanding Eucharistic sermon

We heard a breathtaking sermon at our annual diocesan Corpus Christi procession today, which took place in the grounds of Hinsley Hall in Leeds just before the Olympic torch passed by on the road outside. Fr Peter Kravos, who attended the recent Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, juxtaposed the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods in order to initiate human civilisation (the latter being that which the Games celebrate), and who was punished for his temerity, with Jesus present in the Eucharist, God giving himself to man, the host in the monstrance representing the white-hot centre of God's love and mercy. Standing only a couple of metres from the exposed Blessed Sacrament and Bishop Roche, Fr Kravos, who is chaplain of Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan Universities, then tackled the child-abuse scandal in the Church. He quoted Pope Benedict as saying that the clerical perpetrators of the crimes against children had allowed their faith to degenerate into routine. The ultimate Victim is always Jesus, he said. This current moment in the history of the Church invites us to enter more deeply into the Eucharistic mystery. "As Catholics we are not afraid of mystery," he concluded. It was great: he did not side-step the awfulness of the great harm done but he skilfully placed it within the Paschal Mystery made present on the altar. He conveyed the sense that atonement does not consist in mere reparation: it involves a breaking open of our hardened hearts through fearless engagement with Christ in his victimhood and his Eucharistic glory. It was one of those moments when a sermon becomes an event. Fired with suitable enthusiasm, I set about gathering the names of young people in the assembled crowd for our forthcoming Faith Walk to Egton Bridge in the North York Moors for the annual Postgate Rally: I garnered three email addresses; two girls said they would bring their friends; and then a great layman about my age with a 15-year-old son said that the lad hoped to get some of his friends to come along too. One good homily and everybody wants to participate in the life of the Church. Well used words unerringly strike home.

Pope's men gather in Leeds to help Britain

We are making the final preparations for our international theological conference on the New Evangelisation here at Leeds Trinity next week: . The numbers are looking good - we're inching up to 200 now. That's great because conferences like this usually attract a maximum of about 100 I'm told. However, it's a bit difficult to convey the importance of our deliberations in a press release and the media have been a little slow to respond to the press releases which our excellent PR department has produced. This evening I recalled something a religious affairs journalist once said: if you're not a bishop, we're not interested. The press are drawn by the ecclesiastical celebrity factor. Also, everybody loves a good crisis. Accordingly, I penned the following which I hope will go out in the next day or two. The process reminded me of my three years as a journalist on The Universe before I went to seminary. Happy days (mostly)!

Pope’s men gather in Leeds to discuss way out of religious crisis

The man charged by Pope Benedict XVI with the task of staunching the flow of Catholics from the pews is to speak at a conference at Leeds Trinity University College this week. Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella heads up the newly created Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation. Its brief is simple: make people interested in the Catholic faith once again. He will be joined at the conference, which runs from 26th to 29th June, by other Church leaders and top Christian academics.

Mgr Paul Grogan, Leeds Trinity Chaplain and one of the co-organisers of the conference, said: “Our aim is to consider how we can share the most precious treasure we have, our faith, with the people of our society. That means first and foremost, the people of West Yorkshire. Many people profess to be Christians but their faith has become ‘tired.’ Mass attendance in this country is declining. We want to stop that.”

Among the key themes the conference will examine are the following: Should Christians try and persuade Muslims to become Christians? Should Christians seek to bring about political changes in society? Should the Catholic Church become more democratic? Are women treated as second-class citizens in the Catholic Church?

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, and Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago, will also be addressing the conferences, as will leading female academics, including Professor Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne and Professor Susan Wood, one of the most respected US Catholic theologians.

The conference is entitled “Vatican II, Fifty Years On: The New Evangelisation.”

Friday, 22 June 2012

I love my celibacy

"I love being celibate," I told a class of 17-year-olds in our diocesan Sixth Form College, Notre Dame, today. It was in response to a suggestion that if we ditched celibacy then lots of young men would want to become priests. As soon as I had said it, I checked myself and quickly thought through whether what I had said corresponded to reality - I have a tendency to adorn some things that I say with hyperbole. It's because of my Celtic ethnicity. But no, in this instance, speech expressed what is actually the case. Also, the act of naming something had made it the more real. Earlier, Mrs Breda Theakston, the diocesan Coordinator of Family Life Ministry, explained to the class that Blessed John Paul II once said that every person has "a vocation to love." My vocation is to love others precisely through my celibacy. After eighteen years as a priest, my whole mode of relating to people has been shaped by my publicly professed singleness. I would feel bereft if I were not able to enter into relationships, pastoral and personal, with the ease which my celibacy makes possible. I enjoy hanging around with students and having nowhere better to be. I am keenly sensible of the privilege of being the recipient of multiple confidences, a privilege which is connected in part, I think, to my singleness. I don't mind bearing the burden of occasional loneliness, feeling the sacrifice in small part, but simultaneously - and this is the great thing - feeling (or knowing in my soul in a fresh way each time I experience this pain) the presence of God, sustaining me and using my singleness for his unfathomable purposes. The students listened with respect. It's hard to know how to reach out to them, and I don't think I'm good at it, but it's worth the effort. I spoke to six classes in two days and I was exhausted at the end of it. I don't know how teachers keep going. Congratulations to Peter Smith, the Head of the PTE Programme at the College, for inviting in a range of speakers to speak about different aspects of the mission of the Church in this week after the exams. Here are some of the students and staff who engaged in this process (I like the green hair).

True daughter of the Church

Leeds Trinity theology graduand Lauren Jackson recently passed her driving test and her proud parents bought her a nippy little Fiat Uno so that she can zip up and down between her Leeds home and Kintbury where she has secured a job as a senior team member in the St Cassian's Youth Retreat Centre. Being a true daughter of the Church she asked me to bless the vehicle, which I duly did today. I read out the little preface in the Book of Blessings beforehand and we were struck by the theology underpinning the simple act of blessing. It speaks of how modern modes of transportation bring people together and hence contribute to social unity. The intercessions focused on Christ as the Way in whom all our journeying finds its purpose. I hope that Lauren has many happy hours discovering Britain behind the wheel.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Having coffee with Christ

I returned today from the annual, two-day conference for Catholic Chaplains in Higher Education. We met at Loyola Hall in Liverpool. (Katherina Muller, who gave presentations on interreligious dialogue and Fr Dominic White OP, the chaplain at Newcastle and Northumbria Universities, are pictured above). It was uniformally excellent. I learnt a number of important things. Firstly, our ministry is "on the edge." Half the time you're not sure what exactly you're doing as a chaplain. You have multiple conversations and most people you talk to don't seem especially changed through having encountered you. Canon John Udris, spiritual director from Oscott College, put our ministry into context beautifully with an extended meditation on the fact that in Chapter 17 of Luke Jesus travelled "along the border" of Samaria and Galilee and it was there that he healed the lepers. We are on the border, between secular society and the Church. Moreover, we meet the Lord on the borders of our weakness and vulnerability. So basically, when I feel useless and ineffective, when I feel I am boring rather than engaging my interlocutor, who gives every impression of being entirely happy with his/her religious indifference, I press on with the conversation. I find that paradoxically deeply encouraging.

The second thing I learnt dovetailed with this. The role of the chaplain is essentially one of "presence." Professor Bart McGetterick of Liverpool Hope University expounded a wide and complex vision of Catholic education which, he said, was manifested in good Spirit-filled relationships and, a corollary of that, justice. The chaplain is one who is charged with building up good relationships within the institution. It's a very adequate, all-encompassing job description.

There was lots more but those are the two things that I found especially helpful. It's great to have a theological rationale for what we do. It has reminded me of the high significance of each pastoral encounter. I once saw Daley Thompson's face before the starting gun in an important 100m race: moment by moment distraction drained away until he was completely focused on the race in hand. It would be good to be so attentive to Christ in the other, as we chat over coffee, the same Christ in, say, the fifth encounter of the day, demanding my attention, as the lepers demanded Jesus's. In the photo above are Margaret Holland (centre) our Chair, and Roberta Canning, our National Coordinator, with Ray Bayliss, the chaplain at Keele University. Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, our President, was with us for the whole of the conference.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Playing with passion

I had one of the best nights out I've had in ages on Saturday evening - I went to a sports bar in Leeds with my brother John and we watched two Euro 2012 games from the same qualifying group simultaneously on two gigantic screens: Greece versus Russia and Poland versus the Czech Republic. A large group of Poles sat to one side of us, dressed in various combinations of red and white, and in front of us there were some Greeks and, I believe, some Czechs. It was the last match in the round and what happened in one game potentially affected the chances of the teams in the other match. People of different nationalities were whooping, holding their hands in their heads desparingly, embracing delightedly and jumping up in the air.

Leeds never used to be this cosmopolitan. I suddently felt that I belong to the European Union. There was real passion in the play on the field and on the faces of the supporters in the bar, but it was channelled properly. I thought: it's possible to be both patriotic and pro-European. "And", as I think von Balthasar said, "is a very Catholic word." Playing football across national boundaries in the highly committed and vigorous way that we saw on Saturday night is a serious means of building up international unity and gives glory to God, the creator of variety. The beer was good too!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Strong and steadfast in Christ

I have just returned from Rome where I participated in a very happy event - the ordination to the diaconate of Phillip Hall, a Leeds Diocesan student at the Pontifical Beda College. Congratulations Phillip! You're going to make a great priest. He is pictured above (in the centre, in a white shirt) flanked by some of his brothers in the diocese (five priests and six seminarians) in the garden of the College following the ordination at the Basilica of St Paul's-outside-the-walls. Bishop Thomas Burns of Menevia ordained Phillip and seventeen of his year at the College - a truly bumper crop!

This is part of the Prayer of Consecration which Bishop Burns said over them:

send forth upon them the Holy Spirit,
that they may be strengthened
by the gift of your sevenfold grace
to carry out faithfully the work of the ministry.

May they excel in every virtue:
in love that is sincere,
in concern for the sick and the poor,
in unassuming authority,
in self-discipline,
and in holiness of life.

May their conduct exemplify your commandments
and lead your people to imitate their purity of life.
May they remain strong and steadfast in Christ,
giving to the world the witness of a pure conscience."

Phillip, who hales from Batley and who has a Masters in English Literature, is pictured below with his two brothers, a sister-in-law, two nieces and a nephew and with the College Rector, Mgr Roderick Strange. He worked in the banking sector for several years before going to seminary. Whilst at the Beda he has been responsible for both music and sport in the house. In September he will do a month-long placement at St Robert's in Harrogate before returning to Rome to complete his studies. Pray for him!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Gay marriage is impossible

I have just responded to the government's consultation concerning its proposals re "same-sex marriage." I feel a lot better. It is great to engage in the public forum - the privilege of living in a democracy. I'm grateful to the bishops for mobilising us as they have. The campaign has exposed as untrue the lazy, frequently made, criticism that the Catholic Church is somehow "against homosexual people." The Church which is in part made up of people with a homosexual orientation., simply wants to uphold marriage. I sat down and tried to answer the government's question: "Do you agree or disagree with enabling all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony?" I have read various articles in recent weeks by people far more learned than myself. Drawing on their wisdom, here are the four points which I submitted to Her Majesty's government, the government which is charged by her and mandated by the people to uphold the common good of society.

"Marriage is an institution which predates the state and is logically prior to it: it would be illiberal for any government to presume to determine its definition. The state has a responsibility simply to receive and foster what is an essential constitutive part of human culture.

There is no such thing as a marriage ceremony. There is a wedding ceremony which marks the beginning of a marriage. To legislate for any kind of 'marriage ceremony' would therefore be nonsensical.

If a civil wedding ceremony were to be introduced for same-sex couples this would lead to a man and a woman who were married, whether in a civil or religious service, no longer being able to describe their union without qualification. It would breach their right to possess an unequivocal, publicly acknowledged identity.

It is unclear how a marriage following a civil wedding service of a same-sex couple would be consummated. Presumably mere public consent would be taken to be sufficient to validate such a marriage. This would mean that an event whose aim is to join persons would in fact merely indicate intersecting wills."

I was warming to my theme and then I ran over my word allowance. The government is only so interested in what I have to say!

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Being the face of Christ

It was a great pleasure today to conduct a Blessing Service for Tricia Brown (on the right, with her colleague Lynn Campbell) on the occasion of her retirement. Tricia, who is a member of the Church of England, has served in the College for 30 years. People often say that Leeds Trinity has a friendly atmosphere, that you sense something upon entering; people of faith attribute this difficult-to-define impression as being an expression of our Christian ethos. The first 30 seconds are the crucial ones. Tricia has mediated Christ's welcome to countless thousands of students. Over coffee after the blessing, which was also attended by our Principal, Professor Freda Bridge, Lynn recounted how Tricia has consistently had an eye open for the students who are struggling. Not infrequently has she gone round the reception desk and given them a big hug when they have shared with her how home sick they are feeling. Job descriptions cannot cover that kind of thing. We'll miss her.
Here's the blessing with which the 10-minute service concluded: Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon Tricia as she approaches the end of her time here at Leeds Trinity. Foster in her your gift of faith so that she may always turn to you for support and praise you for your goodness in future years. May her long service here be pleasing in your sight and be a sweet-smelling offering to you, whose Son, Jesus, was a Servant to all whom he met. May the Holy Spirit give her joy as she steps down from her responsibilities at Leeds Trinity and hope for the future. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Having fun in sunny Scarborough

We had our last Chaplaincy social trip of the academic year last weekend - an overnight stay in sunny Scarborough. The forecast was awful and I nearly called the whole thing off but then I got a couple of emails from students saying how much they were looking forward to it - and I threw myself into the expedition with vim. I'm so glad I did. We went for a five mile walk along the coast just to the north of Scarborough. One of our party was a Chinese lad who had never seen the sea before. As we picked our way over boulders covered in seaweed, he said that it was good but that he had always associated the seaside with beaches and lots of beautiful women sun-bathing. As we were nearing the end of our walk one of the students said: "What exactly is a Catholic, Father?" We were off. And then a little while later one of the Muslim students said, "But if you say that Jesus is God and Jesus died on the cross then God died on the cross, so how did the world continue to exist?" I think I gave quite a good answer in terms of the Blessed Trinity as I started up the minibus, but they would have to be the judge of that. We dined at Harry Ramsdens on the seafront - £5 fish, chips a side and a drink, all cooked in vegetable oil, so the Muslim students could eat it - and then played on slot machines. I felt about 40 years drop off me. We stayed at St Peter's Church - the girls in the presbytery and the lads in the parish centre - at the gracious invitation of my friend Fr William Massie. He had just returned by coach from the diocesan pilgriamge to Lourdes and set about looking after us straightaway. They don't make priests like that down south.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Finding peace

I ascended the second highest fell in Wharfedale yesterday, Buckden Pike. Close to its summit is a memorial to the five members of a Polish Wellington Bomber crew who perished at that spot when their aircraft crashed during a snowstorm in the Second World War. Only the rear-gunner, Joseph Fusniak, survived: he crawled down to the bottom of a valley in the night despite being in extreme pain as a result of a broken ankle. I said the De Profundis for those who had died that night by the memorial. With that memory still fresh in my mind, it was moving today to see the Lancaster Bomber flying over Buckingham Palace as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Yesterday was principally characterised by joy, however. At one point, I lay down in the bright sunshine and surveyed the evocatively named Langstrothdale and its first village, Hubberholme. In the churchyard there is buried the great twentieth century Bradford essayist, novelist and playwright, J B Priestley. I remember once at school reading a very amusing essay that he had written in the 1930s about the pleasures of doing nothing. He remarked that if Herr Hitler had appreciated  these pleasures more the whole of Europe would have been the better for it. From the summit I could see the Howardian Hills on the edge of the North York Moors to the east and, I believe, the near summits of the Lakes in the West. Then, best of all, as I was taking my boots off in the car-park I heard a girl of perhaps ten saying to her parents as they completed their walk, "What a great day! Thanks!"

That would have been enough, but there was more. Passing through Kettlewell, a couple of miles into my home journey, I came upon a Morris Dancing festival to mark the Jubilee. I stood and watched for a good half-hour. It was marvellous. Some groups waved large white handkerchiefs; others carried large batons; the movements were choreographed and were physically quite demanding, but at the same time there was a sense of informality and fun (not unrelated to beer); sometimes we heard loud guttural shouts; at other times men struck their sticks against each other with a loud "clack." It was as if the stuff of life had been taken into the dance and transformed, like in a good drama. The clash of man with man was acknowledged, but the aggression was resolved and in the end the unity symbolised by the dance triumphed.

A trip to Cambridge

Last Saturday evening and Sunday morning I celebrated the Masses and preached at the Cambridge University Catholic Chaplaincy. Fr Alban McCoy, the Chaplain, greeted me very warmly. Fisher House is very evidently a vital Catholic community under his stewardship: there were students everywhere, as well as a good number of senior members of the university. Fr Alban has just overseen a major rebuilding project on the site. There is now a new church, the Church of St John Fisher, within the shell of what was formerly Fisher Hall, which used to be a multi-purpose room in which Mass was celebrated when I was an undergraduate at Selwyn College, thirty years ago. There is a beautiful specially commissioned replica of Cimabue's thirteenth century crucifix in the sanctuary and a new choir loft. The first of the Sunday morning Masses is a sung Latin one. I manfully offered to sing the Preface. After listening to me in the sacristy the student who is the choirmaster suggested that it might be better for everybody if I said it. I had a couple of congenial meals at Fr Alban's kitchen table where I met some of the people who help him and some of the students. I have come away greatly encouraged. Here I am after one of the Masses with Sister Ann Swailes, the Chaplaincy Assistant, and two men from Leeds Diocese, James Lawson, beside me, and Callum Wood, second from the left.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Grad Ball

I attended the Graduation Ball tonight at the Marriott Hotel in Leeds. All the students had scrubbed up well and looked very elegant. I said grace at the beginning of the meal. One hundred and fifty students were suitably silent as I said an impromptu prayer, thanking God for the three years which had gone and asking for his blessing upon the graduates as they moved on. There was a loud whoop at the end and a round of applause. The Catholic Women's League never used to behave like this when I was in parish ministry. As the evening continued and I tucked into my goats cheese pastry, it being Friday (thanks a lot bishops), I looked round the room feeling rather fatherly and recalled moments I had shared with these smashing young people: a Chaplaincy walk in the Dales when I first conversed with that particular woman; the time when another young woman zipped through the trees on a pulley on a "Go Ape" adventure, screaming joyfully; the time when I joined two students, a young man and a young woman, dancing in the aisle in the Alhambra Theatre at a "Mama Mia" Abba-tribute concert - one of them has just got a teaching job, the other is still looking. It's a hard world out there. I hope everybody is going to be all right. Congratulations to Marcus Myrie, the Students' Union Vice-President, for organising a very good evening. He very kindly gave free tickets to me and Dominica Richmond, the Chaplaincy Administrator. Here I am with three of Leeds Trinity's finest: Max, Chris and Luke.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

God bless Her Majesty!

I gave a brief impromptu speech in honour of the Queen this evening at our Diamond Jubilee Student Barbeque. I recalled how she exerted a good influence on public life precisely because she is a Christian sovereign. I mentioned that during her reign the United Kingdom has known long periods of peace. I also mentioned that successive prime ministers had benefitted from her long experience in world affairs. The Jubilee was a moment to be truly thankful. Then I said, "Let us offer a toast: 'Her Majesty the Queen!'" To a person the 20 or so students present stood up, raised assorted glasses and the toast rang out loud and clear. It was all rather moving. Students are not usually marshallable and shyness will prevent some from speaking publicly. At that moment, we were all caught up in a lovely dynamic in which pride, patriotism and fellow-feeling were expressed. Earlier in the day, we had put on a Jubilee High Tea for members of staff. Dominica Richmond, the Chaplaincy Administrator, had baked lots of delicious cakes and pastries. My job was to sit on the Chaplaincy Landing for an hour-and-a-half eating them while chatting to successive waves of staff bunking off work. Here are some of the barbeque students and beneath them our Principal, Professor Freda Bridge, sitting at the centre of a group of five during High Tea.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Beaming with pride

I had a lovely moment at St Winefride's Church, Wibsey, in south Bradford this evening. I attended the first of two back-to-back Confirmation services in this capacious building. Bradford Catholicism remains strong, as such numbers of children being confirmed illustrates. In recent years, a number of Catholic churches in the city have closed and parishes have joined together. The parish where I was parish priest, St John's, Buttershaw, has now merged with St Winefride's. In these circumstances, we know that it's not enough simply to belong; we need to belong wholeheartedly. We need to make as clear a statement spiritually as Lister's Mill, St George's Hall and City Hall - jewels of the wool era - make a statement architecturally. Our Confirmation Service this evening constituted such a statement. The girls outnumbered the boys: many of them are students at St Joseph's High School which was established by the the Cross and Passion Sisters, who co-founded Leeds Trinity. One mother came up to me afterwards and said: "This is Lizzie (not her real name). You used to throw her up in the air after Mass!" "That was eight years ago when you were only five, Lizzie. You won't remember me, but it's nice to see you. Congratulations!" "I do remember you," she said. What a great girl! So here she is, witnessing to Christ, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a full member of the Church with her ex-parish priest beaming beside her.

Surpised by joy on the moors

I had a great day off on Monday. It started a little unpromisingly; I had to mark some scripts from students who had completed the sacraments module that I had taught for the Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies. I say unpromisingly because this was work rather than leisure, but within a few minutes I was absorbed by what they had written. They were writing about the nature of baptism, how baptism and confirmation are distinct but related and about the theology of marriage. It was a pleasure to read how they engaged with the teaching of the magisterium and related it to scripture and their own experience. Then occasionally they would make connections that had never occurred to me and there, as I stared at the script, new horizons of understanding unfolded and I was party to some bold and direct theological enquiry resulting in beautiful if tentative conclusions.

It was lunchtime before I had got through all the scripts - I am a slow marker - and I set off for Ilkley Moor. As I was putting on my walking boots in the car, I listened to Richard Holloway, the former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, beginning the first in a series of programmes called "Honest Doubt." His basic thesis was that all thinking people doubt the existence of God, even those who, at other moments, believe in God's existence. He said that the universe had been evolving for a long time and that it was only in the last 50,000 years that man had reached a stage of self-awareness that he was able to question the purpose of his existence. He had created gods to give meaning to his life and had then had dismissed them and had embraced scepticism and accepted his own insignificance. We can never know that God exists, he said.

As I strode out across the moors - it was a 15-mile walk, beginning in Morton, with a restful cup of tea in Ilkley and then back via the fourth century BC swastika stone - I thought, with all due deference to an academic: "I disagree." The scenery was typically magnificent: broad shafts of light emerging from a thin bank of clouds illuminating Pendle to the west and Leeds and Bradford to the east, each attractive at a distance. I received this as a gift; it's frankly a bit hard  not to do so. I'd feel a bit daft thinking: "How extraordinary that I should chance upon such randomly occurring harmony." Also, as I looked around I didn't feel remotely insignificant. I felt very important: I was the recipient of the gift that I beheld. And what a gift!: I saw a grouse with all her chicks; a skylark; a roe deer; a pied wagtail; countless butterflies; banks of bluebells - I could go on. Halfway through the walk I remembered that one of the students had written about how in the Sacrament of Confirmation we receive not just the Gift of the Holy Spirit but also seven others gifts, one of which is knowledge. It occurred to me: I do know that God exists because he has granted me this knowledge. I can't, as it were, remove God from my life and then investigate whether he exists, needlessly adopting some kind of pseudo-scientific mode of enquiry, excluding from my consciousness all my lived experience of God's goodness. When push comes to shove, why on earth should I wish to divest myself of joy?

Monday, 28 May 2012

Cream cakes and song

It is often standing room only these days at St Patrick's Church, in inner city Leeds. I celebrated the Vigil and the Sunday morning Mass there this weekend. When I was a young priest St Patrick's was a massive church on the York Road, a symbol of the renaissance of the nineteenth century Catholic Church with the advent of Irish immigrants: that building - a short distance from the current one - still stands, but it is now used as a storage warehouse for the West Yorkshire Playhouse, I understand. Its closure as a church was sad but the atmosphere that I experienced today in its smaller replacement, a very modest building by comparison (though pleasing), is exciting. There were people there of all ages and from lots of different ethnic groups - and just about everybody sang! Moreover parish stalwart Ann Norman was celebrating her birthday and two other parish stalwarts, Patrick and Regina Stapleton, were celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary, so they forced me to eat cream cakes with them. Today especially I realised the truth of the dictum that the Church is the people within the building.

A ruby wedding anniversary

Forty years ago today, I attended a wedding (probably in short trousers), my first such, in the chapel of Leeds Trinity. I remember exactly where I sat with my family. My teacher, Miss Seager, was marrying Mr Rogers. As a young priest I met Mr Rogers again: he was the Headteacher at St Theresa's Primary School, in north Leeds and one who was very highly respected by his colleagues; I was a curate in the parish. This evening I celebrated the Mass to mark Keith and Teresa's ruby anniversary. It was a great occasion and many of their friends gathered for it. Some had not been to Leeds Trinity for forty years. After my homily Keith and Teresa came up to the sanctuary and I gave them the blessing which the Church offers for such occasions. After Mass they invited me to join them for the reception. Ordinarily I don't linger at such events, but this evening was different. All around me were seasoned Catholic teachers, most of whom had recently retired, all of whom are imbued with the faith. I felt greatly encouraged by my several conversations. I think that we will look back on the seventies, when their teaching careers began, as a highpoint of Catholic culture in our country. Every advance now seems somehow so hard won, in contrast. I left the party and felt a little bit deflated. Then a friend rang: "My daughter has decided to get confirmed," she told me delightedly. The Holy Spirit has won through again. If only 13-year-olds knew what they put us through! Here are Keith and Teresa and their two daughters by the Easter Candle.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Boating and Mass at an ancient shrine

On Thursday I had an important meeting with the Principal. I said that I had to leave after half an hour, not specifying the reason but giving the impression that I had to attend to something pretty monumentally important. "Enjoy your day out in Knaresborough," she said as I exited. My cover had been blown. We were going on a Chaplaincy outing to this beautiful Yorshire town just north of Harrogate. After some rather chaotic boating on the River Nidd, we had tea overlooking the water and then gathered at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Crag. Julie, one of its custodians, gave us a fascinating talk about its history: it is believed to date from the fifteenth century but may well be much more ancient; it has connections with the Knights Templar one of whose training camps was nearby. Then I celebrated Mass on an outdoor altar; the sound of the birdsong in the silence after Communion was breathtaking. Afterwards we walked along the riverside path saying the Glorious Mysteries while teams practising for the famous Knaresborough Bed Race sped past us and joggers dodged between us, and the reflection of the handsome railway viaduct on the waters of the river beneath us was slowly elongated by the declining sun in a cloudless sky. The day, we might say, lived up to our expectations!

Substance and fun

Last weekend we had a Chaplaincy trip to Sutton near St Helen's for the annual Mass in honour of Elizabeth Prout, the nineteenth century foundress of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion. In a fascinating address during the Mass, Sister Elissa Rinere, one of the order's sisters in the United States, told us that a team of theologians attached to the Congregation for the Cause of Saints has recently concluded that Elizabeth Prout possessesd the virtues of faith, hope and charity to a heroic degree. Their work has to be scrutinised by a commitee of cardinals and other scholars but it now seems quite likely that she may be declared Venerable, the first stage in a process which may lead towards canonisation. It's all exciting stuff: another saint for England! We are pictured at her tomb, which is adjacent to the tomb of Blessed Dominic Barberi who received Blessed John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church. In the centre of our gang at the back is Sister Dominic Savio who was recently awarded a doctorate for her work on Elizabeth Prout's life and writings. Leeds Trinity was co-founded by the Sisters. Afterwards we had a tour of Liverpool Cathedral and then had a pizza in the atmospheric Albert Dock. We do substance; but we also do fun.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Head and heart engaged

We've been working hard in the last couple of days on our forthcoming conference: "Vatican II, fifty years on: the new evangelisation." All the signs are good. The programme has been finalised. In addition to the lectures from very eminent theologians and Church leaders - and they are very eminent! (see programme) - there are forty shorter papers by a series of academics and pastoral practitioners. This morning, I went with my colleague Professor Kirsteen Kim (Head of Theology and Religious Studies) to Durham where we met with Professor Paul Murray, Head of the Centre for Catholic Studies, who is helping us plan the event.

This evening, after Mass, I did something totally different: I joined in a prayer meeting in the Leeds Trinity chapel to ask the Lord to bless an event which is happening three months after the conference: a two-week ecumenical mission which is taking place in Horsforth and in which we will be participating in - it'll be great for Freshers' Week. A group of about twenty of us from a number of churches in the town, walked between temporary boards displaying particular prayer needs associated with the mission and offered spontaneous petitions; and we gazed upon a big map of our area - fifteen metres long - laid out on the floor, and said more prayers for the local inhabitants.

So at one moment today, I was reflecting on what the new evangelisation is; and at another moment I was doing it, in company with evangelical, Baptist, house church, Catholic and Anglican brothers and sisters. It would help me to be able to measure the fruits of these activities. How far will our conference further the conversion of our nation? How will our prayers for the mission be efficacious? We cannot know. However, that both will make a significant difference is beyond question to one who has faith. Here is a picture of our gang this evening with the map on the floor beneath:

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Praying well and looking good

We had a brain storming meeting at Hinsley Hall today to plan for the School of Prayer next year. This is a two-day event which the diocesan Vicariate for Evangelisation runs at Leeds Trinity: the Friday session is for teachers, the Saturday session is for everybody else. It has worked well over the last four years. The 2013 School is to run on 1st and 2nd February and the workshops are provisionally as follows: the prayer of faith and Youcat; gesture and movement in the Dominican tradition of prayer; Eucharistic spirituality; and meditating upon the Angelus. I'm looking forward to it already. I'd book straightaway if I were you: . Here's Linda Pennington, the diocesan Coordinator for Catechesis, who led us in the discussion.

Afterwards I returned to Leeds Trinity for a photo shoot. They didn't train us for this at seminary. We are going to have a panel put up on the wall of the Chaplaincy Landing with a picture of students discussing YouCat and next to it Pope Benedict's words: "There is nothing more beautiful than to know Christ and to speak to others of our friendship with him." I hope that it will be up in time for our forthcoming conference on the New Evangelisation because, frankly, it'll make the Chaplaincy look "of the moment." We had a proper YouCat session beginning with a prayer, and then discussed Paragraph 153, "The Resurrection of the Body" while Tania Clarke, our ever-helpful Marketing and Communications Manager, caught it all on film. The students' comments were as insightful and probing as ever: will we look like we do now?; will we have a relationship to everybody in every generation?; how can I not have a special love for my husband and children in heaven, a love which is greater than my love for others? Because the discussion was in a public place rather than in my flat, it became an act of witness in itself. We'll hold our YouCat sessions there from now on. I hope that I look friendly but authoritative on the picture.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

First confessions

I had a pleasant evening hearing confessions this evening. It was at a service for the families at Ss Peter and Paul's Parish, Yeadon whose children are soon to make their First Holy Communion. I made my first confession in the same church 41 years ago. Mgr John Wilson preached very directly on Jesus as the shepherd who rescues the lamb that has gone astray. Lots of people were grinning during his  homily - and that was before they had been to confession! All the children knew by heart the introductory line - "Bless me Father for I have sinned. This is my first confession," - and the Act of Contrition. They were assured and confident. Congratulations to headteacher Mrs Diane Todd and her team, pictured with Mgr Wilson under the statue of Our Lady after the service. And of course, lots of parents, inspired by their children, took the opportunity to receive the sacrament too. "Thanks for coming," one of the teachers said as I headed home. "Not at all," I said. "It was.." I couldn't think of the word immediately; "..well, it was a joy actually."

Monday, 14 May 2012

The priest does not have a home

Striding down the lane from Heptonstall to Hebden Bridge in Calderdale this afternoon, on the final straight of a seven-mile walk, looking forward to a celebratory cup of tea at the bottom I met a smartly dressed man about my age walking up the lane. "It's much better going down!" I ventured. "No, going up is better. That's where home is!" The way he said it, the look on his face as he said it, I knew he was talking not just about his abode but about loved ones. He is clearly a man who appreciates his family. The thought of his candid and straightforward avowal of what is important in life put a trip in my step as I reflected on it for the remainder of the descent. And, of course, it made me think a little too of the differences in our life situations. Priests do not ordinarily have homes. That's something that lads who are thinking about the priesthood have to come to terms with in time. Canon Belton, may he rest in peace, with whom I did a parish placement as a seminarian, told me that when the second parent of a priest dies and the family home ceases to be such, it marks a significant new phase in the man's priesthood and, like many of my brothers, I have found that to be true. This not having a home is part of the understated asceticism of diocesan priesthood and hence, (hopefully!) a means of our sanctification. We are to be generally (though not always, thank God!) available, and so we should be. Moreover, we must always be ready to move in response to pastoral needs.

Mind you, the ascetical side of our life can be overstated. When I moved into Leeds Trinity, the Principal ensured that I got a new carpet and a new dining room table and side-board and the bathroom was renovated. The other day I said to one of the students, "Do you know, I rather like being here." The student, who if he is like most of his peers, has to choose between the chips or the pie for lunch because he can't afford both, said "I bet you do. You have a bijou bachelor pad with a guest bedroom. I'd like being here too if I had everything that you have." He had a point!

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Preaching the word

I wrote my homily for this evening's Mass yesterday afternoon. I think that's the most organised I've been in eighteen years. I'm at a loss what to do this afternoon. I am missing the stress of the impending deadline. I love preaching. I was struck when I read the lapidary line in Sacramentum caritatis (2007): "...the quality of homilies needs to be improved (46)." Mine certainly do! You're only ever as good as your last gig. No preacher is always on form. I have been to a couple of workshops organised by the College of Preachers, an Anglican foundation which operates ecumenically, and I found them both very encouraging. The key thing about preaching, I think, is that it is the preacher's gift to the congregation. At a birthday party, if I give somebody a £10 book token and somebody else gives that person a Ferrari, my book token remains significant. In the Church we are en famille: I pray about the readings, I reflect on my own experience, I throw in an anecdote if one comes to mind (apparently three or four recur regularly, the students say!) and I seek to communicate something of my own joy as a believer. Job done! If I try to be impressive, it invariably comes out all wrong. Why should I seek to impress members of my family? They know me; they are ready to accept my gift. If I remember to be straightforward and respectful, I can generally sense that some kind of authentic interaction has occurred, enough for the Holy Spirit, who inspired me in the first place, to do further work in the hearts and minds of my auditors.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Being direct about vocation

We had a good meeting yesterday at Oscott College, Birmingham, on promoting vocations to the priesthood. I met with Fr Stephen Langridge, the Chairman of the Conference of Diocesan Vocations Directors, and Fr Paul Moss, Vocations Director for Birmingham. It was a planning session for our annual national conference in November. A key thing that emerged for me from our conversation was the need for us to be direct about inviting young men to consider the priesthood. There are sensitivities to be observed. We cannot do this in such a way as to suggest that everybody who isn't a priest is just an "also ran." But equally we cannot simply say that everybody is called by God and hope that some young men may decide to approach us about the priesthood. I think that the trick is to help create a culture of personal generosity among young people through good group catechesis, worship, and volunteering initiatives. Then as priests we need to spend time with them. Very naturally a moment comes when we say to a particular young man (usually upon reaching a good view on a long walk), "Have you ever thought about the priesthood?" The fact that we have a special interest in his vocation does not mean that we are uninterested in lay and religious vocations. On the contrary, if this man does go on and get ordained he will exercise his ministry serving his brothers and sisters in the Church. I think most young Catholics are cool about this - to use youth parlance! They don't think I'm a clericalist or a misogynist because I devote quite a lot of time to accompanying young men who wish to explore the priesthood. They just want me to get on with encouraging some of their peers to be as generous in offering their lives in the priesthood as they hope to be in, for example, the state of marriage.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Feeling Christ's strength

I had a good day off yesterday - I went for a walk around Kirkby Overblow and Sicklinghall between Harrogate and Wetherby. The bluebells and the wild daisies in the hedgerows contrasted nicely with the vibrant yellow of the oil seed rape in the fields. I saw great tits, red kites and a skylark ascending, pouring out his song all over the surrounding countryside. Halfway round I popped into the Catholic church at Sicklinghall which is part of St Joseph's Parish, Wetherby, where I did my first curacy. Sunday Mass has not been celebrated in Sicklinghall for some years: the number of Masses has had to be reduced due to the shortage of priests. As I sat there in the quiet, remembering the many weddings at which I had officiated there in summers past, the fact of our decline as a Church struck me quite forcibly. No doubt more churches will have to close or lose the Sunday Mass in the years to come. Yet, I was also struck by our unassailable resilience. The sanctuary lamp indicating the Blessed Sacrament burned near the tabernacle in the church. Christ will not withdraw his presence from us, so we have nothing to fear. Outside I said a prayer at the attractively carved grave of Bishop Cornthwaite, the first Bishop of Leeds. He did his work then; we do ours now; Christ sustains and unites us, uses us for his purposes and draws us to himself; really, notwithstanding all our heartache, where's the problem?

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Confirming three young women

I had the great privilege of confirming three young women this evening. Bishop Roche kindly delegated to me his powers of confirmation for this occasion. Two of the women - Sophie Swain and Claire Burke, both primary education students - were member of the class I taught for the Catholic Certificate of Religious Studies earlier in the year. The third, Terrimarie McKeown, graduated a couple of years ago and currently works as a carer for one of our disabled students: we have known each other for several years. I've greatly enjoyed meeting up with them in recent months. It was clear to me from the outset that each was firmly resolved to become a full member of the Church. We have used YouCat as a basis for our discussions and it has been very frutiful. This evening their parents, friends and boyfriends attended the Confirmation Mass, which was our usual 6pm Mass. The young womens' decision has clearly made an impact across their circle of acquaintance. I said to one of them, half in fun, that next year I might just announce that I would hold Confirmation classes for anybody who had missed out on this sacrament as a teenager. "I think you should," she said. So I will. Here are a few pictures of our joyful evening. The lower ones are of the girls with their families, sponsors and boyfriends. Thank you to Dominica and John for preparing our post-Mass champage (-type) reception! This was certainly one of the highpoints of our Chaplaincy year.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

A new vocations group is launched

We went on a six-mile "Faith Walk" to the Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Grace in Osmotherley today. The "we" is a new group called the Vocations Pathways Group which is aimed at young practising Catholics aged 15 and over who want to develop their faith and discern how God is calling them to serve in his Church. It is a joint initiative between Middlesbrough and Leeds Dioceses. Eight young people turned out for our inaugural trip. We hope to have a number of such walks each year. When we got on the top of the North York Moors it began to snow so we had our sandwiches crouched under fir trees. After warming tea and cakes, Fr Massie, the vocations director of Middlesbrough, gave us a great talk on the theme "Saying 'yes' with Mary" and then we processed up to the shrine chapel, saying the joyful mysteries of the rosary (in keeping with his exposition of the story of the Annunciation). Fr Damien Humphries osb gave a beautiful homily at the Vigil Mass on the need to "remain in" the Lord and after Mass (and more tea) he gave us a fascinating talk on the history of the shrine. One of the many things that I learnt is that Katherine of Aragon was a patroness of the Carthusians, who once owned the chapel, and her coat of arms is inscribed in its principal window. Moreover there is talk of a beatification process.

The walk nearly did not take place at all because these days safeguarding requirements are so stringent: we needed to have four designated adults in order that we would have two adults to accompany a child to hospital in the event of an accident and two to remain with the group. Fortunately, staunch Catenian John Wood, who helped Celia Blackden at the Vocations Office and me set the group up, persuaded two of his fellow parishioners in the Parish of Ss John Fisher and Thomas More, Burley in Wharfedale, to join us. In fact, the presence of John and Michael Hanogue and Rosalia Roberts was not just a safeguarding necessity, it was an enrichment of the event: they testified to their particular vocation as lay people in the very act of accompanying the young people. It all felt balanced and right. The picture above was taken outside the shrine and the one below shows us all standing by the lady statue with Fr Damien in the middle. If you are on Facebook, there are full details on the page of the Vocations Pathways Group.

These young people are inspirational. They face a lot at school. "I thought you were intelligent, I didn't realise you were a Catholic," one of those on the walk was told recently. They value the faith: "I love confession. I go every fortnight," said one today. It was moving seeing them lined up for our photo in front of the shrine. "It's going to be up to you soon," I said. They'll be ready for it.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Vatican II and the Bible

We had a fascinating evening yesterday. Mgr Kieran Heskin gave the men's discernment group a talk on how the Second Vatican Council helped us to understand the bible. He provided an overview of the history of biblical criticism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Then he showed how the original draft of Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) was rewritten in order to take account of the new Catholic understanding of the importance of scripture consequent upon studies of the early Church and the writings of the Fathers. He also showed how our awareness of God's speaking to us is rooted in Jewish worship. Three insights struck me especially. Firstly, God does not reveal things about himself; he reveals himself, indeed all of himself. Secondly, the New Testament is "hidden" in the Old Testament. Thirdly, Christ is fully present to us in his word, as he is in the Eucharist. The talk followed a holy hour during which lots of the lads went to confession, thanks to Fr Pasquino Panato, the Comboni Missionary whose community house is opposite the College. Afterwards we went for a bite to eat at Cafe Marinetti in Hosforth and I had Saltimboca alla romana. Not all the lads are ready to appear on a photograph, but here are some members of the group, which also happily comprises Middlesbrough men. Mgr Heskin is second from the left and my friend Fr William Massie, Vocations Director for Middlesbrough Diocese, is just behind him. The group meets every month at Leeds Trinity and we're always glad to receive new members.

Facing a hundred 15-year-olds

I went to All Saints' Catholic High School in Huddersfield to give a start-of-day presentation on Christian Vocation to one hundred 15-year-olds. I have always enjoyed this kind of thing. When teenagers are all looking in the same direction they forget about the need to be coolly dismissive of everything to do with Christianity: you can see yearning in their faces - well at least for a while! I told them stories about the two beati mentioned by Pope Benedict in his recent 2012 World Youth Day Message: Chiara Badano and Pier Giorgio Frassati. Then I read them the story of the Annunciation and said that we thought Mary was about their age when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her. They were still on board - and indeed they were a credit to the school throughout - but by this stage, half an hour in, attention was inevitably waning a bit. Right, I thought, I'll finish by enthusing about the priesthood. By this stage, however, I knew that I was flagging and after eighteen years as a priest, I am sure of one thing: children pereceive weakness with unerring accuracy. I nodded at the very able Assistant Chaplain, Rebecca Coyle who had assured me just before the assembly that, if I needed it, she had discovered a great DVD on YouTube about the priesthood. She pressed a button and the best resource I have ever seen on this subject appeared on screen. That's what I call team work! Entitled "To be a Priest," the DVD has been produced by the Vocations Office of the Diocese of Rockville Center in the United States. Here is the site: . At the end, Miss Coyle invited the students to applaud me. Whatever they are paying her, they ought to double it. Here is a picture of two of the lads from the year group who helped me set everything up and the headteacher, Miss Anita Bodurka, who kindly gave me a coffee afterwards.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Evangelising Britain

We had an important planning meeting today for the forthcoming international theological conference which is to take pace here at Leeds Trinity. It's entitled "Vatican II, Fifty Years On: The New Evangelisation" and will run between 26th and 29th June. Though I say so myself the list of lecturers is impressive: Archbishop Fisichella (below), who is the President of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation (and who taught me when I was at seminary - not, I'm sure that he is aware of that fact!), Cardinal George of Chicago, Cardinal Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for Evangelisation and a host of leading Catholic theologians, such as Professors Gavin D'Costa, Tracey Rowlands and Mathijs Lamberigts. Every continent on the earth is represented (apart from the polar regions). It'll be (one might say without a touch of hyperbole)  the most significant event in the Catholic Church in Britain since the Papal Visit. You could be there. Any educated Catholic who loves the Church will find it stimulating and energising. Here's the website link: .

With the conference still in my mind, I watched an interview this evening with Archbishop Fisichella on Salt and Light Television. He described how the new evangelisation requires a new enthusiasm to share our faith. I was interrupted by a knock on the door by a student who had asked to see me about being baptised. Why do you want to be baptised? I asked. "I want to take part in the life of the Church," she said. "I want to give myself in the faith, I want to share my faith with others." No sooner had she gone than a young man arrived who has been thinking off and on about the priesthood. "For the moment I just want to concentrate on responding to the universal call to holiness," he said. People in my generation didn't use to speak in these terms when we were young. Sharing our faith was simply not a priority. Responding to God's call seemed to be the preserve of those who were called to the priesthood and religious life. I think I'm perceiving the first beginnings of a change.

Monday, 30 April 2012

"I'll be all right"

I went to the funeral of one of my brother priests today, Canon Martin Forde, Parish Priest of SS Peter and Paul's, Yeadon. His friend and fellow Irishman, Fr Jim Leavy described him in the homily as a gentle and compassionate man and that was certainly my impression of him. We heard that he was not one to make a fuss. As his health deteriorated in recent months, he carried on with his duties. One of his parishioners described to me how moving it was to participate in the Stations of the Cross in the parish on Good Friday: fourteen times Canon Forde genuflected and on each occasion it was evident that he was in pain. On his final Sunday, he went to the back of the church as people left after Mass - which was not his usual practice - and personally handed each parishioner one of the Catholic identity cards which were recently distributed by the bishops' conference in a move to encourage Catholics to live their faith more thoroughly and publicly. What a gift that simple card was! As his strength diminished, Canon Forde was communicating his faith one last time to the people whom God had called him to serve. Whenever people enquired after his health he would reply "I'll be all right," and indeed these were the last words he said to a nurse in the hospital. I don't doubt he will be. Hearing the stories about him today, I was reminded of what Pope Benedict said in his homily for the Chrism Mass this year: "No one should ever have the impression that we priests work conscientiously when on duty, but before and after hours we belong only to ourselves. A priest never belongs to himself. People must sense our zeal, thorough which we bear credible witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ." I should consider myself to be a good priest indeed if I belonged as little to myself as Canon Forde did to himself.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

With students at Leeds University

On this, Vocations Sunday, I celebrated the evening Mass at Leeds University Catholic Chaplaincy. I read out Bishop Roche's excellent Letter - my favourite line was: "The priest is our privileged companion on our journey through life" - and said a few words afterwards. In fact, as quite often happens, there was a Providential conjunction of factors that made the occasion especially significant. Yesterday, I attended the 80th birthday celebrations in Harrogate of my Uncle Austin, the brother of my mother, who died when I was a boy. Whilst at this lovely event, I met some of my mother's former school friends, including my aunt: they used to attend what was then Notre Dame High School in Leeds, whose chapel is now the University Chaplaincy chapel. This evening I celebrated Mass for the repose of my mother's soul in that chapel, in gratitude for the gift of faith which she transmitted to me. The Sisters of Notre Dame formally took their leave of the diocese a couple of years ago. The beautiful chapel continues to testify to their commitment to Catholic formation; its exquisite proportions, coloured marble interior and tastefully reordered sanctuary make this one of the jewels of the diocese. It was moving to see rows and rows of young women and men there this evening, sitting where my mother and her friends sat in the 1940s. I joined them for a quiz afterwards. They were a delight.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Holy Spirit manifests his presence

One of the most beautiful moments in my priesthood to date occurred this evening. We had a reunion for the students who went on the Chaplaincy pilgrimage to Rome a couple of weeks ago. One techno-savvy student arranged for a slide show of all our photographs to play on the television screen in the Chaplaincy Lounge with backing music from Italian operas while we tucked into spaghetti carbonara, pizza and ice cream. In the midst of the conversation we were occasionally transfixed by pictures showing shafts of light in the upper reaches of the nave of St Peter's or the happiness evident on students' faces caught just at the right instant as they stood in front of the floodlit, rain-soaked Trevi Fountain. I asked each person to share a good memory from our time together. The young woman who led off knew exactly which moment had made a difference to her: the watching of the 20-minute video about the World Youth Day Cross in the San Lorenzo Youth Centre. She had been an atheist but now she understood that Christ carried his cross for her, she said. You almost expected the room to shake as the Holy Spirit signalled his presence among us. I was immediately reminded of something that Bernard Marusic, the Assistant Director of the Centre, told me the day we visited and the students were evidently exhausted. It's when they are like that that the Holy Spirit works miracles, he said, clearly speaking from rich experience.

Here is Sister Anne Hammersley cp, the Assistant Chaplain, with some of the students at the party.

And here is a picture of me standing by the World Youth Day Cross in the Centre's chapel with Bernard on the right, Marc Homsey, one of the Leeds seminarians on the left and, standing in the middle, Hannah Zafar, who is a youth worker in Leeds Diocese and who is currently working with the Emmanuel School of Mission in Rome.

Like picking fruit from trees

It's been a good couple of days. First a member of staff told me that she wishes to become a Catholic.Then a student got in touch and said that she wished to be baptised. Then today, as I was arranging an instruction class for a Catholic student who wishes to be confirmed I asked her friend who was standing apart whether she too wished to be confirmed - I was trying to be mildly amusing - and her friend said no, but she'd like to be baptised and she's coming along to see me next week - with her friend (seeing the priest on one's own, at least at the first catechetical meeting, would be a bit heavy). Basically, I think, everybody wants to become a Catholic, but not everybody knows it yet. Of course, young people sometimes just take a fancy to Christianity and then decide to play hockey instead. One young woman came to see me and I gave her an improving summary of the Catholic faith to read before our next reading. She did, thanked me politely and said that, on reflection, she had decided she didn't want to bother. However, those who are currently enquiring strike me as being truly desirous of making this step of faith. I'm really looking forward to instructing them and learning more about our faith myself within our interaction. All I'd like now is for four, young, physically resilient, emotionally balanced, unattached men who have said the rosary every day for the last six years to come and see me and say, "Would you mind recommending us to the bishop for seminary formation?"

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Facing rejection at Morrisons

I went bag-packing at Morrisons in Horsforth with some students who are going to Lourdes in July. The supermarket kindly gave us a slot to raise funds. "May I pack your bags?" I said to a well-dressed man, considerably younger than myself. "No, I'm fine" he said rather sternly, clearly discomfited by this intervention of a clergyman in his evening routine. So I stood by his side as he packed his own bags, feeling superfluous. distinctly dispirited and rather absurd. I'm not used to such raw rejection. Only five minutes previously I had been the "in control" cleric whom people greeted and smiled at; suddenly I had become this embarrassing, middle-aged bloke in a collar to be avoided.  Fortunately, other shoppers were a little more forthcoming; indeed many were very generous. At the end of the evening I took the five students who had worked with me for a drink. One recounted how he had mistakenly reached for a purchase on the conveyor belt only for the shopper to thunder: "I said leave it!" "There's 50p" the same shopper said as he departed. "You'd have got a quid if you hadn't interfered." Another said "Why should I give money to Catholics?" He had a point I suppose. I've not counted our takings yet but I estimate we made about £100. We all lingered in the pub, even after our glasses were empty. The experience had united us, which is always a sure sign that God's kingdom has been built up. Here are two of the students with a kind and friendly shopper.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Saying "no"

This period is always a little tricky because lapsed Catholic education students who hope to secure jobs in Catholic schools tend to approach me and ask for a reference. A while ago, one sent me an email which began, "Circumstances over the last four years have prevented me from getting to know you..." Unless there is a particular reason, I decline, gently. I suggest that they contact their parish priests. I explain that school governors will want to know whether they practise the faith and and that I have no knowledge whether they do. The students are usually a little taken aback. I encourage them to resume going to Mass and give them a CTS pamphlet but I doubt it does much good, not immediately anyway.

I am always saddened and unsettled by these encounters. All my life I have known and admired former Leeds Trinity graduates; they taught me as a boy and they were my colleagues when I was a school chaplain. The strength of their Catholic faith shone out. I have quite often felt a desire to become a better priest precisely in order that I may inhabit my vocation as wholeheartedly as they do theirs. A few current students of course are similarly generous and faithful. But many I know are not in a position to foster the Catholic ethos of our schools because their hold on the faith is so slight.

A good while ago, I said to one young man, whom I liked a lot: "You've got three chances to get back on track: immediately after this conversation; at the baptism of your first child; or at that child's first Holy Communion; and it's unlikely that the second and third event will make much difference to you, so I'd do it now. Otherwise, sooner than you think, you'll be old and your faith will be like a sentimental memory of childhood and you won't know how to reclaim it and then you'll die." He responded to the challenge and began worshipping again. I hope that he still is.

Friday, 20 April 2012

A pilgrimage to Rome

I am a deeply happy chaplain. I've just returned from a four-day pilgrimage to Rome with 20 students, the other members of the Chaplaincy Team, a Catholic member of staff and one of our governors, Sister Moya O'Cleary. It was the second pilgrimage in as many years. Last year I was a little tentative with regard to praying (not personally I hasten to add, but with the group). I invited the students to worship events but emphasised rather too strongly that they should feel free to do their own thing at these times. This year I engaged in the new evangelisation with vim. We gathered in a corner of St Mary Major's and I read the account of the birth of Jesus and we prayed; we paused at a sculpture showing Christ's agony in the garden in the garden of the Passionist Generalate on the Celian Hill and I read a psalm; during our 40-minute wait in the queue outside St Peter's under a hot sun, I read the account of Jesus entrusting the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter; we went into the superb and welcoming San Lorenzo Centre for young people near the Vatican and adored the exposed Blessed Sacrament; and we all gathered for Mass at the Venerable English College in Rome. Everybody seemed glad to have the faith proposed to them in this way and to have the opportunity for quiet contemplation (though some of those who are not Catholics found the Mass rather "full on" - I should perhaps have explained more about it before we went in). I also know that the students had all sorts of conversations about the faith with other members of the Chaplaincy team as we walked along.

Everything was going swimmingly until the last evening, when it went swimmingly. As we began our long walk from the English College to the student hostels near Stazione Termini it began to drizzle and by the time we reached the Trevi Fountain, the rain was pouring down. Many of the students had not brought waterproofs (largely because I had not reminded them in the morning), I had not thought of a Plan B and was unclear what bus was going where, so we ploughed on along faceless modern streets, up a seemingly endless hill until we reached the station. Some of the lads had intended partying on their last night but retired exhausted to their bunks. One young woman remarked to me on the plane the following day that she had had to throw her pumps away: she could not have brought them through the security check because they contained more than 100g of water! By that time they had all forgiven me though. What a great joy it was to bear them company for those four days and to share my faith with them, if not my raincoat.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Throwing off irony

I had a pleasant couple of days in London visiting a friend this week. I concelebrated Mass at the famous Jesuit Church in Farm Street and then visited the British Museum where we chanced upon what is thought to be the oldest representation of Christ in the world, the fourth century Hinton St Mary mosaic (below): it shows a clean shaven young Christ with the alpha and omega symbols in the background and formed part of the pavement of a Roman house in Dorset. It was extraordinary to think of the Mass being celebrated on our shores almost three centuries before the arrival of St Augustine. We also saw a striking mid-nineteenth century Ethiopian Crucifixion of Christ. The following day we went to Tate Modern. Incidentally, for those who don't know, both the museum and the gallery are free: Britain is a truly fantastic country. I saw some beautiful works at the Tate Modern and discovered a lot about schools of art like Cubism and Vorticism and Futurism. I was struck, however, by the complete absence of religious themes. Then I chanced upon a video of Damien Hirst in which he spoke about the creation (by others, it seemed) of his renowned diamond encusted skull. The piece was entitled "For the Love of God," because, as he explained, that is what his mother exclaims whenever he has a radical new idea for art. I felt rather sad listening to him. It is as if, in modern culture, God can only be spoken of ironically. It is as if religious language speaks only to a previous generation. Then this evening I went to hear confessions at a women's prayer group run by the Franciscan Sisters of Renewal in the magnificent Corpus Christi Church on the Halton Moor estate in Leeds. Afterwards I was talking to one of the sisters and I mentioned some positive development in the local Church. "Thank God" she said, simply and naturally. Oh, it's such a relief to hear God spoken of uncarefully, unabashedly, straightforwardly, unembarrasedly!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A rainy day in the Lake District

I spent the Bank Holiday Monday in the Lakes with a lovely family I have known for most of my priesthood. I officiated at the wedding of the couple sixteen or so years ago; now they have four children. We went for a walk in Borrowdale wrapped up in waterproofs while rain fell softly, in part obscuring the magnificent fells all around us. As we strolled along and chatted, the youngest child, a six-year-old girl, silently took my hand, indicating that, by and large, she thought I was all right. Such a small gesture occurs all the time in families but for me as a priest, it was an unusual and heart-warming moment, the remembrance of which fills me with a sense of gratitude and joy.