Mgr Paul Grogan

Mgr Paul Grogan
Mgr Paul Grogan

Monday, 30 January 2012

The beauty of silence before Mass

I read a fine pastoral letter on silence today from the relatively recently ordained Bishop of Aberdeen, Bishop Hugh Gilbert, OSB. He explored the need that each of us has to be silent if we are to be able to receive the gift which Christ wishes to communicate to us in the Eucharist. The motif running through the letter was a quotation from the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard: "Create silence!" Bishop Gilbert noted how noisy congregations often are immediately before and after Mass. He invited Catholics to consider how they might reserve for another place their conversations, whose importance in building up the community he recognised.

Bishop Hugh Gilbert
I go to lots of churches round the diocese, preaching on vocations, and I have found that it is quite rare for there to be a truly reflective quiet before Mass. In the chapel at Leeds Trinity by contrast the congregation is always silent before our Sunday evening Mass. This is not something that I have especially promoted; just a circumstance that I have happily inherited. Mass-goers here can tranquilly prepare themselves for God to address them. The children in the congregation take the lead from the adults. It's truly delightful. I think that the reason why silence has been effectively abandoned in many parishes is relatively easy to identify. A mistaken ecclesiology has crept in, based on a partial reading of Vatican II, which has, at the practical level, accorded a higher value to the group of people gathered for worship rather than to the God whom we worship. God dwells in mystery whereas my fellow parishioner is present beside me and therefore, we have fallen into thinking, I must salute my neighbour in Christian charity, effectively ignoring Christ present in the tabernacle. I speak as a fellow sinner: a brother priest upbraided me recently when, after we had said Evening Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament together, I began to talk to him instead of refraining for a minute until we had left the chapel. When I was a boy, everybody who entered a church blessed themselves with holy water, genuflected and then knelt down to say a prayer before sitting in the pew. Those repeated acts of simple reverence happening all around me fascinated me as I grew through my childhood and more than anything else probably made me appreciate what a fine thing is to be a Catholic.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Mourning those who have left us

I read an article in The Guardian a couple of days ago about how the culture of mourning has developed over time. The custom of wearing black ended at about the time of the First World War, it said: the national trauma meant that it no longer seemed appropriate to mark particular deaths. Increasingly, since then, grief has been confined, in British culture, to the private sphere. The article suggested that this unnecesary containment of grief had led to illness: sorrow needs to be expressed if it is to be processed. Anybody who reads Dickens - the bicentenary of whose birth we are currently celebrating - knows that a good proportion of the female population of nineteenth century England was walking around in black. And it's still very common in southern Italy to see women dressed like this. We often see Mediterranean countries as exercising a humanising influence on northern Europeans because their inhabitants take time to eat well. We seldom note that they similarly take time to mourn well.

I mention the necessity of mourning because I think that priests have a need to mourn - in an extended sense of that word - those who have turned their backs on the family of the Church. In acknowledging our sadness we can find relief. I meet so many students every week who have in all practical respects rejected the Christianity in which they were brought up. Many Catholic students - on whom I have the foremost pastoral claim, so to speak - slough off the practice of their faith - insofar as this ever existed - with sadness, often with some shame, but for the majority, in my limited experience, permanently. If, as I explored a couple of posts ago, I am their father, how am I to respond? I cannot ignore the deep emotions which ministering in a diminishing Church stirs up in me. Anger is useless and misplaced and corrosive and self-indulgent and indicates self-importance. Rationalising - "I'm sure they'll be all right" - is worse: it ignores the hurt; and how do we know that they will be? Criticising the institutional Church - "It is failing to speak to them" -   is an evasion of our co-responsibility. No, the only good and human thing to do, it seems to me, is simply to mourn that our beloved sons and daughters have turned their back on our family, in the certain knowledge that he from whom all fatherhood proceeds, and whose love for those whom we love makes our love seem tiny, shares our pain.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Life-enhancing Christian unity service

An odd thing about pastoral work is that you plug away at something and it only ever half works and then suddenly and unaccountably it takes off. For a good number of years we've held a lunchtime Service during Christian Unity Week and a small number of staff have turned up and we've prayed together and gained support from one another. It's been worthwhile, but at the same time it's confirmed the fact that there are not many of us. Then somebody suggested that we organise an event in the evening so we did and lots of people turned up: more than 60 (which constitutes a big number in poor secularised Yorkshire!) Moreover, I had the fortuitous idea of stepping back. My colleague, Dr Jane de Gay, who is an English lecturer and who was ordained in the Church of England a couple of years ago, planned the service and presided beautifully, and young people from the Leeds Christian Cell Network and from local Baptist churches and parishioners from various other local churches joined us. The service was split into two halves: traditional hymns to start with and then, to finish, modern worship songs backed by a tuneful guitar-and-drum-group led by Leeds Trinity student (and proud Baptist) Jake Womack. Here is a picture of some of those who were involved.

What was so good about the event? One, we share a love of Christ. Two, we were grateful for each other's presence: the students, in particular, realised that something important was happening, given the level of preparation and the quality of the music. Three, we prayed together. That was a golden moment: a line of young people from different Christian traditions standing in front of the altar petitioning their common Father. How such moments must delight his heart! The process of ecumenism is necessarily slow and the associated meetings can be frankly tedious. But the frustrations are a small price to pay if we are convinced (as how can we not be?) that on such an evening we created a small piece of unity to honour God our Father (or perhaps better that his Holy Spirit created it through us) and that he received our offering with pleasure. The in-house sandwiches afterwards were excellent too - full-bodied, succulent, and varied - and people lingered for ages, chatting happily and building up the Church, effortlessly.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Being a father

A Japanese student left Leeds Trinity just before Christmas and returned home. She gave me a "thank you" card - most Asian students I know are good at observing the proper courtesies. I put the card up on my shelf for a while and then I picked it up recently to dispose of it. I re-read her words, which had very evidently been carefully crafted: "Thank you for being with us father. You are a father to us all." I felt immensely moved. The words seemed to have a greater import precisely because of the length of time that it must have taken her to write them.

It is a great privilege to be called "father" by so many people. Now that I am middle-aged, the title has acquired a new meaningfulness. I know through lived experience that my life as a priest is truly generative. I give life to people through my celebration of the sacraments, through my preaching and through my listening. I've learnt, I think, over nearly two decades as a priest that I am more effective and more happy the more I enter into the relationships which ministry makes possible. A father is less of a father if he remains aloof. Moreover, young people especially need fathers. If a father expresses his admiration for the way one of his children is developing, it is a key moment in that young person's life, a moment of liberation. In fact, the more I think about it the more I can see that priestly celibacy is not best described as the sacrifice of one good - namely family - for a higher good -  namely God. Rather it is a means by which a man enters into the fullness of fatherhood within the family of the Church. It's a gaining more than a foregoing.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Lay witnesses in a secular world

When I was at school the Catholic faith of many of the teachers at my school, St Mary's, Menston, made a big impression on me. There was a vital connection between their friendship with Christ and their kindness to me. In what other working environment, when you think about it, do you get so many committed, practising Catholic professionals seeking to make the world a better place? As a kid in a Catholic school you just have to turn up and the way the staff treat you reflects whether they are authentic human beings, true to the values they profess. I didn't realise how lucky I was. The gratuity of the respect accorded to us all was a reflection of God's uncomplicated delight in each one of us. This was clear even in the midst of the dysfunctionality that is common to any human community.

I was struck by a question raised by the Bishop of Lancaster recently: he asked whether we should continue to fund Catholic schools given the small numbers of both teachers and students who now go to Mass. I visit every high school in our diocese at least once a year giving vocations assemblies and celebrating Masses. I love the interaction with the children. I must confess I feel like I am talking about a faraway exotic country sometimes when I speak about the faith: the children are interested but many of them do not have a lived frame of reference into which they can insert my words and understand them. What do they do with the stirrings in their souls if their parents won't take them to Mass?

I had another good experience this morning. I celebrated a Mass for a class of 12-year-olds at one of our best schools, Mount St Mary's, in innercity Leeds. The liturgy had been prepared by the recently appointed Lay Chaplain, Rachel Webster (pictured). The children all knew what they were doing: some were readers of scripture; some bidding prayer readers; one brought up the gifts. Rachel had prepared an attractive slide display showing all the responses and the children joined in confidently. There was no distracting liturgical dance or drama such as many of us have mistakenly introduced into Masses for young people in the past. Chatting to her afterwards over a cup of tea, she told me how was planning to extend the retreat programme in the school. Driving home, I remembered that when I was first ordained, we did not have any lay chaplains in our high schools; now all of our schools have them. They are a sign of new growth in the Church, an expression of the irrepressible power of the Spirit, a challenge to clericalism, an encouragement to all Catholic adults to embrace their identity more completely.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Being accountable

I had my interim professional development review meeting with the Principal at Leeds Trinity today, Professor Freda Bridge. Each year we work out various objectives for my work as chaplain. Today's meeting, six months into the academic year, was a moment for me to demonstrate the progress that I had made. My first job was to remind myself precisely what my objectives are! I enjoy being goal-oriented, but, to stretch the metaphor, I have a tendency to take my eye off the ball. Hence the usefulness of the review.  Fortunately I have made a few advances, or rather we as a Chaplaincy Team have (I work with the Administrator, Mrs Domincia Richmond and the Assistant Chaplain, Sister Anne Hammersley, cp). There was one objective, however, which remained resolutely unmet: to circulate more on campus.

Like many priests, I think, I like a clear structure. If you ask us to administer sacraments, preach, catechise or listen to people in need, we know where we stand. In such circumstances, we rely on people coming to us. The fact that they do so is very affirming, though it has to be acknowledged that they are coming less often. In a place like Leeds Trinity there are lots of people who are just plain longing for a priest to have a cheerful word with them. I do my best, and I actually enjoy this aspect of my job once I get into the swing of it. For example, I regularly sit down next to groups of students I don't know at the lunch time in the dining room; I stand on the touchline on Wednesday afternoons and cheer on our sports teams; and I play five-a-side football with students (taking regular breathers in goal!). I sometimes think: shouldn't I be doing something more evidently missionary? Then, a student or a member of staff, perceiving that I am at that moment unhurried, indeed often at something of a loss, will start a conversation with me which leads to signficant things. Knowing all this to be true, I resolved after my meeting this morning to overcome whatever diffidence is in part holding me back and to set about circulating with a will. I sat down with a group of Pakistani Business Studies Masters students. "I hope that England trounces Pakistan in today's cricket," I said. We were away!

In David Hockney's territory

The good thing about being a priest in Yorkshire is that the countryside here is idyllic and varied. So when I heard about David Hockney's new exhibition of landscape paintings of the Yorkshire Wolds at the Royal Academy, I decided to go and walk there on Monday, my day off. I hooked up with a friend from Middlesbrough Diocese and we drove to Sledmere after a lovely lunch of pork and apple casserole with rice pudding (plus extra cream). The Wolds (for those who don't know them) consist of irregular rows of gentle hills, with lots of long curving hollows, presumably produced by rivers and streams at one point. It is a remote region - you come across farms only occasionally - which is situated about 15 miles inland from the glorious east coast resort of Bridlington.

As we tramped over the white, frost-hardened ground, past occasional flocks of sheep, surprising the odd pheasant, we chanced upon the first snowdrop of the season. The light was almost horizontal for much of the walk throwing into sharp relief the bare branches of the trees, many of which had been bent back by the wind, there being no large hills to protect them. At my friend's suggestion, we said the rosary, a devotion which lends itself nicely to the rhythm of walking. I often feel disinclined to pray when on a walk, concerned  to be honest that it might reduce my pleasure in the day. But somehow, the opposite happens: I've found that the prayer helps me to engage more deeply with the surroundings; or to put it another way, the prayer adds lustre to nature and perfects it. It's an extraordinary thing to experience and very consoling. As the dusk gathered the wide skies became crimson at the horizon. It had become dark when we reached the village once more and across the fields an owl hooted, beginning its nightly hunt. After such a splendid walk, and fortified by three mugs of tea and a large piece of iced Christmas cake at my friend's family home, I felt ready to embrace the challenge of the coming week.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Blessing of an engaged couple

One of the most useful books I possess as a priest is the "Book of Blessings." When I was in parish ministry I used it for blessing families in their homes during Eastertide. At Leeds Trinity I've adapted it: now I bless students' rooms at the beginning of the academic year. I once blessed a couple of large accommodation blocks at Wetherby Young Offenders' Institution immediately after lunch: the officers called the lads to order and they were very respectful. They appreciated the religious drama of me striding around in an alb scattering water everywhere (and I must say that I enjoyed the moment just as much!). I remember on another occasion going round to the family home of a poor young man was a heroin addict. "Give your strength to N, your servant, bound by the chains of addiction. Enfold him in your love and restore him to the freedom of God's children," I said, as he sat there, pale and emaciated, on the sofa, longing for God's help. There have been lots of happier moments too: blessings, for example, of shops, cars, a gymnasium, a mother before childbirth and innumerable throats on St Blaise's Day (3rd February). I have found that everybody instinctively wants a blessing. We intuit that it is an important way in which God offers us his unfathomable help. We do not need to prepare for it over a period of time, as we do to receive a sacrament. We just need to be personally, physically, present.

I was delighted therefore when a recently engaged couple, one of whom graduated from Leeds Trinity not so long ago, asked if I would bless them. We sat in the Lady Chapel in the College. The young woman read John 15: "Love one another as I love you." I reflected a little on the challenge and beauty of marriage. Then I read the blessing: "We praise you, Lord, for your gentle plan draws together your children, N and N, in love for one another. Strengthen their hearts..." We all knew afterwards, as we chatted over tea, that something extraordinary had happened. They had invited God into their relationship and he had graciously allowed them to feel his presence and his ineffable power.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Peer support

Yesterday ten people turned up for the lunchtime Mass at Leeds Trinity. That may not sound remarkable but I can't recall having such a large congregation for a weekday Mass in the four-and-a-half years I've been here. It was lovely! Something happened: some students talked to each other; members of staff found that they were free. There was a sense of solidarity: I could tell that each found the others' presence encouraging.

Young people can find the great act of the Mass unremarkable and then suddenly, when one of their friends shows an interest, they rediscover its beauty themselves. That's like-to-like ministry, I suppose. When I was first appointed to be a chaplain in higher education, I was dismayed by how little students seemed to want to participate in worship, whether it be the Eucharist or meditation groups or ecumenical services. Now I feel far more relaxed about this. There is so much that is going on in their lives: distractedness is a normal dimension of the process of growing up. Moreover, how can they, like the rest of us, not be victims of aggressive secularization?

What is interesting is when one young person says: "I want to believe and I want to express my faith in worship." That's a far bigger thing to do now than when I was their age. A while ago I heard one young woman who was received into the Catholic Church not so long ago in conversation with some other students. "You can't believe everything that the Catholic Church teaches!" said one. "Yes I do," she said happily and simply. "Everything!" You could sense the admiration among her peers. It was like she had just opened up new possibilities for each of them.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Spiritual experience on the Wrekin

I returned today from a two-day break in the Shropshire Hills with four priest friends. Yesterday we ascended the Wrekin, the highest summit in the area. It was  a very clear afternoon and we were able to see long distances, from the Malvern Hills in the south to the Peak District in the east, and all below us the wide and colourful Shropshire plain, bordered immediately beneath us by the meandering River Severn. At the request of one of our group we remained silent for a while, absorbing the scene. Such moments are always religious moments. Unbidden, the thought emerges: Who made it all? One of my friends, our guide for the day, explained how the Wrekin is more than 600 million years old and is composed in part by volcanic rock. "All of this was created through Christ. How exactly did that happen?" one of us asked playfully. We smiled, unable to explain the mystery of it, but convinced that it is so. I read later that the hill used to be called Gilbert's Hill after a hermit who lived on it in the Middle Ages. I also read that in 2010 a wicker man was burnt on the summit to celebrate the equinox. The hill is where our Christian heritage - no, it's stronger than that - our national Christian identity, and modern unbelief, with its concomitant New Age searching, coincide - no, it's stronger than that - conflict.

That evening we celebrated Mass together in the house. During it I remembered how I had read somewhere recently that during Mass we offer to God the Father the whole of the created order. That must be the case since we offer to him the Son in whom and for whom all that is exists - or better the Son offers himself (and us within him) to the Father. Usually I cannot get much of a purchase on this idea - it's a bit mind boggling. But yesterday I was able to envisage a large swathe of western England and the borderlands of Wales as seen from our vantage point on the Wrekin. What a privilege it is as a priest to give back daily to God in the Eucharist such beauty, to glorify him and thank him and feel his protective power!

Monday, 9 January 2012

A Samuel Group

One of the current initiatives of the National Office of Vocation under the able leadership of Fr Christopher Jamison is roll out discernment groups across the country. There are different types on offer. Compass groups, for example, (of which I think there are two at the moment) are specifically aimed at those who are contemplating religious life. Here in Leeds we started a Samuel Group in September. These groups, which follow a template created by Cardinal Martini in Milan in the 1980s, are aimed at all young men and women who wish to discover their vocation within the Church.

Our group is, we might say, struggling but vital. The number of attendees at the first two meetings was, respectively, one and two. The third meeting was due to take place yesterday afternoon but then I heard that the only two people I knew were attending both had essay crises. I was resigned to pastoral failure - a familiar experience for every diocesan priest in the country - but then there were two knocks on the door and in walked two serious-minded, young Catholic women, Trish and Sarah, who wanted to go deeper in their faith. We had an inspiring afternoon reflecting prayerfully on the call of Samuel in the First Book of Samuel and then said Vespers together. Moreover, some of the students in the Chaplaincy here at Leeds Trinity saw what we were about and by the end I intuited that they wanted to be in this gang too. I love my job. Here are Trish and Sarah in front of our crib just before it was dismantled.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Following the star

I was received very graciously by Fr Richard Carter and his parishioners at St Joseph's, Pudsey today and yesterday evening. I was preaching on vocation to the priesthood. I go around just about every parish in the diocese preaching on this theme as part of an ongoing programme. Today's Epiphany readings were very helpful: all practising young Catholics know what it is to search for God as the wise men searched the sky. I suggested Christian vocation means being prepared to leave everything and being desirous of only one thing: finding Christ. It occurred to me afterwards - all my best thoughts happen after the event - that the truly radical thing is to be a wholehearted Christian. Charity, self-sacrifice, discipline of life, prayerfulness: these are expected of us all. The priest's job is simply to help the community of the faithful to become that powerful sign which will draw the peoples to Christ. St Joseph's is a very well organised parish. Before Mass, all the altar servers, readers and extraordinary minsiters of holy communion gather in the sacristy and the members of each group in turn read out a prayer that they may fulfil their specific roles well and that their service may have an effect on their lives. I have never come across this before: I found it profoundly encouraging. Here we all are before one of the Masses.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Inspiring catechesis

We had a great evening yesterday. It was our monthly discernment group for men who are considering the priesthood. After the usual Holy Hour, during which a good number of the lads went to confession, and which finished with Vespers, Fr Michael Hall, one of our diocesan priests, gave a masterly half-hour presentation on Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. He set it in its historical context and related how the initial euphoria with which it had been greeted had led to deep disillusionment. We have now reached a third stage, he said, when each of us is charged with the responsibility of really integrating into our own lives the document’s insights into such matters as marriage, politics and economic and social life. It was a great catechetical event – Fr Michael made Church teaching appear vital, exciting and personally challenging. The only complaint from the six young men present was that he finished too soon! The talk is one of nine we’ve organised to prepare for the Council’s 50th anniversary celebrations later this year. It was smashing to have Fr Massie, my counterpart in Middlesbrough Diocese, with us too. The picture shows Fr Hall with two of Leeds’ finest, just before we all went out for a bite to eat.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The importance of food

Food ranks highly in the imagination of most healthy people. I can connect some of my happiest moments to specific meals. My father, God rest him, used to make a superb chicken dish, the precise recipe for which went with him to the grave. In my memory I can direct my gaze, in the manner of Google street view, first at the dish in the centre of the table and then round in turn to each member of my family, happily tucking into the food. At seminary the sisters used to cook a superb pasta in a salmon cream sauce to get us through the rigours of days of abstinence. I can still see Suor Angelia holding a big vat of the stuff, beaming at us. One marvellous evening after a long walk in the Malvern Hills with priest friends we got back to the cottage where we were staying and ate a crab pasta first course, zinging with fresh herbs, followed by doorstep-size steaks. It was on that occasion, I remember, that I looked round at my companions and said, "Do you know I learnt most of what I know about the faith from my parents; seminary was just a topping up," and the others, more or less to a man, said that that was their experience too.

A few years ago an article in The Tablet intimated that priests could be divided into pastoral enthusiasts who survive on ready-made microwave meals between governors' meetings and the also-rans who cook proper meals for themselves (shame on them!) Here is a beef stew I prepared for myself yesterday evening, forgetful of all the people to whom I could have been ministering at the time.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Spiritual direction

I went for spiritual direction yesterday. I enjoy talking about myself! It's only through articulating how I am feeling, how I am experiencing God's mercy and how I am relating to others that I am able to understand these things. It's a great privilege as a priest to be able to take one's interior life seriously: it's part of the job. A wholesome development in the Church in recent years is that lay people are increasingly asking for spiritual accompaniment too. As a boy I thought that priests just reached a certain level of sanctity and then, sustained by the grace of Holy Orders, gave the rest of us the benefit of it. But it's not like that at all. It's like Jesus challenges each of us priests each morning, "Put out into the deep," as he did to Peter all those years ago. The more we surrender, the more we obey, the more authentic is our ministry. Our life is an adventure and we need to be courageous.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

A 10-mile walk in the hills above Skipton

The weather yesterday was foul but a priest friend and I persevered and we had a great few hours trudging through mud and sliding down embankments, sharing stories (many of them funny ones) and getting things off our minds. I told him that I am resolved to organise walks for young men who are thinking about the priesthood this year. There is something about being in the outdoors that opens us up to new possibilities. When I was discerning all those years ago I set out to walk the Dales Way and came to an abrupt ignominious halt halfway, a hyperventilating wreck! Still I'm sure that it did me good in the long term. My friend warned that we ought to ensure that men who hate the outdoors would nevertheless feel welcomed. Of course that's true, technically.