Mgr Paul Grogan

Mgr Paul Grogan
Mgr Paul Grogan

Monday, 27 February 2012

A little bit of affection

I went to the Rite of Election in the Cathedral today. It was packed with people from parishes throughout the diocese who will be baptised or received into the Catholic Church at Easter. Each in turn went up with a sponsor to the Bishop to be greeted by him. In his homily, the Bishop told them that Christ had "spotted" each of them and "called them out of the crowd." He then dialogued formally with us, the members of the Catholic Church present in the pews. "Will you support our brothers and sisters and receive them with affection?" he asked. ""We will," we responded. "Affection" is not a word that we use much with regard to the Church. That's probably why we have so few members! In Africa, I learnt from the Pope's recent letter following the Synod, the preferred description of the Church is "family." Our family in the west is a bit dysfunctional: we rarely show love for one another. I've noticed that people who have been received into the Catholic Church quite often drift away. I know from my pastoral experience what the main cause of this is: they feel isolated. We cherish people in small catechetical groups before reception and then say ""Welcome to the Church," upon which we largely ignore them. Frankly there is only so much that I want to know about the nuances of the doctrine of transubstantiation; but if you show that you care for me, I'll flourish (and I'll want to learn more about our shared tradition).

Friday, 24 February 2012

Contact time

The catechesis continued apace today. I had meetings with a young woman who wants to be confirmed and a young man who wished to learn how to use the breviary. In the last couple of days I've met a couple of young women who want to be baptised and I've learnt of two others who wish to be confirmed also. The key thing everybody wants is the truth, unsurprisingly. When I was a younger priest I relied a lot on handouts. I've noticed that I now engage more easily in free conversation. There has to be some advantage in becoming middle aged. The encounter of these students with a priest is not just an opportunity for me to communicate to them some teachings of the Church. It's a Providential moment, willed by God in eternity. On average I'll only ever see an enquiring student two or three times and I often don't know what happens to them subsequently. There are lots of better qualified and more articulate representatives of Catholicism whom they could be talking to. But at that particular moment there's just me and that other person. Soon, pressure of academic work or heartbreak may distract them from the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Now - only ever now - is the moment to haul them in, confident that though the familiar deep with its darkness may still attract (all of us), it is the oxygen and the sunlight of new life in Christ that we truly crave. Sometimes you can sense the urgency, even as we drink Yorkshire Tea and eat chocolate biscuits.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

YouCat group and ice-skating

Our YouCat group began again today. It has a simple format. We meet in the front room of my flat for half an hour (and no more) to discuss a particular aspect of Church teaching. Today five of us reflected on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I gave a little ten-minute exposition and then shut up. Questions and points came thick and fast: what is grave sin? does the maleness of the priest in confession make it difficult for women to speak about personal matters?; does God forgive sin outside of this sacrament?; how often should we go to confession? I chipped in here and there but by and large the students - one studying theology, one religious studies and two primary education - were educating each other. When the half hour was up I called a halt even though lots still remained to be explored and resolved - it keeps us all keen for next week.

In the evening, seventeen of us went ice-skating on the temporary rink at Millennium Square in Leeds. It was magical: the weather was mild, the nearby City Hall with its graceful, illuminated clock looked majestic and long streams of golden lights hanging around the square twinkled against the night sky. After an en route stopover at a pub with an open fire, I drove the minibus back to Leeds Trinity whilst behind me the students (a good number of whom had not known each other beforehand), revivified by the evening, chatted animatedly and laughed freely - a fine and joyful sound with which to close the day.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Scrubbing for Ash Wednesday

There were plenty of students at our lunchtime Mass. There always are on Ash Wednesday. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," I proclaimed again and again as I signed their foreheads with ash. As I did so a memory flashed through my mind of a passage in Louis de Berniere's "Captain Corelli's Mandolin": Dr Iannis reminds his beautiful young daughter Pelagia who is taken with the dashing young Italian captain that she will grow old one day. Use the present prudently, he enjoins her. These students are doing just that. Older Catholics would be deeply encouraged to see the serious cast of their features as they presented themselves at the altar. Straight after Mass we had the biannual sanctuary floor scrub. Mops, hard brushes and associated accoutrements were issued and we all set to work. By the end of half an hour, one young woman had agreed to serve at Sunday Mass and three new people had signed up for our April pilgrimage to Rome. A good start to Lent!

Pancake party

We gathered for our Chaplaincy Pancake Party this evening, it being Shrove Tuesday. Ash and his girlfriend Laura took control and produced an endless supply for about 20 students who helped themselves to a variety of sweet and savoury toppings which had been carefully prepared by the Chaplaincy Assistant, Dominica Richmond. All I did was sit, talk and eat. A good number of students joined us whom I do not know especially well and it was a delight to quiz them about their courses and siblings. Building up relationships is the key to university ministry. I rather feared when I was first appointed here that students would find it rather strange talking to a priest, especially if they weren't especially religious. I'm happy to report back that conversations run very naturally one into another. I greatly enjoy students' company and many students (apart from those who leg it before I got a chance to speak to them) appear to enjoy mine. Each conversation between us is a building up of this temporary - oh so temporary! - but wonderful community.

Tonight was especially memorable because I had the pleasure of meeting Saori and Sayaka (who is on the left in the picture below), both 20, who are from Seisen University which is a Catholic liberal arts university for women in Tokyo, founded by the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They showed me the university's website which states, nobly that its "educational ideals are based on Christian Humanism in which it seeks to find what is meaningful and valuable in life according to the teachings of Jesus Christ." The university "endeavours to nurture women to become responsible, independent and public-spirited members of society." A good conversation ensued about the value of single sex higher education. I brought it to an end by issuing tea towels all round. Nothing draws people together better than drying up!

Monday, 20 February 2012

Chains of charity and forbearance

We were joined at Mass yesterday evening by the Bradford Circle of the Catenians. Each year they ask me, in my capacity as vocations director, to celebrate a Mass for the intention of an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The Catenians nationally have funded the publication of an excellent book for young men enquiring about the priesthood: I always give a copy to lads who come to see me. Also, each Circle of the Catenians holds an annual Clergy Dinner and a member picks us up beforehand and delivers us home afterwards, so that we can have a drink with the meal. These gentle expressions of support - prayers for vocations and occasionally wining and dining us - mean a lot to the clergy of the diocese, I know. I always feel a lessening of the burden when I attend Catenian events: I am reminded that the mission of the Church is not merely the mission of those who are ordained. The Catenians for example, have a great commitment to fostering the life of the family. Moreover, they take time to gather with each other regularly and in that way point to the value of solidarity: they chain themselves to each other (as their name suggests) in Christian chairty and forbearance. We are fortunate to have such commited Catholic laymen and their spouses enriching the life of the diocese. Plus, they are extremely generous. After last night's collection, the priests' training fund is looking distinctly healthier! And who knows what graces will have been bestowed on our diocese through the celebration of the Eucharist yesterday evening and what positive results these will have in building up a culture of vocation? The power of the Mass is incalculable. It's that simple.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Scrabbling through mud

We had our first Chaplaincy trip of the term yesterday: a five-and-a-half mile walk above Settle in the Yorkshire Dales. We travelled by train as the College minibus had been hired by our Gaelic Football Team (isn't that great, that we are able to have enought players for such a team!) The views were breathtaking: from the tops we could see all three major peaks at once: Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent. We went inside one of the caves which dot Attermire Scar. One of our group, fearless Jemma, went deeper than I would ever have gone by myself, illuminating the darkness with her mobile phone and emerged triumphant into the daylight through a small hole in the rock ceiling. We crawled after her, scrabbling through the mud. There was only just enough room for each of us to pull ourselves through the gap. It was an enormously exhilerating experience. Our group bonded instantly. I actually get paid for this.

Drained by drama

I've just returned from a three-day holiday with a friend in Stratford-on-Avon. One of the two plays we saw was "Written on the Heart," a new work by David Edgar which explores the religious controversies surrounding the writing of the King James Bible, whose quatercentenary was celebrated last year. It was gripping stuff: a play of ideas. Two scenes stick in my mind especially. The first depicted William Tyndale, a champion of the Reformation, who translated the New Testament and the Pentateuch into English in the 1520s and 1530s. We witness him speaking to a young Catholic priest in his cell in Flanders shortly before his execution for heresy in 1536. He speaks with engaging missionary fervour about his desire to let every English "plough boy" discover the riches of the Bible. The second is set in a church in Yorkshire in 1586. The Queen's officers, motivated by puritanical zeal, have arrived to deface the statues and smash the stained-glass depiction of saints. The local Lord enters and draws his sword to protect these artifacts in the church of which he is patron. In the ensuing dialogue he realises that he can do nothing to prevent the vandalism - such action would be judged treasonable. A worker climbs a ladder and we hear a window being smashed off-stage. I shuddered and felt very angry, the impotence of the Lord reflecting my own sense of impotence at that moment. The play, like all good drama, invited me to explore my own emotional responses and so to see reality more in the round. I felt thoroughly drained at the end of it!

An act of sacred offering

I attended the Final Profession of a friend of mine, Sr Margaret Atkins, a few days ago. For those who don't know, this is the moment when somebody who has lived in a religious community for a number of years definitively commits to remaining a member of the order for the rest of his or her life. Sr Margaret, whom I've known for a good number of years and with whom I share a love of walking (our best walk to date was across Morecambe Bay) and tennis (she won our last two matches), is a Canoness of St Augustine at Boarbank near Grange over Sands in Cumbria. Before joining the order, she was a theology lecturer at Leeds Trinity.

The part of the ceremony which especially stands out in my memory was the homily. Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster, who is himself an Augustinian, speaking from the lectern, addressed Sr Margaret, who was sitting some ten metres or so away on the edge of the sanctuary. Quoting St Paul, he exhorted her to keep her "eyes fixed on Christ." He recalled that St Augustine had said that Christ is the destination and that Christ is also the way to that destination. A short distance away, forming the apex of a triangle, was the altar, the symbol of Christ, upon which Sister Margaret was soon to sign her formal declaration. The sanctuary was awash with light from the high windows, a light which picked out the sisters' white habits and also the white stone of the altar. There was an arresting dramatic depth to the moment. The Bishop was talking directly to Sister Margaret but those of us who were present - and there many of us - felt included in what he said. She was making a radical gift of herself to Christ through her religious vows and each of us, I am sure, felt moved to rediscover Christ in our own lives as a consequence. It's hard to put this connectedness into words but that's the best I can do. In the closing prayer Bishop Michael petitioned the Lord "to inflame with the fire of the Holy Spirit" Sr Margaret who was now bound to God "by an act of sacred offering."  It was a privilege and joy to be present at such an event. The memory of it will keep me going for weeks to come! The photographs show Sr Margaret lying prostrate before altar during the Litany of Saints and then cutting the cake afterwards.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

My true love hath my heart and I have his

It being Valentine's Day, our Staff  Prayer Group (pictured below) met this lunchtime to reflect prayerfully on the theme "Love and Sacrifice." This group was founded about ten years ago to help Christian members of staff to encourage each other in what each sees as his/her vocation, serving God in higher education. Today we simply shared with each other favourite passages: they included an account of the extraordinary heroism demonstrated by the nineteenth century Korean martyrs, a reflection on God's love by a contemporary writer, Mark Greene, the Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Chrsitianity, Sir Philip Sydney's "My true love hath my heart and I have his" and Psalm 139 "Oh Lord, you examine me and you know me." We ended with a period of silence and petitionary prayer. In how many institutions in West Yorkshire, I wonder, do members of staff from different Christian traditions, come together and reflect and pray like this? In such small-scale but symbolically important ways, Leeds Trinity lives its identity. When Christian solidarity is so easy to access, it somehow makes you want to give more.

Thank you to Rose Lanigan for her email:

I just thought you might be interested to know that we have a similar Staff Prayer group at the University of Bradford for all Christian denominations. We've only been established for about a year but I too feel that we are lucky to have this shared time in our busy schedules.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Americans are ahead, but we're catching up

I have been at the Youth 2000 winter retreat this afternoon and this evening. It took place at Notre Dame Sixth Form College in Leeds and the numbers attending are up on previous years. The format - for anybody who doesn't know - is simple and highly effective. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed throughout the whole weekend on a pyramidical structure ablaze with up to fifty large oil candles right in the middle of the hall. Young people adore Jesus every minute of the 48 hours. There are talks and testimonies, Mass each day, a penitential service, a healing service, the Rosary and Morning and Evening Prayer. The whole is supported by a very talented band of musicians.  It's truly wonderful - one of the best initiatives to emerge in the Catholic Church in this country in the last 25 years. Everywhere you look people are going to confession. The talks were on key issues: theology of the body (ie chastity) for men; theology of the body for women ; evangelisation.  Moreover, Youth 2000 is lay-led: it's a true sign of the specific role of the laity in building up the kingdom of God. I listened to confessions for three-and-a-half very happy hours (that's what priests are for). I was delighted to see a good contingent from Leeds Trinity there (some of whom are pictured). Plus I had an interesting conversation about Steubenville University in the USA: it has become a beacon Catholic higher education institution and I'm sure that we can adopt some of its practices at Leeds Trinity. It hurts to say it but the Americans really are ahead of us in that new flowering of the Church which is increasingly being expressed by the term "evangelical Catholicism." Still, with Youth 2000 and similar groups, we're catching up!

Friday, 10 February 2012

Bearing the cross

I met up with a second-year business studies student today - Daniel Taylor - who wanted to share with me some research he has been doing. He has conducted an on-line survey to find out what his fellow students think about Catholicism. He is currently on a work placement helping to publicise an initiative by the Sisters of the Cross and Passion whereby people in this country can spend some time with members of the order in South America. The first entry about Catholicism read as follows: "Scares me a bit, worked in a catholic school, too many statues etc. Too much chanting." Another read: "I have no problems with catholics practising catholicism however, I do not appreciate it being forced upon me." A third read: "I am a practising Catholic and my religion means a lot to me." A fourth read: "no condoms allowed, priests caught playing with kids." I suppose those comments represent a fair cross-section of opinion about the Catholic Church. They reveal a lot of negativity, we might say! Catholics are frightening and liable at any moment to force people to attend Mass, during which there will be excessive chanting. Our teaching about sexuality is ridiculous and as a result of the paedophile scandals we are totally discredited. Yet in the midst of all of this there was a faith testimony: "my religion means a lot to me." How strong that phrase sounds in the context of the others.

As it happens, just before I met up with Daniel (pictured, who is not a Catholic) I had been down to the diocesan Safeguarding Office. A number of the clergy, including I, have been asked to apply for a renewal of our criminal record bureau clearance. I had been a little late in replying to the original email and I was sent another email impressing on me the need to present myself at the office. This small detail reveals to me how systematic and serious the Catholic Church has become at ensuring our children are safe. Our lack of attentiveness in the past has led to our being humbled before all the world. Sitting in the office this afternoon and giving an account of myself before the diocesan officer seemed like a small reparation for the sins of the Church. I felt much stronger afterwards, better able to serve that young person, whoever he or she is, who in the face of others' criticisms - some merited, some not - remains firm in the faith.

Sweating together

Don Bosco, the founder of the Salesians, urged his brothers to engage in activities with young people, to meet them on their territory as it were, so that they would then have an opportunity to begin conversations which could lead to good things. Accordingly, at lunchtime today I put on my sports kit and headed down to the sports hall where students are able to play football for free for an hour. Actually, I still love playing. The head of our sports centre, Sarah Studds (pictured below with some of the footballers) is keen that as many people as possible on campus use our facilities.

Fourteen lads and a 47-year-old gathered and we split into three teams of five. After a while I found that I was huffing and puffing rather a lot and so volunteered to go in goal. "That's OK," I said retrieving the ball from the net once more as one of my teammates volunteered to take over from me, "I'll stay in goal for a few more minutes." They thought I was great because every young man wants to be centre forward; I just wanted to carry on living a while longer. We were undoubtedly the worst of the three teams. Reflecting on this towards the end one of our number suggested that in future the better players ought to be more equitably distributed among the teams. "You're right there," I said. "Apart from me we're rubbish."

On the edge

This morning two students and I paid a visit to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in Bradford. We took boxes of foodstuffs which staff and students at Leeds Trinity had collected. The soup kitchen was in full swing when we arrived. One of the brothers took our lads in hand and gave them a tour of the friary while I sat down with a cup of tea and chatted to the good number of people, men and women, who had come along to enjoy the warmth and the ample portions of beans on toast and the like. I discovered what it is to be "on the edge" of society. I realised how slight my problems are in comparison to those who experience the unremitting pressure of poverty. I feel proud to belong to a Church whose members underline the dignity of those who are marginalised by cooking for them, being present to them, serving them. Before we left I went upstairs to the chapel. It's marvellous: some friars and the sisters minister to Christ in the poor downstairs while upstairs others worship the exposed Blessed Sacrament, the risen Christ in all his glory.

In quite a marked contrast, this evening at Leeds Trinity I taught my fifth and last sacraments class in the course for the Catholic Certificate of Religious Studies: we covered the sacraments of Holy Orders and Matrimony. There are about eight in the class but with illness, pressing engagements elsewhere and the inclement weather, only two turned up, Bridget and Charlotte (pictured), fourth-year primary education students who had driven all the way from Castleford where they are on teaching practice. It turned out to be the most enjoyable sesssion of them all. I forsook the smartboard and sat down with the students and whenever anything wasn't clear we were able to revisit it, something which isn't always possible with a larger group because participants are always a bit more reticent in those circumstances. Both sacraments are described in the Catechism as being "in service of communion." We see such communion in the home of a married couple striving to love well; in the parish community sustained and enriched by the labour of a priest; around the table in a friary when those whose lives are often lonely experience fellowship and feel accepted.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Students testify to the beauty of prayer

I've just come in from saying Evening Prayer in the chapel with five of the students who knocked on my door at about 9.30pm and invited me to lead them in it. They have asked me to join them several times in the last few weeks. When I'm not around they just say the Office themselves, having learnt more or less how to use the breviary. I told them this evening that their desire to say the Prayer of the Church marks a high-point in my time as Chaplain. It's great to sit alongside them in the chapel at these moments. Developing a pattern of personal prayer, I'm sure, is the key to discovering Christ and experiencing his friendship. They know this and they are acting on the divine impulse within. Whatever trials they have to endure in the future, they will remember these evenings when together, before the Blessed Sacrament, they sang God's praises in the psalms, meditated on his word and petitioned him for the needs of the world.

As if this weren't enough, the Christian Union invited me to join them for their prayer meeting this lunchtime (in fact, I'm always welcome at their meetings, I know, and I don't respond to their kindness sufficiently often). Seven of us gathered around a table in one of the lecture rooms. We played some Bible-related word games and then had a discussion about ways of reading the Bible: one method is for a group of people to read 100 passages concerning Christ in the Old and New Testaments over as many days; another is to read the whole Bible during the course of a year. What clearly emerged from the discussion is that we should all be reading the Bible regularly. We finished by splitting into twos and threes and reflecting on the story of Jesus walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33), using the SOAP method ie scripture, observation, application, prayer. We shared insights at the end and I learnt a lot. What an inspiration it has been to spend time today with both these groups of young people! Their faith is strong and natural and through their open allegiance to Christ they are already engaged in the process of evangelising their peers.

Seizing the moment

I've discovered how to evangelise. I learnt the lesson yesterday evening when shopping "in civvies" at Morrisons. I wandered towards the fish counter and then opened up the latest copy of the BBC Good Food magazine to see if any recipe in it corresponded to any fish that was available. "You don't need that magazine," the fishmonger opined. "It's a waste of money. Just tell me what you want." I felt slightly affronted but a lot more relieved that this friendly man was taking the situation in hand. "I don't really know" I returned, somewhat weakly. "I've got a bit of time and I thought I'd make something good for supper." "What you want is monkfish," he said, pointing it out to me. "I buy this and wrap it in parma ham and put herbs in it for a special meal for my girlfriend and me." " I'm just cooking for one," I said; "how about sardines?" "Good choice," he said, concealing any disappointment he may have had that I was going for such a cheap alternative. "What I'd do with these is this: bake them with roasted vegetables and couscous and sprinkle them with cumin." As I was looking for the vegetables he actually came over and found a pre-packed tray of various ones, priced £1, and handed them to me. "There you go," he said, " a good meal for £2." "They don't pay you enough," I said. "They don't" he agreed.

I felt greatly touched by his interest in my evening meal. I could tell that he was taking pleasure in our conversation. The context, of course, as we both knew, was that he was selling me goods. But the interaction which he had inititated genuinely brightened my evening. He effectively declared to me: I can see that you are floundering a bit; trust me; I'm going to help you. That same dynamic lies at the heart of all good evangelisation. We have to be confident, friendly and attentive to those around us. When the opportunity comes, we need to intervene in the other's life decisively. Those whom I have heard described as "post-Catholics" are expecting the shepherd to go in pursuit of them. Thoroughgoing agnostics and unbelievers respond well to boldness. The last thing we need to do is respect people's autonomy. I'd still be trying to find the fish section in the magazine if the fishmonger had allowed such small matters to deter him from seizing the moment. Increasingly, I ask students if they believe in Christ and, if not, if they would like some help in discovering more about faith. The more I do it, the more I realise that they were expecting the question and that they are relieved, deeply relieved (I can see it in their eyes) that I have spoken. What happens afterwards is up to them: I know, though, that, whatever their response, both of us have, as a result of our encounter, lived in the present moment with a peculiar intensity, participating as we have in a conversion drama of invitation and response in which the silences and the meeting of eyes have been as significant as any words used.

Monday, 6 February 2012

A beautiful valley hallowed by martyrs

I went for a great walk in Nidderdale today. One of the students here - upon reading my blog - mischievously averred that I seem to get about quite a lot. I don't make an apology for that. Why shouldn't a man whom Providence has placed in an area of such outstanding natural beauty make the most of it? (Plus, Monday is my day off). Nidderdale, as it happens (not that I want to take the high spiritual ground!) is also a hallowed place for Catholics. A high proportion of the martyrs from our county were resident there. If I remember rightly, the local justices in the 1570s and 1580s were very lenient, so those who held to the Old Religion carried on discreetly attending Mass in some of  the large recusant houses thereabouts. After the scare caused by the Spanish Armada in 1588, pressure was applied from London and there were mass arrests: some were tortured; some died in prison; some were executed. It is a very remote valley. Indeed, before a railway was laid for the creation of Scar House Reservoir at its head in the early twentieth century, there was just one track linking the farms and granges in Upper Nidderdale: Thrope Lane. I walked along it today in the snow. As I tramped along, happy in my thoughts, it suddenly occurred to me that this must have been the lane that the constables and soldiers took as they moved in on the hapless Catholic farmers. Did they surprise them at night? I thought. Were there simultaneous arrests to prevent some people from evading capture? Did this narrow valley, now so peaceful, echo one awful night to the sound of doors being broken down, dogs barking, shots being fired at those seeking to escape, screams and wailing? And then presumably a procession of people went along Thrope Lane in the opposite direction, many with bound hands; many, no doubt, terrified. I had stumbled upon a via crucis.

My return route took me to the narrow road that winds its way on the other side of the valley, and which is just visible on the photograph: it follows the line of the former railway, since taken up. I learnt today that work began on the railway and the reservoir, which serves Bradford, in 1921. Many of the labourers were Irish navvies and a Catholic church was built in nearby Pateley Bridge for them. I remembered that my grandparents, who were from Co Roscommon, arrived in Bradford the following year; my grandfather too was a labourer. The path took me to the village of Middlesmoor on the hill whose parish church, St Chad's, dominates the skyline. There has been a church on that site since Saxon times, I learnt; the church contains a seventh-century stone font whose rough exterior I ran my hands along. A brief history of the church on the noticeboard records how in 1606 the West Riding Justices instructed the local clergyman, the Rev'd Manson, to send them a list of all the local people who had "papist affections" and that he replied to the effect that that included just about everybody! How strange it felt, in one eight-mile walk, to experience at such close quarters these signs of the varied Catholic history of our county, a history in which I am personally bound up. With all the challenges we face today, the Catholic patrimony of Yorkshire can never be effaced: it is inscribed on the landscape and fashioned in stone.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Making the brotherhood real

Loneliness can be a problem for priests - as it can be for anybody. Once, when I had been at seminary a couple of years, my rector, Mgr Jack Kennedy, asked me during my annual formal interview how I was. "I'm lonely" I said, immediately feeling rather surprised that I should have said this (as before our conversation I hadn't really acknowledged this to myself) and also rather embarrassed that I should have shared something so personal. Mgr Kennedy was well able for the disclosure. "Ah, well you have to choose," he said, in a very straightforward fashion. "If you say 'I'm lonely' and reflect on how lonely you are, you'll become far lonelier, whereas if you say 'I'm lonely' and then go and do something, like study for an exam, play football or ask a friend for a coffee, your sense of being lonely will disappear." I've taken his advice ever since and it works.

I mention this because sometimes people think that priests are to be pitied in their singleness. There are odd occasions, it's true, when the solitude I experience when I close the door to my flat at Leeds Trinity can feel a little heavy. But those times are exceptionally few. Far more frequently, I think, "Oh good, now I can read that book or watch BBC iPlayer undisturbed." The truth is that we are never cut off as priests unless we choose to make ourselves so. Ever since I was ordained seventeen-and-a-half years ago, I have been a member of a Ministry to Priests Group in the diocese. We meet about nine Mondays every year; there are about 12 priests in the group. After a sandwich lunch, we go on a seven-mile-or-so walk in the Yorkshire Dales, rendezvous back at a pub for tea and biscuits, a bath and a rest, Evening Prayer, dinner and then a stroll around the village where we are staying - Clapham in recent years. We disperse the following day after Morning Prayer and breakfast and the diocese pays the bill. I enjoy these days enormously and cancel just about everything so that I can participate in them. They help me to stay steady, to appreciate my reality: I am part of a brotherhood, and that is a marvellous thing. The picture shows three of our group on Malham Moor a few days ago (l to r: me, Mgr Michael McQuinn, Fr Kevin Firth).

Saturday, 4 February 2012

A school of prayer

I have had a beautiful couple of days in company with teachers and catechists. We've been taking part in a School of Prayer here at Leeds Trinity - the fourth such in as many years. It was organised by the diocesan Vicariate for Evangelisation. The format is simple and effective. Sister Anne Hammersley, cp began the day by leading us in imaginative prayer. Then we broke into prayer workshops: I attended ones on the spirituality of Blessed John Henry Newman, Passionist spirituality and journaling; other workshops explored prayerful contemplation of holy images (visio divina) the Stations of the Resurrection (via lucis). There were also a number of well thought-out "prayer stations" which were little areas in our chapel where there were particular objects or icons to help focus the mind on a particular gospel theme. We started the day with Mass and many participants availed themselves of Confession during it. Here's a picture of some of thos who took part.

It's edifying to be among a group of lay people who are so desirous of going deeper. I like the title "school." Prayer is something to be learnt, a skill to be acquired, a practice to be mastered over time as well as a gift to be received. Also, at such a school we meet others who are similarly motivated and their presence buoys us up, helps us to re-commit to the task of personal holiness. One head teacher I chatted with told me how she had dedicated a whole week to prayer in her primary school: the children had loved it. Catechists shared with me different ways in which they were animating the lives of their parishes and of various plans that they had for the future. Underpinning everything that was said was the surety that God is speaking to each of us, indeed (wonderfully) that he cannot refrain from doing so. We had to finish a little early because of the heavy snow fall, but one lady remained behind, sitting quietly in a pew, with a sheet from one of the workshops by her side. Clearly she sensed the importance of the moment and she did not wish to let fall what the Holy Spirit wished she should receive.