Mgr Paul Grogan

Mgr Paul Grogan
Mgr Paul Grogan

Friday, 30 March 2012

When Baptists help Catholics

What should a chaplain do if a Catholic whose faith has become dormant rediscovers Christ through worshipping with another congregation, say with the Baptists or Pentecostals? This was a question we discussed at a fascinating meeting organised by the Focolare Movement in Leeds today. About ten of us were present, including church leaders from different denominations from around the north of England, and me (Celia Blackden, pictured below, who works with me in the Vocations Office is a Focolarina and kindly invited me). The Movement, they humorously informed us today, specialises in getting Christians in a room and making them talk to each other. The first answer to the opening question, I think, has to be: give thanks. The encounter with Christ in such circumstances gives glory to God and sanctifies the student concerned. The student has passed from religious indifference to faith.

The situation is, of course, emotionally complex. The Catholic understanding of the Church means that, notwithstanding what I have written above, we cannot be entirely at peace when a Catholic opts to belong to another Christian community. I think that this is because of two reasons: we believe that the Catholic Church is a sacrament of Christ's presence and we hold that Christ has endowed it with the fullness of the means of salvation. Our love of Christ and our desire to contribute to his mission means that diminution of the Catholic Church is always painful and regrettable.

In practice, though, we might say that the student concerned was only nominally a Catholic. I would, I think, simultaneously be sorry that he had let slip his Catholic patrimony and be glad that an additional young person now stood beside me to witness to God's goodness. Moreover, I would wish to take stock. I would ask myself: Have I been sufficiently diligent and imaginative in helping Catholic students to understand the beauty of their faith? Also, have I boldly proposed that faith to the increasing number of confused, young people who aspire to unbelief as a mark of maturity, unknowingly self-harming interiorly? My gut feeling is that if we focus our energies on evangelising, hard cases such as the one I have discussed will occur less and less and how we deal with them will not constitute a defining part of our ministry.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Saying 'yes'

I visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Grace at Osmotherley on the edge of the beautiful North York Moors today and did an eight-and-a-half mile walk in its environs. We have arranged an event for young people (young men and women) aged 15 and over at the shrine for Saturday 5th May entitled "Say 'yes' with Mary." In the publicity materials that has been reduced simply to "Yes" which is much punchier and conveys everything I want to say about responding to our different vocations in the Church. On the long coach journey back from the Flame Congress in London on Saturday night I went round some of the participants to invite them along and, thanks be to God, a good number expressed interest. We will go on a six-mile walk, have a packed lunch, go on a rosary procession to the Shrine, perhaps go to confession, celebrate the Sunday Vigil Mass, have a cup of tea and then have fish and chips en route home. I'm hoping for a minibus-full. Walks are great for catechesis and discernment and building community. We're trying to become more professional so we have got a graphic designer, Joelle Mosslemans, who is a member of the Focolare Movement, to provide us with an eye-catching design for some postcards and posters which are being distributed ot schools and parishes this week. If you would like to join us please go the Leeds Diocesan Pathways Group Page on Facebook. Here's the shrine:

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Squeezing in a little tennis

I gave the impression a couple of blogs ago that apart from a couple of hours' learning French once a week, I expend all my energies on the mission. This is not quite the case. In fact I have a number of other hobbies. One is playing tennis with Fr Pasquino Panato who is the Superior of the northern house of the Comboni Missionaries which is situated directly opposite the main entrace to Leeds Trinity. Fr Pasquino was in the Sudan for twenty years, where he was headteacher of the Comboni High School in Khartoum, and he then spent ten years promoting justice and peace as a non-governmental organisation representative at the United Nations in New York. The students here love him. I regularly eat Italian dinners with him and his equally estimable confrere Fr Donato at their house. In their dining room there is a frieze of photographs of priests and sisters from the order who have been murdered in the last few decades whilst on the foreign missions, from the rainforests of Brazil to strife-torn countries in Africa. Fr Pasquino knew a good number of them personally. Theirs is an extraordinary witness. If I were not a diocesan priest I should wish to have the courage to be a Verona Father, as they are otherwise known (since their founder, St Daniel Comboni, was from that city).

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Church grew stronger today

I got up at 3.50am today to go on one of the two diocesan coaches to the Flame Congress at Wembley Arena in London. This festival of Catholicism for young people drew on the three key values of the Olympic Games - respect, friendship and excellence - and cleverly showed how these can only be fully understood in the light of the gospel. Highlights included one of our rowers saying that after fifteen years of training she badly wanted a gold medal but that she wanted God a lot more and former US speed skating Olympiad Sister Catherine of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, whose convent is in Leeds, declaring, with her finger pointing upwards, "All you need is Jesus!" which provoked a sustained chant of "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" This is the kind of fillip that we all need and I'm just glad that my involvement with young people means that I end up being encouraged alongside them. The best moment, for me, though occurred when I was sitting in a crowd in the piazza outisde the arena near the attractive fountain eating a sandwhich lunch. Suddenly, a young man in front of me declared that he was from the Young Christian Workers group in Croydon and that he and fellow group members were going to show us in dramatic form how the flame of faith can be extinguished but also reignited. There followed a nice piece of interactive street theatre which was also raw in-your-face evangelisation. The Church definitely grew stronger today. Some of the students from Leeds Trinity who took part in the event are pictured above.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Priests need hobbies

Every priest, I was told by a wise priest when I was a boy, needs a hobby. Mine, this year, is learning French. (I might try learning a musical instrument next year though, frankly, time is running out). Every Wednesday evening I join six or seven other people at Leeds Metropolitan University and our excellent teacher Mme Kerr lingusitically stretches us, using a mixture of sentence drills, clips from French TV and radio stations, and photocopies from thought-provoking articles. Our group includes a retired teacher, somebody who works for a wine importer, an English professor, somebody who works for an oil company and an architect. Mme Kerr has a way of eliciting stories from us; you feel that you're letting everybody down if you don't try and recount something interesting which has happened during the course of the week. I last felt like this aged about eight. Perhaps the reason I enjoy our classes so much is that they help me to go back to childhood. Certainly, I get the same thrill now as I did then when a new word appears on the whiteboard (blackboards in my time) and I think, "Great, my knowledge is expanding." I sometimes launch excitedly into half-telling a tale and then get lost in sub-clauses and remember that I don't know key words. I did that when I was eight too. As I head away from the Chaplaincy on Wednesday evenings, I generally hear a student call after me, with due irony, "Au revoir, mon pere."  I always dress down for the occasion. Once I didn't have time to change and so appeared in my clericals. "So you are a real one!" one of my fellow students exclaimed.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Disappointing spiritual Dads

We had an Irish Evening in the Chaplaincy this evening - we brought it forward because we'll be away on retreat at the weekend for St Patrick's Night. Some of the students made a very good Irish stew, with lamb, barley, carrots and beer and Carol, the lady who cleans the Chaplaincy area uncomplainingly every day - "they're just young" she says - made four delicious soda breads, which the students, all 35 of them, wolfed down. I read out St Patrick's Breastplate to start proceedings off and then Seamus Heaney's "Digging," in which he contrasts his own life as a poet with that of his father who worked hard on the land, and asked for five comments: they came thick and fast. "Our parents have done notable things and we in our turn are called on to do the same," said one student. Next Jake and Jess, brother and sister, played Irish songs using a guitar, a flute and an Irish whistle: their encore was a medley of Oasis songs - "the Gallagher brothers are of Irish extraction," it was explained. After all was cleared away some of the students suggested that we say Evening Prayer and one of them urged me to propose it to everybody present, some of whom were there for the party but have not as yet exhibited a desire to worship. "Go on, be proactive for once," one of them said. "Some of us are going to say Evening Prayer now and you would be most welcome to join us," I said. "Or not; entirely up to you." They thanked me politely and, with just a moment's hesitation, resumed their conversation and their drinking. Ultimately the new evangelisation always comes down to a face-to-face encounter, an offer which the other is free to accept or reject - it's an uncomfortable territory on which to stand, though the experience is exciting too. As six of us went into the chapel, I could sense both a certain frustration within the group that I had not been more forthright in inviting the others to join us, but also a readiness to forgive: after all it would be a bit unsettling for the young if spiritual fathers, like blood fathers, ceased to disappoint!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Gaining students for Christ

I was given an overview of the state of Catholicism in universities across the north east of England yesterday. Mrs Richmond, the Chaplaincy Administrator, and I went to the biannual meeting of Catholic chaplains in higher education in the north east of England; Sheffield Hallam Chaplaincy hosted us. Lots of good things are happening. Students are keen to know more about the faith, but they want presentations to be interactive (and they always want food). The new video series "Catholicism" presented by Fr Robert Barron was described as "the best catechetical aid I have ever used with students" by one chaplain. In another chaplaincy, a rosary group is flourishing. Weekly Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Confession are being newly prized by this generation across the region. Retreats are happening all over the place, including Retreats in Daily Life, which have been pioneered by layman Stephen Hoyland at Loyola Hall and a very well-received retreat by Sister Anne Hammersley, cp, to Leeds University students in a large rented house in Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales (Sister Anne is the assistant chaplain at Leeds Trinity). Mrs Roberta Canning (below), the national coordinator for our sector, reported back from a recent congress in Rome about pastoral provision in higher education: the key document exhorted bishops throughout the world to make sure that they put sufficient resources into fostering students' faith and caring for them. It was good to hear. Compared to some of my brother clergy, it has to be said (and they do say it), I have quite a relaxed life. For example, I spent two hours this morning at Tea on the Landing chatting to a succession of pleasant young people; then I attended a guided meditation at lunchtime, led by Sister Anne, which left me feeling very rested and at one with the Lord; after that I had chicken and chips in the dining room with three journalism students who told me all about their forthcoming work placements; and I spent a good part of the late afternoon supporting our lads playing football and our girls playing netball. I am happily convinced, though, of the value of my ministry: if a young person discovers Christ at university, or deepens an already existing friendship with him whilst there, his or her faith is likely to endure. At the end of our meeting yesterday, Roberta very movingly asked us to pray for her former chaplain at Cambridge University, Fr Richard Incledon, whom she informed us, has recently died. How pleased he must have been that one of his former students was, in a lay capacity, making such a significant contribution to the new evangelisation in the university sector.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Get thee to a nunn'ry

I accompanied Fr William Massie, the vocation director for Middlesbrough Diocese, to Ampleforth Abbey yesterday. We met up with Julia Brooke, PA to Abbot Cuthbert Madden, to begin planning for "Invocation 2013", the event which will mark the end of secularisation in the north, and will lead to young men clamouring to get into seminary and one in two of our young women embracing religious life, leaving boyfiends sobbing at the convent gates. That's the aim anyway. Invocation, which has happened twice now at Oscott College Birmingham and will be happening there again this July, is an annual faith festival for young people who are open to the possibility that God may be calling them to the priesthood or religious life. This means, practically speaking (to my mind), that it is for every young person who isn't married. In 2013, there will be several regional events, rather than the national ones as heretofore. Julia, who is a graduate of Leeds Trinity, where I am chaplain, showed us around the beautiful site: there are smart guesthouses for the VIPs, good dormitory accommodation for the young people, space for marquees, lecture theatres for key-note speeches, a deeply impressive church and acres of land for good one-to-one conversations, which can be a very important part of such an event. It's got everything and Julia says that Abbot Madden is very keen that the abbey should be involved. My university chaplain of happy memory, Dom Christopher Jenkins, of Belmont Abbey, let it be known that he thought most of us who participated in the life of the chaplaincy ought to go into the priesthood or religious life and a good number of us obliged him.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Going inwards

The three men who have applied to begin seminary formation for Leeds Diocese in September were interviewed today at Leeds Trinity. Six interviewers - three laywomen, a layman and two priests - divided into two panels and asked them about friendships, relationships, their families, their education, their prayer-life and their participation in the life of their parishes. "I feel like I need to lie down," one of them said afterwards, and I took that to be a good sign. Now Mgr David Smith, the chairman of the panel, will submit a report on each man to Bishop Roche, to help him with his decision-making. I have accompanied two of the three for a number of years and the third for several months. I was very glad to hear each of them in recent weeks tell me that they wished to be considered. At one stage in the process I told one of them, "I don't mind what you do, I just want you to be happy." "Liar," he said, displaying just that kind of assertiveness that we want in forthright champions of the gospel (though I don't want him to continue denigrating me like this if the bishop accepts him!) I replied, "OK, I want you to be happy and I want you to go to seminary, if you think that God is calling you to the priesthood, and from what you have told me, I think that he quite probably is. It's for you to decide." Making that decision involves going inwards and listening to God; it involves a dying to self; it requires courage, which God gives. Today each man, as it were, reported back from this arduous but beautiful journey into his own soul as he gave an account of himself to representatives of the Church whose members he wishes to serve. It was good especially to see Mgr Michael Kujacz, the former Rector of the English College in Valladolid, today: he is now a parish priest in Salford Diocese and kindly came over the Pennines to give us the benefit of his experience. I am pictured with him below in the garden of the English College a year or so ago.

Being in the presence of beautiful souls

We have just finished 10pm Friday Lenten Prayer. Six students turned up. Last Friday we had a Taize evening; tonight we did the Stations of the Cross, using the writings of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati as part of the devotion. I am very grateful to Wanda, Blessed Pier Giorgio's niece, for sending this out to us. We placed candles before a large banner depicting this handsome young champion of the faith who died aged only 24 in 1925 and whom Blessed John Paul II commended to young people as a role model. We were all very struck this evening by the vibrancy with which he wrote about the Christian life, the "adventure" as he described it. He spoke about his desire to grow in faith each day, his love of the Eucharist, his fearlessness before death and his longing for heaven. My favouite extract was about friendship. He was obviously a master at it: there is a lovely photograph of him guffawing with his friends, which I have posted below. In the following extract from a letter, he describes how good friends lead us to God. And isn't it the case that we believe in large part because those we love and admire do too? And isn't that very natural, very human? Here's what Blessed Pier Giorgio wrote:

In this earthly life after the affection for parents, and sisters one of the most beautiful affections is that of friendship, and every day I ought to thank God because he has given me men and women friends of such goodness who are a precious guide for my whole life.. Surely Divine Providence in His Marvellous Plans sometimes uses us miserable little twigs to do Good and we sometimes not only don’t want to know God but instead dare to deny His existence, but we who, by the Grace of God, have the Faith, when we find ourselves in the presence of such beautiful souls, surely nourished by Faith, we cannot but discover in them an obvious sign of the Existence of God, because one cannot have such a Goodness without the Grace of God.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Preparing for Rome

We had the first meeting of our Rome pilgrimage group this evening. About 20 students are accompanying me to the Eternal City in April: they are staying in a pleasant student hostel; I am staying in the even more pleasant Venerable English College. I did actually enquire if I might stay with them at the hostel - I wanted to express solidarity - but, unfortunately, I am over the permissible age for hostel residents. This evening we had a lovely pasta dish, some pizza and lots of ice-cream. We had a few ice-breakers, we learnt a few Italian phrases and by the end of the evening everybody seemed to have relaxed. I think we're going to have a great time: a Papal Audience, the Colosseum, St Mary Major's, the Spanish Steps. This is the second time we have run a pilgrimage so it's become a tradition. Last year, I was so keen that all the students got to see the Vatican Museum and St Peter's that we didn't eat at all between an early breakfast in England and a pizza at 8pm in a Roman side street. They bore it uncomplainingly, heroically, devoured their dinner and were then ready to go out to bars in the evening. That's the great thing about young people - they bounce back. One young women told us afterwards that that pilgrimage was the high point of the whole of her time at Leeds Trinity. Occasional comments like that are enough to keep you going with, well, with brio! Here are some of our new gang with John, our volunteer helper and husband of Chaplaincy Administrator Dominica, on the right.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Soldiers of Christ on manoeuvres

I went for a walk on Denton Moor above Ilkley the other day. It was the first time that I had walked there since a fateful November afternoon more than a decade ago. On that occasion, I was leading a group of thirty teenagers from three parishes at the beginning of a Confirmation retreat at Myddelton Grange. My risk assessment had consisted of a general reflection that I had enjoyed doing the walk once before and I imagined that they would too. Plus I took some plasters. Note: I am ashamed of this and I am far more responsible now. Suffice it to say that I missed a stile. As the light drained out of the sky we went further and further on to the moor and further and further away from our destination. I couldn't find a way of crossing over the barbed wire fence or the streams. "Are we lost, Father?" "Lost!" We trudged on. "Mum, Father's got us lost," said one girl into a large mobile phone. We approached a farm. I explained where we were heading to the farmer. He guffawed, in front of all the children. I felt terribly alone. We made it to a small road some way from the Grange just as night fell. "This is great Father, it's just like being on manoeuvres in the army," said one of the boys. And I led my column into the light and the warmth of the Lodge where we had an excellent 24-hour retreat as they prepared to become soldiers of Christ, ready to face every eventuality.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Spending time with a friend

The clergy had a fine Day of Recollection today at the Briery Retreat Centre in Ilkley. Fr Ian Kelly, the Chaplain of Manchester University, delivered two one-hour talks and then heard our confessions during a Holy Hour. It's a lovely sight seeing so many priests sitting in line in the chapel, patiently waiting to access the sacrament which elsewhere they administer. We ought to take a photograph of it and send it round all the parishes to cheer everybody up with the title "Sinners trying to be saints". Among the many good insights Fr Kelly shared, one struck me especially: Jesus' words in the Garden of Gethesemane as recorded in Matthew 26, "Stay with me," reveal that Jesus wants each of us to remain with him throughout our lives, ie to be faithful to prayer, day in, day out. In the evening we had our weekly Holy Hour in the chapel. That's the great thing about being a priest: pastoral circumstances oblige you to pray rather more than you might otherwise! Some students joined me. Then I celebrated Mass on the first anniversary of the mother of a local man who worships with us sometimes on a Sunday evening. It's been a good, prayer-filled day. Nothing much has happened; I haven't realised any pastoral goals; but I have spent time with a friend and I feel much the better for it.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Taking to the boards

Some media students asked me to play the role of a priest officiating at a wedding for a piece of coursework they are producing. "We know you're busy...etc" "Oh, I'm sure I can find a little time..." Three cameras, placed at different angles, were trained on me as I began: "Darren and Charlene, it's with great pleasure that members of your family and friends have come together to witness you give yourselves to each other in marriage. It is not good that man should be alone.." At that moment, the scarlet woman came in at the back of the chapel and closed the door noisily. "Who's that?" whispered Charlene. "Oh, it's nobody," mumbled Darren, clearly deceiving her. "Shall we continue?" I interjected. "If there is anybody here who knows of any reason why Darren and Charlene should not be joined in holy matrimony let him speak now or forever hold his peace." (I thought perhaps I ought to say "him or her" and "his or her peace" but decided against it. We never say this line anyway. "It doesn't matter," said one of the students. "It's drama.") At that moment the scarlet woman rose to her full height and declared "I object!" I screamed (this wasn't in the script but I was so involved by this stage that I was responding instinctively) and Charlene dropped her flowers - five times, because they needed to land petals up, thereby adding to the drama. "That's a wrap!" the producer called. "It was very generous of you to give us so much of your time, Father." That's OK. Anything to help out." "We'll send you the DVD." "If you like." Fortunately, nobody was trying to say the rosary during the 40 minutes it took to put all this together.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Atheists are worthy of respect too!

The public debate about atheism is having an impact at Leeds Trinity. It all began when somebody gave me a poster which I put up. It reads as follows: "Atheism. The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically re-arranged itself for no reason whatsoever into self-replicating bits which turned into dinosaurs. Makes perfect sense." I must confess that I found this rather amusing but some students who enjoy the life of the Chaplaincy but who do not believe (yet: I'm working on them) were offended by it and I took it down. Then somebody from the United States posted on to the Chaplaincy Facebook site a YouTube clip of Bertrand Russell in which he purports to explain why faith in God is ridiculous. Some trusty Leeds Trinity students saw him off (verbally). I see now that both acts (mine and that of the American) were discourteous. None of us like to be ridiculed. I remember that Pope Benedict invited non-believers to join the representatives of many of the faiths of the world at Assisi last year: he was being characteristically respectful. He showed us that the key thing in evangelisation is to be present to the other, valuing the other's difference. (Having said this I must say, respectfully, that I cannot understand how people who are far more intelligent than I can deny the existence of God: if God does not exist, human life is ultimately purposeless; so what in their eyes is the purpose of the debate in which they are engaging? The hotter they get under the collar, the more I admire their intellects, and the more I wonder at the origin of such fine minds).

Thank you bookoverblue for the following comment: "I was once on a night out with a friend - he's an atheist, and I'm Catholic. We ended up having quite a in-depth discussion about why I believe in God and he doesn't. It became clear that both of us had valid reasons for our beliefs and could justify our choices.
I respect his views and he respects mine, and it's not fair to say that either of us is "stupid" just because we believe in God or not. I simply think that it's a matter of mutual respect."

The Holy Spirit in Korea

One of the marvellous aspects of being an university college chaplain is that you get to listen to all sorts of lectures. On Tuesday evening, we had a fascinating presentation on Christianity in Korea from Professor Kirsteen Kim, the Head of Theology and Religious Studies here at Leeds Trinity (on the right in the picture below). In this her inaugural lecture as a professor, she provided an overview of the history of the Church in that country where she spent a number of years and whose language she speaks. A couple of aspects of her talk struck me particularly. Firstly, the fervour of Korean Christians is extraordinary. At the moment the number of Christians - and especially Catholics I understand - is growing rapidly and this at a time when the country is increasingly prosperous: this shows, as Professor Kim noted, that modernisation does not necessarily result in secularisation. Secondly, such growth in the numbers of Christians in Korea and many other countries outside of Europe means that the cultural dominance of Europe within Christianity is being challenged. I'm so used to Christianity being on the back foot in this country that I felt enormously relieved at the end of the evening. The Holy Spirit is at work across the world. Pentecost is happening in far-flung places I will never visit. And the same Spirit is at work here in Yorkshire, within a humbled, pruned, but still vital Church, whose history is a record of the intervention of that Spirit in local people's lives.