Mgr Paul Grogan

Mgr Paul Grogan
Mgr Paul Grogan

Monday, 30 April 2012

"I'll be all right"

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

Sunday, 29 April 2012

With students at Leeds University

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

Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Holy Spirit manifests his presence

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

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

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

Like picking fruit from trees

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

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Facing rejection at Morrisons

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

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Saying "no"

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

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

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

Friday, 20 April 2012

A pilgrimage to Rome

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

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

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Throwing off irony

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

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A rainy day in the Lake District

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

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Alleluia! He is risen!

Happy Easter! It was marvellous to drive home from the Vigil Mass at a nearby church yesterday evening knowing that everything is different, even though everything looks the same. Christians have 3D specs, as it were, through which they can percieve reality in its fullness. All around me people were going about their affairs, many of whom, I expect, will have no explicit faith in Jesus' resurrection. Yet we are all included in this event, I thought, as I looked at the motorists waiting with me at one particular traffic light. Why have I been chosen to receive this knowledge? There can be only one answer I realised (with some misgivings!): to give it to everybody else.

I had a blessed holy Week. I was invited to preach and hear confessions in St Patrick's Church in Huddersfield on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. On Wednesday evening I joined my brother priests at the Chrism Mass in the Cathedral and we renewed our priestly promises - always a moving moment. Then I celebrated the Triduum at St Paul's Alwoodley (I was on call lest I was needed elsewhere in the diocese but it turned out that I was not). I concelebrated the morning Easter Mass at St Mary's, Horsforth.

Here's a picture of Fr Ian Smith (centre) and members of his team in the Parish of the Holy Redeemer (of which St Patrick's forms a part) in Huddersfield. It's one of the new "mega-parishes" (it comprises three churches) and it is running like clockwork.

Monday, 2 April 2012

A happy gang at Brimham Rocks

We had our final Chaplaincy walk of the term yesterday - an eight-miler from Glasshouses to Brimham Rocks in Nidderdale. It was one of those blessed occasions when all the students involved - many of whom are from different friendship groups - genuinely came together. Everybody was a bit tired - it being the end of term - and a number hadn't bethought themselves properly: they lacked waterproofs and fleeces and hats. Actually, I'm being kind: they were just dozy. They remind me of me. I distributed everything I had - fortunately I've built up quite a store over the years - and everybody had more or less what they needed. Two moments stand out: sitting together on one of the massive rocks and munching our sandwiches whilst staring out over the valley; and hearing one of the students say to me over steaming cups of tea in the Chaplaincy Lounge afterwards: "Shall we finish with Evening Prayer, Father?" What a great way to draw things to a close for Holy Week! Here is a picture of our happy gang:

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Teasing out transubstantiation

We have had our final YouCat meeting of the term. It was on transubstantiation - the students' choice. One said that somebody he knows would become a Catholic were it not for this teaching: he thinks that the Eucharistic bread and wine represent Jesus, but are not actually his Body and Blood. Another said that he found it difficult to see how Jesus could be spread out in celebrations of Mass throughout the world, and indeed why he should wish to manifest himself in this way: if we know that Jesus is with us why do we need a special sign? Another student said she thinks that transubstantiation is "totally believeable," given that we believe in the far more extraordinary miracle of the resurrection. It fills me with great pride as a priest to hear the students discussing issues such as this in such depth, candidly acknowledging difficulties in comprehension. None of those who were speaking at this meeting are theology students; they are just committed Catholics. We went on to speak about our need for signs to bolster our frail faith, about how the doctrine of transubstantiation reveals Christ's generosity (he gives us all of himself) and about how the doctrine is rooted in the teaching of the early Fathers of the Church. These discussions are a real high point in my week. It's so good to talk freely about important Church teachings. In other contexts, many Catholics want to submit such teachings to the tribunal of their own judgement and I have positively championed such an approach. I am of my generation. In YouCat groups, I sense, participants want to use their judgement to understand why the Church teaches as she does. This means that there is no pressure to demonstrate originality of thinking; instead, the task of learning becomes a shared one, as we patiently piece together our several insights. It's strange: conforming our beliefs to the teaching of the Magisterium is often portrayed as being intellectually stultifying; but in practice, in YouCat groups such as the one at Leeds Trinity, our experience is characterised by - I'll just tell it how it is - intellectual excitement, a sense of freedom and participation in community. Below is a photograph of one of our recent meetings.