Mgr Paul Grogan

Mgr Paul Grogan
Mgr Paul Grogan

Monday, 28 January 2013

Gathering round a traditional Chinese hotpot

I've just returned from a lovely evening with two Chinese students with names which English people find unpronounceable and so whom I know as Leo and Kevin. It was an unusual scene: we sat in the conservatory at the back of their student digs in Headingley with their two housemates Ben and Kelly and ate from a traditional "hot pot." I had never seen one before. Basically it's a large round container with an element within and throughout the meal a very spicy stock bubbled away within it. My hosts would occasionally pop pieces of fish, pork or beef or tofu or lettuce into it, later noodles, and we would all draw items out with chopsticks (Kevin helped me here) once they were cooked. It was truly delicious. I was very impressed by them all, not least by their English. We talked about their homes, their parents' careers and their hopes for the future. They also asked me questions about my faith, for example, "What is Mass?"; "Why are you a Catholic?" It's great to be asked to describe the reasons for one's hope in a short time at a dinner table. In the Chinese educational system religious education does not figure.
I do not know how much they learnt from me but I have been left with some very positive impressions of them. My companions have a strong sense of belonging to their families; they are keen to explore the world and they are conscious of the privilege of being able to travel, something that by and large their parents have not been able to do; and they are well brought up: Leo and Kevin escorted me to my car at the end of the evening even though it was bitingly cold.
One of the best stories of the evening was told by Ben. Having recently arrived in England he went into a restaurant and ordered "hot pot" - hoping to be reminded of home-cooking - only to be served with a steaming dish of lamb chunks and potatoes originating from Lancashire! Such students greatly enrich our city. It's humbling that young people from a secularised society like modern China should be such models of gentle attentiveness. The New Evangelisation is a curious phenomenon: we find ourselves in the first instance wanting to emulate those whom in the second instance we want to convert!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Getting serious about money

I was preaching on vocations in St Anthony's Parish, Bradford this evening and in the notices Fr Maurice Pearce, the parish priest, advised the people that the gift aid donation envelopes were available for collection at the back of church. He also said that he would be giving these envelopes to the parents of First Holy Communion children. That struck me as being excellent financial stewardship. We're caught in a dilemma in the Church. Most of the Catholic families who send their children to our schools do not go to Mass and yet they expect their children to enjoy the benefits of being associated with the Church. The parishes have to pay 10 per cent of various schools costs every year. We invite all the parents to pay a very modest voluntary contribution towards this cost and by and large it is only the parents who are already practising who cough up. In other words, the few faithful ones pay for the upkeep both of the parish (through the Sunday collection) and of the school. It's very frustrating. When I was a parish priest I erred on the side of not offending people. I thought that if people were approaching the Church with a request for baptism or First Holy Communion we should just welcome them and then invite them to contribute once they had acquired a certain pattern of worshipping. At first sight such an approach seems more compatible with the spirit of the New Evangelisation. Unfortunately, most of them never do acquire that good habit. When I return to parish ministry I hope to be much tougher in this area. I'll throw off being Fr NiceGuy and become Fr GiveUsYourCash. The reason is that it is for people's good. This is the Year of Faith and one of the most neglected areas of the Catechism is the section on the Precepts of the Church, the fifth one of which is "You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church." We're not talking about charity or a handout to help the parish out of a tricky situation. We're talking about a solemn moral responsibility which goes with being a member of the Church, proportionate of course to each person's means. I wouldn't say to somebody "Don't worry about coming to Mass; just try and be a good person." If I am so solicitous that they should obey the first precept of the Church, I should be similarly insistent that they obey the other ones. Fr Pearce announced this evening that the church would not be able to install a new central heating system because it was just too expensive. When somebody next says to me, "I should like to have my child baptised, Father," I intend to respond, "Great, how much do you earn?"

Friday, 25 January 2013

Celebrating Education Sunday

We wished to celebrate Education Sunday somehow (which the churches in England and Wales are marking this coming Sunday) given that Leeds Trinity was founded to provide teachers for Catholic schools and teacher training remains core to our identity. A couple of years ago we had an ecumenical service but it was poorly attended. So this year we adopted a different approach: we set up a table with free coffee, fruit juice, cakes, scones and biscuits in a corridor in the building where many of the Primary Education students have their lectures. Cohort after cohort descended upon it delightedly. "What is this all free?" asked one incredulously. "You're worth it," we said. "Today is all about celebrating everybody involved in education." Then when their sugar levels were restored and they were preparing to return to lectures we gave them information about future Chaplaincy events, a prayer to mark the day, and a description of the vocation of the teacher taken from the Education Sunday website. St Paul, the feast of whose conversion is today, travelled throughout the known world to evangelise; we just asked the unversity porters to transport some flasks of coffee and cakes to a building three minutes' walk from the Chaplaincy. Nevetheless, the effect was dramatic. Many students are so pressed for time they don't want to attend a social event in the Chaplaincy; and some fear that they might be labelled were they to do so. So the Chaplaincy needs to go them. It's rather embarrassing that it's taken me five-and-a-half years to realise this. It occurred to me that Jesus' words in today's gospel - "Go out to the whole world" - do not constitute an injunction for a time, as if there could be a moment when the job had been done and we could all relax. "Going out" is a permanent feature of the life of the Church; it is what the Church is for.

Speaking of Jesus

Our Taize Service to mark the Week of Prayer  for Christian Unity unfolded serenely this evening. Sr Anne Hammersley cp, the Assistant Chaplain, had prepared everything meticulously. A band from Cragg Hill Baptist Church in Horsforth provided the music and the singing. We were able to join in the wonderful chants and to inhabit the silences which followed them. The focus of the semi-circle of chairs at the front of the chapel was a large red painted crucifix, bearing a giant Christ and alongside him the much smaller figures of Mary and the Beloved Apostle, whose gestures showed that they had now stepped beyond history and were petitioning Jesus on our behalf. We joined in their prayers. We had made the cross our own, lighting red candles placed around its borders and laying alongside it crosses of twigs that we had fashioned, representing the personal suffering of each. Afterwards, a Baptist woman remarked on how powerful she found the crucifix in our chapel. She is used to seeing an empty cross which for her expresses the reality of Christ's resurrection, but looking at a crucifix helps her to understand the depths of Christ's love. What a felicitous exchange for us to have during a week such as this! Over the supper, during which local Christians mixed with students - and which consisted of spicy red kidney bean soup, chicken pieces in a honey and grainy mustard glaze, lamb tangine, rice and a vegetarian pizza - we talked, as usual about all sorts and then suddenly, on my sofa, the conversation switched to a consideration of Jesus in his humanity and no sooner had that drawn to a close than I heard the word "Jesus" in a conversation on a nearby sofa. The very mention of Our Lord's name elevates such a social occasion, gives it very naturally a new character. We mention "Jake" and "Luke" and "Sue" and everybody knows of whom we talk. For believers, to utter Jesus' name is always a charged speech event: we are clearly not just talking about a historical personage; we are talking about somebody we know. Jesus' presence in our lives has become more real to us because we have just dared to name him and to speak of him as we do of a friend.

Here is the very generous kitchen team for the evening: Hannah, chopping, Naomi, peeling, Laura, pouring, Meghan, opening and Matt, grinding.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

A marvellous historic evening

When James Hanson - who until three years ago was stacking shelves at the Coop - side-stepped his Dutch international marker and headed a corner decisively into the roof of the net in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final at Villa Park this evening, it was difficult to take in the historical significance of the moment. I have supported Bradford City ever since I was six; my father would take me and my two brothers to home games. We bonded over programmes, Bovril, meat pies and occasional instinctive leaping upwards together in delight in a line, scarcely believing that something as beautiful (and often, frankly as unlikely) as a Bradford goal could have been brought into existence before our very eyes. I remember in 1976 watching Southampton knock us out of the FA cup semi-final with a Jim McCalliog free-kick which Jimmy Hill informed the nation on Match of the Day that evening had been illegal. Our emotional bond to the club deepened as a result of the Bradford fire in 1985 when many supporters were killed, a match which my father and my elder brother attended. After a hard two years in the Premiership more than a decade ago, Bradford has plummeted, finishing at a lower position than the previous season almost every year. Twice the club has gone into liquidation; once the players had to play for no wages. Now I go three or four times a year. I last went at the end of last month when Rochdale beat Bradford four two; the Bradford team was sluggish and unimaginative on that occasion. "Oh, I'm glad that's over," said a season ticket holder sitting beside me with feeling.

When the team, which is in the fourth tier of the league, played so poorly in the first half of this evening's League Cup tie against Premiership team Aston Villa and conceded a goal, I was not surprised therefore. Apparently, one Villa player earns more than the entire Bradford team put together. I was watching the match in a pub in Horsforth. Then in the second half the Bradford players tentatively acquired a new self-belief. It looked to me that a good number of them had simply been overawed in the first 45 minutes. Now their play was fluid, they moved into postion rapidly to offer passing chances and their forwards surged towards the Villa defenders self-confidently. It didn't matter that they were not as consistently skillful as their opponents. They had put fear aside and suddenly they were a force to reckoned with, at least during some periods of play.  In the event they lost two one but now go through to the final on aggregate. What makes football, and indeed any team sport, so enduringly good to behold, I think, is because it has both an aesthetic dimension, for example, precise coordination of  movement, and a moral dimension, most particularly, through the opportunities which it affords for players to grow in the virtue of fortitude. Blessed John Paul understood this well. Bradford last won a final in 1911: they beat Newcastle in the FA Cup. They will now play Chelsea or Swansea in the League Cup final at Wembley. I hope to be there.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Listening to God

I often supply in parishes on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings and preach on vocation to the priesthood. Yesterday I was at two of the very few churches in the diocese that I have not previously visited: St Joseph's, a small, plain, red-brick chapel-of-ease in Cross Hills, near Skipton which was built in 1920; and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Silsden, a former Methodist church which the diocese acquired in 1957. Members of the both congregations greeted me very warmly. I feel energised by this preaching mission. I generally preach about the priesthood from two perspectives, namely that it is a gift to everybody in the Church, and indeed in the world; and that the priest, through the celebration of the Eucharist, unites the people (or, perhaps better, Christ unites them through the priest's ministry), freeing them to fulfil their own vocations in the secular sphere. Each homily is based more particularly on the readings of the day. It's not a recruitment drive - the homily is not the place for that. It's rather a mission to encourage the people of the diocese, to let them know that we have some seminarians - eleven at the moment - and that God will not let us down and to encourage them to pray for more vocations to the priesthood in the future. Of course, I always harbour the hope that a young or middle-aged man in the congregation may be moved to offer his life to Christ in this way at that moment, but I have been engages in this mission now for about eight years and nobody has ever said to me: "It was your words that did it, Father." However, we just don't know how the Holy Spirit will use our preaching for his purposes. I do recall that when I was a boy it seemed that priests were frequently underlining the importance of vocations to the priesthood and that, certainly as a teenager, I used to feel excitement and alarm in equal measure when listening to them. Jesus, who turned water into wine, calls men in every generation to this extraordinary ministry and I have been given the job - or more truly Christ has given me the job, through and under the bishop - of encouraging men to listen to what God is saying to them in their depths. To say that I love it would be an understatement!

Here's a picture of the interior of Our Lady of Mount Carmel whose sanctuary has recently been renovated.

Talking about Christ as we walk

We had a pleasant day half-day's walk in the environs of Poole in Wharfedale yesterday, which is just about a quarter of an hour's drive from Leeds Trinity. Eight students and a Religious Studies lecturer joined me in tramping across six-and-a-half miles of snow-covered fields, our feet breaking through the thin ice and squelching into the thick mud beneath. We saw a hare haring across a distant slope and an unidentified bird of prey wheeling above us. People toppled over, got temporarily stuck on tricky stiles; and we all laughed at each other's misfortunes. One young woman had bought some wellington boots for the occasion, discovered that they were both for the left foot, but pressed on uncomplainingly regardless! Everybody was just pleased to be out in the open air with a gang of friendly people and to have the opportunity to relax. As a priest these are golden moments: you have good conversations, one after another, building up relationships. Often the fact that you are facing the same way as your interlocutor helps enormously. Stuff gets sorted as you tramp along. At one point we saw the picturesque Almscliff Crag in the distance where, I understand, some local churches have a dawn service on Easter morning before heading off to have separate services in their own buildings. I read once, I believe, that John Wesley preached to a large group of people from that crag. At least one of our party yesterday was a Methodist. Just about all of us were Christians, it turned out. It occurrred to me as we pressed on good humouredly that the continuation of the faith in this island, claimed for Christ by Columba and Augustine, is not really in jeopardy. Many young people believe in Christ. Some are keeping their heads down, nervous of being accused of being bigots by their contemporaries. That's what made yesterday so delightful: students could refer to their Christian faith now and again as the conversations progressed unselfconsciously. Sometimes it's good to be yeast in the world; but at other times we need simply to be together, drawing strength from each other. The day ended with hot chocolate in a pub and then cups of tea back and Jaffa Cakes in the Chaplaincy Lounge. It's impossible to calculate the blessings of such shared time.

Here is a picture of us all taking a pause at a farm.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Ecumenism and Dodgeball

We had a good service to mark the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity today. My colleague, The Reverend Dr Jane De Gay, an Anglican, who is also a senior lecturer in the English Department, preached powerfully. She concluded by saying that Christ has given those of us who are baptised a common identity by clothing us with himself, quoting the line from Galatians 3 which was one of the designated readings. It was very refreshing to consider the grounds of our unity in this way eg not simply in terms of our commonality of belief (I always become uncomfortable when people minimise the significance of doctrinal differences; doctrines matter to all committed Christians) but rather in terms of an act of Christ: he has already made us members of his Church. Once we acknowledge that, as we have to after Lumen gentium, the Vatican II document about the Church, to maintain a default position of defensiveness and aloofness is not just daft, contrary to the will of Christ and insulting to those whom we recognise as our brothers and sisters, it's exhausting. I've learnt this especially through my five-and-a-half years at Leeds Trinity.  There is only a small core group of "in-your face" Christians among the members of staff and I know that my ministry would be extremely demanding if I wasn't able to count on their support. They have helped me to think outside the frame of reference provided by the Reformation and I must say I feel much the better for it!

Just after our lunch of Indian soup and naan bread and dips (the text of the service was provided by Churches Together in India) two female students burst into the Chaplaincy Lounge and exclaimed together: "You've got to come! We need an extra player for Dodgeball!" The sports development department had organised a lunchtime tournament of this sport (which I had never heard of before) and we were fielding two Chaplaincy teams. Dressed in tracky bottoms and a tee-shirt I ran on to the court with my five team-mates, not fully aware of the rules but determined to give it my best and then the opposing side bombarded me with balls and, within a few seconds, I had been eliminated.

That was bad enough but worse was to follow. Owing to the Christian Unity Service I was unable to attend a career's day at St Wilfrid's Catholic High School, Featherstone, where I was to have regaled the children with stories about my priesthood. Fr Michael Doody, our youngest priest, who recently kindly agreed to become a member of a three-priest vocations promotion team, went in my stead. "Was he all right?" I asked the lay chaplain who helped organise the event on the telephone this evening. "Oh, he was great, perfect. He spoke to three groups for twenty minutes each and then he spoke to a class for a whole hour. They were hanging on his every word. Can we have him again next year?"

Here's a picture of me and my team-mates. We lost every match, but we remained resilieintly cheerful.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Yorkshire Dales: doorway to the sacred

As I worked up a sweat on an exercise bike in the Leeds Trinity gym this evening, I heard on the television Monsieur Christian Prudhomme, chief of the Tour de France, praise my home county. "I knew Yorkshire before but I did not realise that it was so gorgeous. Really!" He was speaking as it was announced that this famous race is to have three legs in Britain, the first of which is to navigate my Monday, day-off playground: Wharfedale and contiguous dales. I have always intuited that this region probably contains the most perfect landscape of anywhere in the world. I remember when I was a young boy sitting in the back of the family Wolsey as we drove from Burnsall to Grassington and Harry Myers, an elderly friend of my father's, sitting in the front, revealed that as a Bradford wool merchant he had travelled a lot, going even as far as Russia, but that he had never seen anywhere to compare with the countryside through which we were then passing. I made a mental note to remember that I was incredibly fortunate that God had not only conferred life on me, given me a loving family, and granted me membership of his Catholic Church, but that he had also caused me to grow up on the edge of the Dales. Burnsall, the head of Wharfedale, was to me like Galway was for centuries to others, the furthest point of the known world, and all beyond lay in mystery. I recall the moment we penetrated beyond Burnsall, over the high pass into Bishopsdale, and I was filled with a sense of unfolding possibilities, geography stirring my spirit, opening me up to the transcendent, to the Creator, to the Creator of me. Now when I stride those fells - usually alone, and happy to be so - I recall moments I enjoyed there when I was younger with members of my family and then everything that has happened since becomes properly contextualised: I am a son; I am a brother; and only afterwards am I a priest. Sometimes whole Mondays elapse on the hills without me seeing another person. Now in my mind's eye, like a moving image taken from a helicopter, I see Simon's Seat above Appletreewick, the attaining of which literally takes once's breath away, so sharp is the buffetting wind which assails the ridge; I see the steep winding path on the west fell above Kettlewell where I have taken parties of students from here, their protests muted by their exhaustion; and the path winding up the east fell to Great Whernside, just beneath the summit of which is the highest chapel in Britain, next to a scout hut, outside of which, as a young priest, I heard first confessions of some of the children of our parish while the scout leaders looked on, delighted by the juxtaposition of natural beauty with sacramental symbolism and child-like innocence, as near a reclaiming of Eden as is possible in history (one took photographs, I remember).  I had to laugh last week when I was on holiday in Pembrokeshire with two priest friends. On one of our walks, one of my friends, himself a Yorkshireman, expressed his pleasure at the surrounding scenery and then, after a pause, concluded, "It's like Yorkshire, actually," while our other friend, from Hampshire, spluttered his protests at the reduction of everything to a single template.

Our Lady, Mother of Bradford, pray for us

I visited one of our seminarians who is doing a parish placement at St Joseph's, Bradford, late this afternoon. He's doing lots of interesting things: he recently attended a community meeting about drugs in this poor area of the inner city and he is helping with the case of an asylum seeker who is in danger of being killed if he returns to his home country. It's a very different experience from seminary life and just the kind of thing our men need in order to ground them and help them understand the purpose of their on-going formation which, necessarily, takes place at a certain remove from society, in order that they may be sufficiently recollected as they prepare to give themselves definitely for God's work as priests. The life at St Joseph's - which is a splendid jewel in the heart of Bradford, whose interior is exceptionally well illuminated thanks to a new lighting system - resembles that of a seminary in one important respect however: parish priest, Fr John Newman, insists that seminarians staying in the house join him and other parishioners for various parts of the Divine Office. After my chat with our seminarian, Fr Newman invited me to attend Exposition and Vespers so I went into the beautiful side chapel which houses the recently created Annunciation Shrine of Our Lady, Mother of Bradford. The exceptionally gracious white marble statue of Our Lady holding her infant son towards us, who extends his arms outwards in anticipation of the crucifixion, is very affecting: it was transferred from the equally splendid and even larger Church of St Mary which is only about a mile away, the last Mass in which, celebrated about seven years ago, I concelebrated, with a heavy heart, but glad nevertheless to be there. My grandparents, who came to Bradford from Count Rosccommon, used to go to confession at St Mary's and then went for a drink to the nearby Cock and Bottle. When I was a parish priest in Bradford the number of parishes was cut from 20 to ten, so great had been the movement of Catholics out of the city and, let's face it, so astonishing had been the fecklessness with regard to faith of so many, not least the Yorkshire Irish. Within the prayerful oasis of the shrine this evening, however, as the noise of the city penetrated at odd moments, I was aware only of the strength of the Catholic Church, portrayed in all her maternal solicitude by the delicate but steely gesture of the statue of Our Lady, proffering her Son to us, as she looks modestly downwards, conscious of all the darkness which infests our hearts, (symbolised by the drugs being offered no doubt at that very moment to addicts not far away, doorways into hopelessness and unreality) and not wishing to accuse us of sin, but graciously allowing us to look upon her in her purity and recover hope through the very act of beholding her, she the truly human one. As I left, a young man held the door open for me and we chatted briefly before he got into his car. He had been baptised in the church; he now lives some way away. "I love Evening Prayer," he said, with deep conviction. It was worth returning to the city simply to hear those words.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

God revealed himself to me this afternoon

Every Tuesday afternoon at 4pm at Leeds Trinity we have Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour followed by Mass. Right in the midst of perhaps the busiest day in the week, as lecturers conclude their presentations all around us, Christ manifests himself in the spiritual heart of the university. The attachment of young people to Eucharistic Adoration is one of the surprise developments of the last twenty years ie the course of my priesthood. I remember helping with a Youth 2000 retreat in my first year as a priest and being struck by the way that the group was, as it were, breathing new life into an old devotion. When I was a lad I used to serve during Sunday afternoon Benediction in my parish church in Burley in Wharfedale, swinging the thurible, occasionally coughing quietly as the incense tickled my throat, delighting in the scarcely comprehensible Latin chants whose very strangeness beautifully conveyed the transcendence of the moment and staring, staring, staring at God as he revealed himself to me and Fr Scannell kneeling at my left and everybody else in the church, the uncontainable contained in the monstrance, whose Spirit prompted me to stare some more, notwithstanding my watering eyes and aching arms, convincing me that the one who eluded me now would not always elude me. By the time I celebrated Mass this afternoon, such intimacy had been established with Our Lord that the four students and graduates present - and the numbers are almost always low - listened with unwonted attentiveness to the few poor words I uttered after the gospel and the daily event, become ordinary through familiarity, seemed suddenly charged once more with supernatural significance, its inner importance flooding out and becoming newly apparent in the external sphere, such that none of us then present, I know, would have wished to have been anywhere else at that moment, and all of us - I could tell by the others' faces - felt simply very grateful.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A packed programme of events

We've just produced our term card for the Spring Term and, though I say so myself as shouldn't, there's plenty going on. Christian Unity Week will soon be upon us: as well as our annual service (led by Revd Jane de Gay, who is a senior English lecture here) we're going to have impromptu singing from a number of groups in the foyer, a Taize Service, a party for Christians only (or anybody who has ever thought of becoming one, or who is well disposed towards Christians) and, a litle later in the year, an "ecumenical train" down to the local Methodist Church to join in their Sunday morning worship.

Lent is always a big period in the Chaplaincy: the lunchtime Ash Wednesday Mass is invariably well attended. This year we will also have regular Stations of the Cross. These are great because they provide young people with an opportunity for an affective response to Christ, something which they have been deprived of due to the fall-off in pious practices in recent times. The Stations will take place in the chapel on some occasions, once in the corrdiors of the university and as Lent nears its end we are going to have a trip to the outdoor stations at Myddelton Grange in Ilkley, which are superb (see below). We are also going to have confessions for an hour every Wednesday evening to conform with a Year of Faith initiative in the diocese: it will be interesting to see how many students avail themselves of the Sacrament.

On the Friday before Education Sunday we will offer Education students and staff coffee and cakes. We thought of inviting them to a service but we opted for marking it in a fun way instead: I'll slip a prayer card to each person as I hand out the doughnuts. Then we'll be observing Holocaust Day by an exhibition and a special prayer station in the chapel.

We also do purely social stuff. For example we have a couple of six-mile walks planned (plus pub), ice-skating on the Leeds Millennium Square (plus pub), Les Miserables at the Imax cinema in Bradford (plus pub). Leeds Trinity very generously allows me to drive the 16-seater minibus - it's a Godsend.

A new departure this year is that we are going to address the issue of relationships directly around the time of Valentine's Day. (I keep forgetting when this is exactly, which I think is a good sign, all things considered) I thought of giving a talk entitled "Fr Paul on sex" but I thought that it might not pull them in. Instead, we are going to run a speed "getting to know" you session for young men and women. It'll be light-hearted and will include refreshments and a prize. Actually we might organise a barn dance as part of this. I used to love those when I was a student. You were never left alone wishing the ground would open up and swallow you and they involve lots of wholesome physicality! In additon we're going to have a few lunchtime sessions on "good relationships" led by a member of the Chaplaincy Team who has loads of experience as a counsellor. It's hard pushing against the massed forces of secularisation and many is the initiative which has failed, but there is nothing like the buzz of an event coming together, even when the numbers aren't great, and over a pint, or on the ice or after a period of worship a student begins to talk as he/she becomes suddenly aware of the reality of God.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Transfixed by a saint's gaze

I venerated the relics of St John Bosco at Liverpool Cathedral a few days ago. The Salesians had organised things beautifully. I lined up with lots of high school children. As the line we were in slowly progressed towards the reliquary, we passed numerous banners giving details of the saint's life, his commitment to youth, his writings, his spirituality and the work of the Salesians throughout the world. Two words sprung out from the texts with particular clarity: joy and patience. In the early years, don Bosco had to keep moving his oratories because the neighbours complained about the behaviour of his boys. His ears must have been assailed by all sorts of foul language!

He has always been one of my heroes. There is a photograph of him playing football with some boys dresed in a cassock. It sums up for me the heart of pastoral outreach to the young. We go to them, spend time with them, laugh with them, love them and lead them to Christ. Don Bosco would always insert prayer into fun activities. I'm trying to do that more and more, overcoming a fear that the young people whom I accompany might find it too heavy. He was able to do this, I am sure, because his life of prayer was so rich. His eyes, in a famous photograph taken when he was 65 (see below) are incredibly penetrating: as he looks out towards us they suggest that he has seen Christ and that he is continuing to see Christ. His face is strangely youthful. I was reminded of words that Blesed John Paul II wrote about the Church being always young because she is always animated by the Holy Spirit. This thought was particularly moving because we had just heard that Archbishop Kelly had offered his resignation to the Pope due to ill health following his recent stroke.

If there is one thing that makes us feel exhausted and old it's rivalry among ourselves. Here is something don Bosco wrote to his fellow priests which I read on one of the banners at the exhibition: "Put an end to criticism which makes the heart grow cold, and most of all encourage one another to live in friendship with God. If we are not at peace with God we are not at peace with ourselves nor with one another." The New Evangelisation requires the clergy to be united, plain and simple. I saw the teenagers reverently pressing their hands on the reliquary, experiencing the seriousness of the moment. They need us to be there for them, undistracted and undismayed by whatever insecurities assail us.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Alistair and Catherine

I have just officiated at the wedding of Alistair and Catherine who both studied at Leeds Trinity a few years ago. Catherine indeed was baptised here as a baby. The photographer organised a phalanx of guests outside the main doors and much confetti was thrown over the happy couple as they passed between their friends. Suddenly, the full nature of this place became clearer to me: it provides (at its best) a truly wholistic formation. Young people study here, but for what precisely? To get jobs? - yes. of course. Alistair and Catherine have good jobs teaching in local high schools. Our primary education degrees and PGC courses are well respected. But the education provided by a university like our own has to involve more. This is what I think it is: every student who passes through our doors has the opportunity to see something truly beautiful, namely the Catholic Church. Even if they can't accept the truth claims we make - namely that our lives have meaning, that we are unutterably loved, that God guides us through the teachings of his Church - they will know that there are some people who do believe all this, and that will give them hope. Then when a young man and a young woman who were in part formed here and who gave themselves to each other in holy matrimony in the chapel here emerge from the main doors, with her arm in his, one dark January afternoon to embrace the challenge of married life, unafraid, in a swirl of confetti, it says something powerful and joyful to the world. It says: we as a Church have the answers to all the deepest questionings of the human heart. We are convinced that we were made for love and we dare to proclaim what the Church has always proclaimed, following Christ's lead: marriage is for the whole of one's life. Now I'm going to St Aelred's in Harrogate to preach on vocations to the priestly life. Marriage and priesthood - both options for love, both liveable in a radical way through sacramental grace, both by their very nature open to new life, both ordered to the upbuilding of the Church.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

French, cool and celibate

I've been looking up flights from Leeds/Bradford to Paris this evening. My friend Fr Pasquino, a Comboni Father who lives nearby, and I are hoping to go there for a night or two next month to visit Cyrille Delort, a seminarian at the Seminaire aux Carmes, who completed his Masters here at Leeds Trinity a few years ago. He is studying for the Missions √Čtrang√®res de Paris. He recently told me that the numbers from the Mission in the seminary is growing rapidly, from 14 when he first arrived to 27 now. I don't have favourites, but if I did he'd be one of them. When most English lads think serving at the altar somehow cissyish, Cyrille put on an alb and brought Gallic grace to the sanctuary. Once when the bishop came to celebrate Mass and I had forgotten to organise any servers I ran round to Cyrille's room while the bishop was vesting, appealed for his help and with a smiling "of course" he was in the sacristy within two minutes, poised and serene. He also plays tennis excellently, is very comfortable in the presence of young women (who evidently enjoy his company) and he often used to join me for Adoration. It was while he was at Leeds Trinity that he began to think seriously about the priesthood. He subsequently spent a year in Thailand, continuing to discern. He has just received the ministries of lectorate and acolytate and sounds very happy. I'm going to put a photo of him on the Chaplaincy Facebook site to show that celibacy is cool.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Preparing for ordination

I had a delightful day to begin the year: I met up with the two Leeds seminarians who received Candidacy just before Christmas, Sean Crawley and Anthony Rosso. Candidacy is the moment in a man's formation when he says "Yes, I definitely want to be a priest" and the Church says "Yes, we think that you have the makings of a good priest." In every man's vocational journey, there is a moment of transition when he stops discerning whether God is calling him to the priesthood and begins preparing for ordination. Candidacy is the public seal of that spiritual shift. Both Sean and Anthony have changed since I last met them. They have gone deeper. It's great to behold. They are now in their fifth year at the Venerable English College in Rome and are studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University. I had a pub lunch with Sean and then we walked around the lake in Roundhay Park in Leeds; afterwards I had tea and cakes with Anthony in my flat at Leeds Trinity University. "So he gets a full lunch and I get a cream bun!" said Anthony.

The pictures show Sean with Archbishop Arthur Roche, who was our bishop until a few months ago and who is now the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome and Anthony in my sitting room.