Mgr Paul Grogan

Mgr Paul Grogan
Mgr Paul Grogan

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Returning to St John's, Buttershaw

At the weekend I was back in the parish where I was parish priest, St John's in Buttershaw, Bradford. Since I was there it has been joined to the neighbouring parish of St Winefride's so that the two now constitute the single parish of  Mary Mother of God, with just one priest to minister to both communities. It was with a feeling of some trepidation that I returned. A priest friend of mine remarked recently that it is is best not to spend too much time in your first parish because you make so many mistakes that you need to escape! After surveying the congregation at the beginning of Mass, however, and seeing so many familiar faces I felt at ease. The pressure is off when people know you well. What truly warmed my heart was when a good number at the end of Mass brought me up-to-date with their lives: I learnt about who was poorly, who was suffering in other ways and who had died; I heard about how the Union of Catholic Mothers now numbered just three women and how they could not longer bake the cakes which used to be sold every month to raise funds for the priests' training fund; and one grandmother brought a strapping lad up to me and declared "You baptised him!" while he, beaming very pleasantly, told me a little about himself. I went for a coffee after Mass in the church hall which bears the photographs of all the priests who have served at St John's during the 57 years since its inception and caught up with everybody who was there, if only briefly. This interaction between priest and people, at Mass and afterwards, and the myriad interactions among the people which the priest is only ever partly aware of - the music group rehearsals, the training of the altar servers, the maintenance of the bar, the meeting of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, the raising of funds - these constitute a complex process of building up the community, which is never a merely human event, but always one which is charged with salvific significance. When I was wondering whether to apply for a religious order or for the diocesan priesthood, it was the life of the parish which most attracted my imagination. I wanted to visit people in their homes (I positively loved the idea of cycling between house and house, of tramping streets in the rain), I wanted to chat with children, to spend time with them and, highest of privileges, I wanted to accompany elderly people in their last hours, indeed to the very moment when they would meet Christ. As a priest I have been able to do all of these things. There are particular houses within a radius of a mile or two of St John's where Christ worked through my poor human agency and built up his kingdom through his Spirit: in those moments Bradford, like Galilee, became a theatre of his miraculous activity. Had I not become a diocesan priest I would not have had such experiences. I am deeply grateful for the way the Holy Spirit revealed my vocation to me.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Invocation in the North 2013

We have launched an initiative which, please God, is going to contribute significantly to the evangelisation of the north of England, namely Invocation in the North 2013, which will take place between 14th and 16th June at Ampleforth Abbey .When I went to seminary in 1988 we lads from the north rather pitied the seminarians from the south. We had, we believed, a robust Catholic culture: an amalgam of passionately felt Irish faithfulness, steeped in centuries of devotion, and a strong regional identity, upheld in particular by a history of working class togetherness (part St Mary's Bradford, part Odsal Rugby League Stadium, Bradford). During the eighteen years of my priesthood I have seen that culture gently, in part, implode, while southern dioceses have been filled with staunch Indian, Portuguese and African Catholic immigrants. Well, frankly, enough is enough: we want to claim back the north of England for Jesus (while being properly mindful, of course, of the goodness inherent in other faiths). We want to stop the secularisation of our society, show up the vacuity of godlessness and give our young people a fair chance to access the beauty of the Catholic tradition.

That's the background. Invocation is an annual discernment festival for 16- to 35-year-olds which has run for the last three years at Oscott College, Birmingham. This year we are having a regional one in the north; there will also be a day later in the year in the Midlands. Invocation provides a unique opportunity for young people to reflect prayerfully on how they may embrace the challenge of being a Catholic in today's society. It is taken as a given that some of them will want to be priests or religious, just as it's taken as a given that the requirement of complete mutual self-donation in marriage is an awesome and beautiful sacramental reality. We're not seeking to pitch one vocation against another; we're trying to create an environment in which our young people can listen to the personal and highly differentiated invitation which the Holy Spirit is making to each of them.

Anyway, there is a sense of momentum building up. The event is being organised by all the vocations directors of the northern dioceses with the backing of their respective bishops - it'll be a truly unique ecclesial event. We have three keynote speakers - Bishop Michael Campbell osa of Lancaster, Sister Roseanne Reddy of the Sisters of the Gospel of Life and (hopefully) Fr Sebastian Kajko of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal - and six workshops on such topics as "Vocation in the Catechism" "Benedictine Spirituality" and "The Priesthood." The weekend will comprise beautiful worship experiences: Divine Office with the monks, Adoration through the night, a nocturnal Blessed Sacrament Procession, and bags of opportunities for confession. We're hoping that about 150 young people will come. It would be great if some readers of this blog would join us. You'd love it. I'm coordinating publicity. Our Twitter address is @invocationnorth. Here's one of our promotional pictures. Please come. It's £60 all in. There is no point in being Catholic and not being radical.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Belonging and not belonging

Nana and Kasumi dropped by to ask about Chaplaincy events. They were obviously at a bit of a loss about what to do. We chatted and as luck would have it our sports coordinator Sheila King was passing at that moment and she signed them up for golf lessons, table tennis and cycling (Sheila doesn't hang about!). After she had left we continued to converse over tea. Having looked at all the purely social activities that the Chaplaincy offers (covert ways of gradually softening students up so that we can talk to them about Jesus!) I said: "Do you have any faith?" "No faith," they said. "Well I don't think you'd be interested in our Lenten retreat then", I said. "What is Lent?" asked Nana. I summarised all the principle truths of our faith in about five minutes. They looked suitably interested. They attend a Catholic university founded by religious sisters in Japan, though only a few of their fellow students are Catholics. "Are you sure you have no faith?" I asked. "Do you pray?" "Oh yes," said Nana "I pray sometimes." And we were off. They told me about how they sometimes pray at Buddhist shrines or pray privately when they know that somebody close to them is in need. We read the YouCat paragraph entitled "Is prayer a flight from reality?" Then Kasumi said that she had recently read a book entitled something like "Why Japanese people are not religious." "We don't not have faith," she said, slowly, smiling with proper pride at managing a double negative, "it's just that we don't belong to a religion." Realising that these moments seldom happen again I launched into an account of everything I know about Japanese Catholicism, drawing on my reading some years ago now of a couple of novels by Shushako Endo and a brief account I've read of the martyrdom of St Paul Mikki and his companions. I made as if to place a crucifix on the ground and said "And the cruel emperor said, 'Simply tread upon the cross and your lives will be saved' but they refused so they took them out to the beach and crucified them there" (I had my arms stretched out dramatically at this point, rather self-consciously, as a long phalanx of students were filing past after their lectures). Then Nana said something very beautiful, in a slightly halting English which lent gravity to what she said, and her eyes were smiling as she spoke: "It's difficult to say where is the boundary between belonging and not belonging."

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The big Leeds Trinity same-sex marriage discussion

We had a fascinating semi-formal lunchtime dicussion today about same-sex marriage. It was organised by our Head of Student Support, Tim Leadbeater. I was rather nervous beforehand, and it turned out I had reason to be because I was the only person present who was opposed to the government bill! In fact on reflection it was a good job I turned up otherwise the conversation might have been a bit one-sided. The tone of the discussion was invariably courteous. We all sat round in a circle and the person holding a box of chocolates at any one time had the right to speak. A couple of times I was just warming to my theme and then I had to shut up as somebody made a move for the chocolates. Important things were shared. One person spoke very eloquently about the difficulties of being homosexual: for example, of "coming out" to one's parents. Another spoke of the feeling of being culturally marginalised: for example, there are no cards on sale for homosexual people to mark important anniversaries in relationships. I was assailed by strong arguments: how can gay people ever be at peace in the Church when their sexual orientation is considered to be disordered?; why is sexual complementarity in parenting so important when so many children are brought up by single parents and when those who are brought up by same-sex couples have lots of opportunities to meet people of the other gender?; if the state denies marriage to homosexual people is it not covertly legitimising their marginalisation in society?; why cannot Parliament change social institutions to reflect changing cultural mores? I pressed on and tried to give an answer to each of the points raised, but not to the satisfaction of anybody in the room. I felt a great relief at the end of the discussion that what I think we had been apprehensive of saying to each other we had now said. It was a great dialogue, very educative. I admired above all the way participants were able to be so frank about such a sensitive and personal area. Here's a picture of us afterwards; the smiles say it all.

Big crosses on students' foreheads

It was a good start to Lent. I made sure that I signed the students' foreheads with massive crosses at the lunchtime Ash Wednesday Mass so that they could be walking witnesses to Christ on campus for the rest of the day. We also had an evening Mass, in part because it catches other people and in part because it coincided with our monthly discernment group for men who are exploring the possibility of the priesthood. Five men from Leeds and one man from Middlesbrough Dioceses braved the snow. We had Stations of the Cross in our chapel and readings from the works of the extraordinary Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a man who was on fire with a desire to live well (both Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict have cited him as a key role model for young people in our time). Afterwards, I went to get fish and chips while the Middlesbrough VD, Fr Massie, made himself available for confessions. Eight of us then squashed around my modest dining room table, elbow to elbow. Here are some of us at the end:

During the course of the meal the key questions came up very naturally: how do I know?; what if I think God is calling me and I don't do anything about it?; when should I go to seminary? It's past midnight now and I've just returned after a drop-off run in the car. Car journeys after events such as these are usually the best moments: they are ideal opportunities for learning more about the men. There cannot be a better combination of jobs than this: university students in the morning and then prospective seminarians in the evening. It was lovely to see such seriousness of faith etched on the faces of the young men and women who received the ashes at today's Masses. "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return," I intoned and these vital young people, who are immersed in a culture that denies death, mentally and spiritually embraced their mortality. They stepped out of the collective lie, generated by a climate of mass fearfulness, and perceived the truth about themselves before God. What power there is in this simple sacramental rite! The purpose of being young, as Blessed Pier Giorgio perceived, is to pour away our youth in service of others. Always, to be a Catholic means to be anticipating death. Indeed, Pope Benedict's recent decision is of a similar order: his resignation strikes me as complete self-abandonment, a conscious preparation for death. It is an eloquent symbol of the Christian life and in particular of the essence of priesthood.

Here's a picture of the cooks at our Shrove Tuesday party. A splendid time was had by all as we consumed multiple savoury and sweet pancakes (thank you to Chaplaincy Adminsitrator Dominica Richmond for getting everything organised).

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

With each defeat we recommit to evangelisation

I was saddened but not surprised by tonight's vote in the Commons in favour of same-sex marriage. I won't analayse the Parliamentary debate here - that's not the purpose of the blog. The one comment that it does occur to me to make is that the debate has shown that the Catholic Church is figuring more and more in the public consciousness. We have become the force in society to defeat. This is extraordinary given that our congregations are dwindling, that so many of our young people are so confused about the faith and that, with regard to legislation, as this evening's vote showed, we are actually rather easy to defeat. It is as if those without have noticed a strength in us that we had almost forgotten about.

My disappointment at the vote was tempered a little because yesterday I received an invitation to a discussion on the issue which the Head of Student Support here at Leeds Trinity, Tim Leadbeater, has organised for Valentine's Day. I'm looking forward to it. It will be good to listen to the views of students and other members of staff and to engage with them. I hope that it will be an important moment of evangelisation.

I have done what I can to promote the case for rejecting the Bill: I wrote to my MP, Stuart Andrew, ten days ago, requesting a meeting and specifying my objections to it (he voted in favour of it, I notice); I encouraged Mass-goers in the Chaplaincy to contact him as well; and I wrote an 800-word article to get things clear in my mind, which I have attached below [it was published afterwards in the Yorkshie Post].

I was very taken by the intervention of Sarah Teather MP, (pictured) a staunch defender of gay rights, in today's debate: she argued that the consequences would be gradual but grave: the new legislation would represent the definitive "uncoupling" of marriage and family life. Other good things that I have read are the following: Catholic Voices Briefing Paper: In Defence of Conjugality: The Common-Good Case Against Same-Sex Marriage; and a recent paper by Gilles Bernheim, the Chief Rabbi of France.

Here is my essay:

Many people do not understand how anybody could object to same-sex marriage. What is not to like about a Bill that would extend a right to one section of the population which was formerly denied it?  The values of equality and justice would seem to require corrective legislation.
The students with whom I spend most of my time are especially sensitive to the welfare of minorities and are full of inspiring idealism. Many are rather hurt by my oppostion to the Bill. They imagine that my arguments must be based on an objection to homosexual acts; they are not. Alternatively, they think that I must be arguing from theological first principles which most people do not share: I am not.
I just think that the arguments in favour of the proposed legislation are thin and that the long-term consequences for our nation could be serious. We can immediately dismiss the idea that same-sex marriage would make our society more equal.  It would not confer any benefits upon same-sex couples which are not already available to them through civil partnerships.
How about freedom? Should not all citizens be free to participate in any institution? Yes, unless there is a good reason why not. Here, there is such a reason. It is that marriage, which as a human reality predates the state, has a “givenness” which the state does not have the right to destroy.
The students I have spoken to find this idea difficult. Surely progress means that every institution needs to evolve if it is to retain its significance. To oppose such evolution strikes them as both futile and wrong.
 Is it true, however, that nothing stays the same? If I look at myself, I see somebody who will always be male. Astonishingly, even such a seemingly self-evident statement is being challenged in some intellectual circles. Gender theory, at its most radical, proposes that our gender is a mere construct. And building on this, queer theory proposes that sexual orientation is always a question of choice. Underlying such theories, insofar as I understand them, is a sense of righteous anger at injustice within society.
Yet they do not correspond with most people’s sense of themselves. Men and women remain men and women. Might not marriage be similarly unalterable? I think that it is and hence that it cannot legitimately be used as a vehicle to correct injustices suffered by homosexual people. Indeed to understand marriage properly, I suggest that we have to forget about grown-ups for a moment: marriage is fundamentally about children’s rights.
Marriage is ordered to the procreation and bringing up of children. It always has been. This does not exhaust marriage’s meaning – lots of marriages are childless –but it is a feature of marriage which cannot be deliberately excluded if a marriage is to be authentic.
Against this, one could argue that marriage may formerly have been understood in this way but that it need not be so in the future. Modern developments such as contraception, some forms of fertility treatment and surrogacy have provided a new frame of reference for understanding marriage vis a vis children. The introduction of same-sex marriage would constitute another such development; or rather it would mark a definitive moment when the intrinsic connection between marriage and children was formerly severed.
Yet before we assent to this, would it not be good to ask why in previous generations this connection has been so celebrated? The answer, I suggest, is that marriage as hitherto understood upholds precisely those values of equality and freedom which the Bill also seeks to foster (but which it would in fact, if passed, undermine).
My sense of this proceeds from a reflection on our ordinary experience. The child of a married couple generally knows that his/her father and mother entered into marriage with a view to conceiving a child. This helps such children to understand themselves as both beholden to their parents and as the equals of them. If the meaning of marriage were to be reduced to it being a committed relationship, any children who were the fruit of it would de facto be perceived to be of less significance than adults. Their existence would be characterised by a certain arbitrariness.
Of course, the love of good parents and foster parents compensates for all sorts of difficulties as we grow up and I do not wish to be alarmist. What I do want to underline however is that marriage currently acts as an institutional reminder of the importance of children. It has a paradigmatic value that helps all of us – according to our many varied personal circumstances – to understand our responsibility towards them. We should be wary of dismantling something which is a source of such good however noble the motivation of supporters of the Bill may be deemed to be.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Praying to St Hilda

We had a blessed, if long day, today. We went on a pilgrimage to Whitby, the second of our Discernment Walks during the Year of Faith. Leeds and Middlesbrough diocesan vocations and youth services have teamed up to offer these experiences to young people aged between 14 and 19. We were inspired by something that Pope Benedict wrote recently commending the traditional practice of pilgrimage. Our county is replete with holy sites, we thought; let's go and pray at them and help our young people to rediscover our Catholic patrimony. The first walk before Christmas was to Ripon and the shrine of St Wilfrid. Today we stood by the ruins of Whitby Abbey, site of the famous seventh century Synod of Whitby when St Wilfrid persuaded the British bishops of the Celtic tradition to adopt the date of Easter followed by the Roman Church, thus bringing unity to the Church on our island. Fr Massie, the Middlesbrough vocations director, invited the sixteen people present - young people and some youth leaders - to imagine the scene on today's feast day - Candlemass - in the fourteenth century in the very ruins before us. Times have changed but Christ is still calling on us to carry his light into the world, he said. There was a pleasing silence as we reflected on our shared responsibility, while hardy tourists wandered around in the background.

Earlier, we had been welcomed at Madonna House in Robin Hood's Bay where we ate our packed lunch. The members of the community there (pictured above in the foreground) made much of us and gave us lots of tea and then showed us a short DVD describing their life, testifying to the God of love through simplicity of life, poverty, community, the whole underpinned by prayer. During the seven-mile walk from their house to the abbey, after we had recited together the Joyful Mysteries, I was privileged to take part in innumerable edifying conversations: one young woman described her passion for keeping a youth group going; another described how she said the rosary each day in the family home; a young man spoke of his desire to do a degree at Leeds Trinity precisely because of its Catholic foundation; and a young African man described with pride how he had played Jesus in Passion Plays in his homeland and showed us a picture of himself, crucified.

We finished the day with tea and then Vespers at St Hilda's Catholic Church in the town, followed by fish and chips. St Hilda was an Anglo-Saxon princess who was abbess of a double abbey comprising both monks and nuns; it was situated where the current ruins now stand. Thank you to Parish Priest Fr Pat Keogh and his hospitality team for looking after us so assiduously. On the way back the young people in the minibus were saying things like "I'm definitely going on the next Discernment Walk" and "I don't want this day to end." Job satisfaction rating: pretty massive.