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.