Interconfessional Religious Dialogue

Dove with olive brance

Come Holy Spirit Renew the Face of the Earth

Hope is one of the three theological virtues – the others being faith and love.  A theological virtue is so named because its object is God Himself.  Hope is so important because throughout history it has helped people overcome their difficulties – sometimes seemingly insuperable ones – keeping them from despair and cynicism. Both the Church and the World have an absolute need of hope.

We can be joyful that the Church, with Pope Francis at the helm, seems to have been given new hope. The World however, despite the huge scientific and technological advances, does not appear to be filled with hope!  Those who belong to Church are of course in the world, and the Church is surely moving forward in a new direction, with people coming to a truer knowledge of God and how to relate to Him and to their neighbours. God’s Kingdom resides in the Church though our lack of faith, hope and love frequently prevent that Kingdom breaking through the structures to reveal a way ahead.  People are the greatest resource of the Church, indeed they are the Church, and when, under the grace of the Holy Spirit, people grow and develop to become more fully human, hope will spread in the world.

Organisers of the CIR conference in Mirfield and Fr George Guiver CR Superior of Mirfield

Organisers of the conference (right to left- German Lutheran, Swiss Reformed sister from Germany, Catholic sister, Catholic Benedictine from Belgium and Anglican President from Mirfield.) Also Fr George Guiver CR Superior of Mirfield.

Hope as a spiritual reality comes from the Holy Spirit and since the Resurrection and Pentecost we live in the age of the Holy Spirit. There are many signs of the Spirit of God marking the hearts and minds of the modern world yet our preoccupations and troubles often prevent the Spirit from penetrating our hearts. But penetrate they did for me on different occasions this year, and the Spirit brings joy.

Outside York Minister the group more or less cropped

Most of the group outside York Minister on Saturday 22 August.

Before going any further let me emphasise that what follows should not let any reader think that I am not very glad to be Catholic. However I am sure that the future of the Church is in unity with others, and not in our sad divisions. Furthermore it is my conviction after knowing so many from other Christian denominations, and from other religions, that we all have a lot to learn from each other.

The most recent occasion happened between 20-25 August in Mirfield near Huddersfield at the Anglican religious community of the Resurrection.

This was the 19th meeting of CIR, the Congress (or Conference) of Interconfessional Religious. It was in an act of faith and love that I attended, responding to an invitation arising from the year of and for consecrated life. The CIR was founded in 1977 by Spanish priest Father Martin da Zabala. It is designed to bring together religious from different ecclesial traditions to discover and celebrate what they have in common as a way forward towards unity. Members of the CIR meet every two years in a monastic / or Religious community setting, to pray together, eat together and talk together.

All the Benedictines, Dominicans and Franciscans present

All the Benedictines present, (Anglican, Catholic and Protestant), the Dominicans  and the Franciscans (Anglican and Catholic)

We were a very diverse group: Catholics (Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, Charles de Foucauld sister, Maronite Sister from Lebanon, Missionary Sisters), Anglicans (Community of the Resurrection, Franciscan, Benedictine, enclosed Anglican nuns, active Anglican nuns), Orthodox monks and nuns from Romania, Lutheran Religious from Germany, German Evangelical Protestant Church Religious, Swiss Reformed Religious and Presbyterian Religious from Cameroon Africa.

Paolo and Fr Nicholas Stebbing CR Organiser of the event

Fr Paolo Cocco OFM Cap & Fr. Nicholas Stebbing CR Chair of CIR from Mirfield.

Each had their own personal story. Mine concerned an Italian Cappuchin priest, Paolo Cocco, who I know well through the Focolare movement and who is heavily involved in ecumenism, and in particular with studying the current official Catholic – Methodist dialogue. We had both been invited and we received the gifts the Holy Spirit wanted us to have.

Prot Eucharist Catholic Dominican receiving a blessing  smaller

The Reverend Christian Hauter of the Christustragerbruderschaft (with brothers in Afghanistan) giving a blessing to an English Catholic Dominican at the Protestant celebration of the Eucharist.

Firstly, I discovered something already well-known in CIR, that the Religious Life lived by men and women in different Churches seems to transcend the divisions between those Churches. We just feel like brothers and sisters, yes with many differences, but common prayer at the conference, sharing about topics with regard to the life of the Church and Religious Life, and just being together was itself a unifying experience. It is true that there were not many from the British Isles present from Catholic Religious Orders, although there were more this year than previously. Each group has been influenced by elements in Religious Life that come often from the cradle of experience in the Catholic Church; but also vice-versa. For instance the Anglican community of the Resurrection is looking hard at the Benedictine tradition to discover the best way forward for them. The Franciscans of all confessions look to St. Francis whose followers are principally in the Catholic Church. A group of German or Swiss Protestant religious also looked to the Benedictine Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland for spiritual guidance. Our own English Benedictine Congregation recently used the Anglican Abbot of Mucknell Abbey in Worcestershire to help facilitate a pre-meeting for this year’s extraordinary General Chapter.

Sr Judith Fairacres 22 relatives killed in Auschwitz & sr Phyllis Germany Grandad a Concentration camp commandant smaller

Sister Judith from Fairacres (Oxford Anglican) of Hungarian Parents  and Sister Sylvie from Switzerland (Protestant Deaconess community) from Switzerland  of a German family sharing their Auschwitz story

Secondly, I discovered that going on pilgrimage to a holy place (the group went to York on Saturday 22 August) was itself a great opportunity to grow with each other. We made a pilgrimage to the Bar Convent and celebrated there a Catholic Eucharist. We also heard the long and noble story of Mary Ward and her contribution in the field of education, especially of women in the seventeenth century. But also we heard of the long persecution of Catholics from the time of Henry VIII and the break with Rome to the Titus Oates plot in 1679. It was an unknown story for many of the Religious who do not know the history of the British Isles. We also visited York Minster and prayed together for unity in that wonderful building. Some people wanted to see the shrine to Saint Margaret Clitherow who was executed for her harbouring Catholic priests on 25 March 1586.

CIR meets every two years, and in 2013 the meeting had been in Poland at the Benedictine Monastery of Tyniec. Then the pilgrimage was to Auschwitz – Birkenau, the biggest concentration camp in the 2nd World War, where many were martyred for their faith: Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and so many more. One of the participants was a member of a family who had suffered in the holocaust, (22 of her Jewish Hungarian relations having been killed in Auschwitz) – and another had a relative from Germany who had been a commandant in two different concentration camps, though not in Poland. Both these second generation descendants were present in 2013 and 2015 and we heard their extraordinary story of friendship and the laying of ghosts. It was deeply moving to hear them recount their stories with great emotion. These two descendants of families on opposite sides of the fence, so to speak, are both now in Religious Life and have become close friends. Such is the power of the Holy Spirit and the infused virtue of hope.

Sr Sylvie dancing three together

Sister Sylvia dancing with joy before the Blessed Sacrament while in the background Sister Judith accompanied her beautifully on the violin on the last evening of the conference.

There were many other extraordinary stories. One sister came from Lebanon; she was Arabic speaking and of the Maronite Church (united with the Catholic Church) and spoke powerfully about the situation of the Church in the Middle East, winning everyone’s heart and mind. Another was a German Protestant Pastor whose order consists of 28 brothers. They have been present in Afghanistan for the past 40 years witnessing to the gospel and with no possibility of converts.

Sister Shalom, Presbyterian Prior from Cameroon with the chaplain cropped

Sister Shalom Prioress of the first recently founded Presbyterian Order in Cameroon with her Presbyterian Chaplain in Cameroon, a German Missionary.

Another was a Presbyterian nun who was the Prioress of a flourishing convent in an English –speaking area of Cameroon. She was young and dynamic and gave an outline of life in their convent.

Daily Office at Mirfield with the CIR conference 25 August 2015 cropped

Daily Prayer with the Mirfield Community of the Resurrection took place three times a day.

The common prayer at the conference was also a great bonus and we joined in the Divine Office of the Community of the Resurrection. This prayer was joyful and unifying and needed to be experienced to be truly understood.

In those days I had a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in the Church of the future, in which divisions belong to the past and unity to the present and future. Even if that unity is partial, and may indeed always be so, it will always be growing till the end of time.

Each one of us can contribute to that growth by asking the Holy Spirit to inspire us with the gift of hope and the courage to act in the circumstances of our lives to help bring about the Kingdom.

It is surely significant that Pope Benedict’s second encyclical (Spe Salvi – In hope we are saved) – is devoted to the virtue of hope. He says that Christian hope is transformative because it offers assurance “that life will not end in emptiness”.  He says “Jesus brought an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which transformed life and the world from within”.  It is easy to become downhearted in the light of so much suffering in the world, but hope reminds us that at death we will experience the blissful fulfilment of life. This joyful expectation should surely fill us with the will and energy to love God and our neighbours!

Fr. Jonathan

John Paul in Poland image of the Holy Spirit

Each year is new and this year God, speaking through the Church, asks the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth.

I see the world from my eyes, my mind, my heart, my life experiences and my story. In fact there is no other way to see the world. With my mind I can speak to each of the seven billion human beings. I can visit each country and travel anywhere. I can visit in my mind the most distant star in the cosmos. I can encompass the whole of creation in my mind and heart.  In a very real sense the whole of creation, the whole earth is within me.

It follows that, unless I am renewed, the face of the earth will never be renewed. The world needs renewed people for the prayer to the Holy Spirit to be fulfilled, each person on this earth, especially those who are Catholics and Christians.

It is worth reflecting in the light of the above what actually happened to many people in Poland in June 1979 when Pope John Paul 2 returned as Pope for the first time among his Polish people, one year after being elected Pope. Those days he spent in Poland over Pentecost and Trinity Sunday led to a huge change for humanity: the face of the earth was renewed. We can learn from what happened and await with joyful hope what will one day happen in our own English world. How? I do not know: in our time? I do not know. Who or what will be the instrument of change? I do not know. But God never abandons his people and he will not abandon even us in the spiritual desert in which we live.

John Paul in Warsaw Victory Square Saturday 2nd June 1979 the Vigil of Pentecost 1

John Paul 2 in Victory Square Warsaw Vigil of Pentecost Saturday 2 June 1979

In Poland in early June 1979 the communist authorities risked the visit because Karol Józef Wojtyla had been discreet when he was Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow. But now he spoke with the authority of the first Polish successor of Peter, the Pope and Bishop of Rome. He was not “anti-communist”; his words were about the identity of Poland and its people and he was well aware of his own role and destiny in this context.

He bravely out-flanked official atheistic communism that day and throughout his two-week stay. It is said the Holy Spirit through St John Paul changed the course of history in that visit as it inspired many Polish people to have a new courage in the face of the atheistic oppression they had suffered since 1939. It was these people who spear-headed the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Many Poles identified with the person of the Pope, the Polish man who had climbed to the top of the tree and had shared directly in so many of the awesome sufferings of the people.

Somehow, by God’s grace, he had remained untouched by the corruption and evil of the atheistic communist regime. He was like a lone Gandalf standing against the hordes of the evil orcs in the Lord of the Rings. We must not forget that what happened in Poland directly affects our British lives as a part of the European continent. Here is an important part of his extraordinary speech on Saturday 2nd June 1979 in Victory Square in Warsaw, the vigil of Pentecost:

It is impossible without Christ to understand and appraise the contribution of the Polish nation to the development of man and his humanity in the past and its contribution today also: “This old oak tree has grown in such a way and has not been knocked down by any wind since its root is Christ” (Poem of Piotr Skarga). It is necessary to follow the traces of what, or rather who, Christ was for the sons and daughters of this land down the generations. Not only for those who openly believed in him and professed him with the faith of the Church, but also for those who appeared to be at a distance, outside the Church. For those who doubted or were opposed.

Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland, especially the history of the people who have passed or are passing through this land. The history of people. The history of the nation is above all the history of people. And the history of each person unfolds in Jesus Christ. In him it becomes the history of salvation.

Today, here in Victory Square, in the capital of Poland, I am asking with all of you, through the great Eucharistic prayer, that Christ will not cease to be for us an open book of life for the future, for our Polish future.

We are before the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the ancient and contemporary history of Poland this tomb has a special basis, a special reason for its existence. In how many places in our native land has that soldier fallen! In how many places in Europe and the world has he cried with his death that there can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map! On how many battlefields has that solider given witness to the rights of man, indelibly inscribed in the inviolable rights of the people, by falling for “our freedom and yours”!

I wish to kneel before this tomb to venerate every seed that falls into the earth and dies and thus bears fruit. It may be the seed of the blood of a soldier shed on the battlefield, or the sacrifice of martyrdom in concentration camps or in prisons.

John Paul in Poland June 1979 with Prime Minister Gen.Wojciech Jaruzelski

John Paul 2 meeting with GeneralWojciech Jaruzelski, Head of the communist government in Poland in 1979. Pope JP2 looks on patiently, kindly and in humility.  General Jaruzelski seems embarrassed, shy and on the back foot.

He ended in his deep, theatrical voice, rich with emotion and passion, with a Pentecost cry that led to an explosion of clapping, a continuous standing ovation for twenty minutes and more:

And I cry—I who am a Son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul II—I cry from all the depths of this Millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost:

Let your Spirit descend.
Let your Spirit descend.
and renew the face of the earth,
the face of THIS land.

I wonder why the Holy Spirit seems so absent in in our country and in the West in general? It is not as if we are lacking modern Papal prophets! Listen to Pope Francis in a recent speech:

“An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. I think a question that we are not asking ourselves is: isn’t humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature? Safeguard creation because, if we destroy it, it will destroy us. Never forget this.”

His imminent encyclical on Environmental issues (Laudato Si) will pull no punches regarding who is responsible for the dire threats to the very survival of the Earth’s eco-system! It is our own greed and indifference, our blindness to injustice and folly. But we are very slow to listen, perhaps too caught up with our own concerns.

What I pray for is the fundamental change of heart and mind for us in our English world that will enable the formation of a group who have the mind of Christ, in whom alone we too will find our identity, the purpose of our lives and joy, strength and freedom.

I pray that those who see the urgency of the need will pray earnestly for this change to happen in them.

Who or what will be the agent of the all-powerful Holy Spirit in our circumstances for this small or large group of people I do not know. There are those who are in love with God and the Church all over our country, from all Christian denominations; they do not know how to let God the Holy Spirit renew them and the often small and dwindling community of faith to which they belong.

My hunch is that we must learn to do what is written in the feast of St. Barnabas, today the 11 June: “Tell of the glories of the Lord and his might, speaking of the marvellous deeds he has done”. Clearly we first need to experience personally His Power, and then share in an appropriate way with others. I feel it would be best to do this sharing in the first instance with those who are like-minded, longing for the fire of peaceful love and mercy to come into them. Later on when this quiet peace leaves us confident in our relationship with God and with others, the Holy Spirit will help us to spread peace, love and mercy to those who may be indifferent, uninterested, immersed in the round of home life and all it entails, with little thought for things eternal.

Let us remain open to every possibility and ready to grasp the clarity of the light of God that will lead us onwards.

Fr. Jonathan

Fr. Jonathan

Over the last year or two my mother-in- law, who is 86, has become increasingly frail and she is now cared for with great kindness in a residential home. Her mental health in particular is deteriorating and this is manifested by rapid mood swings, outbursts of anger, depression and, perhaps most distressingly, the seeming loss of her life-long Catholic faith.   Given that she was brought up in a large, loving Catholic family and attended Mass daily, the personality change affecting her beliefs is particularly painful for those close to her. De Gaulle called old age “a ship-wreck”, a description which is certainly being borne out by her inexorable decline.

As Christians, what are we to make of this? There is no avoiding the fact that for the vast majority of us the prospect of deterioration and death is horrible and frightening. As Philip Larkin chillingly puts it in his poem Aubade:  “Most things may never happen: this one will”.   In conjunction with many other factors, our starkly increased awareness of innocent suffering and death by means of the global media has meant that predatory atheism, certainly in the West, is on the increase and religion is seen by a growing number to be an irrelevant fantasy.

It was with these sombre thoughts in my mind that I was reading recently the story of the Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant (Luke 7:1-10 and Matthew 8:5-14). He sounds a fascinating, hybrid character.  In Luke, the Jewish elders describe him as “a friend of our nation” who has “built the synagogue” yet as a serving Roman soldier of significant rank he would almost certainly be imbued with the brutal, compassionless ethic of that empire-building society, whose gods were at best capricious and worst cruel beyond belief.  How can it be that such a man would beg help from an itinerant preacher, sprung from the occupied territory, who was considered by many to be the long-awaited Messiah about to overthrow the Roman oppressors? Not only that, he gave Jesus some friendly advice on how to save time in carrying out his healing ministry: no need to make the journey to the centurion’s house, all the teacher needed to do was to say the word here and now and the servant would be well.  Is it any wonder that Jesus was astonished and no doubt delighted beyond words at this pagan soldier’s faith?


Centurion Fascinating hybrid

It seems to me that this extraordinary story gives a clue to the very heart of the mystery of human life. The centurion had no real reason to believe Jesus was anything other than a charlatan, yet he trusted him absolutely – he pinned everything he had on the belief that he would help.  A powerful, imperious Roman soldier he openly backed Jesus to the hilt, declaring himself unworthy to have this itinerant rabbi under his roof. It seemed never to have entered his head what a profound and public humiliation it would be if Jesus failed to respond. What sort of faith was this? Significantly, the word used in the original Greek version of the New Testament to describe the Centurion’s faith in Jesus is p?st?? (pistin), the same word used after Thomas’s denial, when Jesus says blessed are those who have not seen yet believe (John 20:29); and the word used when Jesus says in distress “when the son of man comes will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:7-8). It is the faith Jesus longs to find in our hearts, the trust in God we should nurture as the pearl beyond price (Matt 13:45-46).

For in the end it is trust, and blind trust at that, which touches the very heart of God. Of course there are many reasons for believing in a loving God – the scriptures, the beauty of creation, our innate moral conscience, the love we find in our hearts for family and friends, but all these factors, fundamentally important and helpful though they are, can be countered by a skilled rationalist schooled in the arguments of atheistic philosophy.  No, in the final analysis, it is a blind and unrelenting reaching out to God that we must foster – a trust that God loves us tenderly and unconditionally despite the fact that very often we feel the opposite.  Jesus demonstrated such a trust on the cross when his ministry was in ruins and his Father was seemingly absent.  Why do we think we should be any different to Him?

Two men amongst others have helped me with this:

Many parishioners will remember well Fr Ian Petit from Ampleforth who was based for a few years at St Mary’s Bamber Bridge.  He was the greatest speaker I have ever heard. I attended a talk by him many years ago at Brownedge and someone asked a question concerning what happened after death. He said that when we appear before God our loving Father He will not waste time asking us about how many sins we’ve committed or how we should have done better. He will simply ask: “Did you trust me?” His books are available on Amazon.

 Fr Ian Petit OSB

Fr Ian Petit OSB Fascinating monk

And there is a lovely story by Timothy Radcliffe OP, formerly Master of the Dominicans, which hints at the profound implications of this trust beautifully:

There was once a man travelling in his car along a mountain road.  He was meditating on the meaning of life, when he lost concentration and, taking a bend too quickly, he plunged off the carriageway.  The vehicle cart-wheeled down the mountainside but, miraculously, he was flung out and managed to grab hold of a root growing from the cliff-side. “Help” he shouted. “Is anyone there?”  And a calm, clear voice responded: “yes I’m here and of course I will help you”.  The man was astonished and said “Who are you, what should I do?”  Why, I’m God of course” said the voice. “And all you need to do is to let go of the root and I will catch you at the bottom”.  The man looked down the sheer 200 foot drop and was silent for a while.  Finally he cried out:  “Is there anyone else there?”

I must come back now to my mother-in-law and what we are to make of her situation. Every day she is visited by one of her three children or a relative, who talk with her or take her out.  These visits can be distressing as she is often (though not always!) angry, accusatory and difficult. Yet I know that they show her at all times a love which is active and unconditional.  The point is, I think, that although she is often in distress and seems to be losing her life-long faith, God keeps sending his emissaries to reassure her on a daily basis that he tenderly cares for her.  Life is what it is, and we must face the fact that there is no satisfactory answer to the problem of suffering.  Yet He reminds us in so many ways that He is with us and although the unravelling of our lives in sickness and old age is indeed horrible, his love overcomes it because His son has endured and transformed it.

Like the centurion we must take a risk, we must trust Jesus and astonish Him, for He is making all things new.

 Crucifixion by Fra Angelico

Crucifixion by Fra Angelico

“See, I am making all things new” Revelation 21: 5

Socius Novus


An Easter lamb photographed in the Welsh Hills on Easter Monday

An Easter lamb photographed in the Welsh Hills on Easter Monday

Behold the Lamb of God: Jesus is given this title, as we all know.  “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth”. (Isaiah 53: 7) The phrase “straightforward and trusting” might be used to describe this sacrificial lamb.

Jesus is described in the Didache, a very early Christian text dating from about 90AD, as a servant or as a child, depending on the translation. He is not referred to as King of Kings or Lord of Lords as in the Apocalypse. He is both of course; I would like to focus here on the child or the servant.

How easy to be sentimental when considering such a beautiful creature as an innocent lamb. I do not think that either Jesus or Mary could be considered sentimental.   Their daily lives would have been hard and without any of the luxuries we take for granted, though they would for sure understand sentimentality. They never down played love; it is central to the teaching of Jesus which includes sentimental feelings. They would not however allow love to degenerate into sentiment alone.  As one dying lady put it with regard to her imminent death from terminal cancer: “I would not go away to be alone in my favourite place when death approached, but I would be happy for my husband and those I loved to be with me, just as Mary stood at the cross of her dying son out of love;” bravery on all sides, the dying and those who accompany the dying.

To be as straightforward in our society as Jesus the Lamb of God, to follow his example, to know he is with us, is a huge challenge in present-day Britain.

There is a profound conflict in our society that encourages people to dismiss Christians who actually believe in the presence of Christ in them and among them as the most important thing in life. There would be plenty who would sneer if prominent members of society actually prayed together. Our TV interviewers and clever people prize sophistication, the withholding of judgement regarding others’ behaviour, irony and detachment. To pray or to declare strong belief in God is to be aligned with the intolerant, naive, superstitious and backward.  Trusting faith in His Father, however, was at the very heart of Jesus, and this was expressed in deeds such as constant prayer and speaking out boldly against anything that offended against the truth – he was not concerned with his “image” or what others thought of Him – He had no will other than to obey the Father. He would certainly have found  words, probably very strong ones, to speak out about “political correctness”, just as he described those who were whited sepulchres, those who bind others down and do not raise a finger to release them from their burdens or confusions. He was no respecter of persons.

There is a wealth of prejudice about Christians by the politically correct, and it is taken up even among those who think of themselves as Catholics. If I promote clear Catholic teaching, and believe in it, including the redemptive value of the cross of Jesus, I might be accused of advocating pain and suffering for its own sake. If I say that the worshipping of God together with others especially on Sundays is essential, I am told I ignore the good living Christian values of those who never darken the Church door. If I say I am dubious about the impact on society of politically correct moral values, like the whole-hearted acceptance of practising homosexuals or lesbians, the tragedy of easily available abortions, the degrading of human beings through using each other for easy sex, I can be looked upon as narrow-minded, not really of this world. If I say that I value obedience to those who represent Christ in my life, especially in the Church and its teaching, I am looked upon as a person who has lost his senses.  We need to consider whether we should be speaking out more, just as Jesus did, not in a way that takes the moral high ground or judges others, but which proclaims unambiguously the truth of the Gospel values Jesus gave us. This is not easy – it is much more convenient to swim with the current.

Lamb looking for its mother and security
An Easter lamb on the North Welsh hills seeking the security of its mother.

God, through the events of my life, has helped me to stay warm and secure in my faith in the insecure confusion and the many challenges that afflict a practising Catholic in today’s church and world. That does not mean that each day I do not have to make important choices about how to avoid the traps that take away the peace that the Lamb of God has won for me. The empty values of the world enter deeply into those who belong to the church, including into myself. We are all infected by them.

It goes back to straightforward things. Firstly not to tolerate in myself a double life in any way, and if I slip a bit to return as soon as possible to the inner truth in myself and to God; secondly to place trust and faith in God; and if that is difficult for any reader, speak to somebody who you admire and trust who does seem to know God and his love and learn about God’s love that evokes trust. Or read the life story of such a person.

If you have the misfortune to be at the end of your tether, convinced there is no way out of your own predicament, then realise only a superior power can help you out of it, and search for an appropriate way of discovering that superior power. Above all we must pray and not give up. Pray even when it seems utterly pointless. We have God’s absolute assurance, as our loving Father, that we will find Him.

For me it comes back to the straightforward and trusting Lamb of God. God does help me in the serious difficulties I face as a priest and a monk. He truly understands the complicated circumstances of the lives of each one and gives even me some understanding within messy situations. He is with me if I allow him to be.

In Him are all those who have faithfully followed the Lamb of God, among them friends and family. After all – what is Holiness? We cannot acquire it and we are holy only insofar as we come into God’s presence and “atmosphere” and place the whole burden of our lives onto Him.  Then Jesus will truly tell us how to act, what to say and how to say it.

“Thanks be to thee Holy Father, for thy sacred Name which thou has caused to dwell in our hearts and for the knowledge and faith and everlasting life which thou has revealed to us through thy child Jesus”   The Didache (paragraph 9)

Fr. Jonathan


1 January 2014 0

Our Lady of Czestochowa, Poland

I love the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Poland, because Mary looks so beautiful and at the same time so sad. Jesus, quite a mature baby seems more serene. The Polish people have as a people suffered so much over the centuries. In fact the slash marks on the face of Our Lady come from centuries ago when pagan barbarians were their oppressors. In this last century they suffered the German occupation from 1939 and then the Russian occupation until 1989. In that period 22 million Polish people were murdered. The present population of Poland is roughly 35 millions. When I lived there on holiday in late September and early October I was amazed at the fidelity of so many Polish people to the Catholic Faith, young and old, families together and individuals; ordinary people like us. Polish people carry the same sadness and hope that is depicted in this famous icon, and it applies also to my soul as I reflect on the state of our own country and the state of the Church within our country. The New Year always starts in the Catholic Church with Mary under the title of Mother of God. This is not surprising and I hope to explain why.

The Church in her long tradition accepts that Mary had already a very strong relationship with God before the Annunciation when Jesus was conceived. I imagine her as a popular young girl at the time of the Annunciation, loved by her companions, joyful yet aware of the suffering among her own people under Roman rule and a corrupt Jewish quisling government supported by a corrupt Priesthood. She would also have been aware of the possibility of the coming of the Messiah in her own days. I think of her as fully alive, a maturing young lady, sure of God’s Love for her and confident in her choice to be a virgin that went contrary to the Jewish traditions of her time.  There was also, surely, a strongly contemplative aspect to her personality – she listened to the word of God, pondered it, and lived by it. She waited in trust for God’s will to be done. (Luke 2:19). It would be a great mistake to undervalue the importance of Mary in our lives.

1 January 2014 1

At the Annunciation she was the subject of a miracle for she was with child without losing her virginity. She also believed another miraculous birth – that her ageing relative Elizabeth who would  have  child when her time for child bearing was over. Mary went off in haste to visit Elizabeth in order to support and help her.

The angel Gabriel’s greeting had disconcerted her: “Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”  St Luke goes on “She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour…. “. “The Lord be with you” is a greeting said frequently in Church to the congregation, and probably without batting an eyelid we reply automatically “And with your Spirit”. It does not cause most of us a second thought. Yet it should. To Mary were said the words ‘You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus.’ What does the Lord expect of me? He has chosen me to be his disciple, just as he chose Mary and she is the perfect model of the disciple of Jesus her Son. That is as good a reason as any to begin the New Year with her for I will need something of the light of God’s love that she possessed to respond to whatever God reveals to me.

It is this thought that provokes me to urge each person who reads this blog not to waste any more time and to use the time left to you to find the key to your life, to develop your understanding of whatever that is and to act decisively. We must have a sense of urgency.

I say this first and foremost to myself as a man who will not have all that much longer as the parish priest of St Mary’s Leyland. I am already well into my 23rd year in this role and you will not find many priests in a parish who have been there so long. I want to try in whatever time is left to me, to become more fully a loving disciple of Jesus. I realise the journey must be with other disciples of Our Lord. I am a monk of the Abbey at Ampleforth, a monk-priest under obedience to my Abbot in the Archdiocese of Liverpool, and a pastor. I do not seek popularity; I do not seek happiness, or fame. I just want to develop, as Mary did, receptivity to the Word of God. She was reactive and proactive as events unfolded. Her life was straightforward in one sense and extraordinary in another. She is the perfect disciple of her Son who gave her trust in all circumstances to the will of Jesus’ God and her God.

Most of us live relatively straightforward  lives; yet they are also extraordinary because in the events that unfold there is the possibility of being fully in the tune with God.
Sometimes it is very difficult to know how to proceed but the following might be useful.

1 January 2015 2

Somebody said life is like being on a conveyor belt that has candles coming by and my job is to light each one.  That is an image of lighting up, with the flame of God’s love in me, every event that happens. If I fail to light one of those candles I have two courses of action. I could simply let it go  and light up the next candle; or I could run after it and try to light it. The second course will mean I will fail to light many of the other candles that continue to come up regularly on the conveyor belt. I will waste time and effort, get frustrated and angry, and many candles, or events, will pass me by because of my preoccupation with my own failure.

It is better to ‘forget’ the mistakes I make and start again lighting up the candles that are still coming. Yes, I realise that I have failed in one instance and that will be a part of my learning in discipleship. I can try not to fall into the same trap again. I may fail many times before the penny drops. In God’s dispensation there is no such thing as failure because such things as failing to act, to light the candle,  are always part of a learning curve in understanding and making real for me God’s unconditional love and mercy.

The only important thing is to have God’s flame burning in me so that I can light each candle/event.

I did wonder why Mary was so disturbed by the friendly and positive greeting of the angel Gabriel and furthermore Mary wondered what the greeting could mean. ’ Yet we tend to have a slightly “cosy” view of angels and archangels, perhaps encouraged by overly- sentimental Christmas cards. Gabriel stood in the presence of the Most High God – he would be a commanding and awe-inspiring figure to say the very least! My understanding was helped however by the following.

1 January 2014 3

Jim Phillips whose funeral was on 30 December 2014

I happen to have met the Methodist Deacon of Turpin Green, Sylvie Phillips, on the Sunday before Christmas. Her husband Jim, a practicing Catholic had died. Together with Phil Gough, the Methodist minister we were planning a joint Methodist and Catholic funeral. It is always a sad yet hopeful moment, a moment of intimacy and friendship when a priest shares the grief of the recently bereaved. This topic about the attitude of Mary came up in the conversation with my failing to understand why Mary was disturbed and could not fathom out what the greeting could mean. Quite spontaneously deacon Sylvie she felt she understood Mary, and she explained that when she was about to be ordained as a deacon, following her own vocation, she too felt a bit afraid. What was it that God would ask of her? That gave me light too, and perhaps it might be helpful to some readers.

As we come to the New Year, a lot of people like to come to Mass on the first day of the year. The whole year ahead, with all its uncertainties and challenges is given to God’s loving care during this mass. There will be worry about the future, the ability to cope and the fear of the unknown. The Lord is with those people at Mass on New Year’s Day; they would not make the effort to come otherwise. It is a free choice; it is not a Holy Day of Obligation when Catholics are meant to attend mass. What is implied by their action is that the Lord is with me, and with his help and the help of friends God will lead me through everything he may ask of me in the twelve coming months. It will be to light up Love in myself and others I meet in 2015, and so in the ordinary life I live to do extraordinary things.

1 January 2014 4

We must not think that Our Lady was never bewildered or indeed never in great anguish – Simeon said that a sword would pierce her heart.  Like Mary, we need  to have at the centre of our own hearts a naked desire for God, and an unconditional trust in Him, that none of life’s tribulations can shake.  Then we will be safe indeed.  Mary has many extraordinary titles, including Mother of God and Queen of Heaven,  but perhaps it is most helpful to remember that she is our Mother. Mothers are always there for us – always.

May God bless each one who reads this blog and give you his serenity and assurance that despite everything  all be well, and all manner of things will be well in 2015. Mary has trod the path that we tread in different circumstances and she will support us from heaven as will all the saints and angels. I will pray daily for each reader: please remember me in your prayers and may we waste time no more as 2015 comes upon us.

The Compassion of the Church for the Family

Just recently I watched what we call in the Focolare Movement “the Link Up” that shares the recent news of what is happening all over the world. It comes over the internet and includes short  filmed extracts of events or interviews concerning the large number of ways in which people are trying to promote unity in many different situations world-wide.

Notice for the Synod

One of the challenges that we face in the Church is how to help those who feel unworthy of God because of the events that may have overtaken their lives or even because of the choices they have made and into which their lives have become locked. They know they are not in tune with the teaching of the Church and they can feel cut off and  isolated,  wondering if they can have any meaningful relationship with God. Yet do we not all believe that God is in every person and that each human being is made in His image and likeness, even though, for us all, that image is to a greater of lesser extent obscured?  Do we not also believe that God has permitted things that may be outside the norms of Church life or even the values of the Gospel? In other words God himself is in some way behind the disordered lives that many people lead, including people in the Church. Do we not sometimes meet people who in the eyes of many are beyond the pale of a “normal” good life, say a person who is addicted to drugs, or who is unable to sustain a stable relationship, or maybe one who is using his or her own body for the physical pleasure of others, and yet who can astonish us with their loving generosity, non-judgemental attitudes and openness to the Kingdom?  In St Mary’s Leyland we find such people coming to our door to ask for food parcels from the food bank. In Matthew 21: 31 we read: Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.” As Cardinal Hume used to say, “Jesus seemed to have a special love for the crooks and the crocks”.

This must surely lead us all to reflect deeply and daily on what our attitudes to others should be and to re-examine radically how we should relate to everyone we meet.

Hall with the Bishops and the Cardinals

Hall in which the Synod too place

It was very interesting and moving to hear in the link-up mentioned above about some people who had been participating at the Synod on the Family that closed in Rome on the 19 October. Family Life is well known to be in a state of great flux and change, and some would say in crisis. Catholics themselves do not of course escape from the challenges facing those in married life – indeed in a sense, for them, these are intensified!  Four different people in three different situations shared their stories to put the work of the Synod into context.

  1. One man was married for over 30 years and has three children. His wife asked him if she could be dispensed from their married state and, out of love for her, he agreed.  He has no intention of re-marrying, nor does he feel deprived or strange and has found another family as a layman within the life of the local Church and wider community.
  2. Another couple, married for ten years, fell on very hard times because they were both made redundant and lost all their income. In the meantime a baby was born, and in the financial crisis, with sleepless nights and the money worries, their relationship fell apart.  Others, however, had experienced the same crisis yet had managed to get through it with a lot of help from their local community and they managed to support this particular couple and it seems so far they have pulled through the immediate crisis.
  3. Another mother was married for 13 years and had a daughter but the marriage fell apart as her husband left home for long periods and returned only occasionally. The situation could not go on and they separated. Eventually she found a companion, a divorced man, and they came together in a civil marriage and had a son. She realised that in her irregular situation she could no longer receive Holy Communion and so she goes regularly to Sunday mass without receiving the Eucharist. She does not feel bitter but just wants the Synod to recognise her status as a living and full member of the Church.

Two of the “auditors” at the Synod on the Family were Dr Jean Dieudonné and Emerthe Gatsinga from Rwanda. Dieudonné is a gynaecologist and Emerthe the wife an economist. They have four children and they adopted four more who were orphaned after the genocide in Ruanda.  Apart from their jobs, they help to run engaged couples’ courses in Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya and Uganda. They brought a voice from Africa to Rome and this was their impression of the Synod:

The synod helped us to feel the enormous love the Church has for families. We could tell by the simplicity, openness and listening of the synod fathers to all that was said that the whole Church is like a family. The Pope was present throughout and his listening and attention was a lesson to us about how to be a person. We felt that we must commit ourselves even more to the families we serve to help them understand the beauty of their calling. It is so important to give time to others and to try to live for them and live with them to sustain each other. We need to learn the needs of families and be close to them.

Pope Francis sayings for a joyful life

Two others were Alberto and Anna who are lay members of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family. They are also involved in the “New Families Movement” of the Focolare, people who share their lives in a spirit of communion with other families. With their expert understanding they shared what the Synod meant for them in a short interview.

 What were the most important points to emerge from the Synod?

Alberto: It was a very important event and we could see the love of the Church for the family in the first ever Synod on the Family. Also I would say it was the occasion to have a kind of balance sheet about the family through the questionnaire that went all over the world. This provided a snap shot of what the family is like in the world, and this was the basis for the first session of the Synod. Also thirteen couples were invited to take part in it, and this means that the final document is an expression of collegiality with a new vision, the fruit of laity, married people and priests.

You speak about collegiality. The press however during the Synod seemed to speak of serious divisions between the Synod fathers. Was it like this?

 Alberto: No! It was how a certain section of the press expressed it. Faced with the vast diversity of challenges in families today there could not have been uniformity of view or of thought. The important result that this collegiality did achieve was a clearer pathway for people to find a new meeting with God. This was the fruit of the work done to link together truth and mercy.

Anna if you had to express briefly the contribution that New Families has made, makes and will make for family life what would you say?

Anna: Welcoming! Also accompanying. You cannot ask a person, “were you married in Church? Are you separated? Are you in a new relationship? What sexual orientation do you children have?” Rather our job is to welcome, without any pre-judgements, and to tell each person that ‘God loves you immensely,’ firstly by actions and then by words.

Welcoming because these days we see so many couples in difficulties; we must give them hope which is possible in a network of families. You can be taken out of your sense of isolation and rediscover your selves, rediscover the joy in forgiveness and understanding. When the crisis is a serious one the New Families organise ways where the spirit of communion, together with the expert advice of counsellors manages to help some couples to plan a new future together.

There is a most important accompaniment for those who are separated as has been referred to above. These people did not choose their lonely path, and there are heroic choices made by some that allows them to be faithful to the sacraments.

 Also there is an unconditional welcome for those who have separated and are in new relationships. With them we are able to share a lot of the journey of life together and give them a sense of the warmth of the family of the Church and above all of God’s Love for them

I felt, as I watched and listened and later reflected, what a wonderful and inspiring new vision of God and his mercy was shown in this exposition. It has given me encouragement in the very difficult situations that also surround us in our small town of Leyland.

It seems to me that one of the unmistakeable “signs of the times” is that the Church is in need of people with a new Spirit within them, open to a new and comprehensive understanding of the way men and women in relationships belong to the Church, one which is based on God’s love and mercy for us all yet which does not choose easy options which run counter to the eternal Gospel teachings or which undermine the sanctity of married life. We need many alive Catholic Christians, alongside alive Christians of all other denominations. I could call it a larger number of “saints” as St Paul used to call the Christians who belonged to the communities of disciples that the Holy Spirit brought to birth with Paul’s help. Hopefully, the Synod is pointing the way to such a new understanding – we could call it a new theology and a new spirituality. How this should be expressed and worked out in practice will take time and patience and a spirit of dialogue, a spirit of mutual love in the Church. We should keep Pope Francis, the bishops, priests and deacons, those in religious life, and people, the whole Church in our prayers that all remain open to God and to the sign of the times.

Maybe we could set up some structures to help and support our brothers and sisters in their family challenges and use what is already available from our diocese?


As I write this blog I am half way through a holiday in Poland. This year I have been on many retreats and meetings all of which have been very helpful; some were chapters at Ampleforth, my Abbey, others were the Mariapolis in Perth, others retreats with men Religious from all over the world. This holiday though is a holiday! I am staying in a Redemptorist monastery with my friend Fr. Piotr Andrukiewicz and it is a relaxed monastic regime. However there are no bells or telephones calling for my attention. I have been in the last week with Piotr to many wonderful places.

The people of Poland are good and bad like any people anywhere. Yet things have happened which hardly ever occur in England. One day I was sitting next to a young girl on a crowded bus as we left Birkenau. We were quiet for a bit and I began a simple question: “Are you Polish?” A brief straight forward conversation followed, she in her halting English and me trying to encourage her. There was no embarrassment, no sense of shame or any underlying negativity. It was like a grand-father talking over something with his grand-daughter in a perfectly natural manner. I cannot think that such a thing has happened in England with a young girl who was a complete stranger. I see in general around me in Poland a healthy and positive outlook on life. I am perhaps living with some of the best of the Polish population.

St Maximilian Kolbe blog Tatra mountains rest in context

Myself and Fr Piotr resting during a walk in the Tatra Mountains South Poland.

Another observation is going into churches. In Britain on holiday with a friend we would usually go for walks, read, sleep, play board games and watch a DVD or two, and take some exercise. I might occasionally go into a Church; I might find the Blessed Sacrament there. In Poland I have been into Churches four or five times a day! It seems normal and natural, as though the statues of the saints from ages past portray people who are with me now, like a brother or sister or guide or helper. In Poland when you see Jesus, Mary , the Apostles, St Faustina or St Pope John Paul and many others it produces joy, a sense of their presence and has been uplifting.

Everywhere in Poland the Pope that counts is St John Paul II. There are pictures and statues and references to him everywhere. It is not that other Popes, like Pope Francis and Pope Benedict are forgotten, but they do not substitute for Karol Wojtyla. He is alive for this people in a special way that goes beyond all controversies about him. If anyone goes to Poland I would recommend them to visit the museum of his life at his birthplace and home for 18 years at Wadowice. It is one of the best museums I have been into, for its wonderful use of video clips, sounds, photos and the down to earth and yet proudly patriotic commentary of the guide who takes you round.

JP 2 centre in Krakow Jesus the new Moses

Mosaic of Jesus the new Moses in the John Paul 2 Centre Krakow

The main point of this blog is to write about something else: the visit in Poland to Auschwitz / Birkenau. This was the infamous and largest killing and concentration camp at the time of the Nazis where probably at least 1.5 million human beings, Jews in the majority, followed by Poles, Gypsies and others were murdered between 1940 and 1945. I have worked out roughly that the average number exterminated was about 1,160 each day. Some days many more were killed and some days less. The visit helped me to understand the cold efficiency of the Nazis, their hatred of some groups, their evil, and the squalor the poor prisoners suffered.

Toilets for example could be used only twice a day and only for sometimes a minute each in massive communal toilets for 60 people at a time close together. The usual times to go to the toilet was going to work and coming back from work. There was no paper, no cloths to clean up with. These toilets were never properly cleaned and the toilet blocks smelt abominably. The Nazis refused to enter them it was so bad. They left their minion supervisors among the prisoners to go inside. The bad situation was compounded because there was no running water to clean them, it was done by a squad of people for whom it was a privilege because they had more time themselves to attend to their toileting needs. In the separate barracks where the prisoners slept there was no clean water, only stagnant; the prisoners inevitably contracted dreadful diseases like dysentery. They were furthermore not allowed to go the toilet at night and they slept at least 5 together to a bunk in three tiers. They had no warm clothing, only canvas like prison uniforms, and nothing to protect them from the cold Polish winters. The cold was worst on the concrete floors; those above were on wood. Their barracks were infested with rats. They hardly ever washed their clothes. Their underwear if they had any, was hardly ever washed and not changed for months a time.

In regards food the rations were pitiable. Breakfast was some hot water with some kind of tea leaves or herbs inside; at lunch a bowl of hot soup taken at work if they were working. This soup was boiled water in which there were a few vegetables. If you were lucky at lunch you might occasionally find a piece of potato or its peel, At night after working hard, being beaten if you fell down under the burden, often in the cold, each prisoner received a 300 gram piece of black bread with ½ a sausage, or a small slab of margarine or a little jam.

Brutal treatment was the norm, and it was worst from fellow prisoners who were given privileges by the Nazis to be in command.

A contrast in all of this was that the Nazis projected a positive feel that to those who would be killed immediately they arrived. They had been told they would start a new life; they brought their belongings as best as they could with them carefully packed in named suitcases, often lawyers and doctors, school teachers and honest shop workers, business men and workers with their wives and families. The ones who immediately went to their deaths were considered to be of no use because they were unfit to work. They were mainly Jews transported from all over Europe, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Germany, Holland Belgium, France, Italy and even from little Jersey. It sometimes took ten days to arrive and the majority if not already dead, were in no fit state to take on hard labour. Those who certainly would die immediately were elderly women, pregnant mothers, children, the handicapped, elderly men and those who had been already drained to nothing by the journey. They were lead to a lovely green area with flower beds, told to leave their things which they would collect later, put their clothes onto the numbered pegs and not to forget their number, and then go into the shower after taking all their clothes off, to wash clean. Instead in 20 minutes they were efficiently dead, having suffered dreadful vomiting pain and nausea. Instead of a refreshing shower, deadly poison was poured on top of them, 2000 at a time. Their bodies were cremated.

In the squalor and slime, amid the cynical cruelty, the inhumanity, the filth and degradation of the place there were bright poppies of hope. One such was Father Maximilian Kolbe, a famous and brave Polish Franciscan Priest.

 St Maximillian Kolbe

A poster about St Maximilian Kolbe

As our group of about 25 English speaking people went round the camp in shock and silence at what we were witnessing, we came to Maximilian Kolbe’s death cell. Saint Pope John Paul 2 visited it himself as Pope on 7 June 1979, after celebrating a mass in the camp. He lit a big candle, and a large section of it still remains there in memory of that visit.

St. Maximilian Kolbe John Paul 2 in his cell

St Pope John Paul II visited the cell on 7 June 1979

It was a place of prayer and hope for me. In fact we had to hurry by because so many people were visiting the camp that day. I remember it still passing by fleetingly; it was a high moment of love that has stayed with me. I could only make sense of this diabolical suffering on such a grand scale by knowing that in Maximilian Kolbe, Jesus was forsaken by his Father on the cross. Maximilian was identified with the Word of God in Jesus’s terrible physical and above all spiritual suffering. This was the price the Son of God paid for each one of us to be saved from our sins, from all despair and suffering in this vale of tears.

I told a young USA man of our party that only my faith as a Christian believer allowed me to make sense of what we were witnessing. He had no idea I was a priest and a monk as there was no outward sign to show it. He remained silent. We talked again later and were friendly. I had come to terms as best I could with my feelings, thoughts and emotions. Some of us were welling up to tears. It was too much. Yet identifying with Jesus who on the cross went through all of this and more on behalf of us all gave some light. He, being the Word of God through whom we are made, who was totally innocent, could take on in his human nature all the sinful evil and suffering that goes on in the world, past, present and future. It is taken up into that one act of heroic love of Jesus who bore all this on his shoulders, to such an extent that Jesus too lost his relationship with God his loving father. Those victims in the second world war probably lost all sense of God too. Many others martyred for their faith today or suffering in terrible conditions of life probably do. But God, in our human nature has himself been through all that, and we may well find that happening to us from time to time.

Everyone would be killed in Auschwitz / Birkenau; both the workers who might live six months or so, some lived a little longer, and those who were taken straight from the cattle trucks to die in the gas chambers. St. Maximilian was an Auschwitz worker who had been there three months in July 1941. He was later canonised by St John Paul II on 10 October 1982 in the presence of Francisek Gajowniczek, a married man whose life he personally saved.

At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting Karl Fritzsch, the deputy SS Nazi camp commander, to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker in order to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Francisek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children!” Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

 Three Kolbe together

Franciszek Gajowniczek at the canonisation of Kolbe, his photo as a Prisoner, and a drawing of Kolbe substituting him

According to an eye witness, an assistant worker in the punishment cells at that time, Maximillian Kolbe in his prison cell, led the prisoners in prayer. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied and they gave Maximilian Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Kolbe is said to have raised his left arm and calmly waited for the deadly injection. His remains were cremated on the feast of the Assumption of Mary the 15 of August.

It is now three days since I visited Aushwitz / Birkenau. Anyone who wishes can go onto the web and find out more about anything I have written. It is worth putting into your search engine “The Auyschwitz Album” a set of photographs taken by an SS man or group of men, found in Germany after the war which gives photographic evidence of what happened.

Though not one of those 1.5 million victims of Auschwitz / Birkenau could have felt optimism, they might have had hope as had Maximilian Kolbe. Both Jews pray to God and we Christians have God made man among us. In this God, we can hope even in times of torture and death.

My faith, shared with others in our marvellous family of the Church, is my only way to find some relief in facing up to what was a shocking afternoon last Tuesday 24 September, the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham. One commentary about all this that has given relief to my wounded heart comes from Pope Benedict XVI who visited Aushwitz – Birkenau on 28 May 2006. It may help a reader: it can be found at

Fr. Jonathan

If I knew the secret of coping with life and its mysterious challenges I would, by now, be a rich or at least, a famous man. It is though a good idea, to share some moments from the lives of others, or myself, that it is possible to put in commonality.  

When I was an older teen-ager, the one phrase that got me right down was “Jonathan, be yourself”. Now that was just the question I was trying to resolve as I saw friends and companions seemingly sailing through their lives, without the inner storms that were worrying me. I resented that phrase; it added to my discomfort and I resolved never to use it to others. 

I have myself a simple enough solution, but it entails doing something that is not so easy  to go outside myself, and join in with others, not as an interfering busybody, but rather as a person who waits and responds to the demands of life and builds up a reciprocity with others. My solution will always be linked to my conviction that coping with life is to do with religion. Life and religion are intrinsically bound together whatever other citizens of England may think. When I meet somebody who says to me, “Father, my husband and I are not very religious” as happens from time to time, my instinct is to reply; “I am not very religious either”. It is so clear that for many people religion is in one department, and ordinary life in another.

pic 1

James Hayes as he is now

I would like to share a story of James Hayes. He is a person whose extreme difficulties illustrate what I mean. James speaks with quite a strong midland accent; he is nobody’s fool and nobody’s push over. He is 70 years old, a war baby as I am. I have known him for many years. He is a person some might describe as a down and out! He was orphaned at six months when his mother deserted him and was brought up by nuns and others. He has a tendency to mental instability as he himself describes.  He has lived in many night shelters all over Britain; he has spent time at her majesty’s pleasure; he is a poet and an author and he has written his autobiography called “Strength to Overcome”. 

He did have the advantage of being brought into contact with our Catholic Church by the sisters, and at the age of nine was altar serving in Church. He describes his first Holy Communion with the simplicity of someone who was enchanted.  

A very special day that I remember was my first communion. I was eight years old. On that day everyone involved had a special breakfast and then we lined up to have our photographs taken. I remember that I was dressed in my Sunday best and I also wore a sash. In the afternoon we went out and then at teatime we had a special high tea. The whole day was great. 

James as an altar server was abused sadly by a priest at the age of 9. It was a frightening experience for him. Later on in a psychiatric hospital he was also abused by a male nurse. This was in the 1960’s. The nurse was convicted. Although he told the police about the priest, too, they could not convict him because of lack of evidence, but the orphanage was closed down and James was able to pursue a skill he had acquired that was to be of good use to him all his life. He became a master baker especially for bread rolls. Later on in Newcastle he made great friends with a priest called Fr. Tom Cass who was a legend in his own area for his goodness and kindness. James felt ashamed when he let the priest down over something, but Fr. Tom took him straight back again. 

James explains in “Strength to Overcome” how he tried to take his own life many times. He used to get utterly depressed. Apart from rare spells in prison, usually for absconding from places of refuge, he also spent a lot of time in hospitals. These appear as moments of respite. In fact, during his last year, 2013 – 2014, he has been extremely ill, and was in and out of hospitals. He had every kind of adventure. I remember him first at the Mariapolis, I took part in, in the 1970’s, in Bangor, North Wales, I think. James was living in East Anglia, at the time, and he set off about three weeks before the Mariapolis began, on foot, to make his way to Bangor. He hitched the odd lift here or there, and arrived to sit quietly in a corner surveying the scene. He loved to meet people where he finds God’s love. 

He became convinced, when he met some people whilst residing in Oxford. They had what he called “God’s Love”. The first time it happened was when a lad invited him out to lunch. Then at a concert he was invited to in London. James described what happened: 

When I got to the venue on the Saturday, I found it was in a Methodist church and wondered what I was doing there as it was not my scene, but I stayed for the concert.  The church was packed with about eight hundred people and a group called Gen Verde performed the concert. They were a group of people from around the globe that sang, played music and performed sketches and mimes. It was the most enjoyable evening that I had ever had. I was very much aware of unselfish love and peace. 

What was that? It meant these people were giving without asking anything in return; accepting without judging; supporting without taking over your life.  

Life and death adventures followed and last year I met James at Cefn Lee, the Mariapolis site in North Wales. He was his usual taciturn self, this year in a wheel chair. Clearly he was ill, and he gave me a poem that he had written. I end with this poem after this brief sketch of James’ life. Hopefully what he has been through will be an encouragement. When he recites any of his poems in his weak midland voice, the Mariapolis always erupts in spontaneous clapping. 

This life of mine will soon end,

so this message to my friends I send.


I thank you for the kind support you have given me.

Thank you for all the support and the love you have given me.


You loved me from the very start, you loved me with all your heart,

you loved me of your own free will, and I know that you love me still.


For a new commandment was given to you, “love one another as I love you”.

The love God gave you was free. This is why I know you still love me.


I did the best that I could do in the allotted time.

That time is now over, now I’ve crossed the finishing line


The journey is now over, and so now I can rest

in the arms of one who loves me,  and who knows I did my best.

Fr. Jonathan


The Sacred Heart of Jesus

The Heart of Jesus is beating, today in me, when I try to act as he would in my circumstances.  

For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit. A humbled contrite heart you will not spurn.

Psalm 50; 16 – 17 

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

 James 1: 27 

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 

As life goes by, the question arises in my mind about true religion. What is it?

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The Sacred Heart Statue in our Church.

(My favourite statue of this great mystery as so many others are gaudy and unrealistic) 

June is always dedicated to “The Heart of Jesus” and this emphasises the importance of man and woman. The feast of the Heart of Jesus emphasises the humanity of the Word of God, and is the gateway to let Jesus be alive and well in me. I would like to explain.

There is no question about it: I have changed a bit and I thank God for it. We sing a hymn to the Holy Spirit at Pentecost time asking the Holy Spirit to fall afresh on me, and then, melt me, mould me, fill me and use me. I think He has a lot of work to do on this particular human being, the person of Fr. Jonathan.

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Sometimes there is a need to give up a Religious Duty for a person in need. 

Duty means a lot to me, and I always see the need to do my duty. But it can be out of proportion. For instance when the time for saying our prayers together comes, I want to be there on time. When I celebrate Mass, I want to do it well, with dignity, properly. If guests come, I must get ready for them and look after them properly. It is my duty – but, sometimes, it is impossible to achieve, because some person needs me, for them. To illustrate:

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Simon of Cyrene helps the tired and failing Jesus to carry his cross

 One day I thought it was my duty to clear out the pile of two years of newspapers that had accumulated making a great mess in one of our rooms. While I was hard at work, somebody needed to talk to me about a pastoral matter, and I told the person; “Can’t you see I am busy!” It was typical of putting duty before the love that God expects of me in the present moment and, though that happened about 24 years ago, it is still vivid in my memory as a learning point in my life; and I still struggle with this. Recently, when I was in the middle of doing a lot of things to prepare for a Governors’ meeting, somebody wanted me to send them an email. It meant stopping what I was doing and giving my attention to that small issue. I felt resentful, and wished the other would go away! However, I did the email though and felt the happier. Another occasion was when I had not said my prayers – a daily duty – but I had a chance to talk to somebody who had been facing death, and might reach that point. I failed in my prayers, but spent real quality time with my friend. I felt guilty at the failure of duty. Each day I am called to die to self, if I want to be a disciple of Jesus. Another example: I much prefer to spend time with somebody I like, and feel happy to be with, but I need to discipline myself not to let that encounter happen until the right moment arrives, and can then act in the right way, with the right motivation. If I do the right thing, I always feel the better; I feel the love that is that of the heart of Jesus – his way of acting.

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Jesus helps Peter from sinking into the water

What gets me thinking is that nobody “sees” God. We can see “creation and human beings”. St John the evangelist made a good point when he wrote: “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4: 20) The fact that God became man is fundamental to this thought process because Jesus identifies himself with each human being; and in a particular way with his disciples, or his apostles and their envoys or any person. When the later St. Paul was thrown from his horse on the way to Damascus he heard Jesus saying to him the famous words: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9: 4).

It is the human being who is fundamentally important, not duties or the rituals of Religious Observances. All religion makes sense as does the whole of life, in functions of supporting and furthering human beings and being in a loving relationship with them. I was very struck one day visiting a Carmelite women’s community, and as I was about to leave I met the Reverend Mother. She wanted to talk to me, and I with her, but the problem was evening prayer that was also about to begin. Without any hesitation she took me to a small parlour and let the other sisters get on with the psalm singing and we chatted over a cup of tea. It was what was necessary at that moment; a concern for me rather than the ritual of the prayers over-riding everything.

It is not that the ritual should not be done well, and reverently; Our Lord put it very well however: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2: 27)

The invitation that Jesus gives us is always to put caring for human beings first: and by doing our best to live that out, which is no easy task, as there is no human being to be excluded. I cannot just care for those who are my friends and agree with me, and not include those who I find distasteful and who may not agree with me.

Our Lord did say “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” and then immediately added the phrase “and your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10: 27) By always loving the neighbour I do see, I will grow to love God first and foremost. Prayer and time with him mean more, and more, as he, too, is a person to be loved, whether as Father, Son or Holy Spirit.

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 The Prodigal Father welcomes his son 

The Our Father has the same message of course of genuine relationships being the basis of God truly loving and forgiving us. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Mt 6: 12)

Our religion in other words is rather different to that which we imagine. If it makes sense then it will be as normal as living and breathing. It is not something apart from life, but simply integral to it. Going to Church and praying is not apart from life, just another moment of it. Even the highest point of union with God, the Eucharist, is not confined to a special half hour, or hour, in Church. Actually the Eucharist continues each moment of the day as God and I are united in all that happens.

This comes back to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. By our union in Christ Jesus through the identification we have with him in Baptism, re-enforced through Holy Communion and the other sacraments and in our union in living the Word of God each day and each moment of the day, we glorify God.  He, the Father, has identified Jesus his Son with me and you, dear reader, and we can think in his way of thinking, act in the way he would act, love in the way he would love in our own times. We are “In Christ” as Paul repeats 165 times in his letters. Now is the time to bow our heads and believe in this closeness of each one of us, personally, and all of us, together, as Christ Jesus himself dwells in us. I think of my efforts to serve and care for all, as well as possible; it is a constant but rewarding struggle, and I suspect this is what Jesus did, with his mother Mary, when they were living on this wonderful earth 2,000 years ago. In fact I would say they are doing this again today, when the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work even on stubborn me, melting me, moulding me, living in me and, thank God, using me, when I manage to act as Jesus would in my place.  

Father Jonathan

Last Sunday, 1 June St. Peter’s square in Rome was packed as usual at 12 noon for the Pope’s “Regina Caeli” message. Pope Francis was conscious that in many parts of the world, including his native Argentina and in Italy, as well as for us in the UK, it was the feast of the Ascension.




He commented to all that Jesus promised he would be with us to the end of the world (Mt 28:20). Jesus is close to each of us, guiding us, walking at our side, taking our hand to support us and, when we fail him, he is the always ready to forgive us. The Pope continued: “He is alive among us, and he then asked the people: Do you believe Jesus is with us?” There was quite a loud “yes” from them, so he then asked the whole crowd to say after him: “Jesus is with us.” This he did twice.

Next Sunday, 8 June, it will be Pentecost, two important Church feast days, closely aligned. The Ascension directly concerns Jesus, and Pentecost directly concerns the Holy Spirit, and those two are inseparable. Without the Holy Spirit Jesus would not have been born, and without Jesus returning to the Father, the Holy Spirit would not have come to us.

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The Holy Trinity envelops us always, and it is good to realise we can feel inserted into the Holy Trinity. The following Sunday 15 June it will be Trinity Sunday. 



Good human relationships are always Trinitarian, because in a good relationship you are able to be close, united with the other and even intimate; and yet you do not possess each other; rather he or she is distinct. You remain free and the other remains free and it feels good. No one need by jealous, no one need be hurt, there are no scandals, each person is enriched and the community grows and is enriched as good things happen. 

So what a great gift is the gift of Jesus who opens up this way for all his disciples; a joyful way of freedom, peace and fulfilment. It is his gift that comes from the redemption, and is from the Spirit. 

I think Jesus must have both great patience and a great sense of humour. I have found parishioners who would like to celebrate a sacrament for themselves or their family, whether it be Baptism, Confirmation or The Eucharist, but then because of relationships that have gone bitterly sour, with a neighbour or with a blood relation, they contact me and say they cannot celebrate their sacrament on the same day as the other, with whom there is a row – a falling out – in progress. In the Gospel, Jesus said “if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Mt 5: 23-24) In the Our Father we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. The whole thrust of the Gospel is that if you are not in peace and harmony with your neighbour, whoever they may be, you are not in peace and harmony with God. In fact Jesus puts it the other way round to make it more forceful: if your neighbour has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go and be reconciled first with your neighbour and then come and offer your gift. Without God we are lost as human beings; and deep divisions with others, separate us from God. We have quite a challenge to face.  

We sinful disciples need to have the patience and sense of humour of Jesus himself. If the Gospel way of life has penetrated into me, that is God’s gift, not of my own merit, so I can never judge the other. I can be patient, as God is with me with all my foibles, limitations and weaknesses, and I can be amused, in tune with God’s humour, as God watches his children doing their best, but so often getting it wrong.  

There is hope always because Jesus is with us always. He is our redemption our hope – not a sense of having achieved something good – not being necessarily in a dream situation in which there are no challenges – not having every relationship right – but having Him with me. That is what Ascension and Pentecost bring to my mind, this year, and it was inspired by hearing Pope Francis on the ‘Pope App’, speaking last Sunday in St. Peter’s Square.

Father Jonathan