Archive for October, 2009

Interesting People

I have often wished that there was a way to tell people about some of the parishioners with whom I come into contact because, quite often, there are treasures about them that would be good for all to hear. I invariably get to know much about those who have died, and so it is about those that have gone before, that I wish to write.

Take, for instance, Francis Clark. Francis was in a wheel chair all the time I’ve known him. He suffered from a form of multiple sclerosis that had also affected his brother, Hugh, though Hugh died some 20 years ago. Francis could not stand, and mobility came by way of his electric wheel chair. You would see him going up Broadfield Drive, or Fox Lane, for his shopping, and of course coming to Church – often to daily Mass. He was lonely, but cheerful, and very independent. Parishioners have told me how it took him, sometimes, around 15 minutes to take himself to his car, sit in it, put the wheel chair away, oftentimes in the pouring rain that we experience in our beautiful Lancashire. He was not from Lancashire, but from London, and had chosen our Parish, because the Church provided easy wheel-chair access.  He loved his daily prayer and, when possible, daily Mass. He had all the books of the breviary and, the last time I saw him, lying in bed in the Marsh House Nursing Home, he was aware of his illness and full of joy. He confided, once again, his love for the Divine Office, and told me how much he enjoyed the first psalm in the morning.

“Come ring out our joy to the Lord,

Hail the God who saves us.

Let us come before him giving thanks,

with songs let us hail the Lord.”

(Psalm 94 the daily invitation to pray at the beginning of the morning).

With radiance, and an enormous smile – despite his condition, he told me that he felt exultant joy each day as he prayed this first psalm. He was so happy when one of the nurses, sometimes, had time to pray with him.  In heaven, he now will see the reason for his exultant joy. He died last Saturday, quite unexpectedly, aged 67, and is yet to be buried.

Kenneth Hammond was a person I really did not know very well, but was to discover what a treasure he truly was. I loved to see him walking, distractedly, but quite earnestly, up Haig Avenue, because towards the end, he was partially blind: also, in his favourite position, each Sunday at Church by the pulpit, a serious and serene face. He was 90 when he died, and, during the Second World War, he sailed on the Queen Mary to North Africa in his war service. He was a skilled mechanic, trained at the Leyland motors, and spent his time repairing ambulances for the American and the British soldiers. A quiet and unassuming man, he was always ready to support and help others; he loved dancing and dominoes, and was a man of integrity and goodness, devoted also to his God and his Church. He was buried on Tuesday last, and is much missed by his family and by others.

Finally, Barry Forde has just died, and is yet to be buried. He was only 47, and his death was also quite unexpected, occurring as it did on the 22nd of October. Barry was well known to us in the Parish. Most often smiling, he was a large man, prone to severe epileptic fits; often, he was so keen to talk that he could not get his words out fast enough. Barry, I discovered, was not like this from birth.  At the age of 10, he contracted the disease called “encephalitis”, a kind of meningitis that affects the brain; before that he was perfectly healthy, a very good footballer, and a very bright and forward child. He remained a keen footballer.  His fits could occur at any time, and they were so strong in him, that those who did not know him well, could be quite frightened. I remember him serving at Mass and then suddenly keeling over, and I always thanked God for the nurses in the congregation who put him right.

It has been good to meet, personally, his brothers and sister, in all this. Paul, his elder brother, told me a story that says much about Barry. Living near English Martyrs Church, Preston, it happened that one day, a televised international football match, involving England, clashed with a novena going on at Church and his brothers, understandably, were looking forward to the match. Barry, however, chose to go to the novena in church, and they asked him why. “Because I want to”, was his reply.  In the event, it poured with rain, Barry got soaking wet, and he suffered a fit on the way to or from church.  When eventually the neighbours told the family, and they got him sorted out, the brothers exclaimed: “There you are going to church, and look how God treated you – why do you do it?” Barry replied, quite simply, “I love God, that’s why!” His love for God, I can verify, right up to his last moment, and now again, we can be sure that he will have his reward, for his devotion and his love. Life was not easy for him, and he did feel the loneliness and frustration of his condition, but did not feel sorry for himself. He was someone who touched me deeply, beyond words, and there came a moment that will not be forgotten, when after last Sunday’s Mass, with his two brothers and sister-in-law, I found myself sharing, personally, their grief.

The puzzle, and challenge, that remains with me, is how will our present and future generations of ordinary people – like me – and in a sense like Francis, Kenneth and Barry, get to know and love God and his Church? Life seems so different today, in 2009, and I wonder how God will continue to provide us with the robust faith, and robust prayers that will enable us to be like these men, throughout future days? Among other things, we need individuals to inspire us; we need methods of prayer that respond to our needs; we need the desire within to know and love God and our neighbour; we need families of faith or communities of faith, where we can feel at home.

At an inset day with 110 teachers and governors from our schools, at our Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, last Friday 23rd October, we were introduced to different ways of praying. They were imaginative, helpful and engaging. Immersion in the Word of God – experienced and lived – will mean we are united with God. Provided we stay faithful, this will result in us being able to deepen our prayer, and our living, in the way Jesus wishes for us. Jesus did say, “Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you”. Perhaps this is a beginning of a road-map for us to go ahead?

90th Birthday Reflection

It was a joy to celebrate this week four school events. Only one is the subject of this short comment, Frank Harrison’s 90th birthday on Tuesday 20th. He was at mass with his wife Mary, and 5 of his sisters at 8am. At mass apart from parishioners there were teachers and pupils from our Catholic technology college, with the present head, the head boy and girl, and others from the administration.

Frank revealed to me that he is an optimist; he has been through a lot in his life, apart from being the 2nd head-teacher of our High School. He was a “Desert Rat” and has written a scholarly history of the siege of Tobruk. After the siege along with his fellow survivors he was a prisoner of war, ending up in Germany. He lost many comrades who were friends as well in that ghastly conflict the 2nd world war. Apart from being a poet, an artist, a courteous and caring gentleman, he has suffered a stroke, but it does not dim his spirit.

During the recent “Gaza atrocities” (December 2008 – January 2009) for which he painted a strikingly sad picture whose central theme is a terrified Palestinian child with huge staring and frightened eyes, representing the 400 children killed there last year, he confessed that his optimism had been struck a serious blow. Not surprising! I suspect that his years with youngsters in education give him extra sensitivity to the plight of innocent children. It is harrowing to look at the photos of that conflict when 1,417 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

Last Tuesday morning the reading at mass was from St. Paul to the Romans, chapter 5 that includes this statement in verse 20: “however great the number of sins committed, grace was even greater, and so just as sin reigned wherever the was death, so grace will reign to bring eternal life thanks to …Jesus Christ”. In the face of the dire tragedies of our world, what genuine justification can there be for anyone to remain “hopeful and cheerful” when humanly it seems there is no solution unless there is faith in Jesus? We need Jesus to remain upright and optimistic human beings, for otherwise it seems not possible!

What good role models are men and women like Frank for the children in our schools, and for that matter for the parishioners in our parish. Such people have the courage to look reality in the face and still remain hopeful. Hope is not quite the same as optimism, and Hope is the virtue that comes from above, and is a necessity for human beings to remain human, and not turn into dried up cynics.

Schools together with families should be safe havens where young people can immerse themselves into values that will help the child grow into a mature human being with qualities of trustworthiness, concern for others, an awareness of what is right and what is wrong, and training in self-discipline and manners that are essential for any human growth. Those values need nurturing at home and also in school and are essential to lead to each pupil of a school, whatever their academic ability to reach their potential.

We need role models from parents and teachers, and we are blessed in Leyland with such people.

Another View of Life

People in England have not, in general, heard much about the Focolare movement, but anyone who knows me, knows that there are many friends, often priests or religious, who have come to Leyland to stay – sometimes for long periods – and they often learn that they, too, are involved in this “spirit”. Today, I want to share something that has really impressed me during this last week.

The elected President of the Focolare Movement is called Maria Emmaus Voce, who has been involved in the Focolare for a long time. In July 2008, Maria Voce was elected the new president of the Focolare, after the death of Chiara Lubich, in the March of that year. In January, 2009, she visited Fontem in the sub-Saharan forest of West Cameroon, to take part in the celebration of the ‘Cry-Die’, an ancestral African ceremony which marked the end of the period of mourning for Chiara Lubich. The event was characterized by a commitment to continue living Chiara’s legacy of love and unity. The ‘Cry-Die’ could be described as  nothing other than an explosion of joy, a hymn to life expressed through colourful dances and songs by the Bangwa, the tribe in Fontem, and neighbouring peoples, on the large open space in front of the royal palace of the Fon. For the Bangwa, Chiara is the ‘Mafua Ndem’, (‘Queen sent by God’). This title, conferred on her during her last visit to Fontem in 2000, placed her amongst the ancestors – pillars of African culture – perpetuating her memory and the peoples’ recourse to her. This is all because the presence of the Focolarini (followers of the Focolare) has changed everything for this remote people – for all time – and it was Chiara Lubich who decided to send them there, some years before.

Back in Italy, over Easter, Maria Emmaus Voce met up with young people aspiring to live the Focolare way of life. One of them asked her what gift, did she feel she had been given, by the Africans she had met a few weeks before, and what was the African contribution to us Europeans?

Pausing a moment, her reply was fascinating –  for me – and has made me think, and this I only heard about during the last week. She said she realised that the ‘African’ knows the greatest gift that a person has, is the gift of life. Everything they do, and have, is orientated towards this gift –  the people you are with, the things you do, the food you eat , etc., – it is all to celebrate and strengthen life. They may have very little by way of possessions – no electricity, no money, very little to eat, and they may feel the absence of these things – but it does not take away the sense of the value of life and everything is “for life”.

Like a ‘bolt from the blue’, this has changed things for me. I have begun to think what this means for me. The person I happen to be with is a person simply to share “life” with. The food I eat, the prayers I say, the community life I share, the visits I perform – all are for the same reason. It has changed my perspective on things – no need to try to impress, or be the centre of conversation; no need to win an argument, no need to keep my end up – rather just enjoy and live to the full, every moment of life. It is simple, but it has put a new perspective on the way I do things. It has changed my mind quite a bit, and I hope for the good. Who knows if I will keep up this outlook? But, for now, it puts a hope in our world, when so often, people seem to want to “manipulate” things to their own advantage.  I hope my outlook lasts!

On Our Schools

Throughout the week there have been school assemblies held in our High School – now referred to as a Catholic Technology College – what an interesting experience! Observing all, it is clear to me that miracles occur in our three parish schools: the values of God are put before the children, there is regular prayer, and each school, different from the others, has its own sense of family. What is so wonderful about the latter is that they are not trying to be a “family” because they need to impress parents, inspectors and the like. Rather it is the fruit of the presence of the risen Christ who promised to be among those who gather in his name. For the majority of the pupils, some of whom belong to other Christian denominations, it is where they find Christ and where their experience of Church begins.

One day, I found myself amused somewhat after assembly, coming across this boy who was one I thought I recognised, and we had a great conversation. He was not in class and it did not cross my mind to ask why; he had an engaging and friendly smile and we left each other after our two minute conversation in good spirits. Later, passing by again, I saw his year teacher with him, and clearly the conversation, still friendly, had another focus. She told me that he was, in fact, a lad who found school hard work – had moved around schools, and was now having to have carefully chosen, individual attention.

So I left amused, gratified, and realising the challenges facing those who have the vocation to be in education today. It was also notable how the year sevens (11 – 12 year olds) are unformed, spiritually, while after 5 years in school, the pupils of year 11 (15 – 16) are more developed, humanly and spiritually. However, even for these, there is still a long way to go – the learning for life on the holy journey to God finishes only when we have the joy of meeting our Maker. I ‘bumped into’ an older parishioner after one such morning assembly, on the road outside Church: he told me his first prayer each day is: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, make me a good person this day, the first new day of my journey in life.”

The assemblies were all about St. Therese of Lisieux, and the realisation that she, who was immersed in God through her faith, hope and love, can inspire us all to share those qualities in a world where there is a distinct lack of those virtues outside the community of faith. Even those within that community may find these virtues weak in themselves. God can work his miracles in us, and my prayer for all our children, teachers and those involved in our schools is that St. Therese, and all the other saints, will pray to God for us to strengthen our faith, hope and love. Thousands of people have been to visit St. Therese’s relics on their tour around England, and I suspect they have been led to Jesus in their patient waiting in queues (up to 5 hours) to share in the life of this extraordinary young 24 year old girl who died in 1897.

October is the month devoted to the Holy Rosary, and each day in the High School, they have a voluntary decade of the Rosary at break time. I found this wonderful help as, each day, I could encourage the children to attend that 3 or 4 minute session just to pray.

No. 2

…An elderly lady parishioner is dying in the local hospital, and this week I was able to visit her, hold her hand as she seemed far away in a semi-coma and give her the last sacrament – Viaticum. I hope it was a precious moment for her. For me, it most certainly was. Somehow it was such a joy to be able to say to her, truthfully, that God is very close to her, and that she is truly one with Jesus on the cross, whom she will soon surely meet, and with whom she is sharing that cross.

I have known her for a long time, and she is one of those special people who will never be thought of as important. In fact she has suffered much in her life, with great poverty, sadness with her own grandchildren; her daughter and son have both died, and yet she was always able to retain such marvellous dignity and serenity. It was a great joy to hear from one of her grandchildren, who feels she is the only family member left in his life, as he spent the afternoon with her on two days this week, afterwards then having to go to work.

She is, I am sure, very important in God’s eyes: she is important to me too, and to her grandchild who sat with her. The sick lady in the adjoining bed confided that she had joined in the prayers we said, and hoped I would not mind. She came from another Church and did not want to interfere. I pointed out there is only One God, and she rejoiced at the obvious unity among us. So did I. The Indian nurses with this lady quite obviously loved her in their caring of her. In fact the lady next door said “Bless her, the nurses have worked so hard to help her, but she cannot eat without being sick!” That is the second occasion this week that a patient in hospital in my hearing has praised the work of the hospital staff, and the nurses in particular. There are many good people in our world like my parishioner friend, and they are unsung heroes whose light deserves to shine more brightly