Archive for November, 2009

Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan

I wonder how many of us are aware that Pope Benedict has declared the year from  19 June 2009 until 10 June 2010, to be especially dedicated to the ordained priesthood? The year begins and ends on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The year 2009, also marks the 150 th. anniversary of the death of St. John Mary Vianney, the saintly Curé of Ars, the Patron Saint of Diocesan Priests. He would say “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus”. The Curé of Ars was very humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift to his people: “A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish and one of the most precious gifts of Divine Mercy”. We priests have something to strive for!

It came as a great joy to discover that, in our Parish Pastoral Council, there was some enthusiasm for ‘unravelling’ for us what the year of the Priest might mean. This short note is not the place to write about that, for we hope to engage parishioners in helping us to understand their own thinking of the ordained priesthood.  However some stories about priests have struck me recently. Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was ordained a priest on 11 June 1953. He appeals to me because Vietnam – like the UK – had its martyrs, some 120 of them over a 200 year period and their feast has been celebrated this week on Tuesday 24th November. The family of Francis Xavier had been Catholic for 300 years, and had lived through the persecutions; some of them were martyrs.  Some people that I have met, and who knew him, vouch for God’s presence shining through him.

He must have been a promising young man for, within three years, he was sent to Rome, where he completed a doctorate in 1959. He came from a prominent family; the first President of the Republic of Vietnam, Ngo dinh Diem, belonged to it, and his uncle was the Archbishop of Huê in Vietnam. In 1967, he was nominated Bishop of Nha Trang, by Pope Paul VI, where he served happily for eight years with the war raging around him. In those years, he fostered 700 vocations to the priesthood! He travelled widely and was known outside Vietnam as a member of the Pontifical Council of the Laity. In 1974, when the communist victory in the peninsular was almost complete, he was nominated the coadjutor and successor to be Archbishop of Saigon. It was at this time that he was imprisoned, eventually ending up in a “re-education camp” in North Vietnam. He was suspected of being very opposed to the communist revolution – a reactionary and an ally of the hated USA. Most priests, bishops, religious and active Catholics had been rounded up by the authorities into such establishments. He spent thirteen years in these “prisons” –  nine of those years in solitary confinement.     

He preferred not to speak of that period of time because he felt that it would lead to personal glorification and detract from the ‘Truth’ to whom he bore witness. It was being ‘helpless’ that described his condition: later he said :”I wanted to do so many things, to serve my people, but I could not. Then I came to think of Jesus on the Cross: he was immobilized, he could not speak, nor administer the sacraments, and he was ‘helpless’. Yet it was from there he performed his greatest deed, the redemption of sinners”. In the end he was released from prison, placed under house arrest in Hanoi, and finally expelled from Vietnam wherepon he went to Rome. He was well known in many parts of the world, and came to Manchester at the end of the 1990’s to give a talk and launch his book “The Road of Hope”, and I remember Fr. Frank Johnson speaking of him with great admiration. Pope John Paul II made him a Cardinal of the Church, in 2001; he was to die just a year later, after many illnesses,.

His book was the fruit of the prison experience. At that time, the Catholics  of Vietnam were bereft of their shepherds, priests and bishops, and so the Archbishop took up his pen. He wrote brief messages on scraps of paper, and smuggled them out of the prisons; they contained short practical counsels and add up to almost 1,000 sayings; later these sayings became his book, essentially. How little hope there was there in his country, in those days! The government tried to stop the spread of these sayings, but the people wrote them out by hand and shared them with each other. Here are one or two of them.

Departure: Our Lord guides you on to this road so that you will “go and bear fruit” (John 15:16) which will endure. The road is called The Road of Hope because it is overflowing with hope and is as beautiful as hope itself. And why should you not have hope when it is the Lord Jesus himself with whom you set off on the way to the Father? (1)

Wisdom: The crucifixion of the Lord is the wisdom that comes from heaven. As the experience of the past twenty centuries has clearly shown, it accomplished a brilliant revolution that could neither be concealed nor held back. Consequently many courageous souls have volunteered and continue to do so in the service of this wisdom. (555)

Renewal: The renewal of society will be accomplished by those people who faithfully renew themselves according to the Gospel. Faith will give a new value to their work. People may not recognise them and some may never hear them speak, but everyone wil perceive the difference as they see evidence of a more beautiful way of life. (653)


Strange, but all of us who went on the Holy Land pilgrimage, say the same thing! We cannot get it out of our heads! It was so ‘special’ and, of course, like anything special it is difficult to describe, and no one outside those present can really understand the ‘special’ nature, because it was a unique experience. We have been back five days already, and many in the parish have said to me: “Fr. Jonathan, you seem more alive, more energized since you came back from there”. I have described it as a “Paradise” surrounded by “The Crown of Thorns” because, in Paradise, you will simply not want to remember other things that fade into nothingness, compared to the joy of being in God. That was how many of us felt – it was so special; and the thorns? They correspond to the dreadful sufferings and divisions we experienced there, among the good people of the Holy Land, together with the burdens and sufferings each pilgrim carried with them, from their own circumstances, and from the whole world in which we live.

Since my last blog, I have not yet revealed that, on the final days of our pilgrimage, we went to the Holy Sites in Jerusalem to visit the places where Jesus was, and still is, so very special. One must use one’s imagination to make it real, because in the present day, it is so completely ‘built up’; the approach streets are commercialised and the scenery of Jesus’ time, composed of olive groves, tracks, prickles, hedges, and open browny green spaces are now houses, shops, buildings and highways or roads of all shapes and sizes. Yet the sky, the contours of the hills, and the air are essentially the same. Some little spots have been preserved or “re-created” and this helps – like the Shepherds’ Fields, close to Bethlehem, and the Garden of Olives.

One little personal story, I must relate. I was fortunate to be able to visit the Holy Sepulchre, twice – the tomb where Jesus died and rose again – it’s all very close and ‘covered’ by one Church. The waiting was tedious and slow, a crush of people all trying to enter the small cave (now like a small chapel, within a small chapel), where Jesus rose from the dead. It took one hour, standing in a crush of people, that appeared not to move save at a slow shuffle, until at last we got in for just 30 seconds, five people at a time – and well worth it! But, I thought to myself: “I meet Jesus in Leyland; one doesn’t have to come here where some behaviour may be thought rather “unsavoury”. Then it was ‘upstairs’ to the site of the Crucifixion. Again there was a queue, but faster moving. At my first visit, I knelt under the altar and kissed the spot where the cross had been placed. The second time, I was with just one other friend and there was less of a queue than before, at the crucifixion site. This second time, I thought: “I am not just going to kiss the site of the cross; I want to put my arm into the hole.” As I waited for others just in front to clear, some spending a longish time unburdening themselves before the sacred place, I saw they were doing what I wanted to do. My turn came, eventually, and my arm went in to the “hole in the rock” up to the elbow.  An empty space! It felt empty, void, nothing! Isn’t that what Jesus must have felt, himself, on the Cross? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There, too, I often feel a “frustrated nothing”, and with the divine person who made himself “nothing” for my sake – healed me – took away my sins – gave me the grace to be united with God, with each other person and with the whole cosmos – it all makes sense, deep down inside. There are two of us, and one is Jesus.  And in Him, there are all the others who understand this way of looking at things, and who are able to see it as the source of greatest joy because, from that “void of nothing” is created a springboard to go and live, with love, everyone we meet, and every situation of every day.

I would wish to conclude this ‘Blog’ by quoting some of the reflections that received from fellow pilgrims:

The experience for me was ourselves, as a group of pilgrims, gathered at the Baptism site on the Jordan. There, most of us having enjoyed a rather ‘giggly’ paddle in the water then came together in the dusk to renew our Baptismal Promises. Anglican, Roman Catholic, URC, Methodist, Salvation Army, we truly confessed ‘one Baptism for the remission of sins’. On our first day, Lazarus, our Christian guide, had explained to us that the name ‘Nazareth’ derived from a word meaning ‘a shoot of a plant’; he pointed out that olive trees are virtually indestructible and always new shoots grow from the buried roots. In Gethsemane garden, someone pointed out to me one of the very ancient trees whose trunk was divided from the ground up into several thick, distorted but living parts. At the Jordan I felt certain that I shared my roots with all of you and found, in the tree, the metaphor for how we are now.”

“It was so good to have you all to walk with me in this journey. The unity of all, and Jesus in the midst – within us – as The Risen Christ, is exactly what I felt in this trip; even my husband (an unbeliever), has shown various signs of ‘loving our neighbour’ and accepting love from you all.”

“My overriding impression is that, at the very core of everything, was a beating heart of astonishing simplicity. The Church of the Annunciation was huge and very beautiful, yet the important part of it was a tiny cave-house where Mary lived. We came across this again and again – a massive structure surrounding a small and simple truth – like a shell protecting its pearl. Even the wall around Bethlehem – separating the Palestinian territories and Israel – was like this, physically cutting off the people inside it, but unable to affect the truth of their faith. This has made me realise that the core of what we believe is actually small and simple, too – that Christ was born, lived and died for us. Everything else that flows from this is like the churches, beautiful and impressive but nothing without the reason for their creation.

Living Stones

We have continued the extraordinary journey “Following the steps of Jesus” in the Holy Land. This has meant much more than anyone might have thought, because following his steps means “trying to become what he taught us”. He taught us so much that is relevant to our life, and it is all to do with Him being alive among us and within us. He gave us the gift of Baptism, and at the Jordan – not the very place where Jesus was baptised – there was a moment of great beauty when we renewed our baptismal vows.

It was perhaps a moment of great ‘emotional’ importance because of the ‘ministers of churches among us’ – URC, Anglican and myself led the short ceremony. It was very meaningful to sing “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (Where there is charity and love, there is God), because all this made us feel the ‘communion’ or ‘unity’ among us. Communion is very necessary especially in this troubled land, because Jesus, himself, did not lead an easy life, and therefore his presence within us is growing day by day.

We have, since then, taken a swim in the Salt Sea (Dead Sea), seen Quran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and been to Jericho where Jesus welcomed Zaccheus and had many adventures. As I write, we are now ‘locked in’ behind a huge security wall in the ‘Ghetto-Prison, which is today’s Bethlehem. Of course, we have seen the place where Jesus was born, and had Mass at the field where the Shepherds visited – or a place very much like it. Also, where Mary visited Elizabeth.

But, much more important than all that, has been the meeting with about 10 families who live here in Bethlehem. They are Palestinian Christians and they have a story to tell that has made us proud to be considered their friends. They are so proud to be part of the one family of the Church, and they are much more the ‘living stones’ than we are. Why? Because they, like Jesus, know what real suffering is all about – thought they admit they do not suffer anything like the way he suffered: they are also proud to suffer a little, like he suffered, in his own land, and in this place where he was born. It reminds me of what St. Paul said on this subject.

These simple, but beautiful people that we metare also bound together in a communion of great love. It seems that the Israeli people, who restrict their freedom, so strongly, and cause them such great problems – the details of which I don’t wish to share just now – but which include loss of their jobs, their houses, being invaded by soldiers and being subjected to robust searches – they, and the Moslem majority in the Palestinian territories, in Israel, squeeze them from both sides: yet they love their neighbours as brothers and sisters in Christ, and do practical things to support each other. Their children survive in all this – with insufficient education – though attempts are being made to try and remedy this. The Palestinians we metare biology teachers, medical experts, architects etc.

All in all, it makes us realise that we have here the ‘living stones’ at the foundation of the Church who are, fundamentally, just like the first Christians. So “we follow the footsteps of Jesus” – not so much in his very steps – but with Him alongside us, teaching us, loving us, helping us to grow in our spiritual life.

The Holy Land is a quite safe place, when you come here and try to love, and so follow the advice of guides and pilgrimage leaders. More importantly, visitors are absolutely necessary for the livelihood of the Palestinian people who economically and ‘in their spirits’ survive through tourism and their contacts with outsiders. They are largely forbidden to move out of their living areas and have to do what the Israeli authorities tell them. Jesus is very much alive in this wonderful Holy Land, and perhaps, not surprisingly, his Death and Resurrection is ‘re-lived’ each day. Today, we join Him by going to the sites of his passion and death. We are also ‘living stones’ of his ‘beautiful temple’ – the Church, and these stones are growing more solid and beginning to fit in with each other.


It is baking hot by 7.30am in Nazareth, and the Golden Crown Hotel teems with life at breakfast time as pilgrims get ready to move away. We are about to move to the sea of Galilee, Capernaum and other places where Jesus made his home for his public ministry.  

Before going any further, however, today is already coloured by email news that Norman Jones, the husband of Jean, the Archbishop’s trusty and quite wonderful secretary, was killed in a road accident. He was the chauffeur for the Archbishop on many occasions, and has often been to Leyland; he was a friend to me and, I suspect, to many priests and others in the Archdiocese. So, the shadow of the cross is already there, as it is every day, for all of us. I feel sad at the thought of not being able to see the smiling and cheerful face of Norman again. May he rest in peace, and may God’s peace be with his family and the Archbishop; Norman, Jean and family are a part of his life.  

Our pilgrimage already has the feel of something very special. There are 76 of us, from Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England, also people from Australia, USA, Canada and Jerusalem. Religiously, the majority are Catholic, but we have two URC ministers, two Salvation Army leaders, some Anglicans, one who is a non-believer, and others. Consequently, we are a “community” pilgrimage of some diversity.  There is a great and rather wonderful spirit among us: we are entering into, and living, the meaning of the Gospel, which at the end of the day is summed up by the words: “May they all be One”.  Jesus did not specify “Catholic Christians” but ‘ALL’, and our diverse group fits his prayer. 

For some of us, to be here in Nazareth and read the story of the Annunciation, (Luke 1:26-38) and to be present in the streets where the events took place is quite magical. One feels so close to the story.  

Yesterday, We ‘climbed’ Mount Tabor and had Mass of the Transfiguration at the summit. Parishioners may be interested to know that the ‘Holy, Holy, (No. 553 in our Hymn Book) was sung with greet feeling by the whole group of us Catholics, as we felt, deep inside, the holiness of God, on top of that mountain. Our ‘climb’ was by means of mini-bus – a good job, too, as it was quite an ascent. Jesus, with Peter, James and John must have had a hard task as they climbed – no mini-bus then –  and they must have felt the heat! In reality, these ‘foundation stones’ of our Church were just like ordinary workmen, physically. Most of the workmen I know are the same, sprightly, well and physically fit


We have been so welcomed and well-looked after. There are two guides with a fund of knowledge at their fingertips. Yesterday was a long day, (arising at 6.00am, – 4.00am English time) and sight-seeing around Cana of Galilee (where there was a Franciscan friend of mine, one of the friends I meet as Religious each year, although I have not seen Fr. Casimiro for a few years, as his life is now here in the Holy Land). Before that was Mount Tabor, and later Nazareth.  

I told the people that, before leaving Leyland, many parishioners asked me to remember them in my prayers. Well, that is happening for everyone. 

Today, Sunday, it is now evening and we must get up at 6.00 am tomorrow to visit Jericho, the Dead Sea, and other things, ending up in Bethlehem. This morning we went for a sail on the Lake of Galilee and saw the hills that Jesus saw. The sea was choppy and at one point the boat, a big one, listed quite seriously. One lady felt very poorly, though she has now recovered. The rest of us were fine, and the setting was magical. Jesus calmed the storm on that lake, and that reminds me that there are plenty of storms in life for many of us. Again, reading the story in the Gospel, describing what Jesus did on the Lake was very meaningful. 

Every place one visits makes an enormous impression in its own right. To have Mass where Jesus recited the Beatitudes was magical, too, and the Church on the site is quite beautiful. It is octagonal in design, reflecting each of the eight beatitudes, and is very peaceful. 

Then also, the place where Jesus affirmed St. Peter, with the question, “Do you love me more than the others?” Jesus asked Peter three times, and said “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep!” You can see the (possible) rock on which Jesus grilled the fish the disciples ate on that occasion.  Followed by Capernaum, where Jesus performed so many miracles, and preached in the synagogue, that has been excavated. Praying in the Church, above Peter’s mother-in-law’s house was so good. When we left there, hungry, we had what is called St. Peter’s fish for lunch! 

At the Jordan we bathed in the waters, by twilight, as the light starts to fail by 5pm. People, in queues, were going right into the water in white ‘alb-like’ over-garments to be completely immersed, by a Greek Orthodox priest. We didn’t go that far, but bathed our feet and renewed our Baptismal vows. That was truly amazing, as each minister, two Anglicans, two URC and myself the Catholic, led the short ceremony, punctuated by all of us singing “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (Where there is love and charity, there is God). It was very moving as we felt so ‘at one’. 

Perhaps the crowning of the day, however, was to meet a Jew and a Palestinian family in the evening, together with others of the Focolare Movement, all of whom are working for a united world. It was really touching to hear the little boy talking; he has now got Jewish and Muslim friends, he has learnt to love. And the same thing applies to his parents and elder sister, all of whom are Christian. They have all had many adventures learning to know and grow closer to the Muslims and Jews. What made the biggest impression, however, was the beauty of each person. The Jew was also amazing. He didn’t need a translator, as he had worked with the British during the time of the British Mandate (1917-1947), in the Holy Land. He pointed out that divisions existed as much between the different groups, in his case between Jews themselves, as between the different religions. Peace, he also said, was not just political peace, not the absence of war, but rather the peace where ordinary life is lived. If you have it in your heart, then in ordinary life it can spread far and wide; it is contagious. 

We had chosen a ‘Word’ from the scriptures for the day. “Blessed are the peace-makers, theirs is the Kingdom of God”. We had tried to live it all that day. It was in a sense fulfilled. I felt that the fruit of all that Jesus did was coming to life in these small experiences, and so hope springs eternal.

A Lucky Monk

The Holy Land is somewhere that has always seemed a journey too far to make for me. On Friday, however, a group of 76 – including this ‘blog-writer’ – is going there, and through circumstances beyond personal control, will be staying on an extra day with local friends –  a husband and wife .

The itinerary is fantastic: we will stay at a Carmelite Pilgrim Centre, in Nazareth, for 3 nights followed by four in Bethlehem, then one extra night at a hotel in Tel Aviv as this will enable us to catch a plane at 6.15am back to London. I can’t quite believe that it will be possible, for the first time, to be at Cana, Mount Tabor, the Nazareth of the Annunciation, Capernaum where Jesus made his HQ for a while, the Lake of Galilee, Jericho, Qumran, Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, the Mount of Olives, the site of the priestly prayer – at the centre of which is his prayer that all may be one – Gethsemane, Bethsaida, the site of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and Emmaus. These places have been part of my imagination, and life, for the past 48 years of monastic life – and for more years prior to that. What is also so important is that, built in to the itinerary, we will meet the local Palestinians who are living for a united world, throughout their worn-torn country, and we will be able to talk and share their hope. Our pilgrimage is ecumenical, so there is already an underlying theme of “unity” and it is that “spirit” that motivates my life. I know I should begin with my own self, learning first of all to be a “united person within”, and for me, in particular, that can be a struggle, sometimes. Challenges arise in every sphere of living, and one of these stems from belonging to divided churches – another struggle! Perhaps the greatest struggle for unity and peace, in our world,  involves the Holy Land, and here it is worth looking at the BBC website, on World News, focussing on the Middle East; there you enter the real tragedy of daily life for so many people. Our troubles in England are not so serious – do not compare – with their daily worries.

I have a Benedictine friend in the USA, Julian Stead, who is now a senior father in his monastery on Rhode Island. He is so pleased that this pilgrimage is taking place, and he also reminds me that for sure he will be “united” with me on the trip; he will also be one with the Lord in his place, at the Eucharist and before the Eucharist. For remember, it’s here – in the Eucharist – and in reality, we do not have to go to the Holy Land to meet the Lord above.

The Lord was certainly present among us, recently, in our “extra-liturgical events”. Last Sunday evening, 1 November, we had what was billed as the ‘Boyce and Stanley’ Concert. Michael Boyce and Joanne Stanley hail from Birmingham, and their life is dedicated to a “music evangelism”  – I hope that is accurate– within our Catholic context. The concert began at 6pm and ended at around 8.40pm and throughout we listened to hymn tunes, sung beautifully by the two above named,  accompanied mainly on keyboard (Andy) and base guitar (Mike), with some additions from  flute and tambourine. Why was this so special? Not just the professional lighting, not just the beautiful instrumental playing, not just the professional way all were drawn in via the words on the screen, but by the evident goodness and sincerity and simplicity – not to mention the great expertise – of the group, all of which drew us into an experience that left one feeling “really good” inside – a feeling which lasted – with a long after-taste. Laughter, clapping, chatting, smiles and joy were all there. Manifestly, the love of God was shining within and through this Group, and this love, at the same time, then radiated to all those listening.  Strange how the good Lord operates, and in thanking Him above, I would also thank the people he chose to give Him praise, so joyfully. Many who attended have, spontaneously, come to me and said how much they enjoyed it. Wow!

This week, we also had our first Remembrance Service with photos, scripture, hymns (led by our ecumenical One Voice Choir – a great asset in Leyland) and the lighting of candles, attended by a ‘goodish’ crowd of people. Again how many have said to me, “That was fantastic”. In time you will be able to see some of this, for yourself, on this website. However, the computer won’t create the beautiful atmosphere manifest in Church, just by exhibiting the film strip of those whose pictures were shown. As a measure of the evening’s success, a young man, not known to me, approached and said: “That was good, and I had no idea that such a person had died – he was in my year at school! It was really good to have the names with their pictures.”

The Lord has taken a relatively young priest away from the Diocese. Today at St. Elizabeth’s, Litherland, with a large number of priests and three bishops, we buried Fr. Eddie O’ Toole. It was good to hear the choir of about 90 priests singing and very poignant to see Fr. Eddie’s mum and various brothers and sisters, with their children, right at the front, heart- broken. He was only 47; he and I knew each other slightly. Archbishop Patrick led the funeral rites with great dignity, and once again, the same Lord was there – radiating his light in the darkness!