Archive for June, 2010

Finding Life

During the last week, a group of us held our monthly ‘Focolare/Word of Life’ meeting at one of the local prisons with about 25 prisoners present. We read as usual, on the computer ‘Power Point’ and text, the commentary on the Gospel extract, chosen for the ‘Word of Life’ for June, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10: 39). All those present are free to comment and share their experience of what God’s Word means in our lives; the first to comment was a prisoner who had read the extract.  He said: “When Jesus said these words he was thinking of martyrdom”, and then posed the question: “What does the Church think of martyrdom today?”

In using the word ‘martyrdom’, the prisoner was referring to the ‘modern martyrs’, most often identified as such, in today’s media – ‘suicide bombers’ in other words. Using the term, he had no idea that the modern era has seen more Christian (mostly Catholic) martyrs, than at any time in the Church’s history. These true, Christian martyrs, who never make the headlines, are the real ‘heroes’ of today’s world. I say ‘true’ because the true martyr – the real martyr never kills anyone else; there is no hate, only love in his or her heart, a heart full of love for God and neighbour.

On the other hand, ‘suicide bombers’ are, no doubt, ’courageous’ in giving away their own lives, but, we are then driven to question what kind of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘lack of human compassion’ has entered their hearts, for, together with their own deaths, they then want to kill as many others as possible – in some misguided furtherance of their cause, ideology, whatever? It is right, also, to question ‘what kind of injustice they, perhaps, suffer to make them want to act in this way?’ Possibly, they suffer such deep injustice, under some oppressive regime, that it leaves them –and people like them – feeling utterly helpless, with no acceptable alternative but a ‘murderous’ death. In his own time, Jesus, too, could well have been driven to the same conclusion – even acted in similar fashion! But, could he, in reality?  He was the Son of God, and so he couldn’t – he didn’t!  He gave away his life in meekness, love and compassion, thus accepting his fate for the salvation of all – a lonely and ignominious death – his reasons well hidden from the ‘madding crowd’ and known only to the ‘chosen’ few, and coming to life only because of the remarkable Church founded by them.   His followers, with faith, came to know he was raised from the dead and alive among them.

Here in Britain, a land of relative freedom, it is difficult for us to understand how ‘suicide bombers’ can believe they are contributing to our world, in any positive fashion. We should pray that God, in his infinite mercy, will forgive them the murders they commit, even though they may feel justified in their actions. I suspect they must be able to find some justification, somehow? Rumour has it some of these people are under the influence of drugs, though others say they can sometimes be at peace, smiling, cheerful and friendly, as they blow themselves up – together  with as many bystanders as possible. If I were the ‘angel of darkness’, I would be rejoicing at any ‘devilish’ method of domination, control, power, whether it comes from an oppressive regime – or a reaction to it – such as ‘suicide bombing’. ‘Suicide bombing’ seems to portray courage, but you can tell there is something very wrong, just by the ‘fruits’ it produces – fear, anger and the terrible sufferings of innocent people. The ‘real’ martyr who dies silently, giving his life for the God, in whom he or she believes, bears other fruits, including compassion, bravery, the strengthening of peoples’ convictions, and a great coherence in the community or society to which he or she belongs; and that greater coherence can be of ‘long term’ effect.  In saying this I point to Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, who was beatified on 6 June 2010, just two weeks ago in Poland, some 26 years after his assassination on October 19, 1984, by the communists. His death contributed to the end of the Communist regime in much of Eastern Europe.

Father Jerzy Popiełuszko

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, wrote Tertullian (c. 160 – 220 A. D.), one of the early Fathers of the Church, and so we can look forward to a great “re-generation” of the Church, in the light of so much love, given by people who are the unknown, and unsung, heroes of our age. One group, among hundreds of thousands, were the seminarians in Rwanda, who belonged to both the Hutu and the Tutsi tribes – forty of them – wantonly slain by a murderous gang in 1994. They refused to separate themselves into the two ethnic groups, when ordered to do so, and forty died together, as a witness to their love of God and each other. On 11 June, in Rome, it was very moving to watch, on the internet, three who survived the ‘massacre’, all three now ordained priests and hear their testimony of forgiveness; one of them was shot several times, but lived; another, seven years after the killings, went to a parish, in Rwanda, to serve the people, and recognised, in the congregation, those who had been the murderers of his companions; in his testimony, he said that God gave him the grace to forgive them.

At this point, I want to perform a ‘leap of faith’ and take you to a completely different era – different in time – but related in terms of theme, as you will see. I love St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher and, very much connected with them, Katharine of Aragon. Often, in our houses, we see their portraits, and John Fisher looks dignified and noble, but also rather thin and emaciated. He was Bishop of Rochester, and the only Bishop, at the time of King Henry VIII, who was prepared to stand his ground, against the King, when Henry cut most of the Church, in England, away from its stock. John Fisher, was confessor to Katharine of Aragon, and their common friendship makes me wonder if Katharine’s steadfastness gave him courage. St. John Fisher gave his life, out of love for God, his neighbour and the Church on 22nd June 1535. St. Thomas More, was appointed Chancellor of England by the same King Henry VIII, and he gave his life for the same cause on 6th July 1535.

St. Thomas More              Katharine of Aragon             St. John Fisher

The positive part of the Word of Life “Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” is the second half: we are able to find Life – the Life that Jesus wanted us to know and to experience, by first losing our life. The actual commentary of Chiara Lubich referring to martyrdom is:

 “When Jesus said these words he was thinking of martyrdom. We, like every Christian, have to be ready in order to follow the Master and stay faithful to the Gospel, to lose our lives, dying if needs be, even a violent death. With that, by God’s grace, we will be given true life. Jesus was the first who ‘lost his life’, and he regained it glorified. He warned us not to be afraid of those who ‘kill the body but cannot kill the soul’ (Mt 10:28).

(Apropos martyrdom, there is another kind of martyrdom called a ‘White Martyrdom’, consisting not of a single violent death, but rather, the daily dying to self, that is part of a holy life. This could be illustrated by many saints who are confessors, rather than martyrs.  It is something that is ‘normal’ for any Christian life.)

Katharine of Aragon was the first wife of Henry VIII.  During her marriage, she had at least six pregnancies, but only one child – Mary – survived to become Queen, after Henry’s death. Largely because his 18 years marriage to Katharine had failed to produce a male heir to the throne, Henry decided to repudiate her in favour of Anne Boleyn.  The King maintained he should not have been allowed to marry Katharine as she was his elder brother, Arthur’s wife, and this was against Canon Law.  In order to marry,  Pope Julius granted Henry and Katharine a dispensation, on the grounds that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated.  Katharine, never relinquishing her stance, was always to stand by her vow that this was the case,  but Henry – his assertions built on very shaky ground – continued his repudiation by taking Anne Boleyn as his wife.  In this dispute, Henry versus Katharine, all the evidence appears to support Katharine’s avowed position – the people certainly supported her and believed she had been truthful throughout.   However, her place usurped by Anne, Katharine became virtually removed from her place as Queen of England, from 1525 until her death in 1536, though she remained popular with the people of England, largely because of her ‘transparent’ goodness and integrity.

There is a second important aspect to her life.  Katharine always refused to accept Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England and considered herself, as did most of England and Europe, the King’s rightful wife and Queen until her death.  In proclaiming himself Supreme Head of the Church in England, Henry simply defied Pope Clement VII, who refused Henry his nullity. But, these were dangerous times, and any attempt to antagonize Henry was tantamount to courting disaster, as Thomas More and John Fisher found to their cost. Both were executed for High Treason; they did not agree with what the King was doing – and said so, in forthright terms.   Likewise, Katharine could well have met the same fate.  Putting herself against the King, she stood by the truth – displaying again stalwart courage and integrity –  and was banished for her stance.  She refused to go against the truth: she lost her life, but then found it.

Katharine was intelligent, attractively very pretty, and religious. Saint Thomas More was to reflect, later in her lifetime, that in regards to her appearance: “There were few women who could compete with the Queen [Katharine] in her prime.” She learned to speak, read and write in Spanish and Latin, and spoke French and Greek, Spanish and English. She had domestic skills, such as needlepoint, lacemaking, embroidery, music and dancing. The great scholar Erasmus would later say that Katharine “loved good literature which she had studied with success since childhood”. Education among women became fashionable, partly because of Catherine’s influence.

She was loyal always to her husband. In 1513, Katharine fell pregnant yet again. Henry appointed her Regent when he went to France on a military campaign. When the Scots invaded, they were defeated at the Battle of Flodden Field, with Katherine addressing the army, and riding north in full armour with some of the troops, despite being heavily pregnant at the time. She sent a letter to Henry, along with the bloodied coat of the King of Scots, James IV, who died in the battle.

Katharine died, relatively, young – at just forty nine – after living a life of deprivation and isolation for years. A month before she died she wrote the following to her husband, Henry VIII.

My most dear lord, King and husband,

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe thee forces me, my case being such, to commend myself to thee, and to put thou in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of thy soul which thou ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of thy body, for the which thou hast cast me into many calamities and thyself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon thee everything, and I desire to devoutly pray God that He will pardon thee also. For the rest, I commend unto thee our daughter Mary, beseeching thee to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat thee also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all mine other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be un-provided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire thou above all things.

Katharine the Quene.

This, I suggest, is the mark of a great lady, who had – by then – died a ‘thousand’ martyrdoms, at the actions of her wayward husband; he seemed bent on his own human ‘solutions’ to the difficulties he faced rather than relying on a loving trust in God, portrayed by his first wife, Katharine. Her destiny was closely linked to that of John Fisher and Thomas More, both of whom were put to death because of ‘The King’s Great Matter’, i.e. his repudiation of Katharine of Aragon, because he wanted a marriage annulment, from the Pope – and that he never got!

Katharine discovered the ‘Life’ that Jesus speaks of in the ‘Word of Life’, despite the sufferings caused by the politics and self-centredness of people around her. The letter above is witness to it, and so are the testimonies since her death. It is said that, at her funeral, when she was buried in Peterborough Cathedral, 70,000 people lined the route out of respect for her. Furthermore, to this day, there are always flowers at her tomb, and a constant stream of people to honour her memory.  She remains a kind of legend in our country. Should you ever have a chance to visit Peterborough and its cathedral, you can verify this for yourself. You will see, there, her place of rest, with the letters above her tomb, “Katharine Queen of England”.

Never was there any hint of the mind of a ‘suicide bomber’ in her example; rather, her life was very much concentrated on the following of her Master and Lord, Jesus. Small wonder, it was, then, that after the break with Rome and the Church, King Henry feared that Katharine might be the centre of a popular uprising. She has not been declared a Saint, but in any study of her life, the reader may well be struck by the similarities with those who lead holy lives – who die to self, day by day – a loyal queen, a great lady – steadfast and true to her calling – imbued with inner strength and integrity – a lady who would not deviate from the path of life which lead her to suffering and death – and to the loss of her life, in order to find it.

Perhaps we too can face the challenges of life with a bit more peace and gentleness of heart, with the examples of Thomas More, John Fisher and Katharine of Aragon to encourage us, and be mindful of many of our fellow Christians, mostly Catholics, who are suffering severe persecution, in our own time, and losing their lives, only to find them.


I want to take you to a little house situated not far from the centre of a small rural community.  Nothing sets it out as anything special – nothing specific – its just like all the rest in the neighbourhood – functional but poor, simple, houses in that rather quiet part of the village.  As we enter, we see ‘mum’ going about her daily work – washing, cleaning and polishing, mending, cooking and baking ready for the evening meal.  She sets the table so that the family can sit and eat, then sits down – for the first time in the long day – and relaxes, rests, waiting for her men-folk to come in from work.  They will be hot and tired and hungry. 

But, this working ‘mum’, you can see, is uneasy.  She tries to relax, but relaxation does not come easy.  Her face shows the worry that is troubling her – unsettling her.  You feel for her – this hard-working, caring, loving matriarch of the family – and want to try to help.  But help you cannot – she cannot even help herself. You see, she does not know what is troubling her.  She cannot ‘put her finger’ on it. She just knows, with a mother’s intuition, instinct even, that there is ‘something in the wind’, something indefinable, not spoken, not visible, but turning her life ‘upside down’.  She utters a prayer – that things will be alright – and then the mood is broken, as her husband and son come in from their day’s work, from the workshop, nearby.  They are hot and dirty from their labours.  Her husband washes and then almost ‘collapses in a heap’ to wait for his ‘tea’.  He is old and rather weary – getting near to retirement – but retirement would bring further problems.  They have little money on which to live and his work keeps them surviving.  Once he finishes work, their income would suffer and life would be all the harder.  The son, grown up now, would then have to provide for the family and, with just one person working, the money coming in would be halved, almost.  Son follows father, washes, and gets ready for his meal.  Suddenly, he puts his arms around his mother and says: “Love you, mum!”

They sit to the table and ‘mum’ serves the simple meal.  They sit and eat – mostly in silence – each with their own thoughts on the day’s events, and wondering what tomorrow may bring.  The scene is outwardly peaceful – a small family, grouped round the table, eating their evening meal – but there is an undercurrent.  All is not right.  Each of them is aware of something deep – troubling – worrying. All is not quite at peace. 

All at once, the son breaks the silence and sets hearts blazing: “Sorry to have to say this, mum, dad, but I am going to have to leave home.”  Mum and dad look at each other and turn, the unspoken question alight in their eyes.  Then Jesus answers their look and drops the rest of his ‘bombshell’: “Tomorrow – I have other work to do.” 

Mary and Joseph – still speechless – cannot come to terms with what has just happened.  In shock, they ask with loving hearts and eyes – the unspoken question, “Why”, and food has long since been forgotten.  Joseph, is beside himself with concern for the son – his life-long friend and help-mate – and what will happen to his family?  Mary, heart and eyes full of tears – remembers the words of the wise old man in the Temple, to the effect that a ‘sword should pierce her heart’ – and knows also that, for the future, there is much, much worse still to come, for she knows the scriptures and cannot forget those words of Jesus, spoken many years previously – also in the Temple – “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”  And Mary knows something about how God works!

Thus, from this most unsettling scene in Nazareth, with a ‘bombshell’ that near tore his family apart, Jesus begins his life’s vocation, to then go about his Father’s affairs and begin his public ministry.  On the morrow, he gathers his few personal things together, says his ‘Goodbyes’ to Joseph and Mary and walks away from his home – the home in which he has been happy for some 30 years, a home in which he has been subject to mum’s, and dad’s, love and controlling influence, a home in which he has repaid that love with perfect devotion to his earthly ‘parents’. 

It must have been a very sad parting – one tinged with deep regret, that the days of childhood and youth were now long-gone – with steps into a future, unknown.  Mary and Joseph must have been beside themselves with grief at the ‘loss’ of a ‘son’ they loved with all their hearts.  Yet in all this, and because of the people they were, they would be accepting all that was happening as the will of God.  They would be praying to Him that things would turn out well, knowing full well that God knows, far better than any of us, the ‘why’s’ and the ‘wherefores’, and what the future holds.  Even in deep sorrow, Mary and Joseph – I think – would still be aware of the immensity of the ‘job-in-hand’, the life-changing importance of the work Jesus was about to undertake, and so there may have been a sort of ‘acceptance’ – a sort of ‘not my will, but thy will be done’ – about it all.  I hope so, because, without that kind of assurance, the parting would then have been nothing short of disastrous – and what would have been the point?

Bishop Seamus Cunningham, Hexham & Newcastle, ordains Fr. Marc Lynden-Smith at St. Aloysius Church, Hebburn, 12 June 2010

I have been trying to reconcile the scene at Nazareth with some kind of parallel, within the realms of my own experience – difficult, I know – but there is one which, without too much imagination, has some common themes to commend it.   Many years ago, whilst still at Grammar School, I remember visiting priests coming to talk to the student body about vocations to the priesthood (and religious life).  I remember some of the heart-breaking, heart-rending decisions such visits brought about in some families, when sons and daughters decided they would choose to leave home and study for the priesthood.  Parents – invariably, they would have been loving parents, almost by definition – must then have been ‘pitch-forked’ into the ‘Mary and Joseph’ situation, only to find themselves between the proverbial ‘rock and a hard-place’ – torn between love for their children and their love of God, pride that their children should be choosing to give their lives to God, yet despair at the apparent ‘loss’ of ones held so dear.  I remember such thoughts crossing my mind whilst still at a rather tender age.  I remember my parents’ reactions when I voiced them, and though they would not have stood in my way, they would have been saddened, I know, should I have made the decision to take things further.  It was not to be! I think I would have made a rather poor job of it, in any case, – but the thoughts, the feelings, the concern and the worries the decision would have caused – are still part of my make-up.  

Fr. Marc Receives His Chalice at His Ordination, 12 June 2010

From the point of view of an ‘outsider’, I cannot begin to fully comprehend, fully understand, the feelings of separation – how could I?  However, it seems to me that in making the decision to follow one’s vocation to the Religious Life, this must inevitably involve mixed ‘blessings’.  I see great ‘sacrifices’ made  by parents, that sense of loss, those feelings of leaving behind home and family – something like tearing away an arm or a leg – to begin studies leading, eventually, to the giving of one’s life to God, but then there are the compensations – and very rewarding ones at that!  

Having come to know Father Jonathan and several other monk priests very well – with many years of learning on my part – I begin to realise something, I think, of the peace and harmony in their lives – lives devoted to the service of God and their fellow brothers and sisters.  This is not to say that priests, monks and nuns have it easy – surely, there are tribulations, distractions, along the way – but ultimately, they are following the example of Jesus, who left home and family behind at Nazareth.  And with just one driving motive – to serve; to serve God and do His will; to serve their fellow men and women and to help them on their way to paradise.    

And not just our friends, the Benedictines, but great ‘servants’ from the Jesuits, Redemptorists, Franciscans and many others, those who give their lives to the Missions, the many orders of nuns – Sisters Gabriel, Anna and Veronica, providing us with just three wonderful examples from the many other Religious Orders – all people, and religious, serving God and their communities – something magnified thousands of times throughout the Church.  What wonderful gifts from God – gifts to the men and women who make this ‘sacrifice’ –  to their parents, to their communities and the world, at large.  On  this note, and as this ‘Year of the Priest’ comes to an end, it would be as well to remember all this, and to thank God for his great love.  Without these men and women, our societies – and our lives – would be, so, so much more, the poorer.  We thank God for all this.  We thank all our priests, monks, brothers and sisters, who give their lives to serve us.

Jesus left home and family – to serve his community and world – in much the same way – then to make the ultimate sacrifice to His Father.  Parallels – yes, parallels there certainly are – across two thousand years – the service to mankind in between.

And, the answer to the rhetorical question in the title?  To serve – is to love – is to live!

Today, Friday 11th June – the feast of St. Barnabas – happens to be ousted by the solemnity of “The Sacred Heart of Jesus”. St. Barnabas is known in the Bible as “The Man of Encouragement” and one may think him an ‘attractive’ saint, for many reasons. One who so thought was a monk called Fr. Barnabas Sandeman, who died 30 years ago on the Feast of St. Lawrence, 10th August 1980. For those Ampleforth monks old enough to have known him, Fr. Barnabas was a courteous, learned, cultured and encouraging man, who had to put up with some ‘rough-necked’ monks – those who did not share his love of Dante, Latin literature, Renaissance Paintings, fine poetry and the like – but were more interested in the ‘soccer’ results, the rough and tumble of Ampleforth College school-life, fishing, and other mundane pursuits. But, Fr. Barnabas also had a fair amount of the ‘Love’ that comes from the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Father Barnabas in the Orchard at Ampleforth

At the same time, the Feast of the Sacred Heart is a very important feast, and His Holiness the Pope opened the ‘Year for Priests’, in 2009, on this very feast day; it closes on the same feast day, this year. This feast is not unconnected with ‘encouragement’, the ‘motto’ of St. Barnabas. Its ‘raison d’être’, however, is the ‘Love of the humanity of Christ for all people, shown by the ‘heart, the imputed sign of love for any human being, and, therefore, of Jesus. The heart is where our ‘person’ is, and for Jesus –   the ‘Word of God, become flesh’ we honour his ‘human’ heart, his ‘human’ person, by giving the Feast the title: ‘The Sacred Heart of Jesus’.

Face on the Shroud of Turin – Is this the loving face of Jesus?

But, to turn to my main theme, our Parish Pastoral Council, in this ‘Year of the Priest’ decided to try and deepen our parishioners’ understanding of the priesthood, and this has proved a worthwhile exercise –  certainly for this parish priest.  Firstly, I think, it was important to establish parishioners’ understanding of what was distinctive about the role of a priest. With this in mind, we ran a ’tick box’ questionnaire of 20 statements – divided into three sections – headed ‘Mass’, ‘Sacraments’ and ‘Support’. The vast majority of parishioners did know that only the ordained priest could ‘Preside and Celebrate at Mass’, ‘Could Celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation’, as intended by the Church’s teaching, for the forgiveness of sins. Also, the majority were aware that it is only the Ordained Priest – and not even an ordained deacon – who can administer the ‘Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick’.

However, what has become clear is that there are other things – very important, spiritually – that laity can do,  at which they can be immensely effective – possibly more effective – and influential, on the spiritual life of a person, than a priest might be. For instance, it says in St. James’ epistle: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective”. (James 5: 16)  This ‘advice’ does not mention that the other need be a priest. I have often heard about people talking over their own lives with a friend they can trust, someone not a priest, and finding that, sharing in this way, is both ‘life-giving’ and ‘life-changing’. In sharing confidences, it strikes me as obvious – perhaps advisable – that it may be much better for a woman, facing some personal challenges, to consider, well, talking over the situation with a trusted lady friend, and the same for a man to man, tête-a-tête. There is no need to be absolute about same-sex confidences, but, in general, it seems a good and sensible thing to consider. In our own Parish, our Administrator, I know, is ever in great demand, as a person in whom people confide, and this, to me, seems a very good thing, its robust spiritual roots very much in line with St. James’ Epistle.

Our research established other things – other actions – that the laity can do well, also. These came under the general heading of ‘Supporting’ and included supporting those close to death. Perhaps we should bear in mind that there were no priests, present with Jesus, as he was dying. Laity can, and do, pray with sick people, “Bear one another’s burdens and in this way fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal 6; 2), also teach others about God and be a spiritual guide “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. The lay person can be a good administrator, lead a Prayer Group or a Gospel Enquiry Group, and thus, do so many things, in support of people and the Church.

Having satisfied ourselves that these ideas were well rooted in peoples’ hearts, we then decided to find out, from parishioners, what kind of person they thought a priest should be, how he should act, and how a priest should be involved with others:

The questionnaire asked the parishioner to choose three answers from the five below, thinking about a priest as a person, about the ‘Being’ of the priest, and the ‘WHO’ of the priest:

1.   who is united with the Pope, the Bishop, his fellow priests and his parishioners?

2.   who is a holy and who lives according to the teachings of Jesus?

3.   who is welcoming to all?

4.   who is immersed in the Scriptures and the Church’s teaching?

5.   who always respects confidentiality?

The questionnaire asked the parishioner to choose three out of the five of the below that were more to do with the Action of the priest:

1.   be prayerful when leading the community in Church?

2.   celebrate reconciliation and healing of body, mind and spirit?

3.   have the help others in his own journey to God?

4.   be a role model for others?

5.   guide the Parish as the Holy Spirit inspires the Church today?

The questionnaire in the final section asked about priestly INVOLVEMENT with people, again asking the parishioner to choose three out of the five below:

1.   to build community in the parish, with fellow Christians, those of other religions and all of

      good will?

2.   to serve the needs of all as far as he is able, especially the poor?

3.   to support the young on their journey to God?

4.   to promote the spirit of sacrifice?

5.   alongside people throughout life, especially at times of need like infirmity and death?

From the results of the survey, four key themes consistently appear across the various congregations of Mass-goers, 6.00 pm Saturday, 9.30 and 11.00 am on Sundays. They highlight the priest:

*   who builds community in the parish, with fellow Christians, those of other religions and all

     of good will

*   who is welcoming to all?

*   who is with people throughout their lives, especially at times of need, like infirmity and


*   who guides the Parish as the Holy Spirit inspires the Church today?

The other themes also remain important and are not to be discarded despite not being in the four key themes as highlighted by parishioners in the survey.  However, It is clear that – in considering the statements of how a priest ‘should’ be, act, and involvecommunity, is one key element identified by parishioners; another is how the priest relates to people; another is his role as guide for the present time, and the future.

The end of the ‘Year of the Priest’ for us in St. Mary’s Leyland is actually a beginning in many ways, and that is why I gave this ‘Blog’ the title ‘Omega and Alpha’. Our ordained priests are challenged to work alongside the laity, who are seen – with the priests – as part of the community. This is something that Vatican II, and the ‘Leaving Safe Harbours’ initiative, in the Archdiocese of Liverpool, have been promoting. It would be simply impossible, for the parishioners of St. Mary’s, Leyland, to accept a Church in which the Priest has the controlling role in the Parish, and in which the people would be simply following, and obeying the ordained priest, on our journey to God. Rather, it follows the scriptural exemplification of Jesus, as portrayed in Chapter 15 of St. John’s Gospel: “I am the vine and you are the branches”, or the Pauline teaching: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ”, (1 Cor. 12;12).  Here we see, clearly, that ALL are co-responsible for the welfare of the Church locally. Thank God, this very much happens in our Parish.

Personally, I thank God for the liberation that this vision brings. It is not just, “the Fathers”, who are the key players in the local parish. Rather, it is all of us, together, fulfilling our own role, and being drawn together into harmony and unity, the community of monks united with the Parish Priest, and the Parish Priest, in turn, united with the other monks and the people. All are in harmony with the Bishop, and other priests in the Pastoral Area; again, all are linked through the Bishop to our brother Bishops and, in particular, to the Pope, who is the centre of harmony and unity of the whole Church.

The ‘burning’ question is how to live all this out in practice, and it seems to us, at the Pastoral Council, that this will be something of a challenge we face each day, and which we hope to face in a more systematic way next year, just as we tried to face the challenge of understanding the Ordained Priesthood, this year.

To conclude, I return to St. Barnabas and the Feast of the Sacred Heart. Yes, within the Church, priests and people all need encouragement if they are to fulfil the God-given role that each one of us has. It may seem a small and insignificant role, but it is one that only each unique person can do, within that unique family, involving those unique people, in each unique street. For the priests it is the same. They have a unique role and they need to learn how to be filled with such compassion and love for others that they will grow in learning how to understand, and love, so much diversity among their parishioners – and among their fellow companion monks. Some lay persons may have bigger roles to play, within the community, but this does not make them better, more important, or higher up, than others. It just leads to them being of greater service to the whole community. Priests and people need to learn how to ‘love’ others with the Heart of Jesus. The Feast of the Sacred heart may help us, and teach us, as we reflect on all these things, and the challenging situations we face each day.

New Life for the Children of God

Eternal Father, through your Word You gave new life to Adam’s race,

transformed men into sons of light, new creatures by your saving grace.

The Word of God will transform the whole world

That is the hymn we sang yesterday morning at our office of readings. It says God gives new life through the Word. This reflection is about that.

The Church has given us the book of Job to read in the office or readings these past days since Pentecost. We have to pick it up again because we were reading Job before Lent began, and as is often the case Lent and Eastertide with its mystery of darkness and light is sandwiched by the book of Job. We monks are quite lucky because prayer together is something we do each day at a set time; we are almost “compelled” to take time out to listen to God’s Word, pray the psalms together, reflect and let God speak to us. Anyone who wants to have a friendship with God must give God time and space and that is not easy in today’s demanding world and the many things that engage our attention. Of course I am thinking of those who read this blog and are not monks, but might be busy at work, or a mother with children, or somebody who lives alone and is busy with many daily tasks including children and grandchildren. It will be time well spent however to do some reading of God’s Word, because no person will be able to discover himself or herself if they do not have a relationship with God. It is in our very being to know God, love Him and serve Him, and to do so not only in our personal prayers but also in all the people around us who, in God, are our brothers and sisters and are our pathway to Him. If we are distracted by many things all day long this will be impossible

Job, who has done nothing wrong, in fact has always been a virtuous man, has lost everything: his possessions, his family, his health and his self-esteem, and he is sitting on the dung heap. Three miserable friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar try to console him but only make things worse. The whole story of Job is ironical, tragic and humorous too, because it is not that Job’s three friends are wrong in what they say: but they do not convince Job at all, their words do not hit the mark. Nor is Job in his discourse completely right; we can sense there may be some self-pity in there, understandable as it is.

Last Friday we read Job’s speech which follows a discourse by Zophar (Chapter 12 of the book of Job). It begins in our translation:

“Doubtless you are the voice of the people,

 and when you die, wisdom will die with you!…

A man becomes a laughing stock to his friends

if he cries to God and expects an answer.

The blameless innocent person incurs only mockery.

‘Add insult to injury’, thinks the prosperous person

‘strike the man now that he is staggering!’

Yet the tents of those who are wicked are left in peace,

and those who challenge God live in safety,

and make a god out of their two fists!

If you would learn more, ask the cattle,

seek information from the birds of the air.

The creeping things of earth will give you lessons,

and the fishes of the sea will tell you all.

There is not one such creature but will know

this state of things is all of God’s own making.

He holds in his power the soul of every living thing,

and the breath of each man’s body.”

This quotation came alive to me when we read it, and it made me realise once again that everything is held in the palm of God’s hand, the good and the bad things we experience. Our task is to trust in Him as Job did, and perhaps I achieved that a bit more and knew the presence of God in the particular details of my own life.

The Word of God is life-giving. We are created through the Word, and each individual is different to every other person born in this world, and has a unique task to perform in his or her life on earth. Personally when it comes to taking up the Word in the scriptures, I would recommend getting help to let it become digestible and applicable. To read the bible without a guide is not easy, and we distribute in the parish the Wednesday Word, a guide to the Sunday scripture readings which you can find also on a website Also you can look at the Word of Life that we publish each month in the parish bulletin, and each week in shorter chunks or look up the website This is helpful because in this website you find experiences of how the Word can be lived.

The Word of God is not something only to help you in prayer; it is not something that you read simply to strengthen your knowledge of God; it is not just to be read so you can understand Jesus and the life of the early Church; of course the Word of God helps in all these things. The Word of God is to be lived; and to insure God’s presence that is generated by living the Word is not lost, it is good to share with others who are receptive, in an appropriate way. Not only is it a necessity to live the Word, it is necessary to share the fruits of living the Word with others.

We need to live in a different way once we are responding to the immense Love that God has for each one of us. It demands “a new culture”, and many who are reserved or shy need to learn how to share the life that God generates in them. Then we begin to change from within, and the gifts of God begin to grow, gifts like “tolerance of the differences of the other”, “patience with the weaknesses that we find in ourselves and in others”, “growth in understanding the other person and seeing his or her good qualities rather than the negative aspects”, “confidence and trust in God in the very circumstances we are in, the people, the place, the life we lead”. Then the Word is life-giving.

To illustrate the above point by its opposite, we all know perfectly well that when God’s Word is not lived by Christians it causes scandal to people who are outside the family of the Church. We know also from recent events that if the Word of God is not lived by clergy and religious, or by lay people closely associated with the Church such as in Catholic orphanages or Catholic institutions, then the Church gets a very bad name and other Christians not directly involved can be deeply shocked and scandalised.

To end here is something that happened to me as a fruit of trying to live the Word, trying to live Love which is the same as the Word of God.

One day about lunch time the phone went and a mother I knew informed me that her husband was so ill in hospital with his heart problems that he had no hope. The very next day the doctors in the high dependency unit at Blackpool Victoria would turn off the machines that were keeping him alive as he was not responding at all. So she asked me if on the next day at the time they were going to switch off everything, could I go to the hospital, pray with her and the children, have Holy Communion and help them all to say good bye to Dad and husband. Implied in all this is the famous phrase of Jesus ‘Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I among them’, and Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

Finally God sent his Son, Jesus, who revealed the face of God in its fullness by showing Him as Love and by condensing his law into the single commandment of love for God and for one’s neighbour.

Of course I made arrangements to do that, changing appointments and so on. I promised to pray for them all there and then and offer up my life for the next 24 hours for this gentleman.

The next day I rang the mother at the hospital before setting out, and she told me a remarkable thing. Her husband had made a response in the afternoon of the previous day. It looked as though the doctors were going to review their decision. Yet could I please come with Holy Communion and pray with all as we arranged.

So I arrived, not sure what to expect. My friend was there wired up with all the monitors as usual. There was no sign of anyone turning them off. In fact even I could see some response, and so our prayers continued but in a changed form. Everyone had Holy Communion, Dad received a blessing (he was ‘nil by mouth’ and could not communicate nor does he remember this event), all in that hospital bay were filled with gratitude and wonder at what God had done, and from then on things looked up. This gentleman and his wife are still very much a part of the faith community of the Church, and it must be about ten years ago that these events happened.

A tiny postscript: similar stories could be told again and again by priests who have the chance to anoint the sick and share God’s healing that is described in some of the miracles of Jesus in the gospels. God is close to us: he is waiting for us to believe in Love, to live the Word and let Jesus live in us.