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.