Another week and here we are again ! It has been very humbling and somewhat embarrassing to receive numerous appreciative messages, and also to hear through ‘phone conversations words of gratitude for the fact that I celebrate Mass each day, and hold all our parishioners, their loved ones and intentions in both thought and prayer as I do so. As a priest I am quick reply that it is what I am called upon to do and I do it to the best of my ability. It is the positive effect of being dutiful; simply keeping things going, offering an anchor in the eye of a storm and stability together with a sense of security. St. Luke (17:10) wrote fittingly of such acknowledgements: When you have done everything you were told to do simply respond by saying we have done our duty.
I begin these weekly few lines by making a confession. There are some words that have grabbed your attention ! Don’t worry it is nothing as drastic as admitting to the pre-Lockdown stockpiling of toilet paper (which I didn’t !). It isn’t even the rather sarcastic tone and non-apologetic attitude that I took when asking a fellow shopper if he was a car driver, having come trolley to trolley with him in not one but two one-way supermarket aisles, clearly marked with arrows pointing in the direction I was gliding. Sadly, the response of the man concerned that he was a taxi driver neither surprised me nor mellowed my facial expression ! The ability that I have to flash a look is well known, and an inheritance from my Mother, who with one swift look could cause the blood in my veins to freeze quicker than a freshly caught fish in the hands of Captain Birdseye. No, my fault was to begin Holy Mass late, not just once but twice, and, worse still, both offences took place on the same day.
In order to lighten the burden of guilt, I could paraphrase the words of Adam in the Garden of Eden, and say it was the man you put before me ! But I will not lay the blame with either of the parishioners with whom I delighted, if not celebrated, in an actual face to face conversation, clearly at a safe distance, although we had neither arrows nor a measuring line. With just a few moments to spare before two of our Saturday Masses, I engaged in chatter that took me over the published time of the beginning of Mass. A wave of guilt swept over me, and I was quick to apologize to the Lord who had been waiting for me when I got on to the altar. In what I will dare to describe as normal times, with a congregation awaiting, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that I would have excused myself and begun, as usual, on the stroke of the given hour or half hour … and yes, I am aware that some parishioners work on a different time zone to me, acknowledging on occasion a time lapse of up to twenty minutes !
The concept of time itself seems to have taken on new definition for many of us, and I include myself in this, in light of my confession. People have said to me that they now don’t always know what day it is; others that they’ve stopped wearing a watch, and still others who’ve shared that they don’t even look at their phone to check what time it is anymore. Routine and rhythm will be written on this particular page of our history with a rather shaky hand. A component of this may well be the fact that less is dependent upon us being exact, punctual and precise. The weekday rush to get out of the house at a certain time – with every child in the house washed, as the late Terry Wogan would say – in order to beat congestion on the roads has become almost a distant memory due to seismic changes to both home life and working practices. Spaces in family homes have become work-stations; classrooms and desks have been replaced by eating spaces & dining room tables. New questions face us such as with home-schooling: does it matter if we don’t begin class at the same time each day ? Even Holy Mass can be viewed at a time that is convenient to the unique arrangements of an individual Domestic Church and there is no fear of being flashed a disapproving look for late arrival !
This weekend the global family of the Church is called to reflect on and pray for Vocations, very especially for more men and women to offer themselves for service to the Church as Priests and Religious. We live in a culture and climate where declining numbers of priests and Religious and together with their aging profile is a reality that goes hand-in-hand with the fact that priests are now called upon to look after and provide for the needs of more than one community of Faith. The great clerical names of previous generations within our own Diocese of Leeds, about whom I’ve been privileged to write, would not have achieved what they did in times such as ours, and I can say that with certain knowledge. The ability of some of the men whose lives I’ve researched to spend vast swathes of their time and energy on projects of expansion and definition, such as opening schools and the building of churches accommodating hundreds of worshippers, was made possible because they presided over households with numerous curates who did much of the day to day work, together with Religious who dedicated their lives to work in the field of Catholic education, and often a domestic staff employed to provide household necessities. It was, as we often hear, a different world, and together with the demise of this era, reputedly alien to the majority us in the twenty-first century, went a hugely different approach to life. For better, or worse, in that previous way of life everyone was understood to have a part to play in something greater than themselves; the small piece of the jigsaw border, which despite seeming so far removed from the focus of attention is still critical to the completed image. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who has discovered a piece missing in a jigsaw !
The Priesthood of which I am a part has an unbroken lineage to the Apostles present at the Last Supper who were invited to Do this in memory of me and who were a part of the Mandatum (washing of the feet) and heard Jesus say, as their feet were still drying: I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you. In season and out of season, with packed congregations or empty buildings, on high days and to those widely acclaimed, in bleak scenarios and amongst those whose names are virtually unknown to their fellow pilgrims, we are called to minister and serve. And more than that, we are called to minister with an equity and generosity which reflects Christ’s own ministry.
As priests we are not called to be spiritual social workers. Instead we are called upon to feed the sheep, to use the rich imagery of this weekend’s Gospel, through the continuing celebration of the Eucharist, and to keep alive the prophetic message of God’s Word, proclaiming it afresh to successive generations. The missionary activity of both these elements of Priesthood require an openness and willingness of heart, mind and spirit to embracing the invitation of Christ walking by the shore of Galilee, who simply said to the first disciples: Follow me and they did.
Usually on Vocations Sunday it is easy to leave the conversations and discussions about the Priesthood and Religious Life at the church door, convinced that the following week’s homily will have a different theme. Thoughts of clerical shortages, and the very real fact that there is now a generation of young people who have no tangible experience of a nun or monk in their lives except in a historical setting, may barely enter our psyche. This particular Vocations Sunday allows us to reflect, in our own homes, on what it means to lead a life of dedication to God’s call. For many, our time of Lockdown, is giving us an opportunity of getting to know those we live with better, and importantly, of being more acutely aware of the interdependence that exists between household members, and within friendships.
Vocations to the Priesthood and Religious life are cultured in our homes. The nucleus of the family is also the seedbed in which other vocational ways of life are nurtured. I think of the child who is always looking after their siblings, gaining, at a young age, a reputation for reliability, and who subsequently says that they want to look after others when they grow up. Could this be the future Social Worker, or Nurse. The child almost obsessed with all things scientific, who in their teens sets their sights on working in the world of medical research. How do we respond to this passion – feed or ignore. Added to this mix is the young person who is always looking for new and innovative ways of showing their compassion for their fellow pilgrims on life’s journey. If there is a cause to be supported, they are the first to volunteer, they throw their arms around their parents and make an unembarrassed display of their affection. On Thursday evenings they are the one’s clapping loudest & banging the pan the hardest with the wooden spoon as they pay tribute to their heroes on the frontline of the NHS and other care agencies. Is this another generation of care workers, not only prepared to walk the extra mile but to pay the ultimate sacrifice ? Or the budding teacher determined to make a lasting impression on the lives of others.
Families and communities are made up of a whole spectrum of individuals: the reliable and those with limitless excuses; the generous and those afraid to give; the peacemaker and the aggravator; the carer, and those seeking to be served; the quiet listener, and the those who don’t come up for air in their dramatic monologues; the colourful, quirky, strange and different ! Regardless of where we place ourselves in such a list, or perhaps, where we find it easier to place others, it probably covers the spectrum of many groupings of people of which we are a part. Each has a part to play, a role uniquely theirs, and is a strangely shaped piece of a larger picture ! This is our vocational call. So please reflect on and pray for more to respond to their vocational calling. Like the sheep referred to in this weekend’s Gospel, we respond best and most readily when the voice calling to us is familiar: the sheep follow because they know his voice. (John 10).
If you doubt your own ability to play a part in something greater, then maybe some words, entitled A Future Not Our Own, often associated with St. Oscar Romero will strengthen your confidence:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime
only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise
that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives
That is what we are about.
We plant a seed that will one day grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations
that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation
in realising that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace
to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
I sign-off, as one worker in the vineyard of the Lord, reaching out to many others, in a voice that is familiar, assuring you that as I begin the celebration of Holy Mass as your shepherd I call to you one by one to be a part of the highest form of prayer we can offer to God. In thought, heart and spirit, together with your intentions, you are always with me … even if on two occasions, I have been late. I hope your absolution will be swift, and the penance given light !
United in affection and prayer, Fr. Nicholas