I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to be able to greet you once more alongside delivering the weekly Newsletter to you. In doing so I trust that you are keeping well and safe in these days of Lockdown. It continues to be good news to hear of the growing number of parishioners who are receiving the vaccine provided to protect us from the ravages of Covid-19. With the light of that news may we continue to remain up-beat that it will be available for many more of us before too long, bringing the green shoots of refreshing normality to our lives. Until then we continue to respond to the invitation to behave appropriately to our circumstances.
There is something rudimentary within our human condition that desires, craves, and if given vocal capacity would cry out from the very core of our being to be a part, unite ourselves with, and belong to the life journey of others. Perhaps the greatest deprivation and enforced divorce that the majority of us have felt over the last ten months has been our inability to share our lives with those of others as freely and randomly as we were once able and the absence of their physical presence as a part of our day to day life-experience. The longing to reconnect, be with and in reality re-engage with those who are so much a part of who we ourselves are as individuals and collectives is a motivating and driving force in the sheer determination of so many to get through these lonely and isolating times.
Whilst the vast majority of us do actually belong to others, have a place in hearts and lives not our own, and are an intrinsic part of something greater than ourselves, there has and continues to be a minority who through choice or circumstance appear to belong to no one and live a solitary existence and die lonely deaths. In November I wrote of one such individual around whose open grave just the Funeral Director and myself stood in the bleakest of both emotional and climatic conditions. Hard to believe, but the anniversary of that experience – by far not my only one, not even within the year of 2020 – rapidly approaches. At the time I could thank the Funeral Director and her team with a handshake and a conversation not held with two metres distance between us nor with mouths shielded by facial coverings.
From the moment of our arrival in time, place and a period of history we belong. Whether that concept is lived out in a family setting, community of education, faith, work or relaxation, it rarely leaves us. We are simply a part of the lives of others and socially of something greater than ourselves. It is an amazing gift, so good that we culture it and allow it to grow, even formalising our various forms and shapes of belonging through symbolic and significant gestures and words that include marriage and vocational living. All of our Sacraments contain a community dimension from the first we receive, Baptism, to, possibly the final, the Sacrament of the Sick. For some their sense of belonging will be more defined than for others. Educated alongside students from Northern Ireland in the 1980s I quickly learnt that the hospital in which a birth took place, a name given, a street lived on, the bank in which savings were deposited, even employers, can give definition and shape to the strata of society, culture and tradition to which some belong, through absolutely no choice of their own. At other times we opt into groups and communities, belonging to them through conscious choices, because of particular interests, peer-pressure, and other variants which influence the direction our life journey takes, sometimes fleetingly, decided on by a whim or passing phase, and others that are embarked upon for the long-term, following decisions arrived at after much thought and deliberation.
One of my own choices about belonging and being a part of something greater than myself came about some thirty-three years ago. Shortly before Christmas, I found myself in Eason’s, a large stationary shop on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Thumbing through a selection of festive cassettes I came across one entitled “Mario Lanza Christmas Hymns and Carols.” It was a moment of sheer nostalgia, as this, in record form, was played each Christmas morning on our radiogram as Santa’s exciting delivery was unwrapped after my parents and I had arrived home from an early Mass.
In and amongst the accompanying notes within the cassette case mention was made of the British Mario Lanza Society, an organisation culturing an interest in the man and his voice. With reason and motivation now long forgotten I sent off the required subscription and became a member, something that I have maintained to this day. During the last three decades I have never been to an annual meeting, gathering or organised event, but every few months I receive a magazine containing articles, memories, stories and news of other members. Its arrival is always welcome and has faithfully followed me around the various addresses that I have had in the many years since joining the Society. With each delivery I quietly admire the hard work that goes into its compilation, as well as the efforts made by the Society to support, encourage and promote young, contemporary classical singers. Although never having met or even knowingly spoken to any member of the Society, I felt a real sense of pride and delight when watching a TV programme entitled “Gary Lineker: My Grandad’s War” about eighteen months ago, which featured an Honorary President of the Society, Bill Earl, then aged an amazing 104 years young, and who had flown out to Italy to be interviewed by the football pundit about his experiences as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War, serving with units that were crudely nicknamed at the time “D-Day Dodgers.” Not only did Bill’s dexterity of mind and clarity of memory captivate Gary Lineker’s thirst for information about his Grandfather’s experience of war, but a clear and palpable bond of affection was evident between the two men as well. The annual subscriptions paid across the decades brought me, in that moment, so much more than a quarterly magazine. Instead I was gifted with a real sense of belonging and pride of being a part of something greater than myself. Seeing the centenarian, Bill, was like connecting with a long-lost extended family member.
This week the island nations to which we belong recorded a tragic landmark: 100,000 deaths from Covid-19. The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, attempted to sum up the news in a spiritual context, when he described it as: “A day of great sadness all over the land. So many people, families, communities, remembering those who have died in these terrible months of the pandemic. Each one is mourned. Each one is to be prayed for. This is our instinct, our faith, our practice. Our prayer is rooted in the faith that, in death, life is changed, not ended, for the promise of eternal life opens the door of hope even in our darkest moment. I pray for each and everyone, those who have died, those who mourn, those who serve. Please, please, join me in prayer.”
The figure of 100,000 is hard for me to comprehend. It is a vast number. My own attempt to grasp its magnitude is related to my Priestly ministrations. In twenty-seven years of celebrating Mass on a daily basis, I have offered no less than 14,295 Masses. This figure is derived from the celebration of at least one Mass each and every day for twenty-seven years. It is nowhere near the 100,000 mark. Another measurement is the length of time it would take to watch the “BBC news Coronavirus: Your tributes to those who have died,” which, despite its detail, does not include everyone who has lost their lives to this dreadful virus. However viewing this tableau of photographs and brief tributes, growing daily as additions are made, would currently take about 250 hours of time. This is more than ten days of uninterrupted viewing. Staggering !
The figure of 100,000 is something which belongs to us, and we belong to it and indeed to the rising number that takes it higher with each passing day. The landmark number of 100,000 deserves to be recognized, acknowledged and appropriately brought to our attention. Belonging allows us to take and come to expect but is also about giving and contributing. This weekend I invite you to give both prayerful remembrance and thought to those who have lost their lives during this dreadful pandemic. This increasing number includes members of our faith family who gather day by day in our churches at Cleckheaton and Heckmondwike.
A time of prayerful reflection also affords us the opportunity not just to speak words in conversation with God, but to carefully acknowledge their meaning. The prayer that Christ gave to His first followers and is said in virtually, if not all, of our collective Acts of Worship is known simply as the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. One of the invocations that we make in its praying is “lead us not into temptation.” Each day and time brings its own temptations knocking on the door of our life. Here are a few from the time we are living through together: The Temptation … not to give others their space; to think that little things do not matter; to disregard the common good for individual satisfaction, disguised as need or want or a right; to take good health for granted; to be careless and expect others to pick up the pieces; to put off speaking words of love, kindness, reassurance, hope and joy to those who share our lives; seeking the loop-hole which salves an informed conscience of poor decision-making; for believing that unseen, careless, and defiant actions and attitudes do not cause hurt, pain or damage.
The 100,000 lives lost includes names known to us, faces that we have been familiar with, voices that we have recognized. These remind us that such a huge and vast number are indeed a part of the community to which we belong. Known or unknown, our ability to name or not, each life is just that, a life, and one that at some point belonged to and was shared with others. Let us recommit ourselves to a form of behaviour that offers the witness of our Christian belief and heritage to others based on the greatest commandments spoken of by Christ Himself: to love God, and our neighbour as we love ourselves. The national call to protect ourselves and others by the distance we keep between one another, the use of appropriate facial coverings, and the frequent use of water or santisers to cleanse our hands is a gentle reminder to each of us that we belong and are a part of something greater than ourselves. Let us all play our part in this because this is what we are – family, community, society, a nation. Each is a significant other in the lives that we are a part of. And as such precious and cherished.
In faithful remembrances in prayer and affection may we remain united.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas