24th April 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

The beauty, dignity and skill of a piece of pottery demonstrating the craft of Kintsugi (“golden joinery”) is obvious for all to see. A method of mending that hides nothing of the history of the item, whilst offering further life and use to something that had been earlier been fractured, damaged or broken. It is perhaps a skill that the Church could benefit from when it comes to promoting vocations. As an institution the Church holds up the highest ideal before us, its members, when it comes to the Sacraments of Marriage and Ordained Ministry. There is sound reason why. However the fast-changing landscape of relationships impacts upon the Church, at local level, in parish communities, and not least on the traditional emphasis that has been placed on fostering and culturing vocational living. Perhaps this is because the time-tested toolbox of the Church is devoid of the appropriate and necessary resources to address the growing chasm between an ideal and lived-experience. The people of God have tremendous skills – especially sensitivity and compassion – when it comes to dealing with the raw edges of relational breakdown, just as the Church in her teaching and wisdom offers tremendous insight into the value, richness and gift between two people that Marriage is. Alas work on the bridge uniting the two is a very slow progress. Caught somewhere in the middle are those who work at the coalface of the meeting place of real life and the upholding of Church teaching. An insight into the speed of change in our approach to relationships can been gleaned from tentative conversations had by the parents of infants in the early days of my own ministry. Talking about their desire to have a child baptised, a caveat was often added: “Does it make a difference that we are not married?” Heading towards thirty years on from those times, our Baptismal Registers display the answer given to that question: absolutely not! 

This weekend is Vocation Sunday, a universal day of prayer for and reflection on vocational life, especially in regard to Priesthood and Religious Life. Just as initial thoughts and the experience, through observation, of married life come from the home in which we are raised, so the culturing of other forms of living have a seedbed in the environment most familiar to us, and are tended to by voices familiar to us. In its 143 year history the Diocese of Leeds has only once ordained more priests than it actually needed! In 1910, with a ‘no vacancies’ sign in its window, Leeds generously loaned its surplus clergy to other dioceses. Needless to say they were quickly recalled as vacancies arose in what was then an expanding vista of the Lord’s Vineyard. A century later, in a receding ecclesial landscape, clergy had already begun ministering across two parish communities, and as time marches on, the latter will inevitably become three or four. Our need to implore “the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:38) is ever more urgent if we are to simply maintain what we are currently familiar with, let alone be at a point of energetic missionary activity. Conversations need to be had with our youngsters. Vocational life, in all its forms, needs to be an option on the careers’ prospectus. Other discussions also need to be had in regard to the shape of vocational living in contemporary society, by which I do not necessarily refer to the issue of women priests, nor married clergy (not least because we have had the latter for thirty years, albeit a rarefied form) and we often forget that Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (1808 – 1892), the second Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster after the restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850, was himself a widower. Whilst regarded as an austere individual, he was beloved by poorly paid workers as one of the few nationally recognised voices speaking up for better working conditions, and attempting to culture a social conscience amongst employers. In his rather academic book, “The Eternal Priesthood” he called on the clergy to be more than simply dispensers of Sacraments, but to be proactive advocates in social matters, using their role within a community to minister with a Gospel mind-set to those in most need.  

Just to talk vocation would be a start! Some initial conversations were had at various times. In post-war France the “Worker Priest” became a reality for some ordained men. Outside of a parochial ministry a small number of priests worked in factories and on the land, alongside communities to whom they ministered by presence and through pastoral concern. The nearest, and it is very distantly related to the French concept, that we have been familiar with were the clergy who taught in our schools. A name which appeared on our list of anniversaries recently was that of Fr. Frederick St. John Oram, who taught at St. Bede’s Grammar School in Bradford for many years. He was Received into the Catholic Faith at Holy Spirit Church in April 1928, confirmed the next year, subsequently ordained to the Priesthood in Rome (1936) and after spending a brief time as bishop’s secretary and a curate, he joined the staff at St. Bede’s in 1940. His was a lonely road to Priesthood, lacking the support of family, some of whom were openly disparaging of his desire to respond to the Lord’s call to “follow me.” In his process of discernment he will have endured a wilderness experience. No doubt a ministering angel at that time will have been Fr. Nicholson, who together with his curates will have assisted Fr. Oram in his process of discernment. As a member of staff at Heckmondwike Grammar School, I often visualise, an almost Churchillian walk across the dividing line of High Street to the Presbytery for his weekly ‘instruction,’ as we once called it. Fate determined that his priesthood and teaching career would be forever intertwined as death, just a short time before his pending retirement at 65, prevented him from being given a parochial appointment. This was unlike his former colleague at St. Bede’s, the almost legendary Fr. John Molony (known to pupils as “Johnny Moll”) who after spending no less than 25 years on the teaching staff was appointed Parish Priest of St. Patrick’, Birstall, where he spent a further 15 years until his sudden death in 1960. Two names which may evoke memories for some reading this! 

As a priest I can say that the influence of other clergy in the process of discernment and lived ministry have been, and continue to be, significant and important. Growing up in Otley our Parish Priest was a constant presence, providing for the spiritual needs of ourselves as a family, and also for everyone else in the town who identified as being Catholic. Whether individuals or families crossed its threshold, the church door was open, and Mass celebrated each day. It was a given. The product of a generation of clergy who were plenty in number, he travelled with some of them to places which in the 1970s were far distant from Otley, but on his return homilies brought biblical names to life as he regaled how mean and moody the Sea of Galilee could be, and what an incredible individual St. Paul was not least through his physical endurance and sense of adventure which saw him journey so widely in the Mediterranean basin. Serving Mass for him could bring public humiliation as he was a skilled stage whisperer, and any neglect of duty would be heralded to all in church! Despite this, we, as Altar-servers, remained loyal, and never shirked or neglected our service.  

A former curate in Otley was amongst those on the selection committee when I applied for a place at junior seminary. With astonishment and admiration when responding to a question as to whether he would know either of my parents, on proffering my mother’s maiden name, he listed the names of her parents and siblings together with their address. All remembered from his ministrations in the town over 30 years beforehand! As a student I spent a couple of placements with him in Bradford, together with his two curates and resident housekeeper. It was an insightful taste of Presbytery-life in times past.                                                         

At the Ordination of a Priest, another priest – often the rector of his seminary – is called upon to acknowledge that the candidate is worthy to assume the role and office. My choice catapulted a man who spent his life avoiding the spotlight into this role. It was based on the fact that we simply got on well from the day we met and acknowledged my gratitude for his wisdom, example and solid encouragement. Our friendship grew out of the rocky ground of him having fallen foul to the antics of an earlier experience when having opened up his home to a seminarian, the guest showed himself to be far move street and worldly-wise than his host. It was far from a good combination and resulted in the Parish Priest learning more, perhaps, than the clerical student. Aware of the breadth of experience that this priest and his parish could offer a student, the Vocations Director made a direct and impassioned plea for him to accept one Nicholas Hird, whom he had personally known from birth, under his roof. Needless to say his pleading worked and I was invited to spend a fortnight in the parish – half the usual time – but a useful get-out clause for the priest concerned had things gone pear-shaped. From day one we recognised that in many ways we were cut from the same cloth, and as the fortnight drew to a close, I was asked if I would like to stay on for another two weeks, which was further extended until he took his annual month-long holiday. A further invitation came for a week of pastoral experience at Christmas, and unusually, I was informed by the Vocations Director that I would be returning the following summer too by special request. As a student I was on placement to learn, and that included more than observation, but culturing necessary personal qualities, often overlooked. In a parish where six weekend Masses were celebrated, including one in a Chapel of Ease, there were times when in the absence of a supply priest to cover the illness of his curate, the Parish Priest would offer all the Masses himself. Despite his mild protestations, about there being no need for me to assist at all these … I did. Priesthood calls for stamina!                                   

The Church in which each of the men I’ve alluded to were ordained for Priestly service evolved greatly during their lifetimes, as it continues to do for each of us. Those gifted with faith today are not necessarily the tangibly faithful of previous generations, yet their expectations, not least in time of need, remain the same. In order for what has come to be a given expectation to continue into the future others will need to be cultured and nurtured to a place where a vocational way of life in the service of God and his people is a real option on their list of potential life-choices. This begins with the familiarity of belonging to a family of Faith, discerning conversations, encouraging and challenging guidance, the wise counsel and gentle nudging of those observing the sprouting green shoots of interest in this unique manner of life. The last year has shown the vulnerability of those whose ministrations we have all come to reply on. The reality of an aging priesthood has brought the ministerial lives of men, who in other walks of life, would already be retired, to a shuddering halt under the banner of shielding, meaning that church doors have been closed in many parts of the Diocese for much longer than others. Like so many, they too will now face the hesitant and at times faltering journey back to a new normality, which may see some hanging up the responsibility of their care for others in order to re-craft themselves.  

The high ideal of the Good Shepherd presented in this weekend’s Gospel is as much an aspirational sermon for those of us who share the privilege of an Ordained Ministry, as for those in localised communities of faith who are cared for by those sent to them by successive Bishops. The goodness of the individual may not always be evident, and the skills of shepherding rich and varied, however their unique ministry feeds us with both Sacrament and Word. A scenario devoid of their presence would potentially produce a famine for the souls of many. May the Lord indeed send labourers into His harvest, and may each of us play our part in providing an environment and atmosphere in which the youngsters of today may at least contemplate being the Priest or Religious to serve God and His people in the future.  

Be assured of my continuing remembrance of you and your loved ones in both prayer and affection. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas 

17th April HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Dear Parishioners, 

Aware of Jeremy’s Vine’s absence from the air waves last week I tuned into BBC Radio 2’s lunchtime programme hosted by someone that I regard as a queen of articulation, Vanessa Feltz. Like many Jewish women who have chosen careers in the media, she has a wonderful ability to display the best of our verbal powers of communication in a manner that gives any listener an appreciation of the richness of the English vernacular. The diction, pronunciation, expressiveness and seeming endless dictionary of words that we share under the umbrella title of the English language is the conveyer of joy and satisfaction when used well and appropriately. Christopher Casson, the son of actress Sybil Thorndike, who taught public speaking to countless generations of seminarians in All Hallows, Dublin, my own training ground, would be proud of Vanessa ! In full spate, Ms. Feltz suddenly disappeared, and there followed a brief moment of silence making me think that that the power source had been interrupted. The pause was soon filled with an unrecognised voice reporting that news had been received from Buckingham Palace announcing the death of His Royal Highness, The Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh. As the brief contents of a written statement that I could imagine being hung on the palace railings, were read aloud the firmness and stability of the floor beneath my feet felt that little bit less solid and secure. Death had removed someone who had for an incredible number of years, for so many of us, been a part of the fabric, pageantry and structure of institution that make us as a nation who we are, and who on the highest, finest, grandest, most glorious, tragic and sad occasions has been a visible and ever present figure at public displays envied the world over.  

Living in the public eye from the time of his summer engagement to the then Princess Elizabeth, with whom he would share an amazing seventy-three years of married life which began on a mild but cloudy November day in 1947, in reality those able to remember times when he was not a feature of royal and state occasions will be approaching the venerable age of eighty. More than the span of years lived by some. In light of this there was something appropriate about having an opportunity to pause and acknowledge his passing. For some, it appears as though it was all a bit over the top judging by a reported 100,000+ complainants who took the time and trouble to contact the BBC over the disruption of viewing schedules. The anticipation surrounding the crowing of the Masterchef supremo of 2021, the loss of a socially-distanced but otherwise seemingly completely other worldly (in comparison to the restrictive one in which the rest of us inhabit !) episode of Eastenders, alongside the sacrificing of Gardeners World all taking place on a solitary Friday evening was clearly too much for some. Personally, what I saw of the programmes aired in their stead, measured in time, offered little more than a respective and appreciative nod to a man who had given decades in an attempt to make a positive difference to the lives of others, however that was done be it through the establishment of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, a walkabout allowing the briefest of conversations to be held with someone who had stood hours just for a glimpse of a royal, or through numerous determined efforts to bring people to a point of conversation, not least those of differing beliefs, as the case in 1986 when he was the mover and shaker orchestrating a meeting between the leaders of five major faith traditions with their topic of discussion being that of a shared concern – ecology. Definitely a man who thought outside the box. 

As a committed radio listener I took delight in the programmes broadcast by the BBC over the weekend offering many the opportunity of sharing their memories of Prince Philip. There were some amazing tales which revealed facets of the man which would never have been shared otherwise. My only encounter with the Duke of Edinburgh was in 1997 when the Queen came to Bradford in its centenary year as a city to distribute the Maundy Money. After the Service in St. Peter’s Cathedral the couple did a walkabout in a packed Centenary Square amongst a wonderfully diverse crowd whose facial delight alone conveyed affection and warmth for the monarch and her consort. In what was by then a time honoured custom the couple separated and worked the crowds, stopping to chat and gather armfuls of flowers and cards, faces delivering the broadest of smiles. Noticeable about the prince was his height, accentuated in comparison to the Queen’s diminutive figure, and his ramrod straight back. At the same six foot as myself, he appeared much taller facing the throng through good bearing and posture. With one arm crossed over to the elbow of the other he was clearly enjoying some longer conversations on the concourse. When the couple reunited it was to wave a final farewell, and receive a rapturous cheer from those like myself who would not forget the experience no matter how far back in the happy throng they may have been. Two very special people, igniting an equally special moment in the storeroom of memory.   

Little could I have imagined that within a decade I would be asked to supply the names of two people who would be the recipients of the Maundy Money distributed at Wakefield Cathedral in 2005. It was a privilege to do so, and my choice came after local research and discreet enquiries, as both candidates had to be volunteers of long-standing within the community. Those nominated, each of pension-age, committed to supporting children within and outside of their school life, were numbered amongst the one hundred and fifty-eight people, of equal division between women and men, representing the age attained by the Queen that year (seventy-nine), who received not only the Maundy coinage but also a purse containing newly minted commemorative currency. Each could take a guest, and were invited to a luncheon afterwards. The lady whose name I had put forward had intended to attend with her sister, but shortly before the day, her nominated guest was laid low with a bad back rendering it impossible for her to be present. Having sensed the upset in her voice at having to make the journey alone, in a conversation with the said lady, I enquired if there was a telephone number anywhere on the preparatory paperwork that she had received. Phew … there was ! Encouraging her to ring and explain the situation to the ‘event organiser’ believing that this would not be the first time such an issue had arisen, about half an hour later I received a return call from the lady concerned. She was very excited, bursting to tell someone that when she dialled the number, it was answered by an incredibly well-spoken man, whose first words were “Buckingham Palace !” At over eighty years of age, I suspect that the lady concerned could never, even in her wildest dreams, have imagined making such a call from her modest flat in Dewsbury to, perhaps, the best known residence in the world. Nor was I ever sure which had given her the greatest delight: the actual ceremony at which she met one of the residents of Buckingham Palace, or the fact that she had dialled digits that were answered in such a gracious manner. The gentleman that I had nominated regaled his captivation by the Duke of Edinburgh’s delivery of Sacred Scripture, commenting that not only did he read well but he did so with the conviction of believing every word. An insightful observation and compliment indeed.                                        

For a man who joined the royal ‘firm’ as an outsider, treated with suspicion by some, from both within and without, the role that became his, when in distant Kenya, he was the one to break the news of her father’s death to his wife, she became monarch, was one without precedent. There was no blueprint and the nearest model, that of Prince Albert – with whom Prince Philip shared similarities in a sharp and inquisitive intellect, foresight and vision, not to mention a devotional love for the woman he had married – was well beyond lived memory. Bringing himself into the role heart and soul, in many ways Prince Philip was a man whose life-experience was well ahead of his generation. His early years were in what would today be described as a dysfunctional family unit, and when stability was restored, having arrived penniless and homeless in England, it was shattered by the premature loss of his mentor. Like so many of his age-group life and limb were risked in a World War, and he learnt what hard work and discipline were in a continuing military setting. He bore the credentials necessary to face a modern and evolving world. Long term he showed that it is possible to make a difference, but it takes time. Breaking down barriers is often a life-time’s work. An important lesson for those who expect change to be instant, obtained easily and devoid of effort, pain, or sacrifice. These were elements that are recognisable in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Taking talent and skill, culturing them in an environment that, whilst supportive and encouraging, is also challenging, drawing participants beyond their expectations, working as individuals forming a team that provides benefits for the wider community.  

First and foremost, the late Duke was a husband, father and grandfather across two generations. It will be as such that he is most mourned and by those closest to him that the pain of loss and absence will be felt. Many commentators lament his death just weeks shy of his hundredth birthday. Whilst his wry sense of humour may have made much about receiving a telegram from his wife, he undoubtedly would have hated being in the limelight. He was naturally ill at ease when praise was offered, skilled at deflecting accolades, so the attainment of his hundredth year was probably a good compromise reached between himself and the Good Lord. Acknowledged as a no fuss individual his Funeral will be in accordance with his wishes, aligning itself to many celebrated over the last year with limited numbers, social distancing, facial coverings and no congregational singing. In its execution, I anticipate, that the royal family will lead the nation by good example. Above all it will be a time when the ultimate hope of our Christian faith is expressed and shared with a worldwide viewing congregation. Prince Philip’s own deep rooted Christian faith, initially that of the Greek Orthodox tradition, and subsequently as a confirmed Anglican, was hugely significant to him. The unabashed and obvious references to the Christian Faith and significance of Christ’s birth made by his wife in her Christmas Speech in more recent times bear all the hallmarks of his influence. Whilst some may attribute his respect and reliance upon faith as being a legacy from his mother – described by her own mother as “a nun who smokes and plays canasta !” – the Duke of Edinburgh took nothing as a given, and will have tried and tested the gift of his faith, as well as seen the benefit and advantages of it, before committing to it or being guided by it. In offering his sympathy to the Queen, Pope Francis (to whom Prince Philip presented a bottle of Scotch whisky in 2014) wrote: “Recalling Prince Philip’s devotion to his marriage and family, his distinguished record of public service and his commitment to the education and advancement of future generations [we] commend him to the merciful love of Christ our Redeemer,” adding the Lord’s blessings of consolation and peace upon all who grieve his loss in the sure hope of the resurrection. 

 In a moment of silence at three o’clock today (Saturday) we are called to pause briefly. As a people of faith may we do so in prayerful remembrance. Royalist or republican, public service, duty, fidelity and humility are great virtues in either’s language and worthy of acknowledgement. 

May we remain united in heart and soul just as the early people of the Christian Faith were recognised as being by those whose lives they shared. Be assured of prayerful remembrances and affection. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas 


10th April 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

As someone who tends not to eat until the work of the day is complete my television viewing often takes place after what was once referred to as the Watershed, hence I find relaxing enjoyment in many of the detective dramas that are a feature of post 9 p.m. schedules. Increasingly I have begun to wonder if I am made of much tougher and far less shockable stuff than other viewers as I pass the comment “Well, what do you expect !” in reply to the continuity announcers’ statement that the programme about to be aired contains violence and scenes that some viewers may find distressing. Take the suspense, grit and violent scenes out of such indulgent viewing and there would be a lot of unemployed and bland TV detectives. Vera Stanhope could spend a bit more time on housework, and Ted Hastings pursuing his life-mission of discovering the ever-elusive “H”. Far more worrying is when similar announcements are made prior to the opening bars of familiar soap opera themes. These are masked, when one makes an objection, by justifying responses that the scripts of what were once beloved national TV treasures reflect topical issues and are in no way related to the fact that a sensational storyline brings higher audience ratings than a rival. Doubting the validity of the argument I would be happy for Coronation Street to go back to two evenings a week, Emmerdale become a farm once more offering, as it once did, seasonal viewing and for some bland, good-living, naturally comical family to move into an Albert Square property. A form of normality does exist for the majority of us, and I very often say that I could not write the script for some of the scenarios that I encounter, not to mention the rich seem of priceless characters that I come across, unpaid for being wonderfully just themselves, quirky, funny and natural. Alas, no announcement is made before something featured on screens, great or small, introduces a character or two, ready, willing and overly able to take the name of the Lord in vain. Of course to object about such matters would be deemed over sensitive. The fact that we need to be informed that a murder will take place in the picturesque but deadly villages of the fictional county of Midsomer is a totally different matter.      

This weekend our Low Sunday Liturgy presents us with a story-line not intended for the faint-hearted or squeamish. The Risen Christ appears to the marooned isolating Apostles in the Upper Room. All, except one. Thomas, the twin. On his return from where we are not told, perhaps a foray for food, if so he must have been weighed down with enough to satisfy at least ten other adults under the same roof, he makes the staggering statement “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.” (John 20:25) This post-resurrectional appearance of Christ, with all the gruesome demands of Thomas, if he is to believe the words of the other Apostles, is not something we hear just once every three years in our cycle of Sunday readings, but it is there for us to encounter and benefit from on the Second Sunday of Easter in Years A, B and C. In other words there is simply no escaping or avoiding the unashamed gore and earthiness of the graphic description offered by St. John the Evangelist. 

A number of years ago, having preached on this Gospel extract, I received in the post what I felt is a tremendously powerful image of the scene in that secured room eight days after the initial appearance of the Risen Christ. It portrays the response of the Resurrected One inviting Thomas to “Put your finger here; look here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side.” (John 20:27). The image sent, entitled “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” was by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), and is a very graphic and literal interpretation of the biblical account, with Christ holding the wrist of Thomas, who, with finger outstretched, is touching the very wounds of the One he will subsequently acknowledge, climatically for the author of the Gospel, as “My Lord and my God !” (John 20:28) Peering over the shoulder of the stooping Thomas are two of his companions, who already having seen the Risen Lord, are given further proof that what they believed they had seen they really had. Emphasising the reality of the resurrection from the dead of Jesus’s physical human body the depiction is noticeably devoid of attributes such as a halo above His head. In this instance it is the shared human wrapping with the Apostles that is stressed, flesh and blood, not that which differentiates them, His divinity.  

The dawn of Caravaggio’s prolific artistic career began in the factory-like environment of the artist Giuseppe Cesari’s studio. Here there was an almost conveyor belt production of much sought after depictions of flowers and fruit made fashionable by Pope Clement VIII’s patronage of Cesari (1568 – 1640). Caravaggio’s own brief life, less than forty years, was marked by a personal reputation that included a quickness of temper, being easily provoked and in the face of defeat a tendency to allow violence to determine the outcome of arguments. He was sentenced to death for a murder which took place during a violent brawl in Naples, from where he fled and for which he was eventually granted a Papal pardon. The dramatic and ever present personal energy with which he lived his life spilled over into his career on canvass. He was a deft and skilled crafter frequently dismissing the preparatory techniques of others such as the use of cartoons or paper drafts, preferring instead to work directly on to a canvas, using live models which, together with an insightful observation of the human state and anatomy, allowed his works to convey a wealth and richness of physical and emotional expression producing paintings which communicate profoundly with those looking at them.   

In the evolving world of art Caravaggio’s influence was huge, culturing with others a new Baroque-style of art, his own works eagerly embracing the dramatic use and effect of both light and darkness, observed through life-experience, on his subject matter. His skill and inner eye allowed him to become a master craftsman able to give status and relevance to those captured in darkening shadow-effect without detracting any meaningfulness from central characters often caught in the spotlight of a radiant shaft of light. Whilst numerous paintings of his convey scenes of great sensitivity such as the “Supper at Emmaus,” the “Death of the Virgin” and the “Conversion on the way to Damascus,” Caravaggio certainly does not shy away from the gruesome and horrific, including the “Crucifixion of St. Peter,” “David with the head of Goliath” and “Judith beheading Holofernes,” to which may be added the “Incredulity of Saint Thomas.” Strange to say, I have yet to see any warning given about the subject matter of such depictions, nor, having viewed them, am I aware of suffering any emotional or psychological damage.  

Link to Caravaggio Foundation

Having been privileged to celebrate our Holy Week Liturgies last week it was reassuringly good to see our churches as full as they could be on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, though, as usual, there was space for a few more on Holy Thursday. I put this down to the fact that the Gospel of Holy Thursday evening (John 13:1-15) is not a story that we are totally comfortable with. It comes with its own health warning. The evangelists Mark (14:22ff), Matthew (26:26ff) and Luke (22:14ff) all recount the Last Supper at which the Eucharist is instituted by Jesus who, taking the simple gifts of bread and wine, through the power of the Holy Spirit become His very body and blood. John however, using the backdrop of the Passover meal, shifts the emphasis from receiving such a great and mystical gift to revealing, offering and giving gifts to others, taking the very tangible form of service to our sisters and brothers. In John’s telling of the events of that final evening shared by Jesus and the Apostles, even those closest to Him are shocked and stunned by His action of washing their feet and giving them “an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13:15) This was not what they were expecting, and as we gather, year on year to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, it still does not sit any too comfortably with us. The gift of the Eucharist comes with strings attached. That of serving our fellow human beings. It is a big ask, to put others before self and one that can involve the risks of humiliation and rejection as what is offered is not graciously welcomed or accepted and where graspingly snatched, the gesture may be misunderstood.    

St. John purposefully removed Thomas from the initial encounter of Jesus with the Apostles, allowing him to include the only beatitude in his Gospel “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29) Elsewhere we hear the more familiar attitudes of being associated with the living out in our own lives of the blueprint left by Jesus including mercy, peace and justice. John makes the presumption that the followers of Christ are already living the more familiar Beatitudes of St. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. As such John fundamentally shifts the goalposts of expectation of Christian living to include the aspiration, coupled with a subtle new hope, that how the followers of Christ live will influence others to a point where they question the motivation of the Christian and by so doing express a hunger and thirst for a personal knowledge of the Risen Christ. This is where the uncomfortableness of being a follower of Christ kicks in. Not only are we being asked to say who we are, but also to live what we profess. Our natural apprehension and fear of failure can hold us back. However not only was the Upper Room the place where Thomas was to offer his own version of the Creed, but it was also where the Holy Spirit was poured out on the fearful Apostles. On their reception of this gift, they flung the doors wide and began to proclaim – in a language that all their hearers could understand – the message of the resurrection. Words will not have been enough for this to be effective. Attitude and deed were the co-workers of words spoken, allowing the infant Church to live a life of both integrity and authenticity. As “children of the light,” by virtue of Easter and our own baptism, we are called to continue this work today. If we do we may well be recognisable descendants of those spoken of in this weekend’s first reading: a group of believers “united, heart and soul.” (Acts 4:32)  

In signing off for this week I continue to wish you all the blessings and joys of the Season, may they be yours and the gift we offer to those who share our life-journey. With unity in both prayer and affection. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

3rd April 2021 – Happy Easter

Dear Parishioners, 

It is wonderful to be able to wish you all the blessings of the Season which is at the core and heart of our Faith tradition – Easter. May I especially wish you the joy and hope of the Festival, so much needed at this time when we look forward to the ‘opening up’ of society in a number of ways, with the great aspiration that a shape and form of ‘normality’ will grow from these initial baby steps. 

One of the very noticeable new skills developing within society is the ability to read other people’s eyes. Having long been able to flash a look, with the same eyes from which an occasional tear can also escape, I claim no advantage over anyone else in this field of communication, but where I am noticing it most is amongst our very young parishioners, literally babes in arms. Their brand new world is populated by people whose expressive faces are mostly covered, and so – with wonderfully adaptability and dexterity – they have discovered a new vocabulary for communication. Eye contact. Many are already incredibly skilled communicators, despite not being able to utter a word. They can sense the curious hesitant joy of the person peering at them, and they respond with happy beaming faces welcoming another human being into their circle of admirers. Those that we would usually deem to be in need of learning and education have become the teachers and educators of the adult. Our school children are equally talented. Communicating as I do with those on the playground using the traditional method of speech, I now find myself with a budding ability to capture something of what lies within their young hearts and minds as I observe their sparkling, vibrant, life and energy rich glances, looks, and long stares. We should never underestimate the look someone gives to us, or indeed that we offer to others! 

One of the Easter stories that I have a particular fondness for is the garden scene of the meeting between the Risen Christ and Mary Magdalene. Despite looking Mary initially fails to see. Her grief, sorrow, and anger at the events of the first Holy Week remove the sight from her eyes. She is in the garden to tend to and mourn the dead, not to encounter the distracting and talkative living. It is only when she hears the person that she believes to be the gardener call her by name – “Mary” (John 20:16) – that she believes the true message of what she has already seen: an empty tomb and two angels seated where the body of Jesus had been. In an attempt to literally hold on to the resurrected Jesus, Mary is told “Do not cling to me” (John 20:17) (“Noli me Tangere”). It is an image portrayed by many artists, with one of the most famous being Titian’s interpretation, housed in the National Gallery in London. In his portrayal of the scene Mary’s posture is that of a woman of the earth, belonging to the natural world and environment, whilst the upright Christ, together with the nearby tree – representing the redemptive wood of the cross – are directed heavenward, towards eternity. However the arch of posture that the Risen Christ forms over Mary, together with the tenderness and concerning look He offers her, reflect His empathy for and protection of humanity in its totality.

Titian “Noli me tangere” – image from National Gallery Website

This image, painted when Titian (1490 – 1576) was very young (c.1514), was the first of the many treasures of the Gallery to be displayed, as singular display-pieces, during the Second World War, under the title Picture of the Month. Responding to a plea written in the Times in January 1942 which stated “because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days, we need more than ever to see beautiful things,” the Gallery invited people to vote for what they would like to see. From that time one object per month was removed from its hiding place of safety in a Welsh slate mine and transported back to London. It wasn’t uncommon for queues to form in order to see a particular month’s solitary exhibit. There is something telling that the first of these was a depiction of a post-resurrection moment. Easter offers us all an invitation to look into the eyes of Christ, just as Mary did. Her response was to discard the trappings of mourning and tell “the disciples that she had seen the Lord.” (John 20:18) This continues to be the mission of ourselves as the Easter-people. The following words are, for me, a lovely reflection.     

The Eyes of Jesus. 

I imagine the eyes of Jesus 
Were harvest-brown, 
The light of their gazing  
Suffused with the seasons: 

The shadow of winter, 
The mind of spring, 
The blues of summer, 
The amber of harvest. 

A gaze that is perfect sister 
To the kindness that dwells 
In his beautiful hands. 

The eyes of Jesus gaze on us, 
Stirring in the heart’s clay 
The confidence of seasons 
That never lose their way to harvest. 

This gaze knows the signature 
Of our heartbeat, the first glimmer 
From the dawn that dreamed our minds, 

The crevices where thoughts grow 
Long before the longing in the bone 
Sends them towards the mind’s eye, 

The artistry of the emptiness 
That knows to slow the hunger 
Of outside things until they weave 
Into the twilight side of the heart, 

A gaze full of all that is still future 
Looking out for us to glimpse 
The jewelled light in winter stone. 

Quickening the eyes that look at us 
To see through to where words  
Are blind to say what we would love, 

Forever falling softly on our faces, 
His gaze plies the soul with light, 
Laying down a luminous layer 

Beneath our brief an brittle days 
Until the appointed dawn comes 
Assured and harvest deft 

To unravel the last black knot 
And we are back home in the house  
That we have never left. 

(John O’Donohue)                        

On this Easter morning, let us look again at the lives we have been so generously given and let us discard the useless baggage that we carry – old pains, old habits, old ways of seeing and feeling – and let us have the courage to begin again. Life is very short, and we are no sooner here than it is time to depart again, and we should use to the full the time that we still have. We do not realize all the good we can do. A kind, encouraging word or helping hand can bring many a person through a desert or wilderness experience in their lives. We were not put here to make money or to acquire status or reputation. We were sent here to search for the light of Easter in our hearts, and when we find it we are called upon to give it away with the generosity of Christ Himself. 

May the spirit and light of this Easter morning and the special spirit and light of our churches in Cleckheaton and Heckmondwike bless us all, watch over us and protect us on our journey, open us from the darkness into the light of peace and joy and hope and transfiguration. 

In the joy and hope of the Easter message be assured of my personal prayerful and affectionate remembrances of yourselves and those you carry with you in your hearts.

As ever, Fr. Nicholas