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