26th June 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

Whilst most would look for the silver lining in the cloud there are some who look for the cloud around the silver lining! Amongst the latter have been those lamenting the crowded-house celebrations of First Holy Communion that have not featured on the calendars of our church communities for the last two years, almost to a point where in the absence of large numbers and fripperies questions are raised as to the validity of any celebration without these. Having presided at numerous, rich and varied, First Holy Communion Masses I am aware that what is customary and traditional in one parish would be alien to another. Yet in settings where a Health and Safety Officer would quake in his boots at the numbers rammed into the interior of churches, or those where a single child or small group of children receive Our Lord at the weekly Mass they attend with their families, the Sacrament remains unequivocally the same: totally and utterly valid, and the same the world over.  

From a Presider’s perspective the recent smaller, family-group celebrations of First Holy Communion for our Year 5 children were incredibly spiritual, participatory, meaningful and memory-creating experiences for those at their centre. Appreciative comments have been received by the staff in Holy Spirit Primary School all favourably reflecting my own view of the evenings. About to embark upon another three evenings of such celebrations this coming week for Year 4 pupils, I can only hope that they go as well, most especially for the youngsters who have been preparing for these incredibly special days for a considerable period of time.  

Experience has given me a fabulous back-catalogue of the all-so-not-important additions to these celebratory occasions from forms of transportation to church, to clothing and accessories which will be a part of some children’s memories of their First Communion Day. Having seen stretch-limo arrivals at church doors, one of the most memorable and at the same time touching was of siblings been borne to church in a Police car. Yes, indeed! Travelling along the M62 the family car had been stopped by a keen-eyed Policeman due to the excessive number of passengers crammed into it. With the children’s parents explaining the significance of the day, the two communicants were duly put into the back of the Police vehicle in order to complete their journey and be at church on time. Hopefully just a warning was issued to the parents who – as the Police car didn’t appear at the end of Mass – must have promised to get their children home in a more safety conscious fashion than that used at the beginning of their special day.  

Many of us will have some recollection of our own First Holy Communion day. I was just six when I received Our Lord for the first time, on a windy May Sunday morning. The climatic conditions captured for all time on the class photograph depicting the veils worn by the girls blowing in all directions ! Having fasted from midnight, which was the expectation before an early Mass, we breakfasted in the school hall, and I well remember tucking into a bowl of jelly and ice-cream, which were never a feature on the breakfast table at home. At a theological and intellectual level as an adult I may be able to understand a little more of what I continue to receive in Holy Communion than I could as a small child on that blustery day. However the wonder and mystery remain. Satisfied that I do not need to know everything about what is given to me as sacramental gift, simply knowing that it is good for me is enough. What is offered to me evokes an on-going willingness of body, mind and spirit to utter with its entirety an expressive and believing So be it or Amen. That the sacred species is the Body and Blood of Jesus, and He said it is, is enough for me. Using the account given by St. Mark of the Last Supper, which was the gospel reading of Corpus Christi this year, I encouraged those receiving the Lord for the first time to accept – in faith – the words Jesus said about the bread and wine He shared with those closest to him: This is my BodyThis is my Blood. If the second person of the Trinity says this is fact, who am I to do anything but accept what I am privileged to receive by repeating the Abrahamic word of affirmation which means So be it.   

The celebration of First Communion by name and definition calls upon us to ensure that we build upon this unique initial meeting between God and ourselves by valuing it enough to appreciate that it is far more than a landmark on a spiritual journey. It is nourishment and viaticum, or food for the journey of life. The cloud-gazers amongst us on such high-days in parochial life may wonder, often loudly, when, or if, a particular cohort of children will arrive at their second communion with the Lord. However, what we receive is far less about the spiritual lives of others, than our own interior livelihood and well-being. If we make the Real Presence that we receive a tangible reality for others to see the benefits from in our own lives, expressed in attitude, word and deed, then, just maybe, they will come – in the fullness of a timescale which is not ours – to value the same gift offered to them. When Jesus offered Himself at table to His first disciples he did not put a sell by or best before date on His Body or Blood. Instead for all time and in all places and situations He stated This is my Body … This is my Blood. In a period of time when many have for all good reason been separated from the Real Presence in their lives, what a wonderful and consoling reality that has, and continues, to be. 

Next weekend marks a year since our two churches opened for the celebration of Holy Mass having been closed from 20th March. The experience of our current celebrations of Holy Mass is somewhat different to that of pre-pandemic times, but at its heart is the reception of Christ’s Body and Blood. With the exception of November, when we were obliged to close our doors once more for a month, and thanks to willing volunteers, together with adherence to a code of compliance issued to keep our congregations safe, we have been able to offer the gift of Holy Mass throughout this period of time. Whilst for many Holy Mass continues to be a virtual experience, accessed through the internet or a radio broadcast, as you think of the celebration of Holy Mass that in ‘normal’ times you are a participant at, so in these times, by spiritual presence you remain in the midst of the familiar sacred space and amongst recognisable faces, Communing with what is the Body and Blood of Christ. 

Having recently come upon the following reflection on the reality of presence I both assure those still hesitant about returning to church, as well as those who are beginning to return – albeit to a weekday Mass rather than those of the weekend – that in our celebrations you remain present in reality or spiritually:  “Everything can bless us, but we’ve got to be there for the blessing to occur. Being present with quality is a decision we are invited to make each day. It is another way to become like God. Due to the reality of our terribly distracted, cluttered and noisy existence, the decision for real presence is not easy. If we can make this decision and live it, it will be a kind of salvation for us. It can save us from many kinds of death: the death of apathy and mediocrity, the death of carelessness, the death of boredom, the death of selfishness, and the death of meaninglessness. There is nothing so healing in all the world as real presence. Our real presence can feed the ache for God experienced by others.”  

May a life of fidelity to the Eucharist sustain us at this time and allow us to reflect something of its real presence to those who share our life-journey whether they are under a shared roof with us, known by voice recognition, name, sight or even the random stranger, who for whatever reason, we are brought into contact with. In prayer this week may we recall especially the children in Year 4 who are about to meet Christ in the reality of His Body and Blood for the first time, asking the Lord that what they receive of Him they may, in turn, generously share.  

In the privileged ministry that I have in being able to celebrate Holy Mass in our churches, be assured that you are present in prayer and thought, together with the intentions that are closest to your hearts.                           

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

19th June 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

Temptation has many disguises. One that I very occasionally succumb to is the purchasing of a lottery ticket. Instinctively a quiet inner voice reminds me that my chances of winning are virtually non-existent, but on high days and holidays I sometimes take the plunge and join millions of others whose numbers will likewise produce no tangible harvest of breaking even let alone of accumulating more than was initially speculated. Regret is the usual afterglow, as having checked my numbers, all I get is a notice wishing me better luck next time ! Once asked what I would do if I won the jackpot, I responded by saying that I would sit down and count it. A reply based on a vague thought that I would need a lot of time to begin to comprehend the fact that I had won anything at all, let alone how I might begin to dispose of it. The nearest I ever came to walking away from a form of gambling with a sizeable prize was a rather bitter-sweet experience. As a clerical student on placement at St. Joseph’s in Bradford, attending the weekly Sunday evening bingo session held in the school hall was an almost compulsory activity for the parish clergy, housekeeper and anyone else who just happened to be around at the time. In a packed room games were played in absolute silence as numbers were called with their dated ornamentations by a solo voice, as everyone waited for an interruption from a second voice crying out “Here!” With the ticket removed from their clutches, checked and authenticated at the front of the hall, a prize for a line or house would be given to the owner of the voice. After a brief social interlude, play would resume, with some eyes scanning a roll of bingo cards that Andrex would have been proud of. For the endurance of a game these were the keenest, sharpest and brightest of eyes in the land. Who needs a visit to Spec-savers when prize money is at stake!    

Maximum tension entered the room as a tangible presence when it came to the weekly Accumulator. Heightening tension was the opportunity to purchase extra tickets with the luring prospect, hope and expectation of claiming an increasingly growing jackpot within an initially low number of calls, which when unclaimed, was added to by an extra number each week. With a meagre two tickets to cast my beady eyes over the game began. There was no prize for a single line. It was eyes-down for a full house only, with every woman and man concentrating on their own interests. Sitting there quietly (there wasn’t an option!) the numbers slowly called were beginning to favour me, and eventually it was my own youthful voice that cried “Here!” The response of those I was sitting with was a glance conveying the cryptic message: if you’ve got it wrong they’ll lynch you! In a brief moment of time my life flashed before my eyes. Had there been a power cut, the red glow of embarrassment and awkwardness that I depicted could have illuminated half the city. Eventually the verdict came. I was indeed holding the winning ticket. Although the Caller-judge wasn’t wearing a black hood, the eyes of many in the room had passed the death sentence on the in-comer who was about to walk away with £100. To add insult to the pervading atmosphere of disdain and injury, I was also given £10 for the full house. On returning to the Presbytery I remember ‘phoning my parents to tell them of my good fortune … never quite sure which was the greater; escaping with my life, or claiming the much sought-after Accumulator prize. Monetary values have changed massively since the 1980s, so it is worth putting the £110 into perspective. At the junior seminary I lived on £10 spending money for an entire half-term.  

Whilst my luck and fortune in the realm of random draws may be slight, in the lottery of life itself I consider myself very fortunate many times over, not least believing that I was gifted with the jackpot when it came to the parents that God chose to provide me with. Neither would have claimed perfection in the field, nor boasted of being the best or having been awarded a coveted trophy for their endeavours. But after all there is no race or competition about parenting, except perhaps on a school playing field during sports’ day activities ! For the gift of my parents’ presence on life’s journey, I continue to thank God each day. For my mother, at least I imagine, this was to be for a lot longer than she ever comprehended when I first opened my eyes to the world as we know it, at a time when being a forty-plus Mum was said to be late in life. Into her nineties she was still a guiding light for me at fifty, keeping me going through the power of her love and prayers, which I’m sure continue to this day, although now from a different location. As for Dad, having lost his own father when he was under twenty, there is no blue-print to work from as a parent of a child in his mid-fifties. And yes, for as long as we have a parent we are still children, sometimes being reminded of it by a word, tone, or look. Such an experience of good parenting for me has indeed been, and continues to be, beyond price, and I count it as a continuing, unfolding rich and inspiring blessing every day. Something for which, and in which, I am incredibly fortunate.   

This weekend many of us will have the opportunity of acknowledging the gift that God has given to us in the form and shape of our fathers, whether we are able to be with them in person, communicate across distance with a card or call, or simply remember those no longer with us, who at the end of their earthly journey have been called back to their eternal home by the Lord. Appreciative of the fact that not for all will Father’s Day have positive overtones, for those able to be grateful it is good to have a day on which a simple word or gesture of thanks can be expressed. Unlike Mothering Sunday the, now annual, celebration of fatherhood doesn’t have roots as clearly established in Christian culture, although the recognition of the influence of fathers on their children has long been aligned to honouring St. Joseph. Amongst the Coptic Orthodox community, who celebrate St. Joseph’s Day on 20th July, the celebration of the vocational calling to fatherhood has a history dating back to the fifth century. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition the acknowledgement of the role of fathers in the lives of their children is an Advent celebration, when tribute is paid to the ancestors of Jesus, starting with Adam, emphasizing Abraham, our Father in Faith, progressing to St. Joseph, as St. Matthew records “the husband of Mary of whom was born Jesus who is called the Christ” (Matt. 1:16) 

Along with the image of the crib, we have the Franciscans to thank for the custom of linking the established feast of St. Joseph with a universal celebration of fatherhood, dating from the early 15th century. The more modern and familiar elements of the day such as cards or gift-giving (and in Lithuania a public holiday) have evolved as different countries began introducing a designated date into their own calendars on which to celebrate fathers. Observed on 23rd February each year, the title of Russia’s day of celebration “Defender of the Fatherland Day” has almost militaristic overtones. With a personal devotion to St. Joseph, I find an easy and obvious bridge between the witness to fatherhood that my own Dad continues to offer me and a very old title given to the craftsman of Nazareth, to whom the angelic messenger entrusted the care of God’s Son from before His birth. Honoured as the “Nourisher of the Lord” (Nutritor Domini) St. Joseph throughout his life fulfilled this vocational role quietly, unassumingly and without drawing undue attention to himself – a singular virtue that we call loving humility – which St. Paul would subsequently describe as being endlessly “patient, … kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no records of wrongs … does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres … [it] never fails.”(1 Corinthians 13:4ff.) For these qualities (and so many more) seen in and lived by our Dads … Thank you, today and always !       

Bless Our Fathers 

Heavenly Father,
Today we ask You to bless our earthly fathers for the many times they reflected the love, strength, generosity, wisdom and mercy that You exemplify in Your relationship with us, Your children.

We honour our fathers for putting our needs above their own convenience and comfort; for teaching us to show courage and determination in the face of adversity; for challenging us to move beyond self-limiting boundaries; for modelling the qualities that would turn us into responsible, principled, caring adults.

Not all our fathers lived up to these ideals.
Give them the grace to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes.
Give us the grace to extend to them the same forgiveness that you offer us all.
Help us to resist the urge to stay stuck in past bitterness, instead, moving forward with humility and peace of heart.

We ask your blessing on those men who served as father figures in our lives
when our biological fathers weren’t able to do so.
May the love and selflessness they showed us be returned to them in all their relationships, and help them to know that their influence has changed us for the better.

Give new and future fathers the guidance they need to raise happy and holy children, grounded in a love for God and other people – and remind these fathers that treating their wives with dignity, compassion and respect is one of the greatest gifts they can give their children.

We pray that our fathers who have passed into the next life have been welcomed into Your loving embrace, and that our family will one be day be reunited in your heavenly kingdom.

In union with St. Joseph, whom you entrusted with Your Son, we ask Your generous blessings today and every day. Amen. 

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

12th June 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

Questioning my value I recently placed an estimate on myself of between 89p and £2.50. This was based on the price labels left on the reverse of Christmas, Easter and birthday cards. Childhood memories of purchasing cards bring to mind the shopkeeper’s ritual of producing a rubber to remove the pencilled price from their reverse, and then gently blowing away any surplus grains of the erasure. Subsequently with cards sold in a plastic wrap the price was removed with the outer layer. Then we moved to codes … perhaps best not to go there, because whilst the deciphering was left to a machine it was a human being who demanded, at times, an extortionate amount for what was fundamentally a folded piece of paper with a little bit of glitter applied to it. Highway robbery was an expression frequently used at home, although unlike today there were no facial coverings on those asking us to stand and deliver! Still delighting in the use of pen and paper to communicate, I shall no doubt continue to pay whatever price in order to purchase these items of stationary.  

Valuing ourselves through the use of a particular unit of measurement has clearly had an impact upon the language of worth. Any mention of St. Thomas the Apostle will be followed by the question, Do you mean Doubting Thomas ?  And if we use the word priceless about someone it is usually in response to a gaff in speech or a series of actions which led to unforeseen and unintended consequences. These responses imply an almost innate reductionist or devaluing attitude. Thomas the Twin is not a saint due to his incredulity, but because of the faith he professed and ultimately died for. Likewise whilst priceless can correctly be used to describe something very amusing or incredibly absurd, in its truest sense it conveys an understanding that someone or something is so precious that their or its value cannot be determined. The people, experiences, and things that are truly priceless to ourselves come in a variety of wrappings, not all of them glitter covered or as bright and garish as may be expected, and most definitely no price tag will be visible; removed long ago! 

Whilst still at junior seminary, I was asked by a couple of friends if I would like to accompany them on a short break to Buckfast Abbey in Devon. It was somewhere that my parents had visited in the 1950’s but was unknown to me. Getting there involved an all-day coach journey depositing us on the English Riviera from which we had get a taxi (a novelty for me!) to the Abbey. We were greeted by the monastic Doorkeeper, Brother Baptist, who on opening the door cast a keen and shrewd eye over the new arrivals. In the absence of the regular monk-Guestmaster the responsibility for our care was placed in the hands of numerous members of the very hospitable Benedictine community who all seemed to view us as potential postulants. Whilst, of the three of us, I initially appeared to be the most responsive to the routine and discipline of our monastic experience, St. Benedict did eventually claim one us, although, clearly not yours truly. 

The timing of our visit, which for myself was to be a repeated experience over a good number of years, provided a priceless postcard of insight into another world. At daily gatherings in the Monk’s Common-room after lunch in the Refectory (where the meal was eaten in silence, broken by a single voice reading from a book chosen by the Abbot) there was a human time-line of the Abbey’s history. Men with German and French accents representing the early days of the modern community; others who had physically laid stone upon stone in the building of the Abbey church; craftsmen whose unique enhancing gifts provided an awe-inspiring environment for generations of visiting pilgrims and tourists alike; teachers, monks who worked on the land, others who ran parishes, those who were the backbone of maintaining community life such as cooks, cleaners, launderers, as well as an Infirmarian, not to mention those working in the gift shop and on the distilling process of the world-renowned Tonic Wine, as well as an Abbot and his predecessor. Their outward wrapping was uniform, the black of the Benedictine habit worn when together, an outward sign of equality before God and representative of no worldly ambition. On dispersal academic gowns were donned as well as over-alls, jeans and kitchen whites. The brethren rejoining their own worlds. 

A notable absentee from these daily happenings was a monk then in his mid-80s, who had arrived at the Abbey from his native Germany with indifferent health at the age of 11 in 1910 – Brother Adam Kehrle. He joined the community as a Lay-Brother, dedicated to serve the Lord through manual work, to differentiate his vocation from that of a Choir-monk, whose voice would sing God’s praise in Liturgical celebration, and the Priest-monks who proclaimed the Word and celebrated the Sacraments. Whilst the Vatican Council of the 1960’s saw the Lay and Choir monks absorbed into a single entity, communities continued to respectfully accept old ways being adhered to by those who had lived that way for decades. I first came across Brother Adam during a very, very early morning walk around the still, quiet monastic grounds, which was one of the privileges we enjoyed as guest of the Community. He was waiting for a lift to take him on to the wilds of Dartmoor to the Abbey’s world-renowned bee breeding station. A cheery wave and a quick hello, on his part still with an accent, was our introduction: I’d had an audience with a legend. With nothing to distinguish him from many others of venerable years, except perhaps the fact that he was up as dawn broke, and clearly about to head off for a full day’s work, I was in the presence of a man whose knowledge and devotion to one species of life on our planet took him beyond any monetary value. At the age of 21 he was placed in charge of the Abbey’s apiary, before which he had cultured the first Buckfast strain of bee which was resistant to a parasite that had devastated the country’s native bee colonies during the Great War. As soon as he was allowed, his world-wide travels began, and included, aged 90, being carried up Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain (at 19,340 feet) strapped to the back of a fellow apiarist on a bamboo chair, in search of native strains of bees! Recognising the importance of the bee, his life-work was to ensure that it survived numerous fatal diseases, literally pouring years of his own life into encouraging selective crossings between strains, producing new stronger varieties including the so-called Buckfast Superbee, which reputedly was the healthiest and most prolific honey producer ever bred. Bees produced at Buckfast found new homes around the world, and in 1991 helped salvage honey production in the USA which had been brought to a near halt in some States by disease. Whilst he travelled widely, those seeking his incredible knowledge and wisdom also knocked on the door of his world in Buckfast. They came from across the world and met the man as he was. Without exception they were called upon to live as he lived; long days and hard graft! Accompanying him to the unforgiving moors, it was always a hands-on experience of learning, often rather rough and devoid of the finesse of laboratory or university life.   

So highly valued were some of his bees that at different times theft was a significant risk, leading him to decamp to the moors to live alongside them. When two queens were stolen from the apiaries at the Abbey, the local constabulary circulated a description from the great man should any officers come across them: “three-quarters of an inch in length, with dark brown and dark gray stripes.” Despite his globe-trotting life and long absences from the communal element of the Abbey, Brother Adam never lost sight of the fact that his work with bees was vocational, it was his way of serving the God to whom he had committed his life as little more than a boy, and when, in 1992, his Abbot asked him to step away from the research element of his work, to concentrate more on honey production, he obediently bowed to the will of his superior. Somewhat grounded at Buckfast due to the onset of age, his wisdom and counsel continued to be much sought after. A fact that never ceased to bring him delight being able to contribute to others committed to working alongside the humble bee. His return to God at the age of 98 in 1996, removed a truly priceless individual.  

Whilst the Abbey Church at Buckfast has an almost medieval feel to it, despite being completed in 1938, it also has a striking contemporary Blessed Sacrament Chapel, where visitors to the Abbey are invited to spend time in silent, contemplative prayer. Its dominant feature is a huge east window (measuring some 8 meters across) depicting Christ at table with offerings of bread and wine. Between the two glass depictions of the gifts stands the chapel’s Tabernacle, to the fore of which is the altar used for Holy Mass. It is captivating by its size alone, and as a priest who has celebrated Mass in front of it there is something quite surreal in being almost absorbed into an image of what you are celebrating. The window was crafted from a technique known as dalles-de-verre (from the French glass-slab) in which tiles of coloured glass are chipped into shape and set, mosaic fashion, into a concrete or resin matrix. The designer and master craftsman of this project which took some three years to complete was Fr. Charles Norris, a member of the Buckfast community, who arrived at the Abbey having trained at the Royal College of Art in London in the 1920s.  

His admittance to the Benedictine family coincided with the building of the Abbey church, and its growing need for embellishment. With an abundant skill-base he worked in glass, marble, ceramics and when war was declared was found on his back atop of scaffolding, painting the ceiling of the Lantern Tower in egg-tempera and gold-leaf detail! In traditional and long established format he produced windows, pavements and floors, but hungering and thirsting for fresh and new techniques his imagination led him, disciple-like to sit at the feet of Pierre Fourmaintraux, the man acknowledged to have brought the skill of dalle-de-verre to England. In turn Fr. Charles became one of the most prolific proponents of the style in the country with associate workshops at both Prinknash Abbey and Aylesford Priory. Into his 90s he was still working, and his guidance constantly sought by those inspired by his creations in colourful glass. In the midst of the worshipping community of the Abbey it was less his artistic skill for which he was noted, but his presence on a stool in the Choir, singing as a Cantor with three of his confreres in Religious Life. In this he was true to his first calling to follow God’s plan for his life. With fine voice and through artistic skill he returned thanks, responding to the question of the psalmist; “How can I repay the Lord for His goodness to me ?” (Psalm 115) 

To myself as a teenager this erudite octogenarian, over a coffee in the Common-room, was an utter joy to engage with in conversation. Despite his undoubted encyclopaedic knowledgebase he still had room for more, quizzing me about the education I was receiving, and when mention was made of the Abbeys at Kirkstall and Fountains, he gave me a very full history lesson on the nineteenth century origins of Buckfast whose architect had used these Yorkshire foundations as a blueprint on which to build. Priceless!    

St. Paul described us as “God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10) and as such we really are beyond price. So, on those days when you wonder where on the scale you are between 89p and £2.50, recall experiences unique to yourself, relationships that you’ve enjoyed, and the abundance of gifts and talents that are yours alone, which if used well and spent liberally in the marketplace of life, will have enhanced and benefitted untold numbers, both the named and anonymous. In a world of scientific research or art Brother Adam and Fr. Charles Norris would undoubtedly have found themselves with a valuation measured on someone’s rich list, based solely on accumulated monetary wealth. Instead, they gave their lives in answer to a call God made upon them, first and foremost to serve Him, and to use the talents and gifts He had entrusted them with for the benefit of those who shared their life journey. Each man priceless, and not forgotten by myself, whose life through presence and conversation they enhanced and enriched albeit for a relative short time.  

Holding you in prayerful remembrance and affection, together with those on your life journey who are truly beyond value … priceless. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

5th June 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

Last week began with the Feast of the Visitation, a celebration of the hospitality of welcome that Our Lady received from her cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah, which extended for a period of three months. The alternative festive reading comes from St. Paul writing to the Christian community in Rome (Romans 12:9-16). It is incredibly sensitive and offers a further insight into the author’s very practical understanding of God’s love for humankind being generously responded to in an all-round concern and care for their neighbours. In the midst of it is the call for the followers of Christ to “make hospitality [their] special care.” It forges an easy link between the mention made last week to the term “guests” used to describe the Belgians resident in the Spen Valley during the Great War and a considerable number of comments, from near and far, in regard to this widely untapped seam of both local and national history. There was unanimous agreement that the word “guests” was far more appropriate than others that may have been given, offering as it does an image of openness, acceptance, practical assistance and welcome. It is estimated that between 225,000 – 265,000 Belgian civilians sought sanctuary in Britain in what was the largest ever influx of people on to our shores in just a few short weeks. These figures do not include a further 150,000 Belgian soldiers who took leave in the country during the war, or the 25,000 wounded men who convalesced here. The vagueness of figures is due in part to the incomplete, scant and random records that were initially kept as the first arrivals were already settled into havens of safety. Welcome was given precedence over detailed statistics. More locally it was reported that by the end of 1915 there were no less than 1571 “guests” in the city of Leeds alone.

Throughout Britain local committees were formed to help with the practical assistance needed by “guests” who arrived with few possessions, and not necessarily even a shared tongue with their hosts. Thankfully the language of welcome is almost universally understood regardless of verbal communication. Arriving at railway stations in both Leeds and Wakefield Belgians who fled their homes and country were assigned to local towns where properties were made ready to house them and structures of practical measures put in place to make sure that they felt safe and secure.

Alongside meeting their immediate needs in terms of housing, healthcare and finances, provision was made for the education of children and attempts to meet the spiritual needs of these “guests,” with places being found for children in local schools and clergy willing to share their altars and pulpits with Belgian priests who, like their flocks, found themselves displaced. The scenario of the loan of an unused chapel, as was the case in Cleckheaton, primarily for the use of the town’s “guests” was somewhat unusual, far more commonplace was for Belgians to join fellow Catholics at Mass in a local church. Although, in a report sent to the exiled auxiliary Bishop of Mechelen (Antoine Alponses Wachter 1855 – 1932) from Fr. Norbertus Van Haesendonck (1871 – 1934) who ministered in Dewsbury (1914 – 1916), it appears that a number of Belgians were not overly eager to make the journey to a church that was not on their doorstep ! Likewise, his writings acknowledge issues over education and sacramental preparation, as many of the children, despite being Catholic, were found places in non-Catholic schools. Contemporary newspapers mention some resentment towards the younger male “guests” not least because, unlike increasingly numbers of their indigenous peers, they were not at the Front. On the whole any hiccups in settlement or hostility in attitude, word or deed, were far outweighed by the generosity of the response made by the citizens of one nation to those of another. Cleckheaton New Cemetery contains three graves witnessing losses suffered by the town’s “guests” during their stay. Two of the three uniform headstones, which each give personal details and probably represent the gift of a local stonemason, bear the additional inscription: “Exiled from Belgium during the Great War and was an honoured guest of Cleckheaton.” The third is that of a child, aged just eleven weeks, who was born at Highfield House, Cleckheaton, on 27th March 1916, baptised at the town’s Anglo-Belgian Chapel on 1st April, and whilst presumably British by birth, her headstone notes that her parents were natives of Antwerp.   

There are many references made to hospitality in Sacred Scripture, virtually all positive experiences for those sheltered, welcomed, protected and fed by others. There are some massively obvious moments such as the feeding of the five thousand, the Passover meal at which the Eucharist was instituted, and the gift of manna and quails to the people of God tramping through the wilderness. Others are more subtle such as the feast given by Abraham and Sarah beneath the Oak of Mamre to the three guests addressed in the singular person (Genesis 18ff); Elijah being fed by ravens and who begged from the widow at Zarephath the last of her bread and oil (1 Kings 17:6ff);  Boaz’s order to his work-people that they should be generous with the gleanings discarded on his land for Ruth to collect (Ruth 2:15ff). Concern for the well-being of the stranger, together with care for the orphan and widow, is emphasized in both first and second testaments, not least because the people of God had known what it was like to be the stranger, hence theirs was empathetic hospitality, where a gracious welcome and table-fellowship came before questions about name, origin, reason for journeying or anything else.       

Hospitality is not always about food, not even in the Bible. God’s care for the sulky and indignant prophet Jonah included His call for a castor-oil plant to sprout, giving “shade for his head and soothe his ill-humour” (Jonah 4:6ff), and a very hungry caterpillar which served as an alarm clock the next day by eating the entire God-provided vegetation ! This forms a bridge with a story of my own in regard to the hospitality that I found myself offering a couple of years ago to a kaleidoscope of Painted Ladies. Which, before anyone begins looking up the phone number for Bishop’s House, are a species of butterfly, as the collective – one of several – hints at ! Although not uncommon in any year, there was a noted national influx of them at the time, and having migrated from northern Africa it seemed as though half of their number had taken up rent-free residence in Cleckheaton. They were most welcome, and clearly enjoyed the various blossoming shrub species in the garden, not least a Buddleia situated by the living room window, which gave me a truly wonderful view, from the inside, of these flying beauties during their gathering of food and whilst gently resting between flights. The object of their attention was truly living up to one of its nicknames, “Butterfly Bush.” That said Buddleias are not altogether the flavour of the month currently, classified as an invasive species they are the bane of Network Rail often growing in random and obscure places interfering with overhead power lines and blocking signals, and are blamed for the destruction of some natural sites of special scientific interest. In light of this, I feel somewhat guilty about the fact that I planted a second Buddleia last autumn in the hope of offering hospitality to both visiting butterflies and bees. The fact that I have not gone out and bought a new plant, something that people are increasingly doing at garden centres, but rather moved it from elsewhere may somewhat placate my action. Seeing what was little more than a twig with a few leaves on it throughout the autumn and winter, begin to sprout new greenery and look hugely more healthy than it did on arrival, has given me great personal satisfaction that I can cultivate more than the orchids for which I am known to have an affinity. All I need now are the Painted Ladies to turn up on the doorstep once more ! So far all I have seen taking up residence on it are a few Ladybirds.   

In regard to hospitality we can ponder a question, almost biblical in expression: which is the greater, the offering of hospitality or the reception of it ? On the Feast of the Visitation we venerate Our Blessed Lady who was in fact the journeyer, and the beneficiary of hospitality. Those whose door she found open on her arrival, Elizabeth and Zechariah, almost appear to be secondary characters in the story recalled uniquely by St. Luke. In reality it takes effort and courage to search out a door to knock upon, uncertain of the reception we shall receive. Generosity and kindness are needed to make a guest feel at home and safe. In her greeting to Our Lady, the woman of the Hill Country, Elizabeth, removed the confusion felt by the younger woman as a result of her initial, enthusiastic and naïve response to Gabriel’s invitation to be the mother of God’s Son: “Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb !” Only with the fog of doubt and uncertainty lifted can Our Lady utter her prayer of praise, the Magnificat. In return Mary brought her youthful enthusiasm into the home of her older relatives, not to mention the gift of conversation and laughter into an environment where one of the residents, through incredulity, had be struck dumb by God.              

Whatever shape or form the hospitality that we offer to others may it be a source of blessing to both the giver and recipient. Renowned for her hospitality, the following words are attributed to the fifth-century Irish saint, Bridget:                                           

“I should like a great lake of finest ale, for the King of Kings;
I should like a table of the choicest food, for the family of heaven.
Let the table be made from the fruits of faith, and the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast, for they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast, for they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
and the sick dance with the angels.
God bless the poor, God bless the sick, and God bless our human race.
God bless our food, God bless our drink, all homes, O God, embrace.” 

Let us continue to be united as a community of faith in both prayer and affection, offering to others generous hospitality when they seek it, and finding an open door in our own times of need.    

As ever, Fr. Nicholas