22nd January 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

It is once more good to be able to greet you as a weekend dawns, doing so with a copy of the Newsletter and Readings for Holy Mass. I sincerely hope that you remain well and positive in these trying and testing, not to mention sometimes wearying and confusing times. There is strength in just knowing that we are making this journey together and I take great delight in hearing of the increasing numbers within our community of Faith who are receiving the vaccine arming them with a light of hope for a better, brighter and healthier future.  

In the sacristy at Cleckheaton there is an interesting artistic depiction of Christ. It is a pastel portrait of a broadly smiling Jesus. Whilst perhaps not to everyone’s taste (based on a few comments that I’ve heard from visiting clergy over the years!) it is one of those images that nearly always triggers a reaction from the first-time observer. Usually of the Marmite or cruising type: it is either beloved or disliked on initial encounter! Such division regarding the portrayal of Jesus dates from the very early days of the formalised Church. When the wonderful library that we know better as the Bible was being compiled from a much larger body of Sacred Scripture, the Gospel of Mark was almost left off the shelf. Many of those examining the writings of the evangelist found the image of Jesus contained in it to be heavily weighted on the fleshly, human side of the Word rather than the divine nature of the Son of God. Mark’s description of Jesus looking angrily around, being capable of offering a rebuke, and raising his voice, caused many putting shape and format within the covers of the now familiar Bible to feel uncomfortable and were concerned of the impact that such a portrayal would have on those that they were encouraging to live more godly lives. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit gifted those of that generation to generously include Mark’s account of the Good News about Jesus Christ, with its numerous references to his human attributes, into the Canon of Sacred Scripture. The three synoptic writers, each with their own artistic slant and talent, offer a differing image of the same person in their writings. For St. Matthew, Jesus is very much the fulfilment of the promises conveyed by the First Testament, of a Messiah sent by God. The Jesus of St. Luke’s gospel is one who uses the table as a place of teaching and learning, and with tongue in cheek could be thought of in the mind’s eye in terms of being slightly on the portly side physically bearing in mind all the meals he is invited to! 

The honest, realistic, human, and rather spartan portrayal by St. Mark gives all of us hope. We can relate to a Jesus who gets frustrated, raises his voice, and finds it difficult to cope with the short comings of his fellow pilgrims on life’s journey. Sometimes the call to be more godly and divine eludes the grasp of many of us. The reality of the humanity of St. Mark’s Jesus reassures us that whilst we may not always find a smooth and straight pathway on which to journey, neither did the Word made flesh who dwelt amongst us. Our shared nature with the Word as conveyed by the historically first of the evangelists has an appeal to all of us who stumble and lose our balance on the pilgrimage of life. We can relate to Jesus’ shortness of patience with the evil spirit that mocks Him (Mark 1:24ff), his disappointment when he is misunderstood by his family (Mark 3:20ff) and those amongst whom he has grown up (Mark 6:5ff), the pain when even Peter, the Rock, doesn’t accept his vision of a future involving suffering leading to glory (Mark 8:31), and frustration when those who wanted to be a part of the unfolding story of Good News were held back by his followers (Mark 10:13ff). Conversely most can also unite with the desire of the Marcan Jesus to find a calm environment in which to pray (Mark 1:35ff), the delight when He encountered people of great faith (Mark 1:40ff, 2:5ff, 5:21ff), as a people-watcher equipping Him with the ability to learn and teach from the simplest of observations or actions (Mark 12:41ff), a gesture that allows a new beginning to be had and old ways left behind (Mark 2:13ff), and a heart moved with compassion for the lost, lonely, confused and hungry (Mark 6: 34ff).  

An ability to relate to others is a primal element of our common bond as human beings. Our spiritual lives also call on us to be able to engage with Almighty God in a relational manner. The gift of His Son in human form reveals the extreme manner in which the Father, through the working of the Holy Spirit and the utter open willingness of Jesus, desires to relate to us. Behind the authorship of our now long established and revered four books of Good News, with their differing insights into this divine Gift, is an invitation, which, if accepted, can enable us to further cultivate our relationship with God. In this is an opportunity to re-engage with something at the heart and core of our spiritual nature. 

Within all of us lies a hope perhaps even wrapped in a sense of apprehension too, that when, at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, a voice calls out to us to take our place in God’s Kingdom we will recognize it as coming from a friend rather than a stranger. If it is the latter we will do our best to run from it, hide ourselves away or attempt to ignore it. However, if we hear the voice of a friend calling, there will be a familiarity, a recognition, and generous openness to respond to it. Spiritually we are called upon to get to know the voice of God. This is done best through spending time together, we call it reflection, sharing in conversation, known as prayer, and listening, as relationships by definition involve more than just ourselves as a single entity ! As God’s people we are encouraged to get to know Him better. In our encounter with the One like us, in all things but sin, through the power of the Holy Spirit at work within Jesus of Nazareth we come to hear the voice of the Father, see His face and gain a small insight into the vastness of His mindfulness towards us.  

A few weeks ago, Fr. Brian D’Arcy, pausing for thought, reflected on how good we are at shaping the Jesus of the Gospels for ourselves. He said:                 

The Italians are convinced that Jesus had to be Italian because He talked with His hands, made sure everyone got the best wine and he was constantly having meals with anyone, anywhere and at any time. But as with anything new the Californians have a strong claim that Jesus was from their part of the world. He looked like a Hippy, with long hair; He wore sandals all the time and he founded a new religion. Not to be outdone the Irish are convinced Jesus was from Ireland because He remained a bachelor all his life, lived with his mother until he was thirty, and He  was sure his mother was a saint, and she was sure He was God !  

 But the most compelling claim of all comes from people who are convinced Jesus was a good mother because He was called upon to feed a multitude at a moment’s notice, even though there was no food available. He kept trying to get a message across to a bunch of men who hadn’t a clue, and even when He was dead he had to rise again because there was still more work to be done

His words made me smile and when I next saw the picture of the smiling Christ whilst vesting for Mass I could not help but think that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit must also have been having a good chuckle amongst themselves, admiring amid the hilarity of the moment our audacious ability, as human beings, to attempt to create Them in our image and likeness, when in fact the reverse is true. 

Whatever our perception of Almighty God, may it never be so limited or narrow that it becomes too small to be a dwelling place for the divine Image and Likeness in which we have been shaped and crafted so lovingly, carefully and uniquely. The world needs to see the face of God. It will only do so in our replication of it.  

May we continue to remain faithful to each other in prayer and affection, united in bringing something of God’s nature into the lives of those we share our lives with. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

15th January 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

As with each passing week it is a pleasure to be able to send the Newsletter to you, together with the Readings for the celebration of Holy Mass this weekend. Once again last weekend gremlins got into the e-mail system, and I have been made aware that some parishioners received a mid-week delivery, rather than a weekend one. Hopefully, whenever this email arrives it will find you and your loved ones well, safe, and relatively sane ! Each day I pray that we will all remain in this state, but as the weeks pass I am more and more aware that parishioners, friends and others known to me have caught Covid-19 and are battling for better health and a return to their normal surrounds, as a good number are ending up in the care of the NHS. Please remember these in your prayers and thoughts, together with their anxious families and loved ones.    

As a schoolboy of primary age a little job that I was entrusted with every Thursday and Friday during the holidays was to collect my great-aunt’s pension, purchase a part of her weekly ration of cigarettes, pay for and return with her weekly magazines which comprised a copy of the TV Times, People’s Friend and The Wharfedale and Airedale Observer, our local newspaper. The collection of the reading matter took place on a Friday, with each of the items clearly marked with the mysterious annotation of “N6” on their covers. A letter and number that I had to mention each Thursday when handing over a portion of my aunt’s pension money in payment. For a child with imagination, it was all very exciting stuff. 

In my absence at the sub-post office-cum-newsagents a coffee (always made with milk) would have been prepared for both of us to enjoy on my return, often accompanied by a ginger biscuit for me. Once settled in her chair and with a cigarette lit my aunt would disappear behind the broadsheet, emerging only to relieve her cigarette of its excess ash, and to take a quick sip of coffee. A period of near silence ensued whilst the events of our then relatively small town were digested, mulled over and occasionally tutted at. At home, after work, my mother would lay the same edition of the newspaper on the kitchen table, scanning its columns in preparation for a further read at various times of relaxation during the coming week. Dad picked up the newspaper not for its local news, but for the contents of the sports pages on a Saturday evening, usually as my mother and myself were putting our shoes on, smartly dressed and ready for our departure to the Vigil Mass. It was something of a stand-off each weekend between two people who judged travelling times in terms of covering a distance on foot, and the car driver of the household whose measurement of time and distance were most definitely his own ! A further feature of the local press was the need to wash your hands after reading it, as the ink was very transmissible; fingers became discoloured, and so did our kitchen table, thank goodness it was Formica and fully wipeable. As a Friday publication, a good ploy for sales in a market town, there was one week in the year when it appeared a day early: Holy Week, as everything round about stopped in its tracks to acknowledge the sacred nature of Good Friday.    

Perhaps because the local newspaper was so much a part of the fabric of my formative years it subsequently took on a personal significance when my own route through life separated me from my home town. Away from Otley it remained a constant through its personal delivery by my parents on their fortnightly visits to the junior seminary, when in Ireland back-copies were carefully put to one side awaiting my return for half-term and longer holidays, and in the year of my Ordination it was posted to me in the rather grand surrounds of Hawkstone Hall in Shropshire by a cousin of my Mum who also included a weekly letter secreted in its pages.                 

My affection for, and respect of, the local press still takes me on a weekly pilgrimage to purchase the Spenborough Guardian. Whilst not a born native of the area, I have an interest in what is taking place in and around the location that I find myself ministering and living in, and enjoy my weekly printed catch-up on events. All of us, for a span of time, belong to or are a part of a community or society that claims us as one of its own. With that in mind I find it worthwhile to try and keep abreast of events taking place locally. There are varying debates about the relevance of local newspapers, but I am very much an advocate for their presence despite a decreasing number and variety of items pertaining to a locality to be found within their pages. Wearing the hat of a researcher the time spent looking at local newspapers, both in this country and abroad, in the name of various projects that I have undertaken across the years would run into months if I were to attempt to quantify it. One of the surprising elements of delving into the local newspapers of previous times is the breadth of their content, there was literally something for everyone in and amongst their printed pages, and for the amateur historian they provide a tremendously rich, and often untapped, record of the social history of an area, an insight into a particular people’s public and private (until it got an airing in the press !) moral compass, and the lives of generations as viewed and written by their peers. It can easily be forgotten that the local newspaper was also a form of broad entertainment. Serialised stories would be read aloud by adults, whilst children very often were captivated by their own dedicated columns and corners. There were household, gardening and allotment tips, notes on fashions and clothing patterns, mention of stocks, shares and business activities, world events, court appearances, school inspections, localised medical reports, accounts of proceedings at council meetings, happenings taking place amongst local societies and clubs, sporting interests and a wide range of events unfolding in and around a particular locality. Many local newspapers were devoid of a feature that for most today can either attract or repel a readership – headline stories. Instead many front-pages contained a potpourri of businesses, entrepreneurs and a wide spectrum of others clammering for the attention of readers.  

Taking a look at a local paper from 1914 the front page contained notices pertaining to well-known businesses alongside building societies, the offer of loans by post, the lure of seaside hotels, hydros and holiday resorts, stocks and shares, cycles, motors and motoring, education, patent agents, Japanese fancy goods, cures for rheumatism, gout and lumbago, a Yorkshire corn cure, Antarctic souvenirs and professional services, which included dentistry, together with a large number of miscellaneous notifications. Amongst the latter was one which announced: “Old False Teeth bought,” offering payment of a shilling for each tooth on metal, one shilling and sixpence for any on vulcanite, three shillings for those on silver and an impressive six shillings for each tooth on gold, and ten shillings for those on platinum. However, before anyone disappears to take a rummage through their cupboards in search of a set of antique dentures, I doubt if the same good rates of payment would apply today !                       

Clearly the people of the Heavy Woollen district enjoyed their local press as the area boasted numerous newspapers all of which presumably must have retained a loyal readership given the fact that some co-existed for decades. Reporters were deployed to public gatherings, meetings, inquests, funerals, marriages, and vied to get an exclusive with witnesses, family members or those speaking with authority. Homework and background research was done, early mornings and late nights were had, and there was a proactive vigilance in order to make a scoop. At church doors the names of mourners were recorded, and lists of wedding presents together with details of their providers would be given by newly married notables for inclusion in an article about their special day. The belief that a name reported, for the right reason, in the press would ensure and maintain sales was an unspoken understanding amongst those who, turning out in all weathers and at all times, worked in the media at grassroots level. 

At a time when we are encouraged to separate genuine news from its fake counterpart, there may be a tendency to dismiss a traditional reporting in favour of its instant relative. However, newspapers of past times kept up to speed by capitalising on local knowledge. In Leeds and Bradford a century ago late afternoon editions of papers were produced primarily for sales to the myriad of homeward-bound shop workers, shoppers and those who had attended sporting events. These frequently contained reports of events that had not taken place at the time of the first printed edition. In May 1910 my own great-great grandfather, a well-known figure in the printing press industry, died suddenly around lunchtime at home in Otley. Notification of this event was in both the Bradford and Leeds newspapers later that day, thanks to the telegraphic communications of the period. 

It is said by some that headlines can make or break a newspaper, and good news makes little difference to sales and revenues. From experience I find the internal pages of a newspaper far more interesting than the front page. It is there that I read of events and people that are real, and for whose stories I have a natural inclination born out of both concern and interest. Amongst items reported I find those which shock, inspire, sadden and uplift, alongside the trite and almost sickeningly repetitive. 

As God’s people we are defined by news. We know it by a more formalized title, Gospel, but when St. Mark began his writing he spoke of the “beginning of the good news about Jesus.” Together with St. Matthew and St. Luke, his fellow roving reporters, St. Mark was a fabulous hunter-gatherer of stories, with an ear for first, second or even third hand accounts of those who had seen or heard Jesus speak, gaining a reputation for ‘exclusives’ with those whose life journey was forever changed by an encounter with Christ. The emphasis throughout their writings was on the good in the news they were compiling and leaving as a perpetual legacy written documentation for those who would follow them. Their writings tell of others who were evangelists – conveyors of God’s message to others – either by accident, such as members of the crowd of five thousand who were fed on five loaves and two fish, or others who called out directly to Jesus and received healing at His hands or by His word such as the woman who had suffered from a haemorrhage for a dozen years. Imagine the exclusive scoop of the reporter being the first to talk with Lazarus of Bethany ! Others too were specifically called upon to go and share good news with others, such as the women who went to the tomb on the first Easter Day and who were asked to return to the meeting place of the Apostles to share with them news of the resurrection. What an incredible piece of news to carry, and to be able to convey to others.  

When writing about the impact that this good news made on the lives of individuals and communities St. Luke travelled widely, interviewed broadly and had an ever open ear for stories of conversions, persecutions, miracles, and even managed to become a part of St. Paul’s entourage, journeying with him on several of his missionary adventures. It is thanks to St. Luke that the names of early Christians together with some insights into their lives, has been handed down to us. In the weeks following Easter, listening to the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke’s second writing of good news, we hear extracts from the local news columns of Sacred Scripture; the stories of our ancestors in the Faith, the real life events of a people of unfolding Good News.  

Perhaps during this coming week despite the pervading negativity of many newspaper headlines a truer reflection of who we are, a collective eager to share their own good news – Gospel people – could be offered to those around us. It may not hit the headlines, or even be worthy of a mention in our local press, but whatever good news you receive it will most certainly make a difference to your day, and if shared bring much needed joy to others too. 

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

8th January 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

Once more it is good to be able to send you the Newsletter and also the Readings for Holy Mass this weekend. Hopefully this short word of greeting finds you well and safe. For some the weekend delivery arrived late despite being dispatched last Friday rather than the normal Saturday morning. If you do find yourself without the Newsletter (which is far more important than the ramblings that sometimes accompany it) do please look on either of our websites, as a copy of the Newsletter will always be accessible there. The addresses for these are given on the front of the Newsletter and worth keeping a note of.    

It has long been said that good things come to those who wait, and this week I was gifted with a sense of delight listening to several news reports stating that it is fine to leave some, if not all, Christmas decorations on display until February 2nd – the Feast of the Presentation of the child Jesus, or Candlemas, as it is often referred to. This is something that I have tried to encourage for a long number of years, often to the slight amusement of congregations, but also offering a little food for deeper thought. My reasoning comes from the fact that there is more often than not, if not always, at least one random decoration that manages to elude the tree removal exercise and general tidying up that accompanies the taking down of our Christmas trimmings. After the tree is disposed of, the tinsel boxed up together with other festive items, and the loft hatch finally closed for another year, a single decoration emerges from its hiding place, coming into view as the weekly dusting and cleaning takes place ! No one can ever remember who put it in its location or how it came to be there. It just is, and left in place offers a reminder of the true gift of Christmas that takes a lifetime rather than just twelve days to reflect on – the child of Bethlehem.

The articles of news about the taking down of decorations highlighted the fact that the Victorians were the orchestrators of the removal of decorations around the Feast of the Epiphany. Prior to which, especially amongst Recusants (those who remained true to the Catholic Faith in the post-Reformation period) at least a small token of the Christmas festivities remained on display until February. I advocate leaving the Crib scene on display until Candlemas, and with many of our families still not back at regular celebrations of Mass, the home – or at least a part of it – is being reclaimed as a holy space in which either individual prayer is being offered or where Holy Mass is being viewed on-line or participated in through Spiritual Communion. 

My own faux pas in the taking down of the Christmas decorations this year became apparent as I drove away from our home in Otley on Sunday. A quick glance in the rear mirror, and there it was still hanging regally in the side window of the living room: the Star ! Its size alone, about a foot across (30.48 centimetres for those who’ve graduated from Imperial measurements !), put me to shame, added to which I had actually had a conversation about it when some neighbours called to enquire about my Dad’s health. They had described it very meaningfully as the “star of hope” for all who turn into our cul-de-sac. Perhaps it was that faith-filled description that prevented me stopping the car and returning to take it down. So it remains; a symbol of guidance for the Magi, today a sign of hope for better times to come our way both personally and collectively. The Crib also remains in place, now enhanced by the presence of the visitors from afar, in their colourful clothing.  

For the keen-eyed at Christmas, Nature herself provided us with what was described with implicit religious understanding as the “Star of Wonder” by the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630). His theory continues to influence scientific thought that this alignment of planets may well have provided the great light that guided the Magi on their journey to Bethlehem. On 21st December Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets in the Solar System, and some of the brightest objects visible in the night sky, were as close together as they have been in eight hundred years, and their next conjunction, although in no way as close, will not been seen until 2080. Images of the “Star of Wonder” adorn many Christmas greetings cards, and its symbolism reached a climax last Wednesday as we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, and our Cribs welcomed the gift-bearing representations of Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. Personally I delighted in the relatively recent decision of the Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales to reinstate the Feast on the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6th as it had been celebrated for so long. Its removal to the nearest Sunday I had felt somehow diminished its significance and importance. 

The gifts presented to the Christ-child by these rather exotic visitors were far from practical – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Instead they represent the very nature of the Word made flesh, as King, Priest and Prophet. These gifts also form an annual reminder to ourselves of our own Baptism, when after water is poured over our head, and a name is given, we are anointed with the sacred Oil of Chrism. At that moment, with the Chrism sanctified by the Bishop and Priests of the Diocese at the Mass of Chrism on Holy Thursday, these words are prayed by the celebrant: “He [God the Father] now anoints you with Chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as a member of his body.” Our gift of sharing Christ’s Priestly nature is the invitation to participate in communal worship, to come together to share in the banquet of both Word and Eucharist, strengthening us and making us a people who truly witness to what we are a part of. The prophetic element of our share in Christ’s nature is to proclaim who we are, namely God’s people, by the witness of our lives. Just as poor pronunciation can lead the word prophetic to be confused with pathetic, so, a lack of enthusiasm to bear a tangible expression of who God is calling us to be will lead to a diluting of Gospel values and a near-quenching of the light of faith which seeks to bring illumination to the market place of everyday life. Our regal status, shared with Christ, is a constant reminder that God’s creative hands are incapable of crafting into being anyone or anything without worth, value or dignity. We are all precious in Their eyes, not just the face looking back at us from the bathroom mirror but also those that we do our best to ignore, turn a blind eye to or even pass by on the other side to avoid, often times supported by our own righteous and justifiable reasoning. 

Whilst in this country Epiphany is more widely understood as the day on which the trimmings of Christmas are swept away, in other cultures it is celebrated with as much significance as Christmas itself, with numerous countries marking it by a public holiday, whilst amongst families and friends gifts are exchanged. In Spain and Latin America the day is called “Dia de los Reyes” (Three Kings’ Day) the eve of which is marked by children leaving drinks and snacks for the Magi, and, in normal times, streets are packed as crowds observe extravagant parades and firework displays. In Russia, where following the Julian calendar the feast is celebrated on 19th January, many observing the Magi’s visit do so by swimming in icy water, seeing the day as an opportunity to renew and refresh themselves as on the day of their Baptism.  

However we mark the day, the intent and purpose of Epiphany remains the same: to reveal or make known. Through our Baptism we are called upon to make known and reveal the God in whose image and likeness we have been formed and shaped by the manner in which we live our lives. At the end of the story of the visit of the Magi gifted to us by St. Matthew we hear it said that they “returned to their own country by a different way.” Whilst fundamentally this will have been a geographical route, spiritually the pathways of their lives will have been different too, forever changed by what they found in the dwelling over which the star they had seen rising halted, as St. Matthew wrote: “they saw the child with his mother Mary.” The gift of Almighty God to the world. 

In the discovery of the rogue bauble or more obvious decoration as in my case may we not only recall a very different experience of Christmas to those of other years but beyond that may it remind us of the real gift – the abiding presence of Christ in our lives and world. Unsure of how to respond to such generosity on God’s behalf may we look to the obscure presents left by the Magi in Bethlehem – gold, frankincense and myrrh – for inspiration. Rather than packing these away for another twelve months to be brought out on high days and holy days, they call out to us to give them a home in our own lives each and every day. We do this best by rising to our own Baptism vocation to share Christ’s own on-going ministry as Priest, Prophet and King. To share in Word and Sacrament, to allow Gospel values to permeate attitude, word and deed, and to see the indelible impression of God in the work of Their hands who populate and share our life journey. With such a resolution for 2021, like the Magi, our journey of life will be truly guided by a star of both hope and wonder.    

Holding you in prayerful remembrance and affection. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas                                                 

(On a personal note thank you for the on-going prayerful support being offered for Dad. After a rather worrying New Year’s Day, he is now improving slowing and remains in Leeds General Infirmary where he is receiving excellent care.)

1st January 2021

Dear Parishioners,

Along with another Newsletter and the Readings for Holy Mass this weekend comes my sincerest wish for us all that having crossed the threshold into the New Year of 2021 we may be able to live through it beneath better, brighter and healthier skies than the last twelve months. As a people of faith we are called upon to walk with a quiet confidence, acknowledging that we do not make this journey alone, as the words of Minnie Louise Haskins (1875 – 1957), made memorable by their use in the Christmas Broadcast of King George VI in 1939, remind us: “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone east.” It is said that the words were drawn to the King’s attention by one of the two Elizabeths in his life, either his wife or daughter.

Many have taken the biblical image of shaking the dust of the old year from their feet quite literally, glad to be rid of 2020, with all its vulnerability, uncertainty, pain, sacrifice and the growing media negativity that seemed to accompany its latter weeks. For us all it has been a year that we shall never forget for a spectrum of reasons, and like each period of time that we live through, if we are open to it many lessons will have been learnt if we were open to being schooled. Perhaps the greatest lesson for most will have been that of appreciation. Appreciating what we have and also those many people and aspects of life which we have long taken for granted. There will be guilt too. For all the times in ‘normality’ when we were too busy, couldn’t be bothered or lured away from the ordinary and everyday experience by a more exciting and tempting offer.

When the pause button was pressed on the routine and regularity of lives parents suddenly realised something of the enormity of just what our schools provide for their children; the frail and vulnerable of whom the vulgar label of ‘bed-blockers’ had been applied by the media, were suddenly reclaimed as the treasured human beings that they are, rightly valued beyond price; criticism of NHS waiting lists was replaced by nationwide rapturous applause for their selfless endeavours on behalf of those holding high rank and the very ordinary individual, just like you and me; the almost invisible people who live next door evolved into good neighbours, willing and able to assist with the basics such as shopping and collecting medication; not to mention the hour of liberation and freedom when daily exercise not only made us fitter but allowed us to offer hearty greetings to the random stranger walking the same pathway – albeit often done from the opposite side of the road which we had crossed to avoid direct contact; the untold joy of writing the weekly shopping list, and for those of us able to shop, queuing outside the supermarket and journeying along a one-way system to fill our trolleys; discovering that it is still possible to speak to someone on the telephone, mobile or even a landline, allowing conversation to become a lifeline, acknowledging that content is somewhat immaterial, outweighed by the fact that just hearing a voice conveys kindness, understanding, and the simple fact that you are cared about; the random person who through work walks up our driveways with regularity, such as the Postie or Binperson, formerly without name or pedigree, whose arrival is now looked forward to, and who is hailed with familiarity and even seen as a valued friend, a contact with the outside world … to mention just a few aspects of life that have taken on new value in 2020.

The year has stretched us too with new skills being embraced, and the dawning of the reality that we really are never too old to learn something new, to do the familiar differently or even carry out that which is totally different. Practical gifts of a technological nature have replaced frivolous indulgences, and bus pass carriers have returned to the classroom through conversations had through an open window with beloved children or grandchildren fulfilling the role of IT gurus. Zoom became the new saviour and Facetime meant that you had to make yourself presentable before answering the phone. With our church doors closed we rediscovered the sanctity of the home as a place of worship, praying together as families and with friends over the phone. The tangible familiarity of our churches was replaced by a minds’ eye view of them and thanks to an App we discovered that participation in the celebration of Holy Mass could be done from a favourite armchair, connecting with nearby or far away communities of Faith.

We were gifted with time. For some wasted, never again to be reclaimed, for others the opportunity to tackle long put-off jobs, or even to offer it for the benefit of wider society through voluntary activities. Some of us were given a new name, Key-worker, which in reality meant that our working lives had to carry on as best they could living within the necessary restrictions that were common to all. Overnight, we learnt the skill of juggling, the realities of professional and personal lives being held in a fragile equilibrium. Our time was filled with a semblance of normality but not without risk or compromise, taken in stride.

A mixture of poignant and humourous moments have also coloured our departed year together with the inspired and inspiring. The name of centenarian Captain Sir Tom Moore springs to mind, together with eight-year-old local champion Zach Eagling from Liversedge who despite suffering from Cerebral Palsy set himself a goal of physical endurance for the benefit of a charitable cause. The serene confidence of our Monarch’s message that we would indeed all meet again, and more recently her unity of emotion in speech – as a wife, mother, and grandmother – with those deprived of a hug or a hand to hold, when she said on Christmas Day, you are not alone. Quirky too in the realisation that long before we entered defined relational bubbles some people were already living in a bubble of their own from which they haven’t yet emerged ! For the keen-eyed even my own car now has a 24/7 occupant who has her own story to tell: Barbara, the left-over Christmas Fayre monkey. Her occupancy began as a gesture of fun to cheer up a parishioner on a Sunday morning in April when the roads were deserted and Barbara was affixed to the outside of the car and observed immediately by the person I was attempting to bring cheer to the face of. She fulfilled her mission – a smile was observed through the window ! Months later she is a part of the fixtures and fittings, known (and asked about !) by parishioners, school children & Lee, the Postie, amongst others. There have been gifts given and donations made, all of which have passed through the channel of my hands as Random Acts of Kindness to others; flowers and chocolates given to surprised parishioners as they turned up for Mass, because persons unknown just wanted to cheer up fellow pilgrims on life’s journey.

Without doubt the majority of our lives will have been changed and altered by the old year of 2020. As we walk into a New Year may the small amount of baggage that we carry with us from last year contain only the best and finest, albeit in small amounts and quantities, not least a heightened appreciation and gratitude for those who populate our lives and for the gift of our own health.

Last Sunday, a little later than the traditional day for obvious reason, I placed the figure of the Christ-child in the crib at our home in Otley. The bright Christmas tree lights offered a colourful backdrop for my near liturgical action. Looking at the fragile, vulnerable and dependent infant in very different and unusual surroundings, an almost surreal environment and atmosphere, unimaginable the week before, I could have questioned or wondered, like so many, why Almighty God decided to send His Son in the wrapping paper of our human condition with all its seeming limitations. However, the mystery is less about our wonderment, than about God’s intense desire to look back at us through the eyes of a child who is able to feeleth for our sadness, and shareth in our gladness. Thanks to that awesome gift God is able to walk with us amid every twist and turn of life’s journey. We are never alone. He is with us, and continues to ensure that wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we are held in the palm of His hand. His most prized and cherished possession. Why ? Because put simply we are created in Their own image and likeness. At our best and finest we are capable of being a mirrored copy of Them.

In closing these few lines I do so with a further reflection from the pen of John O’Donohue, in response to a good number of very complimentary responses about A Christmas Blessing which I included last week.

At the End of the Year.

As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them

The days when the veil lifted
And the soul could see delight;
When a quiver caressed the heart
In the sheer exuberance of being here.

Surprises that came awake
In forgotten corners of old fields
Where expectation seemed to have quenched.

The slow, brooding times
When all was awkward
And the wave in the mind
Pierced every sore with salt

The darkened days that stopped
The confidence of the dawn.

Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.

We bless this year for all we learned
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.

May the bonds that have united us in one year continue into another, not least those of prayerful fidelity, faith-filled example, and underlying kindness and compassion. Be assured of my remembrance of you and our loved ones in the celebration of Holy Mass, and in my affection.

As always, Fr. Nicholas

(On a personal note I have been enormously touched by the large number of messages that I’ve received in relation to Dad; he too would be most appreciative of everyone’s kind wishes and when I am able to let him know I shall pass your thoughts on to him. He remains in Leeds General Infirmary and is receiving excellent care. I do speak to the staff each day and get a progress report, however, the phrase being used about his situation is that it is ‘early days yet.’ This leaves me inadequately able to answer questions about him, so all I ask for, on his behalf, is a continued remembrance in prayer for all the sick, those known to us or even the stranger, together with those into whose care we entrust their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.)

26th December 2020

Dear Parishioners,

This weekend it is a Boxing (St. Stephen’s) Day greeting that comes alongside the weekly Newsletter, with the hope that you have had a blessed Christmas populated by the faces, voices, and even the presence of some of those closest to you. Above all, I trust that these very special days of the Octave of Christ’s nativity will give you the opportunity to pause and reflect on that first Christmas night and day, when the Word became flesh and began to live a life like our own – except for sin – with all its highs, lows, achievements, failures, moments of adulation and times of despair. Unsurprisingly you have been very much in my own thoughts and prayerful remembrances as I’ve celebrated Holy Mass this week, both in the closing days of Advent and now in Christmastime. Our unity as a community of faith is unwavering and I would like to think, a source of strength for us all to draw upon.

Last Sunday I took a giant leap for this specimen of mankind and ventured from sitting in the kitchen with Dad, on my weekly visit, to crossing the hallway into our living room. With childlike excitement and enthusiasm my appetite for a taste of festive magic was never going to be satisfied with a glimpse of our family Christmas tree from the outside of the living room window. Instead I wanted to sit near to it basking in the coloured lights reflecting from its array of baubles, revisiting Christmases past and looking forward with maturing expectation to Christmas 2020 and those in the future. And so I did ! Socially distanced from Dad, and wearing a facial covering (yes, I am as strict and necessarily observant in private as when in the public gaze !). As our family home occupies a corner position, our illuminated tree offers the first sign of Christmas to all who turn into the cul-de-sac, and full marks to Dad for his annual efforts to ensure it looks so well decorated. This includes a foray into the loft for various carefully labelled boxes, incredible patience with the strings of lights seeking the one rogue bulb that has caused the rest to go out on strike, and with great care hang each decoration, varying in both size and fragility. My own contribution is the tree itself, which I bought for my parents about thirty years ago, and carried home on a crowded bus from Leeds to Otley. Acknowledging the size of the box it was packed in I would not have blamed the driver for charging me extra for it, but, with seasonal goodwill, he didn’t.

Away from public gaze is our crib, possibly as old as myself, or even older. I could once date it to at least 1970 by the pieces of yellowing newspaper in which the figures were wrapped but even that hasn’t proved to be as enduring as the figures themselves. It stands above the television and quietly attracts its own audience of viewers. Last weekend, with the exception of the manger containing the baby and Magi, the figurines were all awaiting the arrival of the Christ-child, although the shepherds mysteriously numbered just two until I managed to locate the third still snuggled up in his protective wrapping paper, as I joking said to Dad, he must have been on the night shift of shepherding duties. Even the Angel had arrived, and taken up its rather aloof position on the exterior of the crib’s thatched roof. From being very young I was often allowed to help with the arrangement of the nativity figures, but the affixing of the Angel was another of Dad’s jobs, as the eye (a technical term learnt at a young age !) on its back had to be carefully affixed to a hook on the front of the stable. Too much wear and tear caused by youthful energetic frustration would have caused the hook to lose its tension and long ago the Angel would have found itself standing amid the hoi polloi with its message of “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” After decades of display the Angel remains hanging above the stable scene, not quite miraculously, but thanks to care, patience and a little bit of creative help from my Dad and his toolbox.

It was whilst looking at the Angel that I recalled the following words of blessing, which I felt would be more than appropriate to offer to you at this particular time. As God’s messengers and constantly in His presence they form another layer of His protective care for us. This Christmastime I prayerfully ask that the Angels continue to journey with us, enabling our prayers, hopes and aspirations to be given a hearing in God’s presence, and more profoundly that in return He will ask the Angels to keep us, and those we hold closest, safe, well and content as one year begins to fade and another dawns.

A Christmas Blessing.

May the Angels in their beauty bless you.
To come alive to the eternal within you,
Into sources of refreshment.

May the Angel of the Imagination enable you
At ease with your ambivalence
Through the glow of your contradictions.

May the Angel of Compassion open your eyes
Where your life is domesticated and safe,
Where all that is awkward in you
To the beauty of your senses
As a temple of the Holy Spirit.

May the Angel of Justice disturb you
In worth and self-respect,
That presides in your soul.

May the Angel of Death arrive only
And you have brought every given gift
And joyful guardians.

(John O’Donohoe 1956 – 2008)

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

19th December 2020

Dear Parishioners,

Once more it is good to be able to greet you with a few words along with the Newsletter for the coming week. In doing so I trust that life is unfolding kindly around and before you in these latter days of Advent. It is a great Season and one that wherever we may be physically we journeying through together spiritually in a unity of prayer and affection.

Last Sunday I made a timely trip down memory lane. As ever I was a man on a mission. The purpose of my journeying was to deliver a Christmas gift to my younger Godchild and his brother. As all clergy do, I arrived at the most inconvenient of times, just as the family were about to sit down for their evening meal. Even from the driveway it smelt delicious, and I knew that in normal circumstances an extra chair would have been drawn to the table, and I would have been invited to share their roast. However, for the time being at least, things are different, and even though a chair had been placed in the porch and a tempting coffee was offered by way of luring me out of the dark, wet and cold to sit socially distanced from the family, I declined. Not only was it the right thing to do, but also with children, example is an incredibly important textbook from which they can learn. So I stood outside, beneath an umbrella in the pouring rain, bringing a little Christmas cheer and delighting in all that truly mattered: seeing the faces of loved ones, in that instant a couple I had been privileged to marry, and two children I had the pleasure of baptising. A fabulous and thrilling moment.

So where was I, and why the reference to memory lane, I can hear you ask. I was in north Leeds, in an area still as fresh and familiar to me as the streets and roads of Heckmondwike and Cleckheaton are currently. This was the soil of my first appointment as a priest. Ordained on the fourth Sunday of Advent twenty-seven years ago, I did not take up an appointment straight away, as it would have meant moving at least one other priest within the diocese to accommodate me at the busiest time of the year, so I remained in Garforth, where I had served as a deacon, until the end of January. Hence it was in February 1994 that I took up my role as curate at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Moortown, Leeds, from where I also served as Chaplain to Cardinal Heenan High School. Having served as a priest in the Catholic landscape of Kirklees for a quarter of a century next year, the fact that I have ministered elsewhere may actually come as a surprise to some ! My time in Leeds was brief, just two and a half years. It was an excellent grounding, working alongside one of the then Vicar-Generals, Monsignor Kieran Heskin – a very fine priest, scholar, and man, who provided me with an equally excellent example, wise counsel and a happy and homely presbytery-life. Unusually no second curacy followed instead I was appointed full-time Chaplain to Huddersfield University, bringing me to Kirklees, where I have stayed ever since.

Our parish in Leeds 17 boasted a number of synagogues, which when the difference was explained to me was done so in terms of strictness of observance, rather like the Methodists in days of old. Their Feasts and festivals were noticeably observable due not only to the movement of people, all smartly attired and often in family units, but practically too as businesses closed, and also in symbol. It was the latter that struck me so powerfully last weekend as I travelled along the lengthy and almost biblically straight roadway of the rather affluent Alwoodley and Wigton lanes. Many houses were illuminated bringing welcome light to a drab and dank evening. Noticeable amongst the illuminations was the presence of the Menorah (the symbolic candelabrum) both in the windows of houses and also in gardens. Undertaking my journey at the beginning of celebration of Hanukkah, the eight day Jewish wintertime festival of lights, I could not help but reflect on our own lighting of candles at this time of the year. Like our tradition in respect of the Advent lights, the oil, or candles, on the Menorah, are lit one by one, but over successive days rather than weeks.

Hanukkah celebrates the defeat of the occupying Greek forces by Judas Maccabees, and the reclamation of the great Temple in Jerusalem for the worship of Almighty God by his chosen people. Seeking to acknowledge the sacred nature of the Temple as the dwelling place of the Most High the first task of those who entered it was to light the Menorah. The symbolism and importance of which is akin to our Sanctuary Lamp. On their entry into the Temple they discovered just a single vessel containing olive oil that had not been sullied by secular use at the hands of the Greeks. Sadly such a limited supply was only enough to offer a single day’s light, not long enough for more oil to be prepared and ritually purified, allowing it to be suitable for use in the Temple. Day by day the Temple Attendants noticed that the oil was burning much more slowly than normal. In fact, the one day’s supply of oil lasted for the full eight days. Deemed miraculous, the festival of Hanukkah was instituted in the Jewish calendar.

The central symbol of Hanukkah is the Menorah candle stand, often capable of holding nine flames, the central light of which, called the Shamash (or Attendant), is a continuous flame used to kindle the other eight lights, which are lit amid seasonal prayers, blessings and songs. Unlike our Advent candles, which are mainly church-based, the Menorah is a feature of individual households, to be displayed in a doorway or window, visible for all to see, whilst they are also lit in synagogues and in public places. Unsurprisingly for a Jewish Feast, the festival is accompanied by table-fellowship, where it is customary to eat food fried in oil (a further reminder of origins of the Feast), play games including, for younger children, one involving a four-sided spinning top on which Hebrew lettering forms an acronym for “a Great Miracle Happened There,” and the giving of monetary (“Gelt”) gifts to children, based on their behaviour and spiritual learning, allowing them to donate what they have received to a good cause, culturing the virtue of charitable giving.

The placing of the Menorah, with its increasing array of light, culminating in eight lamps offering substantial illumination, in a place where it can be seen on a regular basis, and is never far from view, is done so with purpose and intent. Purposefully it reminds those looking on it of miraculous events long ago. Its intention is to encourage those who celebrate the Feast to live enlightened lives. Primarily to stand up for what is right, lead a good life in the public domain which is faith-based, and to constantly recall that a little light goes a long way, acknowledging that even the smallest of flames defeats the darkness that existed before its arrival.

Whether symbolised by the ostentatious outdoor Menorah with their vivid colours that I passed as I drove along the roads of north Leeds, or the simple, much used, and accident scarred Menorah that will have been lit in houses and homes across the world in recent days the message remains the same: light always overpowers darkness. Hanukkah is a Feast of eight days, rather like our own festivals of Christmas and Easter, which are celebrated over an Octave period. One of the reasons for which is to give us a longer opportunity to reflect on their significance and importance, the eternal concepts of which are far beyond our comprehension.

The lighting of the fourth Advent candle in our churches this weekend will remind me of my own Ordination day, celebrated in liturgical purple, and a Gospel reading depicting Our Lady striking the match of redemptive hope in the generous response she made to the invitation she received from Almighty God, through the ministrations of Gabriel, to become the Mother of the Word made flesh, the Light of the world. Despite the roughness of the road that Our Blessed Lady often journeyed along, both before and after Christ’s birth, her openness and willingness to embrace and live God’s will for her, gave the world an unquenchable Light that continues to overcome all things not least our anxieties, apprehensions and fears at this particular time in our human history. As I light that fourth candle this weekend my silent prayer will be that we shall truly live as a people of light. It is often said that the darkest hour of the night is that which precedes dawn. Whilst many may feel that we are journeying through that hour currently, let us not forget that the pathway we travel is illuminated with our Advent lights – hope, joy, gentleness and prayer – to reassure and sustain us until the Light that we are awaiting comes to birth in our hearts afresh and renewed in the celebration of Christmas.

In signing off this weekend I ask that you all continue to keep yourselves safe and well, thinking of others too, by observing the guidance being offered to us in the interest of our nation’s health and well-being, alongside that of ensuring our NHS can deal with all that is arriving at its doors day by day.

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

12th December 2020

Dear Parishioners,

It is good to be able to greet you once more alongside the delivery of our weekly Newsletter, and I trust that you are keeping well and safe in these trying times. What great scenes of hope and optimism we’ve witnessed during this last week in the initial distribution of a vaccine to members of our national family. Let us continue to remain up-beat that it will be available for many more of us before too long, bringing a refreshing normality to our lives. Until then we continue to respond to the invitation to behave appropriately to our circumstances.

A statement on a school classroom wall read: “You are a piece of God’s plan.” It is a great reminder that we all have a part to play in something greater than our own unfolding lives. Kirkwood Hospice have a team of volunteers who ensure that all the pieces are in jigsaws donated to them making sure that no paying customer, having laboured for hours, arrives at the frustrating moment of realization that there is a piece missing ! Alongside attending church and preparing her own Christmas Day meal, Mary Berry ensures that there is a jigsaw in her kitchen for all comers to begin the process of putting together. If a single piece is missing from a near-complete jigsaw that solo omission catches our eye, almost to a point of compulsive captivation and distraction. When complete, we fail to see the individual pieces, focusing our attention instead on the masterpiece before our eyes. Much of life, of who we are, and what we achieve is piecemeal. A jigsaw. This extends to our Liturgy and things we are familiar with in the context of our church rituals. One of the most noticeable prayers that is made up of many parts is the Eucharistic Prayer, hopefully so familiar to the congregation and prayed well enough by the celebrant that the varying parts of it blend into a seamless unity.

One of our daily intercessions in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass is for our Holy Father, Pope Francis, whom we pray for by name together with our Bishop, Marcus. Without a doubt knowing that they are being supported by the prayers of the Faithful across the world must be a great source of encouragement to our successive spiritual leaders. The Holy Spirit gifted the twentieth century with no less than nine successors to St. Peter, each reassuringly a hugely different personality to his predecessor, bringing to their role and office an abundance of gifts and skills, some perhaps, like everyone else’s, more obvious than others. Of the nine, four have been canonized – Pope St. Pius X (1903 – 1914), Pope St. John XXIII (1958 – 1963), Pope St. Paul VI (1963 – 1978) and Pope St. John Paul II (1978 – 2005) – and two others are journeying toward sainthood, currently holding the title of Venerable – Pope Pius XII (1939 – 1958) and Pope John Paul I (1978). The remaining three names of the Servant of the servants of God (“servus servorum Dei”) are Pope Leo XIII (1878 – 1903), who at his death in 1903 at 93 was the oldest man to hold the office; the scholar-athlete Pope Pius XI (1922 – 1939), who was sometime Prefect (i.e. in charge) of the Papal Library, although I doubt that he stamped many books or collected fines for those that were overdue !; and Pope Benedict XV (1914 – 1922), of who, when it came to the production of a biography of him in English, was described as “The Unknown Pope.” As with anything, amongst the ranks of our Popes are personal favourites whether we have lived under their pontificates or not, often highlighted by the number of teenage boys who take the name of the first Pope, St. Peter, at Confirmation.

Amongst those that I most admire are three of the twentieth century pontiffs. The earliest of them is Pope St. Pius X, who encouraged more frequent reception of Holy Communion amongst the Faithful, and whose tomb is close to one of the doorways of St. Peter’s Basilica, from where he continues to spiritually greet pilgrims to the Eternal City.

 

 

Pope John Paul I is pictured at the Vatican in 1978.

The most recent is Pope (Venerable) John Paul I, whose infectious and captivating natural smile on his election in 1978 illuminated hearts the world over, my own included.  A smiling Pope, whose public persona was so different from that of his predecessor the rather austere looking Pope St. Paul VI. His smile, captured on a photographic image, hangs on my kitchen wall, silently reminding me of some words of St. Teresa of Calcutta – “Peace starts with a smile.”

 

 

 

The other member of my papal triumvirate is Pope Benedict XV, “The Unknown Pope.”Aged just 59 at his election in the early days of the Great War, following the demise – from a broken heart, it is said, caused by the war – of Pope St. Pius X, Benedict XV, was a relative youngster in comparison to many of his predecessors. Chosen, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for his diplomatic skills and prowess when the world dwelt under very dark skies, he had only been a Cardinal for three months before his election in early September-1914. Within just a few short weeks he had embarked on a personal mission to bring a lasting peace to a broken world. With the initial hopes of an end to hostilities by Christmas fast fading he called for a Christmas Truce. Whilst political leaders acknowledged the goodwill behind the call, they failed to back the initiative. At grass-roots level the voice of the Pope was heard, and during the week leading up to Christmas reports were made of British, French and German soldiers acknowledging the Season by crossing, in peace, into the no-man’s land that separated them. There are varying accounts of what the ordinary soldiers actually did with some reports of an exchange of greetings and small gifts, others of carol singing or football matches, whilst others speak of soldiers on opposing sides combining forces and resources to bury fallen comrades with dignity and appropriate ceremony, and others recording the handing back of prisoners of war. It was sporadic, but significant enough for it to make headline news. Truces in successive years were not nearly as many due to the determined opposition to them by military leaders, and even amongst the ranks of ordinary soldiers a hardness of heart, borne from the daily grind of war, ended most acts of festive goodwill.

With the declaration of the neutrality of the Holy See, Pope Benedict worked tirelessly throughout 1916 and 1917 to mediate a peace between the warring nations. On 1st August 1917 he produced a seven point Peace Plan, which gained a relatively favourable hearing in England and amongst some other nations, however it was rejected by America and the German response was far from united or clear. Despite his earlier dismissal of the plan, President Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen point Peace Plan of January 1918 contained more than just a hint of Benedict’s objectives. Imitation they say is a form of flattery ! Not totally drained by the energy of his diplomatic initiatives, Pope Benedict threw an equal amount of passion into humanitarian efforts to lessen the growing impact of the war. Manifested in attending to the needs of prisoners of war, the exchange of wounded prisoners and ensuring that food deliveries reached near-starving communities in Europe and beyond, Benedict was also one of the few world leaders to both condemn and highlight the desperate plight of the Armenian people who were subject to barbaric treatment by Turkey including acts of genocide. At a local level, it would be good to think that Joseph Duddy, whose name appears on the Cleckheaton War Memorial, already a prisoner of war in the hands of the Germans by Christmas 1914, benefitted from the compassionate initiatives of Pope Benedict.

Even with the ending of hostilities in 1918, Pope Benedict continued to proclaim a message of reconciliation amongst nations, culturing and seeking tangible signs of a more harmonious relationship between people of differing cultures and backgrounds. Aware of the continuing devastation and hardship that were a daily reality in the lives of many ordinary people acts of great humanitarianism continued in his name among peoples of many nationalities until his death in 1922. He was certainly a remarkable “piece of God’s plan” in the lineage of the twentieth century papacy.

The message of the Christmas Angels to the shepherds in the fields was “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:14) In the cast of a nativity performance there can only be one Joseph or Mary, but there is always room for a spare angel or two ! Rather like characters mentioned last week, they can be seen to be on the periphery, but their message was fundamental: peace and harmony. In the jigsaw of the Christmas story they are small pieces, often portrayed above and beyond the central scene with its major characters. The absence of the angels would leave a very noticeable gap, drawing our eyes away from the stable, distracting us from the arrival of the Christ-child. Their role is as a “piece of God’s plan” and their message is as significant to our world of today as it was to that of two thousand years ago, and each unfolding generation. A little over a century ago, a currently untitled Pope in Church circles, was guided by the message of the Christmas angels in seeking a lasting peace amid an embittered generation of humankind. He played out his part on the world’s political stage, for many observers in a minor capacity. Whilst history may see him very much as a part-player in the events of the Great War, to those who put down their tools of destruction and walked across no-man’s land to chat, laugh, sing and exchange token gifts, for an all too brief period of time, his vision of a Christmas Truce was a reality.

Perhaps our own willingness and openness to being a “piece in God’s plan” will allow something of His Kingdom to dawn in our lives this Advent and Christmastime. That illumination of the new day may not always be where we imagine either. In the case of Pope Benedict XV one of the very few memorials to him is in Turkey, a predominantly non-Christian county, in the courtyard of St. Esprit Cathedral (Instanbul). The plaque on a statue acknowledges him as: “The great Pope of the world tragedy … benefactor of all people, irrespective of nationality or religion.” How refreshing to know that God’s peace – conveyed through a limited human channel – has the potential of reaching to all people of good will.

Holding you and your loved ones in prayerful remembrance and affection.

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

5th December 2020

Dear Parishioners,

How good it is to be able, once more, to send you the Newsletter and also the Readings for Holy Mass this weekend, with the hope and wish that you and your loved ones remain well and safe.

This week I took advantage of our liturgical new year and resolutely broke a habit that has been almost life-long. I parted company with an invited guest into my various homes, a travelling companion as I journey from place to place, someone who has shared desk and table fellowship with me, and has, in short, been an intrinsic part of my daily life. The grand action of which I speak was to turn the radio off between the hours of 12 noon and 2.00 p.m. Yes, I gave Jeremy Vine the elbow ! From the beginning of my memory storing its catalogue of events and scenarios the radio has provided its own easy-listening soundtrack against which life’s journey has been played out. My various addresses have provided homes for numerous radios dotted around living and work spaces. Although often commented on with a light air, they are in truth all tuned into one station – BBC Radio 2. Someone did once mention that other stations are available ! However, I’ve never ventured from the mountain of satisfaction to explore such rumours. There was never the need to break free from the long-held, and endanger wonderful memories of childhood played out against familiar voices and a pleasing choice of music. In my pre-school days Mum and I listened to Radio 1, but as disciples of Jimmy Young, we switched along with him to Radio 2 in 1973, and that is where the dial has remained ever since. Its programmes remain true to Lord John Reith’s mission statement that they should inform, educate and entertain. A giant of a man, he stood at six feet six inches, even taller than my former broadcasting companion, Mr. Vine.

My decision to separate from Jeremy Vine was an informed one, and came in response to the growing number of whingers, moaners and darn-right negative individuals that populate the window of opportunity he affords to listeners airing their views on news items and current affairs. Having been informed and educated by worthy and appropriate guests, not even entertainment could generously describe the views and opinions of some of those phoning-in. So, even imbued with a decent level of patience, this listener switched-off. Negativity rarely travels alone, it usually arrives with its off-spring, corrosion and destruction who, once sat at table, will soon devour any optimism and goodwill set before them.

Life experience over the larger part of 2020 has been difficult for many, and for significant numbers very tough indeed. It has thrown up many challenges and also a produced a huge number of shining stars, if not heroes. In the face of challenge I’ve heard many comments about the things that people have been unable to do or experience, in short called upon to sacrifice. Within most of us is the potential draft of such a list, more than likely quite a lengthy one, and compiled with relative ease. The harder path to pursue is to see the challenge and ask the question: what can be done about it. The words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Inaugural Address as President of the United States of America come to mind: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” In the face of adversity, and words of despairing negativity, I have often had to reassure people that even with limitations and restrictions things are possible and can become a reality through extra effort, creativity and openness. Hence even with limited numbers, doors closed, and an inability to be tactile within the context of celebrating Sacraments, as a community we have celebrated arrivals, departures and unions amongst ourselves. I can assure you that at no time in my seven years of training did anyone give us instruction on how to conduct a meaningful Funeral in ten minutes or to use cotton buds safely during the anointing of a wriggling infant with the Holy Oils on the day of their Baptism, let alone how to stage-whisper the sacred vows of Marriage through a three-ply facial covering. Like many of my colleagues, who were able to continue to minister in Lockdown, I simply got on with it, learning all the while, and at times rehearsing many times over, in order to get the balance right, and not lose the precious significance of a moment that could not be replayed.

With the celebration of Christmas drawing ever closer there are many disparaging voices, announcing their discontentment loudly, pointing out what we are not going to be able to do or have: limited numbers around a table, no public houses in which to gather, overcrowded transport networks as everyone gravitates towards family homes at the same time, the inability to purchase or exchange gifts … to name but a few of the comments that have reached my ears. Having heard a colleague preaching along similar lines in Ireland recently, he drew his reflections to an end by saying: “Imagine if all that was left of our Christmas was the birth of Christ !”

The laments voiced today had their comparisons almost two thousand years ago. The road to Bethlehem was overcrowded as those of “David’s house and line” journeyed “in order to be registered.” The public houses were open, but so crowded that as “there was no room for them [Joseph and Mary] in the living space” the newly arrived Christ-child was “laid in manger.” No mention is made of a table. The only image of feeding in that stable scene is “a breastful of milk” described by Christina Rossetti in the carol “In the bleak midwinter.” As to any form of gifts, Sacred Scripture tells us that the shepherds “hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger,” in response to the angelic message they had received, but it makes no reference to them taking any presents along. Even in the visit of the gift-bearing Magi as told by St. Matthew, there is a very large clue that the presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh arrived quite some time after the first Christmas, perhaps up to two years judging by the age of the innocents slaughtered as a result of Herod’s insecurity.

Perhaps if all we have to celebrate this Christmas is the birth of Christ, the impact of that event will be more profound than usual. Christmas after Christmas the invitation is made to worshippers in our crowded churches to spend a moment of contemplation in front of the rather rarified crib-scene. In anticipation of present-opening and the veritable banquet that awaits extended family units hasty retreats are made, with a promise to do it next time.

Amid the characters populating the Christmas scene are those who are often overlooked, even mocked or criticized. Let us be more positive about them. The Innkeeper, who despite having a full house, had the compassion necessary to offer what little was spare – an outbuilding or cave, warmed by the body heat of its animal residents. The Shepherds who heard “news of great joy” and responded by going in search of “Christ the Lord,” displayed a generous trust in providence, believing that all would be well with that on which their livelihoods depended – their own sheep. And the Magi who never gave up on the hope afforded them by the “star they had seen rising” and which went ahead of them until it “halted over the place where the child was.” Beneath ever altering skies they journeyed on, sometimes with light step, sometimes trudging.

Earlier I mentioned shining stars and heroes that our time of adversity has produced. Some maybe almost household names like Captain Sir Tom Moore or Marcus Rashford, but in our midst have shone many who have reached out to others in tremendous acts of compassion, forged dependable friendships out of the limited materials of nodding acquaintance. Those who care for others through life-choice, not just the sick, elderly and vulnerable, but also the staff in our schools, who have done so much to provide new forms of education to the children of others. Not to mention the pastoral care that comes from seeing need and addressing it. These are the people within our community and society who are called upon to take risks, and in their rising to the challenge bear contemporary witness to the providential confidence of St. Luke’s shepherds. Others trudge onward, like the Magi. For them 2020 has brought untold heartache, uncertainty and darker skies than they’ve ever known, despite which they still seek the star to guide them. They journey on with a “hope that is not deceptive” (Romans 5:5).

Listening to the negative, whether it is the voice of stranger on the radio, or even someone who lives beneath the same roof as ourselves, being dismayed by the critical and guided by those without hope is not the recipe for the feast that we are journeying toward through these days of Advent. Such counsel places us in danger of letting Gospel good news slip through our fingers, replaced by a self-centred indulgence. If all we have on December 25th is the opportunity of celebrating the birth of Christ perhaps our celebration will be more authentic, honest and contain an integrity lost in years past by the “fripperies” poetically spoken of in a John Betjeman classic. The arrival of the Babe of Bethlehem as told by the authors of Sacred Scripture revealed the unimaginable love that God has for each and everyone of us, delivered amid the obscurity and randomness of history.

Pausing to reflect on that gift this year may we discover the contagion of that priceless love. Desiring to share it will bring joy in reaching out to others. In the effort made and the opportunity embraced our redemptive history will achieve its aim and goal. It will also find us displaying the gifts of those seemingly peripheral unnamed characters of the early pages of our Second Testament; the Innkeeper, shepherds and Magi – compassion, trust and hope. As Muhammad Ali once said: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room on earth.” Whatever our address – stable, palace or any and all postcodes in between – may our homes be places of optimism, hope and joy this Advent and Christmas.

And if you’re wondering what or who has replaced Jeremy Vine ! I have dug out, dusted down and charged up a decade old Walkman, filled with music, songs and humour, personally chosen, which makes the world I populate feel an okay place, and one with a fabulous and glorious future ahead of it ! So perhaps the voices of the BBC Radio 2 listeners described earlier as whingers, moaners and negative individuals, have actually done me a good turn after all.

May we continue to remain faithful to each other through prayer and affection, united in the great hope that one day we shall be united again in the houses of God familiar to us.

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

28th November 2020

Dear Parishioners,

Alongside this weekend’s Newsletter and Readings for Holy Mass, comes a wish and hope that these greetings find you and your loved ones well and contented.

This weekend we begin a new year in the life of the Church as we move into the Season of Advent. Personally speaking it is one of my favourite periods highlighted on the liturgical calendar, and I would happily skip Christmas, the bit of Ordinary Time which occurs briefly as we box and store our decorations, and dismiss Lent in order to be able to celebrate Easter as soon as possible after Advent ! Aware of some of the headlines over recent days, offering hope of a more ‘normal’ way of life by Easter, I suspect that my imagined leap through time would suit many others too. However, we are where we are, and that is much nearer seeing the release of a vaccine against the dreaded Covid-19 than we were even a month ago. So let us continue to journey with necessary caution and common sense but also carrying with us the Advent gifts of hope and joy.

One of the necessary jobs carried out this week was the preparation of our churches for Advent. In both churches this meant putting away our “There but not there” soldier figures, and at St. Paul’s taking down the banners which have decorated church in Ordinary Time. Across two of these are the words Let Your Light Shine. Reflecting on those words may well have inspired numerous parishioners and others to do just that: allowing their own talents, gifts and personalities to bring light into the lives of others. During recent months there have been many instances of this taking place, often very quietly, and without the trumpet blast of public praise or accolade. Perhaps two simple words – thank you – gave reassurance that where there had been darkness, your gesture, word or presence had truly brought light.

Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that all I do is watch TV, can I just correct any straying thoughts in that direction, by saying my working day begins before 7.00 a.m. as I sit down over breakfast to read through, and respond to e-mails, so by 8.00 p.m. there is some justification in being able to sit down once more, this time to relax, and eat a meal often taken in front of the TV ! And I am very choosey about what I watch. Far from being any sort of domestic god, I confess that I have very limited capabilities in the kitchen. If I am told that something needs twenty-five minutes in the oven, it usually gets at least ten minutes more due to my own doubting nature and the fact that the oven is old ! However not being able to cook has never stopped me from being hospitable. At least when times allow me to be so. As a student I long ago learnt that a few Rich Tea biscuits and a bag of Twiglets could be turned into a veritable feast !

Over recent weeks as I have partaken of my Tuesday evening meal I’ve delighted in the skills and culinary imagination of the contestants in “The Great British Bake Off” tent. This years’ potpourri of bakers seemed from the outset a near perfect combination of truly lovely human beings. Their efforts come under the scrutiny of the Marmite-figure of Paul Hollywood, and everyone’s surrogate aunt, Pru Leith. Tuesday saw the three remaining contestants Laura, Dave and Peter thrash it out in order to claim the Bake Off trophy – an inscribed cake stand. Having seen all the contestants and their creations struggle with the heat within the tent, which included on more than one occasion the wearing of ice-towels (the temperature was in excess of 36 degrees some weeks), they all deserved some form of medal for stamina alone. However out of the final had to walk a winner. This honour went to Peter Sawkins, a twenty year old Accounting and Finance student at Edinburgh University. Throughout the series he was a real star. There was nothing showy about him. But he had it all ! Week after week he not only gave of his best but produced personal triumphs and twice was accredited the coveted award of Star Baker. A self-confessed fan of “Bake Off” it had clearly inspired him as a child to dabble in the family kitchen, and constantly he referred to the fact that he was living the dream by being a contestant on the show. Even Paul Hollywood acknowledged that Peter had a mature head on his young shoulders. This was evident in a comment made by Peter in the final episode, when he reflected that in comparison to his peers his life may not have been as exciting – devoid of a gap year or overseas experiences – but he enjoyed and felt privileged for the life he had. Amazing wisdom. He also had the quirky and successful technique of listening to his cakes before removing them from the oven. It was a trick, uniquely his, picked up from observing a contestant in an earlier series of the show.

Peter Sawkins’ light shone into homes across the country for many weeks. His unflappability and stoicism when things did not go as planned, openness to the critical friendship of the judges, and an incredibly youthful face and sparkling smile that spoke of contentment and satisfaction on life’s journey. Despite the programme being aired quite some time after filming had finished the name of the winner remained a tight secret. When revealed, Peter was in his student flat along with his housemates, watching the show as they had done since returning to university. Sharing one of his cakes (lucky them !) they celebrated together when the judge’s verdict was announced just after 9.00 p.m. Perhaps not all that quietly as he apologized, during a radio interview, to others living in the same block of student accommodation who had heard the cheers and applause that had sounded as the announcement was made. Asked what was next for him by the BBC Radio 2 host, Peter simply said that he had an assignment to be completed by Friday, and exams in two weeks’ time. There is something reassuring to know that life goes on as normal even for a Bake Off winner ! Congratulations to him, and especial thanks to those who have, during his formation as a son and brother, cultured his light allowing it to shine in the triumphs and disasters produced in their family kitchen. A light that has shone brightly amid a nation of armchair bakers, revealing little less than perfection in all that he created from the ingredients presented to him week on week, but also in the pure loveliness of humanity that he conveyed by being himself.

Taking encouraging banners down does not mean that we should cease illuminating the lives of others. In fact Advent calls us to be a people of light, ultimately being drawn towards the True Light which is the gift of the Christ-child presented to us in the fragility of humanity in the darkness of Christmas night. It is from this encounter that we draw the strength to be light-bearers to and for others. In the wonderful days of Advent that lie ahead may we have the confidence to share our own light, but also recognize the illumination carried by others and encourage it to shine brightly too.

Holding you in prayerful remembrance and affection.

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

P.S. Having seen this prayer recently, I thought it was worthy of sharing !

Prayer for putting on a face mask:

Creator, as I prepare to go into the world, help me to see the sacrament in the wearing of this cloth – let it be “an outward sign of an inward grace” – a tangible and visible way of living love for my neighbours, as I love myself. Christ, since my lips will be covered, uncover my heart, that people would see my smile in the crinkles around my eyes. Since my voice may be muffled, help me to speak clearly, not only with my words, but with my actions. Holy Spirit, as the elastic touches my ears, remind me to listen carefully – and full of care – to all those I meet. May this simple piece of cloth be shield and banner, and each breath that it holds, be filled with your love. In your Name and in that love, I pray. May it be so. May it be so.

21st November 2020

Dear Parishioners,

Another weekend, and another Newsletter ! Hopefully its arrival finds you and those you care about in continuing good health.

Within all of us is there is an element that craves a feel-good factor. What satisfies this may well differ from person to person but certainly one TV programme that ticked this box for many during the first Lockdown, from conversations that I’ve had, was “This week on the farm.” Clearly it drew in the audiences as towards the end of the first run, it was announced that extra shows were being recorded. More recently it has aired again. It features Cannon Hall Farm near Barnsley, a place well known to many of the children in Holy Spirit School. Each year a class group enjoys a visit. Two of the main human characters of the TV show are the Nicholson brothers, Rob and Dave, who live, breathe, and simply ooze a passion for their chosen way of life. They are a great duo, and live a vocational life in relation to the concern that they show for the four-legged and two-legged creatures that they share their home and working environment with. Week after week it became clear that some of these enjoyed being under the spotlight, whilst others clearly found the cameras to be an intrusion into their natural shenanigans. In the earlier series one species of our four-legged friends always ready to step out into camera shots were goats. Their antics and frolicking, caught on the small screen, were often incredibly funny and most entertaining.

They certainly lived up to our stereotypical labelling of them as being adventurous, strong-minded, daring, escape artists, and being more prone to doing their own thing than showing any desire to follow, be directed or even guided. Their wiry frames, swiftness and natural dexterity allow goats, both in the wild and in captivity, to adapt readily to a wide variety of terrains. They are by nature curious, interested and nosey. When it comes to food they are browsers rather than grazers. A feature which has given them the reputation of being willing to eat absolutely anything without fear or favour ! The truth is that they have a tendency to try anything, and depending on its taste will either finish the meal or walk away from it.

Watching their enjoyment of life, simple as it might be, lived out beneath the blue skies of spring and summer, and observed during a time of strict social and travel limitations for ourselves, I could easily have been a touch envious of the goats at Cannon Hall. They seemed vastly more interesting than the grazing sheep.

The Gospel at the core of our Sacred Scripture readings for this weekend cautions me, and others, of observing the rather cute, fun-seeking, goats with the green eyes of envy. The separation of the sheep from the goats is perhaps one of the best known Parables depicting end times. At its heart are the choices we make on the adventure of life’s pilgrimage. As a man of his time and place, Jesus would have been very familiar with sheep and goats, possibly even having to shoo a curious, free-spirited, straying goat from the open working environment of St. Joseph on more than one occasion. Sheep follow, can be rounded up, and are contented when enclosed in a space of their own. On the other hand a straying goat has to be caught, carried, harnessed or tethered, and if contained spends its waking hours seeking any means of escape. Described elsewhere as the Good Shepherd, Jesus offers through his own example and skillful leadership a blueprint for His sheep to follow. Within that some skills of the goat will be needed, such as the confidence to reach out, being prepared to take risks, but not those of journeying through life in isolation, leading to a blindness that fails to see the needs of others, not least those most in need. This is summarised in the question asked by those on the left of the throne of glory: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help ?”

Our behaviour is very much at the fore of those who have guided us into another phase of Lockdown. Having come so far along the road of sacrifice this year, we have been asked to continue this often lonesome pathway. Despite the bright hope that announcements of the success of vaccines have offered in recent days, we are still quite some time away from the formation of queues to receive them. Our waiting continues. Even when they are accessible we are only one relatively small island community within a global family unit.

Our own very stringent adherence to the mantra Hands – Face – Space – within our church buildings comes from a duty of care that we have for one another. Whilst we may not like having to queue to get into our spiritual homes, grumble about being asked to stand two meters apart from people we’ve known all of our lives, or mutter about the need to wear a facial covering in God’s House, we do so because we are showing love for our neighbour, and in return allowing them to show their love for us. It is also worth remembering that whilst our churches have, since July 4th, been able to open their doors to congregations, thanks to volunteer Stewards, there are very many in the nation’s workforce who continue to work from home because their employers cannot offer a similar safe environment in which to conduct a ‘normal’ working life.

The reality of the need to adhere to guidance given, and like the sheep of the Gospel, to be counselled and directed, was brought home to me recently as I listened to a radio interview with Vaughan Gething, the Health Minister of Wales. He said: “You are most likely to get Coronavirus from someone you already know, a friend, a family member, a loved one.” It was a shocking statement. And to be sure that I’d heard it correctly I listened to it again, and for a third time. It reminds us that the things we believe we will get away with, or no one will know about can actually have serious consequences. Goats would take the risk. Sheep would listen and do the right thing, putting trust in the voice of the shepherd. Grazing at a social distance !

The sheep of the Gospel question as to when they treated others well, fairly, with kindness, compassion and as equals. The reply given clearly surprises them: “in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” For all of us there is the opportunity to reach out to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. Our opportunity may have a 21st century twist on it but will be no less significant and relevant or even life changing or life saving to those who benefit from it. Perhaps it will be the extra item in our shopping trolley that is put into the collection point for the local Food Bank, the home crafted face masks that make them fun to wear, the knitting of clothing to be worn by premature babies we cannot name or the on-line donation made to an aid agency like CAFOD, the cheery card sent to someone who is unwell or on the road to recovery, a few thoughtful words of remembrance conveyed to the bereaved or a phone call to those who have not left the security of their homes for the majority of the year or who spend an entire day without hearing the voice of another human being.

Whilst our reaching out to others may take the confidence and daring of the goat, as we do not wish to seem intrusive into the lives of others, I pray that it maybe what we actually carry out in deeds motivated by love that will bring each one of us the reward given to those who sit on the right hand of the King in the Parable: “… the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.”

I continue to carry you in prayerful remembrance, together with your loved ones – living and, especially in this month of November, those handed back to God – and in affection.