19th June 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

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

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

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

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

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

Bless Our Fathers 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

12th June 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

5th June 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

29th May 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

This time of the year gifts us with a number of Bank Holidays which, rather like proverbial buses, often come in fairly rapid succession, dependent upon the falling of the lunar Feast of Easter. This weekend there is a heightened enthusiasm for a break from routine as we are promised an improvement in the weather, and for our youngsters there is a half-term holiday, not to mention the recent lifting of some of the restrictions limiting our ability to socialize as freely as we may have wished to do. However we choose to spend this time we will inevitably encounter other people. For some a disappointment, as they seek sanctuary in the Dales or by the coast after a prolonged period of simply not being able to get there, and once there discovering that half the county has had the same idea. And for others the opportunity of gathering with family and friends fulfilling the sole purpose of the building of their fire-pit and purchase of the varying designs of overhead coverings and shelter manufactured specifically for outdoors allowing people to shelter safely and comfortably in a garden surrounding. 

Whether we lament having to share an open space with others or have simply lived for the moment to arrive over the last year when visitors could be welcomed back into familiar surroundings, it is doubtful that any of us will avoid the presence of others over the holiday weekend. Random or purposeful encounters with others provide many of us with the very stuff that feeds a hobby that we rarely admit to but find quietly gratifying and which, in its own way, often satisfies the basic hunger and thirst that we have as human beings to connect to others. It is best described as people-watching ! It can be carried out in the queue at the checkout in the supermarket, at the stop for public transport or as we simply enjoy a quick ‘breather’ taking advantage of one of the seats in our public spaces, mentioning just a few of the vantage points I admit to using in this pursuit. There are endless opportunities to indulge ourselves in this pastime. Standing sentinel at our church doors during the week gives me plenty of opportunity to watch my fellow human beings going about their business. From the doorways of both I, often unobserved, witness the finest and worst elements of our shared humanity. The impatience of speeding drivers on Bath Road; the reassurance of parents encouraging their children to take their first hesitant steps into the brand new world of school and education; the discarding of litter; and the joyous, unrestrained laughter of youngsters sharing the hilarity of an on-screen image.  

At St. Paul’s I am able to look across the road and watch the comings and goings in the King Edward VII Memorial Park but not before observing numerous drivers waiting for the lights to change who, thinking no one will see them, begin composing a text, and when the lights change find that there is a long gap between themselves and the car that was once in front of them, not to mention a horn-blowing driver behind. One of the most noticeable habits amongst my fellow townspeople in the recreational space of the park is their willingness to cut corners, appearing to be programmed at finding the quickest route, taking a short cut regardless of the state of their footwear as they cross grass and flowerbed alike without respect for either. With its horizontal and vertical pathways disregarded by walkers, runners and those taking strides and steps in between, in order to get to their destination as quickly as possible, I often wonder if those hastening to the bus station are able to embark immediately, or find themselves stood waiting in a queue, rendering their decision to corner-cut and take a shortened route somewhat invalid.  

The two central parks in the towns of Heckmondwike and Cleckheaton hold a special place in my heart as these are the places where the majority of the Fallen from our worshipping communities are commemorated on beautiful memorials. Not that either was envisaged with that purpose. Both Green Park and its related space in Cleckheaton, also called Green Park on maps pre-dating its current layout, were created from the benevolence of local people, some incredibly wealthy, others just ordinary, everyday folk who wanted somewhere pleasant to enjoy fresh air and the opportunity of taking advantage of a formal open space in which they could sit, alone or with family or friends, and make the most of the simple pleasures that life offers, not least amongst them those without gardens of their own, living in terraces and in busy yard areas. In their heyday musical entertainment would also have been available, offered by local musicians and bands. Pathways laid in them were intended to maximise the potential for exercise whilst in these none-too-large leisure spaces. In Cleckheaton the park was created to commemorate the reign of a man dubbed the Playboy King, Edward VII (1901 – 1910), who was renowned for enjoying the outdoor life, and blew a freshness into the public face of the English monarchy, after the rather dour latter decades of his mother’s reign. Heckmondwike’s Green Park was formalised to acknowledge the Coronation of his son, King George V, and Queen Mary in 1911, having previously been a site on which travelling shows and fairs pitched, and for most of the year a piece of, generally speaking, waste land used by the youth of the day for play. It was in light of this latter use that some objections were made to its conversion into a more formal area. Eventually members of the Firth family came to the rescue by offering to provide a two acre field for the youngsters of the town to play on and furnish it with fittings for enjoyment such as swings and roundabouts. The land at the top of Beauregard (a name which means “beautiful gaze” or “easy on the eye”) Street near to Flush Mills was to be named the George V Playground.  

Contemporary newspaper reports from the time of the Great War tell of the use of the perimeter of the Cleckheaton park by the Catholic community. It was at this time that the indigenous population of the town, mainly worshippers at the Non-Conformist cathedral-like places of worship which dominated the spiritual landscape of the Spen Valley, enjoying their Sabbath promenade along the pathways of the park caught their first sight of Continental Catholicism in the initial May Procession organized by Fr. Paul Van de Pitte in 1915. After a Service in the Mission Chapel handed to the Belgian Guests (as they were referred to in the press; a totally disarming collective, devoid of any form of judgmental or political labelling) of the district which included readings, a sermon, the recitation of the rosary, and the blessing of the statue of Our Lady that was to be carried in procession, the pageant began. The route was hardly long, from the Marsh area of the town, around the four sides of the park and back again to the church in Dewsbury Road. The leading children, wearing costumes made for the occasion, such as those of the May Queen, her retinue, banner-carriers and those holding streamers attached to them, altar servers, together with others, all attired in their Sunday best, must have delighted in being the object of admiration from those stood within the park, craning from its various walkways in order to catch glimpses of their finery and to delight in the spectacle of the occasion. It is possible that, radiant in their moment of glory and as the focus of attention, the processional route will not have been long enough for the children of both Belgian and English families taking part in it ! Within the confines of the park no doubt other children will have separated themselves from their parents to follow the procession around its borders, captivated by the colourful drama. A year later it was reported that the chief object of the procession was to show the devotion of the worshippers towards the Virgin Mary and to her intercession, through prayer and witness, for the Allied Nations and the distressed people of Belgium. How proud too the parents of the processing children must have been watching their off-spring enjoying a moment of glory, being admired by neighbours and fellow townspeople. With the reality of the Great War taking its toll on families, such an innocent distraction, featuring a rising generation whose parents all hoped and prayed would grow up in a world of peace, must have been a most welcome sight. 

It was an event that grew over its four year lifespan with Belgian refugees joining it from further afield as Fr. Paul Van de Pitte’s ministry widened. Not only were local people content with the distraction from a vantage point within the park, where vertical and horizontal pathways cut across trimmed lawns highlighting neatly laid out seasonal flowerbeds and maximised the ability and capacity of those promenading to pause but, growing in confidence, they took to gathering in the vicinity of the Chapel to share in the entirety of the event. It was an early expression of Christian Unity.  

Far from being a short cut used in haste, I find our centrally located parks to be havens of peace and an opportunity for brief distraction. In them I speak with people not encountered elsewhere, acknowledging, when present, the work that those employed by Kirklees do to maintain them for our use, at the same time never failing to cast my eyes in the direction of the war memorials remembering and praying for those who gave so much, allowing those who so wish to take the short-cut or conversely for others to walk the extra mile with their fellow pilgrims on life’s journey. Choices made in freedom. The original intention of the creators of both Green Park and the King Edward VII Memorial Park is not lost a century and more on from their openings. With such a rich seam of our local population passing through them they also provide a time for reflective prayer. Perhaps not in the quiet surrounds that we would normally use for our conversations with the Almighty, but somewhere in which we are gently prompted by others – in the casual chatter of passers-by, the distant excited voices of playing children, those about to start a journey, or make their way to school or a health centre – that the community of which we are apart constantly stands in need of a remembrance before God.  

Prayer for the Local Community

Father God, we pray for all in our community. 
For those who live here, we ask that they may thrive and prosper. 
For those who work here, we ask that they may strive to improve the lives of residents. 
For those who use our healthcare facilities and educational establishments: may their needs be met. 
For those who come for recreation, my they find enjoyment in their activities. 
For ourselves, that we may serve You in our community in ways that truly matter. 

May your Bank Holiday weekend be kind to you, and in it may you find recreational pleasure for body, mind and soul … and perhaps a walk in one of our parks ! 

Be assured of my prayerful remembrance of yourselves and those you love the most and know best, together with assurances of affection.

As ever,

Fr. Nicholas    

22nd May 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

Despite the all necessary extra care that has to be taken these days in so many areas of life when dealing with the ‘unknowns’ thrown at us, I still cannot resist the temptation to bend down and pick up the seemingly random item from the pavement or gutter that catches my eye. Usually it is a discarded coin, sometimes an item that looks like a coin but turns out not to be, so I then have to carry it to the nearest dustbin ! Thank goodness for the hand-sanitiser which lurks in every pocket I dip my hand into. Being of a generation that can recall the purchasing power of a ha’penny in a sweetshop, I still see value in a penny. Alas, that power may not be what it used to be, but as well as being discarded by some as they fall from pockets with an attitude that they aren’t worth expending the energy it takes to retrieve them, these small copper-plated coins continue to make their way into our collection baskets. However it takes a lot of them to fill the required bag for them to become an acceptable, and also relatively heavy, bankable item. Weekly on a Sunday morning I gather and collect a varying amount of discarded rubbish from Bath Road, wondering as I do so where the youthful team of Spen Valley Greta Thunbergs are. Did I dream of youngsters taking days off our schools in Kirklees a couple of years ago to protest about adult-neglect of an environment we all share! Certainly when I do see people litter-picking they tend to be of mature years. Perhaps the link between the localised picture and global issues is lost in translation. Having a Dad who has always been able to see a further use for the discarded item, perhaps my tendency is hereditary. Our extended garage at Otley is the gallery in which he houses a life-time’s habit of waiting for the moment when the retrieved item will come in useful. Thus far it is an area of our home that has not fallen under the spell of my sorting and tidying skills. Earlier work done in the pantry and greenhouse would barely equate to a shelf in this Aladdin’s Cave as I’ve heard it referred to on occasion. Not my words! My vocabulary when discussing this space usually includes the word ‘skip’ at which Dad pales.   

Last week I picked up a random item from the driveway. I have no idea of its origin, and shall not blame the birds, as a recently published report stated that for every one human being on the planet there are six birds. Being so out-numbered it is worth knowing who’s really in charge! The object that found its way into my hand, en route to the bin was a piece of a jigsaw. Turning it this way and that I couldn’t quite make out what the design was, nor guess at the larger picture it fitted into and was ultimately an integral part-player of. In my hands and eyes it was random and reduced in meaning, but in the context of the whole jigsaw it was vital, necessary, crucial and completed the picture of which it was just one single piece.  

There is an element of being a piece of a jigsaw in all of us. Like many, at the end of each day, I offer the Lord an overview of the experiences of the waking hours that I recall. Sometimes I present a lengthy list of negatives for which I seek forgiveness and pardon, and maybe the future opportunity to redress, or bring back into balance, that which I may have upset or taken away from its normal harmony by the sharp word, neglectful deed, or simply poor attitude. On such days I sincerely hope that those who encounter that piece of the jigsaw of myself, will understand that there are a lot more pieces – maybe not visible or apparent in that single encounter – which when put together and taken as a whole, form a much more pleasant and likeable total experience than that dealt out in the tangible expression of a single word, deed, or moment of bad attitude.  

Reassuringly there are many more reflective times, when on contemplation of a day drawing to its close, my heart is filled with gratitude to God for all the positives to which I have, thanks to Their gifts working through me, been able to contribute a tiny speck of betterment or enhancement to those whose lives I’ve been privileged to encounter. For all of us, I am convinced that this list is far lengthier than the former viewed and clung to by regret and lamentation. Ultimately there are many jigsaw-like pieces and elements that contribute to the larger picture of our lives, in part seen by ourselves, by others, and in its totality by Those in whose image and likeness we are created. Some of these may appear to be more intrinsically linked to the whole than others, perhaps more bland – rather like sky in a landscape picture – but are equally necessary and whose contribution is one of a reliable presence devoid of which something would most definitely and noticeably be absent. 

The jigsaw of childhood is formed of large pieces, all rather naively obvious and quickly slotted together to produce a simple image. Without a need for complication we are satisfied with the basics, including love, the attention of others, food, warmth, security, and another necessary piece is one which is constantly changing shape, proportion and is the element of ourselves that is open to the learning of life that begins at home, the first classroom of experience. As teenagers we discover that there are many more pieces to the jigsaw of who we are than we first saw on the box-lid of childhood. Some pieces are simply accepted as a given, others rebelled against, and in the demand of the instant-fix pieces can be forcefully put into places not rightly theirs, meaning that others are adrift and out of place. The enthusiasm, sense of pushing boundaries and simple youthful determination to explore new frontiers can make the promise held by a thousand pieces so appealing, luring and tempting. Reality can take the jigsaw in many directions, not least into the safe hands of those experienced enough to guide and direct through assistance; see it become a pile of individual pieces smashed in frustration with even those that had been so tentatively and appropriately connected broken apart; not to mention the incomplete picture walked away from when the bland and uninteresting routine lacks sparkle or boredom strikes, bringing an army of seemingly relevant and meaningful distractions, which last no longer than a style of clothing or hair colour.  

Relationships allow us to see beyond the few pieces that we hold in our own hands. Others are attracted by what we ourselves take for granted, and even begin to nudge us in the direction of seeing more elements of the larger view than had ever been obvious on our solo journey. In trust we begin to share pieces of our lives, and develop a confidence allowing us to hand some of them over to the safe keeping of those who will ultimately become significant features of our jigsaw story. Parents, carers, grandparents across the generations with a largely completed jigsaw of their own offer willing and patient hands to assist with the pieces of new and evolving lives. Looking at their own jigsaw, more time than ever before is given to contemplating the swathes of similar appearing pieces, reflecting long years of recurring events not least amongst them work, each individual shape holding recollections of a certain environment and those who populated it. The blue of sky or sea evoking memories of favourite destinations, a sameness of location for holidays as a family, slightly more exotic and with tongue-twisting names as adventures were taken when the nest was empty, financial stability was attained or retirement came. With a freshness of vison pieces are viewed, the detail of one or more lost to the hasty youth, cherished by the mature eye that recalls the significance of the stepping stone to a new beginning, a chance meeting that led to a lifelong partnership, the slip, lapse or failure that brought continuity and the avoidance of disaster and annihilation. With age comes an understanding that whilst we handle many pieces of life’s jigsaw with the belief that they could belong or fit anywhere, their shape, characteristic, and definition mean that there is just one, single and unique space for them. That is where they actually fit and belong. It is where they are meant to be, planned out by Those greater than ourselves, but Who, thankfully never tire, get bored, lose patience or walk away from the wonderfully rich, diverse and imaginative dream that together They had for each of us, and collectively for humanity as a whole, in the playroom of creation which has a single word on its door – Love.  

Not too far removed from those thoughts inspired by a jigsaw piece picked up randomly on a drive are the words of prose which, as the proud son of a retired weaver, mean a lot to me: 

 The Divine Weaver. 

The human life is laid on a loom of time 
To a pattern they do not see. 
While the Weaver works and the shuttles fly 
Till the end of eternity. 

Some shuttles are filled with silver thread, 
And some with threads of gold; 
While often just the darker hue 
Is all that they may hold.  

But the Weaver watches with skilful eye 
Each shuttle fly to and fro, 
And sees the pattern so deftly wrought 
As the loom works sure and slow. 

God surely planned that pattern 
Each thread – the dark and the fair – 
Was chosen by His Master skill 
And placed in the web with care. 

He only knows the beauty 
And guides the shuttles which hold 
The threads so unattractive 
As well as the threads of gold. 

Not till the loom is silent, 
And the shuttles cease to fly 
Shall God unroll the pattern 
And explain the reason why 

The dark threads are as needful  
In the Weavers skilful hand, 
As the threads of gold and silver 
In the pattern He had planned. 

Whatever the shape of the piece of your own jigsaw you are currently holding, or the colour or texture of the yarn flying to and fro on life’s loom, may you know it is there with purpose, and has a vital part to play in something far greater than itself.  

With the reassurance of both prayerful and affectionate remembrance.
As ever,
Fr. Nicholas  

15th May 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

The appearance of these words along with the Newsletter and Readings for Holy Mass this weekend will reassure those parishioners who on reading the beginning of last week’s musings may have thought that I was destined to be snatched away from parochial duties to write better endings to some TV dramas. However, like many a prize, I remain unclaimed! The blackbird-parents about whom I wrote, are noisily calling to each other as I write these few lines. One in search of food the other taking a drink from the birdbath: easily contented and seemingly happy, and simply getting on with life. What an example to us all. From the press this week I gather that I have not been alone in finding inspiration for writing in birdlife as the wonderful (a personal opinion!) Michael Morpugo’s latest work “Song of Gladness” is the fruit of a much simpler life, lived under the restrictions of Lockdown, the dawning of a deeper appreciation and awareness of the environment in which he found himself living. In the subtitle of his book – “a story of hope for us and our planet,” the most important word for me is “hope.” A quiet but necessary virtue. It is with this gift that we have collectively looked towards a horizon, illuminated by the promise of better times, during the often dark days of recent shared life-experience, and with which individually we have stirred those closest to us to think of renewed opportunities of togetherness and pleasures yet to come.    

The former Children’s Laureate became known to me when his book “Private Peaceful” was serialised on BBC Radio 4 some years ago. Having only heard extracts, I decided to visit Waterstones and seek a copy to read for myself. Searching shelf upon shelf without success I eventually sought help, only to be guided to the Children’s Section of books, where there were numerous volumes of his writings! Despite being hesitant – an adult buying a children’s book for himself! – I took the plunge, and was an immediate convert. He is a skilled story-teller, and it isn’t only children who like a good story. Perhaps his best known work is “War Horse,” available now on film, but the best is the theatre production. I have seen it twice, travelling to London to do so, and blubbered at the same scene twice! The puppets (rather like calling a marquee a tent!) are brought to life by amazing stagehands and actors. Wow, wow, wow! If you have seen it, you will know exactly what I mean, and if you haven’t you may be left wondering what I’m going on about; better still, when theatres reopen, you may be drawn to a production of this amazing story of equine-human relationships.              

From a now distant mention of hope, may I venture to speak about its near relative: kindness. Each time I go to the fridge my eyes catch sight of a laminated sign hanging precariously with magnetic force from its door. In large print are three letters ARK beneath which their meaning is typed – Acts of Random Kindness. It serves as a reminder of a gesture made to me, and as a gentle nudge to reach out to others in a thoughtful manner. Originally it was attached by a ribbon to a couple of bars of chocolate. A kind, thoughtful and generous addition to someone’s shopping basket during the days of Lockdown which subsequently found their way through my letterbox encased in a freezer bag. Such actions seemed prevalent during the initial Lockdown period when neighbourliness became the virtue and reality which it once had been. These acts remind me of some words often recited by a great-aunt of mine in my youth: “I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” I was never quite sure who she was quoting, and neither are they who take it upon themselves to immortalise similar sentiments on cards and posters. Common thought seems to be that whilst attributed to French exile Etienne (Stephen) de Grellet (1773 – 1855) who fled revolution and a death sentence to begin a new life in America where he joined the Society of Friends, they may not have been his own words, just some he borrowed. Whatever their origin they are a great leveller, reminding us that sometimes the opportunity to do good knocks but once on the door of our ability to respond to it in a certain situation or to an individual, known or unknown to us. It can provide a good mantra for humanitarian actions of great or small proportions, the impact of which is best judged by those whose lives are touched by a meaningful word, attitude or gesture extended to them.  

With so many clamouring for attention to be drawn to their individual plight of hardship and difficulty on the pathway of life, still more jostling for a response to be made in the name of their situation, the amount of kindness that each of us has to offer can seem wholly inadequate to alter, change, or do anything at all to assist them. In the last year alone so many issues have been focused on at different times, all relevant and needing addressing, but surely a common, shared, not to mention global problem has to be greater, if only for the span of time it is beyond our control. When, for whatever reason, scenarios are not dealt with a victim culture can be created, causing isolation, anger, difference and a growing stack of bricks used to build walls between people. As a fundamentally optimistic person, imbued with the gift of hope, I would like to think that for every person building a wall, there are two people building bridges, bringing people together. An important building block in the construction of the latter is kindness. 

Many of us will have been touched by the plight of those currently being described as the Windrush Generation. The initial group of 1027 passengers arrived at Tilbury Docks in 1948. The majority of them had set sail from Kingston, Jamaica, but a smaller number boarded at Tampico, Mexico, as the Empire Windrush was called upon to divert its course and pick up a further 66 passengers. These, often overlooked in reports made, with the exception of one, were the wives and children of Polish soldiers who had fought alongside the Allies, and had been displaced in Mexico since 1944. Two very different groupings of people, each with their own heritage and their own story to tell, yet their shared experience was of arriving in a new country to begin life afresh. Each of those 1027 people on disembarking began collecting stories that they would in turn pass on to others. Some exposing the worst of human nature whilst others revealed the best. Recently I was privileged to hear one of the latter when asked to celebrate Holy Mass for a former nursing colleague of a parishioner who had sadly died. This lady had been a part of a slightly later Windrush Generation. In reflecting on her earliest days in this country she always gave credit for the kind welcome she received. Arriving on our shores in a cotton frock, sandals and no coat she was horrified to be greeted by English snow. Having secured a job in a clothing factory the women amongst whom she worked quickly recognised her need and discreetly organised a whip-round providing her with warmer clothes, shoes, and a pair of wellingtons. Bricks of human kindness and compassion building a bridge, and perhaps sowing the seeds, or watering those already sown, that inspired this lady to enter a vocational way of life that would allow her own gifts to shine in the care and support that she offered to others.    

Sometimes it isn’t a deed that touches the inner life of another human being, but a fleeting comment, given gravitas by the circumstances in which they are uttered. The following is an extract from a wonderful publication, recently loaned, which was compiled at the end of the twentieth century from stories told by those whose length of life covered each of its decades, indeed a couple its contributors were born in the nineteenth century. The words are those of Alice Whittle, widowed of her husband, Norman, at a young age: “When Norman died so suddenly, my faith went to pot. The only question I could ask was Why? Why has the Lord done this to me? I was brought up as a Methodist and looked forward to going to chapel. My dad used to say, “Our Alice is the only one that has a bit of faith in her.” But when Norman died it went to pot. And I remember, it would be a couple of weeks after Norman died, a knock came to the door. And it was this lady, and she had about four roses, and she said, “I go to the United Reformed Church and we heard about your sad loss. Will you accept these from me?” So I invited her in and put the kettle on and we had a cup of tea. And she asked me if I had any faith. I said, “I did until this happened over Norman. I’m left with a little lad at my time of life, 49 years old, no wage, no nothing. I keep asking the good Lord why, but there’s no answer.” And she said, “Will you do something for me before I go? The next time you say your prayers, will you not ask the good Lord why, will you give Him thanks for the strength He’s given you to carry on.” And that was the turning point for me.” It would be good to think that out of a simple, kindly-intentioned, yet rather daring knock on the door of a relative stranger a lasting friendship was born. Sometimes a quiet confidence, an inner boldness is necessary to move thoughts of kindness into meaningful actions. The Lockdown restrictions meant that Acts of Random Kindness could be done almost anonymously: something dropped through a letterbox or on a doorstep, perhaps just the briefest of pleasant verbal exchanges from a deliverer to a resident stood in their doorway, or even conversing through the slightest opening a window could provide.  

Despite his great external qualities of determination and physical doggedness, St. Paul provides numerous incredibly sensitive and insightful references about his understanding of kindness as a gift from God to be shared with others, he even presents it to us as part of a wardrobe of clothing to be worn by those who call themselves Christians: “You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you, and you should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another, forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. The Lord has forgiven you; now you must do the same. Over all these clothes, to keep them together and complete them, put on love.” (Colossians 3:12 – 14) He ranks kindness next to patience in describing the attributes of love: “Love is always patient and kind.” (1 Corinthians 13:4) Above all he asks that we do not make a choice about who we show kindness to, discriminating for whatever reason, instead he insists that we “Treat everyone with equal kindness.” (Romans 12:16) With such an approach we may be able to untangle the knot of a sense of overwhelming inability that we so often find ourselves toying with helplessly in the face of the magnitude facing hardship and difficulty.   

A brief moment of contemplation about our own life-journey will bring to mind acts of kindness which historically, and in the present, continue to mean so much. Some of which may have been life-changing. With such thoughts comes a compulsion to go and share what we have found so beneficial, removing any hesitancy that we may have about getting it wrong, making a mistake or being misunderstood. With the Festival of Pentecost just a week away St. Paul offers a timely reminder that “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self control.” (Galatians 5:22ff) So let kindness abound! 

Holding you and your loved ones in affectionate thought and sincere prayerful remembrance. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas 

8th May 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

Whilst Sophie Ellis-Bextor may have sung about “Murder of the Dancefloor” last Friday evening I witnessed what Alfred, Lord Tennyson described as “nature red in tooth and claw” on the Presbytery lawn. And, yes, the pesky magpie was at the centre of the traumatic events. Over and above all the other outdoor noises, (and there are certainly increasing amounts in comparison to the still, quiet days of a year ago), could be heard the shrieking call of the resident blackbirds. Well used to their rather loud conversations with one another across the garden I initially dismissed their cries as mere background din. However there was something urgent in the persistence of the clamour that made me look out of the window. To my horror I saw a magpie astride a blackbird chick whose distraught parents had noisily taken matters into their own hands by systematically dive-bombing the larger predator. Rushing outside I soon found myself a part-player in the unfolding drama. Having frightened the magpie into retreat I shielded and examined the chick … only to be the subject of friendly fire coming from its parents who continued to swoop low with beaks pointing in my direction. Eventually they gleaned I was friend rather than foe.  

Whilst surprised at the size of the chick, at a guess just a few days away from discovering the gift of flight, I stood for some time protectively over it, whilst it recovered somewhat from its experiences. All the while its parents were in close proximity, gathering, during the temporary truce, food for their off-spring to eat. Backing away, I observed feathered parents tending to the immediate needs of their chick. It was incredibly moving. Standing sentinel, it wasn’t too long before the magpie, with a reinforcement companion, was back, viewing the scene at a safe distance. For about an hour and a half I was back and forth from desk to lawn offering assistance to the blackbirds in fending off the magpies. Having observed the physical damage done to the chick, not to mention its traumatised emotional condition, there was little more that I could do. The time lapse included several crude imitations by myself of our Father in Faith, Abraham, shooing the birds of prey from the altar of sacrifice spoken of in Genesis (15:11). The ringing of the phone took me indoors for what was the briefest of moments leaving the birdlife to their finest, bravest, worst and cruellest. As the call, an automated message reputedly from Amazon (other delivery services are available !) informing me of the imminent arrival of a package that I had not ordered, ended, I noticed that a sudden eerie stillness had descended outdoors. The chick was gone, its parents silenced and not a magpie to be seen … just the tail end of a cat rushing at speed down the drive ! It was the unforeseeable ending to a script that many the creator of a TV drama would have been envious of.  

The next morning the blackbird parents were back in the garden, bathing, seeking food and calling loudly to each other. Both continue to bob around, and I have noticed the gathering of further nesting materials, so perhaps their treetop residence is being repaired. Unsure about the spiritual lives of birds, I did reflect that not even the savage removal of a chick takes place “without the Father knowing it.” (Matthew 10:29) 

Sacrifice is an defining element of Christianity, rooted in the offering made by Christ of Himself on the hill of Calvary, it is present in the first Testament, and in the early history of Christianity St. Stephen is widely recognised as being the first of a long, and sadly continuing, list of named individuals called upon to lay down their lives for the Faith. Last Tuesday we celebrated the Feast of the English Martyrs. Having been Parish Priest in an area where one of the churches was dedicated to the collective patronage of these men and women, the day holds a special significance. In a period of just over a century, beginning in December 1886 and concluding (so far) in 1987, successive Popes have acknowledged our fellow country women and men’s ultimate gift of themselves in fidelity to the Catholic Faith by raising them to a road which led to two of this number being canonised in 1935 (Ss. John Fisher and Thomas More), forty more in 1970, and Archbishop Oliver Plunkett of Armagh in 1975. Earlier and later, groups of martyrs were beatified; fifty-four in 1886, nine in 1895, one hundred and thirty six in 1929, and eighty five in 1987. The ceremony of December 1929, presided over by Pope Pius XI (1922 – 1939), was attended by Gilbert Keith Chesterton and recalled in “The Resurrection of Rome.” In 1935, for the Canonisation of the Yorkshire-born Bishop John Fisher and Thomas More, a considerable number of clergy and pilgrims from Leeds were present in Rome; the Diocese able to boast of having the first church in England dedicated to the new martyr-saints, at Burley-in-Wharfedale, built in 1932, largely from the personal resources of widower-priest, and late-vocation, Fr. Frederick Le Fevre.  

The pathway to public recognition for this cohort of martyrs began quickly. As early as the mid-1580s, whilst Elizabeth I sat on the English throne, the relics of sixty-three martyrs were already being honoured and images made for reproduction in devotional literature. The pubic persecution of Catholics in England began on 4th May 1535 when three monks were executed at Tyburn in London – Prior John Houghton of the London Charterhouse, Prior Robert Lawrence of the Beauvale Charterhouse, and Richard Reynolds, a Brigittine monk from Syon Abbey – beginning a period of about one hundred and fifty years during which the ultimate price for being recognised and betrayed for the Catholic Faith was execution. This sacrifice was made in a variety of environments including the public scaffold, languishing in prison and during the process of barbaric torture. Amongst the ranks of these men and women were a Countess and a rural Priest, who died almost a hundred and forty years apart and whose formal recognition by the Church was separated by over a century. Margaret Pole, one of just two 16th century English women peeresses in their own right, was the daughter of George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, and niece of King Edward IV. Her formative years were dominated by personal turbulence rooted in political wrangling, and came to an end when her cousin, Elizabeth of York, married Henry VII. Through this union she found herself married to a relative of the King’s, Sir Richard Pole. Seemingly secure, politically speaking, the Poles became Chamberlain to Arthur, Prince of Wales, and lady-in-waiting to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, respectively. With Prince Arthur’s death in 1502, Margaret lost her role, and when Richard died in 1505 leaving her with five children and a limited income, it was Henry VII himself who paid for her husband’s funeral. ‘Gifting’ her middle son, Reginald, to the Church, Margaret retired to live with the Bridgettine community at Syon Abbey.  

When Catherine of Aragon became Queen, Margaret was once more appointed to the court as a lady-in-waiting, a move which in 1512 saw her being restored to some of her late brother’s lands, for which she had to pay for the privilege ! A shrewd financier, by 1538, Margaret was the fifth richest peer in the realm, but her relationship with Henry VIII was turbulent. As governess to Princess Mary, with the ascent of Anne Boleyn and Henry’s declaration of Mary’s illegitimacy, she refused to return the princess’s gold plate and jewels to the King, and when she offered to serve Mary at her own cost, he refused. Finding herself caught up in the political intrigue surrounding the Pilgrimage of Grace, for whom Pope Paul III charged her son, Reginald, (who had risen through clerical ranks to the position of a non-ordained Cardinal) with the funding of, and with another already executed, Margaret was stripped of her titles and lands. Imprisoned from November 1538 in the Tower of London, together with a grandson and nephew, she retained several servants to care for her family. Evidence procured by Thomas Cromwell saw her fate – the death sentence – hang like the sword of Damocles over her. The date of her execution was totally dependent upon Henry VIII’s whimsical mood swings, evidenced by the fact that having granted her an expensive wardrobe of clothing in March 1541, just weeks later on 27th May, he signed her life away ! At the venerable age of sixty-seven, Margaret Pole was executed. In deference of her noble birth, just 150, mainly invited, witnesses were present, and not the general populace. Her son, who in the reign of Mary Tudor, was to be the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, despite an earlier rift with his mother, said that he would “never fear to call himself the son of a martyr !”  

Annually at Mass we hear the story of Eleazar, a man of advanced years, who chose to die rather than lead others into erroneous ways, as Scripture recalls: “His courageous death was remembered as a glorious example, not only by young people, but by the entire nation as well.” (2 Maccabees 6:31) Listening to it evokes thoughts of a Yorkshire-born martyr, who having ministered secretly as a priest for over half a century was apprehended during the celebration of a baptism at the age of eighty two. Fr. Nicholas Postgate was subsequently condemned to death under legislation passed the previous century in the name of Elizabeth I, in whose reign he was born in 1596/97. On 7th August 1679, on the Knavesmire at York he was hanged, disembowelled and quartered. One of his hands was sent to Douai (France) where he had trained for priesthood. Betrayed by John Reeves, manservant to Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, for the reported payment of twenty-two shillings, the link between the nocturnal skulduggery of Judas Iscariot in the events of the first Holy Week, was not lost in subsequent stories claiming that Reeves took his own life by drowning before any money changed hands ! The longevity of Fr. Postgate’s ministry in a time of persecution and betrayal is almost unique, matched by the fact that he spent almost the last twenty years of his life discreetly celebrating Holy Mass and the Sacraments not far from his birthplace around the Guisborough, Pickering and Scarborough areas. The late dating of his execution ranks him amongst the final swath of martyrs put to death for their Catholic faith, although others would continue to die in penury and prison for their fidelity. 

Whilst our hearts may swell with a faith-based recognised near-relational pride at the mention of the sacrifices made by Margaret Pole, Nicholas Postgate and many others, there is another side to the story of the English Martyrs. John Foxe (1516/17 – 1587) compiled a “Book of Martyrs,” which continued to be expanded until the Victorian era, detailing those whose lives were taken from them in the name of a different faith – Protestantism. Often an overlooked element of history by Catholics, not only was Mary Tudor the worthy recipient of the name “Bloody” in reference to her brutal dispatch of hundreds of men and women, but her own father, and siblings, Edward VI and Elizabeth, as well as James I, at the same time as executing Catholics were themselves culturing lengthy martyrologies consisting of those deemed fervent Protestants, who like their Catholic counterparts were prepared to offer the ultimate gift of their lives. Rather like the stealthy cat and the chick, this is probably an unexpected factual ending !  

With liberality and freedom in the realm of faith and our ability to live as people of recognisably different traditions it can be easy to forget or overlook the sacrifices made by others in the name of faith, or even dismiss such oppression to the shelf of history. Regrettably in the twenty-first century the ultimate sacrifice, martyrdom, is still a feature on the landscape of faith for many. In the case of the persecution of Christians its presence is often brushed aside by the media. In a time when in a whole variety of ways many have been asked to make sacrifices for a greater good, it is worth recalling Christ’s own words to those who give up what they have for others. He states that there is “no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13) which is the ultimate response to His new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) In the celebration of Holy Mass this weekend we shall participate not simply in the verbal high ambitions of the Word made flesh, but the absolute reality that God’s Word was the bond, or manifestation, of His love for each one of us … sacrificed on the hill of Calvary. So, in signing-off this week I would like to assure those who are continuing to make sacrifices, and especially those feeling the weight and burden of them, you are not alone. As a community of faith we journey with you, and like Simon of Cyrene, I would like to think at we not only walk with you but help to share the load too. This weekend, very especially, you are being remembered at the altar. 

Holding you in prayerful remembrance and affection. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

1st May 2021

Dear Parishioners,                                                                                                                 

It was once said that necessity is the mother of invention. These words ran through the hall of my memory on Monday afternoon as I stood admiring a portion of our family garden that I had been employed in the process of weeding and turning over for the previous couple of weeks. The job was finished and a neighbour complimented me on my handiwork. Internally, I felt as though I had arrived on the stage of recognised gardeners ! The bed of garden contains a good number of rose trees, a pampas grass (the majority of whose sharp and biting leaves are held prisoner behind some supportive fencing; but straying hands, arms and legs beware !), a hydrangea and a glorious array of spring bulbs and plants that simply look after themselves, and yearly grow in number and capacity to offer the vibrant and varied colours that speak to all who look at them of the first signs of life at the dawn of a new calendar year.  

Over the last few months I appear to have undergone a rather subtle conversion process, manifesting itself in conversations about gratitude for cooler nights that have helped maintain a longevity amongst our beautiful spring flowers not least the fragile fruit of hidden bulbs, the lack of wind to ruthlessly remove tulip blooms and blossoms prematurely, but also lamenting those same sharp frosts which have mutilated the magnolias of which I am custodian. Although not flung from a horse during this change, it has involved picking up and wielding stored equipment whose presence just a few short months ago I would only have been aware of through a cursory glance. Busying myself with this front of house activity has not seen me responding to any heavenly voice, but rather those of numerous Otley neighbours who have stopped me in my tracks, exchanging pleasantries and enquiring about Dad. At the core of this metamorphic change is my relationship with the garden.    

Our garden was always the domain of my parents. Having begun their married life in a back-to-back terrace, their move to our home in 1964 (yes, one address for almost fifty seven years, and there are still other neighbours who have been there longer than us !) fulfilled particularly my mother’s dream of having a garden which soon became a shared source of pride and joy. My mother would spend many an afternoon pushing an aging mower up and down grass, which had it been sat in the barber’s chair would have been subjected to a Number One blade all over. She was skilled with both long and short handled shears, and was equally impressive with an edging tool when determining the boundary of the lawn. On one occasion having left the mower for a moment she returned to find a rat sat atop of it. Mustering a shriek, a neighbour came to her rescue with a stone, which hit the mower and sent – what was later described as a drowsy rodent – scuttling. On another occasion a wandering patient from Highroyds Hospital was found asleep on the lawn, profusely apologising when disturbed by Mum, saying that he thought it was a park ! Bless him; the garden is attached to a two bed-roomed semi-detached property, hardly Chatsworth House. Each of the three aspects of the garden has its own memories. The lawn was where we would sit as a family enjoying the summer sunshine, sometimes on the swinging seat which for a number of years was ritualistically erected around Eastertime, and whose cushioned seats were carefully housed in the garage after every use to protect them from dew, rain and other forms of dampness.  

The lawn is also home to a line of three cherry trees; an aged weeper, a rather chic Amanogawa, and a standard which stands almost protectively head and shoulders above the others. The DNA profile of the weeping variety is probably closely related to my Dad’s given the number of times he has caught his head beneath its branches. With a bloodied head he would enter the kitchen passing the comment that he had come up too early when working beneath it ! There was occasional mention of the weeper’s removal, but with his head healed the veiled threat was soon forgotten. Beyond lies a second bed, again predominately housing roses, but there is a lovely diversity of other forms of plant and shrub life. Discreetly in a corner is something edible: rhubarb. On Monday I invited a couple of neighbours to come and help themselves to some of its stalks, as Dad normally does, as the harvest is beyond meeting his own needs. In return he usually receives a couple of crumbles. Personally I’m not living in hopes of these being delivered to the Presbytery anytime soon ! As a small boy I recall this part of the garden containing some lilac trees which both grew quickly and also out of vogue, so they were taken out in favour of roses (the culturing of which was a notable recreational habit of one of my predecessors at Holy Spirit, Fr. Denis O’Sullivan 1889 – 1897, who was something of an authority on them). The year before her death for Mothering Sunday I bought Mum a lilac sapling. Dad planted it so that it could be seen from the front window. It took immediately, and surprised us by budding early the following year. Mum never saw it in bloom, but touchingly on the day she made her last journey from home to church, a single stem of pure white blossom had burst forth, along with its rich scent. Almost on the fifth anniversary of that day, the green buds are waiting to mature and change their colouring. As the years pass, so we note an increase of its fragment stems.  

Returning to the focus of my recent labours, the colourful and varying array of species of spring flowers at the edge of the bed reflect the canny Yorkshire approach of being hesitant to throw things away, not least bulbs given in bowls for internal displays at Christmases past, such as hyacinths and miniature tulips, daffodils and narcissi in all shapes and forms. On the demise of their initial crop they were randomly buried outside, where their presence evokes numerous happy festive memories from perhaps as many as thirty or more years ago. In those distant times of childhood and youth my own contribution to the maintenance of our family garden was being handed a bucket and implement with which to remove weeds from various nooks and crannies. It was far from a labour of love or even a voluntary contribution to Team Hird, instead it came from an overly loose tongue passing the comment that I was bored ! Vocalising any experience of boredom was virtually mortal sin in my parent’s eyes, the only remedy for which was the penitential act – literally carried out on my knees – of removing weeds.  

My favourite part of our garden is at the back of the house. It is mainly pebbles (enhanced by some which were collected on forays along various beaches where holidays and days out were spent) surmounted with a variety of planters, a small rockery area and a pond. There is also a greenhouse, and yes, for the inquisitive of mind, this too has recently been given the pantry treatment – of both internal and external acts of tidying and culling – by yours truly ! The acknowledgement of which was shared – Confessional-style – and with the trepidation of a naughty child, to Dad on my first visit to him in hospital in late-March. At a distance I was granted pardon ! Fondness for this garden area probably comes from the fact that it has noticeably grown up with me over the years. In childhood it was home to a couple of pine trees each of which attracted numerous species of birdlife, and occasionally a squirrel. With the extension of the garden thanks to the reduction of space taken up by a neighbouring YEB generator came change, the removal of a privet hedge and an opening up of the space to more natural light. As a small child it was the area where I could be found sitting and playing in a paddling pool, later it was where various pets had their caged homes, and when we inherited Bracken in 1980 it became the contained and safe area in which she could roam freely, amusing us as she would follow the sunlight in order to lay out full length, basking in its warming rays. More recently it was where Dad and I would sit socially distanced for a few hours each Sunday drinking copious mugs of coffee chatting, commenting on the lack of both air and road traffic, listening to the bird life, and able to overhear conversations of neighbours also sitting outside making the most of a climatically pleasant Lockdown experience.  

Of late, for many green spaces have taken on a new significance, and, as for myself, have become an outlet for time and energy, offering in due season a sense of achievement and satisfaction, or a place to exercise or, more recently, a safe environment in which to meet up with family and friends. A horticultural theme dominates the Gospel of this weekend, albeit focusing on a more rarefied form of cultivation than mere flowers or shrubs. In Jesus’ usage of the vine we are probably more able to connect with the imagery than with the vision of shepherding offered last weekend, despite our TV familiarity with Yorkshire’s own, Amanda Owen. Emphasising the need to remain a part of the Vine, which is Christ Himself, there is mention of pruning and cutting back in order for new life to be given the necessary nutrients and environment to grow and blossom, and above all enjoy a harmonious relationship with the ultimate source of life.  

Gardening draws us into a new classroom and learning experience. Whether we are in attendance or not Nature is engaged at her work. Seen or unseen, above ground, below ground, life is evolving and being nurtured. With a generous spirit of accommodation what demands space in one season, retreats and makes room for its neighbour in another. When the exertion of producing a harvest rich in colour and enjoyed by the passer-by is over a process of near hibernation begins to rejuvenate that which has spent its energies for this year at least, recharging itself for a similar crop next spring or summer. Whether heads of many colours or bows of blossom benefit from a kind and gentle climate or succumb prematurely to decimating wind, rain, frost or snow, the virtues of patience, resilience and acceptance are taught, as innately plants, bulbs and shrubs hold an almost tangible and confident hope that they will be back again the following year. Some accept too the brevity of their existence. Blossoming and flourishing for a single season, whilst others age both gracefully and disgracefully, gaining all the while a memory of presence spanning decades for some and centuries for others. When it comes to diversity, tolerance and acceptance, gardens appear to have an abundance of each quality; even weeds are made welcome ! As St. Paul’s describes love, so too the growing population of a garden reflect a delight in the splendour and glory of one another’s blooming achievements. Such spaces are devoid of jealousy. A garden can teach us a lot if we are open to learning from it, working with it and giving it an assurance that we care for its over-all well-being. In standing back and observing the fruit of my own labours last week I could easily share God’s own creative statement of satisfaction when Genesis (1:12) records that “God saw that it was good.”  

Let us continue to be united as a community of faith in both prayer and affection, 

Fr. Nicholas 

24th April 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas 

17th April HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Dear Parishioners, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas