6th March 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

Like many I am a list maker. The weekly jobs to do list, with a growing number of lines through tasks accomplished brings a sense of satisfaction and achievement. Luminous post-it notes attached to various scripts and piles of paper contain memos and reminders of what still needs to be done, and there is the birthday list, sacredly viewed each Sunday evening before the card writing exercise begins. Currently I am working my way through the Easter card list, facing the dilemma of which to work from: the shorter 2020 received card list or the lengthier list of 2019 from our ‘normal’ Paschal festival that year. A new list is the one I now take with me to the supermarket each Friday. It is a “Do Not Need List”! And contains several items. In a spirit of Lenten observance I am attempting to purge myself of being led into temptation. The tempter luring me into making purchases that I do not need wears the colourful apparel of labels purporting special offers and irresistible bargains attached to various products stacked on the rows of shelves. Simple mathematics and a canny Yorkshire nature lead me to put more tins, packets and containers into the trolley than I need, but I justify such moments by telling myself that they have long lasting best before dates and will come in useful at some time. Further justifying my liberal behavior is the genuine and real concern that should I need to isolate I would need at least ten days’ food to access, the easier to prepare the better in the household of a single person. Pantry-less, the size of my forays were not initially apparent; a couple of tins in this cupboard, a number of packets here or there. Then, with more radiance than the flash of light that knocked St. Paul from his horse, I realized that the tins of soup, had become a lake, and the packets of breakfast cereal resembled a mountain, not to mention the tubes of toothpaste, which could have cleaned the teeth of a river full of alligators, nor the boxes of tissues which equated to a small forest. These latter items resident in discreet upstairs recesses ! With the dawn of reality the lake is slowly emptying, God’s generous provision of allowing me to break-fast each day means that the mountain has reduced to a localized hill, and as for the toothpaste and tissues, their longevity may take me into retirement!  

Already into its eightieth year is a radio programme which is based around a list. Desert Island Discs was first broadcast in January 1942 by the BBC on its Forces Programme. Each week since then a guest has been invited to provide eight recordings, predominately, but not always of music, a book and an inanimate luxury item that they would take with them if marooned on a deserted island. It is a simple concept that has proven to have captured the heart of the nation, and now a global audience of listeners. The gentle, non-confrontational format and one imagines a safe, comfortable and evocatively coaxing environment of which the interviewee remains in control through what they have literally brought to the turn-table, provides listeners with a great insight into the individual sharing their personal choices. Removed from bright lights, camera calls and the artificiality of their public face, the castaway is one human being in conversation with another, sharing the story of who they are. The Complete Works of Shakespeare and either a Bible or another appropriate faith-based or philosophical work are gifted to the castaway, who is then invited to select a third book to accompany them. In the case of castaway and national treasure Dame Judi Dench, who suffers from macular degeneration, an audiobook was allowed, rather than a printed edition. The luxury item must be of no use in escaping from the imaginary island or allowing communication from the outside world. A piano is one of the most requested items, although famously, one-time host, Sue Lawley, conceded to John Cleese’s request to take Michael Palin with him, provided that he was dead and stuffed ! At least two castaways have provided a feast of music from their personal store-cupboard of recordings, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Dame Moura Lympany, who offered seven and eight delights of their own talent, vocal and piano respectively.  

The drafting of such a list of soundtracks to the unfolding events of life’s tapestry, enriched and enhanced with personal insights and stories, is a fabulous legacy-making experience. Whilst we may think that limiting or squeezing our musical choices into just eight tracks is virtually an impossible task, if we set our minds to the quality and depth of the exercise the opposite might well be true. That we struggle to find eight pieces together with their stories of significance. My own paltry attempt at making such a list throws just four recordings on to the turntable of my mind. In no apparent order these would be Mario Lanza’s rendition of “O, Holy Night”, for reasons spoken of in recent musings, Debbie Reynolds singing “Tammy”, Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly” and something rather sentimental from the repertoire of the Fureys and Davey Arthur. The second of these holds two-fold reminiscence for me from the halcyon days of my earliest memories. Brought up by a mother who sang a variety of songs from musicals as she did various jobs around the house, whenever I hear the opening bars of the song, I am transported back to the rooms of our family home and can see a woman contented and happy carrying out the necessary jobs of domestic life with diligence, skill, pride and panache. Tammy was also the name of my great-aunt’s wire-haired fox terrier who on my arrival into her world immediately adopted me, forsaking all others in an inseparable bond of companionship which was to last for a decade. An experience and sentiment expressed by TV presenter Nicky Campbell in his recent book, “One of the Family – why a dog called Maxwell changed my life.” 

As for “Hello, Dolly,” it was the record requested by a very young Nicholas Hird of Otley for his great-aunt Dolly’s birthday on, what was then a very infant local radio station, called BBC Radio Leeds. A song conjuring up very happy memories of an incredibly gifted, inspirational and loving lady who graced the life of our small family unit, whose presence and spirit is immediately evoked today in the rare waft of cigarette smoke, highlighting carefree days of over forty years ago. Rolling the clock forward almost two decades, my parents wrote into BBC Radio 2 to ask for a similar birthday request when I turned twenty-one. As I’d recently been to a Fureys and Davey Arthur concert in Dublin a song from them was asked for, and Ken Bruce (still broadcasting all these years later, and who recently turned seventy himself) kindly obliged.  

Whilst uncertain that anyone is currently looking for further Lockdown projects as many are beginning to see the bright and luring light of better days ahead – I am personally hesitant to use the words ‘return to normality’ – hopefully the compiling of a soundtrack to accompany stories of a life journey will be something that some may consider or even do. Lockdown has offered many a test of how well they actually know themselves, the people they share a roof with, or others who populate our lives in work, leisure or even spiritual spaces. In some cases there continues to be admiration and surprise in how some have dealt with a brand new set of guidelines by which to live their lives, displaying incredible versatility, adaptability, inner strength, resilience, determination and endurance, a quality of faith and willingness to comply to what is being asked. For others, even those on whose rock-solid foundations of exposed humanity we have come to rely, and in many instances take for granted, their strategy and coping mechanisms, endurance, stamina, optimism and confidence have disintegrated and vanished with unbelievable rapidity, revealing a very fragile base.  

In the months and years ahead many, if not all of us, will need to engage in the gentle and patient process of reconstruction of ourselves and others, not necessarily those who shout the loudest or whose damage is as obvious as that on an item repaired under the Japanese art of Kintsugi. Like Rome we will not be repaired, rebuilt or reconstructed quickly or with speed, it will be a time consuming process, especially for those who have grown used to a shrunken world environment, limited communication, and a less populated and tactile family and social circle. The telling of and the means by which we convey the story of who we are, as well its reception and acceptance by others, is an all too often overlooked and deprived treasure as we journey through life. Perhaps the next time we hear someone say “I remember when …“, or notice a foot marking the beat of a some random soundtrack to a TV advert, or even see a loved one sashaying across the kitchen floor or having a quiet dance with an unseen, but imaged, partner, we can recognize the fact that a sacred, miraculous moment is unfolding before our eyes. A part of the story of someone else’s life is being transmitted. A gentle prompt through music, a story, image or item has brought to birth a form of transmission of some of the people, places, and experiences that have made an individual who they are. A growing awareness of this will ensure that before we have reached our own sell by date we may well have cultured an understanding that some of the lists we make in reality are as flimsy and valueless as the scraps of paper on which they are written. Lent offers us an opportunity to compose a “Needs List” and also a “Do Not Need List”. The former may be easier to satisfy and reclaim than we imagine as they may already be housed within us as pre-existing treasures, skills and virtues that have remained untapped, long-unused, and become dust-wrapped through neglect. 

Perhaps our Lent “Needs List” should be headed with a desire to get to know ourselves better. Always a good starting point ! Next, a desire and determination to discover more about those who populate our world in the guise of family members, friends, and colleagues at work or in shared leisure spaces. Asking them to share their desert island playlist with you may be the key to Pandora’s Box, also revealing the luxury item that they would take to the deserted island location and the book that would accompany them to be read beneath daily unfolding blue and cloudless skies.  

As for the “Do Not Need List,” I suspect that for many of us this will be a work in progress with the passage of time, not to mention a Lenten trim here and there, as we come to value, appreciate and treasure afresh so much of that previously treated as the ordinary, everyday, ever-present, taken for granted and overlooked in our single-minded drive for more. The Lockdown reality is that so much of what we’ve craved, desired, wanted, and felt that we needed or could not live without is already ours in the gift-wrap of the most familiar to us – people, experiences, memories and the odd item.   

From one ‘castaway’ to others, I wish you a contented, happy and above all healthy week ahead. With an assurance of prayerful affection, Fr. Nicholas.              

27th February 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

In writing his second encyclical Pope Francis began it with words echoing those of his namesake, the saint of Assisi, who wrote the “Canticle of the Sun” a prayer-filled poem in which God is praised for His work of creation. “Laudato Si” (Praise Be to You), published in 2015, calls on all people to take “swift and unified global action” to preserve and care for the natural environment entrusted to them by Almighty God. Within the letter is the following prayer: “All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one. O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes. Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction. Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth. Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light. We thank you for being with us each day. Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace.” When praying these words myself the mention of journeying towards God’s infinite light never fails to conjure a sun set image.    

The ability to watch the sun setting has always been a captivating and mesmerising experience for me, and through the gift of travel I have been fortunate to experience sunsets in many places, including those where the sun disappears in an instant, natural daylight vanishing with the speed of a switch, and still others, where with very long hours of daylight, the loss of one day’s light is actually in another day. Although currently unable to travel there a favourite place to observe this natural moment of wonder and awe is Lytham. On a summer’s evening I am never alone standing and staring at one of God’s gifts to us, numbers gather and for many a phone is held in hand hoping for a shot worthy of display on the TV screen during the regional weather forecast. In the moment of sunset there is an invitation to thank the Almighty for the gift of the day, and ask a blessing on the night. Whilst a day concludes for one group of people, as John Ellerton wrote: “The sun that bids us rest is waking our brethren ‘neath the western sky !” The setting sun produces a reflective moment to appreciate something of the extraordinary imagery created from the diversity of colour on God’s palette used to produce the backdrop to our lives. In the busyness of the day His creative festivals of sky colouring are often wasted on us. For me watching the sun set is often the near perfect end to time away, after which begins the journey back to God’s own county, with passport at the ready for the border crossing from the red rose to the white rose county ! Without the ability to travel far the gift of an hour to exercise outdoors was taken up by numerous singletons, couples and families in the early days of Lockdown, all coming to appreciate, as some had done for a long time, what a beautiful part of the world we live in, and which is so readily accessible from our own doorsteps. 

However proud I may be of my county of birth, with its incredible natural beauty, glorious in all seasons of the year, and breathtaking in all weathers, like many I have noted of late that there is a growing boldness in the careless manner in which our natural environment is being treated. Travelling between the Spen Valley and Otley throughout the period of time which I have personally dubbed the “Big Lockdown” on roads which were bereft of their usual volume of users there was almost a novelty feature about following another car driver for any distance. On one occasion mine was the second car in a convoy of two as far as the eye could see on the M606 between Bradford and the Chain Bar roundabout. At some point on the journey I began to hear a dull thud sound against the car similar to what, had it been raining, I would have thought were heavy raindrops or even hailstones. However, without a cloud in the sky, the noise was clearly not being made by droplets from heaven. Instead, as one hit the windscreen, I was immediately able to identify the cause of the thuds: French Fries ! The offending objects were being fired from the backseat of the car in front of me, and as we moved on to the slip road, they became more numerous as their container was also ejected from the rear window. Viewing the scene through a grease spattered windscreen, I was unimpressed, and flashed my lights as a statement that such behaviour was not acceptable. The driver managed to slip through the changing traffic lights, no doubt thinking that he’d seen the last of me. Fate however brought us together again at a set of temporary lights, and as we passed the Town Hall in Cleckheaton, a canister of ice-cream was also released from the window, spilling its contents liberally, on impact, across the neighbouring pavement. At this point my own engine had converted from its normal unleaded petrol status to the fuel of frustration, bordering on anger. At a red traffic signal in the centre of Cleckheaton our cars were next to each other; the offending car making a right turn and I was going straight on. To my horror as I biblically ‘stared hard’ at the occupants of the car I was faced with three generations of litter-louts, to whom I mouthed the words “I’ve got your number!” Which was most definitely both a very random thing to say and a white lie as I hadn’t got a clue what their vehicle registration was, however, in the moment, my unleashed words let them know that their wonton wasteful attitude was wholly unacceptable. 

Sadly as I walk along many of our streets, venture past public green spaces, peer over the wall of the Cleckheaton Presbytery into a carpark behind the property, and, perhaps worst of all, drive along major and minor roads, I learn the frightening and harsh lesson that the occupants of that car are far from being alone in their desecration of our beautiful environment. Walking past a set of temporary lights last Sunday there next to the sign asking drivers to halt was a plastic container holding the remnants of a supper of Peking Duck, attracting a variety of swooping birdlife, which would have excited Chris Packham, clearly unabashed that they were dining el fresco on one of their own. With the amount of food waste being disposed of in this way I could not help but think that in a short few weeks as the temperature rises we’ll be sharing our streets with vermin far more bold and aggressive than most birds, with the exception of coastal chip-loving seagulls. Most of us shiver when those in the know inform us that we are never more than a few meters away from a rodent. It is information that we can cope with when we cannot see them, but when they venture forth to do their own daylight supermarket sweep on our pavements and around open and shared spaces, brushing up against their two-legged neighbours, our sensitivities for dealing with this reality may need a booster dose ! 

With very obvious growing amounts of waste in our localities the pandemic gives us justifiable reason for not getting involved with the great British tidy up, due to the offending item’s lack of obvious pedigree. So the mountain of waste is left to do its own thing. The only problem is that it takes a long time for polystyrene to disintegrate, food waste to decay, even the eco-friendly face covering hasn’t yet mastered the skill of self destruction or evaporation on removal. In a world where twelve months ago most non-professionals had rarely heard the term P.P.E., it is now widely possible to safely remove offending items from our locality, as many of us don our own personal protection equipment almost by second nature. A small number of people, including our neighbours on Bath Road, are frequently seen with a grabber-tool and bin bag attempting to tackle the wasteful habits of others. To these I say “Thank you” for your often unseen and all too often unappreciated ministry within our shared environment. It is also something that I do, looking after the spaces that I am the custodian of, following the slogan of my youth: Keep Britain tidy.        

After a Friday wedding in Dewsbury some years ago I donned the persona of a male Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles’ character, for those who do not recognise the name) and swept confetti (not rice, as in the song) from the pavement outside of church. The volume of afternoon traffic on a one way road attempting to join the main dual carriage way meant that my task was not the easiest as the light weight confetti found a new energizing force in the breeze caused by the moving cars. With the task complete and personal satisfaction at a job well done, I walked up the hill with the tools of the trade – brush, dustpan and bin liner – to the church door. At this juncture an open-topped car joined the queue of traffic. Whilst a backseat passenger was snacking on a banana the rest of us had to endure a musical concert of deafening proportions. Just prior to closing the door, I took a final look at a well-swept, neat and once more litter free path only to see a discarded banana skin on the otherwise pristine tarmac ! The music was still blaring out of the slow moving car but the passenger in its rear clearly sat banana-less. Remaining on the steps, with the spirit of a leopard watching its prey from a distance, I hatched a plan. As the offending car moved towards the junction, a point of no return given the queue of cars behind him, I ventured down Cemetery Road with stealth, picked up the banana skin (germs or no germs, I was a man on a mission !), and on the point of the driver beginning to accelerate I politely said to the back seat passenger “I think you’ve dropped something !” at the same instant tossing the offending banana skin into his lap. Right or wrong, foolhardy or justified, I did feel an sense of inward satisfaction which was bolstered when several car drivers honked their horns … which I took to mean they agreed with my action !    

Whilst not encouraging anyone to follow my bold and brash action of that Friday afternoon, perhaps an appreciation for the beauty of the environment around us is a starting point for acknowledging the incredible natural playground that God has gifted us with for enjoyment, pleasure, leisure and health, be that mental or physical. At the end of His labouring to create for humankind an environment that would sustain and provide for them, our Thrice Holy One, “saw all that He had made, and it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) The seemingly small acts of taking rubbish home, or placing it in a bin, being prepared to sweep a shared space, or, as a part of home-schooling, encourage a rising generation to befriend nature and grow in an understanding of the need to look after the environment, may go some way to practically responding to some of the sentiments expressed in Pope Francis’s prayer. The subtitle of “Laudato Si” is quite telling and revealing of the Holy Father’s intention by contributing to the discussion on their environment. It is simply “on care for our common home.” In other words he is offering guidance on the care, respect, dignity and appreciation that our beautiful, divinely crafted and awe inspiring world seeks and needs. Reminding us by so doing that it isn’t someone else’s world … it is ours ! Not as its owners but rather its stewards and custodians, preparing to hand it on to others.  

Holding you in prayerful remembrance and affection. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas  

(In response to the number of enquiries that I continue to receive about Dad, just to say that he moved from the Leeds General Infirmary to Chapel Allerton Hospital (Leeds) at the end of January. In his new surroundings he is receiving a number of therapies – speech, occupational and physio – each day and is making progress. The care he receives continues to be excellent, and the staff on the ward are a joy to speak with on a daily basis. On his behalf, I thank all those who recall him in their prayers and thoughts. At this time a continued remembrance in prayer for all the sick, those known to us or even the stranger, together with those into whose care we entrust their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being is a source of comfort and support to so many.) 

20th February 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

There are some days when I awake firmly believing that I have been gifted with someone else’s fingers during the night as nothing I attempt to pick up wants to stay in my hands from the pesky five pence piece which readily slips from hand to desktop to floor, to the second or third attempt at picking up the post from behind the door, or even the inability to turn just one page of the local newspaper over at a time. Thankfully such momentary awkwardness does not usually cause much harm, merely just frustration with the ineptness of myself. On occasion though something more significant can take place, perhaps when something hits a hard surface with an amount of force that causes lasting damage, at best an almost unnoticed chip or blemish, at worst severe, lasting and very obvious scarring, rendering it incapable of fulfilling its previous use, forever bearing the mark of unintentional and accidental clumsiness. So often sadness pervades such moments as they take place during times when we have been in the process of enhancing the item through the art and craft of washing or dusting. At which point we can almost hanker after the environment in which Dicken’s character Miss Havisham lived, an image which may have prompted Quentin Crisp’s witticism: “There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.” Alas, I personally couldn’t survive the prospect of the accumulation of a month’s dust let alone four years.  

Our response to such times of breakages and near or total destruction are mixed and varied. In some instances we attempt to pick up the pieces and begin our own “Repair Shop” system of restoration. Discovering in the process that we have set ourselves a difficult task, often frustrating, needing more skills than we have personally been gifted with not least an inexhaustible well of patience. And, yes, sometimes disposing of the item, in what may appear to be a thousand guilt-inspiring pieces in the dustbin is ultimately the only option, some even glad of the accident that had befallen the casualty as they were never that enamoured with it in the first place, having received a gift in someone else’s taste, or even purchased the object on a personal whim. 

Centuries ago the Japanese devised a method of repairing broken pottery known as either Kintsukuroi (“golden repair”) or Kintsugi (“golden joinery”) which rapidly became an art form involving the use of powdered gold, silver or platinum being mixed with a lacquer to mend the areas of damage. From this a philosophy grew, acknowledging the fact that breakage, damage and repair are as much a part of the history of an object as its original intention, usage and times of appreciation and enjoyment. Far from being detrimental to the former near-perfect, undamaged item, flaws and imperfections became understood as tangible signs of its use and journeying. Displaying pottery – complete with their “golden repair” – offered a reminder that the items’ service had not reached an end when it could no longer be used for its original, intended purpose. In its own right, what might be seen by some merely as a repaired object, had its own story to tell those whose eyes fell on it and were prepared to enquire and listen.    

With this mindset, what began in the workshop of skilled craftspeople with imagination as a means of repairing physical damage to something that held great sentimental and emotional attachment soon took on a spiritual dimension, so much so that the owners of ceramic vessels even damaged them purposefully in order to have them repaired, the foisted marks being accentuated by the predominantly gold lacquer adhesive. Despite being a step away from the original intention, and with no pedigree or lineage, these object d’art soon became highly fashionable, not to mention expensive.  

Lent offers us the two-fold opportunity of identifying the flaws, damage and imperfections within ourselves and subsequently to begin working on a spiritual process of repair that will reduce their size and ultimate impact on our lives, the relationships that we enjoy with others and ultimately, Almighty God. We are often skilled practitioners in recognizing the chips and defects of those who populate our lives, but less good at seeing faults that lie closer to home. If unsure of what your limitations might be ask a friend … just ensure that it is someone that you are wanting to remove from your Christmas card list, as you will probably not like or welcome the honesty of their response especially if they produce a list ! The words of Jesus regarding the “speck” in the eye of another and the “plank” in our own come to mind. Perfection is something that we have been led to believe is within the grasp of all of us, and with others actually seeming to arrive and take ownership of their newly acquired status, thanks to skilled advertising a primeval hunger and thirst at the core of humanity is well and truly fed. Those who wilfully damaged their pots in order for them to have the hallmarks of an artificial journey and life of service reflect the desire that was an acknowledged facet of our first parents in Garden of Eden, whose craving and desire was to “be like gods” (Genesis 3:5). This led them to taste “of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden” (Genesis 3:3). Sadly, for them, it resulted in banishment, and the leaving gift of a set of clothes each and a lifetime of hard work.   

Listening to St. Mark’s account of the temptation of Jesus this weekend we can be stunned by its brevity: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and He remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.” (Mark 1:12 – 13) It recalls the experience of Jesus entering His own time of spiritual repair. He moves into the province of the wild beasts with His own human flaws, limitations, and defects, there within Him not due to any Divine clumsiness or oversight but by the intent and purpose of the yearning desire of our God to express Their love for us by sending “One like us in all things” (Hebrews 4:15) in the Word made flesh. It is the flesh of the human wrapping paper in which this ultimate gift arrives that Jesus takes into a place of temptation.  

he work of the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness and of the angels who ministered to Him is to strengthen Him for the road ahead. In that desolate workshop they used their skills, similar to those of the Japanese craftspeople when mending pottery or ceramic. Their Kintsugi (“golden joinery”) will highlight the humanity of Jesus – very much evidenced by St. Mark – allowing Him to be “moved with compassion” (Mark 1:41) for the plight of his fellow human beings so much so that He will reach out to them and perform His own art and craft of repair in their broken lives. As the stories of many of these are recorded by the evangelists so the entire story of the individual is reported. Their previously fractured, broken, seemingly disadvantaged state of being is as much a part of who they are as the restored, joined together, mended, renewed and repaired selves. 

The temptation manifested in a refusal, denial, fake modesty approach to the fact that we’ve hit a hard surface at some point on our life journey that has caused a microscopic chip or long-lasting, although all too often well hidden, impression upon us will render the Holy Spirit redundant and there will be a lot of usually busy and ministering angels twiddling their thumbs (or perhaps catching up on some long overdue harp playing !). With honesty and integrity may we each face Lent 2021 well and through it, as well as from it, grow closer to Almighty God and one another, as well as valuing the knocks and bumps of life’s journey that have, once worked upon by the Divine Craftspeople, enhanced through Their own form of “golden repair”, the person that each of us is and cherished for being.      

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

5th February 2021

Dear Parishioners,  

On Tuesday we celebrated the beautiful Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas as it is sometimes referred to, a name derived from the fact that traditionally candles for use in our churches throughout the coming year are blessed on this day, and having being hallowed the Liturgy also allows for a procession of the Faithful to take place carrying their candles. Not surprisingly this year there was no procession and no blessing of candles, at least in the public gaze. Whilst sat on the sanctuary during Mass a small object caught my eye on the carpet – a pine needle – a gentle reminder that the Season of Christmas was drawing to an end. Proving the point that despite a weekly run round with the vacuum cleaner there is always something that eludes the suction nozzle. I found it hard to suppress a smile, and thought it worthy of sharing the reason behind the smile with parishioners as Mass came to an end by mentioning the pine needle to them. At Otley on Monday I took the Star of Hope from the front window, its loss mentioned by a neighbour enquiring about Dad’s well-being, who went on to say that he and his wife had thought I’d forgotten to take it down when the Christmas tree and other obvious decorations disappeared from sight. It was an opportunity to say that Christmastide still had another twenty-four hours to run!  

Christmas was a word that I heard spoken or saw written a lot more in November and December of 2020 than I had for a number of years. I recall just a few years ago speaking to a representative of a Local Authority on the telephone who kept referring to the forthcoming mid-winter holidays, a bland phrase being used alongside others at the time, so as not to offend those who do not celebrate Christmas. Rather weary of hearing the expression during our conversation, I did invite the individual to feel free to use the word Christmas into his handset, in part because the phrase was far from tripping lightly off his tongue. However, I was told that he could not utter the “C” word as his Line-Manager, on a neighbouring desk, may have overheard him. I did rather wonder what was happening to the world that I had once been familiar with ! 

In 2020 the word Christmas was back on, seemingly, everyone’s lips. Not altogether positively nor particularly out of a spiritual connection to the events in Bethlehem two millennia ago as most were lamenting the restrictions being placed on the number of guests able to gather around their festive tables. But it was certainly good to hear a descriptive word giving the true reason for our mid-winter holiday being spoken openly and with ease. “Imagine,” as I can still hear my Irish colleague say to his congregation, “if all you had to celebrate at Christmas was the birth of Christ !” 

This week the Christian, or should that be Faith, tradition that has so shaped and formed our nation over the centuries was once more headline news. As at least two of our national newspapers carried on their front pages a plea for prayer. The intention of our pleading to Almighty God was for the well-being of the national legend and centenarian, Captain Sir Tom Moore who was battling Covid-19. I’m sure that the switchboard in heaven must have been jammed with callers asking that the Lord spare Captain Tom for just a little bit longer. However, the Lord had other plans, and, thankfully in the presence of his beloved family and, as subsequent printed pages have told us, amid laughter and tears, this wonderful old soldier answered the Divine call and followed the beat of the drum into his eternal reward. 

For ninety-nine years Captain Tom’s life unfolded around and before him, and for the majority of us, as we to him, there was no connection, no recognition, no familiarity. He lived his life, we lived ours. Then suddenly he was catapulted into our lives by a short news article about a man raising additional funds for the NHS by walking lengths of his garden in Marston Mortaine in Bedfordshire about which there was nothing outstanding except that the man was almost a hundred. A length for each year of his life sponsored by those who knew him was his intention, with the hope that a £1,000 could be raised. Suddenly this stooping figure with his walking frame and a sparkle in his eyes had captured a place in the nation’s heart, and the world. The desired £1,000 ultimately topped thirty-two million, which will no doubt be added to by those wishing to pay him a posthumous tribute. Almost straight-away we all connected with him, not least those of us who recognized a Yorkshire twang when he spoke, he was instantly recognizable, so much so that artists created numerous likenesses of him using very different materials, and his name quickly became familiar in all of our homes to such a degree that as we clapped for him on Wednesday evening I’m sure many felt as though they had lost one of their own. As indeed we had. For a brief span of time, measured in months, our lives had been enriched by images of Captain Tom’s life brought into the familiar surrounds of our own homes through the media. And now someone who had become a welcome beacon of stabilizing hope has been removed from our midst.  

The fundamental of Captain Sir Tom Moore’s entry into our lives was something that in the halcyon days of what we now call normal times would have been dismissed by the majority of those who saw him as simply an old man doing some exercise to keep himself going. With some even daring to suggest that it would have been easier for him to write a cheque for a thousand pounds than to get out of the comfort of an armchair to walk up and down his garden. There will have been days when he probably thought the same, yet he kept going on, day in and day out. And it was this, simply putting one foot in front of another that intrigued us and touched something at the core of a shared humanity. We were a people who had become disjointed, fractured, and were afraid of a new threat, a pandemic that brought our established way of life to a shuddering halt. Each of his steps, slow and determined, symbolised the nation’s move from one day of Lockdown into the next. In an unassuming, quiet, dogged and modest manner he gave us an extraordinary example.    

As has been said of him many times over he was a man of a disappearing generation shaped and crafted by routine and discipline which fed a quiet determination to keep on going for as long as he could, physically, mentally and emotionally. As part of what is often called the Forgotten Army of the Second World War, fighting far away from home in a very different climate to the one familiar to him, he did battle with tropical diseases as well as a heavily armed, motivated and determined enemy, who from the outset seemed to be heading for victory. Captain Tom and his comrades knew what an up-hill slog was, daily losses amongst the ranks of the familiar faces, defeat and retreat. Yet eventually that which seemed unconquerable was finally beaten and halted in its tracks. A high price was paid by the likes of Captain Tom, but a remnant had survived and he amongst them was able to taste victory and success. 

Privately, not as a young man had Captain Tom entered into a second marriage with Pamela, gifting him with his daughters, Lucy and Hannah, vowing to love and to cherish in sickness and in health. Health brought him shared happy times beneath the blue skies of the Costa del Sol, whilst sickness saw him making a daily pilgrimage to his beloved wife’s care home. Each and every day he visited. No money was being raised by this daily commitment. Instead it was a tangible expression of a love pledged in different times, observed by family, friends, the community of which his wife was a part, and the random stranger who could have set their watch by the time of his arrival at the home’s door each day. These are two small insights acknowledging that there was a lot more to Captain Tom’s long life than what will be recalled by many. A reminder that today’s older folks were all youngsters just a short while ago !   

St. Paul writing to the infant Christian community in Rome spoke about the “life of each of us having its influence on others.” It is something worth recalling on a daily basis, offering us all, as it does, a gentle reminder that we are connected to one another through our capacity to make a positive difference to the life of someone known, or even unknown, to us. Whilst remembrance is a tremendous gift, its real worth is when we allow it to provide us with a currency that we can spend on our own life journey, acceptable in the lives of others and with the ability to enhance a shared pathway. Whilst we speak of Captain Tom and others, such as the Queen, as being part of a disappearing grouping of people, formed and crafted by a time long past, there is a need to focus on the present, and what our generation of which current day centenarians and the newest of arrivals amongst our global human family are all an integral part can continue to offer to one another, and leave as a worthy legacy to those who will come after us. 

What we recognize as great qualities in others are potentially within ourselves too seeking an environment and constituents allowing them to be brought to birth and drawn out so that they too can bear light in their own time and place. Despite his great age, Captain Tom continued to look beyond himself or even his own lifespan, investing in charitable activities that would assist the bereaved and lonely in the present, seek to educate and encourage greater equality amongst a rising generation for the betterment of an unknown future, and beyond our shorelines to offer those with far less on their table, economically speaking and in so many other ways, a share in what we have, not least in the field of medicine and basic healthcare. 

In a week when we have drawn a veil over the final vestige of Christmas, and a bright light reflecting some of the finest elements of our humanity has been dimmed I am reminded that as long as Christianity has been on our shores its fundamental hope in the face of adversity has been tangible. An ancient prayer from the Celtic communities of Faith reflects this:  

“Bless me with Thy presence when I shall make an end of living. 

Help me in the darkness to find the ford.   

And in my going comfort me with Thy promise that 

Where Thou art, there shall Thy servant be.” 

So, here’s to Captain Sir Tom Moore, hopefully walking alongside the Lord, and as a legacy to us all, a reminder of his own lasting belief and hope that “Tomorrow will be a good day!”  

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas       

29th January 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to be able to greet you once more alongside delivering the weekly Newsletter to you. In doing so I trust that you are keeping well and safe in these days of Lockdown. It continues to be good news to hear of the growing number of parishioners who are receiving the vaccine provided to protect us from the ravages of Covid-19. With the light of that news may we continue to remain up-beat that it will be available for many more of us before too long, bringing the green shoots of refreshing normality to our lives. Until then we continue to respond to the invitation to behave appropriately to our circumstances.   

There is something rudimentary within our human condition that desires, craves, and if given vocal capacity would cry out from the very core of our being to be a part, unite ourselves with, and belong to the life journey of others. Perhaps the greatest deprivation and enforced divorce that the majority of us have felt over the last ten months has been our inability to share our lives with those of others as freely and randomly as we were once able and the absence of their physical presence as a part of our day to day life-experience. The longing to reconnect, be with and in reality re-engage with those who are so much a part of who we ourselves are as individuals and collectives is a motivating and driving force in the sheer determination of so many to get through these lonely and isolating times. 

Whilst the vast majority of us do actually belong to others, have a place in hearts and lives not our own, and are an intrinsic part of something greater than ourselves, there has and continues to be a minority who through choice or circumstance appear to belong to no one and live a solitary existence and die lonely deaths. In November I wrote of one such individual around whose open grave just the Funeral Director and myself stood in the bleakest of both emotional and climatic conditions. Hard to believe, but the anniversary of that experience – by far not my only one, not even within the year of 2020 – rapidly approaches. At the time I could thank the Funeral Director and her team with a handshake and a conversation not held with two metres distance between us nor with mouths shielded by facial coverings.  

From the moment of our arrival in time, place and a period of history we belong. Whether that concept is lived out in a family setting, community of education, faith, work or relaxation, it rarely leaves us. We are simply a part of the lives of others and socially of something greater than ourselves. It is an amazing gift, so good that we culture it and allow it to grow, even formalising our various forms and shapes of belonging through symbolic and significant gestures and words that include marriage and vocational living. All of our Sacraments contain a community dimension from the first we receive, Baptism, to, possibly the final, the Sacrament of the Sick. For some their sense of belonging will be more defined than for others. Educated alongside students from Northern Ireland in the 1980s I quickly learnt that the hospital in which a birth took place, a name given, a street lived on, the bank in which savings were deposited, even employers, can give definition and shape to the strata of society, culture and tradition to which some belong, through absolutely no choice of their own. At other times we opt into groups and communities, belonging to them through conscious choices, because of particular interests, peer-pressure, and other variants which influence the direction our life journey takes, sometimes fleetingly, decided on by a whim or passing phase, and others that are embarked upon for the long-term, following decisions arrived at after much thought and deliberation. 

One of my own choices about belonging and being a part of something greater than myself came about some thirty-three years ago. Shortly before Christmas, I found myself in Eason’s, a large stationary shop on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Thumbing through a selection of festive cassettes I came across one entitled “Mario Lanza Christmas Hymns and Carols.” It was a moment of sheer nostalgia, as this, in record form, was played each Christmas morning on our radiogram as Santa’s exciting delivery was unwrapped after my parents and I had arrived home from an early Mass.  

In and amongst the accompanying notes within the cassette case mention was made of the British Mario Lanza Society, an organisation culturing an interest in the man and his voice. With reason and motivation now long forgotten I sent off the required subscription and became a member, something that I have maintained to this day. During the last three decades I have never been to an annual meeting, gathering or organised event, but every few months I receive a magazine containing articles, memories, stories and news of other members. Its arrival is always welcome and has faithfully followed me around the various addresses that I have had in the many years since joining the Society. With each delivery I quietly admire the hard work that goes into its compilation, as well as the efforts made by the Society to support, encourage and promote young, contemporary classical singers. Although never having met or even knowingly spoken to any member of the Society, I felt a real sense of pride and delight when watching a TV programme entitled “Gary Lineker: My Grandad’s War” about eighteen months ago, which featured an Honorary President of the Society, Bill Earl, then aged an amazing 104 years young, and who had flown out to Italy to be interviewed by the football pundit about his experiences as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War, serving with units that were crudely nicknamed at the time “D-Day Dodgers.” Not only did Bill’s dexterity of mind and clarity of memory captivate Gary Lineker’s thirst for information about his Grandfather’s experience of war, but a clear and palpable bond of affection was evident between the two men as well. The annual subscriptions paid across the decades brought me, in that moment, so much more than a quarterly magazine. Instead I was gifted with a real sense of belonging and pride of being a part of something greater than myself. Seeing the centenarian, Bill, was like connecting with a long-lost extended family member.  

This week the island nations to which we belong recorded a tragic landmark: 100,000 deaths from Covid-19. The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, attempted to sum up the news in a spiritual context, when he described it as: “A day of great sadness all over the land. So many people, families, communities, remembering those who have died in these terrible months of the pandemic. Each one is mourned. Each one is to be prayed for. This is our instinct, our faith, our practice. Our prayer is rooted in the faith that, in death, life is changed, not ended, for the promise of eternal life opens the door of hope even in our darkest moment. I pray for each and everyone, those who have died, those who mourn, those who serve. Please, please, join me in prayer.” 

The figure of 100,000 is hard for me to comprehend. It is a vast number. My own attempt to grasp its magnitude is related to my Priestly ministrations. In twenty-seven years of celebrating Mass on a daily basis, I have offered no less than 14,295 Masses. This figure is derived from the celebration of at least one Mass each and every day for twenty-seven years. It is nowhere near the 100,000 mark. Another measurement is the length of time it would take to watch the “BBC news Coronavirus: Your tributes to those who have died,” which, despite its detail, does not include everyone who has lost their lives to this dreadful virus. However viewing this tableau of photographs and brief tributes, growing daily as additions are made, would currently take about 250 hours of time. This is more than ten days of uninterrupted viewing. Staggering !  

The figure of 100,000 is something which belongs to us, and we belong to it and indeed to the rising number that takes it higher with each passing day. The landmark number of 100,000 deserves to be recognized, acknowledged and appropriately brought to our attention. Belonging allows us to take and come to expect but is also about giving and contributing. This weekend I invite you to give both prayerful remembrance and thought to those who have lost their lives during this dreadful pandemic. This increasing number includes members of our faith family who gather day by day in our churches at Cleckheaton and Heckmondwike.  

A time of prayerful reflection also affords us the opportunity not just to speak words in conversation with God, but to carefully acknowledge their meaning. The prayer that Christ gave to His first followers and is said in virtually, if not all, of our collective Acts of Worship is known simply as the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. One of the invocations that we make in its praying is “lead us not into temptation.” Each day and time brings its own temptations knocking on the door of our life. Here are a few from the time we are living through together: The Temptation … not to give others their space; to think that little things do not matter; to disregard the common good for individual satisfaction, disguised as need or want or a right; to take good health for granted; to be careless and expect others to pick up the pieces; to put off speaking words of love, kindness, reassurance, hope and joy to those who share our lives; seeking the loop-hole which salves an informed conscience of poor decision-making; for believing that unseen, careless, and defiant actions and attitudes do not cause hurt, pain or damage. 

The 100,000 lives lost includes names known to us, faces that we have been familiar with, voices that we have recognized. These remind us that such a huge and vast number are indeed a part of the community to which we belong. Known or unknown, our ability to name or not, each life is just that, a life, and one that at some point belonged to and was shared with others. Let us recommit ourselves to a form of behaviour that offers the witness of our Christian belief and heritage to others based on the greatest commandments spoken of by Christ Himself: to love God, and our neighbour as we love ourselves. The national call to protect ourselves and others by the distance we keep between one another, the use of appropriate facial coverings, and the frequent use of water or santisers to cleanse our hands is a gentle reminder to each of us that we belong and are a part of something greater than ourselves. Let us all play our part in this because this is what we are – family, community, society, a nation. Each is a significant other in the lives that we are a part of. And as such precious and cherished. 

In faithful remembrances in prayer and affection may we remain united. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

22nd January 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

15th January 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

8th January 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holding you in prayerful remembrance and affection. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas                                                 

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

1st January 2021

Dear Parishioners,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the End of the Year.

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

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

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

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

The darkened days that stopped
The confidence of the dawn.

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

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

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

As always, Fr. Nicholas

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

19th December 2020

Dear Parishioners,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ever, Fr. Nicholas