22nd August 2020

Dear Parishioners,

Weekend greetings once more as I attach the latest Newsletter and the Readings for the weekend Masses.

I trust that this note finds you well and beginning the process of adapting to a new way of life, even venturing from home to the shops, dining out with family or having an outdoor coffee with friends in one of our local public spaces. Our spiritual family has taken a momentous forward step during the last week with the celebration of a Baptism and a Wedding. Both were very moving and incredibly special occasions. For us all they are signs of the importance that families place on the spiritual dimension of life. With steps being made into secular spaces that are marked by necessary difference I continue to encourage those who have not yet crossed the threshold of churches, to consider doing so. A Mass is celebrated in one or other of our churches every day, and as the Bishops recommend, I would ask you to think about attending a weekday Mass in order to gain confidence, and also see what is ‘new’ about coming to Mass, not least the measures we have put in place to keep people safe.

Whilst we are in our eighth weekend of being open to the celebration of public Masses, there are still a number of churches within the Diocese who have not yet opened for Mass. Some of these are quite close to ourselves geographically. Please continue to pray for those communities who await what we are now taking for granted once more … open church doors.

Be assured that prayerful and affectionate remembrance continues, and in our celebration of daily Mass, those joining us though Spiritual Communion are brought to prayer during our Intercessions.

United in prayer, and grateful for all the support being given in so many ways,

Fr. Nicholas

1st August 2020

Dear Parishioners,

The beginning of another weekend, and the arrival of the weekly Newsletter and Readings for our weekend Masses, all of which I trust finds you well and in good spirits.

As we are all now aware Kirklees together with other areas has moved into a new phase of Lockdown. In theory it means at a personal level that I can go (not that I ever do) for a pint of beer in a public house, but I am unable to visit the bereaved in their homes or gardens … Rapidly moving on, one impact that the new measures will have on church life is the fact that face-coverings will be have to be worn by everyone attending Mass from next Saturday (8th August), including our Ministers of the Word.

As someone who very rarely mentions the financial state of our churches, at this juncture I really do have to point out that currently we are losing a Loose Plate and social income of at least £1,000 per month from both of our communities. Clearly our social income has dried up for the time being, but offerings to the Loose Plate (i.e. monies contributed to the weekly collection not through the use of collection envelopes) can be donated through electronic means (Text Giving) as highlighted on the Newsletter. Donations may also be put through either of our Presbytery letterboxes as an alternative. Despite our current circumstance bills still arrive, including recently the annual Assessment for each church, paid to the Diocese for the funding of the central services and resources that each parish benefits from. Throughout my years in both churches, this has been paid from our cash accounts, not our reserves, it would be good to think that, perhaps later than usual, we will be able to do the same this year.

Continue to keep the Faith ! Be assured that you are remembered in daily prayer and the Masses that we celebrate, as we all look forward to better times and being united once more around the altar of the Lord to celebrate together the Eucharist.

With prayerful assurances and affection,
Fr. Nicholas

4th July 2020

Dear Parishioners,

A couple of weeks ago I offered you a literary picnic, an element of which was The Parable of the Pencils as written and told by Fr. Brian D’Arcy CP. During the course of his wise counselling to the work of his hands the pencil-maker reminded the newly made pencils not to forget you always have an eraser at your disposal! Its use being to correct the mistakes made. In practical terms Fr. Brian reminded his human hearers that no matter what mistakes I/we make, I/we can always correct them and start again. There is always a second chance. In the early days of Lockdown, I discovered that the power to erase doesn’t just lie within the brief of either pencils or human beings, but also vans !

Venturing forth as a man on a mission during what I welcomed as the gift of an hour of exercise I arrived on Hollinbank Lane (Heckmondwike) in search of a plaque erected a few years ago by the Spen Valley Civic Society. What I sought was the permanent reminder of an explosion which took place at Ellison’s Chemical Works at White Lee on 2nd December 1914. It claimed no less than ten local lives. In its wake chaos and devastation descended on many families and their properties. My interest in this event stems from the fact that one of those killed was James Alfred Morton, a Catholic, with an affinity to St. Patrick’s School-Chapel, as it was then, on Darley Street. Expecting to find a grassed area with an obviously located mounted plaque, the resulting fruit of that initial foray was absolutely nothing. Retracing my steps on the way back to Holy Spirit Presbytery, again I failed to find what I was seeking. Terrier-like I set once more, on a different day, of course, having on the first day reached the limit of my hour of fresh air. This time spying another human being – a rare sight in those late-March days – I called across to ask, as he was a resident on the Lane, if he could tell me where the plaque was located. With his directions I ventured just a few steps to find what I had been looking for. The very obvious site of the memorial which is not on a verged area, but in the middle of a footpath, led me to question why I had failed to see it on my initial outing. Was I overdue a visit to Specsavers? Not so. The answer lay, as memory recalled, in the fact that a van had been parked on the footpath on my first visit, thus erasing the plaque, taking with it the memory of both the people and events from that particular geographical area at the beginning of the Great War.

With the passage of time connections with the horrific occurrence of that far-off Wednesday afternoon naturally diminish. Today those events are mainly limited to stories shared amongst family members recalling their past, and those, like myself, with an interest in local history. Thank goodness for the plaque recalling The White Lee Disaster which reads: Near here on 2 December 1914 ten men were killed and six injured by a blast which destroyed the factory of Henry Ellison Ltd. The men were making picric acid, for use in artillery shells in WW1. Many nearby homes were badly damaged. As the Hollinbank Lane area flourishes today with numerous houses now built in the vicinity of the 1914 explosion it is hard to imagine the scenes of devastation captured on photographs reproduced in the local press over a hundred years ago are those of the same area. New life and rebirth came to that vicinity, aided and abetted by the passage of time. The opportunity to start again is the beginning of a process. Second chances are initiated by tentative steps being taken in a forward direction. The tragic events that took place at Ellison’s factory also brought forth new and green shoots in the evolving area of health and safety with the passing of the Munitions of War (Explosives) Act in July 1915 which was an attempt through legislation to better control the manufacture, storage, carriage and sale of explosives.

This weekend as a faith-community we begin the process of starting again, with the opening of our churches for the celebration of public Masses. Even in writing those words, I am aware that not all of our Diocesan churches will be opening at this time, as for a variety of reasons they are simply not ready or able to do so. Similarly a Methodist colleague told me this week that his churches would not be opening until September at the earliest. There is certainly no race in beginning this process, and behind the scenes a vast amount of work has gone on to bring us to this point. So much of which has and will continue to be reliant upon the efforts of individuals who have given generously of their time to volunteer as Stewards to shepherd and guide in good practice and habit that which is a way of keeping everyone as safe as we can. As we are beginning to put one foot in front of another in an attempt to make a fresh start, I am conscious that legs and feet may not be as strong as once they were.

Sacred Scripture gives us many images of new beginnings, some more welcome than others. Our first parents were rather nonplussed at finding themselves being turned out of the Garden of Eden to start afresh. We can smile at the imagined look on their faces as having enjoyed the comfort and security of an intimate friendship with the Creator-God, they suddenly found themselves expected to work for their living. God did offer them a leaving gift, however, before closing the gates behind them, as we hear: “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21) Clearly the garments bearing God’s designer label were deemed more appropriate for their new way of life than the leaves with which they had covered themselves earlier!

Elsewhere, again from those rich and, oftentimes, very beautiful, beginning stories, we learn of Noah’s gratitude and appreciation towards God in the aftermath of the Flood. Having emptied the Ark, we hear that the first thing he did was to build “an altar to the Lord [on which] he sacrificed burnt offerings” (Genesis 8:20) in thanksgiving. This is exactly what we are about this weekend offering our Sacrifice of thanksgiving, Holy Mass, for the first time as a community since Friday 20th March.

A further scriptural image comes to mind as I visualize people coming to Mass this weekend, being asked to queue, perhaps, and observe social distancing, most definitely. It is the story of the blind man who is given back his sight at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22 – 26). Part way through the healing process, when asked by Jesus, “Can you see anything ?” the man responds by saying “I see people, they look like trees walking around !” (v.24) It is a strange response, and begs the question of how he knew what a tree looked like. Realistically it is probably a reference to his having had some, although very limited, sight earlier in his life. For some of those entering our churches this weekend and during the coming weeks their first impressions will be of the differences they notice within our sacred spaces – the arrival of sanitizer, a lack of votive candles, an inability to purchase a card, the use of facial coverings and gloves … things being done for the common good, and within the collective, for the well-being of each and every individual. These will be (either in thought or even vocalised) the trees mentioned by the blind man whose sight is beginning to return. At the end of the miracle-story we are told: “Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” (v.25) The purpose of opening our churches is to bring us together, as a safe and confident collective, to return to Almighty God the gratitude and appreciation we feel in the sacrifice of Holy Mass. In essence we are doing exactly what Noah did. Scripture doesn’t record the periphery events surrounding the life of Noah and his family at that time. The primary focus was on his offering to God. The detail of the length of Noah’s hair or what he and his family looked like after having been holed up in the Ark for forty days was simply not important.

A few weeks ago we all celebrated our shared birthday: Pentecost (Whitsuntide), the birthing of the Church, ourselves as the People of God. This new beginning came no less than fifty days after the resurrection of Christ from the dead. During those days the Apostles, Our Blessed Lady and others joined in prayer, either alone or, when it was safe to do so, together. From a place where the doors were locked out of fear (John 20:26) that small group of believers, our ancestors in the Faith, were called out by the Holy Spirit to live in a new way, a manner which was both new and different. Many of us, I am sure, can relate to that first-post Easter experience this year. Perhaps never more closely have Christians walked in the footsteps of that embryonic beginning to our faith lineage.

How the early followers of Christ lived attracted the attention of others who quickly observed that “all the believers were together and held everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people.” (Acts 2:44 – 47) A couple of millennia later we too are being called to live in a new and different way. Our roots in both prayer and community-spirit remain strong and firm. Together we travel the road ahead. Like any fresh start or second chance it brings new and rich opportunities. Being less concerned and distracted with the necessary differences which surround our new beginning will give us the opportunity to focus on the significant and important. Our individual and collective joy is the ending of our Eucharistic fast and the ability, once more to be a part of something that was given to us in an upper room long ago as a taste of the heavenly banquet on earth when Jesus “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’” (Luke 22:19 – 21)

In ending this letter, I do so with a quiet confidence about our process of beginning afresh. If the last few of months have taught the majority of us anything, one aspect of the commonality of our learning experience has to have been a deeper appreciation and sense of gratitude for what, all too often, we’ve taken for granted whether that enrichment and enhancement on life’s adventure are people, possessions, experiences or events. As God’s people – the Church – there is no higher moment of appreciation and gratitude than in the celebration of Holy Mass. The Eucharist is our ultimate act of Thanksgiving.

With this new start will come an end to these weekly “Ramblings”, which have reached out to those both near and much further afield. As I sign-off enjoy and be inspired by these words of John O’Donohue taken from his work Benedictus – A Book of Blessings.

For a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plentitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening,
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,

Fr. Nicholas

27th July 2020

Dear Parishioners,

Good parents are incredible people. And it takes incredible people to be good parents! I say this very aware that not all have had the experience or come under the influence of the parental gifts and skills that my own journey to this juncture in life has been enriched and blessed with. Sadly, tragically and hugely unfairly, despite all of the advancements that are at the disposal of our twenty-first century society, we are all too aware that not all our young people experience or benefit from a positive encounter with parenting.

Acknowledging that levelling reality for some, when it comes to my parents, I have to say that I feel doubly blessed and gifted by the Mother and Dad that the good Lord chose to place me into the safe, crafting, creative and caring hands of. Professionally I hear many stories about the best Mum or Dad in the world, however for Patrick and Dorothy Hird there was no competitive element about their parenting-skills, no race to be won. Parenting for them was not about trophies and medals. Instead I view my Mother and Father as the very finest and best parents that God could provide for me, and throughout their lives I have always been enormously proud of them. As a forebear in faith recounts in sacred scripture: “my father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5) so I have always been very proud to say that my father was a weaver! For me, our Trinitarian God’s choice reflects the vantage point of Their being able to see more than we ever can of the larger tapestry of life on which the individual threads that are brought together form only a tiny part of a much bigger and complete pattern. Parenting far from being competitive is much more of an adventure during which God’s choice appreciates what is the best and finest in another and allows the gifts and talents, hidden deep within them to find soil in which they can begin to sprout, grow and mature, their role is also to prune and cut back, allowing stronger and more appropriate development. Often a learning curve, steep at times, just as children are not identical, so parenting doesn’t come with a one-size-fits-all approach. At a time in our history when more emphasis than ever is being placed on the unique individuality of society’s members, there can be no greater need for careful, sensitive, crafting, colouring and shaping by the hands entrusted with the vocational call of parenting.

Last Sunday, Father’s Day, was a day for many of us to remember the special place our Dads have in our lives. As I once read Any man can be a father but it takes someone really special to be a Dad, and for those blessed with such a figure in their lives, those words will carry a tangible truth. For some, Sunday will have meant pausing and reflecting and remembering; perhaps a visit to a cemetery or crematoria; focusing a longer than usual stare at a much cherished photograph. Others may have had the experience of an anticipated visit being replaced by a virtual one through the use of social platforms. Whilst there will have been many, including myself, counting the experience of being able to see our Dads in person, with a sense of additional gratitude and appreciation this year. Personally speaking, Dad and I spent some very enjoyable time together, in the surrounds of the only home that I have ever known enhanced by the garden into which he has ploughed so much of his time and energy in recent weeks. His reward is seeing and enjoying that which he planted grow, and at this juncture in the summer, to have an abundance of colour on display for his own pleasure and for that of those who pass by with increasingly regularity as they embark on their daily exercise, drive out to work, or begin their school day.

A blessing of the last few months has been the opportunity that I’ve had in being able to see Dad each week, spend time with him, chat, laugh and reminisce. My own life of ministry oftentimes does not allow such a luxury, attempting to meet the needs of those I serve, and putting their demands before those of family. This was something I referred to in the homilies delivered at my celebratory silver jubilee Masses when I publicly acknowledged the enormous contribution both my parents have made not just to me as their son, but also for allowing – and never standing in the way of – my discerning the call that Almighty God was making of me. At the time I said: Both [my parents] have been, and my father continues to be, very generous in supporting and encouraging my Priesthood. It is always worth remembering that on traditional family-orientated days, such as Christmas and Easter, parents and family members of priests often get the physical, emotional and spiritual left-overs of bustling and expectant congregations. St. John’s vision of Priestly leadership involving the caring and feeding of lambs and sheep (John 21:15–17) makes demands – and presents invoices – only payable by a shepherd and his parents. To a greater or lesser degree my calling has been that of my parents too. Uncomplaining, with a door ever-open, it is good to be able to thank them for sharing my priesthood over the last quarter of a century, and before that over a decade of preparation in both junior and senior seminary.

Lockdown has provided a tiny of opportunity of payback in the relationship that I have with Dad. At its outset a letter arrived (which he tried his hardest to keep at a safe distance from my eyes!) informing him that he was grounded, and from its beginning I assumed the mantle of a weekly foray to shop for both of us. With a list of required items received on a Friday, sometimes added to on a Saturday, they have been duly delivered each Sunday. On the whole the contents of the shopping bags have met with paternal approval, although I have at times been reminded that he wouldn’t normally buy such a large bag of this or that. His fridge-freezer has never been as full! Being confined by the restrictive guidance of the Government and its relevant agencies has proved a challenge to Dad. Not necessarily how to cope with being grounded but in finding ways of escape that he thought I would be unaware of. Having read some of my earlier reflections you will appreciate he has had moments of Houdini-like absconding.

Last week saw Dad, like so many, beginning to take his first steps into a longed for, but very different and new, normality. He did his first weekly shop, although with a strict request from yours truly, that he only went to one supermarket, and didn’t embark on the usual price comparing, bargain seeking, grand tour around the Chevin towns of Otley, Guiseley and Yeadon. After a period of enforced hibernation, like the disembarking passengers of the biblical Ark, amid a world which appeared similar to the one he has been familiar with for over eight decades, Dad discovered subtle alteration and change.

Before anyone decides to report me for parental neglect, I did indeed arrive home last weekend with a shopping bag containing a small selection of necessities (I still have a use!). There was also the giving of a Father’s Day card and gifts. As a father and son we have been very compliant to the guidance about keeping each other safe and well, and blessed with good weather most of the time that we have shared has been spent outside, sitting at a safe distance from one another. On cooler and wetter days we’ve ventured into the kitchen, sat at a perhaps less than safe-distance away from each other, but without the demolition of a wall, an exact two meters was nigh impossible. Not having seen the living room since March, cards are now displayed in the kitchen, and it was with pride that Dad’s Father’s Day offering was placed within vision of both of us. As well as its own simple and profound wording, I couldn’t help adding some humour in my own handwriting: Congratulations on having me as your son! For those who have met him, you’ll appreciate that he has a good sense of fun. Relaying the best wishes of a local funeral director to him recently, Dad, graciously accepted the concern conveyed in the greeting, and went on to ask that the next time I was speaking to the said inquirer I should mention that he would not be needing their services for quite some time yet!

A personal skill cultivated out of Lockdown necessity has been that of hair management and a growing confidence in the use of electric clippers. Seeking to advance this new-found qualification, I decided that it was time my hair clippers had an airing in Otley. A further Father’s Day gift: a haircut … my father’s cup runneth over on Sunday! Having made the suggestion, Dad greeted the appearance of the clippers with no sign of fear or trepidation, having acknowledged some weeks previously that I hadn’t made a bad job of cutting my own hair. Seated, and with instructions not to talk or move, we were both surprised at just how much hair Dad had amassed over the last three months, whilst somehow also managing to make it look not too unruly. Whilst parents can often read the minds of their children, so on occasion the reverse can be true. Hence, when silent and still, I knew Dad’s thought process would be preparing a nugget of humour for when I said that I’d finished. It came when, picking up some of his fallen white locks from the floor, he began to speculate their worth and value in the hands of a paintbrush manufacturer! Needless to say that neither Dulux nor B & Q will be receiving packages containing an octogenarians hair with DNA that is shared with, or even traceable, to me. Humour and a sense of fun is something that I’ve inherited from Dad, although I clearly missed out on his natural ability to turn his hand to most things practical. Whenever I lament this limitation of my own life he reminds me that, unlike him, I always know a little man who is useful and practical, and who, above all – when I turn on the charm – is able and willing to come to my assistance!

Dad, as a pre-war child, added this ad hoc haircutting experience to a list that he can reel-off, some of which include a basin, others carried out by various, untrained or qualified members of the family standing over him with a comb and scissors. Unabashed he has also been known to give this recently much missed area of expertise in our wider society a try himself. Together with his elder brother (a ‘handful’ for their parents with just fifty-three weeks between them!), Dad was entrusted with looking after their younger brother, just after the ending of the war when the Hird family lived in rural Whitwell-on-the-Hill off the A64. The elder boys, never shy of seeking a new avenue of adventure, managed to find a set of wind-up clippers intended for use on horses. With a compliant head for use on the shoulders of my uncle, Michael, they began to test their skillfulness. With my father turning the energizing handle, my Uncle Peter did the deed with the equine clippers! Thankfully their brother survived the experience with head, ears, nose and every other part of his anatomy miraculously intact. Aged just three or four he was mercifully too young for the incident to cause any lasting or permanent psychological damage! With regard to any form of reprimand for either Uncle Peter or himself from my grandparents, Dad remains firmly tight-lipped.

One of the blessings of Lockdown for many of us has been the opportunity to appreciate and be grateful for so much of normality (whatever that may be for any of us!) that we often take for granted whether that is material, spiritual, experiential, or above all the people who share our life-journey. At the beginning of March Dad and I spent a rare and privileged time of table-fellowship indulgence at an Ilkley hotel, enjoying afternoon tea, as we took advantage of a Christmas gift that I’d received. With hindsight, a special day, yes, but more so an extraordinary moment on the calendar of events marking the passage of 2020 thus far. A random photograph taken on the day, with lamination and a few witty words became a homemade postcard received by Dad in the midst of his experience of being grounded. It was not just a depiction of happy memory, but more so, a sign of hope for better and brighter times, and more significant moments to be shared in the future.

No matter the length of time we are blessed with good parents, it is never enough. Within those of us from whom God has called back a parent lies a desire to hear their familiar voice, experience the scent of security their presence exuded, to be held, share with, or ask a question of; tangible reminders of the call to appreciate those who populate our lives whilst they still do. As a child vividly recalling the 1970’s, I share with many others of a similar age, that the majority of our childhoods were lived under sunshine and blue skies. The sunshine came in the shape of annual events such as birthdays, Christmas, holidays and days-out, the skies of which were coloured blue by the desire, energy and determination of good parents putting their all into giving of the best and finest of themselves that they could muster. The tools they used were all left backstage during those epic productions, but included hard work, self-sacrifice and finding the required patience and energy to walk the extra mile. These ingredients transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary, and brought their own magic to what in the twenty-first century may seem like overly simplistic and dated experiences involving flasks dispensing tea or coffee, Tupperware containers packed with lukewarm, well-travelled sandwiches, and the pick ’n’ mix sweets embellished with the taste of salt liberally dispensed as the wind shook from its invisible wings the sand it had collected as it flew along the beach at speed. Before the likes of Greta Thunberg were even a twinkle we were there saving the planet, because all we had used came home with us to be washed and put away in anticipation of our next outing. The disposable had been consumed and items of litter were a luxury far beyond our parents’ means!

In recent months for many there has been an epiphany of thought in regard to exceptional times into which we throw so much of ourselves. Easter came and went, and so have many other occasions, birthdays, anniversaries, university graduations and, yes, even Father’s Day. Anticipated exceptional times have worn the clothing of mere passing moments, and conversely what we often previously regarded as mere passing moments have become exceptional situations. Ultimately we will all have special times to celebrate, perhaps out of kilter with the calendar and their seasonal context. Deeper questions have also risen to the surface in quiet times and with reflection, such as why do we take the presence of loved ones for granted and visits to them as mere normality? In reality these times are a privilege, and as we cross the threshold of a loved one, we stand on holy ground. With so much of life being turned upside down reassessment of what is important in our lives is far from an indulgence but a real necessity for survival as we begin cautiously and slowly to disembark from the ark of Lockdown. The catch hauled in from our recent still water experience has reminded us of the precious nature of life’s basics, not least the priceless worth of the people closest and dearest to us. It has also given us the opportunity of discarding the worthless, the stuff of clutter, that which so often not only fills our loft-spaces, but also our hearts and fickle natures.

These days will pass, because everything passes but I sincerely hope that the positive transformation which has taken place amidst the profound pain of both loss and deprivation will enable us to culture an enriching future for all, blended and flavoured with a generous sense of appreciation and gratitude for family, friends and loved ones that we have previously taken for granted. This awareness will allow us the opportunity to celebrate worthily future momentous events.

As for Dad, that ever-present, self-effacing, supportive, encouraging source of unconditional love who never seeks much for himself, what a blessing God has given to me in him. For all God’s gifts, delivered to us in the wrapping paper of humanity let us be appreciative and thankful. After all none of us own each other, nor are we bought or purchased, only loaned and borrowed. And one day we will have to hand back, and be returned ourselves.

Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,

Fr. Nicholas

20th June 2020

Dear Parishioners,

This week I thought that I would offer you something a little bit different, a picnic of reflective thoughts which over recent months have, in one form or another, for a rainbow of reasons, found a place on my desk, either for a short or longer period of time. With the basket opened, my first offering is something that I sought in mid-March when, like the rest of society, we moved into what was frequently referred to as an unprecedented time. It comes from a well-thumbed book on my shelves, Benedictus – A Book of Blessings, compiled by John O’Donohue (1956 – 2008), entitled “For Courage

When the light around you lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Y
our body feels fear turn
Cold as a stone inside,

When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,

When one voice commands
Y
our whole heart,
And it is raven dark,

Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world.

Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,

Know that you are not alone
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.

Invoke the learning
Of every suffering
You have suffered.

Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark.
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.

A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
Will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!

For some these will be very powerful words, a reminder that courage is not something that we wear, like a set of clothing. It is not the armour worn in defence nor in the sharpness of the weaponry at our disposal to hurt and injure, but instead the ability to discover deep within ourselves the confidence needed to search the familiar surroundings of our life, knowing that the matches with which we will light the candle of illumination are somewhere very near.

A slight variation on a theme is what follows. Perhaps offering an opportune reflection as a changing Lockdown landscape begins to emerge on the shoreline of life. The strength of the sea receding taking with it the paralysis of fear, ruthless power of self-preservation, and lonely insular existence, revealing instead the fragile and virginal sands of another time, destined to be claimed by another tide:

It takes strength to be firm.
It takes courage to be gentle.

It takes strength to stand guard.
It takes courage to let down your guard.

It takes strength to conquer.
It takes courage to surrender.

It takes strength to be certain.
It takes courage to have doubt.

It takes strength to fit in.
It takes courage to stand out.

It takes strength to hide your own pains.
It takes courage to show them.

It takes strength to endure abuse.
It takes courage to stop it.

It takes strength to stand alone.
It takes courage to lean on another.

It takes strength to love.
It takes courage to be loved.

It takes strength to survive.
It takes courage to live.

A true religious broadcasting giant, Fr. Brian D’Arcy, whose reflective thoughts never fail to convey the finest and best elements of Christianity, delighted recently in the blessing of his Lockdown experience, which as he recalled had given him the opportunity to tidy his office-space leading to the discovery a floor beneath piles of papers, books and storage boxes! Amongst his findings during that period of enforced domesticity was the Parable of the Pencils:

At the end of each day a very caring pencil-maker dispensed five pieces of valuable advice to each pencil just before he placed it in the box. This will help you become the best pencil you can possibly be, he told them. Firstly, you will be able to do great things, but only if you allow yourself to be held in someone’s hand. Secondly, you will experience repeated pencil sharpening from time to time in life. It won’t be easy, but is necessary. It will help you make your mark. Thirdly, don’t forget you always have an erasure at your disposal! So use it to correct the mistakes you will undoubtedly make. Fourthly, no matter how perfect you look on the outside, it is what’s on the inside that makes you what you are. And finally, it is your duty to leave your mark on every surface that you’re used on. And so the pencil went into the box with purpose in his heart.

But now comes the tricky bit! How can I apply those lessons to myself? Firstly I will be able to do great things but only if I allow myself to be held in God’s hand. That’s how I will bring to fruition the gifts I was given. Secondly, naturally I will be painfully sharpened and hurt and feel diminished from time to time. It is always tough but it is essential if I am to become a better person. Thirdly, no matter what mistakes I make, I can always correct them and start again. There is always a second chance. Fourthly, looks really do matter but you’ll need to look on the inside to discover the real me. And finally, in life we’re meant to leave our mark, and if I always do the best I can I will be rightly proud of what I achieve. So in summary our fingerprints never fade from the lives we touch.

And what about the lives that touch ours? Perhaps at the end of each day there is space in thought for these sentiments: To those we love and see each day. And other loved ones far away. To all good friends, whose friendship means so much. And those with whom we’re out of touch. At our imaginary picnic perhaps we can raise a glass to those who’ve left an indelible mark on us. And if we’re out of touch, this may be the time to reconnect. If a telephone call is difficult, there is always pen and paper, or even a card.

Surrounded by thoughts of familiar faces at our anthological picnic let us appreciate the special people in life. For which I return to John O’Donohue’s prayerful wisdom, For Marriage, which is suitable for any relationship of significance:

As spring unfolds the dream of the earth,
May you bring each other’s hearts to birth.

As the ocean finds calm in view of land,
May you love the gaze of each other’s mind.

As the wind arises free and wild,
May nothing negative control your lives.

As kindly as moonlight might search the dark,
So gentle may you be when light grows scarce.

As surprised as the silence that music opens,
May your words for each other be touched with reverence.

As warmly as the air draws in the light,
May you welcome each other’s every gift.

As elegant as dream absorbing the night,
May sleep find you clear of anger and hurt.

As twilight harvests all the day’s colour,
May love bring you home to each other.

Those words are a timely reminder of all the special days and times families have been planning and looking forward to, which due to the current chapter of history that we’re writing are on hold. This last week should have begun with a wedding, seen the children in Year 4 of Holy Spirit Primary School celebrate their First Holy Communion and rounded-off with further wedding. Events that will now be held at a later date, together with a clutch of Baptisms and the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation for our Year 3 children, all of which have been deferred until we can gather safely (and legally) in larger numbers. Perhaps with a spare moment in the Lord’s company, we can hold our truly lovely couples Charlotte and Robert, Sarah and Luke, and our younger parishioners, who were all looking forward to their special times, and families awaiting the Baptism of their children, and those celebrating significant birthdays and anniversaries in our prayers.

Let us not forget those who began this period of time with us, but for whom, at some point on the journey, the Lord made other plans, and with a gentle voice called them back to Himself. With all too regularity our Newsletter has, and continues, to carry names, recognized and maybe unknown, of those for whom families have faced not only the pain of loss, but very limited and incredibly different ways of returning loved ones into the eternal safe-keeping of Almighty God. One such funeral left from the family home of over fifty years recently, but not before we began our liturgy of farewell with Sacred Scripture, prayer and prose. Family, friends and neighbours came out onto the symbolic shared holy ground of their street to offer support, show respect, remember and pray, as together we called God, Our Father. Even the home-delivery van driver paused, relinquishing the prospect of gaining extra nectar points by running into the Priest stood in the middle of the road replete in wind-blown soutane, surplice, and resplendent Easter stole, rather than high-viz jacket! On that occasion the following words were read; Remember Me:

Don’t remember me with sadness.
Don’t remember me with tears.
Remember all the laughter
We’ve shared throughout the years.

Now I am contented
That my life was worthwhile
Knowing that as I passed along the way
I made somebody smile.

When you are walking down the street
And you’ve got me on your mind
I’m walking in your footsteps
Only half a step behind.

So please don’t be unhappy
Just because I’m out of sight
Remember that I’m with you,
Each morning, noon and night.

A further delve into the hamper produces the following words found attached to an abandoned ladder beneath an ancient bridge linking one side of the River Aire on the road to Maltham:

Age wearies him.
Yet he still clings to his allotted task,
Steadfast, dogged, a faithful retainer
Until the end comes.
What might that task have been?
Those that know
Have also long since departed.
Alone he now stands,
Waiting for their return.
An oddment to those who now see him,
Yet he knows his worth.

They certainly echo my experience of attending to the on-going, day-to-day, unbroken publicly observable routine of our life of faith. Although, I can assure you, age has yet to weary me! Whilst the vigil of waiting for their return continues, this coming week will see both of our churches, serving their purpose of offering a sacred, welcoming space for conversations with God, known as prayer. For many others too, who have simply got on with their usual daily activities in the field of work, amid necessary isolation and incredible difference of recent months, the sentiments of these words will resonate.

What now follows has a very soft centre and there is every chance that the contents may cause an ‘oozing moment.’ Tissues, or should I say serviettes, may be needed! With something of a Beatrix Potter-esqueness (1866 – 1943) about this short story, I am being a little self-indulgent. Whilst perhaps best remembered for her children’s stories, my admiration is less for her writing than her illustrations, which were born out of a genuine passion for nature. Circumstance, and I suspect lacking a desire for it, celebrity status never touched Beatrix Potter, and perhaps her greatest legacy to our nation was her pioneering work in the area of local conservation, recognizing not only the need to retain parts of our beautiful countryside in their natural state, but also in the scale of her financial support actually doing something about it by working closely with an evolving National Trust, acquiring swathes of land, managing farms and ensuring that rare indigenous livestock breeds were farmed in such a way as to ensure their long-term preservation. Tissues to hand as you read what comes next! The Old Rabbit.

Patrick (Pat) the rabbit was very sad. He was very old, his fur was grey on his paws and around his mouth and his bones were aching. His baby rabbits had all grown up and moved away and had bunnies of their own, his Mum and Dad had died many years ago and he missed talking to them, but most of all he missed his lovely wife Pearl, all the time. Pat was also fed up of running from the mean farmer who was always chasing him with his gun, he never dug holes anymore and he only ate the carrots easy to dig up these days.

Today it was raining and grey, the sky was black and the grass was muddy and wet, and it was really windy and cold. So Pat decided to hide in the barn until the rain stopped before he went looking for carrots. As Pat dried off from the rain he drifted to sleep.

Pat woke up feeling very warm, he could see the bright sunshine coming through the walls of the barn and he could hear rabbits chilli-chilli-chat coming from outside.

Pat started to creep outside. His bones felt light and he noticed the fur on his paws as was a lovely brown colour like they used to be. Pat’s bones didn’t ache and he didn’t feel sad but he didn’t know why. Outside he noticed the grass was so green it didn’t look real. It almost sparkled. It was so soft it felt like he was walking on green clouds, and there were piles of carrots everywhere with no mud on them. He wouldn’t have to dig them up or wash them.

Then he saw a little way away under a tree there was a group of about fifty rabbits all whispering and smiling and watching him. Suddenly he saw a beautiful lady rabbit step forward and walk towards him with her arms open and crying. Pat gasped and nearly swallowed his little rabbit tongue! It was Pearl! He ran to her and he kissed her all over her face and he cried, and he said to Pearl “I have missed you so much, my love” and she cuddled him so tight and whispered in his ear

“I’ve been waiting a long time for you, Pat.”

He then realized he recognised the shapes and voices of the rabbits standing nearby, all watching him and smiling. It was his Mum and Dad. His aunties and his uncles and even his Nan and Grandad! He looked at Pearl dazed, and she smiled, and she said, “They have been waiting too.” Pat was so happy but so confused as he cried with happiness into Pearl’s fur and said “Pearl, I am so happy, I feel like I’m in heaven!”

To which Pearl replied with a smile “My wonderful, beautiful Pat, you are.”

Amazingly the author of those 500 words is just nine years of age; Lenny Tucker, a Year 3 pupil at a school in Stanford-le-Hope. Just a couple of weeks ago he became the Silver Award winner of BBC Radio 2’s 500 Words Competition for 2020, in the 5 – 9 age range. His prize is the height, in books, of the competition’s royal patron, the Duchess of Cornwall! Born out of an idea of the presenter Chris Evans to encourage children aged between five and thirteen to write a short-story, since its inception in 2011, somewhere near a million stories have been submitted during its first ten years, each comprising 500 words. Whilst this year’s entries were submitted before Lockdown began we must always recall that no one or anything can confine imagination. Perhaps when the barrel of ideas for use in home-schooling appears to be running dry, an entry befitting next year’s 500 Word Competition may be a thought for some parents, carers and grandparents. Tempting the young people in their care to tap into the wonderful God-given gift called imagination. And if you are not sure where to start, let the words of Beatrix Potter herself assist you as we continue our picnic of words: “There is something quite delicious about writing those first few words of a story … you can never quite tell where they will take you!

Just before packing away this feast of words, which hopefully have inspired some, and not caused too much indigestion for others, there is a final offering. Composed by Virginia Satir (1916 – 1988), often described as the Mother of Family Therapy, I offer them as the takeaway party-bag for us all, but especially for our secondary school children who have a special remembrance in my thoughts and prayers at this time. The clay of their formative years is extremely malleable and flexible, incredibly sensitive to word, look and so much more, at work beneath the surface of what may appear a confident, bold, defiant and rebellious exterior. Their absence from education, structured lives, the expectations that come with the formality of school, not forgetting the friendship huddles and knots so often seen on the fringes of playgrounds, will all impact upon them in some way. Like us all, they crave to be valued and cherished, their life-journey given worth, but unlike many of us their fledgling adult status often lacks the security of achievement and the strength of vision to read their unique road map of life with the eyes of wisdom gained from a university education in the classroom of lived-experience. Entitled My Declaration of Self-Esteem (I am Me), may we all benefit from these words:

In all the world,  there is no one else exactly like me -Everything that comes out of me is authentically mine, because I alone chose it – I own everything about me – my body, my feelings, my mouth, my voice, all my actions, whether they be to others or to myself.

I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears. I own all my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes. Because I own all of me, I can become intimately acquainted with me. By so doing I can love me and be friendly with me in all my parts. I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me, and other aspects that I do not know.

But as long as I am friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously and hopefully look for solutions to the puzzles and for ways to find out more about me. However I look and sound, whatever I say and do,
and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is authentically me.

If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought and felt turned out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is unfitting, keep the rest, and invent something new for that which I discarded. I can see, hear, feel, think, say, and do.  I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive,
and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me.

I own me, and therefore I can engineer me.
I am me and I AM OKAY!

Drawing these lines to a close, I join Fr. Brian D’Arcy in searching for a floor beneath open books and sheets of paper! Closing the imaginary picnic basket of reflective words, I note that I’ve two items have escaped my attention, the salt and pepper pots … which brings to mind these very final words: “Failure is the condiment which gives flavour to success.

Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,

Fr. Nicholas

13 June 2020

Dear Parishioners,

An aspect of our communal faith-life that I’m lamenting the absence of is the ability to join-in the singing of a rousing hymn! Although admitting that the prospect of having to begin a hymn a cappella, in the absence of our gifted and faithful organists, causes butterflies to fly around my stomach, when others begin to join-in there is a spark igniting the great starting moment to our liturgies. Even better with the organ and other musical accompaniment! Congregational singing is great camouflage for the nervous singer, questioning their own ability to hold a note, and gives the more confident a theatre to blast out with gusto. Without a physical congregation, I am still inclined to begin Mass with a hymn, sometimes more tunefully than others as the willing spirit of adventure overtakes natures gift. The noisy result maybe more Margarita Pracatan than Placido Domingo! Thank goodness these unharmonious moments remain between the Lord and myself!

Hymns and music in general, often subtly colour significant moments on life’s journey, and many have the ability to transport us in an instant to special times, places and reunite us with loved ones, opening, key-like, a wealth of evocative memories. Whenever Tell out my soul is sung at Mass in Otley, Dad always relays the fact to me; reminding us both of the recessional music on the day of my Advent Ordination, when the Gospel was that of the Annunciation. The day Thou gavest is our family Funeral hymn, and as for the hymns chosen by couples for their wedding day there is an eclectic mix of words and music spanning a spectrum from hymns sung at school to more tried and tested compositions including classics like All things bright and beautiful. Sometimes too there is that lovely overlap between generations as a soon-to-be bride or groom asks for the inclusion of a hymn, solo item or piece of music, heard at their parents or even grandparents wedding.

My own musical tastes are, no pun intended, catholic! As a child I can recall my Mum singing as she did household jobs, the radio was a constant companion, and, of course, we sang at church and school. Music in one form or another was simply always there. It also became something that was portable, accompanying us as a family on journeys. Not just in the form of a transistor radio replete with large battery, tuning nobs and not insignificant aerial, but with the arrival of the Eight-Track Tape, which allowed us to choose our own music as we travelled in the car. Such ostentation! To prevent any younger readers of these lines from diverting their attentions away from the continuous flow of reading by delving into a nearby search-engine to discover what this incredible form of musical memorabilia actual was, I shall simply describe in lay-terms. It was a cassette cartridge the size of a videotape that had to be turned over halfway through its output so that side-two could be listened to. Despite their bulk and the fact that their usefulness was restricted to the player in the car, they provided endless hours of entertainment and pleasure on either long or short journeys.

A noticeable absentee and victim of restricted movement in the musical calendar this year has been the Eurovision Song Contest, which may well be Marmite-like subject matter for some. Either loved or hated with energetic passion! When it was a somewhat smaller event than it has evolved into over more recent years I enjoyed watching it. Now, with competition over taking participation, and blatant political voting replacing quirky award giving, I simply listen to the final stages of the event on the radio, knowing full well that the United Kingdom will struggle to get beyond single figures in the votes cast, and wondering if it is better to be given a handful of sympathy votes or being recalled as the country who never got off the starting block, receiving nil points.

This year, I am convinced that the whole Eurovision landscape would have been different for us, and not simply because of the B-word (that is Brexit, for those who have not heard it for a while!). The United Kingdom could have been basking in the credit given to Katrina and her Waves in 1997 when Love shine a light triumphed with a record-breaking lead over its nearest rival. What, you ask, could have prompted such a phoenix-like rise: a simple song, Look for the good in everything! I first heard it on Radio 2 (rumour has it that other stations are available, but not on my collection of radios!). It contains the traditional Eurovision elements of a catchy tune, repetitive chorus and above all, in these times, a positive and cheery message … and yes, it can be sung along to! Its lyrics include the following phrases: Look for people who will set your soul free it always seems impossible until it’s donecelebrate all our mistakes if there’s a silver liningEveryone’s carrying around some kind of painLook out for all the heroes in your neighbourhoodLife sure would be sweeter of everybody would. Hopefully I will not be blamed if there is a surge on the National Grid, as the readers of these lines rush to find the song on-line, begin to download the words and sing along!

A Jesuit spiritual writer and broadcaster once reflected on his experience at the end of an intense weekend Retreat delivered to a large group. At its conclusion many people went up to him to thank him for the insights he had shared, allowing them to return home with new hope, opportunity and vision. He felt humbled by their praise, and relieved that his hard preparatory work had been appreciated. Despite the numbers of these grateful retreatants, he confessed that time had erased their names from his memory! One name that he did recall was that of the last person to approach him on the day of departure. This individual asked for a refund! The effort, time, prayer and energy that had gone into the weekend of reflection had done nothing for this person. Questions they hoped would be answered were packed away in the suitcase they’d arrived with. More than this they were leaving with an even bigger question: Why had they wasted their time and money on a Retreat which brought them no obvious benefit? There was no pacifying the individual, and with no one left in the queue there was no one to apply the salve of further praise and acclaim, which would have opened the door for the arrival of the erasive guests of distraction and forgetfulness.

The raw, blunt and direct manner in which criticism can be delivered makes it a powerful weapon in the armoury of our ability to communicate. As we all appreciate there are ways of delivering a different viewpoint without it being wounding, cutting or inhibiting. In school governing circles we use the phrase critical friendship about aspects of our role. Criticism and negativity walk hand-in-hand along may pathways through life, often bringing with them friends like hurt, pain, repression, which in turn can nurture a further generation of family members, often in the soul of the individual held bound and captive by the sharpness of another’s tongue: resentment, fear, under-achievement, self-doubt. To seek and Look for the good in everything, may be an antidote or remedy to this disease, which is society-wide, including at times, rather sadly, within church circles.

During Mass on Tuesday our Readings contained a story of the encounter of two unlikely characters, during a lengthy time of drought, the widow of Zarephath and the prophet Elijah. Sent by the Lord, His messenger, a travel-worn Elijah asks the widow for two unbelievably precious commodities for an agriculturally-dependent nation suffering the ravages of a lack of water: food and drink. Her reply is blunt vocabulary, grudging kindness, and meagre but dutiful hospitality. Despite her initial suspicion, real anxiety and understandable hesitancy, the divine response to her negativity is the fulfilment of the prophecy, Jar of meal shall not be spent, jug of oil shall not be emptied (1 Kings:17:14). Indeed, throughout the time Elijah lodged with the widow and her son they were never without sustenance. The story is an evolving one, including the death of the boy and his restoration to life through the intercession of Elijah, and the Martha-like statement of belief of the widow identifying and acknowledging Elijah’s prophetic role: Now I know that you are a man of God and that the Lord really speaks through you! (1 Kings 17:24). Her words also betray a seismic change of heart. The stranger has revealed to her the good which lay in his own soul removing the suspicion, anxiety and hesitancy which formed the welcoming committee of the widow’s initial greeting. It is a fine reminder that, at times, God uses the most unlikely of people of accomplish His purpose.

The finest craftsmen and women who shape and colour others into the people that they become are those who not only inspire because of their own enthusiasm and passion, but who can see potential in the raw material, who infuse with a gentle coaxing, and who know just how far to pull, stretch and tease that which is held in their caring and protective hands. Some we call parents, others bear familial titles, whilst educators and teachers, friends and even relatively fleeting acquaintances may also be those who bring to birth our true capabilities and potential. Their approach is positive. They see what others, including ourselves, may not. They build up confidence. Establish foundations on which a life will be lived. Good for them is ever-present and needs to be drawn out of the base constituents. Their vocation is spent doing just this. Already names, faces and voices are congregating in your thoughts … and mine too! These are the people who have sought out the best, finest and richest, and surprisingly they saw it in us. In the words of the song I mentioned earlier these are the people who will set your soul free encouraging you to reach out to what seems impossible and will be standing at your side when it’s done!

In the field of my own education, I immediately think of our Dean of Studies during my seminary days in Dublin. Academic life prior to Diaconal Ordination was divided into three elements – a foundation year of Theology, two years of Philosophy, and a further two years of Theology. At the end of my first year of Philosophy the Dean approached me and asked if I would like to be considered for degree-level education when I moved into Theology. It was a big ask as the only other students considered for this were those who had previously had some third-level education, one of whom was a graduate. It came with a price-tag. I would need to complete a further A-Level within a year through distance learning with my former Junior Seminary. Extra work, sacrifices, and a good number of packages containing scripts, past exam papers, and words from a teacher to a pupil crossed the Irish Sea at regular intervals, not to mention having to sit exams when I should have been on holiday! To this day, I am not sure why I was invited to undertake this challenge except to say that clearly someone saw something in me that I was blind to. Confidence-building, encouragement and support of students may have been a part of Fr. Bob Noonan’s job-description, but until they become a currency spendable in the marketplace of lived experience they are little more than aspirational. At times it would have been easy to bow out of that particular year of hard academic graft and shy away from another’s perspective of my budding potential. What made the difference was the fact that the journey was not being made alone. Companionship with broader vision than mine was all-important. The conversations had, the gentle nudges given and the safe hands in which I was being invited to stretch and grow were vital.

When I eventually graduated from Maynooth, to whom our college was affiliated, on a fog-bound November day, a white-haired man wearing Doctoral robes over his Capuchin garb, quietly approached me, and made a simple statement in my ear: I knew you could do it! Disappearing amongst the throng of assembled academic and clerical glitterati he still had one more surprise up his sleeve. Along with the other two degree students (who individually typified the best and most annoying of students: the very diligent post-graduate who was building on his earlier achievement in a different field through consistent study, and the former Polytechnic student who could leave all his work to the last minute, and did, but always emerged with enviable grades!) I was accorded the distinction of Commendation. This was the scent nearest to the heady perfume of an Honours Degree that we were allowed to savour. Maynooth at the time stipulated that eligibility for Honours was dependent on where exams were sat; their own college soil. Practically for us this was impossible. Therefore we were deemed unworthy!

Whatever is on the play-list of your life journey, I hope that it contains songs and music as up-lifting as I’m currently finding Jason Mraz’s Look for the good in everything. St. Augustine said, Those who sing, pray twice! Let us not just sing along with the words, but actually live their uplifting message. Perhaps on reflection we can think about all the heroes in your neighbourhood. Those to whom we had never spoken or bothered to find out their names but, who living nearby, were the first to put a note through the letterbox offering willing hands should they be needed for things large or small when Lockdown began. The people we observe on a daily basis, driving away from home as they have for as long as we’ve witnessed their routine of life, to ensure that some semblance of stability and normality has continued to exist for others through their key-work. These are some of the heroes who deserve a place on the page of history that we are currently penning.

We have to look to see, and by seeking the good in everythinglife would be sweeter. Happy listening, singing, and humming along to the music of your life, above all don’t allow the words of a long dead music teacher who told you to mime rather than sing, hold you back … I’m sure that the Good Lord has an abundant supply of ear-plugs if necessary!

Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,

Fr. Nicholas

6th June 2020

Dear Parishioners,

Distraction is a word I hear many times over from those who frequent our Reconciliation spaces. It usually comes in a negative context, bringing to thought aspects of life’s journey, in all its complexity, that the penitent wishes to remove as they converse with the Lord in prayer. My response to those who find distraction an obstacle to the rarefied relationship they seek with God, as one who can easily find distraction something of a fascination, is to encourage them to present the subject of distraction to God in their conversation with Him. Perhaps in these moments there is something calling from the depth of our inner selves seeking an audience with God. Distractions come in all shapes and sizes. If we are unable to deal with them maybe God can. He journeys with us as a friend and the realm of a good friendship is often the very place where we are able to iron-out the creases of life’s knock and bumps.

As some may have noticed over the years that I’ve been privileged to serve you, I have a keen eye for detail often expressed in compliments about a parishioner’s new glasses or even the enhancements given to their hair, through a cut or colour! Although I suspect that by the end of Lockdown many more parishioners will have followed my own example in regard to the latter and gone au naturel. A noticeable change within many of our news and live-aired programmes, is the use of various social platforms that allow correspondents and interviewees to be beamed into studios from the surrounds of environments familiar to them be it a place of work or a sanctuary within their own homes where they are free from interruption. This has now extended to Virtual Sittings of our Parliament. When the initial message has been conveyed, and ears and eyes have adjusted to an often present time-lapse between the movement of lips and what is being heard, elements of distraction begin to creep in. For someone like myself these times are akin to a succession of episodes of Through the Keyhole. A feature of a good number of the backdrops offered by those speaking are bookshelves, the contents of which I strain identify, or at times want to put some order on! That said, having once worked in a library they would have to be in accordance with Dewey’s decimal classification rather than size or even looking attractive on a shelf.

If I were to put any form of rating system on what is presented to us from other people’s places of broadcast, the social historian, David Olusoga would be at the forefront. His visual interventions offer viewers a panoramic view of a spacious and neat room, the walls and shelves of which simply ooze eclectic interests. There is a collection of Guitars, orderly rows of books, object d’art and even a cheeky BAFTA award on a low shelf!


(The following paragraph comes with a health warning for those of sensitive political views!)

There are variations on bookcases, and oftentimes distraction can be a useful tool to uncover an even richer symbolism found lurking just below the surface in the natural habitat and surrounds of those virtual visitors to the comfort of our own homes. This is true of live events too. In the recent press conference held by a certain Dominic Cummings I for one could see a modern slant on an ancient biblical story. The inspired writers of Sacred Scripture called the place when the Almighty walked at ease and in leisure with the work of His hands the Garden of Eden. It was here, when human kind recognised they had erred, that God’s voice called out to the man, Where are you? (Gen3:9) In the rather surprising location of the inner sanctum for private times of relaxation for successive Prime Ministers and those of their equal from the political world-stage, when questions were being raised about another man’s actions, the nation’s top brass of political correspondents, having been kept waiting for half an hour, could justifiably have asked the question: Where are you? When our first parents stepped out of their hiding place, at God’s beckoning, He must have been a little taken aback as they emerged with a new wardrobe, responding with the words: I heard you in the garden and I hid from you. (Gen3:10) When Dominic Cummings finally emerged, he too was wearing new clothing … well, at least a shirt. A tie may have been a step too dangerously close to meet the appropriateness of the occasion! The judgement meted out in the Garden of Eden was just, and expulsion a fair resulting punishment. In the Garden of Boris the awaited words of remorse and apology never came, and the conclusion of the dialogue was heralded by a gentle breeze, the voice of nature beckoning one of its own to a hiding place, with the rustle of leaves, the curtain fell across the stage, as the man slunk back to his place of safety: at least for the time-being.

(Those of political sensitivity may rejoin from this point!)

During the celebration of his Easter Service, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s kitchen table-altar setting was subtly enhanced by deep symbolism. The liturgical furnishings were made of olive wood, so much associated with the Holy Land. Behind him stood a kitchen dresser adorned with a calendar, which, aided by a magnifying glass, I discovered depicted the image of a butterfly, an ancient art form conveying belief in resurrection and new life. And as to the display of Portmeirion table-wear, I can only imagine that they represented table-fellowship, and the ability of being able to draw up an extra chair for the unexpected guest. There is often much more to be seen than what is obvious, if only we take the time to seek it out.

Reassuringly we do not always have to try too hard, or engage the assistance of zoom-lenses, to discover messages being conveyed. Whenever Captain Sir Thomas Moore, as he now is, appears on our screens he is in one of two locations: outside the home he shares with extended family or seated in what looks to be a very comfy, deservedly so, armchair. I have yet to see him without his military apparel, dressed to meet a fan-base which is now global. Behind his walking-frame he continues to do what has brought him admiration and notoriety, simply putting one foot in front of the other. When sat, his backdrop is an array of photographs, seemingly mainly uniformed sitters; his military pedigree displayed for all the world to see. Whether observing his 100th birthday fly-past, receiving a further adulation or talking about catching pond-life in jam jars in the days of his Yorkshire-youth, as he was on Countryfile last weekend, whilst very conscious of the affection that he is held in by a world-wide following, he is not defined by his public persona, but instead radiates a man incredibly comfortable in his own skin.

Devoid of a distracting bookcase, when the Queen spoke to the nation on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the chosen symbolism was in full view, from the room in which the broadcast was made, to the broach she wore – the gift of her father on her 18th birthday, now nearer to eighty than seventy years ago. The greater symbols spoke of family, service and victory. These were the image of her father, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATC) cap, and a second photograph depicting herself, her parents, sister, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on Tuesday 8th May 1945. With a simple and profound message this nonagenarian said what needed to be said and the symbols reminded us of what made a particular generation great, and which have the capacity to continue to do so if we are prepared to pick up the mantle; appreciation of those closest to us, a willingness to reach out to others, and a dogged determination to overcome even the greatest obstacle.

Last Monday many children and school communities returned to a new experience of education. One newspaper commented that an estimated 46% of parents would not be sending their children back into their usual learning environments. Reading this I wanted to ask about the 54% they failed to mention! Negativity will not lead us triumphant out of these times. Nor has there been much mention of those schools and their staff, at all levels, who have continued to provide education (and food) and the tools of learning to pupils either in a classroom setting (for the children of Key Workers) or at home. Our own primary school community has been outstanding at this. With the exception of Good Friday, Easter Monday, and the more recent Spring Bank Holiday, Holy Spirit’s doors have been open to welcome our children. No accolade in the media for those who have done this! But they certainly deserve one. When a generation asks: what did you do during the pandemic? There will be many who will answer that they simply carried on with their working lives in new and varied ways. The staff at Holy Spirit School have done this and I for one say: Thank you and well done!

Something that I’ve tried to encourage others to do during recent times is to think outside of the box. Personally it has been a steep learning curve but having climbed a mountain that has brought me to new horizons and vistas I’m now a convert and advocate! This has been particularly true when walking with families in times of loss and bereavement on the shifting sands of varying guidelines and regulations. Respectful of the reasons various Local Authorities have chosen to offer families different scenarios in which to hold Funerals for their loved ones than those which have become the norm in recent times, and hearing many lament what they are unable to do, I’ve adopted the opposite approach, and now say, let us think what we can do! In light of this I have presided at the initial part of a Funeral Liturgy on streets where it seemed as though the entire neighbourhood had come out to mark the passing of one of its own. Whilst I may not personify the stereotypical street-evangelist, it has been a privilege to be able to proclaim the Word and pray alongside many who would not usually cross a church-threshold. Less preaching takes place, than witnessing. And what a witness it is, to take a small piece of what gives us identity as a community of Faith to where people are in a place where they have been told to stay for their own well-being and safety, but in the confines of which they can feel so helpless not least in times when faced by the greatest mystery of life, its ending as we have known it: death.

We are not only living in a time of doing things differently, but we have also been given the opportunity of doing different things. In the midst of sadness with natural emotion at its rawest I’ve been privileged to see the finest components of humanity on display not least in dignity and self-control. With members of families from different households stood together the natural response would be to huddle, to hold on to one another and physically unify. Yet, for the health of both the strongest and most vulnerable, standing united yet apart from each other has made an incredible statement, as have those who have dressed for the occasion, but unable to be counted amongst the limited numbers of attendees, have stood in silent tribute at a roadside, to be, for the most fleeting of moments, included amongst the cortege. Or those who stood at the crematorium gates each displaying a word on a sheet of paper, which when held up together expressed their love and support for those driving in for the final part of a Funeral Service. Alongside this has been the courtesy and kindness of Funeral Directors, and the Local Authority Staff, not least our own Kirklees ladies and gentlemen, who all knowing me and my style, have allowed me a little extra time here and there, not least at graveside Services, where families have chosen not to have a church-based Liturgy at a later date. Here, quiet conversations have been had reassuring me that I could offer to families as much time as I would in pre-pandemic days. Such gestures mean a great deal, and reveal a commonality that can, and does, exist amongst our fellow human beings.

The late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a leading figure in the realm of inter-faith dialogue in this country, often reflected on the perennial question asked in times of suffering: Where is God? About his own experience in a concentration camp he emphatically stated that, God was there Himself, violated and blasphemed. He would move on and, in true rabbinic style, answer one question by posing a second: The real question is where was man at Auschwitz?

Over the last few weeks via the media we’ve witnessed the rich diversity of humanity’s reaction to an unprecedented time, nationally and globally. The spectrum of response has been incredible from consumers almost waging war on one another over depleting stocks of toilet roll to the willing generosity of those in the care profession who gave up the rhythm and routine of their home lives to move into accommodation that was their normal place of work in order to shield, protect and care for society’s most vulnerable and fragile members; from entrepreneurs benefitting from grossly inflated prices they charge for the likes of sanitizer, to those Front-Line workers living with the realities of a depleted supply chain of necessary, vital and life-saving equipment. Yes, we’ve been witness to it all, and increasingly feel as though we’re living in a surreal world.

This week daily headlines about an illness that on our shores has claimed numerically the lives of the population of a moderately sized town, such as North Shields, were replaced by reports of the death of a man in Minneapolis in the most unimaginable of circumstances. The ripple effect of this has been felt nearer to home as protesters took to open spaces angry and driven to a point which led to the disregard of social distance guidance, in place for the common good. As human beings we are capable of so much, the finest and the best, the most base and raw. On a scale from incredible inventiveness to a point of hovering over a button to bring about total destruction is the reality of the potential of those created in God’s image and likeness. Along with stark headlines and graphic reports have come some photographically magnificent images. One stood out for me from all the others. Amid headlines of a President being led to the security of a bunker deep in the bowels of a White House in Lockdown due to the angry ralling of rioters at his garden fence, a number of newspapers carried the image of a headscarf-wearing woman astride a favourite mount riding alone in the grounds of Windsor Castle, enjoying a brief respite from her own experience of Lockdown and shielding. At twenty-one this individual pledged that her whole life, whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the great imperial family to which we all belong. At ninety-four the Queen still fulfils that promise and personifies the strengths to be found in family, a life of service and a serene optimism that by standing together we shall overcome all things. Royalist or Republican, credit where it is due!

The finest and best are to be found amongst the worst and least desirable, but they’re not the ones shouting or clamouring for attention. They are simply always there, the constant and ever-present, the fixtures and fittings that give stability and offer the fundamentals of education; teaching through example what truly matters and is important. In the words of the title of Captain Tom’s forthcoming autobiography: Tomorrow will be a good day! We continue to seek and pray for better times. And as the Queen said as we began a new phase of living: Better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again. Somehow, because of the integrity of who is saying it, we know it will!

Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,

Fr. Nicholas

30th May 2020

Dear Parishioners,

If we are renowned as a nation for a singular, almost obsessive, interest and topic of conversation it has to be that of the weather. For those not born on our shores it is just another aspect of our culture that they look upon as being quirky, but also endearing, as the subject matter is totally non-threatening, nor objectionable, and quite neutral. The weather is something that we have no control over, and all either benefit from or have to suffer, depending on individual preference. I for one have been offering a daily prayer of thanksgiving for the diet of weather we have been fed since Lockdown began, as I contemplate the alternative – standing in the supermarket queue in the rain and wind. The subject of weather has been in my thoughts over the last few days. Not necessarily the daily climatic conditions which greet me as I throw back the curtains each morning, but instead what the weather was like on Monday 1st June 1914. Born under the Sign of the Twins, I have a natural tendency towards an active, if not random, thought process. At least that is my excuse.

Gathering the threads of my fertile thought-pattern together, is the fact that this coming Monday marks the 106th anniversary of the laying of the Foundation Stone of the Church of the Holy Spirit by the ‘Children’s Bishop’ Robert Cowgill of Leeds. Despite all that is fed to us about our climate, based on recorded data, the question is rarely asked: when did records begin? Surprisingly recently, is the simple answer! Meteorologists would set the date of the beginning of national weather records in this country as being as late as 1910. Prior to this there were numerous local records, but beyond those used for maritime navigation, there was little joined-up record keeping. Aware of this nugget of more recent history, centuries before Christ, the Egyptians were keeping their own climate-related records with the development of a means of accurate measurement, the name of which gives its purpose away: the Nilometer. From the time of the Pharaohs the water level of the Nile was measured during annual floods in order to predict the success of the harvest and compute the tax rate for a particular year. The journey made by Jacob’s sons in order to purchase grain, reflects the success of the prudent land-husbandry of the Egyptians who earned themselves the nickname of being the Bread Basket of the ancient world. It was as a result of their shopping spree that those who had sold their brother, Joseph, into slavery came face-to-face with him again, no longer a captive, but Pharaoh’s Vizier, the highest official in the Egyptian Civil Service.

As it is this year, so June 1st 1914 was Whit-Monday. From 1872 it was a Bank Holiday, which formally acknowledged a long held practice enjoyed by many working people. The local press of the time answered my climate-based question. Unsurprisingly the weather was typical of many a time of rest: varied! On the final day of May, Whit-Sunday or Pentecost as we known it, the weather was decidedly chilly, reportedly affecting the attendance and offertory at a concert given by the Cleckheaton Temperance Brass Band in West End Park. They were booked to lead the Whit-Tuesday Catholic Procession in Batley and between these two engagements, supported by the Boys’ Brigade Band from St. Paulinus Church (Dewsbury), they headed the procession of children and others connected with the Roman Catholic Church in Heckmondwike, from St. Patrick’s School in Darley Street, to the Bath Road site, where a large crowd assembled at 3.30 to witness the ceremony of blessing and laying the foundation stone. Despite the uncertainty of the weather, people turned out in great numbers.

A part from the fluttering banners of church Guilds and Societies, the bright liturgical garb of the Bishop and other clergy, and a gathering of children and adults in their new and smart Whitsuntide clothing, the visuals of the occasion were limited. In fact they stood in strikingly stark contrast to the participants and on-lookers. As well as a site marked out for the continuation of construction work, the features of the day were the Foundation Stone and a plain wooden cross [which] was erected on the site of the high altar. The latter bore the hallmark of Calvary, a meeting place between the sacred and temporal. As the Bishop sprinkled the entire site with Holy Water, these words were sung: How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord, (Ps.83:2) giving an insight into what the on-lookers anticipated seeing one day, echoing the words of an old hymn: Beneath the Apostle’s crowing dome, the golden roof, the marble walls. It was to be Fr. O’Connor’s legacy to ensure that successive generations have benefitted from both a dome and fine marble columns!

The wording on the Foundation Stone is no longer legible, erased by familiar collaborators, time and weather. The original, simple, inscription read: Deo Paracleto Sacratum Posuit Josephus Robertus E.P. Loid Cal Jun MCMXIV (Sacred to God the Paraclete, Joseph Robert, Bishop of Leeds, laid June 1st, 1914.) The first words Sacred to God, define the purpose of any church building. To refresh the memory that all that is good, or that which has potential for good, comes from God. What takes place in our liturgical celebrations refreshes and refines that definition. Hence, at the beginning of life we bring children for Baptism, sanctifying them for the purpose of discerning, embracing and living out God’s will on life’s journey. At their Marriage, a couple invite the presence of God into their shared journey, praying earnestly that through their love for each other something of God’s eternal love maybe glimpsed not only by their partner, but amongst those with whom they share their lives. At the end of life, we hand back to God, the holiest element of loved ones, that which bears the image and likeness of the Trinity, their souls. Although we may regret the weather-damage to our Foundation Stone, from the moment the church was opened its function was complete, its work over. That which was Sacred to God could be seen entering the building, and leaving. Each one different and changed by what had taken place on the altar within its hallowed walls and given the mission to go out and share what they had been gifted with.

The hope of those witnessing the spectacle around Cemetery and Bath Road on Whit-Monday 1914 was that they would be able to move out of a cramped worshipping-space in Darley Street to their new church by Easter 1915. It was not to be. In late-summer the country benefitted from its longest ever Bank Holiday, which extended from Monday 3rd – Thursday 6th August 1914, days in which the declaration of a war to end all wars would be made by Morley-born Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At that moment the world stood on the cusp of irreversible change, the enormity of which was beyond imagining. On the site adjacent to Fieldhead House building work on the Church of the Holy Spirit continued, albeit it at a necessarily slower pace than anticipated. Priorities had shifted. Eventually the new church opened on Wednesday 29th September 1915, by which time at least one of those made Sacred to God in his Baptism in the Darley Street premises had paid the ultimate price in the name of King and Country. More would follow. Ironically, given the significance of the date spurring these lines, that first casualty was Thomas (Tom) Hirst who for several years had acted as banner carrier at the school festivals at Whitsuntide.

St. Patrick’s school-chapel in Darley Street had served its purpose for many years, but with a swelling congregation it was gradually found to be less and less convenient. The vision for a new church belonged to Fr. Russell, who spoke at the end of the Foundation Stone laying ceremony. On ground bought in 1871 a school-chapel opened in 1872, during which time the Sacramental life of the Catholic community moved from the living accommodation of Fr. Dolan in Brighton Street to rented rooms used for the education of the town’s Catholic children during the week, and at the weekend for Masses, Devotions and catechesis. It was when the improvements demanded by the educational authorities to St. Patrick’s were carried out that intolerable discomfort began to be felt by those who gathered there for Sacramental sustenance. The baton for a new place of worship was by this time thrust firmly into the hand of Fr. O’Connor, and what a tremendous legacy he ultimately left for us to benefit from.

Each of the successive worship spaces has fulfilled the purpose of being identifiably Sacred to God, and offering a Sacramental life that has sustained generations. A Baptism taking place in Fr. Dolan’s home was no less meaningful or profound than those which continue to take place beneath our golden dome! Whilst Baptisms were conducted shortly after Fr. Dolan’s arrival in 1871, no doubt in various locations, it wasn’t until 1875 that the first Marriage was celebrated. This was due to the fact that legally only a permanent building could be licensed for the celebration of weddings. With its origin in the waters of the Jordan (and more locally, according to St. Bede, in the River Calder) there has always been an element of flexibility in baptismal sites. I can say this with some authority as I once celebrated a Baptism on a Presbytery dining table due to there being a gas leak in the adjacent church! Perhaps baptized in similar surrounds, on 23rd July 1871, were Oliver Coghlan and James Edward Prendergast, the first Catholics to receive this Sacrament on Heckmondwike soil, possibly since the time of the Reformation. Parish registers record that decades later in the school-chapel James Edward Prendergast married Anne Shannon in 1895. The first wedding in St. Patrick’s was between Thomas Carty and Ann Broderick on 5th January 1875. This couple enjoyed a twenty-two-year-long marriage broken when Thomas, a Labourer died in 1897. Ann Carty lived latterly at Globe Yard, Millbridge, until her death in 1913 at sixty. She was clearly a beloved figure, who, although without children herself, opened her home to two of her great-nephews, who worked at the neighbouring Strawberry Bank Colliery. One of whom, James Broderick, was to be killed in action in 1916 at the age of twenty-one. The first child to receive the gift of Baptism amidst the marble of the new Holy Spirit Church was Helena (a Latin umbrella name used for names such as Ellen, Eileen, Nellie etc.) Cadden on 10th October 1915, and the church’s first bride was Bridget White, who married Patrick Lydon on 20th November 1915. I’m sure that if these latter names ring bells in the memory-bank of any readers of this, then information about them would be welcomed.

For those, a little over a century ago, observing the scene on the building site which one day would be transformed into the Church of the Holy Spirit, their longing was for its completion and to see its doors open. Currently, many continue to pass our churches and observe with heavy heart the fact that our doors have been necessarily closed for the well-being of us all. It is uncharted water, removing that which has been for centuries a place of sanctuary and prayer when crisis faced both individuals and, as a collective, our nation. However the original purpose of our buildings continues in the daily celebration of that which is most Sacred to God: the Mass. It is a stark experience these days, devoid of distraction brought by our usual colourful and lively congregations, but it is also a singular point of focus and purpose for me as its humble celebrant. It is akin to the presence of the cross on the site of the High Altar on Whit-Monday in 1914, which stood almost as a sign of contradiction amidst the celebratory nature of the day replete with bands and banners, new clothes and smart hats!

What is Sacred to God however continues to thrive albeit in new surroundings. This was something that struck me profoundly last weekend, when I phoned a parishioner, who at the beginning of our conversation mentioned that I had interrupted her Mass! No, we’ve not yet got female priests, but we clearly have a community who take their participation in Sacred matters very seriously. Like many of you, this lady, takes time each weekend to open her Missal and pray the Mass, aided by the altar that she has created as a focal point. This reflects the incredible fidelity of God’s people, the Church, in a present time of crisis, and also our ability to adapt in the face of change. Church doors may be closed for the moment, but hearts continue to be open to the on-going act of acknowledging what is Sacred to God. In the eyes of our God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is nothing more Sacred than ourselves.

Hopefully it will not be too long until we can fling wide our church doors as an outward sign that what is Sacred to God continues to take place, even if in the first instance we are limited numerically by health and safety guidelines, separated by markers denoting social distances, and even being asked to wear gloves to distribute the Sacred Host. In the meantime, come sunshine, showers, wind or even a late frost, may we remain faithful and faith-filled, God’s own people in name and reality.

Finally, on a slightly lighter note I return to the subject of the weather. Prior to my move to Cleckheaton I was shown a Victorian postcard of the town’s Providence Place (Congregational) Chapel, now the Aakash Restaurant. On the reverse of which was written: We come here when it’s raining! Presumably a reference to the journey they made to their usual place of worship, some distance away, in all climatic conditions, and the fact that when they arrived, in damp and wet clothes, they would have to remain in them … praying for a short sermon, and a swift retreat to the comforts of home!

May the Sacred place that you’re longing to return to always feel like home to you, and in the features of your current Domestic Church may a Sacred place exist where God is a welcome guest, able to feel at home with you. At Mass we pray words which almost seem to be a protestation: Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof … In these days we have the rich opportunity of finding the Lord knocking on the door of our hearts, seeking admittance into our homes. Ours is a simple task: to let Him in!

Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,

Fr. Nicholas

23rd April 2020

Dear Parishioners,

Whenever I begin these lines to you I am transported in my mind’s eye to the dining room (or Refectory, as it was called) of the junior seminary where I was a student for four years. Sat with others at long dining tables, breaking the fast after an early Mass, the Prefect of Discipline (a priest who was also our Bursar) would enter the spacious room bearing a bundle of post. The whole environment of the now derelict Upholland College was Tom Brown School Days-esque. We dined beneath walls bedecked with images of Bishops and former Rectors, some of which bore the odd tear and stain caused when food stuff had been hurled in their direction by frolicking and dissatisfied diners! As we were fed a five-out-of-seven nightly diet of ‘something’ alongside chips and beans perhaps some sympathy can be given to the provocation behind these moments of protest. With the neon signage of 57 on the Heinz factory in Wigan visible from some rooms in the college, we really did think that pipes linked the production line to a tap in our kitchen. In the year when Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore was chosen as the operetta to be delivered to parental and public audiences, the distinguished guardians of the ‘Ref’ became the basis of student folklore. One of the operetta scenes takes place in the gallery of Ruddigore Castle where the portraits of long-dead Murgatroyd ancestors come to life. This ghoulish imagery soon became the seed sown into the naive and gullible soil of the imaginations of college newcomers about the goings on in the Refectory during the hours of darkness!

Returning to breakfast times of forty years ago; when our ‘Postie’ had sorted his precious load into the various year groupings he would move from table to table flicking deliveries in the wide direction of those sat around. It was always a good start to the day if there was a letter from home, and for the decade of my studies, rarely a week passed without such a delivery. I quickly learned that not all were as fortunate as myself. The boarding-school environment, with students aged from eleven to nineteen, gave the younger members of our near two-hundred-strong community an introduction to the art and craft of letter-writing. This came through their hour of study time on a Sunday (yes, I did say Sunday!) when they were encouraged to put pen to paper and correspond with their families. As older students, we had to find other times to write home. If caught writing letters during ‘Prep’ time, the letter that we were discovered composing was taken from us and ripped up in front of classmates. Psychological humiliation! The letters I received, and also wrote, away from formal times of study, gave me an insight into the significance of the written word.

Over recent weeks it has been good to receive responses to the lines I post out with the Newsletter, offering me an insight into how life is unfolding around and before you, together with your exploits during Lockdown. These have been most welcome, and I thank those who have responded in this way. My most loyal and faithful correspondent whilst at college, both in Lancashire and subsequently in Dublin, was my mother, who wrote every week on behalf of herself, Dad and Bracken, who was our inherited four-legged canine companion for a decade. The envelopes bearing her distinctive hand contained several sides of news, happenings at home, in Otley, and in our local parish community. The letters were usually written on our yellow Formica kitchen table (once spoken of during a homily) and always, as Mum signed-off, an all-important up-date on exactly what Bracken was doing at that moment of time; usually asleep in her bed or sometimes anxiously awaiting the arrival of my Dad from work, whose approach she seemed to have an extra sense for detecting! At times Mum wrote over a couple of days, denoted by a new date, or a written reason for her distraction.

These letters forged a lifeline between the very organized, disciplined, routined and rather peculiar life I was leading as a teenager and the wonderful familiarity of the people and community who were integral to my formation, colouring, crafting and shaping. The African proverb which says It takes a village [community] to raise a child is certainly my understanding of my own childhood. Letters from Dad were rare and usually denoted one of two things: either I was out of favour with Mum, or it was a smoke screen, protecting me from something that parents who knew their son better than anyone else thought may be either emotionally upsetting across the distance that separated us, or would be a distraction from all-important studies. One of the few times I recall finding an envelope bearing my name and address, printed, which is Dad’s style of hand, was when Mum broke her ankle and was in hospital … more time on her hands, yes, but initially devoid of pen and paper, and our kitchen table!

Some years ago I came across a collection of entertaining, inspiring and quirky letters published under the title of Letters of Note by Shaun Usher. It is an eclectic grouping of the written word, with letters from the likes of Gandhi and Iggy Pop, Charles Darwin and Charles Schulz, and even a recipe for scones from the Queen to a US President! The publication was an easy gift idea for a few friends, even those who are self-confessed non-readers, providing something to dip into every now and again. However, despite reading it from front to back, I couldn’t find anything to match the weekly scripts that came my way so loyally and faithfully from Mum.

There are other popularized letter-based pieces of literature including Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road and Ladies of Letters by Carole Hayman and Lou Wakefield. Personally speaking, letter-writing and card-sending continue to remain an intrinsic part of life. It is something that has taken on new significance and meaning during our present times, and with a little creativity and ingenuity can be made into a very fun experience for the sender, and a humorous one for the recipient. Having clipped images from magazines, entered something randomly into the computer search engine followed by the word “image”, printed it out (I’m not sure of the legality of this!) and then added a quirky comment, given the finished product a quick run through the laminator, Bob’s your uncle! Hilarity is created for numerous folk not least the Postie. I’ve also discovered it helps to remember to put a stamp on the finished product!

Sometimes it is easy to forget that a significant part of our Sacred Scriptures comprise of letters. The most famous biblical correspondent is St. Paul who wrote to early Christian communities at Colossae, Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, Rome and Thessalonika. In addition to these he wrote pastoral messages to his prodigies Sts. Timothy and Titus, which one can sense must have been incredibly affirming and encouraging to the recipients. These also reveal an almost surprisingly affectionate and tender side of the writer’s personality, as does his letter to Philemon. In this he implores the recipient not only to welcome its reconciliatory content, but also the Postie, Onesimus, who is the addressee’s runaway slave, whom Paul calls on Philomen to accept as a reconciled brother in the Faith. In writing to Timothy, whom he calls my son (1 Tim. 1:18), Paul adds a very human housekeeping note, asking him to bring the cloak I left at Troas, in Carpos’ house and also the scrolls, especially the parchments (2 Tim. 4:13). In his composition of letters, St. Paul was not alone. Other Second Testament figures who kept scribes and Posties busy included Sts. James, John, Jude and Peter, whose words were also inspired by the Holy Spirit. Whilst it may be the words of St. Paul that most know best, in the brief twenty-five verses which form the Letter of St. Jude is found the timeless exhortation: dearly beloved, build your life on the foundation of your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit. Remain firm in the love of God (Jude 20 & 21). Returning to St. Paul’s correspondence to Philemon, he offers a synopsis of what should be at the heart of any communiqué with family or friends: love, joy and encouragement: Your love, dear brother, has brought me great joy and much encouragement! You have cheered the hearts of all God’s people. (Phil. 7)

Letters from Pastmen of the seminary I attended in Dublin appeared in Annuals sent, for over a century, across the English speaking world, which was the missionary brief of the college from its formation in 1842. Whilst many printed letters came from far-flung parts of the world, it wasn’t uncommon for a correspondent to cite an address in either the diocese of Leeds or neighbouring Salford, these being the largest depositories for the clergy produced by All Hallows. These letters had a two-fold importance: news and recruitment! Written in an era prior to pastoral placements, the newly ordained priest’s first encounter with the place to which he had blindly committed himself and vowed to minister for life came when he stepped off a ship (and often a subsequent train) carrying him to the address sent to him by his bishop on ordination: a mitred image whom he’d probably not even met. Most letters published were cheery, newsy and spoke of warm welcomes. Some stories remained unpublished but not forgotten. One such involved a priest of our own diocese who, after crossing the Irish Sea and journeying from Liverpool to Leeds, never having set foot outside of Ireland in his twenty-five years of life, arrived at the address of the Presbytery to which he’d been appointed. Having knocked, the door was eventually opened, and he proceeded to explain who he was. The response from the housekeeper was to slam the door closed in his face screaming, “No one told me we were getting another curate!” Clearly not a story to be used during a recruitment drive.

Long after the ending of Lent, I continue to be loyal to the discipline I set myself at its beginning, devoting an hour each day to historical research. Primarily my interest is in the Catholic men of the area who were killed in the Great War. A notable feature in the local press of those far off days was the occasional publication of letters written by local lads. These, like the letters in the seminary Annuals, were used as propaganda. They offered an insight into the life of an individual soldier and the activity of his regiment, although place names were removed at a stroke of the censor’s pen. Subtly they were used to advance national issues such as recruitment. In 1915 towards the end of one such informative letter an unnamed local Northumberland Fusilier, expressed the hope that the war would be won without having to resort to conscription. Those who are of eligible age and fit should come forward and do their bit, and so help bring about an earlier end to this terrible struggle. More than a century on, we’ve heard Prince Charles, this week, encouraging people to form a Pick for Britain land army, seeking Pickers who are Stickers, for the benefit of the nation. At an emotive level during World War One the absence of a name at the end of a soldier’s letter gave hope to families across the area who recognized the regimental name that the correspondent was “Our so and so …”

One letter that appeared in the local press in March 1916 came not from the Front, but a Prisoner of War camp at Giessen, Germany. The author wrote: In reply to your kind and welcome letter of January 1st, I am pleased to tell you I have received your splendid parcel of clothing. I have previously received clothing from you. I was not really in need of the last parcel but I have given the shirts to two of my comrades who are not so fortunate in having friends to send them such necessaries. I have also received from the fund 20 shillings. I really did not know who sent it to me until I received your letter, so thank for me the ladies and other members of the Forget-Me-Not Fund for their kindness. It reveals incredible kindnesses or Mitzvahs, to use a word I mentioned last week. Charity and compassion motivated those collecting funds and practical items to be sent to POWs and soldiers serving at the Front. And, incredibly, in the midst of it, the author, from within his own confines, sees and responds to the needs of men around him, by sharing his own good fortune. Poignantly he calls those, whom he almost definitely would not have known, friends. He defines a friend by their actions of kindness towards him.

The letter was written by Joseph Duddy, of the Cheshire Regiment, who prior to the war had lived in the Spen Valley, and who worked as a plate-layer at Low Moor Station. His war lasted all of nine days, being captured at Mons and thereafter being held as a POW. Despite a lengthy time of incarceration, over three years, it was not long enough for him to return home, as in early-December 1917, at thirty-four, he died of consumption. Eighteen months later, in May 1919, when his sister received his personal possessions they comprised a single collection of articles – letters!

This week I’ve written cards offering birthday greetings, congratulating friends on their wedding anniversary, a couple of notes of sympathy to grieving families, a word of encouragement to a priest-friend in Zagreb following a recent earthquake there, a couple of sentences of appreciation on compliment slips to accompany payment for jobs done, and yes, I’ve also had the scissors in my hands, cutting and pasting, laminating and posting a couple of humourous messages, and others sent to those alone at this time, whom I hope will appreciate just being thought about and remembered in their isolation. We’re a people blessed with the ability to communicate so well! Lockdown need not mean locked-in. John Shedd once wrote: A ship in harbour is safe – but that is not what ships are built for. There is a word in all of us … let us dare to write it.

When St. Paul signed-off his First Letter to the Thessalonians, he said: Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances (1Thes.5:16-18), it seems a fitting end to my words this week.

Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,

Fr. Nicholas

P.S. (Vital for all letter-writers!) Whilst praising the writers of letters I must not neglect those who deliver them. Presently our Posties are doing a fantastic job, with many of us being grateful for their doorstep services. This praise matches the great respect they have long been held in by our family coming from the fact that in 1917, during her stay in America, my maternal great-grandmother, received a letter simply addressed to: Mrs. Alice Normanton, Chicago. The population of the city at the time was only about two and a half million!

16th May 2020

Dear Parishioners,

I am quite sure that during our period of Lockdown many of our priorities have shifted and changed. A new habit that I’ve developed is to ensure that the birdbath in the garden has water in it. In the absence of people to watch, nature has provided me with an abundance of feathered guests to observe. Amongst the bird population of a relatively small area I note a pecking order (the pun couldn’t be resisted!). Heading the Presbytery colony is a dominant Magpie who reminds me of my daily duty towards himself and his feathered friends by standing boldly on the lawn in front of the office and giving me the hard stare. If the look fails, his harsh ascending chatter begins, only ceasing when the door opens and I appear with a jug of water. Unsurprisingly no hint of gratitude comes from this beautifully iridescently clad Corvidae, but with his ablutions complete, the water attracts many other friends of flight during the course of the day of all shapes, size and colour, all of whom seem to appreciate my efforts at keeping them watered, and on occasion fed too.

Returning to the Magpie, at whose mention most of you will have a Marmite style reaction (either love or hate!); whilst writing these lines, he appeared with a very large foraging prize in his beak, which resembled toast. Quite how he’d managed to carry it this far, I’m not sure. Having deposited it on the lawn, as it was clearly too heavy to be carried up to the family home in a very tall tree, he made several frustrating (and noisy) attempts to divide it in to manageable pieces. Having flown off, apparently defeated, I felt compelled to go and help … Having returned I can report that the discarded bird banquet was in fact the pastry crust from half a pork pie. And having located some gloves, I broke it into what I felt might be Magpie bite-size delicacies. The episode has left me wondering just who is in charge here: man or bird!

Due to my current inability to engage with our school children in an accustomed fashion, and, oftentimes, about which experiences I’m known to regale a story, I’m delighted to be able to share a snippet with you highlighting changed priorities in the life of at least one of our younger parishioners. At the 11.30 Mass we’re blessed to have a group of very young parishioners who take the collection. Having carried the boxes to the front, bowed to the altar their synchronized assault on pockets, wallets and purses begins, working their way to the back of church. Not having altogether grasped the fact that a Standing Order means some parishioners will not voluntarily contribute to the collections either by envelope or cash, our little ministers just hover at the end of the pew displaying a stand-off pose … in the hope that their determination (or even cuteness – don’t tell them I used that expression!) might be rewarded by some kind of an offering! Their ministry is taken very seriously and they are admirable in their willing dedication to assist in church at such an early age.

The closure of our churches has clearly played on the mind of at least one of our young collectors. So much so that he began to ask his mother about my well-being in the absence of his financially sustaining ministry. It didn’t take too long before he asked the question: “Have you paid Father Nicholas?” No doubt the question was repeated, as is the way with children, because a couple of Sundays ago I had a lovely encounter on the driveway with the little chap’s Mum. She’d been dispatched to pay me! Ranked alongside shopping and exercise, the visit was clearly deemed an essential journey by the youngster. In the regularity of life earlier in the year, such thoughts, if they were ever in the mind of a child, would have been rapidly erased by far more exciting priorities such as fun, school, sport, food and play. On the priority list of the supposed adult writing these lines, the actual collection envelopes were much lower than the near-celebratory moment of the opportunity their delivery gave me of engaging in face-to-face conversation with the young mother.

Priorities are made clear in the midst of the dramatic Good Friday Liturgy when we hear the expression: It was Preparation Day (John 19:31). Words that we can be forgiven for failing to give too much thought to. Yet they are words which resonate with all the wonderful ‘behind the scenes’ members of our faith family across the world who are engaged in the work of preparation that is done to ensure that the annual Holy Week and Easter Liturgies are celebrated well. Here I think of musicians, singers, florists, church cleaners, Ministers of the Word, and those cajoled into baring their feet to be washed on Holy Thursday, and others. An aspect of my own preparatory work is to procure palms and Paschal Candles. When Lockdown began the odour of recently released palms from their polythene prisons was present in both sacristies, however we were devoid of Paschal Candles. Within days I received a phone call saying that it was doubtful these would be with me before Easter due to production and delivery issues. Changed priorities: pre-Lockdown, I would have panicked, wondering how to explain the absence of Paschal Candles, so central to the Easter Vigil, to our communities! In Lockdown contingency plans were afoot: to clean up and use last years’ candles and, when our suppliers could deliver, to welcome this years’ Paschal Candles. I long ago learnt that there should always be a Plan B!

With the candles of 2019 somewhat spruced up, it was a wonderful surprise to have this years’ candles delivered on Holy Thursday afternoon. Well done Hayes and Finch (other suppliers are available!). Unfortunately when I opened the boxes, one of the candles was broken, the sturdier of the two, wrapped well in an abundance of plastic and acres of cardboard. With only one Easter Vigil, I had all I needed; Plan B was a phone call to the supplier, and a subsequent promise of a new candle after Easter.

This week the second candle arrived, complete, intact, and, I hope, at no extra charge! It stands proud and decorated in church, and I greeted it as though it was the Prodigal Son; although the fatted calf is still grazing and the dancing and merrymaking remain on hold due to social distancing!

Whilst preparing it, which for practical reasons took place on the Presbytery kitchen table, I took the opportunity to pray again the words I’d offered on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil. It was an enriching moment. Pausing and reflecting on the beautiful, almost poetic, words of the Exsultet, with which we begin the solemn Liturgy at dusk. These include the imagery of our offering a symbolic gift (the candle) to God. A token crafted through the cooperation of humans and nature: “On this, your night of grace, O Holy Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands, an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.” Prior to this, the candle is marked with the numerals of the year (2020); a reminder of the timeless nature of the Risen Lord: “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega All time belongs to Him and all the ages to Him be glory and power through every age and for ever. Amen.”

For obvious reason there would have been poignancy and significance in using last years’ candle. Easter 2019 was, after all, the last well of Liturgical expression from which we were called upon to drink as a whole, complete and representative congregation. It was from these sacred days that we were invited to draw strength, as a people of faith, to face each and every twist and turn on life’s unfolding journey. Understanding this encourages us to prepare well for Easter, and engage with the time of getting ready, Lent. It is to the incredibly special Liturgies of Holy Week and Easter that we bring the events of our life-journey throughout the previous twelve months, or thereabouts due to the flexible nature of the timing of Easter, as our personal ‘gift’ to Almighty God. In return those sacred days feed us for the year which lies ahead. Hence preparatory work can never be underestimated, with its exposure being evidenced in the quality of the celebrations that take place.

This year it was different. We began our preparation together, and for very necessary and understandable reasons, the involvement of the majority in those great Liturgies was through very different means, and in the very familiar surroundings, not of our churches, but of your own homes, the domestic church. Priorities are present in this weekends’ Gospel as the Jesus of St. John’s Gospel prepares his nearest and dearest for a time when the world will no longer see Him (John 14:19). He speaks of that which binds Himself to his followers. It is a relationship of oneness of mission and shared vison. Put simply it is to do the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21). For three years He lived this out in a sensitive and compassionate ministry, which was not always understood or welcomed. But wherever He went He was the centre of everyone’s attention. He was the one everyone wanted to see, hear and be in the presence of. He calls on those who are travelling with Him, seeing what He does and listening to His message, to step-up. Now He invites us, His followers in this moment of time, writing our own chapter of history, to do the same. We can shy away from His vocabulary: commandment (John 14:15) causes unease as it sounds demanding, legalistic and authoritarian. Jesus’ understanding is that it is the foundation stone on which everything else will be built. In this way the new commandment (John 13:34) is a welcome guest in any life. From it can come anything, the possibilities are endless!

Our Jewish brethren use the word Mitzvah to describe a deed, usually charitable, compassionate, and always expressive of love, which is performed out of religious duty. Jesus reminds us that our religious duty, desirable not burdensome, is to reach out to others in love. He asks us to do this not because we have to, but because we want to display, tangibly, to others the relationship we enjoy with Him.

On Thursday we will celebrate the beautiful Feast of the Ascension, marking the return of the Risen Christ to His, and our, Father in heaven. It also acknowledges that forty days have passed since Easter, observed by so many of you this year in Spiritual Communion rather than in person. As a Holyday of Obligation, I shall celebrate Holy Mass in both of our churches on Thursday. In that wonderful gift of Spiritual Communion you will all be with me. The Paschal Candles (both appropriate to this year!) will be lit, burning as a symbol of our faith. Without our doors opening their flames are strong, defined and vibrant. As I gaze at unpopulated pews, the size, radiance and strength of the flame almost allows me to believe that wherever the members of our communities are the gift of this symbolic light can be seen by them. In the darkness, mist and shadow of uncertainty the brilliance of that light is so necessary. Conversely, at a time when we can all gather together again, the candle flame is more likely to flicker, splutter and waver, reflecting much more than the reality of drafts coming from the opening of some doors and the closing of others. Its involuntary movement reflects our individual pilgrimage at times beset with problems, worries and anxieties. The very things that impact on the strength of our faith. The flame of the Paschal Candle is the great reminder that it is into those same situations that we’re called to take the gift of our faith allowing something far greater than ourselves to transform them and give them new worth and value.

Outside of the Easter Season our Paschal Candles reside out of view, making appearances, appropriately, at two liturgical celebrations, baptisms and funerals. At the former the question of the congregation is: “What will this child turn out to be?” (Luke 1:66). At the latter we turn to God in prayer, asking that He finds the content of a pilgrim’s life journey an acceptable gift. It would be good to acknowledge that in and amongst the work of your servants’ hands during their life were many Mitzvahs bearing the hallmark of Christ: love of neighbour.

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

Fr. Nicholas

PS. The Magpie, clearly exhausted by his earlier foraging didn’t return until lunchtime for his pastry feast. I’m sure he threw me a nonplussed glance as he viewed the reduced portions on offer!