For a long time now I have been an admirer of the writings of Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, former Master of the Dominican Order. In fact when I was parish priest of Bicester and later Caversham I forbade my parishioners to buy his books because if they did they would quickly discover where I got all my homily material from! When I met Fr Timothy recently at the home of the Chilson family (who are beneficiaries of our Society) and told him about this he playfully threatened to sue for loss of earnings! But I, for one, will continue to buy anything he chooses to publish because he is always well worth reading. His travels around the world have given him so much knowledge of human society and of the Church’s mission in so many different places and situations and his books are full of these experiences. In fact he is about to publish a new book so watch out for it and buy it! As I am no longer a parish priest I am no longer so dependent upon Fr Timothy for material for my homilies!
Over a delightful kitchen supper in the Chilsons’ family home I asked Fr Timothy if he had ever written anything on the subject of“conversion” and he didn’t think he had. So, of course, I asked him if he would think about writing something on this subject for the St Barnabas Society and he told me that when the book is published and he has completed the lecture tours of Australia and Germany which lie immediately ahead he would think about it. It would certainly be a great privilege for us if he agrees.
While I was parish priest of Caversham I briefly served as Area Dean of Oxford South and during that time our Deanery received a visitation from Archbishop Bernard Longley and Bishop William Kenney. At the opening meeting of the visitation in Henley-on-Thames I was expected to say a few words and initially I wasn’t quite sure what to say. And then I received some heaven-sent inspiration from Fr Timothy’s lovely book Why go to Church? In a chapter entitled “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” he makes reference to a scene in the Bayeux Tapestry “where Bishop Odo can be seen poking a soldier in the backside with a spear, forcing him into the fray. The inscription reads ‘Odo comforteth his men.’” There in a nutshell, I said, is what a Deanery Visitation is all about. The Archbishop and his Auxiliary have come to comfort their men!
In another chapter in that same book Fr Timothy has this to say.
“…our faith is not primarily the assent to facts about God but friendship with God. This man Jesus offers us more than words about God, spiritual insight. He did not come to promote values. He did not come to tell us about God’s friendship for us. He is God’s friendship with us made flesh and blood.”
As we continue our journey through Eastertide and prepare to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost let us grasp for ourselves that monumental truth. Jesus Christ “is God’s friendship with us made flesh and blood.”
On April 16th Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his 91st birthday. True to form it was a quiet affair – “peaceful and familial” – spent in company with his 94 year-old brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, who was visiting from Germany. Since Pope Benedict made the dramatic decision to step down from his role as Supreme Pontiff in 2013 he has deliberately chosen to live out the last chapter of his life away from the public glare. He is by nature a shy man. I discovered that for myself when I encountered him by accident in St Peter’s Square while leading a pilgrimage to Rome in 2001. He was courteous and kind and willingly gave a few minutes of his time to talk but I saw enough on that occasion to be able to appreciate that now he is elderly and frail he has consciously taken to heart the beautiful words of St Paul to the Colossians: “Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on earth, because you have died and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God.” (3:2-3)
Yet this “hidden Pope” is still loved and missed within the Church and no-one will ever forget the quality of his teaching which was second to none. I recently discovered an address he gave at a General Audience in Rome on 27 February 2008. He was speaking about the life of St Augustine of Hippo and I was particularly struck by what he had to say about St Augustine’s conversion.
“…Augustine’s conversion was not sudden or fully accomplished at the beginning, but can be defined, rather, as a true and proper journey that remains a model for each one of us. This itinerary certainly culminated with his conversion and then with baptism, but it was not concluded in that Easter Vigil of the year 387, when (he) was baptised in Milan by Bishop Ambrose. Augustine’s journey of conversion, in fact, humbly continued to the very end of his life, so much so that one can truly say that his various steps…are one single great conversion.”
Pope Benedict is reminding us that whether we were born into a Catholic family and have never known anything other than the Catholic faith, or whether we found a home in the Catholic Church much later in life, we are all called to a life of “conversion” and it is a life-long experience. The distinction that is often made between cradle-Catholics and converts is unhelpful because it suggests a marked difference between those who have apparently always possessed the Truth and those who have had to search for it. Yet for us, as for St Augustine, the search for truth and for growth in holiness did not come to an immediate end the moment we were baptised and/or received into full communion. In a very real sense the conversion experience was only just beginning. Those who have been Catholics from infancy and have had the privilege of the Sacraments and full communion with the Holy See throughout their lives are not “the finished product”. Wherever and whenever our spiritual journey has begun, we shall only be “the finished product” when we are finally with God in Heaven. St Augustine himself reminds us of this in his beautiful prayer:
“Thou, O God, hast made us for thine own self, and our hearts shall be restless until they rest in Thee.”
In the same Papal Audience address Pope Benedict reminds us that:
“Augustine converted to Christ who is truth and love, followed him throughout his life and became a model for every human being, for all of us in search of God.”
And he concluded by saying:
“Let us pray, therefore, that we can follow the example of this great convert every day of our lives and, in every moment of our life encounter the Lord Jesus, the only One who saves us, purifies us and gives us true joy, true life.”
Whether we are cradle Catholics or converts the most important thing for us to remember is that we are fellow pilgrims who are walking together the road that will one day through God’s love and mercy bring us to Heaven – and we are equally proud to be able to call ourselves Catholics!
St Augustine of Hippo – pray for us.
The Paschal candle which now burns proudly each day at Mass in our little chapel at 4 First Turn was blessed not at Wolvercote but in the Adriatic Restaurant on board the P&O cruise liner Oceana during my recent cruise chaplaincy. I must confess to having had mixed feelings about the experience before I boarded the ship yet from the moment I arrived in Southampton on Monday of Holy Week I felt totally relaxed and at home. The challenges involved in adapting the Holy Week and Easter liturgies for celebration in the ship’s card room and one of her restaurants were easily overcome not least because of the enthusiastic cooperation and support of passengers and crew alike. The only thing that was not possible was the lighting of the Easter fire (for rather obvious reasons!). All the other ceremonies which we associate with this beautifully moving and inspiring time in the Church’s Year were celebrated with the same faith and devotion as would be the case in an ordinary Catholic parish church.
Of course the Easter Vigil was the climax of our celebrations with a mixed congregation of both passengers and crew numbering 120. It was followed by a wonderful (and totally unexpected) party, centre-stage of which was a large chocolate Easter cake produced by the catering staff in the galley! And all this happened not at the usual time just as it is getting dark. The commitments of the crew meant that none of the liturgies in which they were involved were able to begin before 11.30pm! It was 2.00am before I finally returned to my cabin after the Easter Vigil and by then the ship was rolling in heavy seas on her way from Barcelona to Marseille. Yet I can hardly remember another occasion when my heart has been so filled with Easter joy. In particular the faith and devotion of the young men and women (mostly Indian and Filipino) who cooked for us, served us, cleaned for us and attended to our every conceivable need and who then at the end of a long and tiring day found the time and energy to accompany their Lord in faith along His Via Dolorosa to His Cross and finally to the Garden of the Resurrection was truly amazing! In the days that remained for us on board Oceana many people stopped me to say how moving the Easter Vigil had been for them and how uplifted they had felt that night. So now each time I light the Paschal candle at Mass I am reminded of this unforgettable experience and of the precious friendships I made during my 10 days as a cruise chaplain all rooted in the Easter faith we share together wherever we come from and wherever we find ourselves in the world.
One morning as I was setting up for Mass on board ship a man came into the card room and engaged me in conversation. He was curious to know how I had managed to escape from my parish at such an important time in the Church’s Year. When I told him that I no longer had a parish but now served as the Director of the St Barnabas Society he said: “I know it well…and I support you financially!” It made me realise what small places the Church and the world are and also how dependent charities like ourselves are upon the material and prayerful support of so many people we hardly know and yet who have been touched in some way by the work we do and moved to do something to ensure that it continues. When I celebrate Mass this week for our Beneficiaries and Benefactors that man will be at the forefront of my mind along with countless others to whom the Society remains eternally grateful. Whether on land or sea may I wish all our supporters and friends and happy and holy journey through Eastertide.
“The Lord has risen! He has risen indeed! Alleluia!”
“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill
I was a sixth-former at Newport High School, in South Wales, when I first heard those stirring words of the poet John Donne and I have never forgotten them. In fact “Death be not proud” is one of the few poems I know off by heart! It powerfully expresses our Easter faith as Christians namely that the way to eternal life has been opened and the doors of Heaven flung wide for us by the Saving Death and Glorious Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each Easter Alleluia proclaims the message: “Death be not proud.” The victory of Christ is ours to share. Our Baptism has already given us a pledge of the Resurrection. Donne was right. Death cannot kill us anymore. Of course, we must eventually leave this world, but only so that we may be re-born into the world of eternity – something already in process through our experience at the font. So St Augustine of Hippo hit the nail on the head when he said: “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!” For that is exactly what we are…and not just at Easter but every single moment of our lives!
Holy Week and Easter will have been an unusual experience for me this year because through the good offices of the Apostleship of the Sea I am going to serve as a cruise chaplain on board the P&O liner Oceana. It sounds like a glorified holiday but I have already realised that this is the very last thing it will be! First and foremost I shall be chaplain to the crew of 800+ which is largely Philippino and Indian and therefore strongly Catholic. But I shall also be available each day to celebrate Mass with Catholic passengers and any others who choose to join us, to hear confessions and to deal with any pastoral issues that may occur above or below deck. I know it will be both interesting and challenging. This time last year I was planning the traditional Holy Week and Easter ceremonies in the parish of Our Lady & St Anne, Caversham, on the north side of Reading. This year I shall be wracking my brains as to how you are meant to celebrate the Easter Vigil on board a ship without an Easter fire, without the lighting of candles and without a font! It will call for some liturgical ingenuity – a grace for which I am now praying daily and fervently!
The message of Christ’s Easter triumph is of equal importance to those on land and those at sea. St Boniface of Mainz once famously declared: “In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a great ship being pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship but to keep her on her course.” I shall take those words to heart during my 10 days aboard the MV Oceana and pray in particular that the pounding by the waves will be limited to the Bay of Biscay! And I know that with the passengers and crew I shall be intimately united with the Universal Church in her annual celebration of the Paschal Mystery. For like John Donne, we believe that:
“One short sleep past we wake eternally
And death shall be no more. Death thou shalt die!”
In my first Easter message as Director of the St Barnabas Society I would like to say a special thank you to all of you who have so kindly and generously supported our work during the past year and, in doing so, enabled us to bring new life and hope to the beneficiaries who depend upon us for support and, in some cases, for their very survival. What you have done is very deeply appreciated and you are remembered each week at the altar at Wolvercote. And I would also like to thank those who work with me at our Society headquarters and our Chairman and Trustees who are always so hugely supportive. Our mission today is as important as it has ever been and it is a potent sign of the Church alive and at work. The risen Lord told his followers that they were to “Go and make disciples”. Through its unique work on behalf of those who choose to become Catholics this is precisely what the St Barnabas Society exists for.
“A very happy and holy Easter to you all!”
I was particularly interested to read of the recent visit of my colleague, Cyprian Blamires, to Belmont Abbey, on the outskirts of Hereford. On 14th December 1994 I was received into the Catholic Church at Belmont by the late Abbot Alan Rees OSB. It was a very simple but beautiful occasion. Apart from myself and my sponsor, Dom Stephen Geddes OSB, (at that time a monk of Fort Augustus and now a parish priest in the Diocese of Plymouth) there were just three other people present. Yet the Mass that evening, during which the Rite of Reception was celebrated, marked one of the most important moments of my life and one that I will never forget.
Abbot Alan chose to celebrate a Mass in honour of Our Blessed Lady instead of the Mass of the Day and he wore a beautiful chasuble upon which there was the embroidered figure of Our Lady of Walsingham. When Mass was over and we retired to a Chinese restaurant in Hereford to continue the celebration, he told me that he had deliberately chosen that chasuble “because Walsingham is a place where Anglicans and Roman Catholics have always worked closely together.” As I began this new and somewhat daunting chapter in my spiritual journey those words were of great comfort to me. It was to be another two years before I was able to convince myself (and others) that God was calling me to be a priest of the Roman Catholic Church and another two years again before I was finally ordained to the Sacred Priesthood but the special graces I received before the altar at Belmont on that cold, dark, wintery night in 1994 sustained me throughout that challenging period of discernment and have sustained me as a priest ever since.
Naturally, over the years, I have returned to Belmont many times. Abbot Alan Rees died tragically in 2005 and I always make a point of visiting his grave and saying a prayer for this kind, gentle, holy and gifted teddy bear of a man who was such a wonderful friend and wise counsellor at a time when I needed both. But I also go into the Abbey Church and stand on the very spot where he received me as a Catholic because for me personally this is especially holy ground. I continue to draw great strength simply from being able to be there and reflect upon how my life was changed forever on that holy night. The Lord was saying “Follow me” and I knew I had to respond.
Please pray for the monks of Belmont and for the repose of the soul of Dom Alan Rees OSB, 9th Abbot of Belmont and later Titular Abbot of Tewkesbury (1941-2005). Requiescat in Pace.
Recently I have been reading Thomas Dilworth’s biography of the engraver, painter and poet David Jones. It was a Christmas present from our chairman, Roland Hayes, and provides a fascinating insight into this deeply complex yet hugely talented man whose life was irreparably scarred by his experiences in the trenches during the First World War. His finest writing is to be found in two book length poems – In Parenthesis and The Anathemata – both informed by his deep Catholic faith. Jones was a convert to Catholicism.
Yet despite the depth of thinking which his writings reveal, there was a side to Jones’s character which was very ordinary and down to earth. The book records a lovely incident in 1956 when Jones asked one of his parish priests to say a Mass for a friend who was suffering from painful rheumatoid arthritis. To Jones’s surprise, the priest asked, “Is he a Catholic?” Jones was dismayed that anyone’s religion should be thought to have a bearing on whether he or she is remembered at Mass. Then comes the remarkable line – Priests, he thought, “what chaps they are!”
Almost every day Mass is offered in the beautiful little house chapel created by my predecessor, Fr Richard Biggerstaff, in which Archbishop Bernard Longley has kindly allowed us to reserve the Blessed Sacrament. I am conscious of the fact that many of those for whom Mass is offered are not Catholic although some of them are certainly on the way! Personally, I see the offering of a daily Mass as a form of evangelisation, in fact I would go so far as to say it is the most important part of the work we do, for however effective we are through the support we give to others, the Mass is able to touch and transform their lives in a way that human concern alone never can. With the new website, we make a point now of publishing our weekly Mass Intentions. You are always welcome to request a Mass for someone – Catholic and non-Catholic – but I would also like to encourage those of you who support us to unite your own daily prayers with the Masses that are offered each day in Wolvercote. And please pray for the repose of David Jones, this remarkable man who was so gifted by God and who has given so much that is beautiful and profound to our world. He was a true genius and needs to be more widely known and admired. May he rest in peace. Amen.
As mentioned in an earlier blog post, this year’s London Festival will take place on the feast day of St Barnabas – June 11th – and I hope that this is a tradition which will now continue. Monsignor James Curry is kindly allowing us to use the beautiful church of Our Lady of Victories, Kensington High Street, for a Solemn Pontifical Mass at 6.30pm at which The Most Reverend Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham, will be the principal celebrant and homilist. Please put that date into your diary now and help us to make it a wonderful celebration of the life and witness of St Barnabas and of the Society which is now privileged to bear his name.
Clergy are most welcome to concelebrate or sit in choir. For those clergy wishing to attend please RSVP to OpsOfficerStBarnabas@gmail.com
Shortly after learning that I was to become the new Director of the St Barnabas Society I decided that I would make a short pilgrimage to northern Cyprus to visit the tomb of the saint and to pray there. I had been there once before but this time my visit had a special significance. I felt very strongly that I wanted the hand of St Barnabas upon my shoulder as I began the important work which lay ahead for me and so it seemed right and fitting to visit the place where he had lived, proclaimed the Gospel, suffered martyrdom and was buried.
The little chapel built over the tomb of St Barnabas is beautiful in its simplicity. Within it you descend 14 steps to the cave where his body was hidden by his friends after his death. It is thought to have been part of the original necropolis of Salamis, the place where his martyrdom occurred. Barnabas was born in Salamis and later became its Archbishop. He was eventually arrested there and imprisoned in a synagogue until a mob broke in, dragged him into the streets and stoned him to death. Tradition has it that his body was wrapped in a sheet, hidden in some marshland and eventually disposed of in the sea. His cousin John Mark (the Evangelist) and some converted slaves managed to retrieve it and give it the burial that it deserved. It is said that John Mark placed a copy of St Matthew’s Gospel upon the chest of Barnabas before he was laid in the earth.
Our Society has a wonderful patron in St Barnabas and his faith and selfless service to Christ and his Church is a constant inspiration for us. Most important of all, he was the friend and companion of St Paul and therefore of huge significance to those who are converts. This year’s London Festival will take place on his feast day – June 11th – and I hope that this is a tradition which will now continue. Monsignor James Curry is kindly allowing us to use the beautiful church of Our Lady of Victories, Kensington High Street, for a Solemn Pontifical Mass at 6:30pm at which The Most Reverend Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham, will be the principal celebrant and homilist. Please put that date into your diary now and help us to make it a wonderful celebration of the life and witness of St Barnabas and of the Society which is now privileged to bear his name.
St Barnabas – pray for us.
Memories were stirred for me during my appeal on behalf of the Society on 17/18 February. I was in County Durham, speaking in three small towns in the old coalfield area – Coxhoe, Trimdon, Sedgefield. When I last spoke in Sedgefield, Tony Blair was still the MP and the parish priest was a great friend of his, the late Fr John Caden (d.2013). Fr Caden baptised all of the Blair children and played tennis with their father. He was one of the few persons privileged to be present when Mr Blair was received into the Church. Astonishingly, it appears that he was parish priest of Sedgefield for 55 years. I had the privilege of staying in the presbytery and enjoying Fr Caden’s hospitality over the weekend, and he regaled me with many wonderful stories – not least of his occasional appearances in goal for Darlington FC as a young priest. It is likely that he is the only parish priest ever to have played for a football league team while in office – though there are ex-footballers who have been ordained to the priesthood. Fortunately Fr Caden didn’t feel it necessary to trouble his Bishop with information about this part of his life, since an Episcopal embargo could well have been pronounced! Later he published a memoir of his life which began with an account of a journey by boat across the Atlantic in the early 1950s which led to him becoming an honorary chaplain for life to an American girls school which was also represented on the boat.