The Argentinian artist Marcelo Lavallen who last year decorated so beautifully the altar in the chapel of the St Barnabas Society has made a return visit. He has just completed a new crucifix for us and, as I write, he is in the process of painting (or to put it more correctly “writing”) an icon of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman and Blessed Dominic Barberi. The Archbishop of Birmingham will be visiting the Society on Saturday, 27 July, to celebrate Mass for us and to bless the crucifix and icon. He made a visit to Wolvercote shortly before I took up my appointment and it will be lovely to welcome him to our new location on the outskirts of Littlemore. 

The timing of Marcelo’s visit could not have been better as Blessed John Henry Newman is almost certainly to be canonised later this year. To have an image of him and of the saintly Passionist priest who received into the Catholic Church in 1845 will be a very special blessing for us not least because we are now based within walking distance of where it all happened. Marcelo is uniquely gifted and we are very privileged that he has so readily agreed to undertake this project for us. We hope that in time his beautiful artwork will help to attract more visitors to the St Barnabas Society – clergy and laity – so that they can join us for the celebration of Mass and we can talk to them about the work we do. Any Catholic priest in good standing is welcome to celebrate Mass here and anyone may join us for Mass each day. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you wish to do so. 

The crucifix has yet to be hung but the accompanying photograph shows very clearly how much research Marcelo has put into it as well as the skill he has exercised in painting it. The Lord Himself referred to His Death as “a baptism” – “There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over!” (Luke 12:50) - and Marcelo’s crucifix incorporates strong baptismal themes. Above the Crucified is the image of the dove which descended from Heaven at Christ’s Baptism by John in the river Jordan. The figure of the prophet Ezekiel is on His right side with the inscription “Vidi aquam egredientem – I saw water flowing”. On His left side is John the Baptist with the inscription “Ecce Agnus Dei – Behold the Lamb of God”. The body of Jesus is immersed in flowing water which symbolises the new life which Holy Baptism effects for us through His Saving Death. Finally beneath His feet is the figure of Jonah emerging from the mouth of the whale, an episode which foreshadowed the Death and Resurrection of Christ.  

Although the St Barnabas Society is open to providing help to former clergy and religious of other world faiths the majority of converts who make contact with us are from other Christian denominations. As a consequence there is a precious gift which they bring with them on their conversion journey and which they already share with their Catholic brothers and sisters. It is their Baptism. Marcelo’s beautiful crucifix will be a powerful reminder of this as it hangs above the altar where the Sacrifice of the Lord is perpetuated. It is much more than a beautiful work of art. It is a powerful symbol of the life made possible for us by the Death of Jesus – a life in which we totally share within the fold of His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. 

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Not So Ordinary Time

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I once received a card with the words “You may not always end up where you thought you were going but you will always end up where you are meant to be.” Over the past two months they have had a special relevance for me. I had been expecting to move into a new home since August last year. Delays on the part of the builders meant that it was less than two weeks before Christmas when it finally happened! It should have been a relatively simple exercise because my former home is not that far from my new one. It wasn’t simple at all! The removal men turned up five hours late and when my furniture eventually arrived the bigger items would not fit into the lift! A lot of anger and frustration was vented followed by the kind of bargaining that you would normally only experience in an Arab souk! Finally the furniture was brought up five flights of stairs after which it had to be unpacked and assembled. I am eternally indebted to our Operations Officer, Chris McGowan, and the Society’s Vice-Chairman, Ian Hambleton, for the patience, cheerfulness and practical skills they demonstrated that night which combined to ensure that we could retire to our beds before sunrise. I shall refrain from exposing the individual who felt moved to say at a particularly fraught moment: “I’m convinced that the first thing the Church teaches a new priest is how to look helpless so that someone else will jump in and do the job for him!” I will only say that during the twenty years of my priestly ministry it has always worked! It must be one of the graces of Holy Orders! 

Christmas happened in a rather predictable and uneventful way and I had begun preparing myself mentally for what the New Year would bring when my mother fell at home and fractured her pelvis. She was taken in great pain to the John Radcliffe Hospital and transferred just a few days later to a beautiful nursing home on the outskirts of Watlington where she is still convalescing and being wonderfully cared for. The responsibility of looking after my father fell largely to me because my sister lives in York and my brother in Canada. So I found myself driving almost daily between Oxford, Watlington and Bicester (where my parents live) to make sure that they were both okay. Then my father fell and was also taken to hospital although mercifully he was not seriously injured. And finally last week, as my mother was preparing to return home, she suddenly developed a nasty infection which means it will be delayed. She is not in any danger but it will be impossible for her to leave the nursing home until she has fully recovered. 

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I have recounted all of this not to win public sympathy (although it will be very welcome if it is forthcoming!) but simply to show how sometimes our best laid plans in life can go astray. I remember driving in my car the day after Boxing Day and planning in my mind some of the things that I had to do in the early part of 2019 only to find my life thrown into disarray just an hour or so later. Yet challenging experiences of this kind teach us a lot about ourselves and about the providence of almighty God. A situation which is initially challenging and something of an inconvenience suddenly becomes the one thing that matters above everything else. My brother and sister would join with me in saying how very fortunate we are that both our parents have lived into their late eighties will very few serious health scares. But now we recognise that the time has arrived when they will need much more care and attention than has been the case in the past. Just as when we were young they selflessly cared for us so now they are old the duty of care falls to us. 

The readings for the Feast of the Holy Family just a few weeks ago spoke more directly to me this year than they have ever done before. 

“Whoever respects his father is atoning for his sins, he who honours his mother is like someone amassing a fortune. 

Long life comes to him who honours his father, 

He who sets his mother at ease is showing obedience to the Lord.” 

Parents are a gift from God and we have a duty to cherish them. May the Lord bless them and keep them in this world and the next. 

Ordination

At my first Mass at a Catholic priest which was celebrated on the Feast of St Benedict, 11th July 1998, in the Church of the Holy Souls, Acocks Green, Birmingham, I quoted the words of a beautiful poem by John Keble.

A mortal youth I saw 
Nigh to Christ’s altar draw 
And lowly kneel, while o’er him pastoral hands 
Were spread with many a prayer. 
And when he rose up there 
He could undo or bind 
The dread celestial bands.

When bread and wine he takes 
And of Christ’s Passion makes 
Memorial high before the mercy throne. 
Faith speaks, and we are sure 
That offering good and pure 
Is more than angels’ bread to those whom Christ will own.

What is that silent might 
Making the darkness light, 
New wine our waters, heavenly Blood our wine? 
Christ with his mother dear 
And all his saints is here 
And where they dwell is heaven and what they touch divine.

I had been ordained to the Priesthood in St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, just the night before and so that ordination scene was still very fresh in my mind. And as I stood at the altar and took the bread and wine into my newly anointed hands I felt very strongly that my personal journey of conversion had finally come to an end and that I was not only safe now within the fold of the Catholic Church but that God (in what St Paul called his “foolish wisdom”) had chosen me to serve his holy people as a Priest. It is very hard to put into words how I felt that day. What I certainly felt was the presence of Christ and His Blessed Mother and that of the Communion of Saints whose prayerful assistance had been invoked on my behalf as I had lain prostrate before the altar upon the cathedral floor the previous evening. And I felt too the loving presence and support of innumerable relatives and friends, living and departed, who had helped me on my journey. Sadly my grandmother had died just days before but she was just as present to me as those who were physically present with me both in the cathedral and the church the next day.

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So much of this came flooding back to me at the recent ordination of Alistair Ferguson, John Konstantin Tee and Michael Thompson who were ordained as Deacons by Bishop John Wilson on Saturday, 12th January, in the beautiful Ordinariate Church of Our Lady of the Assumption & St Gregory, Warwick Street, London. Their journey to the Priesthood is not yet over but their ordination to the Diaconate clearly marks a significant step on the way. They will eventually be not only Priests forever but Deacons forever as Monsignor Keith Newton reminded us in his homily. The three of them have been beneficiaries of the St Barnabas Society and to their number as Deacons in recent months can be added John Owens and Sam Randell as well as Jack Lusted who has already been ordained as a Priest. For the Society to be able to help in giving these men as gifts to the Church to serve as Sacred Ministers is the most important and precious thing we have to offer. For not only does it represent personal fulfilment for them but also the continuing growth of the Church at this challenging time in her history. I am not sure that any of these men would now regard themselves as “a mortal youth” since they are just a little more mature in years than that! But their willingness to give themselves to God in this way will touch the lives of innumerable people in the future and help to nourish them with God’s precious gifts of Word and Sacrament.

As I travel around the country making appeals on behalf of the Society something I am particularly keen to stress is that to support the work of the St Barnabas Society is also to help maintain the Catholic religion in this country. Many of our Catholic dioceses would be seriously struggling were it not for those who have found the fulfilment of their conversion experience in ordination as a Catholic Priest. May that always be the case. May God continue to lead men of faith into the full communion of His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and, through that experience, raise them to serve Him at His altars.

Almighty God, give us priests: 
To establish the honour of your holy name; 
To offer the holy sacrifice of the altar; 
To give us Jesus in the holy sacrament; 
To proclaim the faith of Jesus; 
To baptise and teach the young; 
To tend your sheep; to seek the lost; 
To give pardon to the penitent sinner; 
To bless our homes; to pray for the afflicted;
To comfort mourners; to bless our graves; 
To strengthen us in our last hour; 
To commend our souls; 
Almighty God, give us priests!