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!

Icons

In my last blog I told you about the exciting developments surrounding the move of the St Barnabas Society headquarters from Wolvercote to the outskirts of Littlemore – the scene of Blessed John Henry Newman’s conversion. Over the past few weeks the Argentinian artist, Marcelo Lavallen, has been working on three icons depicting scenes from the life of St Barnabas. They now grace the base of the new altar in our chapel. As expected the icons are very beautiful. I had seen previous examples of Marcelo’s work which is why I invited him to take on this project for us.

Some of those who have already seen and admired the icons encouraged Marcelo to provide an explanation of the symbolism he has employed. What follows is a description of the images he has painted. All our supporters are welcome to visit the chapel and see the icons for themselves. We are already grateful to those who have sent gifts to help with its decoration (including one from the U.S.A.) and Mass will be offered for your intentions this week. Thank you for your kindness and generosity.

LEFT PANEL

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This depicts St Barnabas laying the proceeds from the sale of his land “ante pedes Apostolorum” – “before the feet of the Apostles. (Acts 4:37).

“There was a Levite of Cypriot origin called Joseph whom the Apostles surnamed Barnabas (which means Son of Consolation).  He owned a piece of land and sold it and brought the money and presented it to the Apostles.” (Acts 4:36-7).

To the right of St Barnabas is St Peter who is blessing his gift.  To his left is Our Lady with some of the other women. Behind the figures are the walls and city of Jerusalem. The red drape is used in iconography to depict the fact that the scene takes place in doors.






CENTRAL PANEL

This depicts St Barnabas presenting the recently converted St Paul to the Apostles in Jerusalem.

“Barnabas…took charge of him, introduced him to the Apostles and explained how the Lord had appeared to him and spoken to him on his journey and how he had preached fearlessly at Damascus in the name of Jesus.” (Acts 9:27).

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The centre figures are St Paul and St Barnabas surrounded on each side by St Peter and a group of sceptical disciples.

“When he (Paul) got to Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples but they were afraid of him: they could not believe that he was really a disciple.” (Acts 9:26).

Behind the figures is a Latin inscription from the Vulgate” “Barnabas narravit illis quomodo in via vidisset Dominum” – “Barnabas told them how he (Paul) had seen the Lord on the road.”

 

RIGHT PANEL

The right panel depicts the martyrdom of St Barnabas in Cyprus.

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Tradition suggests that certain Jews came to Salamis where they knew Barnabas had been proclaiming the Gospel. Infuriated by his success and the number of conversions they fell upon him as he was disputing in the synagogue in Salamis, dragged him outside, tortured him and finally stoned him to death. His kinsman John Mark and some of the other disciples recovered his body (which was said to have been thrown into the sea) and buried it in the nearby necropolis.

The icon depicts St Barnabas holding the Gospel of St Mark with its classic symbol of a winged lion. Barnabas was reputed to carry the Gospel with him and lay it upon the sick who would then recover. It was placed upon his breast when his body was buried.

Although it is believed that Barnabas suffered death by stoning the Apocryphal Acts of Barnabas states that a rope was placed around his neck and he was then dragged to a place where he was burned alive. Both traditions are represented in the icon.

In AD 478 St Barnabas appeared in a dream to Anthemios, Archbishop of Constantia (Salamis) and revealed to him the place of his burial beneath a carob tree. The following day the tomb was discovered with the Gospel laid upon his body.

The water behind the figures indicates the island of Cyprus where the martyrdom took place.

 

Bishop William Kenney C.P., auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Birmingham with pastoral responsibility for Oxfordshire, has kindly agreed to bless the new chapel and offices at a date which has yet to be determined. He will celebrate Mass for the first time in the new chapel.

Marcelo will return at Christmas to paint a crucifix and an icon depicting Blessed John Henry Newman and Blessed Dominic Barberi which will both be placed in the chapel. Archbishop Bernard Longley hopes to visit our new headquarters early next year when he too will celebrate Mass and bless the new images.

The departure of Cyprian Blamires and William Johnstone means that the Society is now without area organisers. Their principal role was to travel the length and breadth of the country making appeals on our behalf in parishes. Appeals are not just about raising money. Appeals are about presenting a human face and engaging with parish priests and their parishioners. The importance of appeals cannot be underestimated. They are our principal point of contact with the wider Church.

For the time being I have taken responsibility for all the appeals myself and it has been an exciting experience to suddenly find myself on the road each weekend, often making long journeys as the Society’s ambassador. Recently I have visited Blackpool, Skegness, Leeds, Plymouth, Manchester and Leicester. In each place I have been received with great kindness. I am deeply grateful to the priests who have offered me a bed for the night and allowed me to celebrate Mass and preach in their churches. And I am equally grateful to their parishioners who have listened so patiently and responded so generously to my request for their support. Often at the door of the church after Mass someone will come up to me and say “I was really interested to hear what you had to say because I am a convert myself” and I am always fascinated to hear the story of their own conversion journey. I have spoken about our forthcoming move to the edge of Littlemore and asked for their prayers as it happens. Many of them have immediately recognised the value of the special connection we shall now have with Blessed John Henry Newman, Blessed Dominic Barberi and the most important conversion story of modern times. These visits have helped to recruit many more friends for the St Barnabas Society and as such expand the nationwide network of support for us which already exists. And as I visit these parishes and meet people I am all too aware that I am now building upon the work which has been faithfully done by the Society’s organisers in the past. They are still remembered and fondly spoken of. Not only is that touching but it is hugely important. What they have achieved through their own visits has provided firm foundations for the work that now lies ahead.

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Something made me read again the beautiful homily Emeritus Pope Benedict gave at Cofton Park in Birmingham on 19th September 2010 for the beatification of Cardinal Newman. In it the Holy Father referred to one of Newman’s better-known meditations entitled “God has created me for some definite service.” Pope Benedict said:

“He (Newman) tells us that our divine Master has assigned a specific task to each one of us, a ‘definite service’, committed uniquely to every single person: ‘I have my mission’ he wrote, ‘I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place…if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling.’” (Meditations and Devotions, 301-2)

May those words remind us of the “bond of connection” between the Society and our supporters which is so crucial to our work. As the Society’s Director I am all too aware that “I have my mission” but so do all the other people upon whom the Society depends – employees and friends. Each individual is “a link in a chain.” Thank you - all of you - for what you do for us and please keep up the good work!