Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Tail chasing

It's that crazy feeling when you realise you have so much to do before going away. What's changed in the last years is the difficulty in getting resident priest cover, but that has all fallen into place, thank God. 
Now in recent years I've got used to a kind of 3 part holiday - pilgrimage/my week/family time.
I've been part of the September Pilgrims group since 1990. When people say to me "Well, that's not really a holiday", well, I say it is. Away from the parish, no phones or doorbells. Yes I am with folks who are largely parishioners but the atmosphere is very different - relaxed, fun and strangely unpredictable. We're off to North Wales on Friday, staying at Llandudno.
Then my "me-week", when I go off entirely on my own. It's such a blessing to just be nobody, for people to not see the dog collar first and to enjoy all that stuff that goes with holiday, getting up when you want, eating where and what you want and so on.  Over the years I've been going to various cities that appeal or that others rave about. After places like Munich, Bruges, Amsterdam, Milan, this year it's Berlin.
Amazingly the best place to fly direct at a reasonable time is good ol' Cardiff!  10am flight - great.
Then, instead of zooming off to stay with my brother or sister for part three, family are coming to me! I'm baptising my first great-nephew, Theo Xavier, which I'm really looking forward to.
In fact, I'm really looking forward to it all. So I better go now and get on with my preparations..

Monday, 28 August 2017

Dear Mrs Fitzpatrick

These are the opening words of a letter to my great-grandmother sent 31st August 1917. Her first husband, and father of her three children, George Goodwin, had drowned in Cardiff’’s East Dock back in 1881 when baby George was 2 and my grandmother not yet 1 year old, and she had remarried a Thomas Fitzpatrick.  The letter continues...

“It is with deep sympathy that I write to tell you of your son’s death, G.Goodwin, 23232. A short time ago he gave up his three stripes at his own request.  Just before he went into the Battle in which he was killed, he came to confession to me, and I gave him Holy Communion, so he went well prepared to meet Our Divine Lord, and I know this will be a great solace to you in your grief.

Always brave and regardless of danger when a stretcher was required to carry a wounded comrade, he immediately volunteered and started to cross to the Aid Post over the ground which was absolutely swept by machine gun bullets.  Thus he was killed by a bullet, and so gave his life for a comrade.

I shall offer Holy Mass for him the first time I have a chance.

     Yours in sincere sympathy

          M. Mac Kenna C.F.[Chaplain to the Forces]”

And so the body of great-uncle George was lost in the mud of Passchendaele, the 3rd Battle of Ypres on 27th August 1917 – 100 years ago today. You may have seen on TV a few weeks ago events to remember this appalling battle which claimed about 500,000 lives from both sides. Some 35,000 bodies of British soldiers, including George, were never found, and are commemorated on a great wall monument at Tyne Cot Cemtery.

These kind of numbers can be just that - figures that numb. George was just one - but he was my great-uncle, and like all those others he was not just 23232, but somebody, an individual with a loving mother and family back here in Cardiff. This Sunday I offered Mass for him, and remembered all those lost in the mud of Flanders. 

Friday, 25 August 2017

To be a pilgrim

September is around the corner, and for me that means it's pilgrimage time. As some will know, I have taken part every year since 1990, give or take a couple of years, in a pilgrimage in September. Israel, Rome, Fatima, Ireland, Poland, Assisi, Loreto etc etc - it's a long list. We strike a balance between the spiritual, focussed on our daily Mass where I try to develop a theme day to day to create a kind of retreat-on-wheels, and the holiday element, taking in all kinds of local sights.As the saying goes, we must be doing something right - we still get close on 40 people wanting to come! 
After 20 years or so of gallivanting (spelling??) around Europe and Israel, we thought last year we had better also check out the UK pilgrims' scene. So we went to Norfolk, visiting obviously the venerable shrine at Walsingham (the Slipper Chapel left), and taking in other experiences such as the church/hermitage of Julian of Norwich, Mass at the University Chaplaincy at Cambridge, and afternoon at Holkham Hall and a few hours at sunny and quaint Wells-next-the-Sea.
So this year - next Friday - we are heading off to North Wales, where Holywell, shrine of St
Winefride (right), is close to Pantasaph, retreat centre of the Capuchin fathers and national shrine of St Pio of Pietralcina, better known as Padre Pio. We will be based at Llandudno, and take in Snowdonia, Anglesey and Portmeirion to the west, and to the east Chester and Liverpool, where I am looking forward to celebrating Mass in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at the Cathedral.
No doubt, as always, the Lord will have some interesting experiences up his divine sleeve. Last year we were not able to have our own opening Mass at Norwich, but joined the parish Mass. I had a quick moan to the Lord, suggesting he find a little spot later in the day for us to mark the beginning of our pilgrimage. When we got to the church of Julian of Norwich (left) in the afternoon, lo and behold, it was completely empty. I was able to speak, and we were able to reflect and pray, setting the scene for the days ahead, helped by some of her thoughts.
God is good - or as Julian would say "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Musical morsels

Hit single of the year, so I gather, is "Despacito" by Puerto Rican Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee later remixed with Justin Bieber no less.  Well I'm more than happy to inform you that curiosity triumphed, and so I became number 501,505,533 to watch it on YouTube.  Half a billion views - absolutely amazing.  Then I discovered that the pre-Bieber original video has amassed, er, 3,333,741,910 - yes three and one third billion views. Apparently tourism to Puerto Rico has rocketed - because of a song! Incidentally, speaking a little Spanish, I can tell you the lyrics get, um, sort of raunchy as they say - amazing what I learned in three months in Spain back in 1971 living with students.  Another century, another life...
Since I was last blogging what have I been listening to?  Well, via their big hit "Pompeii" I got into the band Bastille and their two albums "Bad Blood" and "Wild World", each of which has got a clutch of excellent songs.  Jack Savoretti's "Written in Scars" (live here) caught my attention as did James Bay's "Hold Back the River" with its universal feeling of wanting to stop time.  Christine and the Queens and their strangely beautiful video to "Tilted" is very unusual, as was Rag'n'Bone Man's "I'm Only Human", which made into a sermon one Sunday. Then via the film "The Way" whose soundtrack includes Alanis Morissette's song "Thank U" (nice unplugged version here), I've been listening to some of her stuff - only about 20 years late! 
On Youtube I recently bumped into a big American percussion-based band called Stikyard (right).
A dozen or so young guys bashing their drums and stuff for the Lord, they are Christian in origin, it seems they also perform at "secular" gigs. Their version of "Then Sings My Soul" is pretty amazing - best played loud! On the classical front I seemed to reach a plateau a few years back, and have  a huge store of CDs covering a wide spread. Lastly, the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper's got me dusting that down and rediscovering it. I remember well it coming out, learning it as fast as I could, every word, and singing it with my friends. Hard to imagine nowadays one band or singer dominating the scene as the Beatles did. If you hadn't learned the words, you were nobody...  There was some kind of simplicity about it, and, despite the hints of drugs etc etc there was a deep humanity and goodness.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Cardiff Now and Then...

Regulars may remember that two of my interests are my own family history and the history of my home city of Cardiff.  I actually have over 3,500 people on my family tree - as in "get a life". A great resource for things Cardiffian is "Cardiff Now and Then".  
This is a group on Facebook, and I can really recommend it to anyone with an interest in Cardiff both present and past. Like all groups there, once you have joined you can post anything to do with the city, see what everyone else has put on - and, sometimes the most interesting part of all - read the comments, which sometimes run into dozens, as folks share their stories and views.
Some of the most fascinating and thought-provoking pictures are of the poorer parts of Cardiff. Special mention must be made of the "courts" - tiny cramped collections of humble homes squeezed in between the main streets like St Mary Street and the Hayes. My great grandparents lived in Giles Court at one point. Historians estimate that there were over 50 such courts scattered through what is now the city centre, but only one or two survive, including Jones Court off Womanby Street near the Castle, now turned into comfortable office spaces.  According to Wikipedia "Each of the original 50 houses had just two rooms, and with no water supply or drainage, the occupants fared poorly in the cholera outbreak in the city in 1849." Many of these courts would have been populated by the Irish brought in or washed up to build the docks etc as Cardiff exploded in population in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Landore Court, further south, off St Mary Street and long gone, has become rather famous - or infamous - because of a couple of photos of it which survive, and surface from time to time on "Cardiff Now and Then". These seem to capture the scene very well, and remind us of what went into, and was the cost of, the foundations of modern Cardiff.  I'll leave you with them...

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Anxious August

A levels results day - I can just about remember it, back in 1968. Looking at the evening news today, some of the young people were lamenting how hard it is that the system is going back in the direction of everything depending on a final exam.  This was always the case back in them there days of course. One girl was expressing her difficulty in remembering stuff she had learned at the beginning of Yr 12  (lower sixth OK?).  Bless...  What about all the stuff you have to learn throughout life?...
Anyway... I was the last year of the 11-plus, 1964 in Cardiff. Our headmaster at St Illtyd's, Br Claude, was out of step with the incoming tide of comprehensive education - he had enabled the brightest stream in our school to do O-levels (sort of GCSEs - keep up there) a year earlier. So that meant you did A-levels early too, in turn meaning that if you wanted to take a shot at the Oxbridge entrance exams at the Christmas
afterwards, you could, and still not lose a year.  Now that was a killer week of exams - I did them in French and Spanish, three hours each morning and afternoon  Monday to Wednesday in one week, with a final one of Friday. I remember dragging myself up the school drive on the Friday at 4.30 or something, after everyone else had gone. I was relieved, of course, but suddenly realised this was also my last day in school, a dramatic moment. 
I can remember the day just around Christmas that the vital letter from Downing College, Cambridge (below, my first year room 2 windows immediate top right of portico) plopped through the letter-box. I was still in bed, when Mum or Dad brought it up. I opened it and read the contents - then turned over and stayed in bed a bit longer!  Typical teenager I guess.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

An Assumption album

A little album of shrines of Mary I have visited,  in no particular order...

Our Lady of Sorrows, patroness of Granada, Spain

Our Lady of Chartres, France 

Our Lady of Czestochowa, Patroness of Poland 

Our Lady of Fatima, Portugal 

Our Lady of Knock, Ireland 

Our Lady of Loreto, in the Holy House, Italy 


Our Lady of Lourdes,  France 

Our Lady "La Macarena", Seville, Spain


Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Rue du Bac, Paris

Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth

Our Lady of Penrhys, Rhondda, Wales

Our Lady of Pontmain, Normandy,  France

Our Lady of the Rocks, Kotor, Montenegro

Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani,   Rome

Our Lady of the Taper,  Cardigan, Wales

Our Lady of Walsingham, England 

Our Lady of Montserrat,  Catalonia, Spain 

House of Mary, Ephesus, Turkey


Our Lady of Good Counsel, Genazzano, Italy

Our Lady of Perpetual Help or Succour,  Rome 

Our Lady of Medjugorje, Herzegovina 

Our Lady at the Gates of Dawn, Vilnius,  Lithuania

Notre-Dame-du-Cap,  Our Lady of the Cape,  Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, Canada 

On The Way again

Flicking through i-Player I noticed that they had the film "The Way" from 2010. I've seen it before and we also showed it at one of our film nights in St Brigid's.  I like it a lot, and so I sat down to watch it again. It sort of creeps up on you, like the characters in the film creep up on each other. 
Martin Sheen (left) plays a California ophthalmologist whose son dies following the Camino to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. He decides to complete his son's journey carrying his ashes. The film was written, produced and directed by Sheen's real life son Emilio Estevez, who also plays the son in the film.
On one level not much happens, but on another it all happens, as Sheen and three fellow pilgrims (right) slowly open up to each other as they walk along, each with several layers of reasons why they are making the pilgrimage. There are several very funny and many very moving moments, including of course their arrival at the doors of the cathedral-shrine of St James at Santiago.
This evening we had the pre-journey meeting for our 2017 September Pilgrimage that I have been involved with since 1990. Why do I go?  Why does a pilgrimage work?  Journeys, both outer and inner, sharing, good company, a kind of trip up from ordinary life to Mt Tabor for a temporary parting of the curtains? I don't really know - the understanding is in the doing, and many have come sceptical, dismissing a pilgrimage as somehow old hat or superstitious. Only to find - what? Peace, relaxation, a deeper spirit, themselves... 
Never dismiss pilgrimages if you have never been on one - 2000 years of Christianity and centuries of such journeys in other faiths before, can't all be wrong.

Below - Mass at the cave-house of the Annunciation, Nazareth 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

His storm as well as ours

In the Gospel today Jesus walks out across the water when he sees that the apostles are struggling in  a storm on the Sea of Galilee. However, the story takes on more depth when we remember what happens immediately before in St Matthew's gospel.  Jesus had just heard the news of John the Baptist's tragic death - John his relative, who had baptised him, who had pointed him out as the Lamb of God, who had handed his two disciples over to him, etc etc.
I think we sometimes underestimate the humanity of Jesus in our desire to remember his divinity. This bereavement must have been profound, so we are not surprised to find Jesus wanting to be on his own. But the crowds follow him, and this leads to him preachng to them and then feeding the 5,000+ who have gathered. Eventually, the crowd disperses and he and the disciples are left alone. This is where our Gospel starts, and we find him taking a second attempt at getting time on his own, as he sends the apostles off over the lake. 
So, Jesus takes several hours alone - or not alone, as this is time for communion with his Father in prayer. We shouldn't assume that all this was made oh-so-easy because "he is God after all". He was "like us in all things but sin" a prayer says. This wasn't part of the path laid out he may well have been thinking - why? why?  That's what we ask when faced with such tragedy. 
Perhaps it's after regaining  his composure after his emotional storm that he sees that it is now the apostles  - us - who are panicking in a storm. So he hastens to them taking the direct route across the water. I notice then that he doesn't wait to arrive at the boat and calm everything as he did on another occasion. Instead, he invites Peter out on to the stormy waters of life. Most often God does not take away our storms, especially not the man-made ones. By inviting Peter to join him, he tells us that we can do it - we can walk across the waters of life. We can do it as long as we keep our eyes on him. And even if we can't, he is there to hold us as he did Peter.
I think this had a huge impact on Peter. When he and John heal the cripple after Pentecost, Peter helps him up, perhaps holding him fast, just as Jesus had held him on that day when the storm blew and he, a fisherman from Galilee, walked on water.

Friday, 11 August 2017

A glimpse of the 13th century

It's St Clare's feast today. Hard to imagine church life without the many women's religious orders out in the world, teaching, nursing, in parish ministry etc.  None of this was really possible in Clare's time, the early 13th century.  So when she was inspired by the ten years older St Francis, perhaps wanting to be out in the community like him, she couldn't.  Instead, Francis gave her the chapel of San Damiano, on the slope below his beloved Assisi, where Francis heard the Lord speak to him from the Crucifix. This would become her home, from which the Poor Clares spread out across Christendom.
San Damiano is still one of the places we can get a flavour of that first Franciscan simplicity. The small chapel (right), where a replica of the Crucifix hangs, the refectory, or dining room (below right) where her place is marked always by a bowl of flowers, the small balcony garden she tended, the dormitory (left) in whose corner she slept. These are all imbued with her spirit. 
Lastly I can't show San Damiano without Francis himself. The last picture is the modern statue of Francis sat in the fields around San Damiano, watching and meditating. He is looking out over the Umbrian plains to the hills.  Who knows, maybe he is looking out to Cardiff where his followers, called the Grey Friars in Britain, would soon reach and settle in the spot now commemorated in two street names, Greyfriars Road and the Friary. I can remember the ruins of the house built by the Herbert family on the site of, and out of the stones of, the Franciscan friary. 
I have been to Assisi many times, both on day trips from Rome and to stay, on pilgrimages. It is amazing how it manages to absorb large numbers of visitors yet still preserve that calm. If you haven't been, make every effort...

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Of roods and foods

As it's the relatively quiet time of August - schools out, parishioners on holiday - I thought I might give the old blog a whirl.  Talking of August, I was really glad of the lovely weather today as I had arranged to go on a  small "church crawl" with a friend who is equally, if more knowledgeably, interested in old churches and cathedrals.
We set off for the Usk area of Monmouthshire, and first call was the tiny church of Bettws Newydd. Plain on the outside, nevertheless I fell in love with the place even before going in, as the path to the church passes under an absolutely enormous yew tree. Noone knows how old it is - 500 or 1,000 or even 2,000 years. A new trunk has grown up inside the old one which has decayed into fantastical shapes.
Once inside the church, the main reason for visiting spreads itself across the width of the church. A rood-screen complete from about 1500 except for the actual figures of the Crucifixion. The books say this makes it unique in Wales and England. The oak was dark, the air was still except for someone mowing the grass in the churchyard. The holiness hung in the air...
But soon it was time for food as well as roods. I was treated to lunch at The Hardwick, led by top chef Stephen Terry (below), it is one of Wales' top restaurants, outside Abergavenny  on the old A40 to Monmouth. Yum! I fancied pork belly and black pudding as per menu: "Deep Fried Pork Belly & Black Pudding, Pickled White Cabbage, Apple & Mustard Sauce" The waiter helpfully warned me not to expect a slab of meat and pile of black pudding. Instead these would be thinly layered and fried in a very thin sort of batter.  I went for it... helped by a glass of Rioja. Having skipped a starter I felt entitled to a dessert : "Valrhona Chocolate Mousse, Honeycombe & Salted Caramel". Oooooh boy. Fr M approves big-time.
Time to get back to roods after foods. Somehow we found our way to nearby Llangwm Uchaf, lost down another country lane - possibly the reason why this and Bettws Newydd escaped the ravages of the Reformation. Not quite as captivating as Bettws Newydd in my opinion, nevertheless we were treated yto more wonderful carving from that period when some historians would tell us that the Catholic Church was full of corruption etc.  There is nothing corrupt about these rood screens that have come down to us  beauty hidden down Monmouthshire country lanes. Take a look if you want a different day out.