A few weeks ago I heard a bishop’s letter describing how people have not returned to Mass since the end of the pandemic. We can all think of reasons why this should be, but should I stay or should I go? Despite all, I stay, even if my feelings of exasperation are not infrequent. But read on; there are good reasons to stay on board.
The other day a friend shared these words from a song by Robert Lebel which keeps her steadfast in her mission as a hospital chaplain in these troubled times: ‘How many they are, the blessed, the ones no-one ever talks about … how many they are, these nobodies, these blessed everyday people.’
Yes, there are many women and men who help us to believe that Christ has not abandoned his Church. Let us not leave them to fall by giving in to the temptation to abandon ship during the storm. To do that would be to abandon the poor as well.
Dominique Greiner, Croire-La Croix, 12 November 2022
You can find the text of the song in French, and a YouTube recording here.
Image from Saint David’s Cathedral.
Faith is never about myself alone, but about those around us:
Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Matthew 25:44
At New Year 1873, William Allingham, the Irish Poet, was in London and called on his Scottish friend Thomas Carlyle, as he told his diary.
London, January 1, 1873. — Carlyle’s at 3. He gives me a book. We walk out.
This morning he said, ‘ after midnight, as Mary and I were sitting together, we heard a chorus of male voices outside the window singing Auld Lang Syne. We peeped out, and saw five or six figures on the other side of the street. I was really touched. I put up the window and said ” Good-night ! ” one of them eagerly replied ” Good-night ! ” and then they all vanished silently away.’
Then with a laugh he added, ‘ Truly the songs of Judah in a Babylonish land ‘ ! and afterwards quoted Burns’s burlesque lines : — We hung our fiddles up to dreep*. He spoke of ‘Hogmanay ‘ in the streets of Edinburgh, hot punch and kissing.
*Nae mair by Babel's streams we'll weep,
To think upon our Zion;
And hang our fiddles up to dreep,
Like baby-clouts a-drying:
Come, screw the pegs wi' tuneful cheep,
And o'er the thairms by trying;
Oh rare! To see our elbucks wheep,
And a' like lambs' tails flyin'
Fu' fast this day!
In Psalm 137 the poet sings of the people of Israel refusing to sing in exile, instead hanging their musical instruments on the willows beside the rivers of Babylon. This willow was just coming into leaf in Spring. Carlyle was not a conventional Christian believer, more of a life-long enquirer, but he enjoyed the tribute of being serenaded with song from the first-footers – who vanished silently away rather than expect their dram of whisky. Hogmanay seems to have been carnival time in Edinburgh 200 years ago, when Carlyle was a young man there.
Burns was not the man to indulge for long in melancholic reflection; rather he looked forward to the fiddlers’ elbows whipping the strings and getting people to dance. Perhaps the exiles’ songs of Judah contributed greatly to the fellowship, friendship and community of the Chosen People.
It’s the feast of the Holy Innocents, when we recall King Herod slaughtering the infants of Bethlehem in case they were a threat to him. I hope readers do not see any disrespect in our sharing Eddie Gilmore’s post about the power of music to stimulate people with dementia, but many of them are as dependent on others’ care as a new born baby is. One friend forgets she has had breakfast soon after the meal; she needs someone to make sure she gets enough to eat.
All manner of capacities can be diminished in dementia. Unavoidably at times, people switch off from their surroundings. Due to covid, stimulation from outside had diminished and Eddie found it hard graft to win over his captive audience. But he persevered.
Eddie does not draw a moral from the tale but you may find one yourself. Here follows a short passage, and here’s the link for the full article.
I tried a couple of livelier numbers and slowly but surely I started to get a reaction from the audience and some of the staff were also getting animated. Several people sang along to the chorus of Molly Malone, and when I launched into It’s a Long Way to Tipperary in honour of Delores it didn’t exactly bring the house down but it wasn’t too far off. At one point a young doctor apologised to me that she would have to be taking some people out one by one to take their blood! ‘Don’t worry, I’ve had far worse distractions when I’ve been playing,’ I assured her. You just have to keep going!
Keep going I did, and I noticed that one or two other staff members had crept into the room and were clearly enjoying what was happening. And I noticed that some of the residents, who had appeared almost lifeless at the start, were now moving their bodies in time to the music. I did a couple of ‘favourites’. For Ann, the Irish member of staff who organises the session, I sang The Fields of Athenry. And I did When you were sweet sixteen which is the favourite song of my wife, Yim Soon and also much-loved by my mum. And in honour of my mum, a Newry girl, I did ‘The Star of the County Down’.
I invited requests from the floor and there was one for The Belle of Belfast City which I happily launched into. Then a carer from Greece asked if I knew any songs from Mayo! Luckily I did, although I needed her to bring up on her phone the lyrics to Take me back to Castlebar. After that, someone reminded me that the favourite of Martin, a Cork man sadly no longer there, was Wild Rover. I finished with that, and that one really did bring the house down! By that time, even the Dublin lady was wide awake with a broad smile and with her face shining.
What made me think of carol singing in the run-up to Christmas? Whatever it was, my thoughts turned to Ireland in 1968 when I was a student at the Missionaries of Africa’s Saint Augustine’s College in Blacklion, Co Cavan and we continued the tradition of walking the local lanes and the village streets, calling at every house, including the Protestant pastor’s down by the lake.
Away from the village, Blacklion had many small farms with big dogs; there were dark skies and hedges to darken the way further, but we went everywhere and no-one got bitten. We had a couple of good farm lanterns but others were candle ends in jars, slung at the tops of poles. It was a challenge to read the words on the sheets, but we knew all of them and often enough in four voices.
Patricia Hawkins de Medina was living in the village;
My father, Dr. William Hawkins, was medical officer for St. Augustine’s in Blacklion, all those years ago. I have fond memories of attending some of the Christmas pantomimes as a child way back then, and I can remember many of the Fathers. And the students carol-singing at Christmas in the village, and all coming into the hall of our house in Blacklion. So many memories.*
We were creating memories for ourselves as well as the villagers. We were bearing witness to the coming of the Lord, both to our neighbours and to ourselves, as a community of committed young men. But this witnessing brought us face to face with the local families, good, hard-working, struggling people as well as those who were better-off, like the Hawkins family. It is good to be told how special it was to have a male voice choir singing under Patricia’s roof well after bedtime.
Not quite a band of Angels, but we were proclaiming peace on Earth, a grace that certain people in Ireland turned their backs on for years, as they still do in so many parts of the world.
We enjoyed our carol singing, and so did our audience: feasts are given to us to enjoy. Let us not yield to cynicism this Christmas, but pray for peace in our land and peace within our homes and families. Amen.
Many readers of this blog will recognise the name Eddie Gilmore. We’ve shared a number of his blog posts for the London Irish chaplaincy and it’s good to have a selection of them gathered together in this book, Looking Ahead with Hope.
It’s a teasing title. No human can look ahead without looking back; try it sometime. The important thing is to believe that we – and more to the point, God – can build on the past. If that’s going to happen we need to get down to the bedrock of grace at work in our lives.
That grace often manifests itself in Eddie’s life in the form of music: singing at his mother’s 90th birthday party or a L’Arche retreat in the French Alps – Eddie was with L’Arche before joining the chaplaincy, the lack of singing as church congregations returned as covid retreated.
Eddie revisits those lock-down days, learning to live with people for 24 hours a day, long walks with family members, open-air conversations with passing acquaintances, the pluses and minuses of communicating by Zoom. We got through, but looking ahead, what have we learnt?
There could have been no singing and no party for his mum’s birthday in lockdown time, which put a stop to many of the chaplaincy’s ministries. Music was important in prison ministries too. The old, well-known songs awoke something in the hearts of the captive audience members, giving hope of another life outside prison. Special food on days the chaplaincy team were able to gather people together: it was in HMP Chelmsford that Eddie learnt to enjoy bacon cabbage and potatoes! There, too, Eddie reflected, that ‘for a couple of hours we’d been fellow human beings, enjoying good food and music, and one another’s company.’ And the musicians were changed by the experience (p73).
This book will inspire you to look ahead with hope, because Eddie Gilmore knows how to look back in gratitude. A Christmas present that somebody you know will be grateful for.
Looking Ahead with Hope, Eddie Gilmore, DLT, £9.99. See the DLT site, where there was a good discount offer as we went to press.
I went back to the University of Kent last Sunday to celebrate a requiem for Fr Tom with the students. There was a good attendance and we sang ‘Amazing Grace’ – one of Tom’s favourites.
I announced the details of the funeral Mass and I think some students will attend. Unfortunately I am committed to celebrating at Southwark Cathedral that morning.
I will, though, be present for The Reception the previous night.
Fr Peter Geldard, University of Kent Catholic Chaplain, 1996-2018
Today’s extract from the Wisdom of Fr Tom is from two years ago in Advent. The previous day’s posting had been about arrangements for Advent and Christmas in Local Anglican parishes, where, when and how to hear the Word – and of course, the carols, which were recorded elsewhere before lockdown. Lord that I may see!
Tree of Life window, former Franciscan International Study Centre, Canterbury, which was also the meeting place for Kent University Catholic Chaplaincy.
Yesterday was about hearing, today we are seeing hopefully. Or should I say seeing, hopefully. I’m not talking about taking note of the raindrops and kittens that we see, but about the sense of sight.
I’ve been blessed lately with two cataract operations, and sight is suddenly not to be taken for granted. Suddenly, all is Technicolor, or as my friend Winfried would have argued, Agfacolor. He favoured the German films and prints; we disagreed about the red end of the spectrum.
Seeing hopefully: this new lease of life for my eyes inspires hope. Not quite Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord, but a promise that if human co-operation with creation through science can enlighten my little world, there may be better things to come.
Winfried told me that the German for a cataract in the eye translates as grey star; not a star you would want to follow.
So, I told Fr Tom Herbst (TJH in Agnellus’ Mirror) as well, soon after the first op when one eye was still under the grey star. ‘I imagine’, he said, ‘you can well relate to the ecstasy felt by the blind folks healed by Jesus!!!’
I didn’t need him to point that out, but I was glad he did. I offered this progress report: ‘Till the second eye is done it’s a mixture of ecstasy and ‘I see trees walking’. (Mark 8:24) I hope by next week the eyes will be co-ordinating freely and I’ll recognise more people!’
Tom replied, ‘Good luck with the op. As marvellous as it might be to see trees walking (other than Ents, of course, which are not technically trees), it seems recognition might be the better choice!’
Pray that we may recognise the star we are called to follow this Advent and Christmas. It may all be a little different this year!
I wanted to share this section of it after yesterday’s visit to Korea and the ladies with Down’s syndrome who attended Mass by down-streaming. They still expressed their faith and devotion, most eloquently at Communion time.
What is a Down’s person worth in your view?
Some years ago I had the privilege of singing in a production of Handel’s Messiah. An alto in the choir had a son with Down’s, called Felix. Felix came to every rehearsal. Standing behind the conductor, he co-conducted vigorously. When the music was sad, he wept. When it was joyful, he was radiant. After the performance, he gave a noble speech to the choir, whom he addressed as his friends. I dare say each of us thereby felt ennobled.
I got to know Felix only slightly. Still I can say: he impressed me, taught me important lessons. The thought of Felix (whose name means ‘happy’) gives me joy. There are countries now, in the Western world, that no longer register any births of children with Down’s. This is presented as scientific progress. The Felixes of this world are unwanted, deemed encumbrances. Euthanasia, likewise, is spreading from country to country, advertised as a human right. Yet wherever euthanasia is available as choice, involuntary euthanasia is soon being practised. Underneath a surface of what can seem like impenetrable bureaucratic discourse, an existential combat is taking place.
Faced with such sinister developments, we have work to do. The pursuit of humility is not just a matter of devotion; it is about upholding the dignity of all human life, recognising ourselves among the weak and outcast, standing up for table fellowship. To be humble on these terms is not to be meek and mild; it requires courage, strength, and perseverance in the face of hostile opposition. We are to rise to this summons, strengthened by the food of immortality. May we not be found unworthy of Christ’s example and sacrifice.
Once again the friars are at a loss what to make of Francis in the face of his suffering and imminent death. Not everyone sings songs of praise on their deathbed, but we might if we were assured of eternal life within a few days. Firstly, a few words about another witness to the stigmata; we will meet Madonna Jacopa again later.
Madonna Jacopa di Settensoli of Rome, who was the greatest lady of her time in Rome and was most devoted to Saint Francis, saw them before he died, and, after his death, saw and kissed them many times with great reverence; for she came from Rome to Assisi, by Divine revelation, to the death-bed of Saint Francis; and her coming was after this manner.
For some days before his death, Saint Francis lay sick at Assisi in the palace of the Bishop, with some of his companions; and, notwithstanding his sickness, he often sang certain lauds of Christ. One day, one of his companions said unto him: “Father, thou knowest that these citizens have great faith in thee, and hold thee for a saintly man, and therefore they may think that, if thou art that which that they believe thee to be, thou shouldest, in this thine infirmity, think upon thy death, and rather weep than sing, in that thou art so exceeding sick; and know that thy singing and ours, which thou makest us to sing, is heard of many, both within and without the palace; for this palace is guarded on thy account by many armed men, who perchance may take bad ensample therefrom. Wherefore I believe (said this friar) that thou wouldest do well to depart hence, and that we should all of us return to Santa Maria degli Angeli; for this is no place for us, among seculars.”
Saint Francis answered him: “Dearest friar, thou knowest that two years ago, when we abode at Foligno, God revealed unto thee the term of my life; and in like manner also He revealed unto me that, a few days hence, the said term shall end, in this sickness; and in that revelation God made me certain of the remission of all my sins, and of the bliss of paradise.
“Until I had that revelation I bewailed death and my sins; but, since I have had that revelation, I am so full of gladness that I can weep no more; and therefore do I sing, yea, and will sing unto God, who hath given me the blessing of His grace and hath made me sure of the blessings of the glory of paradise. As touching our departure hence, I consent thereunto and it pleaseth me; but do ye find means to carry me, because, by reason of mine infirmity, I cannot walk.”
July 4 creeps in as fast as any other day of the year. What can an Englishman say about it and not appear ignorant or patronising?
I’ve been saving this poem by America’s Emily Dickinson for a suitable occasion. Perhaps we need hope on both sides of the Atlantic? It can be ours, if we listen for the tune without words; too many hasty, unreflective words have been spoken of late, threatening unity rather than building it up. Let us pray for unity as we listen to the Spirit within.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I 've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
A little while ago on BBC Radio the composer, Sir James MacMillan, was discussing Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, based on Saint John Henry Newman’s poem. In his exploration of the oratorio he recalled his experiences as a young altar server, experiences I could share. Gerontius, he said, lays out the Catholic attitude to death and the world to come in ‘most beautiful music’.
He and I, in Scotland and England, served at funerals where there were many mourners, and in a few cases where there were one or two, even none; so many of our fellow Catholics then had left home and family to come to the United Kingdom. (Thank God for today’s regular parish midday Mass in Canterbury, where there is always a good-sized congregation to support the bereaved!)
Most of the people Sir James and I helped to bury would have been hurt by the Second World War, and knew suffering and death intimately. Loss of faith and friends, great sorrow, compounded in this new bereavement. The First World War had undermined Elgar’s faith, said MacMillan, yet he still composed this searingly beautiful music, giving form to the feelings of mourners.
Children had been more aware of death, even in the 1950s and 1960s. I can see myself, holding the processional cross beside an open grave, as a red-headed Irishman, tears streaming down his face, laid to rest the tiny coffin of his twin babies.
It’s no use saying I should have been protected, prevented from witnessing that. I disagree: I am sure Fr MacDermott was wise to ask me to serve, to represent the Church, the body of the second Adam, the Crucified whose image I was carrying. Far rather having to cope with that intimate vision than the callous slaughter of the innocent of Ukraine.
The hymn ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ is taken from the Dream of Gerontius; the oratorio can be found on Youtube.
1 Praise to the Holiest in the height, and in the depth be praise: in all his words most wonderful, most sure in all his ways.
2 O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame, a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.
3 O wisest love! that flesh and blood, which did in Adam fail, should strive afresh against the foe, should strive and should prevail;
4 And that a higher gift than grace should flesh and blood refine, God’s presence and his very self, and essence all-divine.
5 O generous love! that he, who smote in Man for man the foe, the double agony in Man for man should undergo;
6 And in the garden secretly, and on the cross on high, should teach his brethren, and inspire to suffer and to die.
7 Praise to the Holiest in the height, and in the depth be praise: in all his words most wonderful, most sure in all his ways.