Gosh! what a busy Sunday! A world day of prayer for vocations, not only that but it is the month of May! The month of Mary! Not many weeks ago, the 29thMarch to be exact, England was rededicated as Mary’s dowry. In a letter written to The Tablet by Mgr John Armitage, [who at the time of its publication was Rector of the National Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, Norfolk] it is with thanks to Richard II that Mary was so honoured. The Monsignor writes that ‘Richard, faced with political turmoil, turned to the one he knew as Mother, seeking her guidance and prayers.’ He must have been a man of great faith, because in thanksgiving for Our Lady’s favour, or future favour, he gave England as the gift, the dowry, as an offering to the Mother of God, petitioning her to protect his subjects.
I must admit, all that I know about Richard II is that he existed! So I ‘looked him up!’ He was born in 1367. His father was Edward, Prince of Wales who died in 1376 leaving Richard, aged 9, as heir apparent to his grandfather King Edward III who was the reigning monarch. However, granddad died the following year 1377, and with Richard being only 10 years old it meant that the country would be run by a series of regency councils influenced by Richards’ uncles John of Gaunt and Thomas of Woodstock. What were the problems young Richard had to face? At home, the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, and on the other side of the channel a continuing scrap with France ultimately called the 100 Years War, which lasted for 116 years! 1337-1453. The 100 Years War was a series of conflicts fought between the House of Plantagenet, rulers of England, and the French House of Valois. Both royal houses disputed the rightful claim to rule the Kingdom of France. Despite intermediate success, the Kingdom of England lost the dispute. For some unknown reason the vision of General de Gaulle flashes before my eyes saying ‘Non, Non, Non!’ to the Plantagenets!
But what was the Peasants’ Revolt all about? Also named Wat Tyler’s rebellion or the Great Rising, it had various causes, including the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death in the 1340’s, the high taxes resulting from the continuing scrap with France, and instability within the local leadership of London, which was the epicentre of the revolt. A certain John Bampton on 30thMay 1381, attempted to collect unpaid poll taxes in Brentwood which ended in a violent confrontation. The confrontation quickly spread across the south-east of the country and very quickly further afield. I quote from the introduction of an article published in the ‘History Today’ magazine which records:
‘Between May and August 1381 England experienced a rebellion of dramatic severity and suddenness. The lower orders rebelled against the lawmaking and landowning classes and the incompetent minority government of the 14 year old Richard II. They murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Treasurer of England, one of the two chief justices of the royal courts, and numerous foreigners, merchants, lawyers and royal servants. Rebels from Essex and Kent invaded London, laid siege to the royal court in the Tower of London, burned down the Palace of Savoy and threatened to lay waste their own capital city. Urban rioting spread from Somerset to Yorkshire. The spirit of rebellion lasted all summer and was recorded with horror by contemporaries, including Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and the chroniclers Thomas Walsingham and Jean Froissart. The revolt set a pattern for popular rebellion that lasted well into the 15th and 16thcenturies – and perhaps lives on to the present day. The Peasants’ Revolt terrified its victims and their kind. This rising of the common people was no political protest. It was a natural disaster.’
No wonder Richard II sought divine help!
To record the ending of the Peasants Revolt, Richard dedicated England to Our Lady in a ceremony in Westminster Abbey on the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1381 as an act of thanksgiving for his kingdom being saved from greater destruction. Richard was deposed in 1399 and was put to death in Pontefract sometime in February the following year, by what means is not known. After a Requiem mass at St Pauls’ Cathedral, the body was obscurely interred at Kings’ Langley. Early in Henry V’s reign, Richard was given honourable burial in the tomb that Henry V had made for himself in Westminster Abbey. After all the mayhem of Richards reign including all the subterfuge and murders, I wonder whether Our Lady thought the dowry was worth having! The phrase ‘not in my name’ springs to mind.
[It’s a period of history that is well worth studying, as historians point to this period as a seed bed of the Wars of the Roses. (1455-1485) Also, Mr Shakespeare had something to say about Richard as well.]
What are my youthful, childlike recollections of devotion to our Blessed Mother? Well, they most certainly include the dedication of England being Our Lady’s Dowry, but not founded on the historical background I have just recounted. I didn’t have the feintest idea of its historical origins and never concerned myself with finding out! My take on it was that if Our Lady thought that England was worth having, then that was a plus for her, added to which that in the post-war ‘40’s, there was a world-wide Rosary Crusade which encouraged families to say the Rosary together. In our family that meant that every evening we knelt in front of the hearth and said the Rosary. I can’t remember how many months [or years!] we continued to pray the rosary as a family, but we children certainly knew what the Rosary was. Other prayers we learnt at mothers’ knee included the Magnificat, the Memorare, the Angelus, the Hail Holy Queen (Salve Regina) Ave Maris Stella and not forgetting Litanies to Our Lady. Mary was everywhere! In our house, the only place the Lord got a look-in was a small statue of the Infant Jesus or Christ Child of Prague, and a coloured picture of the Sacred Heart. Jesus knew his place where his mother was concerned as did we all.
I suppose I should add a few words about Vocations Sunday: In my younger years, and certainly until Vatican II, in the eyes of Holy Mother Church the word vocation translated as a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. Most of us accept – well I certainly do – that during that period of history in the Western World, the word vocation meant precious little else! One could be the Queen of Sheba, but Reverend Mother took precedence. Even the all-powerful Parish Priest knew his place when a fully kitted nun sailed into close proximity. I have never in my life experienced greater reverence than that afforded to a member of the cloth! male or female! I’m not having a ‘dig’ at the cloth. It wasn’t the fault of the men and women who wore the cloth, it was the ‘People of God’ who put them on a pedestal, albeit after decades of encouragement. One of the greatest joys of my life was the first time I heard a priest swear! What a blessed relief that was!
I do not know where the foundation stone of a vocation comes from. It could be a natural predisposition to a way of life such as medical, military, educational, industrial, mechanical, agricultural, theatrical; in fact from any occupation, profession or trade: the list is as long as there are occupations for mankind to attempt, but in my case, it was nothing to do with a specific profession or natural inclination. I‘m gradually coming round to the idea that it was one of culture: the culture of faith: in the home as a child, at school, in marriage.
Throughout my life I have been surrounded by priests and religion, and from my earliest memory our house acted as a hospitality suite [bolt hole] for Forces chaplains, curates who needed to escape from their boss, and priest friends who had known our parents for many years. I remember coming home from school one day and walking into a party of priests enjoying a glass or two in a spontaneous [I’m being diplomatic] afternoon ceilidh in the family home and being accompanied by either my mother or one of the priests on the piano. I don’t know what time it finished, but I suspect it was when all the siblings had gathered and wondered when all the noise would cease. And they say that children are noisy!
So how did I end up in the priesthood? In my case it was a question of timing, whether good or bad is a moot point. I had been widowed for a year and our youngest offspring was completing his last year at university, which meant that I could enjoy being openly irresponsible and continue to develop a character trait which had been pointed out to me since my early years. I was working full time, and could visualise within 10 years or so being free from debt. And then it happened. On the evening of St Patrick’s day in 2000, in St Patrick’s Restaurant in Redfield in Bristol, the Parish Priest, Fr Gregory Grant [now Canon Greg] asked me if I had ever thought of being a priest. To say I was taken aback is an understatement. I think I uttered some gibberish comment and was left reeling by his leaving comment: ‘It’s about time you did something about it!’
My evening was ruined! I shan’t recount the words which were going through my mind as my mother would have boxed my ears -may she rest in peace- but I was not a happy bunny! As in many such disturbing situations I’ve experienced in my life, I thought this one would join the others in the mist of time and fade into history, but Fr Greg is a man of steely determination, and the next evening, which was a Saturday, I was seated at the organ preparing to accompany the congregation at mass when Fr Greg appeared by my side. “Have you applied?” he said. ….. “No I have’n’t ! I replied. There was a stand-off for some seconds, but I felt trapped and it was a cert that he wasn’t going to budge without an answer. ‘He who speaks first loses’ I thought, but then I thought of a way out. “I will apply, but on one condition!” I said …. “you mustn’t tell a soul, not even the family.”
Fr Greg agreed. ‘How do I apply?’ I asked . “Write to the Vocations director and tell him you want to join the ministerial priesthood.” he said. I did write, knowing full well I would be rejected. Six months later I was in Rome preparing to study at The Beda, [Pontificio Collegio Beda]. No one asked me to leave, and four years later, back in Bristol, I was ordained to the ministerial priesthood at St Pat’s in Bristol. [26.06.2004]. For some unknown reason, Bp Declan sent me to Wincanton, for me it couldn’t have been a better appointment, although some parishioners may have other thoughts.
The first letter of St Peter from this weekend’s Liturgy of the Word, whether it was written during his time in Rome or Antioch, is urging the Christian communities in Asia Minor to stand fast in the face of persecution. He tells them that Jesus is calling them to that task. Jesus set the example for them to follow for: “He was insulted and did not retaliate with insults; when he was tortured he made no threats but he put his trust in the righteous judge.” Persecution still continues, and daily, prayers are being offered for the suffering. Practical help is also offered and distributed to those in need. Our joint vocation is to support and protect all God’s people both by prayer and practical means, and with faith in Jesus and trust in divine providence our vocation will be fulfilled.