Gary, The MC and speech-maker
When considering what I would say in proposing this toast, I asked myself – what are the five most important qualities one would expect to see in the ideal parish priest. I hesitate to raise this issue in the presence of so many eminent teaching staff from Oscott; for I fear we may have a difference of opinion. The answer is not to be found in moral or pastoral theology. Nor will it be found in Canon Law. The most important skill a parish priest must learn is making his newsletters and bulletins attractive to read and interesting. Father Allen obviously acquired this skill some years ago as our parish blog and newsletter testify. But let me assure you, Father Allen, that even in the absence of colour and pictures your publications receive close and patient attention.
The notes from the recent parish meeting (available from the back of church) are in humble black and white. On the back is a reflection on the nature of the parish and one particular point struck me forcibly. Quoting our holy father Pope Francis in his work, the Joy of the Gospel, the author says:
“The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration.”
“Dialogue and worship”: Let’s focus first on “dialogue” – what does that include? Does it not include bringing people into full communion with the holy Catholic Church and thus with God? Jean, one of Father’s friends from London, whom I introduced earlier, can testify to that. Jean was received into the Church in North Harrow – Father’s very first parish, the one where he cut his teeth as a newly ordained priest.
She tells me that at the time her friends thought she was mad to sign up to all that Catholic guilt but Father Allen introduced her to:
“a loving God who was there during good times and challenging times but not there to judge”
a teaching which anticipates the emphasis of Pope Francis.
“Dialogue and Worship”: Let us focus next on “worship”. What is the most significant act of worship? The Mass. But if there is no priest there is no Mass and the people of God is starved of this most precious sacrament. So the Silver Jubilee of a priestly ordination is always worthy of celebration: and that is the first reason we have come together to mark this auspicious occasion.
The first reason – but by no means the only one! When scratching his head about how to fill the gap left by Father Van’s departure, the Vicar-General would certainly have been forgiven if he had recommended a reversion to the practice adopted at the very beginnings of the parish: the parish was in the care of the priests at Oscott. Given the choices made amongst our near neighbours, a deacon acting as administrator and priests coming down at the weekend would have been a perfectly reasonable solution. Fortunately for us that option was not taken. We continue to be blessed by having our own resident priest. However, you might have been forgiven, Father Allen, for wondering just what you were letting yourself in for because Father Van was the hardest of hard acts to follow. But the plaque in the Lady Chapel records the many priestly exits and entrances over the history of the parish and it is right, Father Allen, that on behalf of the parish I take this opportunity to say that we are very glad indeed that you are here.
When a new priest arrives there are a number of important initiation ceremonies to perform. You will recall being given a book on how to speak Brummie. You will recall my explaining in very extensive detail how in this part of the world you should be supporting Aston Villa-incidentally divine intervention at the minute would not go amiss if you could see you way clear to a bit of intercession. You had your first ever Mass of Installation after which the Rubicon was crossed. But the sign that you really have arrived is that Tony Sawbridge has painted your portrait. For decades now it has been said of Tony that he is not just a pretty face but also a musician of note and a talented artist. And here, Father Allen, we have proof positive of that fact so I shall pause at this moment and ask you, please, officially to unveil Tony’s painting of you.
We are to some extent still getting to know Father Allen. He has, after all, been with us for less than a year. Nevertheless, we do have some means of identifying parts of the jigsaw. We can look for clues in Tony’s observation as revealed by this portrait. We can, by subtle cross-examination, gently draw from our invited guests suitable reminiscences.
I have one such here from Sister Brigid, another of Father’s friends from London, whom I introduced earlier. Speaking of Father’s time in St. John’s Wood where he ministered for 8 years before coming to us, she writes:
“When Father Allen came to us in 2007, the church was about to be restored. So he had the daunting task of masterminding that project. Despite it being very costly, he got it done without having to borrow any money from the diocese and now we have a beautiful church. To mention but a few of the initiatives he started, there was a Dads’ Group which was a wonderful success and was flourishing by the time he left; he wrote booklets on the sacraments for the CTS; he organised all-night vigils and prayer sessions for the Toddlers’ Group which were very popular. He was always very welcoming to any visitors to the presbytery and always made them very much at home.”
We might all like a reference such as that when taking up a new job. Over and above the portrait and those comments, we can draw conclusions from the work Father Allen has done to date and at the risk of making this sound like a half term report it is worth just talking a moment to recognise what has already been accomplished in so short a time: just to name a few of his initiatives to show the range of his energy and imagination-the blessing of pets; the greater visibility at Mass of those preparing for the sacraments; the night shelter; support groups for mums and dads; bible study groups and vespers.
We can, in the years ahead, expect an ever more lively communion within the parish and an ever more active mission from the parish, each being necessary for the effective building up of the Kingdom of God.
So, Father Allen, in proposing this toast to you, our overwhelming sentiment is one of joyful thanksgiving-joy at your fidelity to your ordination vows; thanks not only on our own behalf but also on behalf of all those others whom you have served over the last two and a half decades of your priestly ministry.
- on behalf of the parish of North Harrow joyful thanks;
- on behalf of the staff and students of Allen Hall where you taught for 5 years: joyful thanks;
- on behalf of the parish of Shepherd’s Bush: joyful thanks;
- for your service at the Liturgy Office: joyful thanks;
- on behalf of the parish of St. John’s Wood: joyful thanks;
- for your presence amongst us now: joyful thanks.
But above all joyful thanks that when God called you, you replied by saying “behold the servant of the Lord be it unto me according to thy word”.
As a token of that joyful thanksgiving, we have a gift for you but before Angela presents it to you on our behalf, we must raise our glasses in your honour.
My friends, the toast is: “Father Allen-health and happiness.”