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Letters from Fr John

14 January

Dear Friends

We seem to be caught in the middle of a ‘triple whammy’ at the moment. Firstly, the pandemic seems to have reached its worst point, judging by the virtual closure of whole societies across the globe. Secondly, the news media are producing almost exclusively bad and disturbing news, whether about the impact of the pandemic, the economy or the political crisis in the United States. Thirdly, the weather is simply miserable. 

In more normal times, we might have some better news, greater freedoms and more resilience. But not now. So are we condemned to another miserable year of uncertainty, which takes away the little resilience we have left? Are there any bright spots?

Well, the first bright spot is the vaccine. Despite the best efforts of news outlets to tell us of yet another variant of the virus that has been thrown into the mix, the number of people being vaccinated is steadily growing. Quite apart from the near miracle of developing a vaccine in such a short time, we can watch with gratitude as it begins to make an impact. A greater bright spot is surely history itself. It teaches us that crises come and go. This one will be no different. Seeing the bigger picture is always better and more helpful for us.

But we need more. Big pictures, history and vaccines are reassuring, but we need something more concrete to hold on to day to day. Each of us is aware that we occupy only a small space in this big world. We feel our vulnerability more in the frightening events that are taking place around us. Not only that, but this crisis has had a very real impact on our mental health, on our coping strategies. There are some who felt fragile before the pandemic, and others have been shocked by the realisation that they are not as strong or resilient as they thought. The grand total of all these elements is fear. And let us be clear. Fear is our enemy. 

How do we begin to recover some control and bring some stability to our lives? We can only begin in the here and now. Today. When we think about it, we find it difficult to live in the here and now. Just take a look at the questions that are taking up space in our minds; where is this all going? What will tomorrow bring? Will any of the things I enjoyed and loved return? Will I survive this? What will happen to my loved ones? Crucial questions, but no answers. No answers are possible. But the questions intensify and begin to make us more anxious. 

It has been said that the past is gone and has been committed to the mercy of God, that the future is not yet here and cannot be known. We only have today. So let us begin here. How am I going to use this day, how am I going to live it? Do we have a daily routine that brings a little reassurance? A time for getting up, a time to eat, a time for a little exercise, a time to call friends? Do we have some flexibility in our day to do something different, calling someone we haven’t spoken to for a long time, reading something different? If we are unable to leave the house, is there a little job I can do to improve my home, or sorting through papers, photos, memorabilia. There is always something. Can I control the amount of media information coming into my home? Despite my curiosity, can I limit the TV a little in the day and give myself some breathing space?

Then there is the larger frame that we fit our daily routine into, that holds it together. For us as Christians, it is the presence of the God who became flesh which is our daily reference point. His presence touches even the most menial and ordinary everyday tasks. There is no part of our daily life in which we cannot find Him. When we think of how often we look forward to our conversations with close friends, to sharing information and all our joys and sorrows, of how often we just want to hear their voice and be reassured. It is no different in our relationship with our Heavenly Father. Our daily conversations with Him should bring us the same joy and uplift, the same reassurance. The more ordinary the conversation with Him, the better. It is a conversation that brings warmth and encouragement, a sense of being cared for and loved, of being safe and less vulnerable. He wants to reassure us, not once but many times, that we rest in the palm of His hand, and that He will never walk away from us or abandon us. He is with us until the end.

We now have a vaccine against the coronavirus. Now we need an antidote, a vaccine against our fear, our anxiety and vulnerability. Participating in our live streamed Masses, listening carefully to the word of God, spending time in conversation with Him, arranging our day, reaching out to friends, calling those who need to hear a friendly voice, limiting the volume of bad news coming into our homes, taking one day at a time, thanking God for the blessings we still enjoy. All of these things build up our immunity to fear and despair, and open the way for peace and light. 

So in the days that lie ahead, let us embrace the ‘one day at a time’ mindset. Leaving the past where it belongs. Not trying to guess the future. Just today. That is enough and by making space for God in our day, we will surely receive that warmth of love and reassurance that all of us need so much at this time.

May God bless you and your loved ones,

Father John

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Letters from Fr John

10 January

Dear Friends

The news concerning the spread of the virus continues to get worse. The rates of infection here in Formby, according to Government data, is extremely high. We all knew just how contagious this new variant of the virus is, but the rapid spread has surprised us.

I am sure, therefore, that it comes as no surprise that both Our Lady’s church and St Jerome’s church are now closed for communal worship. In his New Year message to his Priests, the Archbishop asked us to take careful note of the deteriorating situation and to consider again the safety of our people and our volunteers. It is clear that the situation will get worse before it gets better. So it could be some weeks before we can reopen.

In the meantime, we shall return to live streamed Masses. I will live stream Mass each Sunday at 10.00am starting this Sunday, and on Wednesdays at 12 Noon. We will review all our electronic resources and outreach to make sure that we offer as much help and encouragement as possible. I will be updating you all in my weekly letter and if there is anything we can do, please let us know.

On a final note, just two requests.. that we pray very much for each other. Also that we don’t forget those most in need of a word of comfort, shopping, a listening ear. Now, more than ever, we need each other to get through this final effort before the vaccine brings us, with God’s help, into a better and brighter time.

May God bless you and your loved ones,

Father John

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Letters from Fr John

8 January

Dear Friends

On Monday night, the Prime Minister announced a third national lockdown with immediate effect. It was widely expected. We have been watching as the new variant of the virus has pushed infections up dramatically and it’s spread has been very rapid.

The updated Government website permitted communal worship to continue, as long as safety protocols were in place and strict social distancing observed. We consulted all our helpers, the Dean and the Archdiocese. A risk assessment was then carried out in Our Lady’s church and St Jerome’s church.

At the end of the Mass I celebrated for the Epiphany at Our Lady’s yesterday, I informed those present that we no longer had the resources necessary to allow people to move in and out of Our Lady’s church safely. Therefore, for the time being, no communal worship will take place at Our Lady’s church. 

The necessary resources for safe movement at St Jeromes church are still in place and therefore I am able to celebrate Mass there on Saturday evening as usual. This is the situation as I write to you this morning, but events seem to be changing rapidly. We received a note from the Archdiocesan Chancellor yesterday to warn us to expect further guidance in what he called ‘a rapidly developing situation’.

This seems an appropriate time to offer sincere thanks on behalf of all of us, to the stewards in both our churches and their co ordinators. Since the churches reopened last July, they have given wonderful service and selfless example to us all. Only because of them has public Mass been possible at all.

From this Sunday, I shall celebrate a live streamed Mass from St Jerome’s at 10.00am. I shall also live stream Mass on Wednesday at 12 Noon. In this way, we can at least remain in communion with one another through the prayer of the Mass.

I shall keep you all updated each week as events move forward. I want to end by asking two things. Firstly, that we pray for each other, for those suffering with the virus in our parish, particularly for the children who are now affected by this new variant. Secondly, I ask that we all stay safe, take care of each other and make one final effort before the vaccine is rolled out and we emerge, please God, from this dark trial.

May God bless you and your loved ones,

Father John

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Letters from Fr John

5 January

‘And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising… The sight of the star filled them with delight’.

Dear Friends,

We come to the great Feast of the Epiphany. This Feast day is Christmas Day in the Churches of the East. Here in the West it has been called ‘Little Christmas’. It is also Twelfth Night, the day upon which all Christmas decorations are traditionally taken down.

But at the heart of this great Feast is the Child of Bethlehem and His mysterious visitors. We will never know for certain who these great men were. We do not even know how many there were, although tradition names three. Our best guess is that they came from Persia and were ‘Magi’, members of a priestly caste who sought wisdom and studied the movement of the stars. They travelled a great distance to find the new born ‘King of the Jews’, following a great star.

I have always been moved by the passage of Scripture above, which speaks of the delight of the Magi when they see the star. They found the Child and fell down before Him in adoration. They finally reached their goal. What does this say to us?

We are reminded often in the prayers and readings of the Mass that we are pilgrims, travellers, journeying to our final destination. We do not fully belong here. Our hearts are reaching out for something else, or someone else. St Augustine puts it perfectly when he writes; ‘ You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you’.

Today’s great Feast reminds us of our goal, our destination ; it is Jesus Himself. His star is guiding us. It is the star of faith. When all is dark, it is the star of faith that shows us the way, that gives light, that assures us we are travelling in the right direction. When we are tired and downcast, fed up or struggling, let us look up; there is the star shining in front of us. The sight of it ‘fills us with delight’. Because it leads us to the same place. To Jesus. There, when we finally see Him face to face, we will fall down before Him and offer Him the poor offering of our lives with all the good and not so good. It is then that we will feel His arms around us, embracing us and drawing us close to Him, His face full of love and tenderness, an embrace that will last for all eternity.

May God bless you!

Father John

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Letters from Fr John

19 December

Dear friends of Our Lady of Compassion Formby,

‘The Lord is near…’

I have been waiting patiently for the weather to improve to catch a glimpse of an extraordinary event in the skies. The planets Jupiter and Saturn are moving to their closest point for hundreds of years. In fact, the last time this phenomenon was clearly visible was 800 years ago! The closest point will be reached on Monday night, just after sunset, low down in the sky to the south west of us. 

People are unsurprisingly talking about another conjunction of planets two thousand years ago. There was apparently a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in 2 BC which was possibly the Star of Bethlehem. In any event, the phenomenon taking place in the skies above us this week is very rare, a once in a lifetime event, and I hope we might be able to catch a glimpse of it.

We would all agree that the year which is passing has been very difficult for us all. We will surely be glad to see the back of it! And yet… the pandemic has been reminding us of some important truths. Among them, we might say; the fragility and preciousness of life, the need to reach out, the care of the most vulnerable, a greater awareness of the environment, gratitude for the smallest gifts. 

But isn’t it true that we have learned to appreciate nature more deeply? Especially in this part of the world where we live. Despite the trials of the human family, the seasons change and nature continues on its course. The sun rises and sets and the stars continue to move in the skies. We are more aware of our smallness than ever. We can readily see God in His handiwork around us. We can perhaps pray more easily as we walk and take in this beauty. But is His beauty to be found a little nearer to home?

As Catholics, we have been formed to focus on the church as our place of prayer, community and worship. Our church life has been disrupted, making us feel that we have been cut adrift, orphaned. Those who have been shielding for many months, or are having to shield and isolate this winter, feel this particularly acutely. What do we do when we cannot get to church, attend Mass, receive the Eucharist?

I think that we have been discovering a deep Christian truth which was lived everywhere in the early years of the church’s history; the church of the home, the domestic church. I am convinced that this is one of the greatest gifts that God is offering us in these days. The church of the home is not an optional extra, not a recent idea or concept. It is baked into the very heart of our faith. Someone recently wrote that the parish church is a ‘church of churches’. That is, a gathering place for all the domestic churches which make up the community.

Let’s think about this for a moment. All of us are formed, nurtured and taught in our homes. The home, the family is absolutely crucial for society. The shape of family life has certainly changed in recent times, but it is love, acceptance and stability that makes a family. And it is here, in the family, that God first appears, reveals Himself. And let us be clear; God is as present in the mess, the sufferings and the challenges of family life, as He is present in the joys and good times. That God accepts us and loves us is something we should learn first at home.

The most crucial church, the most formative church and the most needed church is the family. It is there that we learn that God is present at every moment, in every place. That He waits for us in so many people and situations. The parish church is the place where we go to be fed and nourished by God’s word and the Eucharist, and to be supported and encouraged by our brothers and sisters. But it is the home, the family which is the first focus of our faith, and our prayer. 

‘The Lord is near..’ This is what the Advent prayers and readings are telling us. Can we see Him? Do we sense His presence? Where are we looking? Let us look firstly to our homes, to our families. When the pandemic takes away regular access to our parish church, let us find the Lord at home in our domestic church. Even for those of us who live alone, the Lord is no less present. In the lonely moments, the sleepless nights and the long silences, He whispers to us to open our eye and ears to realise that we are not alone. He is there.

To all our families then, to parents who are making great sacrifices for their children, having to work long hours and struggle with many anxieties, the Lord has made His home with you and will never leave you. He is present in your love, your sacrifices and sufferings. Through these the Lord will give many blessings to you and to your children. He wants you to feel at home with Him, in your little church, your home. If you want to find Him, call out to Him, ask for help and comfort, look no further than your own family, your own home.

To all who are living alone or are shielding and isolating. The days can be long and tedious. We miss our friends and companions, our social events and our days away. Our homes can become oppressive. The Lord is there. A small candle, a bible, even a collection of photos or letters to look back at past blessings. All these speak of God who remains with us and never leaves us. He reassured us that the darkness will pass, light will come and we will experience the joys of friendship again. The place where we live is our home. But it is also our church. God wants to feed and encourage us there as well.

Only a few days remain before the Christmas Feast. Let us use them well. Let us build up and cherish the church of the home, the church of the family. In this way, our parish church will become even more a house of prayer, of encouragement and joy. Above all, our hearts will open wider to receive the One who is coming this Christmas to seek a home with all those who wait for Him and desire to love Him.

May God bless you and your loved ones,

Father John

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Letters from Fr John

4 December

Dear Parishioners of Our Lady of Compassion

Lockdown is over, there is good news about the vaccine and there are just three weeks until Christmas. I hope you have kept safe and well and are now able to plan for the Christmas festivities. Whatever our plans, we are all part of the great Advent season which is now slowly unfolding. 

Stirring words from the Prophet Isaiah, the appearance of John the Baptist who cries out in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’ and the prayers of the Mass that urge us to prepare our hearts. All these words are invitations to make good use of these days; to be prepared to meet Christ in unexpected places. Think of the number of people who walk through our village every day and see the wonderful Advent displays in the shop windows, who then go home with a slightly more open mind or heart.

God truly is a God of surprises. When we think we have seen it all and done it all in our faith life, He surprises us with new possibilities. Nothing major perhaps, nothing dramatic; just something someone says to us, a thought that comes to us on a walk, an idea that excites us, a plan that suddenly comes alive. God is never stale or boring. He is always ready to take us out of the rut, to give us new life.

With these thoughts in our minds, we are facing a Christmas different to any other. This weekend, all the arrangements for our Parish celebration of Christmas will be explained. I will be celebrating four Christmas Masses to make sure as many as possible can come; two on Christmas Eve at 6.00pm and 9.00pm and two on Christmas morning at 9.00am and 11.00am. 

For now, let us be glad that we can gather together for Mass again, listen to the Word and receive the Eucharist. That we can pray together, see each other and receive the Lord’s blessing. For all God’s gifts to us in these days; great, small and unexpected May His Holy Name be praised and glorified!

God bless you all,

Father John

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Letters from Fr John

29 November

Dear Parishioners of the newly established Parish of Our Lady of Compassion

After communicating the Archbishop’s decision to merge our three parishes into a new, single parish, I wanted to write to you all to share some thoughts and offer some words of encouragement.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel when I read the messages to you all from the Archbishop. As the Mass progressed, I felt a heaviness and a sadness at what was happening. That is not to say that it was unexpected. I was obviously told about the Archbishop’s decision before today’s announcement. Also, all of us have realised for some time that the joining of the parishes was inevitable. Some have already commented that today’s decision was long overdue.

One of the reasons for my sadness was having to communicate this news through the remoteness and the coldness of a live streamed Mass. Not being able to speak to a full church and, more importantly, be available afterwards to listen and to talk. The human warmth and closeness was missing and that is very sad.

I was very mindful of all of us during Mass. I want to speak in particular, for a moment, to the people of St Anne’s. Dear friends, we last celebrated Mass together on Sunday, March 15th. Which of us could have imagined that this was our last meeting together? Much has been said about the terrible fallout from the pandemic, but I simply wanted to reach out to each one of you today, and tell you how sad I am that our parish life has ended in this way.

I had the privilege of serving as your Parish Priest for four years. In that time, I came to know your warmth, your deep faith, friendliness, generosity and the quiet prayerfulness of our church. I remember especially the lovely coffee mornings and parish dinners we shared together. It has been a very difficult few months as you have seen the other churches open, but not St Anne’s. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank each one of you for the example of fortitude and patience you have shown in this dreadful time. Thank you for the example you have given us all in our town. It will not be forgotten, but it will most certainly be carried forward into the life of our new parish.

Likewise, I know that the people of St Jerome’s will be anxious about the future. Although there seems to be a certain resignation about the decision, I know there will be sadness as we look back on over fifty years of a wonderful history, of a vibrant and deeply caring community. Among so many memories, I cannot forget the care shown by so many to those in need, especially the poorest far away from our shores. For the privilege of being your Parish Priest for the last eight years, I also want to thank each and everyone of you.

Which brings me to the community of Our Lady’s. I am a newcomer to you all. We have not had any real opportunity to get to know each other, to meet, gather and speak face to face. We have just had those snatched conversations over the past four months since my appointment. It has been very frustrating. But I have learned enough and heard enough to know this community has given us all examples of dedication, care and love. In particular, I have been deeply struck by the care and devotion shown to Father Bernard, who served you all so faithfully for so many years. I also know how difficult it has been to get used to a new Parish Priest, with all the change and anxiety that can bring. I want to thank you all sincerely for bearing with me in these early days. I know that as things slowly return to normal, I will learn more and more about this great community and respectfully carry the best of your communal life into the life of our new parish community.

Some of you have been asking about what we call our churches and the future of those churches. We simply call each of our three churches by their names. It is the parish that has changed. One parish with three churches, each keeping its own name of dedication. As for the future of our buildings, all I can say is that no decision has been made about their future. The Saturday Vigil Mass will still be celebrated at St Jerome’s and the other Masses at Our Lady’s. St Anne’s sadly remains closed. But we all know that three churches is unsustainable. However, for now things remain as they are.

So, dear friends, we will need time to adjust to the new reality. There will be grieving. But beyond that, there is much to look forward to. A new parish begins today. Our parish. Each one of us has a stake in its future. So let us pray for each other, reach out to each other and look forward to working together in our new community.

God bless you all,

Father John

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Letters from Fr John

27 November

Dear Parishioners of Our Lady’s, St Anne’s and St Jerome’s.

‘Stay awake’…

In a few days time, the latest national lockdown will end and we will enter, once again, the tiered system of restrictions. But our churches can reopen, so next weekend we can gather together again to celebrate Mass. We also learned that churches can open for Christmas. It will be different, but in the coming days our Pastoral Area will be looking at the best ways to make this happen. 

This Sunday we begin the great and beautiful season of Advent. Twenty six days of the most beautiful Scripture readings and prayers. Days full of rich promise and consolation. This is our preparation for the worthy celebration of Christmas and for the moment when the Lord will come again and draw an end to human history.

I believe that in many ways, we have never been better prepared for Advent. Perhaps I should say that we have never needed Advent more. In these next twenty six days, we have an opportunity to gaze into the experiences of these past several months and perhaps see their place in the greater scheme of things, the bigger picture. To see things as God sees them and to be convinced that God uses all things for the good for those who love Him. For a short time, the readings, the prayers, the atmosphere carry us and enlighten us at the same time. Full of promise of a better future, God does not promise His people an immediate release from their sufferings, but an assurance that they are but a preparation to receive from His hand a future ‘that no eye has seen, no ear has heard’.

God seems slow to fulfil His promises. We can hear the exasperation in the voice of Isaiah; ‘Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down’. These are words we all understand; why can’t God just be done with it all? All this suffering and mess, what’s the point? How can a God of love permit all this? These are profoundly human questions. They require a divine answer!

The promises of God might be slow to reach fulfilment. Nature itself teaches us that growth takes time. Our times look for instant solutions and instant gain.  But God is not slow to act. He is acting all the time, but out of sight, in the depths of many hearts. It is a very human reaction to want to put everything right, to restore order and balance, to right wrongs and solve problems. We see this most beautifully present in acts of love and service. But here, a dangerous temptation appears. The act of love, of care, of service can quickly put ‘me’ centre stage. It feels good! But it misses the point. 

When we read the Gospels carefully, we notice that when Jesus worked a miracle for the good of others, he often disappeared quietly, went away, or often ‘went alone into the hills to pray’. There is one line in the Gospels that describes Jesus perfectly; ‘he went about doing good’. I love this line, because it is so simple, and sums up the whole Christian life. Here is the best part; we can all do it! 

The pandemic has shaken the tree of the world violently. The leaves of people’s health, work, livelihoods, relationships, economies and businesses have fallen to the ground. The tree is looking more bare, perhaps more simple. Here is our opportunity, and Advent is the perfect help; to simplify our faith life, our church life, our prayer life, our life of service. Perhaps a way of describing the life of our community of faith is ‘they go about doing good’. But with this caveat; they were able to disappear quickly, as Jesus did. The glory, the credit is with God.

This is where God is acting. With every heart changed, opened, made more generous and loving, the fulfilment of God’s promises move nearer. God truly wants to win us all, one heart at a time! That requires a lot of patience!

Yes, God has made a solemn promise. It is for all of us, not just the few. It is for each and every human being, ‘and yet Lord, you are our Father’. To hear about a promise is one thing, to make it our own is another. What is the promise? That all will be well, that good will overcome, that the mess will be put right, that we can all be saved from the worst that threatens to overwhelm us. That in the end, we will all find our home together, with God.

This is why Jesus tells us to ‘stay awake’. Why? Because the beauty of ‘doing good’, by drowning evil in a sea of goodness, will always be prone to the temptation of making it about ‘us’. We need to ‘stay awake’ to be vigilant over ourselves. Perhaps we might say that when we plan a good and loving act, we also plan our exit strategy!

As we begin Advent, let us ask for illumination; the gentle light of God to show the way, the kind light of selfless and hidden acts of love, the light of promise that promises a better future for us all!

God bless you all,

Father John

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Letters from Fr John

12 November

Dear Parishioners of Our Lady’s, St Anne’s and St Jerome’s.

You are all children of the light and children of the day

Light’. There is precious little of it at the moment; both from Nature and from the day to day life of our global family. Or is there? Certainly, we are just a few weeks away from the shortest day and we all expect the darker mornings and evenings. The light of the Sun nurtures and sustains life on our planet. But there is a greater Light that invites us to draw nearer to its source, offering us new life.

St Paul understood very well that the light is our natural habitat. We are ‘children’ of the light, the Light that is God. He then goes on to say that those who live in light are always ‘awake’, they do not ‘sleep’. Here, I think, is a problem that many of us are facing at the moment. The strain of these last months have made us ‘sleepy’, deprived of energy and positivity. We may feel that we have little left to give, to offer.

How can we find renewal, new purpose, new direction in these drab and sleepy days? Surely, by walking into the Light, by becoming more conscious of the presence of God in the here and now. He is inviting us to stop, to rest, to regenerate in His light. To put aside activity for a while, to be at peace, to be still. Only in that peace and stillness does the light begin to dawn. As we remain in the light and peace of God, we begin to wake up, to be more alert and to see as God sees; what is it that God wants of me at this moment, with this person, this situation, this need? 

It is the light of God that we desperately need, a light always present to us, always seeking to break into our hearts. This light is our true home which we never want to leave. In it we see who we are and what is needed of us. This is the way we become light bearers. Surely, it is this light, the light of God, that is needed now more than ever. 

God bless you all,

Father John

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Letters from Fr John

8 November – Remembrance Sunday

Dear Parishioners of Our Lady’s, St Anne’s and St Jerome’s.

Gone before us marked with the sign of faith

Today, our Nation marks Remembrance Sunday. Traditionally, it is a time of grateful remembrance of those who gave their lives in two world wars. In recent years, it has been expanded for many as a remembrance of all those who have died in war.

We can never take our freedoms lightly. Huge numbers of people gave their lives for the freedoms we enjoy today. We remember them and we owe them a debt that can never be repaid. Let us pause, at least for a few moments today, to pray for them and reflect on their sacrifice. The poignant image of the Queen, standing at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, wearing her face covering, is surely a moment in which we all want to share.

The Church dedicates the whole month of November to prayer for those who have died. Death is a great Mystery, one in which we will all share. Yet the heart of our Faith speaks of the Love that overcame death. What does this mean? Surely death is as real as it ever was? Certainly. But it’s eternal and unending hold over every human being has been shattered and destroyed, once and for all, by the Death and Resurrection of Christ. This is the greatest Mystery of all. Love has overcome. Those who love can know God and dwell with Him safely, far from the clutches of death.

Let us not forget to pray for each and every one of our loved ones, by name, in these days of November. Asking our Father God that He receive each and every one into the joy and light of His healing and saving embrace.

God bless you all,

Father John