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A priest and a pope for the poor

09 August 2013

The Church needs clerics who can learn from their people, says Paul Vallely

I TOOK the first copy of my book on Pope Francis last week to the church in which I grew up in Middlesbrough ( Features, 2 August). Aptly enough, the church is dedicated to St Francis, although that was not the reason I chose it. Rather, I was there because it was the farewell mass for the parish priest, Fr Peter Keeling, who has presided over many of the most significant events in the Vallely family across the years.

His farewell homily was a masterclass in priestly virtues. It began, as had that first appearance on the Vatican balcony of the new Pope, with an appeal to the people before him. He first apologised for what he might have got wrong over the years. By way of example, he recalled the occasion when an elderly couple had asked him to remember their dead son during morning mass. When the crucial moment came, Fr Peter momentarily forgot the first name of the man for whom they were to pray. He made a stab at it, and knew immediately that he had got it wrong.

Throughout the service, he was seized by remorse. As soon as it was over, he changed out of his vestments and rushed to the couple's home. They opened the door with some surprise at seeing the priest whom they had seen at the altar only moments before. But they did not seem concerned at his abject apology. "Actually, Father, we didn't hear, because we didn't have our hearing aids switched on. We often don't at mass."

But if the leaven of humour is an essential part of the good news that is the gospel, so is the passion for justice. "It's a pity, Father," one older parishioner had commiserated, "that they never made you a canon, like they did with previous parish priests." Fr Peter had only laughed: "If they ever make me a canon," he quipped, "you can take me out and fire me."

His commitment to causes of justice and peace had led to a number of run-ins with the authorities, ecclesiastical and civil, but he saw their disapprobation merely as confirmation that he was acting on an imperative that the Second Vatican Council had declared to be constitutive to the preaching of the gospel.

Many Roman Catholics had begun to fear that men such as Fr Peter were to be replaced by a generation of pietistic priests turned in on the inner sacramental life of the Church rather than on the outworking of gospel values in our wider culture. The election of Pope Francis - for whom "Francis" is not so much a name as a programme of action - has rekindled the hope that the Church will once again move in the direction on which priests such as Fr Peter have been so focused.

The retiring cleric offered one final story. He intended it to be self-deprecating, but it cut two ways. In the local bank, one of the women behind the counter, the week before, had asked him whether he knew when Kate was coming out of hospital. Rapidly he ran through in his head all the Kates in the parish, before admitting that he didn't know. Only then did the bank clerk make it clear that she had been asking about the Duchess of Cambridge.

The Church needs priests for whom the people of the parish are more important than public figures. Pope Francis, too, understands this from his long years as a bishop in the slums. As one of his aides told me: "He doesn't see the poor as people he can help, but rather as people from whom he can learn." I did not have to go to Argentina to hear this. Priests such as Fr Peter Keeling had taught me that warmth, humanity, and social justice are the keystones of the faith, back in the first church in which I ever set foot.

Pope Francis - Untying the Knots by Paul Vallely is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99.

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