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.