Monday, January 29, 2007

Fr Peter: Christmas a memory

I made a resolution last year that the NH blog would be updated regularly, if not frequently. Of course, Christmas and December are dead times for University chaplaincy. Most students are off home and there is very little for a chaplain to do. In the past I have volunteered for cruise chaplaincies with the Apostleship of the Sea, but in the past few years I have taken the opportunity to visit my parents and brothers in South Africa - Christmas at home is a rare privilege!

My parents retired to a small seaside resort in the Western Cape, called Still Bay (more generally Stilbaai, its Afrikaans name). It's located in a beautiful spot, off the beaten track. During the year its population is just 4000, but over Christmas and the new year it swells to 40 000. Many people from the far north of South Africa have holiday homes there. They are mainly Afrikaans people, and so largely members of the Dutch Reformed Church. The handful of English speaking Christians go to an ecumenical service in one of the DRC buildings, which they borrow for their worship. There has been no Catholic Church presence in the town.

Last year my parents, who are Anglicans, kindly drove me to Mossel Bay, the nearest big town, for Mass on Christmas Day. It is over 100km away, so we set off at around 6am to be there for the 8am Mass. We attended Mass at St Blaize's Church. The lovely parish priest, Fr John Atkinson, has responsibility for several other churches in neighbouring towns. This year I phoned him up and offered my services while I was there. To my delight I discovered that there was now a regular Mass in Stilbaai, which he himself celebrated every fortnight. The local Catholics took turns to host the Mass in their homes and advertised the venues each month in the local paper. So I checked up when I got there, and joined with Fr John to concelebrate Mass on 18 December. The local folks did not know of my existence so they had already planned for their Christmas Mass to be on 28 December - now they had a priest at their disposal, so plans were hastily redrawn! Thus it was that I gathered with around 25 local people and holidaymakers for Mass on Christmas Day in the welcoming home of a couple of faithful Christians. It certainly was one of the memorable Christmasses I have spent. My thanks to all of them for their welcome and their inspiring fidelity. It is a lovely little community and I wish them much success and many blessings.
The area is part of the Diocese of Oudtshoorn - an enormous diocese of more tha 113 000 square kilometres! It has a farely small Catholic population (28 000 or so) served by just 22 priests, about a third of whom are religious. What a mammoth task! Please pray for them all. This is a good reminder of how fortunate we are in having the provision of Mass so readily available at times and places and in styles that suit us. Visiting such mission territory reminded me of just how lucky we are here in London!

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