Passionist priest Fr Martin Newell gave the following reflection on the 20th anniversary of his ordination and his 50th birthday on 11 June, at the Catholic Worker House in London.
In my last year at Seminary, I was in the staff room getting the key for the photocopy room, when a former staff member walked in. He saw me and said “Are you still here?” I guess it is pretty obvious I’m a bit different to most priests, even most Passionists. So I imagine he is not the only person who has ever asked that question, or perhaps wondered what it is that keeps me “still here” all these years.
So what is it that has “kept me here”? It starts with my family, and particularly my parents: Their faithfulness to each other for 55 years of marriage, to their family, to their faith, kept by them through all the trials that have come their way, which few people have any idea of, which I won’t go into. Not helped by me following my conscience in and out of prison. Prayer has to be part of it too: I thank God for Fr Alan Griffiths who encouraged a group of us to learn to pray and meditate in silence when I was a student in Southampton, and the monks of Downside Abbey for allowing a group of us to share in their Holy Week liturgies, from which I learnt to love and pray the psalms. And the Jesuits for teaching me discernment, despite my resistance.
When I was a deacon at Our Lady of Compassion, Upton Park, outside West Ham football ground, a Pentecostal church member came to our house. I remember he asked “Who started your church?” A bit puzzled how to answer this question, I realised his church would have been started quite recently, probably by a particular individual minister. I thought about it for a bit, and said, “I think it was Jesus”. The might have been a bit simplistic, but it contains some essential truths. And it reminds me that despite all my studies and experiences and friends from so many different beliefs – I still think that in Jesus we find the most complete revelation of the truths of God, and of God’s love spoken of in today’s Gospel: and the best understanding of what it means to be human too. And this is fundamentally what the Church and our faith is all about: Jesus. “Where else shall we go?”
I am grateful for the Catholic Worker movement, through which I have experienced whole new dimensions of our faith being brought to life. I was introduced to the CW through such people and places as the Ashram Community in Birmingham, and the Simon Community in London where I first experienced life in a house of hospitality. The CW brought new life to my reading of the Gospels and the Scriptures.
Actually bringing to life, making real, the drama of God’s Word and action in the world: trying to see Christ in all people, especially the poorest: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless: loving enemies, turning the other cheek, beating swords into ploughshares: willing to be arrested and imprisoned for the faith, and witnessing to the faith in the market square: living in community, having all things in common, sharing from each according to their ability, to each according to their need, including the poorest: challenging the powers that be. Being, as Pope Francis has said and we can see around us here “a poor church for the poor”.
This authenticity, including an honesty about failure and inadequacy to live the vision, brought all this to life, as well as the idea of Rosemary Haughton’s that Catholic-ism is more than the institution of the Catholic Church – it is a culture, a community, a movement. And yet the CW insists on the humility to recognise where our nourishment comes from, the tradition, the history, the sacraments, the scriptures of that institution. Even if we recognise too the words of Jesus about the scribes and Pharisees: “Listen to what they say, but do not necessarily do what they do”.
I am also grateful to the Passionists, for giving me a place to feel at home and be supported as a priest in the Church. I am grateful to Austin, and Nicholas, and Joe, who spent 45 years living in Toxteth, Liverpool, on the front lines where the riots happened (even if they don’t like to call them that), and involved in the local community there, as well as prisons and schools. I am grateful to John and Michael, who were doing the ‘worker-priest’ thing. John was a road sweeper, Michael a kitchen porter in Homerton hospital, living on a tough council estate in Hackney. Both ended up with responsibilities in their trade unions. In the 80’s they ran a project for local young homeless people and John played a key but then secret role in the anti-apartheid movement in the 80’s. It was these men who inspired me to look into the Passionists. I am grateful to be living with John Kearns here, now – and with destitute refugees in Sparkhill, Birmingham – which enables us to continue that tradition, and also to bring some of the particular gifts of the CW to another part of the Church, and of my life. I am grateful too for the support of John and others for my continued involvement in direct action, with the CW and Christian Climate Action among others.
I realised in joining the Passionists, that the passion, suffering and death of Christ was always central to my personal connection with faith and God. I remember as a teenager spending hours with those big old headphones on, sitting in the rocking chair in the corner, next to the big old stereo cassette player – remember them! (it was new then)– listening to Jesus Christ Superstar – while knocking chunks out of the wall with the back of the chair! I realised years later this was really the Passion of Christ according to Andrew Lloyd Webber. So, finding myself at home, I have no desire to leave.
One of the particular things that I value about being Catholic, despite all the inconsistencies and failures – and again, its something I’ve found more through the Catholic Worker than anywhere else (although also through Pax Christi) – is the witness of what has been called the “Consistent Life Ethic” or “Seamless Garment” approach. It is the conviction that all human life is sacred, from the womb to the tomb, from the moment of conception to a natural death. That the Divine Presence in each human life should be protected from every threat in between – including abortion, war, the arms trade, the death penalty, poverty, racism, war, euthanasia – you name it. And in addition, that this human life is a gift from God, neither to be manufactured in a lab nor disposed of at will – but to be accepted as a Divine gift when the moment comes.
Last but not least among the things for which I am grateful, and which “keep me here” is the last thing Jesus did, the last night before He voluntarily accepted, in the spirit of non-violent love – being arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced and executed (and I’ve been there in a small way, without the execution) – for our good. The last thing he said was “remember me when I’ve gone, by doing this in memory of me”: “eat this bread, drink this wine, my body and blood” share it, pass it around, together. “In memory of me”.
This reminds me of the importance of the Mass, the Eucharist. It reminds me that we cannot be saved alone, that it is not enough to pray at home, that it is not enough to follow Jesus without being part of His body, the Church, the community of disciples. Despite the failures and the questions that can be asked, all the clericalism unnecessary exclusion of so many, and even the words we use around it – I remain convinced that we, the people who are the Church, and the world – need priests, needs young people to open their hearts to God’s call to this vocation among others – supported by their parents, by family and friends, where possible. We need priests to celebrate this sacrament above all, to gather a community of disciples ready to give their lives, their body, blood, sweat and tears for the sake of the Good News of God’s love – as Jesus lived and taught it.
So I thank God, and all of you here today, that I have been able to “keep on keeping on” these 20 years, and pray for the grace to continue.
See also ICN 12 June 2017: Happy Birthday Fr Martin! www.indcatholicnews.com/news/32788