Summer is a curious time in parishes. Everything goes into suspended animation, and this year more so than ever, with the never-ending hot weather. Schools are closed, and a lot of a parish priest’s work is school based: no more school masses, no more governor meetings, no more school visits, until September.
And as schools end, holidays begin: for so many of our parishioners, this means the time when they go “home”, that is, back to their country of origin, where many of them have family and property. So for a great many families in my parish it is back to Poland, Italy, Malta, Hungary or the Philippines, and the pews are correspondingly depleted. Those from central Europe tend to drive home, making epic journeys across the continent, with small children in the back, all of whom, I am sure, are far too well trained to ask “Are we nearly there yet?” before they reach the Channel ports.
I have been here in Knaphill, Surrey, for six years now, and another summer phenomenon has struck. I am, at the request of the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, moving parishes in September. It is a wrench to leave St Hugh of Lincoln, as I seem to have been here forever, and have in fact been here longer than anywhere else in my adult life.
But moving is part of the clerical life: we never stay in one place for long and, as the final weeks close in, one has the sense of doing things for the last time. Poignantly, I am working my way through the sick list, saying goodbye to faithful housebound parishioners, some of whom I have been visiting at home for years, and will now see no more.
As with the old, so with the young. Having watched one lot of children in the primary school progress from Year One to their final day the last week, I now realise that there are other children I shall not watch grow up from such close vantage. The recent First Holy Communion class were all baptised by me, but I won’t be there for their confirmations, let alone their weddings. It’s all rather sad.
In addition, there are all sorts of projects that are now to be left for my successor. Given that we have so many African parishioners, the idea was to start an African choir, of the sort that used to delight me when I served in Kenya.
Again, a kind parishioner left us £1,000 in her will, and we were going to commission a funeral pall with the money – very few parishes have palls, even though the funeral liturgy mentions their desirability. That, too, is something that I will not see happen. But none of that is really important. A parish is not the building, but the people in the building.
There have been so many people who have played a huge role in parish life over the last six years. Most of the parishioners will be only vaguely aware of them – people like the wonderful sacristans, who never have to be asked to do anything, as they anticipate one’s wishes. Ditto the person who always arranges the wine and nibbles for our parish film nights in the hall, or the tea and coffee whenever we have a meeting of any sort. And the catechists who, when I ask “What am I supposed to be doing now?”, are always able to tell me, and point me in the right direction.
It takes a team to run a parish, and the team is often invisible. Indeed, the better they are, the less people will notice them. But you would notice their absence.
As with every church I have served in, it is the funerals that leave one with the most vivid memories. A funeral stays with you forever, though I suppose I must have clocked up getting on for a couple of thousand by now. Knaphill is a distinguished place as it is home to the oldest crematorium in the land, Woking Crematorium, a short walk from the church, as well as to what is reputed to be the largest cemetery in the country, Brookwood Cemetery, which was once served by its own railway from London.
I will remember, in particular, two funerals in the last six years which were for people who died well before their time.
But we will meet again, I am sure, in a happier place, where, as the liturgy has it, every tear will be wiped away, and dust and ashes will have no dominion.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a moral theologian and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald. Fr Dominic Allain is on holiday