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A priest of St Francis who was a prophet before his time

2013 August 9

I took the first copy of my new book on Pope Francis last week to the church in which I grew up in Middlesbrough. Aptly enough the church is dedicated to St Francis, though that was not the reason I chose it. Rather I was there because it was the retirement Mass for the parish priest, Fr Peter Keeling, who has presided over many of the major 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 may have got wrong over the years. By way of example he recalled the occasion when an elderly couple 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 with 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 they had seen on 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 justice and peace causes 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 like 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 was not so much a name as a programme or action – has rekindled the hope that the Church will once again move in the direction on which priests like Peter Keeling were 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 if he knew when Kate was coming out of hospital. Rapidly he ran through in his head all the Kates in the parish before admitting he didn’t know. Only then did the bank clerk make 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 that 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 learn that. Priests like Fr Peter Keeling had taught me that warmth, humanity and social justice are the keystones of the faith back in the first church into which I ever set foot.

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

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