Father Francis Maple
Father Francis Maple is an occasional guest writer on this Blog. He lives in England and has recently celebrated his 50th Anniversary as a priest. He re-visited the Church where he was ordained and this is his homily which will hopefully inspire someone somewhere to consider joining the priesthood.
Welcome everyone! I would like to welcome particularly Bishop George of Kerala in India who just happens to be passing through Bedford and has asked to concelebrate Mass with us this morning. I would like to thank my family and parishioners for coming today to celebrate and help me thank God for being His priest for 50 years.
On the day of my ordination I gave my mother my memorial card. She read it. I also gave her the memorial card of another priest who was ordained with me the same day. Very gently my Mum said, “Son, I wish you had written on your card what he had written.” He wrote, “I thank the Lord for choosing me to be His priest. I wrote on mine, “I thank the Lord for the gift of the priesthood.” Mum was right, his was more personal.
I am standing here today because I owe my vocation to my saintly parents. I think of them today and thank God for the parents He gave me.
I invited Canon Seamus Keenan, the parish priest, to say these words. He declined saying, “I am sure your family would like to hear you speak. So if you don’t like what I have to say, you know whom to blame!”
Every priest, like St. Matthias whose feast we keep today, is chosen by Christ. No priest can say, “I chose to be a priest.” Rather it is Jesus who says, “I chose you.” It is Jesus who leads us to the priesthood in different ways.
The majority of priests come from good Catholic homes. I was blessed with saintly parents. I was one of twelve children, eight girls and four boys. If God had called all of us to be priests and nuns I am sure my Dad and Mum would have been extremely happy. That says something about the holiness of my parents. One girl became a nun and one boy a priest. The rest married and I can proudly say that not one lapsed and all happily married. We owe this to the strong faith of our parents and the good example they gave us.
We owe so much to our ancestors. One day when I was a deacon, well on the way to the priesthood, my grandmother said to me, “Do you know Marcy God is calling you to be a priest. It will be you who will lead us all to Heaven.” I said, “Mamma, please don’t place that responsibility on my shoulders.
What inspired me to be a priest? It was hearing my father say, “If one of my sons becomes a priest it will be the happiest day of my life.” I think I was about six at the time, but those words made a deep impression on me that I, who loved my Dad so much, was going to be the one who would bring about the happiest day of his life. Someone could make the case that my motive wasn’t the right one, but it was God who eventually channelled that motive to please Him first before pleasing my father.
Now what sort of priest was I going to be? A strange circumstance in life brought this about. I was now eight years old, an altar server in a Corpus Christi procession in New Delhi. There I was a young lad of eight, with a huge quiff of hair like Elvis Presley, carrying a lighted candle. I could hear a burning noise. Suddenly from nowhere a Capuchin priest rushed over to me and started patting my head. The candle I carried had set my hair on fire. There was a bald patch there for a few weeks. That priest was Fr. Luke. I got to like him and decided when I grew up I would become a priest like him, wearing a brown habit, a black beard and a pair of sandals.
It was now my ninth birthday, and on our birthdays, our father used to tell us to go the priest and get his blessing. I was shy at that time and I didn’t want to do it, but you could not say no to Dad. It was to Fr. Luke I went. When I told him my Dad had sent me to get his blessing as it was my birthday, he said, “Fancy that! It’s my birthday too!” So he was the one who inspired me to be a Capuchin friar and priest.
Fifty years ago on 31 March 1963 I said my first Mass in this Church. Sadly my father had died two years before I was ordained a priest. He did not see me a priest, but knew I was well on the road to becoming one. My mother and all my family were present at my ordination and first Mass. Canon Anthony Hulme was the parish priest at that time; also present were Fr. Tom McConville from Northern Ireland, who served for many years as a curate here and for whom I had great respect and Fr. Tony Philpot a fellow altar server of mine in this church. I remember that day so well.
I can’t believe that 50 years has gone by since that day. A man wrote to me the other day congratulating me on being a priest for 50 years. He said, “How many people’s lives as a priest have you touched in those 50 years?” It made me wonder and start to think. At all stages of people’s lives a priest is there to administer to all their needs. I would love to know how many babies I have baptised and set on the road leading to Heaven. Several times as a hospital chaplain I was called out in the early hours of a morning to baptise babies weighing just over 2 lbs. One of these babies lives in Chester. He is now 14 and comes regularly to me for Confession.
Then there is the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. In 50 years every priest would give as much a million Holy Communions. What an honour that is.
A bishop is the ordinary minister of the Sacrament of Confirmation, but one Pentecost day I was privileged to administer this Sacrament to 62 children. The week before the parish priest was due to confirm these children he broke his leg and he asked me if I would confirm them.
On average every year I hear 900 confessions. That means in 50 years I have heard 45.000 confessions. I can recall the happiness I have brought to many people by hearing their confessions. Only recently I heard the confession of a lady whose marriage had broken down, she remarried outside the church. Her husband died and after being away from confession for nearly forty years she made her confession to me. She told me, “I can’t describe the joy and peace you have given me by going to confession. I shed tears of joy throughout the whole of Mass and when you placed the consecrated host on my hand I just wanted to gaze at It forever.”
Here is another story about a confession I heard as a young priest. The doorbell of the confessional rang. I entered the confessional. By the sounds on the other side of the confessional I knew it was an old person who was the penitent. She began, “Father, I don’t know where to begin. The last time I went to confession was the day before my wedding when I was 18 and now I am 82.” All I could say to her was, “Congratulations! It must have been very hard for you to come here.” She replied, “If only you knew how many years I have just wanted to do this!” After her confession her daughter who had brought her to church rang our doorbell and told me, “Father, you will never know how happy you have made my mother. May I bring my mother, who is house bound, along again to confession to you outside the appointed hours of hearing confession.” I told her, “Bring her along any time. That’s what we are here for.” I could tell you dozen of stories of this nature where through this sacrament people have experienced the peace of Christ. No doubt those people have now died and I feel sure are in heaven. They are there because it was that moment of their turning back to the Lord and hearing from my lips those wonderful words, “And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Countless times I have administered the Sacrament of the Sick. I remember the occasion I was visiting the sick in hospital. I don’t know what made me to be drawn to this particular man lying in a bed. I never even knew he was a Catholic. We chatted. It turned out he was a Catholic, married outside the Church and had left the church for years. He told me he had just days to live. I encouraged him to make his peace with God. He accepted my invitation. The result was that I heard his confession, regularised his marriage and administered the Sacrament of the dying and in two weeks’ time gave him a Catholic burial. I wish I could convey to you the happiness I brought to him, his wife and his family. What a wonderful way God has in using His priests to bring the lost sheep back into His fold. How can I ever thank God for that honour?
A priest doesn’t administer the Sacrament of Matrimony. It is the husband and wife who do so. The priest is the chief witness of the church. I like doing marriages. They are happy family occasions. I like to make it personal by singing two songs, one for the bride on behalf of the bridegroom and the other for the bridegroom on behalf of the bride. I know how much these songs are appreciated. I wonder how many children those marriages have produced because you were the priest who helped to tie the knot. I shall never forget the first wedding at which I ever officiated. It was that of my younger sister Francesca. She told her husband Gordon of happy memory, “We are not going to get married until my brother is a priest and he will marry us.” And they were married in this church.
What is the chief duty of a priest? It is to offer sacrifice. Every morning as he stands at the altar he takes bread into his hands and holds the chalice of wine and says over them those beautiful words, “This is My Body…This is My Blood”. At that solemn moment he performs the greatest miracle that takes place in our world every day, when bread and wine are changed into the risen Lord Jesus. On behalf of the church he offers this sacrifice of Jesus to God the Father for the salvation of the world. Is there any greater thing a human person can do? Is there any greater power and honour God can confer upon a man? How can a sinful man ever thank God for bestowing such a gift upon him? It is now that I can appreciate the words of my father, “The day one of my sons becomes a priest will be the happiest day of my life.”
Singing has a played an important and enjoyable part of my life. How pleased I am to relate to you the fact that I sing a pro-Life song called “Cry from the heart” and as far as I know that song has influenced at least twenty two mothers who were contemplating abortion not to have one. In fact the twenty second life it saved was a boy of ten who wrote to me. He said, “Father Francis, I want to thank you for that song, ‘Cry from the heart’. My mother was about to abort me when she heard it and said, ‘I can’t do it.’ And because of that I am living today. I can’t thank you enough.”
Every priest must be very near to the heart of Our Blessed Lady, the mother of the High Priest Jesus. I would like to thank her for all the love and care she has given to me over these fifty years and I would like to place the rest of my life in her hands. I long for the day to be in heaven and embraced by our loving mother.
The Golden Jubilee of a priest is what we are celebrating today. I thank all of you, but particularly my family, for coming to celebrate this occasion and helping me to thank God for the many graces he has bestowed on me the last 50 years of my life. I thank Canon Seamus Keenan for allowing this happy event to take place in his Church. May God reward you all.