A century-old blessing from one of Catholicism’s most celebrated Popes has been unearthed in a loft in West Yorkshire and is now going on public display. Chris Burn reports.
It is not every day you find a blessing from a saint gathering dust in your loft. But that is exactly what has happened to former Mayor of Wakefield Norman Hazell.
Mr Hazell made the extraordinary discovery while going through his belongings in his loft and has now presented the document to his local church.
The handwritten note came from Pope Pius X in 1908 after he had been written to by a Father Timothy Courtney, who was director of the Catholic Young Men’s Society which was established at St Austin’s Church in Wakefield in 1858. Father Courtney asked for the blessing to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the formation of the society.
Pius, who was a staunch defender of traditional Catholic values, was made Pope in 1903. He died in 1914 and was canonised as a saint in 1954. His achievements as Pope included collecting the laws of the church into a single volume for the first time and encouraging Catholics across the world to live daily lives in a way in which reflected the most important Christian values.
Pope Pius had written back to Father Courtney to offer a blessing both to him as society director and all of its members. The letters to and from Rome were written in Latin but a translation has been made alongside them.
Mr Hazell, who has been president of the Catholic Young Men’s Society since 1962, says he unsure when the blessing came into his possession but says it must have been at some stage after the society held a centenary dinner at which it was shown in 1958.
The 85-year-old came across the blessing a couple of years ago and was keeping in a bedroom at home. But then he decided to present it to St Austin’s and a special presentation was arranged on Sunday, May 7 - almost exactly 109 years after Pope Pius had written his blessing to the society.
“I found it in the loft, it had been up there probably for 40 to 50 years,” Mr Hazell says.
“It was produced for the society’s centenary which was in 1958. We had a formal dinner than a special service.
“I don’t know where it had come from, probably the church. It was produced and taken around at dinner. I didn’t steal it, I was looking after it!
“If somebody had asked me, I wouldn’t have had a clue what had happened to it. I had a lot of junk in my loft, in my political life I was a mayor and fought parliamentary elections so had things like that up there and old cricket photographs, things like that. I came across it and thought this shouldn’t be here.
“It was just dusty. I have all sorts of things in my loft, I’m a big man for books. I bought down the blessing and put it in a bedroom. I made the decision it has got to go back to the church.
“It is going to be mounted in the church so everyone can see it, not just my family.”
On May 5, 1908, Father Courtney wrote to the Vatican in Latin, saying: “Timothy Courtney, priest of the Society of Jesus, director of the Catholic Young Men’s Society, established in St Auston’s Church at Wakefield, England, a society which is most devoted to the Apostolic See of Blessed Peter and produce signal fruits of edification prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, humbly begs the Apostolic Benediction for the said society and its director, on this occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its canonical erection in this mission.”
A response from Pope Pius X was written by hand four days later before being sent back to England. It read: “As petitioned for, we most lovingly impart the apostolic benediction upon our beloved son, the director, and to all the likewise beloved young men enrolled in the society.”
Pius, born in Italy, was known as a ‘People’s Pope’. He was the only Pope in the 20th Century to give weekly homily sermons in the pulpit and after a serious earthquake in 1908 in Italy, he filled the Apostolic Palace with refugees prior to the Italian Government taking any action.
He often referred to his humble origins in his sermons and once famously said: “I was born poor, I have lived poor, and I wish to die poor.”
Pius lived by his beliefs, rejecting favours for his family and his brother continued working as a postal clerk while his nephew remained as a village priest even after he became Pope. The way he lived his life in service to the poor and leading by example has been cited as an inspiration by the current Pope, Pope Francis.
Mr Hazell says there would have great excitement at the time when the Pope’s response was received back in 1908 by those in Wakefield.
“The Catholic Young Men’s Society had a chaplain at the time called Father Courtney who wrote to the Vatican asking for a papal blessing. It was quite uncommon in those days to receive one. Nowadays everyone gets a blessing, when a young Catholic couple get married, they are provided with a nice picture of the pope signed by a cardinal.
“But Father Courtney took it upon himself to write to the Vatican City asking the Pope if he would give a blessing. He must have been amazed when the Pope wrote back in his own hand. It was Pope Pius X, who has since been canonised. He was a wonderful Pope, such a good Pope.
“For him to write from Vatican City to a church in Wakefield, Yorkshire, is just amazing. I was delighted when I refound it.”
Earlier this month, Norman presented the blessing to Monsignor Canon David Smith, parish priest at St Austin’s Chruch during Mass. Norman then addressed the congregation about the history of the blessing and of the Catholic Young Men’s Society - finding out after the service that two worshippers among the congregation had also been members of the society in the past.
Mr Hazell says: “The church was quite packed. The priest called myself and the society secretary up to the altar carrying the blessing and then I spoke about the history of the society.”
Mr Hazell says an added bonus of presenting the blessing to the church has been the way it has brought members of the society back together.
He says preparations are already under way to find a suitable way to mark the 160th anniversary of the society next year.
“I was elected president in 1962 and I’m the sort of stubborn bloke who won’t accept defeat so I’m still the president after more than 50 years,” Mr Hazell says.
“I was elected by a large group of men but now there are only half a dozen or so of us. I have pictures from the 1958 dinner when there were 40 men there. Now there are only four of us left alive.
“Since all this, four former members of the society have come forward. Next year for the 160th anniversary, we will have a special Mass said in memory of all the members of the society who have died.”