David Hawthorne and Stephen Cooper found Neptune’s Palace more than and entertainment

We were two priests, gathered, with some two hundred other priests, bishops, clergy wives and ordinands to attend Caister ‘The Word Is Near’ conference / retreat during Low Week. We both went not knowing what to expect, except that we went in the hope of being strengthened in our faith and in our ministry. The outcome far exceeded our expectations.

Caister, for these purposes, is a Haven seaside holiday resort three miles from Great Yarmouth. The accommodation comprised chalets with a cafeteria-style restaurant (good food, plenty of it, as many courses as you wanted, as many times as you wanted). If you were interested there was a bar. The recreational facilities were open and available.

Neptune’s Palace, boasting ‘Haven Entertains’, (the resort Ball Room / Entertainment Centre) was the unlikely venue and focus for a very different kind of entertainment, where it was not Haven but HEAVEN which entertained. And truly we were. Bishop Lindsay and his team had worked extremely hard to provide a centre for worship befitting Almighty God: an altar raised on a platform; paschal candle; freestanding crucifix; the Blessed Sacrament reserved; an image of Our Lady of Walsingham; tapestries; flowers; the use of incense at the concelebrated Solemn Masses; Benediction; music group (cantors, flautist, keyboard player, drummer). All set the stage for a worshipping atmosphere which by the end of the week brought the WORD very near to many of us, nearer than we had ever experienced before.

After breakfast (rather a good cooked breakfast) we adjourned to a group-leader’s chalet for a unique bible study in prearranged groups. Through the wonders of modern technology we were all able to sit at the same time at the feet of Bishop Lindsay, who inspired and challenged our thoughts on a particular text for the day via the in-house movie channel. This text was then translated into the Mass intention each day. It may be of interest to note that we studied and considered:

Tuesday: The person Jonah (which led us to consider vocation);

Wednesday : John 2 1: 1-14, The Great Catch of Fish (which led us to consider the call to proclaim and evangelize);

Thursday : Mark 5:25-34, The Woman with the Haemorrhage (which led us to consider the Great Commission ‘Whom shall I send?’)

The groups developed quite naturally and members including clergy wives and ordinands were, by the end of the week, opening up and sharing their life of faith with the group.

At 10.30am each day there was a keynote speaker and we were privileged to have:

Fr. Peter Allen CR (Vocation), Fr. Tom Forrest CSSR (Evangelisation) and Fr. Arthur Middleton (The Priest as Reconciler).

All of the speakers in their own way were inspiring but I am sure many of the retreatants would agree that Fr. Forrest gave us all so much to think about. The Spirit overflowed through him to us – reducing many of us, quite literally, to tears of joy.

The Good News was brought to life in a way that many of us had not thought or felt possible, with his unique style, his occasional slipping into Brooklynese, his humour, and above all his approach to evangelisation (having been appointed by His Holiness Pope John Paul II as Decade of Evangelisation Coordinator for the RC Church). He compared and contrasted three people’s ministries and style of evangelisation : John Baptist, the apostle Paul, the Lord Jesus. We hope that something of his text has been recorded in a transcript for consideration in our parishes.

At the middle of each day there was a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament ending with Benediction. Two hundred people in sustained silence before the Lord was a pivotal moment each day. Then to the bar for a pre-lunch drink followed by all those courses….

In the afternoon there were optional seminars:

The Parish: an evangelizing community (Fr Forrest); Towards Liturgy 2000 (Canon Jeremy Haselock); The Star Course (Bp. Geoffrey Rowell & Nicholas Beale); Music in Worship (Terry Martin); Vocations and the Religious Life (Peter Allen CR); Catholic & Charismatic (Fr. Peter Peterken).

Or one could be recreational – go walking, swim or sleep!

The daily office was said privately. The daily Mass at 5.45pm was a further pivotal and important phase of the day. The combination of traditional hymns and songs, and the mass settings, the homilies by the bishops who were in attendance (to whom we were grateful for their time, especially to David, Archbishop of York, who gave the first address on Tuesday evening). All gave what was an amazing sense of collegiality properly understood.. To receive Holy Communion together was very powerful.

Supper followed Mass but there was more to come (in more ways than one) at 8.45pm each evening. On Tuesday evening there was a time of intercession in our groups; on Wednesday there was a service of corporate reconciliation; on Thursday evening there was Songs of Praise.

On the Wednesday / Thursday, these acts of worship were interspersed with some well chosen words by Bishop Lindsay. Departing Neptune’s Palace at 10.30pm, drained but elated, we retired to the bar.

On a more personal level, we wish to say that up until we had made our Caister, if we may put it like that, we believed that the priesthood of Christ in which we had been given a share as priests in the Church of God, had somehow been rendered ineffective, because our faith had received a knock. We all take for granted many things|: the priesthood; God’s presence in our lives. Caister renewed a lively sense of that presence. He has given the wherewithal to build up his kingdom by the power of His Spirit and we discovered this afresh during the course of this week.

We hope to carry the Spirit of Caister with us and that it will bear fruit in all of our various callings. There was such a strong bond of genuine love and fellowship in the Spirit it was the best party I’d ever been too – Jesus being the host and where heaven truly entertained.

At the end of the Conference many thanks were expressed to the music group, to Shirley, the Bishop’s Secretary for her work, and to the Bishop himself. Once again through the pages of New Directions can we thank you all. Well done to you all and to everyone who helped in any way to make Caister ‘96 possible. We look forward to Caister ‘97 with laity, praying that it be possible next year and in years to come.

David Hawthorne is Vicar of St. Mark, with St. Peter ad Vincula, Thornaby, and Stephen Cooper is Priest-in-Charge of St. Columba, Middlesborough, both in the diocese of York.