CORPUS CHRISTI is tucked away, secreted just minutes from Tonbridge Castle and the River Medway. Its location endears it to Mgr Michael Smith, who has been at Corpus Christi since September 1992.
"I've wanted to live in the countryside ever since I was a little boy. Tonbridge is still a pleasant country town, minutes away from the Weald of Kent," he says. On Valentine's Day, 1994, Corpus Christi celebrated its centenary.
Mgr Smith is also responsible for St Peter's, the chapel of ease in neighbouring Hadlow. Weekends are busy times, with five Masses and two confessions.
"The main Mass at Corpus Christ is traditional, with incense and all the trimmings. Hadlow is less formal. It's a sung Mass with young musicians accopanying the singing on piano, violin and flute. Mass attendance is 620, but this more than doubles at Christmas and Easter. There seems to be a trend that some people come to Mass two or three times a month."
Since his arrival, Mgr Smith has concentrated on building up the parish community: "My main aim here is to build up the atmosphere of the family of Gnd. You can't build up community unless you come together. At Mass we come together in a pre
eminent way to be strengthened by and united in the Eucharist so that we can go out and take the strength of Christ to the people we meet throughout the week. The Church is about the whole of life not just Sundays."
"We ought to be much more confident as Catholic Christians. If you took the Catholic Church away from Tonbridge, Tonbridge would feel a big gap. People don't realise the work done quietly and unseen by an enormous number of people. There are a lot of elderly people being visited, people who would otherwise be alone. The care of God's family is reaching out to them."
The parish supports both local and international projects: "On a very tangible level, there is enormous generosity in the parish for Third World projects and local charities. Our primary school, St Margaret Clithcrow, raised £1,000 for Hospice in the Weald."
Corpus Christi is also involved in initiatives with other churches in Tonbridge: "Ecumenically we do a lot. I meet regularly with the ministers of the other churches and we decide on joint actions. We help to run a club for the
disabled and a non-alcoholic youth pub."
Overseeing the parish entails a lot of pastoral responsibility, but Mgr Smith relishes his job: "It must be one of the most rewarding
things you can do. If more
young men could experience the joys of the priesthood, there would be more coming forward. Being a priest is a position of enormous privilege; you are often there at the most critical moments of people's lives, so the attitude you have is of huge importance."
He is full of praise for his parishioners: "I get a fantastic amount of encouragement and support from people. I could not wish for more, There is a really good atmosphere and it is a privilege to serve them. I feel the title Father is very apt, not in an authoritarian way, but as someone who cares for his family. The family emphasis is really something you feel exists here."
Mgr Smith's mother is his housekeeper. This adds to the homelike atmosphere he fosters in the parish. He is clearly much loved by his parishioners: "I receive so much from them at Christmas. I can't repay them; there are hundreds of them and only one of me. So I try to give them gifts in other ways, to make their surroundings attractive."
The obvious care Mgr Smith takes of the church, the sacristy and the presbytery bears this out. He proudly points out new innovations like the heater in the porch: "All these little touches make such a difference. I think it is very important to make the church as welcoming as possible." His beautiful, inexpensive Christmas and Easter cards of the church
are on sale in the porch.
Corpus Christi has several unusual features. For a start the roof is barrel shaped. Other unusual features are the two galleries on either side of the choir stalls. The striking William Morris windows include a Lady window showing Our Lady holding the infant Jesus. This is on the left of the altar near the Lady side chapel. The Church is clearly well cared for both by its priest and by its parishioners.
A quick look round the porch shows the involvement of the parishioners in parish life: there is a Corpus Christi women's league, a Catenian circle for Catholic businessmen and other professionals, and numerous Brownie and Scout groups who use Fisher Hall, across the road.
Perhaps the most original of Mgr Smith's innovations are the electronic bells which peal eight minutes before Mass on Sunday morning: "It sounds just like the real thing. The building itself is a witness, and the sound of bells is also a witness a statement that the Catholic Church is here, in Tonbridge," says Mgr Smith.