Friday, February 29, 2008

Catholic education...

has been in the news. Domestic responsibilities this week have made blogging a bit optional. But I've managed to keep up with other writing work, and if you want a taste of what I think about current controversies in Catholic education, you can read about it here.

And Oremus the magazine of Westminster Cathedral, has my feature about Australian pioneer heroine Caroline Chisholm, which I've linked to World Youth Day, coming up in Australia this July...there is renewed interest in her story, because of the Papal visit and WYD, and I've been asked to give some talks about her. She was virtually forgotten - and certainly so here in England when I wrote my book about her in 1995 (it's currently enjoying a new boost of sales).

Life this week has centred around hospital visits and family phone discussions, planning domestic arrangements. It all makes one so grateful for family and friends.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

I've been asked...

to help publicise a series of talks on Love and Responsibility, taking place in Central London over the next few weeks, and I'm very happy to do so. These are the issues that get people thinking, talking, arguing, wanting to know more...and often surprised and challenged by the discovery of what the Church gives and teaches. Topics include "Building the civilisation of love in a media-driven world", "The Gift of Life and Christian Discipleship". Find out more here.

Newspapers full of debate about what to do about "binge drinking" and the evident sense of a flat empty pointlessness in life that gives rise to it. Daft to pretend that making wine and beer more expensive will do anything to change that. Charles Moore in today's Telegraph makes some good points on this.

Young people want - need - to know they are loved and lovable, necessary, valued, and capable of great things. They need to know that life can be full of huge challenges and tasks, and adventures in doing them, and they need the structures that come with all that. How horrible that in modern Britain all this is being denied to so many.

Today in the High Street, a team of Christian singers were braving the cold and the weary who-cares-anyway of shoppers, and singing cheerily about the love of Christ. Their joy was suddenly contagious, and I felt warmed by it. It also made God seem real: he came here, lived among us all, joined in. Cares hugely about every single individual one of us. Easy to forget that.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

An American magazine...

...called VOICES, which is produced by Women for Faith and Family has published a feature by me about Bishop von Galen, whose beatification ceremony I attended in Rome a while back.

Today I worked on a couple of features on different topics for the National Catholic Register, also in the USA. I've been working at Mother's, as she isn't feeling too well. The skills and kindness of an affectionate grandson have ensured that she has an up-to-date computer with Internet access, and so I'm able to continue my work while doing various things that are needed. M. and I have been enjoying a book about Queen Victoria. However did people cope with illness and all its attendant difficulties 150 years is such a blessing to have modern medicines and things like a telephone, Internet, access to automatic banking machines for cash, taxis, trains, even my faithful bicycle...

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The East Riding...

...of Yorkshire was dramatic in hard white frost and freezing fog, with the sun a dull red glow as the train from Doncaster pulled along into Hull by the wide Humber river on Monday evening.

In due course I was in the cheerful kitchen at the presbytery of West Hull with Fr William Massie, enjoying shepherd's pie and breshly brewed coffee, and then off to speak at the Hull Faith Forum, which is linked to the Faith Movement. A full room, with a good many young people squashed together on the seats in good spirits: I spoke on "Feasting and Fasting", talking about the calendar of the Church's year, and the wonderful traditions, especially those associated with Lent and Holy Week and Easter...and in the wide-ranging discussion which followed, the younger element got especially interested in the references I had made to Shakespeare's Catholicism, (because of doing Shakepseare at school) and we got quite deeply into this, and found we were exploring A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Hamlet, and asking questions about The Tempest. Of course, Clare Asquith's book Shadowplay, has lots on this and is opening up a new debate...

Hull was badly hit by the floods last year, and some families are still not back in their homes. I heard first-hand stories of adventures, and felt a bit mean at how quickly the rest of us had forgotten all about it after a few days of headlines.

I stayed overnight - talkative and enjoyable gathering in the pub after the meeting. Next morning, a beautiful Mass at Corpus Christi Church, a small and snug building with a good-sized congregation for a weekday, and a welcoming feel. As we left, a passer-by stopped to talk to Fr W. and said "this church has been a beacon for me" - is interested in the Faith.

As the fog and mist lifted, there were the most glorious views of frosted fields and white-rimed trees stark against the wintry sky.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

You have got to see this... Goring-by-sea in Sussex there is a complete, hand-painted, magnificent Sistine Chapel ceiling.

It is in a completely ordinary Catholic church in this unremarkable small seaside community on the coast, between the South Downs and the English Channel.

It is awesome! Read about it here.

I met the artist, Gary Bevan, who took five years to paint the ceiling, having put up scaffolding in the church, obtained the paints, and gone into dedicated detail to ensure that what he was painting was exactly, in every tiny way, the same as on the ceiling of the chapel in Rome. As he finished the work, he realised that the dimensions of the ceiling here in Sussex were exactly those of the famous Roman one. You walk into the church, which adjoins an old Sussex barn which is now used as the church hall, and you gasp. There it is. In brilliant colours, just as Michaelangelo painted it, the magnificent piece of art that has drawn people to God for centuries.
It's about four minutes' walk from Goring-by-sea station, on the Worthing line.
I was in Goring to give a talk to the parish on "Celebrating traditional feasts and seasons". It was a happy gathering in the little warm oak-beamed Sussex flint barn, with a good crowd, and tea and lovely cakes to finish things...and then afterwards the Bevan girls took me to the sea...all in the wide breezy evening, with the waves crashing on to the shore, and the breakwaters, and the memories of happy childhood on just this very stretch of Sussex coast, and the Downs behind us, and those seaside-houses with green tiled roofs, and the sun setting.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

If you haven't yet read...

Fr Aidan Nichols' new paperback Realm,you are warmly recommended to do so. It's "An unfashionable essay on the conversion of England" and is written with warmth, and a light touch, and is difficult to put down. The chapter on the Coronation ceremony is especially goofd. It's published by Family Publications, which you can reach here.

A busy week...

...ended comfortably at Mother's yesterday evening with a glass of sherry, and supper, and an evening of sewing and chat and relaxation. We watched a video of the classic TV series All Gas and Gaiters. Remember it? You won't if you're under 40. It's set in an Anglican cathedral close, with Derek Nimmo as the Bishop's chaplain, and everything chintzy in a drawing-room-comedy sort of way, with the Dean as a humourless figure with a scary wife...all gently amusing. Golly, what an utterly different Britain it was in 1971. In retrospect it looks like an era of vanishing innocence. The collosal social changes of the late 60s - pop, pot, and the Pill - were just beginning to be fully assimilated in our culture. I remember older people disliking our denim jeans and pop music. But there was still a sense of people sharing a common set of assumptions and memories, a view of themselves and of one another, which made it possible to laugh at national institutions and human relationships in a way that would be impossible today.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hurtling about...

...on trains en route to various speaking engagements, waiting on cold platforms, life has been hugely, gloriously, enlivened by Frank Muir's splendid autobiography A Kentish Lad. Chortling in a crowded railway carriage, I had to explain myself to other passengers ("I'm so sorry - it's just that this is one of the funniest books I've ever read"). It was published about ten years ago, and I just grabbed it from the local library when I rushed in for emergency reading material...

A C. of E. ladies' group in South London last night, a Women's Institute in Surrey today, and this weekend I'm off to Sussex. I sometimes take sewing to do on trains, but it's difficult in the rush-hour.


There's a giant new red poster on a hoarding along the main road near here which says "SOME PEOPLE ARE GAY - GET OVER IT". Well, yes, I found myself thinking - there are people who announce that they are gay, and then get over it. In the past couple of years I have read two features in (non-religious) newspapers by people who, having previously announced themselves as lesbians, later came to a different conclusion and subsequently married very happily and had children.

The poster is produced by Stonewall, a homosexualist lobby group. They've made a big mistake on this one. An absolutely key part of successful advertising is to remember that people don't read subtle details - they just respond to what seems to be the basic message. And the basic message of this poster is that people who are gay will get over it. I don't think that's what Stonewall wanted to convey at all.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Catholic Religious Education Project...

...for primary schools, run by the Association of Catholic Women, has now been flourishing for several years. This year, we've teamed up with the CTS to make the whole venture even bigger. There are two trophies to be won, for different age groups, and some lovely prizes, and Catholic primary schools across Britain are invited to join invited us to address the children, so this morning I went to St Vincent's primary school in Acton, to speak at Morning Assembly.

It's a joy to come in from litter-strewn streets and graffitti and the general cheerlessness of much of today's London, and find a school buzzing with a sense of purpose and small children. They walked into Assembly in neat lines, looking very nice in their school uniforms, sat cross-legged on the floor in rows looking bright-eyed, and led by a teacher put their hands together and closed their eyes for prayers. The chorus of children's voices in prayer was moving - I suppose teachers get used to it, but to this jaded journalist it was so sweet. Then I was introduced and told them about the RE project, and how we were doing it to help children all over Britain learn about our Catholic Faith...I mentioned the Pope and asked if anyone knew his name, and a lot of hands went up and I chose one at random and he was spot-on with the name of BXVI...

It's fun doing something like this, but facing a whole school assembly is surprisingly scary - all those faces. Much more challenging than last night's marriage preparation group, but more enchanting too. A joyful start to the day.

Afterwards I got the Tube to Victoria and relaxed for ten minutes with a cup of coffee and a roll and the Daily Telegraph - excellent commentary today by Simon Heffer about the Govt's Stalinist imposition of its own horrible version of "culture" on schools.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Young love in Chelsea...

Crowded room, filled with young engaged couples. They all look rather sweet, though when one gets talking to them of course they all turn out to be terrifyingly high-powered people in money and fashion journalism and things like that. And they've come for a Marriage Preparation Course and are all consciously being Deeply Serious about it. But once the talks start, the slightly artificial feel gives way to something more genuine - the discovery that this isn't a lot of woffle about relationships and caringandsharing but the real thing, which can be slightly startling: God and the reality of marriage as a sacrament, and what this means, and the practicalities of a lifelong commitment in a society that isn't going to do much to sustain you in that.

We were at St Mary's, Cadogan Street, Chelsea, where this Marriage Course has now been running for several years. If you are reading this as a much older person, and concerned for today's young people, and the general mess that Britain seems to be in at the moment in its family life, why not pray for the young couples I met tonight?

Dates to note... your diary. Yesterday I met with the young team from Miles Jesu/Continuity, who organised last year's excellent Martyrs Walk in London. We're going to do it again this year, so mark the date now: Saturday June 21st. We'll start at Tower Hill, where Sts John Fisher and Thomas More met their deaths, and we'll walk through London to Tyburn, stopping on the way at St Patrick's, Soho Square, for Benediction and Tea.

Appropriately, we met yesterday at Tyburn to have our planning-session: we prayed in the convent chapel, and then went for a cup of coffee nearby. Tyburn Convent has adoration of the Blessed Sacrament all day, and there is always one of the Sisters praying...

While I'm about it, I'll mention another date - way ahead, but worth booking into your diary now so that nothing clashes: Sat. Nov 8th will be the 2008 Towards Advent Festival of Catholic Culture at Westminster Cathedral sounds daft, but we'll be holding our first working meeting to make preliminary arrangements in March...

Monday, February 11, 2008

A vignette...

...of life in suburbia: in a Britain of ugly crimes, violent groups gathering to shriek and hit one another in the streets, and a general sense of unease, there is another life plodding along, slightly beleagured, conscious of an air of menace, but getting on with things valued and enjoyed for a long time and not to be given up lightly....

There are groups in the suburbs that still thrive with a faintly pre-TV, pre-fast-foods, pre- WWII sort of feel to them: clubs and societies catering for different hobbies, little groups with Minutes and Chairmen and Annual General Meetings. They invite people like me to speak to them. Tonight, I was speaking to a local Wine Making Circle. They - well - make wine, and take it along and taste it and win prizes and certificates. They have a Guest Speaker and nibble snacks and wait to be entertained. I was invited to speak on "Celebrating Feasts and Seasons".

The meeting was in a church hall, and while they set up the tables and talked about blackberry wine, I looked into the church. High Anglican. Two people, one a robed clergyman, saying the Stations of the Cross. They were just approaching number 12. "We adore Thee O Christ and we praise Thee". "Because by Thy holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world." It was suddenly good to be there and just quietly to join in: they swivelled round when they heard a third voice but then just nodded and carried on. Later I read the parish newsletter and there it was, "Stations of the Cross every Monday evening during Lent". I hope they get more people next week.

A fine Edwardian church, beautiful stained glass with a Burne-Jones feel... I've passed it dozens of times and never dropped in.

Then the meeting: a cheery gathering. Gave my talk and, to my pleasure, sold a number of books. Good questions and chat afterwards. Home through the dark streets to a mug of tea, and plans for tomorrow, and writing this Blog.


"There are certain places and cultures where women are discriminated against and undervalued just for the fact that they are women, where recourse is even had to religious arguments and family, social and cultural pressures to support the disparity between the sexes, where there is consumption of acts of violence against women, making them into objects of abuse and exploitation in advertising and in the consumer and entertainment industries. In the face of such grave and persistent phenomena the commitment of Christians appears all the more urgent, so that they become everywhere the promoters of a culture that recognizes the dignity that belongs to women in law and in reality.

"God entrusts to women and to men, according to the characteristics that are proper to each, a specific vocation in the mission of the Church and in the world. I think here of the family, community of love, open to life, fundamental cell of society. In it, woman and man, thanks to the gift of maternity and paternity, together play an irreplaceable role in regard to life. From the moment of their conception, children have a right to count on a father and a mother who care for them and accompany them in their growth.
The state, for its part, must sustain with adequate social policies all that which promotes the stability of matrimony, the dignity and the responsibility of the husband and wife, their rights and irreplaceable duty to educate their children. Moreover, it is necessary that it be made possible for the woman to cooperate in the building-up of society, appreciating her typical 'feminine genius.' "

Pope Benedict, speaking to a conference of women in Rome this weekend.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Daffodils... the parks and gardens, and white blossom on the trees...suddenly Spring in suburbia today as I cycled to Mother's after Mass. On Sunday afternoons we often have a game of Scrabble and then tackle the Catholic Herald crossword. We are getting much better at the latter, but haven't yet managed to finish it and send it off in hopes of a prize. This week, we got the clue about the French Protestants of the Reformed Tradition, and the one about St Paul's Letter to the Galatians, but got hopelessly stuck on the clue that simply said "discombobulated". Is there another word for that? Can't think of one.

Masses in our parish are crowded, and it got rather warm in church. The weather seems crazy - today could have been April. But it's only the first Sunday of Lent...Fr P. suggested a booklet called A Rule of Life (CTS) and I picked one up...

Friday, February 08, 2008

...and I've been asked a (rather sulky-sounding!) anonymous correspondent to this blog, whether I "have any life outside narrow religious activities". Other readers may have noted that I promote this Blog as being a Catholic one, connected with my work as a Catholic journalist and broadcaster. So I don't write much about personal thing unconnected with that - with the quiet conviction that perhaps the details of my personal social life aren't, in any case, terribly interesting.

However, to satisfy Anonymous, I'll give a brief run-down on my other activities over the past couple of weeks or so. These have included (in no particular order of importance): an enjoyable lunch with a dear friend of my late father, girl-talk time over coffee with a niece and one of her friends discussing dresses they were to wear at a College Ball, an agreeable and rather giggly lunch with said niece, tea with a wonderful aunt (cream cakes), an evening watching a 1940s film (chocolate, hankies), a concert (Schubert, Brahms), a couple of extremely satisfying hours in a library (biographies, 19th century history), tea with a Marchioness (smoked salmon, scones), a drinks party with a great many journalists (champagne), a discussion about summer holiday plans with family, and an early morning bike ride with one of the most glorious sunrises I have ever seen.

Happy now?

I had an email...

...about the Holy Father's amending of the "Prayer for the Jews" in the Extraordinary Form of the Good Friday prayers. The Holy Father is absolutely right to respond to Jewish concerns, and with his deep understanding of liturgy wants to ensure that the Church's prayer is at one with the heart of Christ. If we are to obey Christ's command to spread to Gospel to all people, nothing could be more daft than continuing to use a prayer that - even accidentally - caused offence, thus clearly putting people off, rather than attracting them! And all concerned could benefit by taking this in the spirit of the Golden Rule. The new version has clearly been produced with the intention of eliminating offence, so if offence is taken now, it will be unjust.

Meanwhile the Ordinary Form of the prayer, which like other middle-aged and young Catholics I have known for all my Good Fridays, is beautiful and impressive - and it is that version which will be used in the vast majority of Catholic churches across the world.

God bless our Papa Benedict!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

An ecumenical venture...

...with which I have been involved for some years is Christian Projects/OCU - we run an annual Schools Bible Project, involving schools across Britain, offering young people an opportunity to study the New Testament and write essays which can win prizes... I spent today with two long-time supporters of this venture, going through old papers and sorting them...for some years our records have been kept in their house in the country, and now it was time to decide which to keep and which to throw out...a day of nostalgia as we talked of old times, remembering past achievements, crisies, hilarious moments, daft things, good things. As I was taken to the station at the end of the day, carrying a big plastic bin-bag filled with some empty files which I can put to good use here at home, and a head and heart full of memories, I was aware of a chapter closing.

The 2008 Schools Bible Project is set to be the biggest ever - do keep it in your prayers.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

I've been at...

Fawley Court in Oxfordshire, at a conference organised by the British section of the international charity Aid to the Church in Need.

It was for ACN's team of diocesan secretaries, who visit parishes to give appeals on behalf of ACN, explain its work, encourage support for its projects, and sell items such as the rosaries made by Christians in the Holy Land, devotional books, DVDs of sacred music, etc. Excellently organised, it included a talk on the current situation of the Church in China, with news on the relationship between the underground and the "official" Church there, and the general scene as the Olympics approach...

Fawley Court is a conference/retreat centre run by Polish Marian Fathers. This morning we all attended Mass and recieved ashes for Ash Wednesday - done in the Polish fashion by sprinkling them on our heads rather than the British style which is to mark a cross with ash on the forehead. Yesterday evening we had delightful pre-Lent drinks at the home of a generous benefactor to ACN, who welcomed us to a wonderful party in her beautiful home.

Our conference was mostly in a modern building in the grounds of Fawley Court, but we used the beautiful chapel for Mass - an icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa and other Polish items mingling with the Jacobean panelling of an old English country house.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Oh dear...

... when I started this Blog, I decided I wouldn't, as a general rule, merely comment on things I had read in the press. But sometimes it's irresistible.

Two items:

- after praising the excellence and high standards of Britain's small village schools, the Government is going to close a large number of them - up to a third of the total - across the country. Such schools are the heart of village and rural life, they have consistently good records in teaching reading, numeracy, and the basic subjects of a primary curriculum, they teach a wide range of other things including community traditions and local history (at the fair in my in-laws' village last summer, little girls from the school led us all in country dancing - a joy) and they foster strong links across the generations...all absolutely crucial at the start of this new century. In a nation of increasing viciousness and crime, they are core centres of real values and achievement, of shared enterprise and useful activity. So our Labour masters plan to close as many of them as they can.

- local authorities are going to start charging fees for collecting rubbish. And they are claiming this will improve the environment! Are they completely daft? Quite obviously, if people have to pay for having rubbish removed, they'll simply dump it somewhere without paying.

A central responsibility of a local Council is ensure basic public services to prevent rats and filth from stacking up in streets and alleys and open spaces. It is what local authorities are for. It is why local taxes are taken from us. Making people pay for this basic service is a negation of what local government is all about. We may as well revert to the 18th-century system of having rich people pay to get things cleaned up in the areas around around their nice homes, while the main public streets are where the poor dump their rubbish.

No, I'm not just an armchair-grumbler. I go up and down our street and collect the rubbish that people drop as they return from the fast-food places nearby, and I have even bought paint-stripper and scrubbed graffitti off local walls. And I'm active with a number of schools, urban and rural. And yes, I do know something of the costs involved in running education and local authorities.

Friday, February 01, 2008

St Robert Southwell...

...heroic Jesuit martyr, who died with quite extraordinary courage after vicious torture, has his feast-day in February, so I was writing about him this morning for a feature in the Catholic Times. I hope that Jesuits today (yes, I am thinking of the pro-priestess ones!) learn from him.

The Jesuits... London's famous Farm Street church sponsor an event called "Theology on tap", in which young people meet at a pub and discuss some aspect of the Catholic faith. Yesterday I was invited to be their speaker: "Women and the Church", at a pub in Grays Inn Road. A lively discussion, not without its amusing one point, a (male!) Jesuit was putting the case for priestesses, and was roundly opposed by the young women in the room, who said they supported the Church's traditional teaching!