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Advent with St Anthony: Perseverance

22nd December, 2022

Advent With St Anthony: Perseverance

In this final Advent reflection, Gabriel Stirling looks at what St Anthony the Great can teach us about preserving in the faith.

‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see?’ – Gospel of St Matthew, 11.7

Advent will soon be over and Christmas will begin. As the Gloria returns to Mass, Christians across the globe will gather to celebrate the birth of our Saviour. 

At the same time, the change of the season brings to an end this series of blogs. 

We conclude with the death of St Anthony of Egypt. Aged 105 and having spent most of his life in the seclusion of the mountains, he left his monastery for one last time, heading to spend eternity with God.

Before his death, St Anthony spoke to his fellow monks, calling them to prepare “zealously” in hope of the return of Our Lord. Warning of “the treachery of the demons”, he nonetheless reassures them to “Fear them not, but rather ever breathe Christ, and trust Him.” 

St Anthony spoke from harsh experience. During the past few weeks, these blogs have delved into the spiritual torment which the monk endured at the hands of the Devil. In this 15th century Italian painting, St Anthony is shown being tempted by the promise of Gold. But trusting in God, St Anthony was delivered from the pit of sin.

As Christmas begins and passes, it might be easy to forget the lessons learned from Advent. But through the changing seasons, the message shown in the Holy Scriptures and by the lives of the Saints remains the same. The looming sense of preparation that defines Advent has value throughout our life.

Owing to this is the fact that we are in dire need of preparation. The threat of sin is one which we all face, a point graphically illustrated by St Anthony during the last few weeks. As St John puts it candidly in his First Epistle, “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.”

Yet we are not without hope. At Christmas, we celebrate the Nativity of the Incarnate Word and the hope which he brought into the world. This hope remains with us in the Church, which as the bride of Christ, prepares sinners to spend eternity with God. Her sacraments – and the Eucharist in particular – provide us with real hope that we might be reconciled to God.

Saint Anthony the Abbot Tempted by a Heap of Gold, Master of Osservanza

Therefore, the message of Advent is not a seasonal fixture that comes and goes like the latest TikTok trend. Our life forms its own extended Advent, a sense of constant preparation. This might seem a tall order. The world – and indeed our own lives – can feel irretrievably broken. But as one popular hymn reminds us, Christ offers us real hope of everlasting peace:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

Wishing you all a warm and Holy Christmas.

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A Theology of the Family

22nd December 2022

A Theology of the Family: The Strange Case of the Bare Feet

Stefan Kaminski
Perugino - Adoration of he Magi
Perugino's Adoration of the Magi, in Citta' delle Pieve, Italy

Perugino’s Adoration of the Magi in Citta’ delle Pieve, Italy (as opposed to the one in Perugia) contains a curious detail which is easily overlooked at first glance. In the dim light of the small Oratory that houses this painting, the vibrant colours of the principal figures in the foreground pop out and create an almost 3D effect. The observer’s gaze is drawn across the breadth of the painting by the various garments of the ten or so persons that flank the child Jesus in the centre. One is conscious of the depth and activity that stretches away behind this first row of figures, but the colours readily draw the eye back to the primary scene. It is not easy for the eye to then drop down to the protagonists’ feet, which are very much where you expect them to be. By virtue of their sensibly-coloured footwear, they do not demand any particular attention: that is, until one notices that the feet of some of these important people are bare.

The feet that have most obviously exposed themselves to the elements are those of Mary and Joseph. Perhaps a nod to their humble state, in view of the bare-footed shepherds that hover in the background, and in contrast to the calced extremities of their noble visitors? The homogeneity of the garments across this front row of figures would suggest not. Closer examination reveals that one more of these principal figures is also bare-footed: the bearded gentlemen at the far right. Why should he not have worn some sandals on this visit?

If, by some astute observation (or perhaps at the prompt of a helpful guide), one compares this man with the discalced Holy Family, and then particularly with the figure of Joseph, one starts to notice some strange similarities: a perfect parallel in bodily posture, from the angle of the head down to the distribution of weight and position of the feet; an identical facial profile and features; a reflection of each other’s expression. The only distinguishing feature, other than the colour of the garments, is that the man’s beard is much fuller and longer, and is distinctly double-stranded.

The only clue that can be claimed with certainty is that this particular beard is clearly used by Perugino in other of his paintings on the figure of God the Father. If we are to suppose, then, that Perugino did indeed intend this figure as the Heavenly Father, one can also note the gold girdle around his waist – typically depicting sovereignty or royalty – and the celestial blue of his undergarment – a classical indicator of a spiritual being.

This striking relation between the figures of Joseph and God the Father immediately calls to mind St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (3:14-15). The painting appears to express precisely this: Jesus’ foster-faster, Joseph, is shadowed by the real Father, who manifests His presence discreetly in the background and at the same time somehow lends authority to the figure of Joseph. Joseph’s persona thus takes on a fuller sense when one realises that his fatherhood, though temporal, is exercised in the name of the Father.

Joseph, who plays such a strong, yet silent role before and through the infancy of Jesus, quietly disappears from the Gospels as the Christ emerges into the maturity of His humanity and the fullness of His divine mission. Yet his presence is a reminder that God the Son was not born into some extraordinary situation, even if His Incarnation was an extraordinary event. The Divine Saviour was inserted into the ordinary and regular pattern of the nuclear family – father and mother – surrounded by their extended family and relations.

Given the non-biological nature of Joseph’s fatherhood, one might ask whether there is any deeper meaning to his role than simply that of fostering the child and providing stability and support to the mother. Perugino, if we have interpreted his painting correctly, seems to very much think there is. And indeed, more authoritative support comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Their long genealogies trace Jesus’ ancestry through each generation from Adam through to Joseph, passing through the lineage of Abraham and his Israelite descendants, encompassing kings and prostitutes alike.

Fans of Tolkien will be all-too-familiar with those long pages in The Lord of the Rings that are preoccupied with tracing the lineage of Frodo Baggins, Aragorn or one of the Dwarves. Indeed, ancestry is an absolutely critical part of all Tolkien’s writings that tell the story of his fantasy world, beginning with its creation, as told in the Silmarillion, through several epochs until the ‘redemption’ of Middle-Earth with the defeat of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring of Power.

In his mythical vision of reality, Tolkien merely reflects what is divinely and humanly true; namely, that the human person is not an isolated ego, a self-defined construct, or a morally-autonomous being. The human person has an origin and a destiny, is given their existence and context, and is called to act for the concrete good of his neighbours.

Thus, at a legal and social level, Joseph’s importance is in providing Jesus with a crucial part of His human ‘identity’, through which He is inserted into a chain of parents and progeny. This is deliberately traced right back to its very origins, pointing us back to the Father, after whom every family is named. It similarly evokes future progeny, the generation of which is the primary purpose of the family. In the case of Christ, that progeny is potentially every person throughout human history, who through faith in Him, are all called as adopted children of the same Father.

The Church’s vision of the human family is thus grounded in the nuclear family for a good reason: the family is the context and means intended by God for the flourishing of humanity. God Himself assumed humanity in this context, and whilst He ‘only’ adopted an earthly father, the figure of Joseph speaks powerfully of the more important and fundamental reality that is true of every family. This is the same truth that St Paul is at pains to point out in his letter to the Ephesians, and has been recognised since the early Church Fathers: Fatherhood, properly speaking, is a reality that only belongs to God. God is Father of all because He is creator of all. In the same way that the very existence of every being depends on the supreme Existence, the fatherhood (as expressed in the complementary, generative power of both sexes) of the human person only and ever has any meaning as a reflection of and cooperation with the Divine Fatherhood.

Inserted into the specific strand of Joseph’s ancestry, the Holy Family raises the stakes for all human families. No longer is the family simply the font of earthly life, but it is now joined to the Divine project of Redemption. The human family not only remains a co-operator in the mystery of creation (to paraphrase St John Paul II), participating with God in the creation of human persons: it is now an embodiment of the mystical marriage between Christ and His Church, and its primary task is now to generate children for the Kingdom of God. As Perugino depicts so beautifully, human fatherhood is a task that is given by God, and answerable for to Him alone.

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Advent with St Anthony: Penance

8th December 2022

Advent With St Anthony: Penance

The second post in a series of blogs by Gabriel Stirling exploring the relationship between penance and Advent

In due course John the Baptist appeared; he preached in the wilderness of Judea and this was his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ – Matthew 3:1-2 

Of all the Christian Feasts, it is Christmas that has become most embraced for materialist ends. In many shops, Christmas goods were out on the shelves before All Saints Day. But like a voice crying out in the desert, the Saints remind us to reclaim Advent in the name of penance. 

Penance is a big part of our Lenten preparations, but why should we embrace it ahead of Christmas? Should we not spend these next few weeks consuming material goods ahead of the big day, with moments of merriment intertwined? 

On the contrary, it is an essential part of our conversion and a fitting virtue for this liturgical season.

In last Sunday’s Gospel, St John the Baptist recalls the prophet Isaiah, who reminds his followers to “prepare the way for the Lord”. With Christ’s ministry imminent, it is possible to get a sense of the urgency with which St John the Baptist preached. This command stands for posterity, and in Advent, we are likewise called to prepare for the Kingdom of God. 

St Anthony of Egypt understood this urgency. Facing the torments of demons, he embraced a life devoted to fasting, prayer and poverty. The Egyptian hermit lived off bread, salt and water, sleeping on the bare floor. The demons could not cope with such devotion; they left St Anthony, recoiling in anguish.

Addressing his fellow monks, St Anthony reminded them that penance is an aid in spiritual combat against evil. “Demons”,  he states, “fear the fasting, the sleeplessness, the prayers, the meekness, the quietness, the contempt of money and vainglory, the humility, the love of the poor, the alms, the freedom from anger of the ascetics”.

Unable to stand against a truly penitent soul, the Evil One cries out in defeat.

Advent is partly about preparing us for Christmas. But look beyond the twelve days of Christmas and can see the eternity that awaits us in Heaven. The liturgy in Advent emphasises the return of Christ at the end of this world, encouraging us to think beyond our life on earth. Penance puts this anticipation into practice.

There is no obligation for penance during Advent. But the Church still recommends it as a way of preparing for Christmas. The Eastern Orthodox refer to Advent as the Nativity Fast, further emphasising these penitential themes. 

 

St Anthony’s dedication and faithfulness was extraordinary. But the lengths he went to should not discourage Christians. Not many of us will find our vocation as a hermit in the Egyptian wilderness. However, through penance, our souls are led away from evil and reconciled to God. 

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Jan Wellens de Cock

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Advent with St Anthony of Egypt: Preparation

25th November 2022

Advent With St Anthony: Preparation

The first post in a series of blogs by Gabriel Stirling that will explore what lessons St Anthony of Egypt can teach us about the season of Advent.

‘Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect’ – St Matthew, 24:44

During Advent, we are reminded not only of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but also of Christ’s Second Coming. This is a theme found throughout Sacred Scripture, as well as in the lives of the Saints. In particular, the life of the founder of monasticism, St Anthony of Egypt, offers us the chance to reflect on how we should prepare for the return of Our Lord.  

St Anthony was born in around 250 AD in Roman-ruled Egypt. A faithful believer from a young age, it was this devotion that made him a target for the Devil, who inflicted greater and greater torments on St Anthony. Not surrendering to the Evil One, he ventured into the tombs that inhabit the barren Egyptian landscape, to live a life dedicated to penance and solitude.

It was here in the barren wilderness that St Anthony entered into spiritual combat with the Devil. According to one account, he found himself subjected to the torments of demons who tried, but failed, to posess his body. The Devil tempted him with food and other material comforts, things that the hermit had surrendered.  But St Anthony was able to persevere in the face of these trials, strengthened through the grace of God. The demons eventually left him, defeated and demoralised. 

This retreat into the wilderness was not out of a desire for spiritual enlightenment or self-improvement. Instead, St Anthony saw it as a place of preparation before coming face to face with Christ. Speaking to his fellow monks, he said that that, by leading the contemplative life, they would be ‘ever striving and looking forward to the day of Judgment’. For St Anthony, the end goal of this ascetic life was to find his soul ready to meet with God.

St Anthony reminds us that the true focus of any Christian life should be one of preparation. In finding a place of relative peace, we can call upon God to help us with whatever spiritual trials that we face. Admittedly, finding a wilderness to prepare in is difficult when confronted with the noise of modern life. But quiet spaces still do exist, be it in praying the Rosary at home, visiting the Blessed Sacrament or attending a weekday Mass in church. In these moments, we surrender ourselves to God and receive a foretaste of the glory of Heaven.

The Tourment of St Anthony, a late-15th century painting attributed to Michelangelo

Advent offers us the chance to break the cycle of sin before the joyous festivities of Christmas. But perhaps more significantly, the life of St Anthony calls on us to prepare beyond Advent. Following his example, let us resolve to listen to God’s call and prepare our soul for the Kingdom of Christ.

Source: Life of St Anthony, St Athanasius/New Advent

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Saint Theodore – a Bishop for our times

19th September 2022

Saint Theodore: a Bishop for our times

Today is the memorial of St Theodore of Tarsus, the namesake of the home of the Christian Heritage Centre. But what else do we know about his life, and what lessons should Catholics take from it?

St Theodore was born in around 600AD in Tarsus, now part of Turkey, but which was then a predominantly Greek settlement in the Byzantine Empire. His studies took him first to Constantinople, and later Rome, where he initially planned on becoming a monk. However, his plans changed when in 669, he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Church that St Theodore found on his arrival in England had many problems. The dioceses were too large and many did not have bishops in their posts. St Theodore revitalised the Church, visiting all the dioceses of England, and appointing bishops to vacant sees. He managed to reconcile clergy who had fallen out, and held the first synod for the entire province of Canterbury. After his death in 690, St Bede wrote that St Theodore was “the first archbishop whom all the English obeyed”. 

St Theodore’s life exemplified the call for unity among Christians. He had travelled all the way across Europe from Tarsus to Canterbury. But during this time, St Theodore was always part of the same “Catholic and Apostolic Church” affirmed each Sunday in the Creed. Moreover,  St Theodore had managed to end to the divisions that had plagued the Church. Through this and more, St Theodore truly lived to St Paul’s command to the Galatians that “all one in Christ Jesus”.

In 2017, work began on renovating a derelict mill owned by Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. When the building was completed in 2019, it was given the name Theodore House. One reason for this was the donation made to The Christian Heritage Centre by the Theodore Trust of over £2 million, with which the Trust made its final bequest and closed down. This donation effectively gave wheels to the Old Mill project (no pun intended), breathing life into the carefully drawn-up plans. Given the charity’s intention of making use of the new building to help revitalise the Christian faith in our country, as well as St Theodore’s relevance to England and his veneration by Orthodox, Catholic and Anglicans alike, the name seemed all the more fitting.

Opened in February 2019 by Lord Nicholas Windsor, Theodore House not only hosts the charity’s courses, conferences and retreats, but it also provides facilities for bed and breakfast, as well as space for private functions.

We ask for his intercession for the future of the Christian Heritage Centre and for the future of the Catholic Church in England & Wales.

St Theodore, pray for us!

Source: The Catholic Encyclopaedia/New Advent

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Christian leadership and Saint John Paul II

10th November 2022

Christian Leadership & St John Paul II

St John Paul II on his 1979 visit to Poland
Each era has particular challenges of its own to face. How can Saint John Paul II's papacy be a model for Catholic leadership today?

The journey of a young Karol Józef Wojtyła to the Priesthood was not an easy one. Realising his vocation, he was forced to study in an underground seminary due the Nazi occupation of Poland. But the end of World War II would not bring peace for the Church. For the next forty years, Poland was ruled by a Marxist regime that sought to eliminate the influence of the faith in society. As the state sought to assert its control over all aspects of life, the Church became increasingly constrained.

Yet some clergy, such as the future St John Paul II, spoke out. As Archbishop of Krakow, he called on the government to respect religious and political liberties. Soon after his election as Pope, he made a nine-day pilgrimage to Poland.  The tour included trips to the sites of a number of Slavic Saints, reminding those behind the Iron Curtin of their Christian heritage. Criticism of the regime could prove costly however. The Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko was beaten to death on account of his political activity. Despite this, the Catholic Church in Poland persisted in its stand against communism, thus contributing to its collapse in 1989.

St John Paul II also devoted significant attention to changes in Western perceptions of human sexuality. He saw in these another profound challenge to human society, albeit of a different sort from a Marxist ideology. His criticism of the West’s pursuit of unfettered freedoms was coupled with his conviction that the Christian vision of marriage and family life were crucial to a healthy society. In a series of catecheses that became known as The Theology of the Body, the Polish pope elaborated an integral view of the human person. Not only did he carefully make clear the relationship between the Fall and our present human condition,  but he drew out the full beauty of two millennia of theological reflection around the nature of the human person and their pursuit of happiness. Within this, a virtue-based ethics remains key to a personal and societal betterment.

Unlike the struggle against communism, the issues related to the nature, dignity and identity of the human person remain heavily contested in today’s Western society. To say the least, the Church’s teaching is profoundly countercultural. But this is no reason to give up. On the contrary, it should drive believers to refound and reshape a society that promotes a true, Christian freedom.

St John Paul II recognised that communism stifled religious freedom and compromised human dignity. With many Catholics in the West struggling to reconcile Christian teaching with secular ideologies, he remains a figure many look to for inspiration. 

Despite the risks, St John Paul II and many other Catholics sought to promote these eternal truths. Throughout his life, he reminded those on both sides of the Iron Curtain of their Christian heritage. And on both sides, not all of his teaching was universally accepted. However, the conviction shown by Pope John Paul II, and many lay Catholics with him, is an important first step. 

This call is not just for a select few, but rather for the whole Church. In Christifideles laici, St John Paul II argued that, “it is ever more urgent that today all Christians take up again the way of Gospel renewal”. We might not all have the same position in public life, but we can learn how to use our vocation that furthers the Christian call to holiness. 

A statue of St John Paul II in the Polish city of Czestochowa

The Christian Heritage Centre aims to form Christians so they can follow this call. Our Christian Leadership Formation programme prepares young people to bring their faith into positions of leadership. The programme equips students with the skills to shape a Christian society amidst the challenges and opportunities of today. Through our work, we aim to encourage them to follow in the steps of St John Paul II as fearless defenders of moral truths.

St John Paul II, pray for us!

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The ancient practice of Iconography

6th May 2022

The ancient practice of Iconography

Rev. Nikita Andrejev talks about this original tradition of Christian sacred art, which has been integral to the spiritual life of Christians since apostolic times.

Is Icongraphy primarily a religious practice in former times? When did it become available to lay people & even those not allied to a Christian tradition?

We know very little concerning the identities of the ancient iconographers. Some of them were monks with a high level of spiritual life, like St Andrei Rublev who painted the famous Trinity, and St. Alipiy of the Kiev Caves. But whatever their background, at least on some level the painting would require entering into a relationship with the saints depicted, with the dogmas and tenets of the faith. Icons on display in churches were by definition designed for lay people’s appreciation.

This is all the more the case in our own times, where icons can be enjoyed as works of art but have an appeal that goes beyond superficial beauty and technical skill. There is a general hunger for spirituality in the West and the rediscovery and appreciation of the Eastern Church’s Orthodox iconography is very much part of this. An icon is at base a spiritual portrait, suggesting the mystery of the divine – yet whatever one’s beliefs, what could be more universal than a simple yet attentive depiction of a human face?

Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity, symbolised by the three angels who visit Abraham at Mamre

How did you come to learn the skill of iconography?

I learned the skill of icon painting from my father. As a child, I watched him both painting and teaching in his studio. Icons were at the centre of his life; not just professionally and spiritually, but socially, too – both my parents enjoyed entertaining his students to meals and to an annual ‘open house’.

I loved the sense of peace, of safety, in his studio, but I also enjoyed learning the practical skills of how to draw, to paint, and this gradually developed into assisting him with aspects of creating the icons he worked on. As a teenager I would accompany him to summer workshops, acting as his translator, but by then I had already realised that my future was as an artist, creating icons and teaching iconography.

Are you an Iconographer who teaches or an Iconography teacher who paints icons? What is the relationship between your Iconography practice and your role as an iconography teacher?

The two spheres of painting and teaching certainly feed into each other. I teach based on the experience of my own painting, but many times it’s when in a workshop that I’m better able to test out or implement a ‘plan’ for a given stage of the painting, say a certain colour combination. Perhaps because in a class, where many students are painting one and the same subject, you have the chance to see one and the same plan, the same paint combinations, unfold in ten or twenty very different ways! You can see the limits of what is possible, the potentials as well as the difficulties.

Perhaps more importantly, though, when taking a workshop you have to be very focussed, very time-conscious. You are responsible for other people, and this is always a challenge, but also an opportunity to grow, by observing and learning from others. So from one perspective, workshops are very good for the teacher! Whatever the balance between my role as painter and teacher, I don’t see myself as a fount of knowledge – as iconographers we are all at various stages of learning…

Deacon Nikita Andrejev is an iconographer and instructor based in Estonia, belonging to the Prosopon School of Iconology.

He will be teaching the CHC’s course on Ancient Byzantine Iconography in June 2022.

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A successful end to the first CLF programme

25th April 2022

A successful end to the CLF programme

Christian Leadership Formation programme
Our first cohort receive their certificates in Westminster Hall from Ruth Kelly, having successfully completed the programme.

This time last year, the 14 students above were sending in application forms and canvassing references for a programme that was newly ‘on the market’, and for which there was little to go on other than its website.

The feedback that they have provided seems to firmly vindicate their decision to apply, since the one, recurring criticism they have consistently made of the programme was that the modules were too short! More time was needed to absorb and discuss the material – as well as to socialise!

The final module fittingly took place around the Palm Sunday weekend, and was kindly hosted by Westminster Diocese’s youth retreat centre in Pinner, north-west London (as was the second module). With the theme of this module being “Applied Political Leadership”, it was most appropriate to begin with a period of retreat over Palm Sunday itself, meditating on Christ as our only, true ‘leader’ and as the One to whom all Christians are called to lead others.

The retreat was the first time that most attendees had entered into any protracted period of silence (even if only 12 hours or thereabouts), but everyone found the fruits of the meditations, prayer and liturgy to be all the greater for it.

Christian Leadership Formation programme
With Fr Dancho Azagra, in the grounds of Westminster Diocese's retreat centre in Pinner
Christian Leadership Formation programme
ADF's UK director, Ryan Christopher, gives a workshop on changing policy and culture

The sunny weather made for a beautiful experience of the centre’s outdoor Stations of the Cross, as well as the first part of the Palm Sunday liturgy, bringing to life the lovely and extensive gardens. Our particular thanks are due to Fr Dancho Azagra for his careful preparation of the retreat period.

Following some downtime on the Sunday evening, Monday saw a return to the all-too-familiar and intense pattern of prayer and study. We were delighted to have Prof. Philip Booth, Director of Catholic Mission at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, offer both some introductory input into Catholic Social Teaching as well as to pick up on the contemporary theme of challenges to the environment. His sessions, which framed this issue within the holistic and Christian perspective of the ‘human ecology’, and which tackled the question of corporate versus individual responsibilities, were greatly appreciated.

Keeping the theme of the common good firmly in sight, Dr John Snape, Associate Professor of Law at Warwick University, opened up that topic which, together with death, is the only certainty in life (cf. Benjamin Franklin): taxes. He masterfully introduced the students to both the philosophic and rationale behind taxation as well as the criteria that have been expounded over the centuries to measure the equity of the related policies.

The classroom input was rounded off by ADF UK’s Ryan Christopher, whose workshops challenged the students to actively consider the relationship between policy and culture, and offered some important principles for putting into practice their own moral and cultural leadership.

To conclude both the module and the whole programme, Tuesday morning saw the group head towards the City centre. The first stop was St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, where the group were welcomed for Mass by the Dean, Fr Francis Murphy. Armed with Pret-a-Manger sandwiches, Parliament Square was our next stop (for a picnic rather than a protest!), and from there we reported to Westminster Palace for our tour of the Houses of Commons and Lords. Having seen both chambers, we returned to Westminster Hall, the site of St Thomas More’s trial, to meet Ruth Kelly, a former Labour MP and Cabinet Minister. Conscious of the programme being under the patronage of More, Ruth spoke feelingly, yet with great encouragement, about her own difficulties in serving the government as a committed Christian and Catholic. The students had time to question her about her experiences and to seek her advice, before Ruth presented them with certificates attesting to the completion of the programme.

Christian Leadership Formation programme
Students picnic in Westminster Square before a tour of Parliament

The farewells that followed outside were certainly not the last as the group have expressed enthusiastic support for an annual conference and reunion, as well as a more regular online forum with talks and discussion.

Once again, our gratitude goes to those who have supported the programme with their time and input or financially. The places on the course have in large part been funded by generous donors, thus enabling the participation of many of the students.

The 2022 programme is currently open for application. More information and application forms are available at  https://christianheritagecentre.com/clf/

Christian Leadership Formation programme
Not protesting, but picnicking
Christian Leadership Formation programme
In Westminster Hall at the start of the tour of Parliament
Christian Leadership Formation programme
Ready to say goodbye
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Lent: Where does it come from? Where does it go?

2nd March 2022

Lent: Where does it come from? Where does it go?

Stefan Kaminski

The most obvious connotation of Lent is that of a period of forty days, during which fasting and penance are to be practiced. The old Latin name for this period – Quadragesima (literally, “fortieth day”) – clearly reflects this, analogously to Pentecost’s reference to the fiftieth day. Instead, the term “Lent” was adopted by the Anglo-Saxons from the Teutonic word for the spring season. Whilst drawing from the season associated with this time, it was also perhaps intended to reflect the spiritual process that should be enabled by the discipline of Lent.

The core notion of Lent – that of a pre-Paschal fast – can be traced to the earliest days of the Church. Such a practice is referred to by important, third-century sources such as Eusebius (the “Father of Church History”) and the Didascalia (a treatise that builds on the Constitutions of the Apostles’ Council of Jerusalem).

Entombment of Christ, by Sisto Badalocchio

However, the Apostolic era through till the fourth century is void of any evidence of a designated period of forty days. One explanation that has been suggested for this is that the early Church intended the commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection rather more clearly as a weekly celebration – that of the Sunday liturgy. Correspondingly, a fast on Friday, practiced since those earliest days, constituted the weekly remembrance of Christ’s Passion and Death. This theory makes sense of the presence of a clear and universal weekly observance of both Friday and Sunday, which co-existed throughout the first two centuries of Christianity alongside a wide variation in the acceptance and timing of the yearly, historical remembrance of Easter.

Nonetheless, in the same manner that the yearly Easter celebration commemorated Christ emerging from the tomb, so too were “the days on which the bridegroom was taken away” observed with fasting. St Irenaeus notes that this immediate, pre-Paschal fast varied from lasting one day (presumably Good Friday) to several, whilst Tertullian compares the shortness of the fast with the longer, two-week fast observed by the Montanist schismatics. Regardless of the length, the annual remembrance of Christ’s Passion and Death was observed with a high degree of severity. Mortifying one’s body through fasting and abstinence was a way of participating – in however small a manner – with the intense physical and spiritual suffering experienced by Christ for the sake of our redemption.

By the early AD 300s, a further period of preparation prior to Holy Week was being widely observed. Whilst traveling to Rome and Europe in 339 AD, St Athanasius reported the practice of a forty-day fast as being established throughout much of the Church, and encouraged his own flock in Alexandria to do likewise.

Monreal Jesus' temptation
Christ tempted in the wilderness, Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily

The addition of this forty-day period appears a logical development when reflecting on the examples of Moses’ forty years and Christ’s forty days in the desert. The spiritual value of fasting and penance were clear to those who practiced them and, and the Church readily appropriated them as more than simply an expression of penitence for sins. Christ’s time and temptations in the desert in preparation for His earthly ministry most immediately provide us with a sense of the relevance of the Lenten observance: a time of renewed preparation for our own mission of Christian witness. In this sense, the “springtime” of Lent takes on a deeper significance by reminding us of the spiritual growth that it should engender.

At a broader level, Moses’ forty years in the desert point us to the “pilgrimage” dimension of our lives: Lent takes on the character of a time of special attention to our journey towards the Promised Land of heaven, and our reliance not on “bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4).

Both of these layers of symbolism however, only make sense when considered in the light of a third: the forty (give or take) hours that Christ lay in the tomb. The Lenten fast stems from the commemoration of this period precisely because it is the moment in which our salvation is being effected. We are only pilgrims in a foreign land because heaven has been reopened by Christ’s victory over death. We are only called Christians and have a Gospel to preach because Jesus atoned for our sins with His own body.

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Advent: Watching for What?

1st December 2021

Advent: Watching for What?

Stefan Kaminski

By the time we enter Advent, the commercial world has already well-established a Christmas atmosphere with trees, decorations, and all sorts of enticing offers. Such sights might fill our minds with lists of presents to be bought and dinners to be planned. Regardless of the feelings that these thoughts might generate, what will certainly be true is that Christmas will be upon us sooner than we think, and will find most of us in a frenzy of activity.

In the (hopefully) recollected calm of our churches, the liturgical celebration of Advent will soon resound with John the Baptist’s cry to “prepare a way for the Lord”, Isaiah’s prophecies of a maiden with child, and strains of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. What is easily overlooked though, is the very different note struck by the liturgy of the First Sunday of Advent.

In all three yearly cycles of readings, the Gospel is very deliberately orientated well beyond the feast of Christmas, at least in its most immediate sense. The beginning of Advent, year on year, presents us with Jesus’ admonition or warning to his disciples to “stay awake” or “watch”, so that we might be ready for His coming in power and glory at the end of time. A rather marked contrast to the child in the manger, surely?

On the other hand, this might seem like a neat way to segue to John the Baptist’s call, given that the previous weeks had closed the liturgical year with increasingly apocalyptic and tempestuous readings, culminating with the feast of Christ the King.

So is this simply the liturgy’s way of transitioning us to yet another lap, like a toy train on its oval track? No. The liturgy is deliberately providing us with the proper context for the expectation with which we are to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s first coming. The feast of Christmas signals the beginning of the end.

Christ Pantocrator, Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily

As the letter to the Hebrews reads: “in these last days, God has spoken to us by the Son.” Having spoken to us over the previous millennia in various ways through the prophets, God has spoken the “Word”: the Word who was in the beginning, who was with God and was God (cf. Jn 1:1). When we celebrate the incarnation of God Himself into our world, His “emptying Himself and taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7) as St Paul puts it, we celebrate not an isolated event, but one that stretches back into the past, and reaches into the future.

This event points us back to the beginning, to its raison d-être. It takes us back to the very first man, who was fashioned in the form that God was to reveal Himself in. It reminds us that our first parents, made from whatever earthly material God chose to breathe life into and to create in His image and likeness, turned away from Him and rejected that first offer of His love. It reminds us that for the thousands of years that passed between that event and Jesus Christ, God was forming and re-forming covenants with a people in order to prepare the way for His incarnation. It reminds us that He only became man to die on a cross. It reminds us that the culmination of the liturgical year is therefore yet to come at Easter. It reminds us that having paid the price of our redemption, Jesus Christ is like the “man travelling abroad: he has gone from home, and left his servants in charge, each with his own task” (Mk 13:34).

Having apparently stepped back from the world, it seems God has left man in charge, left him to wreak his own designs on the world. The words of Isaiah might seem to ring as true today: “No one invoked your name or roused himself to catch hold of you. For you hid your face from us and gave us up to the power of our sins” (Is 64:7). On the one hand it seems we are quite content that way; we seem to like to believe that we are quite capable of ordering our world ourselves. On the other hand, the evidence points to the contrary. But when things go wrong, instead we say, ‘God cannot possibly exist.’

The Holy Family, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1645

So for those who profess belief and await “the revealing of the Sons of God” (Rm 8:19), Advent seems to be a time of being caught between two rather distant events: the already of Christ who has come, and the not-yet of Christ who is to come. Advent lives this polarity, and in its liturgy effects a transition from the second to the first. It begins with texts which speak of Christ’s second coming, and as Christmas draws closer, it shifts to the first coming at Bethlehem.

But what it invites us towards, in an unspoken way, is the hidden coming of Jesus Christ in our hearts; the manifesting of the Kingdom of Heaven which for now cannot be said to be here or there, but which begins with the seed of the Word being planted in our souls. Advent seeks to prepare our hearts through a rapid shift of focus from the future, glorious, terrifying, earth-shattering universal spectacular of the second coming, to the quiet, still, humble and intensely personal event in the Bethlehem stable. These two polar opposites are part of the same single, drawn-out event that is humanity’s adventure with God.

Watch! Watch that scale of magnitude narrow down from the future and the past, to the now; from the universal to the personal, from everyone to you. Stay awake, because the God of the universe knocks at the door of your heart, and awaits for you to open. Be on your guard, because he has left each with his own task, and he must not find you asleep.

Isaiah's Lips Anointed with Fire, by Benjamin West