The Christian Heritage Centre


Between Cross and Resurrection

Between Cross and Resurrection: The Harrowing of Hell,
according to J.R.R. Tolkien

Stefan Kaminski
Andúril, The Sword of Aragorn - render by Morvos, published under CC Attribution-NonCommercial licence -

Easter time seems to get me reflecting on Tolkien’s Catholic imagination. I have previously written about how the dynamic of grace was portrayed in the experiences of the hobbit-protagonists of Tolkien’s Middle Earth sagas.

A key facilitator to this dynamic is, of course, the wizard Gandalf and the various ways in which he plays a Christ-like role, or otherwise serves to at least indicate the Divine action in some way. Gandalf offers spiritual and moral guidance to the hobbits and often speaks for, or of, what we might call Divine Providence. In fact, the word that most aptly captures Gandalf’s role is that of prophet. He speaks the truth: about the individual, about the worldly situation and about the cosmic order.

However, if one bears in mind Tolkien’s aversion to obvious analogy – and which is why too many people miss the foundational role of Catholicism in his writings, or try to undermine it – it is also unsurprising to find that one cannot pin-point a completely Christ-like figure either on Gandalf or any other single character in the Middle-Earth saga. Such a refraction of the roles that Christ fulfils into different characters within the saga is a rather more elegant solution, and decidedly more theologically-eloquent, than mere analogy.

Similarly, the events of Holy Saturday, tied up as they are with the nature of Christ’s kingship, find reflection in The Return of the King, the third book of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Paths of the Dead, by Darrell Sweet. This work is copyrighted and owned by Darrell Sweet's estate. It is believed that the use of this image on our website qualifies as fair use under copyright law in the United States of America

Whilst Frodo is approaching Mordor and the final stage of his quest to Mount Doom, Aragorn – the mysterious ranger – is to be found on what is considered by everyone else to be a suicidal mission. He decides to brave the Paths of the Dead, a subterranean mountain path, and home to a lost army of men, now dead, yet trapped by a curse that resulted from their own disobedience long ago. This army, if it can be made to obey, is crucial to countering the extra weight of Mordor’s allies, who are about to throw themselves against the human citadel of Minas Tirith, the seat of the Kingdom of Gondor.

The nub of the question, of course, is that of authority over this terrifying army. No living man could pass through and survive: the dead do not obey the living. Only one exception exists; and this takes us back to the origin of these men’s story. The curse that this army brought upon themselves was a result of their breaking oath to aid the Kingdom of Gondor against the forces of evil. That oath was made to the King of Gondor, and as such, the only person with the authority to command its bond and release from the curse is the self-same King – or, of course, a legitimate descendant who can wield that authority on his behalf.

By this point, Aragorn, is of course known to the avid reader to be the heir to Elendil, the first King of Gondor. And so, the trepidation with which we accompany him along the Paths of the Dead, as the dreadful and invisible army gathers around him, is offset by the hopeful expectation of something dramatic. And we are not disappointed. The dead king cynically strikes out at Aragorn with his sword, only to find it halted in its path by Aragorn’s own blade: something that no mortal would be able to effect, other than one who bears that original authority.

Recognition of the King who stands before them rustles through the horde; their assistance is secured; and when they finally fulfil their oath in the present conflict, they disappear with a whispering sigh of relief, finally free to rest.

It would be hard to find a more dramatic visual aid to explaining Jesus’s harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday, especially for an audience of teenagers or young adults. For those puzzling over the words in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell”, Tolkien provides a vivid point of reference. The imagery poignantly evokes and gives life to St Paul’s reference to Christ as the “Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:9). In turn, the logic of Christ’s command over the dead is helpfully drawn out by Tolkien’s narrative.

Photo: Christ’s Descent into Limbo by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1470.

As with our army, the key to Holy Saturday is in the origins, and can be summed up in the words: paradise lost, paradise regained. Our first parents suffered the loss of Eden, ‘paradise on earth’, through breaking the primal covenant that governed their relationship with the Creator. Having said that, this consequence can be – indeed should be and is – considered in view of the greater blessing that results: namely the promise of a renewed and glorified life at the end of this time. Thus, the Exsultet, the Easter proclamation that is sung before the newly-lit Easter candle at the Vigil, pronounces the words, “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”

The loss of Eden resulted in the entry of death into the world (cf. Romans 5:12), with the ensuing mortality of the human race. Again, whilst we might naturally consider this a curse, in the schema of God’s providence it rather turns into a blessing if we consider that God did not wish for fallen humanity to continue an immortal existence alongside the effects of evil. Thus, the necessary end of our fallen mortal nature with our bodily death results in a state of waiting, a state of the soul’s existence apart from its body.

The greatness of the mystery of God’s love, which we saw executed in the bloodiest manner in yesterday’s Solemnity, is of course that it goes beyond that disobedience and rupture instigated by our progenitors and continued throughout history. It wishes to encompass every person, in harmony with their own volition. However, until the price of that disobedience was paid, those who had already died remained ‘trapped’, awaiting their liberation. Their souls, whilst free of their mortal body, remained – according to justice – outside the presence of God. The dead were bound by the original curse, awaiting the fulfilment of the bond of justice.

Unlike Aragorn’s army, who have to fulfil their original oath and fight, the price of humanity’s ‘oath-breaking’ is paid freely, “not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Thus, Christ’s death effected two things: firstly, a universally- and eternally-valid sacrifice for any and all human sin, including those who had come before him; secondly, his ‘entry’ into the realm of the dead via his mortal body, yet wielding the divine authority of the king to whom those souls were originally bound.

Only the Son of God, He through whom “all things were made… and without [whom] was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3), could enter the realm of the dead and command its bond. Only the rightful King could wield authority over every soul, whether in the province of the dead or the living. Only the Cross of the incarnate God could break the brass gates and shatter the iron bars of hell asunder, as is recounted by two of the men risen from the dead in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus.

No surprise, then, the prophetic words of Hosea, “O Death, I will be thy plague; O Sheol, I will be your destruction”.

Or the words of St John Chrysostom on Easter night: “Hades is angered… because it has been mocked… destroyed… it is now captive.”

Or the ancient hymn for Easter Matins: “Today Hades tearfully sighs: ‘Would that I had not received Him who was born of Mary, for He came to me and destroyed my power.’”

Before his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ grants salvation to souls by the Harrowing of Hell. Fresco, by Fra Angelico, c. 1430s

The harrowing of hell – and what a harrowing! – is unsurprisingly an intrinsic part of the logic of the Easter mystery. Viewed inseparably from the death and resurrection of the Lord, it is witnessed to by the Apostles themselves, and traced from the very earliest Christian traditions.

It is appropriate that Holy Saturday should retain a sense of stillness and quiet preparation in the earthly life of the Church: momentous events are taking place in the spiritual realm, before the glory of the Lord bursts forth from the realms of the dead, with the saving banner of the victorious Lamb leading the mighty hosts of heaven.

Articles Media

Icon Writing: My journey from Syria to Byzantium

Friday 7th July 2023

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Icon Writing: My journey from Syria to Byzantium

Schaher Rhomaei

Schaher Rhomaei shares how he began to explore the extraordinary art of ‘icon writing’ -and how icons can be a ‘visual Gospel’ to inspire a deeper and more profound faith.

My first memory of icons takes me back to my tender years at St John the Baptist Church; a small Byzantine Greek Melkite church in Ma’arouneh, which means ‘small cave’ in Aramaic. This mountainous suburb of Damascus is a place of natural biblical and spiritual beauty. It was Elijah’s last abode before ascending into Heaven.

From this place and time, I began a journey of reflected prayer through the beauty of icons: an encounter with the Divine. One icon that stands out for me in particular was a wooden panel depicting Our Lady tenderly holding her Son on her lap. Somehow, the aura of mystery surrounding this icon created a sacred space for contemplating the striking image of the humble Mother and the Saviour child, which remained with me throughout my childhood.

The word ‘Icon’ comes from the Ancient Greek (εἰκών/eikṓn) meaning ‘image or resemblance.’ The term was, in fact, coined by Plato, in relation to his theory of knowledge. According to the philosopher, real knowledge is to be found in the intelligible world of Ideas, which is reflected to some degree, as per a shadow, in the physical world. Likewise, in Christian art, the word “icon” has become synonymous with the depiction of divine subjects and the sacred figures of those in the heavenly world. Icons thus not only communicate a profound and sacred significance, but also create a powerful sense of prayerfulness.

Possible depiction of Jesus Tile from Dura-Europos excavations (Yale University Art Gallery)

Icons Hold Deep Spiritual Meaning

In the Eastern Church generally and the Syrian Church particularly, icons are an essential pillar of the Christian faith, holding deep spiritual meaning. They serve as windows through which one can approach the Creator, not only by praying and prostrating before Him. but also by seeking help or forgiveness. Indeed, the Eastern Church understands icons as a visual gospel, proclaiming in colours and images all that is uttered in words and written in syllables (cf. Council of Constantinople)

According to historians, Christian art originated and developed in Syria before this ancient, original, and spiritual artform was exported to Egypt and Mesopotamia, and then to the wider world. The journey from Syria to Egypt to
Byzantium gave birth to different styles of icons: ‘Syrian’ in Syria, ‘Coptic’ in Egypt and in Byzantium ‘the Byzantine art.’ The latter describes the process of creating icons as one of ‘writing’ rather than ‘painting’ – an iconographer is a ‘writer’ not a ‘painter’ – and we ‘read’ an icon rather than view or ‘see’ it. 

At Dura-Europos near the Euphrates River in the Syrian Desert lie two living ‘witnesses’ to early iconography. First, there is the baptismal room of a private house that became the first home church, with murals painted in 232-56 AD, decades before Emperor Constantine recognised Christianity. Then there is a synagogue dating from the third century, with brightly painted walls depicting famous scenes from the Old Testament. Although the artistry of Dura-Europos might seem simple in nature and battered due to age, fighting, destruction and the like, yet it is astounding in its beauty and depth. 

The location of Dura-Europos in modern-day Syria

Those depictions emerged from the early Christian imagination, from a faith alive with wonder. They give us a precious insight into the emotions and desires of those isolated faithful on their early journey. It was their way of reaching out to express their faith
with confidence. Their belief and trust in Christ were represented quite differently compared to that of, for example, the Christian art of the Renaissance, where great emphasis was placed on an aesthetic and grandiose depiction

Another possible depcition of Jesus from Dura-Europos

A Contemplative Experience

My journey into icon writing began during what seemed to be an eternal lockdown. This period of transition and discernment drew me deeper into exploring this extraordinary art. Initially, as part of a reflection on art and spirituality to celebrate Eastertide, I wrote my first icon, ‘Christ is the Light.’ Following that and whilst celebrating Pentecost, another icon followed: ‘Mary in the Cenacle.’ Both were written in a style that resembled that of the early Christians: simple and expressive. The aim was to understand the mystery of Christ and His Mother’s being as they reach out in love, keeping the light aflame in our hearts. I envisaged them as radiant, humble, and modestly dressed with an expression of intensity and invitation. Out of this contemplative experience, two images conceived and set in darkness emerged, of such humanity and yet of such majesty.

In the following year, I completed more icons using oil, but it was not until this year that I embarked on a new journey: that of exploring the Byzantine style using pigments and egg tempera. Drawn by the spirituality of Master Vladislav Andrejev at the Prosopon School of Iconology in the US, I took part in an icon writing course at the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst, facilitated by his Andrejev’s son, Nikita, who is a master in his own right. The theme of the workshop was ‘Our Lady of Tenderness.’ I found the whole experience a complex piece of utmost beauty and delicacy.

To save time, the wooden panels were already prepared. The first stage was applying the gold leaf onto the halos, then the initial underpaint tone, which covers the faces and other parts of the body, and the application of a dark yellow/green pigment called Sankir, thus creating the shadow areas. Here, shadows are not of a physical source as such, but rather ethereal. Similarly, the light areas in an icon indicate the divine nature and not a reflection of the sun. Stage by stage, the image builds as other layers are applied, always lighter than the one before. Patience and thoroughness are required throughout the whole process; from laying the gold leaf, getting the right measurements of pigment and egg tempera, to the right brush strokes. Each step is crucial and has its own logic, as well as consequences if not done in a methodical way. I must admit that, unlike my previous work, this experience was not merely painting, but building.

Taking A Leap Of Faith

We were fifteen people attending this course, some writing their first, second, or even seventh icon. It was my first workshop and although quite apprehensive about the process and outcome, I took a leap of faith and dived into exploring this wonderful art form, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and inspire me as I went along. It was touching to see how some of the other experienced writers, aside from the tutor, mentored the beginners in their struggles. They gently offered advice and even helped to salvage areas that at times seemed almost like a battlefield.

My piece was no exception. I faced a mess right at the start because I applied too much clay, which is used as an adhesive for gold leaf. It was too wet and this meant that the leaf would not stick to the halos and kept peeling. My thanks go to David, a fellow participant who kindly rectified the catastrophe at once. His meticulous application of gold leaf and the right pressure did wonders and was like a sign of light and hope that helped me to go on.

In contemplating this recent experience, three profound insights surfaced for me. The first relates to how the harmony and symmetry of composition must be visible everywhere in the icon, from the poise of the figures to the flow of drapery. These carefully-drawn and harmonious straight lines come to life as flowing lines of Divine energy. Secondly, the role of luminosity in an icon is suggestive of the Holy Spirit within the subject, constantly renewing and creating life. And lastly, the words of my little cousin still echo in my head today, as she sat next to me in that very same church of St John the Baptist, and whispered with a slight giggle and pure innocence: “This is you and your mother….” Indeed, Mary’s presence in icons conveys a unique sense of motherhood. She is a source of inspiration, hope, comfort, and support to those in need of her help.

Mary in the Cenacle


For the Christian Heritage Centre’s iconography course, visit


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.


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
Articles Media

Today’s youth, tomorrow’s leaders

Sunday 7th November 2021

Today's youth, tomorrow's leaders

Stefan Kaminski

Director Stefan Kaminski assesses the inaugural Christian Leadership Formation programme at the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst

After more than two years of planning and unavoidable delay, I was delighted to see our exciting, brand-new programme for lower sixth form students finally hit the ground last July. On a lovely summer’s day, we welcomed 14 enthusiastic 17-year-olds to our facility, Theodore House, on the Stonyhurst College campus. The young people threw themselves into a first five days of intense prayer, study, discussion and activity, rapidly and naturally coalescing as a group, and responding to the input offered by our team with willingness and openness. At the end of the first module, not only were both students and staff truly sorry to say their goodbyes, but the students were that much more equipped to play their part in a world where moral and ethical lines may appear unclear. “I was guided into a depth of theology and philosophy which I, as a scientist, never knew I would enter,” said Klaudiusz Ozog, a student at Thomas More Catholic School, Purley.

Director Stefan Kaminski talks a group through their tasks

Lord Alton’s vision for future leaders

The Christian Leadership Formation programme was conceived of by Lord Alton of Liverpool, who recognised the need for a greater preparation of future leaders, given the increasingly complex ethical challenges they face in decisionmaking. He entrusted this task to the Christian Heritage Centre charity upon founding it in 2012. Ever since commencing public operations in 2019, we have worked to develop a unique, top-quality, Christ-orientated programme to do justice to Lord Alton’s intention. In opening to a first round of applications last January, we looked for candidates who are motivated by their faith and wish to be fully furnished for the ethical challenges of today’s world. By doing so, we hope the programme will help shape and create a society founded on Christian values. The feedback from the course thus far is certainly encouraging in this respect: “It is rare to find a course that helps form you into a Christian professional and especially one that explains everything so well,” wrote one student after the course. In planning this programme, we wished to offer input from prominent and leading experts in the relevant fields. We were therefore delighted to find support for the programme from St Mary’s University,  Twickenham, the Catholic Union of Great Britain, Alliance Defending Freedom and Catholic Voices, besides other organisations and independent academics.

To last July’s module, the first in the programme, I gave the title “Philosophical Foundations for the Common Good”. This reflects the three themes that were studied: human dignity, human rights and civil law. The aim was for the students to understand how each of these concepts is grounded in reasoned-out principles, which rely on certain truths established on the basis of human experience and understanding. Dr Andrew Beards, an experienced lecturer and former professor  at the Maryvale Institute, led the students through a challenging, yet accessible, university-style set of lectures, examining one of the themes on each of the course’s three full days. The carefully constructed group tasks at the beginning of each day offered the students the opportunity to begin to think through critical questions in each theme for themselves. Following the lectures, further group tasks at the end of the day gave the students the opportunity to apply their learning to concrete scenarios or case studies.

“Offering training in basic principles around public speaking and in engaging with the media, the students thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to put their thinking to a practical test”

As a staff, we observed and supported these sessions and were often as fascinated as the students to see how wideranging and thought-provoking the discussion became. Even the professional photographer forgot his camera at one point and sat down with the group he had
been shooting (and listening  to). “I have enriched my understanding of the Christian vision of the human person, and am now able to wholly elaborate upon this rationally,” said Eva Mcmonigle, a student from St Robert of  Newminster Catholic Sixth Form College, Washington, Tyne and Wear. “The educational aspect of the course highlighted that we have been provided with our world (by God) to allow us equal opportunities to  flourish.”

A synthesis of mind and heart

Dr Andrew Beards gives students their small group task following one of the lectures

The vision behind the programme rests on the basic principle that faith in Christ is an integral and lived-out part  of daily life. Most students were unaccustomed to a daily rhythm of Mass, Morning Prayer, Night Prayer and adoration, but having returned home, the effect of this has been clear. “The times for worship during the course were extremely valuable, as I feel I would not have been provided with such a good opportunity for personal growth elsewhere – within my own mind and with Christ,” Eve said. The course’s chaplain, the “wonderful” Fr Dancho Azagra (chaplain of Netherhall House), provided a constant, fatherly and guiding presence throughout, focusing on different aspects of the Mass on each day and teaching them to build up a personal relationship with Christ.

By structuring the course content within this pattern of prayer, we helped the students to understand that mind and heart work in synchrony, feeding each other. This was validated by a comment from one of the students, who said  that the experience “has made me realise that my professional and spiritual lives are synonymous and not separate”. Lord David Alton amply gave witness to this critical relationship in his keynote speech, which formally opened the course after an initial round of ice-breakers. His enlightening talk bore witness to his own lived-out faith, and also highlighted some of the key issues faced by Catholics and Christians in the UK political sphere.

Besides the fundamental importance of our relationship with Christ, Lord Alton stressed the need to build good relationships with others, especially potential “allies”. And this was indeed another of the objectives of the course. Aside from the strong sense of community that the full timetable engendered, the students enjoyed various team-building activities that challenged them to cooperate and communicate ever more effectively. From the problem based bridge-building activity that followed the opening talk to the escape room challenge at the end of the course, via slightly more unusual challenges (for example, making an aesthetically-pleasing fruit salad while tied together by the hands in a circle), much laughter and hilarity accompanied the competition between the groups to top the chart at the end of the week (although they did not witness the amusement I derived in later judging the result of their efforts in the “blind drawing” challenge!). A constant refrain in the students’ feedback was the strength and encouragement drawn from the experiences shared with like-minded students, with one young lady noting that “the experience of living together in such a close group was an unexpected joy for an introvert such as myself.”

Speaking out

The academic dimension of the course found a creative outlet in the set of sessions provided by Catholic Voices. Offering training in basic principles around public speaking and in engaging with the media, the students appreciated the opportunity to put their thinking to a practical test. CV’s Georgia Clarke built on the students’ natural,  intellectual confidence, preparing them for a finale comprising of mock interviews on hot-button ethical issues  with two experienced journalists. The results were described as “frighteningly good” by the journalists, both of whom have established careers with national broadcasters. Despite an element of nervousness, the students all appreciated this “golden opportunity”, as one described it.

Such confidence-boosting opportunities were particularly relished given the increasingly secular and ideological society of today, which inevitably exerts its influence regardless of our young people’s  commitment to their faith. The course’s core objective was to help the students rationally consider the origins and structure of human dignity and rights, to understand where morality comes from and to be able to evaluate both different approaches to legislation in general and specific laws in particular.

One of the students practices her presentation skills as part of the training provided by Catholic Voices

As a staff, we all witnessed many instances of a gradual transformation or shift in perspective, as the students were led through a philosophically consistent and theologically enlightened elaboration of these matters. Often for the first time, they began to appreciate not only  that what the Catholic tradition elaborates on these issues is rationally grounded, but also that the Church has historically led the way in  doing so, precisely because it is only Christ that “fully reveals man to himself” (Pope St John Paul II, Redemptor hominis).

Looking forward

At the end of the week, the expressions of true delight and tears of joy left us in no doubt that the first module of the programme had been a success. Comments such as “absolutely brilliant course”, “broadened my understanding vastly”, and “probably the best thing I have done all year” confirmed the value of our efforts.

After those five days, it was clear to all of us that what we have provided is unique and hugely important, not simply for those students who might be orientated to more explicit, leadership roles in society, but to any student that wishes to comprehend their Christian  faith properly in the first place and to apply this to the society in which they live.

We are now looking forward to welcoming this first cohort of participants to the remaining two modules in November and April, as well as to recruiting a second cohort for 2022 in the New Year.

Finally, I would like to extend our thanks, on behalf of the charity and also of the students, to those organisations and individuals that have made participation in the programme possible for the first cohort through their financial support.

To donate towards the cost of this programme, please use the link below:

Our Lady, the Rosary and Europe

11th October 2021

Our Lady, the Rosary and Europe

Stefan Kaminski

Since the end of the 19th century, October has been dedicated to the Holy Rosary. Of all the devotions to Our Lady, the rosary is the most notable, of course. Indeed, the place of the Rosary at the forefront of Marian devotion particularly, and Catholic prayer generally, is reinforced by the fact of the Church having established a universal Feast of the Holy Rosary, which is celebrated on the seventh of October, and from which grew the dedication of the entire month to this prayer.

In this month of October then, it’s worth calling to mind both the origins of the Rosary as well as its historical role in the fortunes of Christian Europe. Although the challenges facing Christians and Catholics today have a different aspect and character, the nature of those challenges to the Faith remains the same.

Tradition tells us that it was St Dominic who received the Rosary from Our Lady in response to his plea for help in the face of the Albigensian heresy. Surfacing near Toulouse in the eleventh century, this corruption of the Christian faith took a particular hold in the southern French territories in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Albigensian heresy, though formally speaking long extinct, is not entirely irrelevant to today’s dialogue with a secular world.

The Albigenses held a belief in two opposing principles of existence: a good principle and an evil principle. They held the good principle to be the creator of the spiritual world, and the evil principle to be the creator of the material world. Thus, a fundamental rupture with the Christian faith takes place: the good principle is not all-powerful, being co-equal to the evil principle; and material creation is not good, being the work of the evil principle, and therefore not redeemable. Morally speaking, this resulted in a dualistic view of the human person, where the body – and all activity related to it – seen as something to be supressed and denied.

On the face of it, this does not seem to bear much similarity to today’s attitudes to the body, which simultaneously exalt bodily desire, justifying all forms of its expression, and degrade the body by objectifying it. Underneath however, lies the same problem: an inability to grasp and to accept the intrinsic goodness of the body’s natural ordering. If for the Albigenses the material world was evil, today’s secular world sees the material world as meaningless. Thus, where the Albigenses repressed, we manipulate according to our desires. And we forget that these desires remain profoundly marked by sin.

In the midst of the division and conflict caused by this heresy, St Dominic presented the Rosary to the Catholic faithful as an antidote. This might strike some as slightly strange, if we consider St Dominic as a great preacher and founder of an order that has a particular charism for teaching. Why not combat an error of thinking with an irrefutable piece of writing or speaking? And here lies a two-fold lesson.

Firstly, our rational knowledge or understanding of the faith can never be separated from the life of prayer. At both a corporate (i.e. the Church) and individual level, that which we pray informs that which we believe. This is summed up in the ancient axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi (the law prayed is the law believed). The rosary is a particularly powerful instrument in this respect, as it directs us to meditate on the key moments of the story of God’s Incarnation, Life, Death and Resurrection amongst us.

Pope Pius V Credits Our Lady of the Rosary with the Victory at the Battle of Lepanto, Grazio Cossali , 1563-1629

Secondly, Our Lady has a particular and active part to play in nurturing and defending the Church, of whom she is the Mother. An appeal to Mary was not just successful in the case of the Albigensians, where the Rosary was seen as securing their final defeat at the Battle of Muret in 1213, but has a strong track record since. Most notably is the Battle of Lepanto, where the threat of the Turkish empire overrunning and extinguishing Christian Europe was, and has ever since, been attributed to the plethora of rosaries offered publicly and privately in response to Pope Pius V’s call for prayer.

Less-known, but equally important, was the previous Turkish attempt to gain a foothold in Europe in 1565, with the Great Siege of Malta. Again, after much Marian invocation, the Turkish fleet – the largest recorded in history to that date – sailed away from Malta with its army and weaponry, never to return, on the Feast of Our Lady’s birthday. Similarly, the victories of Christendom at the Battles of Vienna in 1683 and of Peterwardein (Hungary) in 1716 against the same Turkish aggressors were attributed to the intercession of the Virgin Mary. Numerous other histories of victory or protection, not just physical but also spiritual, exist, which this article will have to leave to the reader to discover for themselves!

Although the Faith and its practice may be on something of a decline in modern-day Western Europe, a powerful reminder of our historical devotion to Our Lady and her concern for us remains emblazoned on the very flag of the European Union. Aside from the devout Catholics who were behind the original EU project – such as Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi – the designer of the flag, Arsene Heitz, told Lourdes magazine how his inspiration had come from the Book of Revelation: “a woman clothed with the sun… and a crown of twelve stars on her head”. Coincidentally (or perhaps God-incidentally!), the flag was adopted on 8th December 1955: the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Our Lady of Europe, pray for us!

Christian soldiers in the Three Cities of Birgu, Senglea and Bormla are surrounded by the Turkish army on Malta
The EU flag designed by Heitz draws from the Book of Revelation
Articles Media

Christian Leadership Formation programme launched

Friday 1st January 2021

Christian Leadership Formation programme launched for Sixth Form students

Stefan Kaminski

Government leaders are easy targets for our criticisms, however justified these may be. But we cannot escape the fact that leaders do not grow on trees. They emerge from our very own society, and their shortcomings to some extent reflect our own collective failures in educating and forming our young people.

 As Catholics, we have a duty to provide a solid philosophical and theological formation for those whom we wish to see safeguarding and promoting a Christian society. We cannot expect future government ministers and legislators to formulate and implement ethically-coherent laws that distinguish between morally-licit surgery and invasive operations, genuine rights and the demands of lobbyists, if we have not given them the framework for such judgements.


The Lord Alton of Liverpool is one of many who have long recognised the need for a greater preparation of potential leaders. When he founded The Christian Heritage Centre charity, he dovetailed his desire for such a preparation with the charity’s objectives.

The Centre is delighted to now announce the launch of its first Christian Leadership Formation course. It has partnered with St Mary’s University, Twickenham and the Catholic Union of Great Britain to offer a course consisting of three, residential modules delivered over a nine-month period. Organisations such as Alliance Defending Freedom and Catholic Voices, besides other independent, Catholic academics, are also contributing to the course, so that participants will receive a variety of top-quality input from experts in different fields.

“In an increasingly fast moving and complex world where decision makers have to grapple with ethical challenges, about which they feel ill-equipped to deal with, a course which provides formation, maps and sign posts will be greatly welcomed by many,” noted Lord Alton.

Applications for the course are now being welcomed from Lower Sixth students until the end of March, when fifteen students will be selected on the basis of their personal statements, recommendations from their school, academic grades and personal references. The students who will be offered a place will be those who are motivated by their faith to help shape and create a society founded on Christian values; those who are driven towards public life by a love of God and of neighbour.

The successful applicants will gather at the charity’s Theodore House, in Lancashire, at the end of July for the first, five-day residential. Two shorter residentials will follow in London, during the October half-term and the Easter break of their last year of school

Each residential will have a particular focus. The first will consider the prerequisite “Philosophical Foundations for the Common Good”, providing the students with a grounding in concepts such as human dignity, natural law and conscience. The bedrock of Catholic ethics, these concepts today remain mostly in name whilst their origins have been lost from view and their meaning substantially mutated. The course will seek to offer students the necessary vision and tools to engage both faith and reason in pursuit of the truth that is common to all people, and which is the only source of a genuine and common good.

 The second residential will offer input on “Human Life and Ethical Considerations”, covering a range of issues from the basic definition and understanding of human life, through stem cell research and end-of-life care. As St John Paul II noted, “A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; and amongst the most vulnerable are surely the unborn and the dying.” This second module will thus aim at instilling in our future leaders a profound sense of the full dignity of life at all its stages, and a clear, moral framework to tackle the continually-growing field of ethical issues around the existence and the nurture of human life.

 The final module will focus on “Applied Political Leadership”. It will examine Catholic Social Teaching in the context of the current political field, providing students with a clear, applied understanding of the purpose and role of politics as well as the essential principles that are necessary for a pursuit of the common good. One particular field that will also be addressed, which so many are particularly sensitive to today, is that of the management of public finances. Economic interests are often at the heart of political divisions, and yet the Church has long-since elaborated clear principles for the structuring of a fair and just fiscal policy.

Interspersed with the lectures provided on these different themes will be workshops on practical skills such as public speaking, policy making, political virtues and statesmanship. Learning and team-building activities, as well as social time, will complete a daily routine framed by communal meals, prayer and liturgy.

 The charity has been securing sponsorships from various organisations and trusts to cover the costs of the participants, in order to make this course free of any financial burden. However, the current pandemic has not made this process easy, and several places remain awaiting sponsorship.

 The charity will therefore not only be very grateful for any further support it receives towards meeting the costs of the course, but particularly for prayers offered for the course’s success. Please do also signpost your local Catholic secondary schools and Lower Sixth students to the details below!

 For more information about the course and for the Information and Application Pack, visit or contact

To donate towards the cost of this programme, please use the link below:
Articles Media

Newman: A Light between the Reformation and Modernity

Friday 6th November 2020

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Newman: A Light between the Reformation and Modernity

Stefan Kaminski

St John Henry Newman’s journey to the Catholic faith remains a powerful testimony to an increasingly-secularised world

Last month, two important anniversaries of English saints coincided. We saw the fiftieth anniversary of the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, and we celebrated the first anniversary of John Henry Newman’s canonisation.

Although the Martyrs and Newman lived and died several centuries apart, they are united by the experience of the protestant Reformation and the ensuing split of the English State’s Church from the Catholic. However, they both experienced this split in rather different ways. The Martyrs experienced it from without: being persecuted and executed for not adhering to the new, Protestant Church. Newman, as a member of that Protestant Church, experienced it from within; from there, finding his way to Catholicism.

Oriel College, Oxford, where St Newman was elected Fellow in 1822.

Although Newman was no longer subject to laws that penalised the practice of Catholicism in England, he was nonetheless ostracised following his public conversion, and lost – at least for a period – many of his friends. A large dose of prejudice and suspicion of Catholics remained from the Reformation era, and in this sense too, his experience was in continuity with the Martyrs. 

However, Newman also faced a prejudice and suspicion from different quarters, which, in our turn, we can identify with too. The philosophical current known as modernity had already taken root by Newman’s day. The “modern” way of thinking rejected the possibility of acknowledging any religious belief to be true. It declared, in the words of Newman, that “revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous.” Modernity meant that all interpretations of reality were equally valid: meaning that none were ultimately true. In this milieu of an increasingly secular culture and an embedded hostility to Catholicism, Newman found his way to God and to the Church.

The statue of Cardinal Newman in front of the Brompton Oratory, London

It was not, as is often the case, a simple and immediate conversion. Rather, as Pope Benedict XVI observed when he beatified Newman, it consisted of three, distinct phases. The first is, in part, a response to the secular world: it is basically the thought that there exist “two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator”. In effect, this was a conversion to a properly Christian way of thinking, which we are increasingly alienated from due to the contrary assumptions that secular thinking makes. For “modern man”, reality is defined by the empirical: that which science can tell us. For the Christian, reality is defined by the spiritual: God and one’s soul.

This truth applies not only to our own, physical existence in this world, but also to every person around us and, indeed, to the entire world that surrounds us. It leads to the understanding that the meaning of things is given by God; their existence itself is guaranteed by God, rather than by the laws of nature (which are themselves an expression of God’s will). And so, the second of Newman’s conversions is summed up in his insistence that it is not enough to hold one’s faith as an abstract state of consciousness: Christianity means “’looking to Jesus’ (Heb 2:9) … and acting according to His will.” It is a trusting in the Lord to lead us concretely through along the path of life, perhaps best summed up by Newman’s hymn, “Lead, Kindly Light”.

The third conversion was, in a sense, the most difficult. If there was a stigma attached to the rejection of his own, Anglican Church, it was increasingly counter-cultural to profess adherence to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. As Benedict XVI noted, this step involved giving up his rank, profession and many of his academic and personal ties; and yet Newman resolutely took this step in October 1845. If it was a step that involved a great interior struggle; it was also a step that finally brought a peace to his mind. Despite the corruption, divisions and imperfections that Newman saw vividly in the Catholic Church, he understood that these were not relevant to the question of faith. For in the Church, Newman saw the same objectivity that he identified in God: the reality of the Church as the real and living, Body of Christ. The Church, with its frail and human outward appearance, is the real place of God’s presence, that the Creator made for Himself upon entering into the world. In that Church, Newman “found a power, a resource, a comfort, a consolation in our Lord’s Real Presence, in communion in His Divine and Human Person, which all good Catholics indeed have.”

Contrary to what is sometimes, sceptically, asserted: becoming a Catholic did not involve a handing over of his own powers of thinking and autonomy. Becoming a Catholic meant finding the freedom to be transformed by what is true, and therefore to discover oneself ever more authentically. It is the same freedom that the Martyrs possessed in giving their lives readily for God, the Church and their flock. It is a freedom that appears contradictory to the secular mind, which can only conceive of freedom as pure, unstructured (and therefore meaningless) liberty.

St Newman thus retains an enormous relevance to today’s Christians. He stands as a powerful reminder that authentically seeking God entails neither freedom from the Church nor freedom from religion.

This article draws from a talk given by Dr. Giuseppe Pezzini’s on St Newman for The Christian Heritage Centre. It is accessible at

Articles Media

Homage to the Martyrs at Deepdale

Friday 2nd October 2020

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Homage to the Martyrs at Deepdale

David Gorman

David Gorman looks back 50 years to when 20,000 flocked to Preston’s Deepdale Stadium for Mass to celebrate the Canonisation of the Forty Martyrs, a quarter of whom came from Lancashire.

The cause for the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, which eventually took place on 25th October 1970, stretches its roots back to the mid-19th Century. 

Following the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales in 1850, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman and Cardinal Henry Manning led a campaign for the recognition of those who had been Martyred for the faith. 

Just a year previously, in 1849, Frederick William Faber had written the rousing hymn Faith of Our Fathers in memory of the Martyrs. Born and raised an Anglican, Faber converted and was ordained a priest, later becoming an Oratorian Father. 

By 1935 nearly 200 Reformation Martyrs had been beatified, earning the title ‘Blessed’, but only two, John Fisher and Thomas More, had been canonised; both on 19 May 1935 by Pope Pius XI.

Following the end of the Second World War, the cause, which had been largely dormant for some time, was gradually revived and, in December 1960, the names 

the Lancaster Evening Post, 3 July 1961

of 34 English and six Welsh Martyrs were submitted to the Sacred Congregation of Rites by Cardinal William Godfrey, Archbishop of Westminster. All had been Martyred between 1535 and 1679. The list of names was drawn up in consultation with the Bishops of England and Wales and an attempt was made to ensure the list reflected a spread of social status and religious rank, together with a geographical spread and the existence of a well-established devotion.

Of the 40, 33 were Priests (20 religious and 13 secular) and seven were lay people. It is worth noting that around a quarter of these Mar-tyrs came from within the historic boundaries of the County Palatine of Lancashire, a reminder, albeit a poignant one, that the region remained a true stronghold of the faith despite the persecutions and difficulties that brought.

On 24th May 1961, the re-opening of the cause was formally decreed by Pope John XXIII. It was no surprise, therefore, that once the list of 40 names had been submitted, and the decree issued, the Diocese of Lancaster was quick off the mark in organising a rally in support of the cause. The rally took place on Sunday 2nd July 1961 at Deepdale, home to Preston North End, and was attended by more than 20,000 people including over 200 clergy. 

Pontifical High Mass at the Forty Martyrs Rally, Deepdale, Preston

Parishioners, school children, scouts, guides, cubs and brownies all processed through the streets of Preston from their respective churches to the stadium while others, from parishes further afield, arrived by coach. The Lancashire Evening Post reported that: ‘It started back in the parishes where three huge processions based on St Joseph’s, St Ignatius’ and St Gregory’s formed and walked through the streets with banners and bands to converge at Deepdale’.

A ‘Pageant of the Martyrs’ took place with 40 individuals each dressed as a martyr in the colourful costumes associated with the Tudor and Stuart periods. Narrators announced brief details of each martyr’s life and death, and once all were assembled on the dais ‘they presented a huge tableau, strangely set in a modern football stand, of figures who suffered the strife and religious persecution in England and Wales 400 years ago’.

The pageant was followed by Pontifical High Mass celebrated by Monsignor Thomas Eaton, the Vicar General of the diocese, in the presence of Bishop Thomas Flynn of Lancaster. 

For the canonisation to proceed it was necessary for two miracles, granted through the intercession of the 40 as a group, to be recognised. A list of 24 miracles was collated and submitted by the English and Welsh bishops and, after careful examination, two of these were chosen for further scrutiny. The Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints granted a special dispensation whereby it was decided, subject to Papal approval, that one of the two miracles would be sufficient to allow the canonisation of all 40 Martyrs to proceed. This was the “cure of a young mother affected with a malignant tumour (fibrosarcoma) in the left scapula, a cure which the Medical Council had judged gradual, perfect, constant and unaccountable on the natural plane”.

On 4th May 1970 Pope Paul VI confirmed the “preternatural character of this cure brought about by God at the intercession of the 40 blessed Martyrs of England and Wales”. The path was now open for the canonisation to take place on a date to be set, and thirty-four English and six Welsh Martyrs were submitted to the Sacred Congregation of Rites by Cardinal William Godfrey, Archbishop of Westminster. All had been Martyred between 1535 and 1679. The list of names was drawn up in consultation with the Bishops of England and Wales and an attempt was made to ensure the list reflected a spread of social status and religious rank, together with a geographical spread and the existence of a well-established devotion.

Parishioners on Skeffington Road, Preston about to leave St Joseph's Church for Deepdale

However, there was concern in some quarters about the effect the canonisation might have on the ecumenical agenda. In November 1969, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, had “expressed his apprehension that this canonisation might rekindle animosity and polemics detriment to the ecumenical spirit that has characterised the efforts of the Churches recently”. 

It was clear, however, that the majority of people within both faiths supported the canonisation and, on 18th May 1970, Pope Paul VI declared, during a consistory, that the canonisation would take place on 25th October that year “pointing out, with serene frankness and great charity, the ecumenical value of this Cause, also laying particular stress on the fact that we need the example of these Martyrs particularly today not only because the Christian religion is still exposed to violent persecution in various parts of the world, but also because at a time when the theories of materialism and naturalism are constantly gaining ground and threatening to destroy the spiritual heritage of our civilization, the 40 Martyrs – men and women from all walks of life – who did not hesitate to sacrifice their lives in obedience to the dictates of conscience and the divine will, stand out as noble witnesses to human dignity and freedom”.

Some 10,000 English and Welsh pilgrims, together with the bishops of England and Wales and representative bishops from Scotland and Ireland, were among the large congregation which attended the canonisation Mass at St Peter’s. Special guests included descendants of many of the martyrs, including the Duke of Norfolk, England and Wales’s most senior Catholic layman and himself a collateral descendant of the soon to be St Philip Howard. In recognition of the unique significance of the event for English and Welsh Catholics, the Maestro Perpetuo of the Sistine Chapel Choir, which would normally sing at all canonisation Masses, agreed that the Westminster Cathedral Choir could sing in its place. The Catholic writer, Auberon Waugh, described the canonisation as “the biggest moment for English Catholicism since Catholic emancipation”.

This article is from a series published in the Catholic Voice of Lancaster this month, commemorating the 50th anniversary of canonisation of the Forty Martyrs.

Articles Media

Dare we forget the call to sainthood?

Sunday 20th September 2020

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Dare we forget the call to the sainthood?

Stefan Kaminski

The lives of the saints have historically provided one of the great staples of the catechetical and spiritual life. 

Their biographies, in varying levels of literary and spiritual complexity, would be read by Christians of all ages. Children would be presented early on with these figures in story book form. As they grew, so also did they in knowledge of and friendship with the saints, through reading more complex or original texts as they were able to.

This has always been a self-evidently important element in the formation of a person’s faith, since the saints are guiding lights for the sincere Christian. They mark out a true and trodden path that navigates the difficulties and complexities of this life, while making a bee-line for Heaven. The saints are those who have ‘fought the good fight… finished the race… kept the faith’ (2 Timothy 4:7). 

They have faced the world, they have discerned what is right and what is wrong, and they have relentlessly pursued the former. Do we not still need them today? 

It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that our celebrity culture has, to a large extent, either pushed the saints off our radar or filled in the previously-vacated space that the saints used to inhabit. The saints were at once role models and witnesses to the reality of our faith. Celebrities also serve as role models, and most often as witness to the realities of this world. The saints are clearly a less attractive role model to someone who does not understand the primacy of Heaven over earth, or the spiritual over the physical.

And equally, someone whose primary aim is to make the most out of this world, rather than to strive for Heaven, will not see their relevance.

Perhaps it is precisely the apparent unpopularity or unattractiveness of the saints that serves as a warning of our need for them more than ever. 

It continues to be in the relational nature of humans to look for role models, to aspire after others and to imitate that which we see as appealing in them. This is especially true throughout childhood, in the most formative years of our character. So it is precisely then that we let children down most of all if we fail to present them with these great, Christian role models.

If we take seriously the words of Pope Francis, “To be saints is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone” – in other words, if we take seriously the fundamental Christian precept that we are all called to holiness – we cannot discard what the saints have to offer us. Pope Benedict XVI once said that for him, “Art and the saints are the greatest apologetics for our faith”. A vivid and real knowledge of the lives of the saints is itself a powerful testimony to the reality of God and the possibility of a relationship with Him. Every young boy who sees the attraction of combat and soldiering can draw great inspiration from St Ignatius of Loyola’s mercenary adventures and his discovery of the one cause worth fighting for. Every young girl who wants to find the means to security and success can look to the commanding and uncompromising presence of St Teresa of Avila.

Moreover, knowing the saints well teaches us that their lives are not somehow simply summarised in a single, beautiful stained-glass window. Seeing the saints means seeing how to struggle to find what is good, how to fight to choose that good for ourselves, and how to persevere in that choice of the good. Knowing the saints is empowering. It teaches us that, as Pope St John Paul II said,

“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures: we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son”. 

It is tremendously liberating to truly know and live this, because it gives us both the courage to identify and name our sins, as well as to fight them. 

If, on the one hand, St Ignatius warns us that “It is preferable for us to avoid sin than to be lords over the whole world”, on the other, Padre Pio encourages us with the reminder that “Jesus is never so close to you as he is during your spiritual battles”.

The lives of the saints and the fruits of their spiritual wisdom are treasures that we should not be willing to discard or to fail to hand on. They are part of that great spiritual heritage of Catholic Christianity, which constitutes a sure foundation for navigating this earthly pilgrimage. 

With the upcoming 50th anniversary of the canonisation of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales, and the first anniversary of John Henry Newman’s canonisation, it is an opportune time to revisit our spiritual patrons and friends in Heaven. At Stonyhurst we have therefore brought together a number of highly respected and well-known speakers, to offer insights into the lives and spirituality of some of the great spiritual masters of the Western Church. The series of talks that they will present will be offered online for free (they will also be accessible afterwards on our website).

Stefan Kaminski is the Director of the Christian Heritage Centre, Stonyhurst.