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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
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November: Month of the Holy Souls

8th November 2021

November, month of the Holy Souls

Stefan Kaminski

During the month of November, as with other months in the liturgical year, a particular focus is put before us for our prayer. The liturgical year already has its own internal logic, which crystallised over the first centuries of Christianity. But over and above the yearly cycle, the Church has seen the practical wisdom of placing special emphases on different aspects of our prayer. The benefit of doing so is always twofold: not only does it develop our own prayer life, but in doing so, it helps us work towards our salvation as well as towards the salvation of other members of Christ’s Body, the Church.

As we come to the close of the liturgical year, the commercial world is already reminding us of the approach of Christmas. However, before we begin the new liturgical year once again with the Advent preparation for the coming of our Saviour, the Church celebrates the feast of Christ the King with its strongly eschatological overtones. The liturgical cycle thus logically concludes by pointing us forward to the renewal of all things in Christ (cf. Rev. 21:5), to the end of this world and the resurrection of the dead.

In the light of this chronology, it makes sense that in November we should be reminded to particularly pray for the souls of the dead: specifically those in purgatory. Our prayers are offered to assist them on their way to the Beatific Vision of God Himself; and in doing so, we are implicitly reminded of our own earthly end and of the need to live our lives in view of our ultimate objective: God Himself.

Pope Gregory the Great Saving the Souls of Purgatory, by Sebastiano Ricci

This tradition of praying for the souls of the departed rests on the notion of purgatory as an intermediate state, between the moment of one’s death and the attainment of heaven. This concept is already traceable in early Judaism, and was manifested early on in the Christian tradition of commemorating and praying for the deceased. Although purgatory has been depicted in many and various ways, the basic principle is clear: the soul, with its impurities of sin and the attachments to that it has developed to these over its earthly life, must be cleansed before entering wholly into the presence of the Sinless One.

It is impossible for us on earth to know the state of any given person’s soul before God (unless of course the Church has been able to declare them a saint!). So we continue to pray for the souls of our dearly departed, often in the hope that they are resting before God, but always in the knowledge that our prayers are never wasted. Should our intercessions to God for a particular person find them already in heaven, the Good Father can never turn a “dear ear” to our prayers: we remain confident that they will nonetheless be accepted for the good of another soul who is in purgatory.

It should come as no surprise then, that the Church includes the act of praying for the dead as one of the seven, spiritual works of mercy. Together with the seven, corporal works of mercy, these sum up the most important charitable actions that the Christian can perform for his neighbour’s spiritual and bodily needs, respectively. In finding a special effort to prayer for the dead this month, we therefore not only perform a charitable action for our dear ones as well as for unknown “neighbours”, but we also strengthen our own faith in the heavenly reality of the Church and our preparedness for our own departure from this earth.

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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 livedout 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:
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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