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The Popes and the Arts

3 July 2024

The Popes & the Arts

By Joey Belleza, PhD (Cantab.)

One of the hallmarks of Christianity, rooted in the Incarnate Christ who entered into material existence, is its positive approach to the arts, recognizing that the Gospel can reach souls not only through the activity of preachers, but also through the works of painters, sculptors, architects, poets, and writers. There is no type of human expression which cannot become a vehicle for apostolic activity, and the Church–especially through the Roman Pontiffs–has happily extended her patronage to many of the greatest artists in history. Indeed, in every place where the Catholic faith has found a foothold, the arts have discovered new opportunities to express the harmony between the timeless Gospel of our Lord, on one hand, and the genius of local cultures, on the other hand.

Accordingly, nearly all recent popes have explicitly affirmed the necessity of the arts for the Church’s mission. Below are just a few examples from papal messages to the artistic community.

In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery….

It remains true that because of its central doctrine of the Incarnation of the Word of God, Christianity offers artists a horizon especially rich in inspiration. What an impoverishment it would be for art to abandon the inexhaustible mine of the Gospel!

Saint John Paul II, Letter to Artists, 4 April 1999

Ten years later, John Paul’s successor likewise exhorted artists to their highest vocation of manifesting the beauty which comes from God.

Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God. Art, in all its forms, at the point where it encounters the great questions of our existence, the fundamental themes that give life its meaning, can take on a religious quality, thereby turning into a path of profound inner reflection and spirituality.

Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with Artists, 21 November 2009

Finally, in our own time, Pope Francis has reaffirmed the necessity of good art marked by a harmony between God and creation.

Beauty makes us sense that life is directed towards fullness, fulfilment. In true beauty, we begin to experience the desire for God. Many today hope that art can return more and more to the cultivation of beauty. Certainly, as I have said, there is also a kind of beauty that is futile, artificial, superficial, even dishonest. Cosmetic beauty.

I believe that there is an important criterion for discerning the difference, and that is harmony. True beauty is in fact a reflection of harmony. Theologians speak of God’s fatherhood and Christ’s sonship, but when they speak of the Holy Spirit they speak of harmony: Ipse harmonia est. The Spirit creates harmony. The human dimension of the spiritual… True beauty is always the reflection of harmony. If I may say so, harmony is the operative virtue of beauty, its deepest spirit, where the Spirit of God, the great harmonizer of the world, is at work.

Pope Francis, Address to Artists, 23 June 2023

These popes all affirm that art’s power to captivate and express creativity must be ordered to that invisible, transcendent Beauty which is God himself. Thus, there must be some properly theological criteria for creative endeavours, if they are to be truly considered art. Pope Francis’s words on the necessity of harmony especially indicate the need for creative contours and even limits, if art should not simply a product of independent self-expression. Rather, rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation and in the sacramentality of creation, the goodness of art depends on its correspondence with right reason, that is, reason ordered toward the truths of divinely revealed faith.

The Christian Heritage Centre is proud to encourage the deepening of faith through the appreciation and practice of Christian art. Our yearly Ancient Byzantine Iconography Course is one example of our commitment to the union of faith and reason as expressed in traditional artistic forms. 

In that light, we are also proud to offer an upcoming intensive study weekend on art, faith, and Catholic culture. Entitled “What We Have Seen And Heard in Heaven” and running 13-15 September 2024, this retreat examines art and Christian creativity through its various expression in music, dance, visual art, and poetry. To learn more and to register for this retreat, visit our event webpage by clicking here.

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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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Easter Saints: Anselm and the faith that seeks understanding

Friday 1st May 2020

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Easter Saints: Anselm and the faith that seeks understanding

Stefan Kaminski

St Anselm, together with St George, offers a clear model for a pragmatic faith during the difficulties of lockdown.

This last week has seen the feast days of two ‘English’ saints, one perhaps more recognised than the other: St George on the 23rd April, and St Anselm of Canterbury on the 21st April. 

Apart from their faith, what they do have in common is that neither, despite being associated with England, was English! While St George was born in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey), St Anselm hailed from Aosta in northern Italy. 

Both are fitting saints for Eastertide, however. The story of St George requires no retelling, but his emblem – the red cross – is a reference to Christ’s saving death, to which he joined his own martyrdom at the hands of the Emperor Diocletian in the year 303. The dragon he fought is most commonly taken as a symbol of his conquest of the devil, by means of his faith and fortitude.

St Anselm is a somewhat contrasting figure to the Roman soldier, but no less staunch and heroic in a different age and place. Born in 1033 or ’34, he came to England via the Benedictine monastery of Bec, in Normandy. While a monk at Bec he quickly gained a reputation for his great intellect and profound spirituality, thus also further increasing the monastery’s already-established reputation as a centre of learning. 

In 1078 he was elected as Abbot of Bec and it was this that first brought Anselm to England. William the Conqueror had previously granted lands both in Normandy as well as in Canterbury to the Bec monastery; as the Abbot, Anselm was required to visit these lands on certain occasions.

By the time the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1089, William had been dead two years and had been succeeded by his son, William Rufus. The younger William was a tyrant, who had only just been kept in check by the previous Archbishop of Canterbury. Once his grasping nature took hold, however, injustices flowed. 

A portrait of St Anslem in the Church of St Anslem in Bomarzo, Italy

Among these, he kept deferring his permission for the replacement of the various vacant bishoprics while he seized their revenues year on year, and left dependent communities in near-poverty. It was only when he became violently sick and seemed to be on his deathbed that he returned briefly to his conscience, fearing for his eternal salvation. From this state he not only settled outstanding debts, granted pardons and fed prisoners, but he also nominated the widely-esteemed Anselm as Bishop of Canterbury. 

The reluctant Anselm accepted the position, but used every occasion and means to try to both reconcile the King with Rome and reform the Church in England. (William Rufus’ momentary penitence had quickly disappeared as he regained health.) Anselm’s continual struggle against the king’s injustices, his rampant passions and his manipulation and censoring of the Church eventually forced Anselm to leave the country to seek the Pope’s support. 

St Anselm

At a council with Pope Urban II, at which the situation in England was also discussed, Anselm yet again demonstrated his Christian compassion. The Pope was about to excommunicate William Rufus on the advice of the council, when Anselm threw himself at the Pope’s feet and begged for mercy for his nemesis. The excommunication was delayed. In the end, however, William died suddenly during a hunting accident before Anselm could return to England or reconcile him fully with the Church – something that caused the saint great bitterness.

Anselm’s nobility of soul and character can be understood both by his contemplative detachment from this world and through his motto, ‘Faith seeking understanding’. His greatest pleasure was in contemplating God, and every object served the purpose of raising Anselm’s mind to his Creator. 

His motto, while easily misunderstood, is eloquent in its simplicity: faith, for Anselm, is neither a blind belief nor even primarily an act of the intellect or mind. Faith consists in the action of our will: a movement of love that comes from the heart, and an active desire to do God’s will. Such a faith “seeks understanding”, in that it wants to know God more deeply. In other words, faith is first of all a state of desire or a willing, rather than a state of thought, or of the mind. 

This Easter has perhaps been a particularly challenging and opportune moment for assessing our own faith. In a sense, the best measure of this has been the extent to which we missed the liturgy and the Sacraments, for it is indeed through the Sacraments that the Resurrection of Christ touches us and that the graces are given to transform us into a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). 

Equally, without being able to actually participate in the Church’s liturgies, we have had to rely more so on our own motivation – on our faith – to engage with the Easter mystery.

The lockdown is making life harder for many (if not most), particularly by challenging our internal resources. It is, however, an opportunity to grow in faith. Both St George and St Anselm are strong characters of faith because their lives were built by fixating their hearts on God, and everything else was motivated by that.

This locked-down Eastertide, the one thousand, nine hundred and eighty-seventh Easter in human history, is an opportunity to delve more deeply into our hearts, to discover and nourish a greater capacity for loving the God who gave His life for us.

Prayer of St Anselm

I confess, Lord, with thanksgiving, that you have made me in your image, so that I can remember you, think of you, and love you. 

But that image is so worn and blotted out by faults, and darkened by the smoke of sin, that it cannot do that for which it was made, unless you renew and refashion it. 

Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height, for my understanding is in no way equal to that, but I do desire to understand a little of your truth which my heart already believes and loves. 

I do not seek to understand so that I can believe, but I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless I do believe, I shall not understand.

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

The death of William Rufus
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Covid-19 crisis from the perspective of providence: A call to creative love

Friday 3rd April 2020

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Covid-19 crisis from the perspective of providence: A call to creative love

Fr José Granados

In these days of Lent, we re-read the story of Israel’s departure from Egypt, when God delivered them from the scourge of plagues. 

The scene is poignantly brought to life by the epidemic that we are experiencing at the moment. It reminds us that God is no stranger to anything that happens to us. “My times are in your hands”, says the psalmist (Ps 31:15). 

Whoever lives the totality of their life according to faith in the Creator, must also live the Covid-19 crisis according to faith in the Creator.

Why the virus? What are its causes and effects? The biologist and the doctor can tell us something about these, as can the psychologist and the economist. But only faith offers the ultimate horizon that unifies these partial perspectives. The believer does not have all the answers, but knows who does. He knows Him and knows how to invoke Him, to help him live this hour with meaning. Believing in God means that our “why?” can be transformed into “what for?”

“In the programme of the kingdom of God”, St John Paul II said, “suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbour” (Salvifici Doloris 30). 

The suffering caused by the virus is also present in order to revive love in ourselves. It is towards this love that providence leads all things. So, whoever believes in providence does not respond with negligence or irresponsibility, but with the intelligence of love.

Jordaens’ 'The Good Samaritan'

We discover how precious are our relationships, which are lived out in the body. This is why this virus is a threat to our communal life. This is why we are afraid to be together, to work together, and why we isolate ourselves. Thus, the virus wounds us at the heart of our humanity, which consists of the call to communion. 

At the same time, we understand the greatness of the good that is threatened. For we experience that we have no life if it is not life together; that we cannot flourish as solitary individuals, but only as members of a family, school, neighbourhood. The virus unmasks the lie of individualism and testifies to the beauty of the common good.

The reawakening to love continues, secondly, because we suffer as our own the suffering and anguish of others. Pain unites us. In a certain sense, we have all been infected by the virus because our community, our city, our nation has been infected. Hard times are on the way for many families, for the elderly, for the most vulnerable, but these sufferings will have the effect of increasing amongst us the works of love carried out for others. The difficulties of having physical contact will require an intelligent love, which will invent new ways of being present. Technology will help us to express that closeness and that affective support which, far from spreading the virus, vaccinates us against it. 

Reawakening to love will also, and thirdly, consist of the discovery of new ways of working together. For the pain of the virus, in addition to that caused by the physical disease, will be the pain of anxiety, of not knowing what to expect or how to get on with the thousand things of everyday life, and the fatigue of remaking plans and of enduring the waiting. An intelligent and creative love will be that of teachers who do not interrupt their educational work and their support for their students; that of parents who create tasks  and games for their children; that of pastors who continue to bring food to their faithful; that of families who inspire and share their creativity with other families.

Finally, this creativity of love will help us discover that love has an inexhaustible source. And so, fourthly, our suffering will reawaken us to love if we turn our gaze to God, who is the source and channel of all love.

The forced isolation caused by the virus is an opportunity for us to delve more deeply into the big question, the “why?”, that lies behind everything. 

The virus, in threatening the life-giving air that we breathe and the presence of those we love, invites us to ask ourselves about the ultimate secret of this very life and love. What is its origin and destiny? This question will lead us to discover the face of

“Let us remember, therefore, that the grace of God continues to act, even when we cannot receive Communion. For at every Mass that a priest says, even if he is alone, we will all be present and God’s grace will touch us. “

the God who wanted to respond to suffering, not with a theory, but with a presence: His suffering with us. For He became flesh, taking on our suffering in order to heal it; and, in the Sacraments of His Body and Blood, He gave us the gift of health.

It is precisely at this time that access to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, has become difficult. Let us remember, therefore, that the grace of God continues to act, even when we cannot receive Communion. For at every Mass that a priest says, even if he is alone, we will all be present and God’s grace will touch us. Faith in providence will arouse an intelligent love so that the Eucharist continues to be present in our lives. 

We will be able to strengthen our communal prayer, our reading aloud of the Word of God, our family recitation of Sunday Lauds or Vespers, our invocation of Mary in the Rosary…

It has already become clear that many will have to live this Lent fasting from the Eucharist. If, however, this awakens in us a love for the living Bread that comes from Heaven, if it teaches us that we cannot live when deprived of the Eucharist – the medicine of immortality – then this fast will have a saving effect. For in the Eucharist is the resurrected Body of Christ: immune to any virus, and inexhaustible source of our common life. Thus, the threat of the virus will awaken in us not only a concrete love for those who suffer, but a hope for the Love that never ends. The psalmist’s plea will sound anew: “You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrow that flies by day, because you have the Lord for your refuge and have made the Most High your stronghold” (Ps 91:5-6:9).

Nothing escapes the providence of God, and God relies on our prudence (which is the intelligence of love) to face the epidemic, supporting each other in a generous and creative fashion.

Fr José Granados is the Superior General of the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary

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Communicating the faith through stories of the saints and martyrs

Friday 6th September 2019

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Communicating the faith through stories of the saints and martyrs

Sr Emanuela Edwards looks at storytelling and how, even in our hi-tech digital age, it remains a powerful way to communicate the faith.

One of the greatest challenges, if not the greatest, for the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst is the communication of the faith to the people of our time. The Christian faith we possess, and the roots of our Christian Heritage must be rendered interesting and challenging and be communicated to everyone. It should be done in such a way that it can reinforce the faith of those who believe, whilst at the same time reach out to the periphery to speak of God’s love for all even to those who would not usually be interested!

One way of achieving this aim is to use the ancient art of storytelling. Since primitive times, stories have been used to transmit important truths, events and lessons to successive generations. In fact, the faith was originally handed on by the Apostles who testified or told the story of what they witnessed and learned from Christ. Artefacts and relics, like those in the Stonyhurst Collection, physically bring the stories of the martyrs and saints into proximity to those who look upon the objects. Pope Leo I asked, “why should the mind toil when the sight instructs” and indeed, looking at these artefacts and explaining their story presents an opportunity to recount the Christian faith in a captivating way.

Writing in the 4th Century Tertullian said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith”. Encountering the stories of the lives of the saints and martyrs who have shaped our Christian Heritage sows the seeds of the faith in successive generations. Each artefact in the Stonyhurst Collections works like a silent sermon because it testifies to the life and witness of the martyr in question making their stories enter the present time and touch the life of the person viewing the object perhaps causing them to consider its lesson. Therefore, the stories of the Saints and martyrs become living lessons in the faith that can teach and inspire new generations hopefully calling them to a deeper conversion.

Oscar Romero Relic and Triptych. Relic is the property of a private individual on loan to Stonyhurst College. Triptych and bust of Romero are property of Stonyhurst College Photo: Property of Stonyhurst College

One of the most striking stories in the Collections is told by the relic of the rope that bound St Edmund Campion to the hurdle on which he was dragged through the streets of London before his execution. (The actual relic is the property of the British Jesuit Province on loan to Stonyhurst College). That rope tells the story of a Priest who, on penalty of death, nevertheless came to England in 1580 to preach the Gospel, confess and offer the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass to the Catholics driven underground in order to practice their faith. He preached and disseminated his famous Decem Rationes – ten reasons demonstrating the truth of the Catholic religion and was eventually captured, imprisoned and tortured before his execution at Tyburn on the 1st December 1581. His story raises an interesting question: why did St Edmund not yield to the tortures and inducements to conform in order to save his life? By word and deed St Edmund most eloquently testified that the Catholic faith is worth dying for. He did not change the course of his life as he knew that a seed must die to yield fruit (cfr. Jn 12:24). Today, that fruit is harvested in the hearts of those who are told of this heroic Priest whose behaviour was inspired by the truth of Christ and are brought into contact with the faith he died to proclaim.

Drawing of Edmund Campion SJ by Charles Weld, c1850, from a 17th century original painting.

The Collections also have a part of the vestment worn by St Oscar Romero who was killed in El Salvador in 1980 whilst offering the Holy Mass. This relic serves as a poignant reminder that Christian martyrdom is not an ancient reality but that this story still continues today.

Another English martyr whose story is told through the artefacts and relics of the Stonyhurst Collections is St Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England, who was martyred for refusing to take the Oath of Succession in 1535. This saint’s story demonstrates how artefacts and relics can show the faith of the saint rather than just tell of it hence providing a more powerful source of Christian inspiration. During the homily for the Canonisation of St Thomas More, Pope Pius XI spoke of the “ardour of his prayer” and the “practice of those penances by which he kept his body in subjection.” Indeed, this can be borne out by close inspection of his golden crucifix with spikes on the back that was worn as a penance by the Saint. Here we learn something of the intimate life of the Saint that was founded on a deep prayer life. In fact, it was this intimacy with Christ that strengthened him to resist the tears of his wife and children over his condemnation and to be, “content to lose goods, land and life as well rather than to swear against his conscience”. In this way, the stories of the Saints also teach us that Christian witness is borne through a closeness to Christ in prayer and is not the fruit of the passing moment.

It is hoped that a visit to this beautiful collection will make the stories of the Saints vibrate in our hearts giving us a living lesson in the truths of the faith. May the stories of the martyrs strengthen us by imparting the knowledge of the faith and the inspiration to live it so that we too can witness to our rich Christian heritage that shaped our past and partake in its reconstruction in our own time.

Sr Emanuela Edwards

Missionaries of Divine Revelation
Trustee of the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst
sr.emauela@mdrevelation.org
www.mdrevelation.org

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Sacred places that speak of the Catholic Faith throughout the ages

Friday 2nd August 2019

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Sacred places that speak of the Catholic Faith throughout different ages

Stefan Kaminski

Times change; people and places come and go. But the one Person a Christian relies on never changes or leaves: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8).  This fundamental conviction remains true for all Christians regardless of the age or society in which they live. It provides the same foundational inspiration for every authentic Christian life, and unites people throughout history – and indeed outside of history – in the hope of the Resurrection.

Up in Lancashire, within the space of about 10 miles (as the crow flies) one can visit the ruins of Whalley Abbey, the Shrine of Ladyewell at Fernyhalgh and Stonyhurst College. Each of these speaks in a particular way of a different era and dimension of the Catholic faith: each place witnesses to individuals and communities that bore out the conviction expressed by St Paul at various times and in various walks of life.

The Cistercian abbey at Whalley dates from the Middle Ages

Whalley Abbey testifies to monastic life, in the form of Cistercian monks, during the late Middle Ages. Established in 1296, it had a relatively short life of less than 250 years, before being dissolved by Henry VIII. Despite the bad press that is sometimes meted out, monasteries served as an important cultural driving force, maintaining the art of writing and illuminating manuscripts, generating artistic and architectural trade, and working the land to sustain their communities. If the Cistercian monks were more aesthetic and orientated to a life of prayer, all the more because of their desire to serve God alone.

Although the Shrine at Fernyhalgh pre-dates the Abbey with a devotional history extending back to the 11th century, it speaks most powerfully of the harshest period of the Protestant Reformation and the testimony of the Martyr-saints. The staunch faithfulness of local recusant Catholics, the determination of missionary priests and the willingness of all to lay down their lives for their belief in the one Church established by Jesus Christ, is vividly expressed in the collection of relics and in the famous Burgess Altar. This latter is a beautifully carved wooden altar, complete with a triptych of panels and a Nativity Scene underneath, which closes up to disguise itself as cupboard. Saints Edmund Campion and Edmund Arrowsmith are amongst the many priests to have offered Holy Mass at it, risking their lives and those of their congregation for this greatest of Mysteries.

Stonyhurst College of course begins its history precisely because of the Reformation, with the establishment of the school at St Omers in France, in 1593. Its story on English soil starts in 1794. Across both periods however, the school’s story is a testimony to the creativity, ingenuity, learning and sheer hard work of the Jesuit order. The great learnedness of the Society’s members is evidenced in multifarious ways in the school’s operations: the contribution to astronomy through the work of its observatory; the design and operation of its own powerplant; the writing and production of whole series of plays; numerous musical contributions.  All of this has its inspiration and final end “ad majorem Dei gloriam” (for the greater glory of God).

Across this panoply of Catholic activity, the underlying dynamic is the same: a personal conviction that God became man, and that He died and rose on the Cross for our salvation. If we wonder at the force of the conviction held by those monks, martyrs and school masters, it is because it was not simply a belief: it was faith. And therein lies a subtle, but substantial, distinction. In a society which tends towards viewing beliefs as a private matter, each as valid as the next, which may be held freely so long as they do not interfere in the lives of others, it is easy to lose a sense of the grandeur of the theological faith that the Church holds.

The Burgess Altar at the Ladyewell Shrine, Fernyhalgh

Beliefs are common to everyone – be they beliefs in a political system or in the wisdom of their favourite TV personality – and indeed everyone has some belief about God. In all its guises however, belief remains an intellectual act that begins and ends with the human individual. As such, it only has its foundations in that same person.

Faith, on the other hand, is a response. It is firstly the acceptance of Truth: the highest and final Truth, which is valid for all people in all places. This Truth is known to be true by the Christian, not because he or she thinks it an attractive thing to believe, but because it comes from God. How do we know it comes from God? Because we choose to believe the corporate witness of the Church: from those first Christians who saw the God-man walk this earth, down to each and every man, woman and child who has testified to that Truth with their lives over the last two millenia.

Such a faith does not remain a personal belief for private consumption: it prompts an obedience (literally, a “listening to” as the Latin roots signifies) and subsequent action. From Abraham taking all his family and possessions to an unknown destination across the Arabian desert, to those parents of the 17th and 18th centuries illicitly sending their sons across the Channel to receive a Catholic education, they all acted on “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1): they had faith.

We might be tempted to wonder dubiously at our own faith (or indeed, to avoid asking ourselves what might feel like an embarrassing question!). However, Rome was not built in a day, and neither were places such as Whalley Abbey, Ladyewell and Stonyhurst. The real work started with the daily prayer and attentiveness to God of each individual concerned in all of those histories. The places that remain – be they merely the stones of a ruined church or a functioning school – reach back to beyond the external achievements of those Catholics: they bear witness firstly to lives that were centred around God. Without that continued response of faith – an acknowledgement of God, a prayerful listening to His Word, a striving to live out His teachings – there would be nothing for us to marvel at.

Visiting sites such as Fernyhalgh and Stonyhurst, one should therefore see “through” each physical place to the faith of the men and women that built them. They might be of another era and walk of life, but they follow the same Lord Jesus. They are now united with Him in the great “cloud of witnesses” that watches over us, waiting for us to pick up the baton and run the good race in our own time, and so join them in our heavenly destination (cf. Hebrews 12:1).

Stefan Kaminski is the Director of The Christian Heritage Centre