Friday, 25 April 2008

This Week

It's been quite a week.

On Tuesday I was in Kendal (on the edge of the Lake District, one of England's most beautiful regions) to conduct my aunt's funeral - the first family function of this type that I've done as a priest. Since my father was unable to make the journey due to poor health, I was also the 'chief mourner.' I was greatly helped by two permanent deacons, who wore dalmatics and were very competent on the sanctuary. The Mass was followed by burial at Kendal Cemetery, at the foot of the old castle where the last wife of Henry VIII, Katherine Parr, is said to have been born. I then had the chance to revisit my aunt's house, perhaps for the final time.

Without boring you, this was the site of perhaps the happiest of my childhood memories since my grandparents once lived there. It was a magical place to visit as a child and the imagination really ran wild in the large garden and field behind the house, all against the backdrop of the Westmorland hills. I particularly remember walking up the field with my grandfather, who used to speak about his experiences at the Battle of the Somme. We would stand under this tree (see below), with three large rocks, which (he said) had once been used by the local Viking leaders for their council meetings. I suspect I might be rather disillusioned if I looked for historical evidence for this!

On a happier note, last night I went to the London Oratory to speak to their hugely successful young adults group - at least a hundred people, mostly young professionals, packed into St Wilfrid's Hall. My topic was the Spanish Inquisition - that old chestnut. One person made the very good point that we should stop being so defensive and apologetic about it (the natural reaction to the familiar 'Black Legend'); instead we should celebrate the positive contributions it made to Europe, especially in the field of legal procedure. Such was the care taken in following the strict procedures, that if you were innocent you had a better chance in an Inquisition court of being cleared than you would in the secular equivalent. The basic points I made can be found here.


Sunday, 20 April 2008

The Pope in America

I've been enjoying Pope Benedict's Apostolic Visit to the United States, courtesy of EWTN, and I'm sure the warm reception he has received everywhere will do much to strengthen him in his Petrine Ministry. I must confess that I've found some of the liturgies to be rather long-winded and the music at times brash and over-the-top - indeed, I even thought (to my surprise) that some of the musical performances at last night's Youth Rally were more satisfying than those during the Mass at St Patrick's Cathedral!

One of the highlights for me was the Holy Father's rich address to the young people in New York yesterday, which contained much more than the widely reported critique of his youth in Nazi Germany. Here are my favourite passages:

Have you noticed how often the call for freedom is made without ever referring to the truth of the human person? Some today argue that respect for freedom of the individual makes it wrong to seek truth, including the truth about what is good. In some circles to speak of truth is seen as controversial or divisive, and consequently best kept in the private sphere. And in truth’s place or better said its absence an idea has spread which, in giving value to everything indiscriminately, claims to assure freedom and to liberate conscience. This we call relativism. But what purpose has a freedom which, in disregarding truth, pursues what is false or wrong? How many young people have been offered a hand which in the name of freedom or experience has led them to addiction, to moral or intellectual confusion, to hurt, to a loss of self-respect, even to despair and so tragically and sadly to the taking of their own life? Dear friends, truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is a discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust. In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ. That is why authentic freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in; nothing less than letting go of self and allowing oneself to be drawn into Christ’s very being for others.

* * *

Your personal prayer, your times of silent contemplation, and your participation in the Church’s liturgy, bring you closer to God and also prepare you to serve others. The saints accompanying us this evening show us that the life of faith and hope is also a life of charity. Contemplating Jesus on the Cross we see love in its most radical form. We can begin to imagine the path of love along which we must move. The opportunities to make this journey are abundant. Look about you with Christ’s eyes, listen with his ears, feel and think with his heart and mind. Are you ready to give all as he did for truth and justice? Many of the examples of the suffering which our saints responded to with compassion are still found here in this city and beyond. And new injustices have arisen: some are complex and stem from the exploitation of the heart and manipulation of the mind; even our common habitat, the earth itself, groans under the weight of consumerist greed and irresponsible exploitation. We must listen deeply. We must respond with a renewed social action that stems from the universal love that knows no bounds. In this way, we ensure that our works of mercy and justice become hope in action for others.

* * *

[To the seminarians] The People of God look to you to be holy priests, on a daily journey of conversion, inspiring in others the desire to enter more deeply into the ecclesial life of believers. I urge you to deepen your friendship with Jesus the Good Shepherd. Talk heart to heart with him. Reject any temptation to ostentation, careerism, or conceit. Strive for a pattern of life truly marked by charity, chastity and humility, in imitation of Christ, the Eternal High Priest, of whom you are to become living icons. Dear seminarians, I pray for you daily. Remember that what counts before the Lord is to dwell in his love and to make his love shine forth for others.

* * *


Saturday, 19 April 2008

The Martyr of Greenwich

Today is the Memoria, in our diocesan calendar, of St Alphege – a very popular saint and national hero of a thousand years ago. He started life as a monk in Gloucestershire and Somerset, but despite trying to live a solitary life his talents were soon recognised and he was brought out into the public spotlight: he successively became Abbot of Bath, Bishop of Winchester and (in 1005) Archbishop of Canterbury.

It was not an easy time to be a Christian leader because of the on-going threat of the pagan Danes, better known to us as the Vikings, with their horned helmets and frequent raids on England. In 1011 they captured Canterbury and Archbishop Alphege was taken prisoner and ransomed for the princely sum of £3,000. He was taken towards London and eventually murdered at Greenwich, since he infuriated the Danes by not letting money be collected for his ransom. According to tradition, the saint was killed during a banquet - the Danes threw bones at him from their table and then one of them struck him on the head with an axe. He was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral, where his shrine was visited by many pilgrims, before being moved to Canterbury in 1023. St Thomas Becket prayed to St Alphege just before his own martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral.

Even if St Alphege cannot be said to have explicitly died for the Faith, St Anselm said that, like St John the Baptist, he was a martyr for justice and truth. And so today we pray that through the intercession of St Alphege, we too will bear witness to the truth this coming week and pursue justice in all our undertakings, without compromising our principles in the face of opposition.

St Alphege, pray for us!


Thursday, 17 April 2008

Old St Pancras

I was meeting a friend at London's St Pancras International recently and, since I had some time to kill, walked up the road to Old St Pancras church, just behind the station (not a place to linger in after dark!). For some unaccountable reason, I had never been there before, and yet it claims to be one of the oldest Christian sites in the country. Indeed, the sign boldly claims that the church has been 'a site of prayer and meditation since 314 AD.'

There is no hard evidence for the claim, but it is an impressive one to make - the dedication of St Pancras is certainly a very ancient one and may have originated with the mission of St Augustine of Canterbury, who promoted the cults of Roman saints as part of his evangelization of the south-east. In the nineteenth century what was thought to be a sixth century altar stone was found - and immediately dubbed 'St Augustine's Altar'! Some think that the site of the church was a pagan shrine that was converted to Christian use in Roman times, long before St Augustine (and 314, just after the conversion of Constantine, seems a convenient date).

The interior of the (Anglican) church is pleasant enough, with a few old monuments (including that of the minaturist, Samuel Cooper), an exposed bit of Norman wall (on the extreme left of the photo below) and a shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham (out of view). One feels a million miles away from the bustling station nearby!

The most interesting dimension of Old St Pancras is the graveyard, which was once favoured by the Catholic community due to its ancient origins and the tradition that the church was one of the last where Mass was said publicly at the Reformation (the Elizabethan incumbent, a Marian priest, seems to have celebrated Mass in Latin well into the second half of the sixteenth century and was tolerated by the authorities). Several of the Vicars Apostolic were buried in the churchyard, including Bonaventure Giffard, and many of the French refugees during the Revolution (including Archbishop Dillon, whose porcelain false teeth were recently found). Other famous burials include J. C. Bach and Sir John Soane. Next time you're at King's Cross or St Pancras, it's worth popping down Midland Rd (the road in between St Pancras and the British Library) and visiting this site, sanctified by centuries of Catholic associations.


Monday, 14 April 2008

Venetian Relics II: Dragon Bones?

On Wednesday Fr Whinder and I spent a wonderful day on the Venetian island of Murano, famous for its glass-making and also several fine churches. One of them, Santi Maria e Donato, was founded in the seventh century and rebuilt in the twelfth, in order to accomodate the relics of St Donatus, which the Doge had brought back with him from Cephalonia in 1125. You can see the saint's shrine above the High Altar in the picture. Along with St Donatus' body, the Doge brought back the bones of the dragon that he reputedly killed by spitting at it. These are displayed behind the High Altar:

There can't be many churches that claim the actual bones of a fabulous beast; I wonder if any scientific tests have been conducted on them! Sadly most visitors ignore them and concentrate on the mosaics on the floor and apse.

Afterwards, we had a fantastic meal at the nearby Ai Frari (above), where I fell in love with tagliolini (long pasta) with stewed cuttlefish, cooked in cuttlefish ink. Sounds ghastly but it was delicious!


Sunday, 13 April 2008

Venetian Relics I: Double Decker Saints

This is one of my favourite Venetian churches: San Zaccaria, not too far from St Mark's Square. The Benedictine convent that was once attached to the church was the oldest and richest in the city (until its suppression in 1810). Such was the convent's prestige that the Doge solemnly processed to the church every Easter - indeed, it was said that one Abbess, Agiostina Morosini, had been the first to present the doge with his distinctive hat, the cornu. I like the detail that the procession always avoided the Riva degli Schiavoni, since one Doge (Pietro Tradonico) had been assassinated here in 837, so they came instead by the Via SS Filippo e Giacomo.

The church contains one of the most bizarre shrines that I've seen - a side altar on the epistle side aisle, which contains the bodies of two major saints, arranged as a sort of 'double-decker.' On the bottom is St Zechariah, the father of St John the Baptist and patron of the church. On top is St Athanasius, Doctor of the Church - with no obvious connection to his saintly neighbour, beyond the fact that he was a great theologian of the Incarnation. It seems strange that these major relics were just put in a side aisle, not even in a chapel of their own! I'm not sure of the provenance of the relics - possibly St Zechariah was pinched from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. The Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo also claims the body of St Athanasius...


Saturday, 12 April 2008


It was wonderful, as always, to be in Venice. However, as you can see in the above picture, the weather was decidedly overcast and rainy. Moreover, because of the poor exchange rates, Europe is becoming more expensive (1.2 euros to the pound - I remember the good old days when it was nearer 2 euros to the pound) - however, I doubt I'll get much sympathy from American readers!

There was a brief spell of sun on Monday, which allowed me to take the above shot of the Benedictine monastery of San Giorgio, with a rather charming shrine in the foreground (a statue of Our Lady in the green 'canopy').

One of the great ways to enter Venice is by train, since the moment you leave the station you're on the Grand Canal. Above you can see a photo of the first church you see on arriving: San Simeone Piccolo, showing the rather unfortunate custom of using scaffolding around churches for advertising. A closer look at the board revealed the kind of activities that take place within San Simeone, thanks to the Fraternity of St Peter:

Perhaps it would have been more appropriate for the model in the advert to wear a mantilla?


I've just returned from holiday, so was unable to note that Tuesday was the second birthday of this blog. I'm surprised that the readership for Roman Miscellany still numbers between 200 and 300 a day, especially since my posts are less regular - however, I will try to post something at least once a week or whenever my creative juices are flowing!

Say a prayer, please, for my aunt, Anne Schofield, who died this afternoon aged 87. RIP.

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Sunday, 6 April 2008

Off to La Serenissima

Tomorrow morning I fly off to Venice for three nights - though I'm not sure what sort of weather to expect on the lagoon. Fortunately I know Venice quite well so I'll be able to spend my time wandering along the canals, re-visiting some favourite churches and hunting for that most elusive of Venetian institutions - a good quality AND reasonably-priced ristorante.

I've been asked to draw people's attention to the new CIEL UK website, with info about their forthcoming High Mass and conference at the London Oratory on 31 May. The Mass is followed by an address by Dr Alcuin Reid on Benedict XVI's liturgical reforms.


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