Category Archives: religion

martyrs and messy divorces

(LONDON, England) When the pope gets up to speak in London’s historic Westminster Hall today we might forgive him a few nerves.

In agreeing to visit Britain he has, as some observers have noted, entered the lion’s den. A strongly secular society, leading British celebrities and academics were falling over themselves to put down the pontiff ahead of the visit.

If the implacable Pope Benedict XVI’s nerves are tested he is hardly likely to draw much comfort from the venue.

Westminster Hall, part of the Palace of Westminster estate which also includes the Houses of Parliament, has witnessed some key moments in British history and many of them paint a rather grim picture of papal relations over the years.

It was the venue for the trial of Guy Fawkes, who plotted to blow up parliament with gunpowder. When the conspirators were uncovered in 1605, Fawkes flung himself from the scaffold to avoid the agony of being hung, drawn and quartered.

Fawkes planned to assassinate the king and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne, and to this day Britons spend every November 5 burning effigies of the Catholic traitor on village greens and parks up and down the country.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Henry VIII celebrated his coronation with a banquet at the hall. When it comes to the breakdown of Anglo-papal relations, Henry was the real villain of the piece.

In 1527 Henry asked Pope Clement VII for a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon. When the Pope refused Henry had the marriage annulled by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and married the pregnant Ann Boleyn in a private ceremony.

When Clement found out he excommunicated Henry. Undaunted, the king simply had himself made head of the church, sacking monasteries and stealing their wealth and helping himself to the church taxes.

Henry’s actions were greeted with shock and anger by Catholics in Rome and in England, and when a group of priests refused to swear an oath accepting him as the head of the Church of England he had them killed, creating the first Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation.

The violence was not all one-sided. Henry’s daughter, Mary, remained a devout Catholic and when she succeeded her father she turned the crown’s fire on the Protestants, burning 284 of them at the stake including Cranmer.

After Mary’s death, the reconciliation with Rome fizzled out as her sister and heir, Queen Elizabeth I reaffirmed the monarch’s place as the head of the English church. In the late 1500s laws were introduced outlawing contact with the Roman church. Following the gunpowder plot, 1611 saw the publication of the King James Bible, the standard bible for the worldwide Anglican Church.

When Oliver Cromwell took charge after the English Civil War of the 1640s, a degree of tolerance was afforded to Catholics in England but the fiercely puritan Lord Protector imposed laws against them in Ireland.

By the 1700s it was enshrined in English law that the crown could not pass to a Catholic heir or anyone married to a Catholic. Yet towards the end of that century the authorities began to relax their position and the First Catholic Relief Act repealed the prosecution of priests and enabled Catholics to buy and inherit land.

The government’s stance was not reflected in the population where an undercurrent of anti-Catholic sentiment still existed. This boiled over in 1780 when a mob of 40,000 marched on parliament to oppose the relief act, carrying banners saying “no Popery” and attacking members of the House of Lords.

In the 19th century, Catholics were granted the vote and were allowed to run for public office. Even so, simmering resentments persisted. These hostilities were stoked in the middle of the century by a group of Anglicans who felt that the Church of England was in “spiritual decay.”

Known as the “Oxford Movement,” these Anglicans preached a return to a more Catholic version of Anglicanism. Their leader, John Henry Newman, eventually converted. Newman’s beatification is the reason for Pope Benedict’s current visit.

By last century the tensions had abated enough that in 1960 Geoffrey Fisher became the first Archbishop of Canterbury for 600 years to visit the Holy See.

Vatican II, the modernizing church council that took place in the early sixties helped this process of conciliation, calling for a “restoration of Unity among Christians.” This was followed by Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit in 1982 and the current papal trip.

These days, the main threat to the Church of Rome in Britain is less Protestantism but rather a general mistrust of religion in public life that has made politicians and prominent figures wary of public expressions of faith.

For instance, a journalist for Vanity Fair claimed former prime minister Tony Blair’s then-press secretary Alistair Campbell once interrupted an interview to prevent his boss answering a question about about his Christianity with the words: “We don’t do God.”

Although it was known that Blair had been attending Mass for many years, he waited to the very end of his term in office before announcing he was converting to Catholicism. Still, at least he avoided the stake.

This article was first published on on 17 September, 2010

the nuns in the tower block

In the darkness Clare beckons me to the window. Outside, London is ten thousand lights glittering to the horizon. Far to the right the skyscrapers of the docklands cluster like shards of crystals, while ahead the high rises of Hackney are solid rectangles dotted with light.

Returning to the sitting room we pass a small, carpeted room, unfurnished except for low wooden benches skirting two walls. It is a chapel. Dressed in navy trousers and a dark pullover, Clare’s slight frame moves down the narrow stairs ahead of me. She is light on her feet, and I am genuinely surprised when I find out later she is 83 and has spent most her adult life working as a cleaner.

Back in the sitting room a black and white portrait of a man with a thin, dark beard hangs on the wall. The man has the same high cheekbones and dark eyes as Clare and though she refers to him as Brother Charles, they are not related.

Charles de Foucauld was a soldier who left the French army in North Africa to become a monk. He died in obscurity a century ago having won only a handful of converts among the nomadic tribes of the Sahara desert.

In the years after his death a religious order was formed taking the hermit’s life as its inspiration. Today the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus are all over the world: in refugee camps in Lebanon, Pygmy villages in Cameroon, and here, on the 13th floor of an east London tower block.

If you have never heard of them, it is not surprising. They are a contemplative order characterised by anonymity. The sisters, for
example, wear no religious habit — the only outward sign of their calling is the wooden cross around their necks.

Instead they try to find parity with the communities they live among, doing low paid, unskilled jobs. Offering solidarity to the most marginalized, in place of scripture.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, for example, a community of Little Sisters in the U.S. relocated to an exclusively Arab
neighbourhood of New Jersey.

Clare, who is from an old family from western France, used to clean at the department store C&A.

“Our inspiration is in following the hidden life of Jesus,” says Catharine, who joins us in the sitting room. She means by this the
life that Christ led in obscurity before he began to preach.

Four Little Sisters live in the flat. Their community is a reflection of the diversity of the city that surrounds them — Catharine, a 66
year-old retired care worker, is the only one from the UK.

The flat is small, the sisters’ bedrooms narrow. It can be a trail, says Catharine, to share such a cramped living space.

“The hardest austerity is living in a tight-knit community,” she says. “I have spent 20 years in this tower block. It is the contemplative life that gives meaning to this banal life we lead.”

For her the contemplative life started early. She says she first considered taking vows while a boarder at a Catholic girls’ school in

She discovered the Little Sisters by chance when a monk visited her class. The man was meant to be doing a slideshow about Africa from where he had just returned. As he flicked through images of the continent he came to one that seemed to stand out from the rest.

It was a picture of some young women waiting by a roadside. These were nuns, the monk explained, who had joined a travelling community in France. It had nothing to do with his talk and, in fact, he did not know how the image had got mixed in with the other slides.

Catharine looks thoughtful after she relates this story as if the appearance of the picture in the slideshow carries a meaning for her that goes beyond mere coincidence.

In any case, the revelation that there was an order where contemplation and a life on the road were not mutually exclusive must
have seemed tantalising for a teenage girl.

Her first assignment as a postulant shattered any romantic delusions she might have harboured, however. She worked in a jam factory in Leeds. Her parents were upset when they came to visit. “I was in a tiny back-to-back terrace where we shared an outside toilet with four neighbours.

“They couldn’t see why I would embrace a life of poverty. Their own faith was deep in its way but more practical I suppose.”

Catherine’s journey of downward mobility is a gentle imitation of the more extreme trajectory taken by Foucauld.

Born into the French nobility, Brother Charles was a complex figure. As a young man he was a glutton and a womaniser. Yet in North Africa the overweight bon viveur became a fierce ascetic who took self-negation to frightening extremes: when he fell ill, for example, he wrote of his disappointment on finding out it was not tuberculosis.

After dinner we return to the chapel at the top of the stairs.

The sisters sing hymns and recite psalms and scripture. After a period for silent prayer Catharine offers thoughts for the victims of Haiti’s earthquake. Canh, the Vietnamese sister, prays for the people who are teaching her English. On the floor a candle flickers.

Not much later I say my goodbyes. Outside the January night is cold and unforgiving. On the streets all is quiet. I try to get my bearings, but London is such an improbable matrix when you get in amongst it.

I imagine Clare in the tower block behind me, looking out on the spaghetti of streets that dissolve into confusion at street level but is clear and easy to navigate from up there. I try to figure her as I saw her earlier, gazing in rapture to the horizon. Seeing for miles from the narrow confines of her 13th floor flat.

This following story was first published in the British newspaper, The Catholic Herald on March 19, 2010

father james curran

When I opened my eyes it was still pitch black. Feeling in the darkness I knocked the alarm clock off the table. From somewhere overhead there came a low refrain, the words barely audible: “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” The green digits of the clock read 5:36 A.M.

I dressed and went up to the chapel where the monks were finishing the Liturgy of the Hours. Out of the window in the grey light of dawn the silver skyscrapers of the downtown were growing out of the horizon.

Directly below, a telegraph poll had a mustard yellow sign on it that read ‘Slow.’

The Little Brothers of Saint Francis are a community of contemplatives based in Boston. They were set up by James Curran, an opera singer who turned his back on the musical world after experiencing a moment of epiphany during a reception at the White House.

Taking the life of Saint Francis of Assisi as his inspiration, Brother James founded a contemplative order in the late sixties in the working class suburb of Roxbury. I stayed a weekend with them recently.

They live in two plain wood-board houses painted dark brown. On each house a simple cross and a small sign above the doorway are the only indications of the occupants. Even so, their years of service and the distinct blue denim cassocks they wear mean they are well known locally.

According to its charism, the order “bears witness” to the plight of the city’s homeless. They offer no charity beyond their presence but as Brother James explained later at breakfast, that alone was a source of consolation for individuals isolated on the streets.

Round the table he told the story of Bob, a rough sleeper he met in the early seventies. He used to buy him breakfast at a nearby diner, and listen as Bob talked about baseball. Ignorant of the game, the monk bought the daily papers to keep up with the conversation but the scores Bob was quoting did not seem to tally with what he read. He discovered eventually that Bob was quoting scores from two decades before.

“It was then that I began to realise it was more important to listen than to speak,” he said. Later on, he would see him wearing a sandwich board prophesying the end of the world. Bob died alone and — like many of the men they come into contact with — it was left to the brothers to organize both his funeral and a small wake.

After mass we continued our conversation in the Little Brothers’ common room. On the wall behind him were maps of Assisi, including a medieval drawing showing the friary created by St Francis. On another wall hung Brother James’ portrait. (“Probably when I am gone they will throw darts at it.”)

Brother James spoke in a voice as light and grainy as his Celtic skin, gripping one hand in the other to stop them shaking – a result of the Parkinson’s disease he was diagnosed with ten years ago. His fine white beard wrapped his face like a chinstrap.

A good listener, he was also a good storyteller and was fond of name-dropping. He talked about the time Mother Theresa came to stay (she insisted on sending coffee and donuts out to the police car assigned to look after her) and his encounters with Pope John Paul II and John F. Kennedy.

He was raised alone by his mother after his father died in the war. Growing up he revealed a talent for singing and after a short career he became a publicist for an opera company.

It was at Lyndon Johnson’s White House in the late sixties that his life changed. He had gone there to stage a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s “Voyage to the Moon” for the astronauts taking part in the space program. As glasses clinked and the hum of conversation drifted to the Apollo 11 lunar mission just two years away, Brother James heard what his spiritual director later termed “an interior voice” ask him: “What are you doing here?”

“I began to realise that perhaps God was calling me towards a downward mobility rather than an upward one. That’s hard to explain, because most people think you are wasting your life.”

Choosing to heed the call, he turned his back on the rarefied world of opera and became a monk.

In the last four decades he estimates around 300 men have passed through the doors of the Little Brother house, and only a handful have stuck around.

When one of these longer-term residents decided to go, he said, it was like “going through a divorce.”

Of the five other little brothers that share the house now, one is an ex-teacher and another a former construction worker. Brother James acknowledged a monotony to the life, comparing his vocation to the responsibilities of the married man who must get up for work each morning though he might rather lie in bed.

“Living the Gospel means living with the people God has thrown you in with,” he said. “That’s a real challenge. It means nothing to say ‘I’m going to go out and love the forgotten and rejected people’ if you can’t love the brother that’s sitting across your cornflakes.”

That evening, after Brother James had gone to bed, I talked with Brother Anthony, who takes care of the day-to-day running of things since illness has forced the founder to take a back seat. A former barber, he joined the order over 20 years ago.

He said many people came to them with a deluded idea of the lifestyle. “A few years ago we had to turn away this young man,” Brother Anthony said. “He had this vision of himself ambling through the fields in his habit doling out alms to the poor from a wicker basket. I remember thinking, ‘does he not realize we’re in the city.’”

After just one day I had no such illusions that the monastic life might be for me. I have a mortal fear of early mornings, and those dawn liturgies were more than I could take. With that in mind I turned in early, preparing myself for a last bruising encounter with the guest room’s alarm clock.

This story was first published in the UK’s Catholic Herald newspaper on September 11, 2010