Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Muslims and Christians are like-minded when it comes to revering Mary

I often feel hopeless when I read about the persecution of Christians. The global situation is grim. A recent report by Aid to the Church in Need explains that the most pernicious persecution of Christians happens in predominantly Muslim countries. We would do well to remember that in these same countries, Muslims are often persecuted by their fellow Muslims.

As as this Catholic Herald View suggests, we would do well to seek out Muslims “who are dedicated to prayer, peace and charity”.

Over the past five years of living in London, experience has shown me an area of common ground. Muslims and Christians are like-minded when it comes to revering Our Lady. I discovered this because as my name is Mary, many Muslims say sincerely to me, “that’s a lovely name”. A Muslim friend of mine engages in mental prayer to Our Lady. He gives very difficult prayer intentions to Our Lady and he says that, “it’s incredible how many prayers get answered by asking her”.

No other woman is given as much space in the Koran as Our Lady. Reviewing sections of the Koran that concern Our Lady, she is revered as the one woman who was chosen, “above the women of all nations”. If you ask Muslims who have a devotion to Our Lady, they will simply say, “she was the best woman ever”. The Koran corroborates Catholic doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s immaculate virginity.

Would it not make sense to make Our Lady the foundation of our inter-faith discussions? It needn’t be very formal. Devout Catholics could open a discussion on respecting Our Lady with their Muslim friends, neighbours and colleagues.

This is not to disregard the doctrinal shaped elephant in the room. We hold Our Lady as the Mother of God. Muslims believe Our Lady to be the mother of a prophet. But they do hold her as the most holy woman who ever lived and they have a fear of offending her.

I’m taking the risk that I’ll be mocked for proffering a pious strategy. I know that, “Unite Christians and Muslims on the grounds of their shared love of Our Lady”, is not likely to become foreign policy any time soon. But without basic strategies, we are back to hopeless handwringing. In order for this to work, it needs the oxygen of our conversations with Muslims. Maybe we should, “let go and let Our Lady”.

It needs a few sparks of publicity. For starters I invite my fellow Catholic writers and bloggers to take the plunge and try out this strategy. Then blog any conversations and encounters. My guess is that they’ll be pleasantly surprised by the smiles that mention of Our Lady brings to the faces of many Muslims. No wonder Our Lady is called, ‘Cause of our Hope’ and ‘Smile of Heaven’.

I wrote this blog for The Catholic Herald. Visit the site and read all the latest news about the Church in England.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Dorothy Day turned me into a film director

"I’m not a filmmaker,” insists Claudia Larson, the writer and director of Don’t Call Me a Saint, a documentary about Dorothy Day. The film is an honest and beautiful portrait of Day’s life. And if you’d seen it, you would be forgiven for thinking that Larson is an expert in filmmaking. 
 
Larson spent 15 years making the documentary. When I ask her how she became so committed to preserving Day’s memory, she says with a laugh: “It’s as though Dorothy walked up my front stairs, knocked on my door and, like a fool, I answered it. She just moved in and made me do it.”
 
Larson made the movie even though she had never been to film school and she also paid for the production mostly out of her own pocket. “I learned as I went along,” she says with breathless enthusiasm. 
 
She is certain that it was Day’s spirit that guided her. “I was consumed with researching her life and if it never came to anything, that would have been OK because it was a great journey. But I knew Dorothy was too practical. She didn’t just want me to have lots of historical stories to keep to myself.” 
 
Listening to Larson, I have the strong impression that she and Day were close friends. But they never met. Day was born in Brooklyn and died at the age of 83 in 1980 in the residence she founded for homeless women. Larson grew up in Los Angeles and, although she lived in New York for many years, she never heard of Day or the Catholic Worker Movement. It was in the early 1990s that she began to chronicle Day’s life and was very determined to have “Dorothy tell her own story with no interference from me”. She insists that the film is “pure Dorothy”.
 
Larson even goes as far to say that “Dorothy directed the content and the length of the film”. The stars of the documentary are the people who were closest to Day: her good friends and, most notably, her daughter Tamar. Larson used the medium of cinema to capture on camera those who knew Day best. The clock was ticking because some of her interviewees were nearing the end of their lives and many have now died.  
 
Was Larson making the film because she is a Catholic who yearned to document Day as a celebrated convert to Catholicism? “No. The fact that I’m a Catholic has no bearing on the film,” says Larson, “I am a cradle Catholic but I didn’t make the film because Dorothy was Catholic.” 
 
This confounds me, because Larson’s film focuses on Day’s devotion to the works of mercy. Digging deep as to why Larson did not single out Day’s Catholicism, she says: “I didn’t want to alienate anyone and Catholics are not the only ones interested in her. People of all faiths are drawn to Dorothy and to studying her work. Many an atheist is fascinated by Dorothy Day.”
 
When the film premiered at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in 2006, Larson was reproached by one audience member for not concentrating on Day’s relationship with the Catholic Church.  Larson says: “If I had focused solely on Day’s Catholicism it could have been a three-hour film.”  
 
As I’m someone who finds Day’s conversion to Catholicism mesmerising, I appreciated the way Larson’s film portrayed Day’s strong faith as an integral part of her life. Don’t Call Me A Saint doesn’t create a divide between Day’s faith and social activism, but treats them as they were: completely interrelated.
 
A stirring section of the film covers Dorothy Day’s time as a reporter at the Hunger March in Washington DC in 1932. Day felt very conflicted because she wanted to employ her Left-wing practices, but felt they were at odds with her Catholicism. So she prayed at the  Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception that she would find methods to help the poor in a way that sat well with her faith. 
 
The next day, she went back to New York and found Peter Maurin waiting for her. Maurin had been a Christian Brother for a time, but now sought out Day as his collaborator. Together they founded The Catholic Worker in May 1933, but Day always credited Maurin as being the primary founder.  
 
Larson’s film bridges an important gap by showing how Maurin became Day’s teacher – sharing with her his system of combining Catholic beliefs with a blend of radical socialism. Maurin and Day aimed to put as many of the works of mercy into practice as possible.
 
There are many earnest Catholics who distrust Maurin and Day because they find it hard to accept Day’s Left-wing sympathies, and see Day’s political views as incompatible with Catholicism. So it’s important to ask if Larson has strong political allegiances that influenced the film. “No, I’m not a Catholic Worker,” she says. “I don’t have any political agenda. Maybe that’s why Dorothy knocked on my door.”
 
Larson’s film shows that Day was not a textbook Left-winger, but rather that her greatest teachers were the poor people who crossed her path. The most striking example is the film’s interview with Eileen Egan, a close friend of Day’s, who relates what Day did after a gut-wrenching tragedy. It was the 1930s and America was in the depths of the Great Depression. Two female friends came to the soup kitchen. They were homeless and so asked Day if they could stay the night. Day could not find an inch of space for them: people were already sleeping on every floor. 
 
Later, one of the women returned. Day asked her where her friend was. She told Day that her friend was so distraught at not having a place to sleep in the soup kitchen that she had gone to a subway station and thrown herself under a train. Cut to the heart, Day took her last five dollars, went down the street and found an empty apartment. She put the five dollars on the table, offering it as a deposit, and the flat became the Catholic Worker Movement’s first house of hospitality. There are now more than 180 houses of hospitality across the globe.
 
There are other tear-jerking moments when the film focuses on the crowds of severely mentally ill people who congregated in the houses of hospitality. One interviewee, Pat Jordan, tells of two mentally ill guests who caused a disruption. One of them went out naked on to the fire escape. They had to be asked to leave the house. But they came back on Easter Sunday and were welcomed with open arms. Their behaviour was never held against them. Thus, Pat Jordan concludes, they were forgiven “77 times seven”, as Jesus commanded. 
 
Larson does not consider herself a particularly good Catholic, but her film shows clearly how Day abandoned herself to Divine Providence. One story is likely to resonate with readers who struggle with high fuel costs during wintry weather. One bitterly cold winter, when there was no coal to light the furnace, Day had only one piece of coal left.  As St Joseph was patron of the Catholic Worker house, she put the last piece of coal beside his statue. Without any notice, an anonymous benefactor ordered a truckload of coal and it was delivered that very evening.

Larson tells another story that illustrates how Day learned from the poor, “Dorothy and Eileen Egan were on a boat going down the Thames in London. It was chilly and they were only wearing cloth coats. Dorothy took the Times, divided it with Eileen, and stuffed her half inside her coat, saying that she had learned how to keep warm from the men on the Bowery.”      
 
Larson’s film does not shy away from the grittier aspects of serving the poorest of the poor. There are snippets of a television interview with Day, in which Day tells the viewers that the Brooklyn police brought old women who had been sleeping in abandoned buildings to the Catholic Worker house so that Day could care for them. Day described elderly woman as being covered in lice and suffering from a prolapsed rectum. It was not unusual for the police to drop off people who were drenched in their own urine.  
 
Don’t Call Me a Saint is both a poetic and harrowing piece of cinema.  For a film that was a decade and a half in the making, it is concise, coming in at just 55 minutes. It’s clear that Larson took great care in choosing each frame of the film. “It’s the length that Dorothy wanted,” she says, “so it would fit in a classroom time-frame.”
 
Larson will not allow me to give her any credit for the documentary, insisting that “Dorothy made me do this film”. I keep asking her Larson why she feels so attracted to Day. She says: “I related to Dorothy’s daughter Tamar, because my mother was a single working mom.” Tamar was Day’s only child from her relationship with Forster Batterham. Larson appears to see a lot of her own mother in Day and that sheds light on why she has such immense respect for Day, and a burning love of making Day’s legacy known. 

To find out more about Don’t Call Me a Saint and to buy a DVD of film, visit Dorothydaydoc.com
 
This interview was carried in the October 31st 2014 print edition of The Catholic Herald.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Richard Collins, the Prayer Warrior, REQUIESCAT IN PACE




A few minutes before writing this post, when the blue-darkness of night crept into my flat, I thought, I must include Richard’s intentions in my Rosary tonight and pray that the cancer disappears… Then the heavy realisation fell on my brain, Richard passed away two days ago. He left this life at a quarter to nine on Saturday morning, October 11th 2014. 


Fortunately, my best friend and I took a trip to Wales a month ago, in September, to visit Richard and spend some time with him. I will remember him in his conservatory, bright light pouring in, and his beautiful family surrounding him. 

Let me underscore that Richard was an exceptional friend.  I always felt secure in asking Richard for prayers because he would generously devote time and energy to prayer, but didn’t expect something in return. In life - I’ve learned the hard way that there are few pure souls who give of themselves and their time – without expecting something in return. 

I believe it is thanks to Richard’s prayers that I met Dan Radcliffe, and that a few months ago I got the in-depth interview with Nigel Farage on Northern Ireland. To be fair, it is usually senior political correspondents that get those interviews, especially on subjects as delicate as the future for Northern Ireland in the event of the UK leaving the EU. But with Richard’s prayers, the interview came to pass.

Richard’s prayers were a pure and selfless gift.   I think this is why Richard’s prayers were *answered*.  God saw that Richard’s heart was clean and acted accordingly, as in Psalm 24 Pray with clean hands and a pure heart (Psalm 24:3-4)
If I e-mailed him, asking for prayers for a particular intention, Richard would send back a reply that he had taken out the Rosary and was going to ‘storm Heaven’.  

I have no clue as to how many dozens upon dozens of Rosaries that Richard offered for my intentions. It is very fitting that Richard should die during October, the month devoted to the Holy Rosary.   

I have always described Richard as ‘a prayer warrior’.  Even if I didn’t have good news, Richard would never be daunted, but would encourage me and promise even more prayers!  Writing this next sentence is hard – grief bites and paralyses my fingers – but I have to train my brain not to e-mail Richard asking for prayers. 

Perhaps Richard would most like to be remembered as an exceptional Catholic.  At times, when he was in agony and his cancer was extremely painful, he could STILL be found giving encouragement to other Catholic bloggers or offering up his suffering for the intentions of another.  No matter how sick he was, he never failed to give a pat on the back to someone who needed support, or to take the side of someone who was being picked on. 

The statue of St Peregrine at San Juan Capistrano, Southern California
Richard reaped many prayers in return.  In February 2013, when I was in Southern California, I was at the statue of St Peregrine, ‘the cancer saint’. At the time, I did not know that Richard was showing signs of illness.  Whilst at the statue, I had the strangest urge to put my hand to the ragged gash on St Peregrine’s leg, and to give Richard’s intentions to St Peregrine.  Later, after returning home to London, I found out that Richard had a cyst that had mysteriously cleared-up, and without medical explanation.

Richard prayed for me to get interviews with members of the Vatican Hierarchy.  And in the months just passed, one of the very same princes of the Church (the future Pope??!) offered Masses for Richard at my request.  

When I organised the novena to Padre Pio for Richard’s intentions, a minimum of 1,807 people offered the novena, and this does not include the many people who said the Novena because it was shared so widely on Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter.

It’s tempting to write that, ‘I have a friend in high places’, essentially bragging that I have a friend in Heaven. But I must restrain myself – because it would be the last thing that Richard would want. He would hate for us to presume his sanctity.  Instead, we can join his family in offering prayers for the repose of his soul. 

Good friends of mine have prayed at High Masses yesterday for the repose of Richard’s soul, I invite all my readers to do the same and to pray for his family in their time of grief. 

Friday, 3 October 2014

MEP Margot Parker: ''I want to tell all my fellow Catholics that a vote for UKIP is a vote for you!'



When I interviewed the Ukip leader Nigel Farage he admitted he had made the mistake in the past of not putting enough effort into selecting the right people for “key positions”. In recent years, though, he has paid more attention to personnel issues. It has worked: in the European elections in May Ukip got 28 per cent of the vote and topped a nationwide poll.

A significant number of senior Ukip members are Catholic. Deputy leader Paul Nuttall is a Catholic from Bootle. MEP Steven Woolfe is a Catholic and his fellow MEP Jim Carver is currently undertaking instruction in the Catholic faith. And don’t forget Margot Parker, prospective parliamentary candidate for Corby and East Northamptonshire, who was elected as an MEP in May.

The first minute that I meet her at the Ukip headquarters, behind Claridges in Mayfair, it is clear she’s on fire with the Ukip mission and has a tribal Catholic allegiance. “I’m a very proud Catholic,” she tells me, “and I want to say to all my fellow Catholics that a vote for Ukip is a vote for you!” 

Parker is in her early 70s but has the vitality of a woman half her age. She is glossy and stylishly dressed, with green eyes that are underscored by a perfectly matching shade of teal-green eyeliner.

Parker is a cradle Catholic from Grantham, the Lincolnshire town famous as the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher. Her father and mother were both Scottish. When they had a brood of six kids, they came down from Scotland to look for work. 

Having first laboured in a factory, her father went on to start his own business and own his own garage. Margot was their seventh child, born 17 years after their sixth. She got quite a lot of ribbing from her older siblings because she was the only child born in England.

Parker describes her father as an extremely devout Catholic. “My mother was a Scots Presbyterian, so they were a volatile mix,” she says. “But my mother agreed to bring us up as Catholics, and she kept her word. My mother never came to Sunday Mass with us, but she would make sure that we were well scrubbed and in our best duds. She would chase us out of the house on Sunday.”

Her father would give Margot talks on why Sunday Mass was so important. As a girl, she would pray the rosary privately and put up with quite a lot of hostility towards Catholics from a Scottish headmistress at her grammar school in Grantham. At 19, she became a teenage bride when she married a staunch Anglican farmer eight years her senior.

Having heard about her Catholic background, it comes as a shock when Parker says plainly: “Now, I’m a lapsed Catholic.” What turn of events caused the rosary-reciting Catholic to lapse? 

She explains that she and her husband  were unable to agree on the religious upbringing of their two boys, and ultimately separated. “I obtained an annulment that took seven years,” she says. “But before it came through I couldn’t receive Holy Communion. I spoke to a lot of priests and academics, and some said: ‘If you have a clear heart, you can receive Holy Communion.’ Others said: ‘You can’t receive Holy Communion.’ In the absence of being sure, I didn’t receive Holy Communion.” 

How did this cause her to lapse? “I became a lapsed Catholic because of the uncertainty of whether I could receive Holy Communion or not,” she says. Nowadays, Parker goes to Mass at Christmas and Easter, and is adamant that she subscribes to the faith. “I’m still a Catholic,” she says. “I hold dear to the Catholic values that my father instilled in me growing up.” Parker describes her father as “a strong Tory”, but she did not follow in his political footsteps.

Although she joined Ukip in 2009, she had not always been against the European Union. “To start, I had been very open to the EU,” she concedes. But it was her stint working in Brussels as a lobbyist for small business that transformed her into a Eurosceptic. She says that the EU “strangles” small businesses with 
red tape. 

A member of Ukip for five years, Parker has wholeheartedly embraced her role as a politician. Her greatest passion is the creation of jobs for young people. She says: “The saddest thing is when young people come to me and say they can’t get jobs.” 

Parker thinks that high levels of immigration and youth unemployment are intrinsically linked. Immigration is a complex issue and it’s the subject of ferocious debate. Some argue that it is only low-skilled natives who are adversely affected by immigration because of greater competition for menial jobs. But Parker argues that it is these low-skilled workers, the ones who struggle to find a job as a cleaner or work in a factory, that are not being listened to and are being maligned as “racist” by the established political parties. 

Much of the analysis from the European elections showed that former Labour voters are defecting in significant numbers to Ukip. Parker paints a worrying picture for Labour. She says that when she goes door to door in a Labour stronghold the first question is usually: “What will you do about immigration?” After explaining about Ukip’s plans to curb immigration, the former Labour voter, she says, is won over, takes a bunch of Ukip leaflets and gives them out to their neighbours. 

I can see why Parker is rallying such large crowds of working-class people and why they warm to her. She is genuinely passionate about their job worries and money issues. There is a gleam in Parker’s eye when she talks about poaching disaffected Labour voters for “the People’s Army”. “I much prefer canvassing in Labour heartlands, to Tory ones,” she says with a big smile. 

Is she seeing more Catholic voters opting for Ukip? “We have a lot of Catholic grandparents joining us,” she says. “The main reason they come to us is because they want jobs for their grandchildren.” She suggests that Ukip has made great gains in the Labour stronghold of Heywood. This, of course, is the former stomping ground of the hugely admired and sorely missed pro-life Labour MP Jim Dobbin. After his sudden death, there is a 
by-election underway to elect his successor.  

Parker claim she has faced aggression from Labour campaigners. She reports that her car has been damaged, she has been run off the road and that people have screamed insults at her. 
But she says she doesn’t hold a grudge against them, and tries to engage then. “I always say to them: ‘Come back here and have a proper discussion. Let’s talk about why the young people in my constituency can’t find jobs.’” Instead, she says, they just shout “racist!” at her.

“It’s such a lazy, cowardly tactic to call people racist when they want their say on immigration,” she sighs. If immigration is maintained at the same level as the last 10 years, 10 million more people will be added to the population in the next 20 years. The voters realise it is irrefutably the case that until Britain changes its relationship with the EU no government can reduce immigration levels. 

This raises the question of whether David Cameron will honour his commitment to hold a referendum in 2017. Parker chuckles and says: “That’s a laugh. Cameron is a consummate politician, and very charming. He has completely signed up to the EU 
project.”

What about re-negotiating the terms of Britain’s membership with the EU? “No, he won’t be able to do anything meaningful. Cameron will never close open borders. The EU is about the freedom of movement.”

Ukip may be attracting Catholic voters, but are the Catholic bishops of England and Wales not alarmed by Ukip’s policies on immigration? “Well, the Catholic churches have grown because they are full of Catholic immigrants,” Parker says. “I don’t have a problem with this. It’s terrific for the Church. I have a problem with people arriving and having immediate access to all the services, and all the benefits that hard-working Brits pay their taxes to provide.”

Why does Parker think she is not winning the bishops’ support? “I think they are misinformed,” she replies. “I expect better from Catholic bishops. They need to understand that Ukip and the Catholic Church have so much in common. I cannot think of anyone who is a bishop or a priest who would not have the same values for people as we do. The bishops need to be less grand, and meet us and hear us out and see that we want opportunities for our wonderful young people.”

This interview appears in today's edition of The Catholic Herald.