Thursday, 23 February 2012

This one comes with a warning...

…it may be a Lenten temptation hazard. But there is no sincerer love than good food and friendship.
Fortunately, my birthday fell on the 21st of February, the day before the onset of Lent.
For my birthday treat, I was taken for afternoon tea to Betty’s teashop in York where I am holidaying.
Here my friend Mimi and I are studying the menus. It was a tough choice between the blueberry dotted mini meringue or the brioche. I choose the éclair and had rose flavoured tea. Mimi choose the cheese scone. I was presented with a hand-stitched lace birthday card. While we ate, another friend N, read out a passage from Anthony Trollope's The Pallisers, the novel that's set in the 1860s, amid the swirl of Victorian high society.

Welcome to Fawlty Towers

American readers have been in touch to say that they are not familiar with Fawlty Towers  the TV series / situation comedy that was the cream of British comedy. Here is a taster, and there's plenty more on BBC i-player.

A pearl found on the blogosphere...

London School of Economics whizz-kid student Jimin Kang has just set up a blog dedicated to spreading love for Our Lady. London pro-lifers know Jimin for his involvement in 40 Days for Life. I asked his help when I was preparing to appear on Korean TV.

Visit him and check out his fascinating blog on Our Lady and Lent.  His blog has an ethereal, blue colour scheme to coordinate with Marian themes.  

Jimin's surname 'Kang' means pearl in Korean.

Hello Lent, Goodbye Chardonnay, Pinot and the coffee kick

For us: to live Lent is to live in atonement for less than one-ninth of the year. Lent is a time when we unite our sufferings with that of Jesus. It can make us feel down when we realise that each soul, even our own soul must feel the weight of the cross.

Padre Pio had volunteered to live in an all-year-round perpetual Lent.From the time that he was a newly ordained priest, Padre Pio offered himself as a victim soul. The wounds of Christ’s crucifixion appeared miraculously on the young Pio’s body. He later confided in a handsome young priest Fr Karol that the deep furrow in his shoulder made him suffer the most.
The simple pleasures in life and the things that we enjoy make our crosses easier to bear. The bar of chocolate during a busy day or sharing a can of beer with a friend after a stressful day. It is when we separate ourselves from ‘the comfort factor’ and our padding-with-pleasure that our cross digs into our shoulders.
Before Lent, we take a look at our lives and ask ourselves if there is something that we are really attached to; has the stream of TV soaps or the pint of beer become the glue that holds our lives together? What would we do without them? Lent is a time when we can get to know ourselves and our weaknesses.

Just as Padre Pio knew that the cross caused his shoulder intense agony, so too can we find out which part of the cross gives us the most pain. When we decide to give up the cigarette that helps us relax, we might discover that we are naturally too irritable. When we give up the Dairy Milk that puts us in good form, we might learn that the sugar rush that puts a smile on our faces, also puts pound on. It is actually a luxury in itself to be able to look at our lives of comfort and pick something that we will ‘give up’. At least we have simple delights to give up.

Last year, I gave up watching Fawlty Towers, and gave up laughing at Basil stripping down to his vest and Sybil throwing a cup of tea at him or Basil having the ‘you started it…you invaded Poland’ argument with the Germans. This year, I am giving up the glass of wine and the pint of Guinness in the pub that I enjoy when I’m out with my friends. During Lent, when I visit my friends, instead of having pinot grigio, I’ll content myself with water. It will remind me that this is Lent and that my tiny offering is only trivial in comparison to the fact that Jesus offered Himself entirely. But when I don’t have merlot to help me feel out-going, I might have the nagging doubt that other people find me dull. But then, this is drawing my cross to me, and giving me the clear indication that I’m too conscious of what other people think about me.

Then I’m abandoning the perfume and delight of coffee: it gives me a caffeine ‘kick’ and makes me feel more alert and intelligent. But there’s no evidence to suggest that drinking coffee will turn you into a Mensa member. For certain, cappuccinos do give me migraines where I feel sparks of pain behind my eyes. But it’s still a sacrifice that when meeting someone for a coffee, I’ll have mundane green tea.

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Guild of Blessed Titus Brandsma enjoys fruits of the 2007 Motu Proprio

The Guild meeting on Saturday stands out as key highlight of 2012. My fellow Catholic bloggers and I got together in Blackfen, the parish made universally illustrious by Fr Tim’s blog. The day started with low Mass, followed by Adoration.

Fr Sam Medley was unable to get to Blackfen and give a talk, so the night before the Guild meeting, our founder Dylan Parry invited me to prepare a talk.
I wore a long, lace skirt for the talk, not because I wanted to prove some liturgical point about more lace, more grace. But because of the advantage of wearing a skirt: no one saw my knees knocking.
The theme for my talk was the follow-on effects of that which we write on our blogs. So, I spoke about the controversy in ‘real-life’ that my self-description of ‘I strive to go to the Tridentine Mass every day’ has caused. How people have got in touch with me asking me to take this fact off my blog. How people have told me that it offends priests who offer the Ordinary Form. How when I requested a place at the Vatican Blogmeet, I was contacted by several concerned people who said, ‘you’ll never get into the Vatican if you are open about going to the Latin Mass’.

I explained that sometimes, blogging can be harder than professional journalism. If a newspaper accepts something for publication, there is a sense that you have the newspaper editors behind you. But bloggers can be victims of ‘cyber-bullying’ because they are perceived to be acting on their own. I also pointed out that blogging can be a solo endeavour, whereas journalism is about working with editors who give you ‘revisions’ and you must draft and re-draft an article until it is acceptable for print.
I don't consider myself a good public speaker and a number of times during the talk, I had mental blocks, and so I separated my points by making a few ironic observations about bloggers such as the fact that some Catholic blogs can become scuppered by scrupulosity. When commentators and bloggers nit-pick each other relentlessly. So I made a suggestion that we have SSA meetings, Scrupulosity Anonymous Meetings where we meet in a damp shed, drink watery lemonade and have glow-in-the-dark rosaries.

During the question time, Karen Horn asked me which were my most popular posts, and I said that one on Padre Pio’s favourite painting of Our Lady. And one on St Anthony finding me lipstick! Fr Tim voiced a concern that one of his most read posts is one where he wrote about the grave wrong of a sex ed programme for children which aimed to teach them ‘sex games’. He said that he was in two minds about leaving this post on his blog because on one hand people need to know why this ‘education’ is wrong. Yet, he conceded that perverts might be looking up ‘children sex games’ and finding his blog. Dr Josephine Treloar pointed out that if the perverts find Fr Tim’s religious blog, ‘it wastes their time’ and time that some perverts would spend looking up sex games for children is spent reading Fr Tim’s religious blog.

We left the hall and had a scrumptious lunch of stew followed by cream and strawberry sponge cake. I had a pint of Guinness and we toasted the success of the Guild.

The best part of the day was meeting other like-minded bloggers who were very passionate about using their blogs to give the gift of faith to others. For the first time ever, I met Mulier Fortis, Linen on the Hedgerow, Bones, A Tiny Son of Mary and On The Side of the Angels. 

The day ended with the recitation of the Rosary in the chapel. Fr Tim reminded us that a plenary indulgence is attached to publically praying the Rosary.

Afterwards it struck me that the Guild of Blessed Titus Brandsma and the successful guild meeting that we had just had, is very much a fruit of the 2007 Motu Proprio.
On Saturday morning, all us bloggers assisted in a low Mass, and there was no talk about whether this was ‘disobedient’. The Guild is open to all Catholics who use the new media, not just bloggers, but most of us present on Saturday attend both ‘the old Rite’ and the new. I gave a talk on the fact that some people have said to me that ‘it’s dangerous’ for me to write that I go to the Latin Mass, and that some have said that it will damage my ‘employment opportunities’. But the assertion that the Old Mass is divisive and that people who attend it are Catholic misfits – is becoming more irrelevant. We have had nearly five years to appreciate that Pope Benedict clarified that the Tridentine Mass ‘was never abrogated’, or ‘banned’ as at least two generations of Catholics thought.

Not to sound like a 27 year old octogenarian, but I remember the pre July 2007 days when Catholics who attended ‘the Old Rite’ and Catholics who attended ‘the New Mass’ were quite segregated. One side would call the other ‘liberal’ and ‘lacking in reverence’ and the other side would call the other ‘disobedient’ and ‘anti-Pope’. Now that the ‘old Rite’ is celebrated freely, such ‘sides’ are disappearing and there is more unity among Catholics.

Friday, 17 February 2012

What do you get when you mix 3 Favourite Literary Adventures and 5 bloggers? Mulier’s Meme

Mulier Fortis recently got a Kindle and is overwhelmed by the amount of books that she can download. She started a meme where us bloggers can chose our favourite books. I was tagged by Linen on the Hedgerow, who writes an exceptional blog. He has great blogging stamina and posts so promptly about current Catholic affairs that his blog would rival a news site.
Here are the rules: You link the person who tagged you.  You decide which three books are ‘essential reading’ for someone with a Kindel. Then you tag five people. You also tell them that their blog has been tagged. Don’t forget to post the rules on your blog. 
My choices may not be 'essential' but they very dear to me.
1. The Other Side Of The Story  Marian Keyes
This book is from the chick-lit hall of fame, but set in the world of publishing, which means that men who want a giggle and to learn more about publisher-politics would enjoy this book.  See the video underneath to hear Marian reading an extract.
The book holds a mirror to Irish society and I know some fellow Catholics who have read it, said that it was a chucklefest, but they would have preferred that Marian didn’t write about Irish people in such gritty detail. But Marian's books are often a satire and mockery of 'chick lit'. The part where novelist Gemma meets a guy who writes her a note using her crumbly eye pencil and calls her ‘coal scuttle angel’ is not to everyone’s taste.
But it’s probably the book that I’m most grateful for:  it was the catalyst that made me a full-time writer. I picked it up when I was 24 and thinking of leaving the classroom for journalism and book-writing.  I don’t think that I’d be blogging and working as a journalist had I not read this book.  I’d always been tempted to write about Irish life the way that Marian Keyes does, but had worried that my scribbling would be unintelligible to others. The Other Side of the Story and the fact that it has sold tens of millions convinced me otherwise.
Since 2009, Marian (above) has been suffering from 'crippling' depression and is dabbling in prayers to Padre Pio.

2. Brideshead Revisited    Evelyn Waugh
Every Catholic living in the UK needs to read this book. Everybody who wants to understand the constraints on Catholics in England needs to read this book.  The characters are from the generation in between the two great wars: too young to take part in World War I and too old to fight in World War II. But the break-up scene between Charles and Julia is still, in 2012, one of the most relevant pieces of literature for a country where Catholics are the minority. Julia is a lapsed Catholic who must decide between her faith and continuing her relationship with Charles.

3. Complete Works of Frank O’Connor
‘Irish by birth. Cork by the grace of God’ is the caption on many a t-shirt worn around Cork City. No one writes about the Cork character better than Frank O’Connor. I just have to read one page and I’m home, walking around the twisty-turny Medieval Cork streets, hearing shouts of ‘c’mon boy, c’mere ger’el’ and smelling the vinegary wafts from the waves of the River Lee.
My rule for listing the bloggers that I’m tagging: ladies first…
Jackie is a blogging mum of ten.  She doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk and is a good example of a Catholic matriarch for a global online audience. The pictures and stories about her lovely kids would inspire a lot of people to have more kids.

Katrina is a blogging athlete. Always coming up with new ideas, ever refreshing blog posts and lots of wit. I don’t know how she does it.
I won’t describe this blog – let your curiosity get the better of ya – and check it out.

For his blogging and his founding of the Guild of Titus Brandsma, Dylan made the list of Ten Amazing Catholics of 2011. I’ve since got to know Dylan in ‘real-life’ and agree all the more that he deserved to be included on this list.
Rocco needs no introduction and his blog is a light leading thousands of other Catholic blogs. His blog, Whispers in the Loggia is all the more remarkable because it has a poetic writing style and is never scathing of others or presumptuous. I got to know Rocco, after including him in the list of Ten Amazing Young People. He is a great fan of Ireland, feels at home in Dublin and loves The Frames (a local Dublin band) and Van Morrison.

Ireland gets its equivalent of Catholic Voices – ‘Catholic Comment’

Ah sher, it’s a good day to be Irish. Here’s one more reason to support a possible papal visit to Ireland: Senator Rónán Mullen, 41, has been crucial to the founding of a group called Catholic Comment. It was inspired by ‘the successful model adopted by Catholic Voices in the UK…We want to promote better public understanding of the teaching of our Church, its wisdom and heritage.’ Catholic Comment will specialise in training lay-people as speakers who will confidently put forward the case for the Church.

Rónán has already mobilised young, dynamic Irish lads and lassies who are willing to step up to the plate and clarify the Church’s teachings on radio, TV, and public debates. For too long the young generation of Irish people have been characterised as hating the Church. True, among my generation of twenty-somethings there is a lot of apathy about Catholic teaching and bitterness towards priests. This was evidenced for me when I was at university, training to be a schoolteacher and there was heavy reluctance among the 18 – 22 age-group student body to teach the children-in-classrooms prayers. But there is still a percentage, however small, of active young Irish Catholics who throng the retreats at Knock every year, do the arduous pilgrimage at Lough Derg and who attend the Youth 2000 prayer groups to recite the Rosary before the Blessed Sacrament.
But until now – we haven’t heard their voices. What Catholic Comment has done, is to allow young Irish Catholics a chance to develop their speaking abilities, be strengthened by each other and get media experience that will serve them well throughout their lives. God bless ‘em!

The aims of the group are clearly set out in the vibrant, new website. No doubt, cynical suggestions might circulate that these young people are taking part in Catholic Comment because they are in the pay of the Irish Catholic Church or they are ‘spin doctors’. Sincerity is their means, not spin. They are proudly ‘independent’ and act ‘on our own initiative’. But they don’t shy away from acknowledging the situation in Ireland: ‘the Church's mission in Ireland has been compromised by the scandals and their impact, and by powerful competing voices of secularism. While all this is going on, thousands of people are watching, listening and looking for answers to life's questions. We could see all this as a deep crisis for the Church. Or we can see it as a time for authentic Catholicism to bring hope to our society.’

While Catholic Comment might take its lead from Catholic Voices, there are cultural differences. Catholic Voices here in the UK is quite big on teaching reframing questions and formal discussion, whereas Catholic Comment is more about friendly conversation, which as anyone who has lived in Ireland or read the works of Frank O’Connor knows, is integral to Irish life. Catholic Comment emphasises that politeness and good manners are essential, they encourage Catholics to join them, who: ‘Want to share their Catholic worldview in an open, confident, friendly and respectful way. There is never any reason for Catholics to speak offensively or act defensively. Our hope is greater than any of the challenges we face.’

And I can’t think of a better person than Rónán Mullen to be one of its founders and directors. Rónán has many strings to his bow; fluent in at least three languages, he worked as a teacher, holds an MA in journalism and is a qualified barrister. Not to mention the fact that he has charisma and is very encouraging of others. Rónán Mullen is a fluent Irish speaker and often speaks on the Irish-languague-only TV station.
Breda O’Brien and David Quinn are advisers to Catholic Comment; David came over to London last year to take part in a Catholic Voices academy session on the issue of gay marriage.

The organisation’s name ‘Catholic Comment’ is very appropriate for our times: the word ‘comment’ is used more in the English lexicon than ever before; as so many people discuss the comments on their Facebook wall and the comments left on their blogs.
You can follow Catholic Comment on Twitter.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The gutsy Sister who defied the IRA

'Sr Gen' as she was known locally
Sister Genevieve was born Mary O'Farrell to a humble farming family in the Irish Free State in 1923. She was the youngest of their five children, and each morning went with her family to Mass. But as a girl she had no inclination towards religious life.

She said that the lifestyle of nuns 'revolted' her. In time, however, she became one the most dynamic nuns ever to teach in Northern Ireland, improving the lot of generations of Catholic women.

Her call came suddenly one day in secondary school. She heard a classmate talk about the Daughters of Charity. At that moment when she learned of a religious community so devoted to the poor she realised that her soul ached to be at the service of the destitute. In 1941, at the age of 18, she entered St Catherine¹s Seminary in Dublin.

As a postulant she hated the idea of becoming a teacher, feeling that life in the classroom would take her away her society¹s most marginalised people. But her superior directed her to train for the classroom, and so she went to Manchester to prepare unenthusiastically. From there, she went to Scotland where she spent six happy years as a teacher. 

In 1956 she was sent to teach in west Belfast. St Louise¹s School for Girls was situated in one of the most disadvantaged areas in western Europe, the top of the Falls Road in Belfast's Catholic ghetto. If anywhere, this was the place where she would live St Vincent de Paul's ideal of 'serving Our Lord in the person of the poor'. During her first years at St Louise's she had a very erratic teaching timetable, arranged to suit the working hours of 'the linen slaves', the children and young women who paddled around linen looms weaving linen.

In 1963 Sister Genevieve was made principal of the school, and became known for her die-hard dedication to the education of the Catholic girls. She had a school policy that no corporal punishment was ever to be used, but girls who upset classes were temporarily taught elsewhere, and every morning she held an assembly.

Sister Genevieve prioritised a Catholic ethos without borders, and the celebration of feast days had prominence in the school diary, and the crowning of Our Lady at the beginning of May was a celebrated occasion. She offered a good example of living a life of faith. Every morning she spent an hour in mental prayer, which prepared her for the challenges of the day.

The school activities honoured the cultural traditions of all the British Isles. St Louise¹s girls both learned Irish poetry by heart and performed Gilbert and Sullivan musicals.

It aggrieved Sister Gen (as she was known locally) that the employment opportunities for the girls were laundry, stitching hankies or the dreaded and dangerous linen looms. To remedy this she started calling in person to banks and businesses, asking the managers and owners if they would employ her students. More and more when vacancies arose, they phoned Sister Genevieve asking which of her pupils she would recommend.
It was, however, during the Troubles that Sister Genevieve¹s full leadership skills were tested. She described herself as, 'walking a tightrope between the paramilitaries and the Army'. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) wanted her to shut the school on the days of its funerals and the British Army was keen to check her school for the harbouring of weapons.

This steadfast refusal to ever let the school become a base for either side won her the reputation of 'the only man on the Falls'.

The school's close proximity to the Milltown Cemetery meant that she was under increasing pressure to close the school for the funerals of the hunger strikers. She was paid threatening visits by the IRA, yet she would not bend to their commands.

She was clear that 'as a nun, I have the advantage of being able to be more outspoken since I have no family who may suffer as a result'. On the days of the funerals for the hunger strikers her morning assembly went ahead as normal, as did normal school activities.

Sister Genevieve had to act swiftly to save her pupils from their environment and from themselves; dissuading them from joining any political and/or violent struggle while providing them with qualifications and real opportunities. 'Here we are only concerned with you and your education' was the maxim she used to encourage the girls. Simultaneously, she instilled  them with a sense of the sanctity of life. St Louise¹s School remained an invaluable sanctuary of peace for the local girls.

Increasingly during the 1970s Sister Genevieve made more and more contacts and alliances with British education ministers and worked with them for better educational policies that would benefit her pupils. British politicians gave talks to her sixth-formers, but Sister Genevieve refused Gerry Adams' offer. This in itself perturbed Republicans, and unkind reports of her circulated in the local paper.

The strange irony is that Sister Genevieve won support for her school from the ruling British politicians and was wronged by the Republicans for doing so, yet it was the daughters of Republicans who benefited from the education she gave them. The Republican spirit was offended when she was awarded the OBE in 1978. After she accepted it, they viewed her as a conspirator who was siding with British rule.

In response to Republican criticism of her, some of her sixth-formers got together to write a letter that was published in the local press, explaining that the school was a place of education for girls and that their Sister Gen had not 'betrayed any so-called Irish cause'.

The 1980s was a time of great development and success for the school and its pupils. One student, Mary O'Hara, went on to study at Cambridge. There was a much better understanding in the community of west Belfast at large for the mission of the school. Sister Gen introduced cultural studies and invited ministers from Protestant faiths to give talks. Tellingly, two thirds of the pupils were children of former pupils who wanted their children to have the same opportunities that the school had given them.

During Sister Gen's last years at St Louise's her mission seemed to come full circle. In 1964 few girls took A-levels, but when Sister Genevieve retired in 1988 it was customary for St Louise's pupils to take A-levels.The girls' job opportunities had improved from working on a linen loom and stitching hankies to seeking careers in teaching and journalism.

Cardinal Cahal Daly, the late Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, held the work of Sister Genevieve in high esteem because she convinced her pupils not to join any armed struggle and saved generations of women from the war machine.

The nun who abrogated the use of corporal punishment in her school and believed we should see Christ in everyone irrespective of political allegiances was the same nun who motivated tens of thousands of girls to reject violence and to make education their main concern, developing their talents and realising God's greater plan for their lives.

I wrote this article for The Catholic Herald.
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