When I started university my faith diminished rapidly. Thankfully, although I gave up on God, He showed countless times that He had not given up on me.Read More
The Fresco of the Transfiguration in the Catholic Chapel is now complete. The internationally-acclaimed artist and iconographer, Aidan Hart, together with his team of Fran Whiteside and Martin Earle, completed the sacred image. There is timelapse footage of the whole project, two and a half weeks work in two minutes! Already the project - which is a significant contribution to the Christian patrimony of North-West England - is being recognized and has been reported in international journals.
After all the drama of the project's development, now is a good opportunity to reflect once again upon the story of the Transfiguration, why the subject was chosen for the University setting, and what the image says to us today...
“Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus”. Matthew 17:1-8.
The experience of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountain is one of the most mysterious events recounted in the Gospel, revealing to us the fullness of who Christ is. To outsiders Christ must have been considered just another baby born in Bethlehem, another boy growing up in Nazareth, another carpenter working in Galilee. There was nothing to catch the eye, nothing to dazzle. But conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit within the womb of Mary, the Scriptures speak of how Christ, though in the form of God did not cling to his divinity but humbled himself and took on our human flesh. Whilst on earth, perhaps the greatest miracle of all, was that Christ’s glory remained veiled. But in this moment of the Transfiguration, the disciples – Peter, James and John – behold the glory of Christ. They are to understand that the man who stood before them was truly also the Son of God.
It is important to remember that this event took place within the context of prayer, and it is in prayer that Christ’s true identity is revealed to us. The Transfiguration is most apt for a university setting:
· First of all, there is the sense that Christ as the Teacher is revealing the truth to his Disciples, now as then (discipuli in Latin means students). One of the disciples, John, is without a beard for he was traditionally the youngest of the apostles, perhaps little more than 16 or 17 years of age, reminding us that the Lord calls us to His side from our youth.
· The mountain too is an ancient image of ascent, the movement up and outwards from oneself, the leaving behind of what is familiar and the discovery of new views. In Christ, there is no contradiction between faith and reason, between the created world and the uncreated world, for in Him – the Logos – all creation has its being. All education should lead us out of the shadows of ourselves into the light of Reason.
· The Transfiguration says everything about who Christ is. As all the figures in the image look upon Jesus, Jesus looks upon us, inviting us to draw near to him, and discovering the truth of our identity in Him. Only in beholding Him will we ever discover who we are and what we are made for, that we too are called to be clothed in light, and we too are God’s beloved children, His sons and daughters, in whom He is well pleased.
· Finally, the role of art. ‘Beauty’, writes Pope Benedict XVI, ‘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’.
Christ – radiant in light, raising his hand in a sign of blessing. Notice the gesture of his hand of blessing: the two fingers together represent his divine and human nature whilst the three fingers together point to the unity of the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In his other hand, Jesus holds the scroll of judgement, which, for the time being remains rolled up, affording us time to respond to his call. The mandorla (which represents the radiance of the luminous cloud, signifying the majesty and glory of Christ) is blue, a colour which in iconography denotes divinity. Christ is light from light, true God from true God. The eight-pointed rays remind us of the days of creation: the seven days of creation are followed by the eighth, the day of the new creation, the eternal day which is breaking upon us. In this regard, what is fascinating about the Transfiguration is that not only is Christ shining, but his flowing garments shine too. So much more than a merely spiritual event, matter itself is being caught up in the mystery of God and through Christ the whole of the cosmos is being renewed.
Moses & Elijah. On either side of Christ, there stand the two great figures of the Old Testament: Moses holds in his hands the tablets of stone on which were written the Law, and Elijah, dressed in camel skins, holds a scroll, for he represents the prophets who proclaimed the Word of God. Whilst these two figures are speaking face to face with Christ who is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets, the other disciples are unable to behold Christ’s glory. Perhaps we catch a glimpse here of Heaven where we will all be able to see God face to face.
The Apostles – Peter, James and John – are on their knees in adoration, screening their faces, and falling backwards before the glory of God. John has even lost his shoe, perhaps in the drama of the moment, perhaps too reminding us of Moses’s encounter with the Lord in the burning bush when he was asked to remove his sandals for he stood on holy ground. All three disciples are in part clothed in blue garments, sharing the life of Christ. The positioning of the disciples beneath Christ and the shape of the curved wall extending out towards us helps us to understand that we too are participants in this event, embraced by the mystery of God’s light.
The mountain with its solid, craggy top, emphasises that this divine event is taking place on earth. Its ruptured surface gives the impression that the earth is trembling beneath the majestic voice of the Father from on High. The tree to the side points to Christ’s forthcoming passion, about which Jesus, Moses and Elijah are speaking of, reminding us that a share in God’s glory can only come about through a sharing in His cross.
The foreground with its gentler hills displays plants and wildlife that are characteristic of the Trough of Bowland, an area of upland bog that flanks the city of Lancaster. There is a curlew with its down-curved bill and haunting call, and a hen harrier, a beautiful, agile bird of prey, renowned for its aerobatic sky dances. There is also Bog Rosemary, a heath shrub, and Cloudberries, a variant of the wild rose. These remind us that the event of the Transfiguration is not something that is limited to first-century Palestine, but an event that continues to become present in our own day as we bend our knee to Christ, who makes himself present in the celebration of Mass, renewing the whole of creation and the whole of history.
The spectacular icon of the Transfiguration was executed by the internationally-acclaimed artist and iconographer, Aidan Hart, in March 2017. Using a combination of water, egg and pigments made from natural earth and semi-precious minerals (such as azurite), the image before you was built up from basic outlines. Each figure was modelled with layer upon layer of tempera, and over the course of two weeks, it seemed as if the figures were released from the wall, and finally brought to life as they received a sheen of light over the rich colours from which they were made.
This process reflects the way in which God has made us, drawing us from the dust of the earth and breathing into us His Spirit. The transformation of lime, grit, pigment and water into the living image that can be beheld today is itself deeply sacramental, a transfiguration of matter itself.
Drawing from the rich and ancient iconographic tradition exhibited in the ancient monasteries and churches of the East – St Catherine’s Sinai, Constantinople and Thessalonika – the image of the Transfiguration in the Catholic Chapel at Lancaster University presents a significant addition to the Christian patrimony of the North of England. A profound debt of gratitude is owed to Bishop Michael Campbell, the staff, students and friends of the University of Lancaster, the Chaplaincy Centre Management Group, Aidan Hart, his apprentices and those who prepared the groundwork, and the countless benefactors, who have enabled this project to come to its fruition. The artist writes, ‘I pray that, like Christ’s transfigured garments, this inanimate paint might be a bearer of uncreated light to those who stand and pray before the icon’.
In 2018, Pope Francis will invite Bishops and others to Rome to talk about Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment. At this gathering they will discuss how the Catholic Church can accompany young people in their faith and help them to hear God’s call. If you are aged between 13-29 years old, the Catholic Church in England and Wales would like to hear from you, we want to hear what life is like, your thoughts on faith and how you connect with the Catholic Church. To help you tell us we have created a Youth Poll. For queries about the Youth Poll please email: email@example.com.
After one year and a half of planning and preparations, the world-renowned iconographer, Aidan Hart has arrived at the University of Lancaster to complete one of the largest secco paintings that he has ever done and the first at any academic institution in the UK.
Just returning from Houston, where he has been working on a splendid series of mosaics at St George's Basilica, Aidan will be being joined by two of his proteges, and will hopefully complete the work over the next two weeks.
Over the past two days, tower scaffolding has been erected, paints have been assembled and enormous pre-preapred transfers have been stuck to the wall, so that the image in outline could be transferred to the lime-plastered wall. The first brush strokes this evening have released the face of Moses.
If you would like to follow progress of the project over the next few weeks, we have a time-lapse camera recording the event. Rarely has an artist been recorded in this way, and the aim is to help a wider public to consider what is involved in putting together great art.
If you would like to be part of this project and to support this project with an donation, you can make a bequest at the Catholic Chaplaincy MyDonate page. You are also invited to an introduction and time of question and answer with Aidan Hart at 2pm on Wednesday 8 March in the Catholic Chapel.
Over the Christmas holidays, a team of plasterers prepared the wall behind the chapel for the Fresco which is to be painted there at the beginning of March. Much more than slapping on a bit of plaster onto the wall, the whole process has been a complex work of art in itself.
The first stage which was begun just after Christmas was to key the background by hacking into the existing paint and plaster. This then created the suction and grip for the subsequent coats of lime (yes, all 2 tonnes of it!). Betwixt the different levels of lime were adhesive layers and mesh and the lime was mixed with fibres (in the old days they used horse hair) to bind the plaster together.
Finally there was a final skim with crushed marble to give the finish that you see. Over the next couple of weeks the lime plaster will settle and dry out. In this time the colour of the plaster will change and it will begin to radiate a warm luminosity. And then, towards the end of February, the iconographer, Aidan Hart, will be arriving with his team and begin work on the fresco which will take a further ten days. Thank you for your patience as we wait for our chapel to be transfigured!
Hi, my name's Sophie and I'm a recent Primary Education graduate from the University of Cumbria (I did 2 years beforehand at Lancaster University). I'm originally from near Manchester in England but spent the last 5 years in Lancaster where I was a regular at the chaplaincy.
However now I lead a somewhat different life, I'm a Catholic missionary with NET Ministries Ireland. NET is a Catholic youth ministry that encourages young people to love Jesus and embrace the life of the Church. It's a path I never would have thought myself capable of doing back in first year of university, but God is faithful and with Him my life has been so much more fulfilling than I could have ever imagined.
I come from a family who would have called themselves Catholic, I went to Catholic schools, we occasionally went to mass, I received my Sacraments of Initiation but it wasn't until I was in my final years of secondary school that I truly and personally encountered Jesus for the first time. My time at university was great and I had some wonderful experiences, but it was here that I was able to develop a relationship with Jesus. I also experienced the spiritual highs and lows of being a Catholic at university, having to defend Church teaching at 3am in the flat kitchen, trying to explain a new-found love for Jesus to family or finding faith when life seems to be falling apart. However I made some incredible Christian friends who helped keep on the right track and held me accountable to going to mass and keeping prayer as part of my routine.
During my final year at university, I was praying hard about what I was supposed to do after I qualified. I was set to graduate with good grades andreferences so obviously the presumed route would be to get a job in a school, complete my NQT year and start my teaching career. Yet, for some reason this didn't appeal to me. I knew it was what was expected of me, and would allow me to do all the 'grown-up' things like getting a house, a car and the dreaded 'setting down'. I am passionate about education and one day I hope to have a job in a school, but it just wasn't the right time for me to start just yet. I know that when I get busy, and stressed, I forget to pray, I can turn away from Jesus, I wanted to have my heart rooted in Christ before beginning my career. I couldn't ignore the niggling feeling that God was calling me to give a period of my life specifically to Him, to bring Jesus to other young people, to give youth the same opportunities to grow that I had received.
So, months later, after graduation, applications, interviews and training, and plenty of prayer, I'm now settled in to my new mission field and I love it! NET has completely exceeded any expectations I may have had before hand. We have had so many great adventures as a team such as hiking in the mountains, helping lead a Youth 2000 retreat, putting on a praise and worship night and making friends in our community, particularly with the priests and religious. Soon we will be going into schools to give retreats, which includes delivering talks, activities, dramas, music and prayer ministry. Not only are we carrying out ministry but I'm growing in my knowledge of the Catholic faith and Church teaching, and in love for the gift of the Sacraments from the Church. I'm being stretched and challenged in ways I never expected; missionary life is a radical way to live out the call from Pope Francis for youth to be counter-cultural, as a team we strive to call each other on to holiness.
One of the areas I've had to grow in most is surrendering to God, I am learning to give everything to Jesus. A striking moment for me so far was on training during a prayer evening, we were encouraged to write on a piece of paper everything that we wanted to surrender. At first it was difficult to admit to myself how much I love to be in control and how little I allow God to lead my life, so I asked Jesus to show me all of the areas I need to surrender to Him. A few minutes later my paper was full, I had written down my weaknesses, my strengths, my future, my vocation, relationships with my family and friends and my possessions. I then went and nailed this surrender to a cross placed in the middle of the room, my heart beating fast as if Jesus was asking me to give Him my heart too in surrender. I remind myself of this encounter every day, there's nothing in my life that's too big or small for Jesus to handle!
Pope St John Paul II once said to young people "It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle."
Serving with NET Ministries has shown me the truth of these words, that while I love adventure, only Jesus is going to satisfy the restlessness in my heart. He has called me to this mission and I am so excited to live out the plans that He has in store for me this year, and for the rest of my life!
If you would like to find out more about our ministry or if you would like to join us in our mission to bring the Good News to young people, you can visit my page on the NET website: www.netministries.ie/sophie-benson
Recently we were privileged to welcome Archbishop Sebastien Shaw of Lahore in Pakistan and Sr Annie Demerjian from Aleppo in Syria. The event was organised by Aid to the Church in Need. Both our guests were able to share from their experiences the tragedy of terrorism and conflict.
Archbishop Sebastian spoke of how Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws were being used routinely against Christians and how the growth of fundamentalism was pushing the Church underground. He spoke of his work to generate inter-faith dialogue to develop areas of commonality and his involvement in the political process to stem the misuse of the Blasphemy Laws, and his efforts to explain that the Christians in Pakistan are not a fifth column of an Imperialist West, but of the same soil. The Archbishop spoke with great pride of the contribution of Pakistan's Christian population; though they represent only 3% of the population, the Church witnesses to the Risen Lord through her schools and educational establishments, through healthcare and works of mercy.
Sr Annie spoke of the events in Aleppo, a place we have got to know through the news. But to meet someone who lives there brought the whole tragedy of war to the fore. She spoke of the shrapnel embedded in people's bodies as they go about their everyday tasks, the difficulty of learning how to live without legs and arms, the reality of death everywhere, the sounds of ambulances, shells, missiles, the smell of fear. Families are divided because of death and displacement. In these desperate times the Church is providing the basis of a welfare state, coordinating food distribution, caring for the elderly, helping where she can. Sr Annie even brought with her some pictures that some of the children from her school had drawn of the traumatic events that they had witnessed.
On Wednesday 23 November ACN are sponsoring an event called Red Wednesday to remember all Christians and other faith groups who suffer for their beliefs. ACN is asking schools, universities and groups to stand up against religious persecution and to make a stand for peace and tolerance by wearing an item of red clothing on the day. During our Holy Hour on that day, we will offer prayers for our persecuted brothers and sisters.
Behind every great work of art there are patrons. Often in medieval art, you can see the patrons tucked away in the corner of the picture, but included in it. Michaelangelo's great frescos in the Sistine Chapel, Bernini's colonnade in St Peter's Square, all the great churches and cathedrals of the world. They all came together out of the generosity of many benefactors.
Here at Lancaster University we have the possibility of contributing something of significant beauty to the patrimony of the Chaplaincy Centre, the University and the City of Lancaster. Aidan Hart is a world-acclaimed iconographer and will lead a team in the early new year of 2017 to create a vast secco painting, 4m by 10m, of the Transfiguration of Christ, in the Catholic Chapel.
Hundreds of students pass through the Chaplaincy Centre each week for all sorts of different reasons, passing directly by our chapel. We hope to create something beautiful that can be enjoyed by all students, whether they are people of faith or not. 'Beauty opens up and broadens horizons of human awareness', writes Pope Benedict, 'pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, and can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate mystery, towards God'.
The story of the Transfiguration is so resonant for a university: Christ is leading his disciples up the mountain, he is transfigured with light, revealing the divine truth of who He is, and He is seen speaking face to face with Moses and Elijah. The story draws together all the mysteries of the Christian faith, uniting Heaven and Earth in the person of Christ, and revealing to us our ultimate end to see God face to face. The hope is that the secco will be painted with such beauty that those who behold the image will be drawn into the experience itself.
We are delighted to have commissioned iconographer and painter, Aidan Hart, to do this work. Aidan has studied his field in Britain and Russia and lived on Mt Athos in Greece for three years. Well known overseas as well as in the UK, he has worked in 17 countries and in many cathedrals. We are blessed to have secured his enthusiasm for the project.
Can you help? We are looking to fundraise for this project. We believe that this is a great investment that will benefit all who come to this university chapel for many years, providing a lasting impact upon the students and staff. We invite you to please prayerfully consider making a financial contribution towards the effort. Blessed Paul VI wrote, 'This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resits the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration'.
Please check out our MyDonate page (search for 'Catholic Chaplaincy at Lancaster University) or support Fr Philip's Half Marathon for the cause on MyDonate Events Page, Catholic Chaplaincy at Lancaster University. Thank you for your generosity.
In August, some of our students joined other young people from the Diocese at the World Youth Day event in Krakow in Poland. There, they were part of a crowd of over two million other young people from every nation of the world, all sharing and celebrating their faith with Pope Francis.
Gathered together for a candle-lit vigil in a field outside Krakow, the Pope exhorted young people not to go into 'early retirement', not to 'throw in the towel even before the game has begun'. 'It saddens me to see young people who walk around glumly as if life had no meaning', young people who are bored with life and who have confused happiness with a sofa, retreating to the comfort of a sofa, hiding behind a computer screen and holding the world at bay. This 'sofa happiness' is 'the most harmful and insidious form of paralysis which can cause the greatest harm to young people'. Pleading with the young people, Pope Francis said that 'we didn't come into the world to vegetate, to take it easy, to make our lives a comfortable sofa to fall asleep on!' He added that it also saddens him to see young people who have gone after 'peddlars of false illusions... who rob you of what is best in life' and who end up in 'nothingness'.
The fulfilment that we all yearn for, Pope Francis said, cannot be bought, and is not a thing or an object, but a person. His name, he declared, is Jesus. He is the only one who 'can give you true passion for life' and inspire us 'not to settle for less, but to give of the very best of ourselves'. And then the Pope exhorted young people to leave a mark, to have the courage to 'trade in the sofa for a pair of hiking boots' and to get out and to 'set out on new and unchartered paths, to blaze trails that open up new horizons', and to follow the 'Lord of Risk' in encountering him 'in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the friend in trouble, the prisoner, the refugee and the migrant, and our neighbours who feel abandoned', 'to build bridges rather than walls'. Using a football analogy, he declared, that the 'times we live in require only active players on the field, and there is no room for those who sit on the bench'.
Asked to share their favourite memories of the whole experience, Polly said she enjoyed 'meeting people from around the world and just talking to them as friends' because we 'knew that we had at least one thing in common, our faith!' She said she enjoyed the mixture of fun too, 'singing Mamma Mia on the coach, praying a few cheeky decades of the rosary, and becoming really close friends with the other pilgrims, and laughing in the rain when we were soaked to the skin'.
Carina added that she had enjoyed being part of the crowd and 'just being able to see millions of people who were around my age, all gathered for the same thing was extremely touching. The people were so friendly and each individual added to the atmosphere. I am glad to say that I have made so many new friends, not only from England but also from around the world. I met people from countries such as Brazil, America, South Korea and Indonesia. Over 100 countries came together in Blonia Park to welcome the Pope and it was amazing to see so many different flags, many of which I didn’t recognise at first like that of Kazakhstan!'
The next WYD will be in Panama in the summer of 2019.
Moving to Uni is one of the most exciting times of your life; suddenly you’re going to be greeted with a whole new worldRead More
As we approach the beginning of a new academic year, the Catholic Chaplaincy would like to wish Sr Maria Juan and Amber all the best as they begin a new stage in their lives. They have been so much the heart of the Catholic Chaplaincy and will be greatly missed.
Sr Maria Juan was that joyful Sister who breezed around the University, speaking to everyone and anyone. She had the most amazing gift of picking people up when they were down and getting things moving. She was always full of enthusiasm, joy and laughter - and was the most wonderful presence.
Amber has been studying Linguistics at the University as a postgrad, and took over from Sam as our Catholic Chaplaincy Intern. She made hospitality her gift, and ensured that the Catholic Flat was always the most welcoming place for all students. Amber was baptised and received into the Catholic Church just after Easter on a day of great joy.
Sr Maria Juan, who is part of the Sisters of Mercy Alma Province, is due to begin her studies in Philosophy at the Catholic University of America at Washington DC, and Amber has now returned to South Korea. We wish them both all our love and prayers.
Whilst it is good bye to Sr Maria Juan and to Amber, it is a joy to introduce Adhy as the new Catholic Chaplaincy Intern. Adhy is a postgraduate student, studying Film Studies, and he comes from Indonesia where his family still live. Many of you will know him from previous years. His greatest challenge will be to keep Amber's botanical garden alive in the Flat!
A group departed from Lancaster early on Saturday 14th May for the March for Life in Birmingham.
When we arrived at Victoria Square, Birmingham, several thousand supporters had already gathered from all over the country to hear speeches from pro-life campaigners and for the march itself.
Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham, Bishop David McGough welcomed us, followed by Bishop Emmanuel Badejo from Nigeria who reminded us in a gentle way of the vast differences between our own abortion culture and that found in Nigeria.
The march itself was the highlight of the day with a huge number of supporters joining us through the centre of Birmingham, raising awareness among those who happened to be passing and showing clearly our stance on this most important issue.
Just before the march, one of the speakers recounted how last year she had seen this march and had cancelled her abortion as a result, saying 'thank you' to all those present last year for saving her child. During the march itself her comments helped us to see how our work was helping people to achieve happiness and really gave the event a special feeling.
After the march we joined Bishop Patrick McKinney from Nottingham in a time of silent prayer, a very powerful moment as the huge crowd fell silent and peace descended over Victoria Square.
It was a long day but well worth it, so thank you to the organisers for all your hard work.
Recently Pope Francis met up with young people in St Peter's Square and shared with them his thoughts on happiness. 'Happiness has no price', he said. 'It cannot be bought: it is not an app that you can download on your phones nor will the latest update bring you freedom and grandeur in love. True freedom is something else altogether... Don't believe those who would distract you from the real treasure, which you are, by telling you that life is beautiful only if you have this or that, these possessions, this fashion, and behave in this way or that'. No, he said, true freedom and true love, are the drawn from following Christ, 'for his words are a school of life'.
On Sunday 24 April, the Catholic Chaplaincy celebrated with great joy the Baptism of one student, the Confirmation of five students, and the First Holy Communion of three of those.
Even today, several centuries after his death, St Francis continues to be esteemed by people of all backgrounds, religions and nationalities. Most recently Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio took on his name when he became Pope Francis and named his latest encyclical, Laudati Si, after the saint's canticle on creation. Pope Leo XIII exclaimed, "St. Francis of Assisi was called to reform the Church not in a way other saints have done, nor only for his own time, but for all time to come. Whenever society strays from the right path no other remedy is needed but to revive the spirit of the order founded by St. Francis." We were delighted last week to welcome Fr Gabriel whose new religious order, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, seeks to revive that spirit, sometimes in the most surprising ways!
What is it about this saint which is different from other's? What is it about this man who found the grace to kiss the leper, the man to whom he felt such repugnance? If St Francis is significant for our age, our speaker argued, it's only because Christ speaks to hearts in every age. St Francis's only desire was to live the Gospel with simplicity. In doing so, he was drawn out of himself, out of his own sense of self-importance, his own self-preoccupation, his own ego - to encounter the 'other', and in the 'other' he discovered Christ, often in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.
St Francis didn't make a stand against the Church on account of its wealth at the time. There were many groups at the time that railed against the corruption of the Church. But for Francis, he chose to be poor because Christ was poor. Francis did not fall in love with the virtue of poverty but with Christ. And he loved the Church, even with all its failings. Indeed, he sought the blessing of the Church for his work. He understood that true renewal of the Church only comes through holiness. Saints renew the Church. When Jesus renews the heart, it is startling what Jesus does.
In the twenty-first century it is striking how as much as the culture has tried to emancipate man, human dignity has been trampled upon egregiously. Do people know any longer what they are made for? With everything that we can do, do we know what the future holds? Do we know who we are? St Francis knew who he was in Christ.
Finally, our speaker, who has spent so much time in the ghettos of New York and is now servant of the community in Bradford, argued that God does not need a pristine world for the Gospel to thrive, He does not need a perfect world for salvation to break through. He is happy to come into the mess as he did in the stable, to be close to the poor, next to the marginalised, and to begin to restore peace from there. Mercy, then, is the doorway to the renewal of the Church. Our present Pope understands this well, describing the Church as a 'field hospital'. How, then, do we put this into practice? It begins with prayer. Is Jesus real to me, is he alive? Or is he an idea, a concept, a lesson. If he is only this, where will any of us get the strength to go forth and to kiss the leper, to find sweetness in what is repugnant?
On Wednesday we had our penultimate public lecture. It was given by Jan Graffius, the Curator of Collections at Stonyhurst College and explored the witness of Blessed Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Archbishop Romero was executed as he celebrated Mass in 1980 on account of his courage in challenging the death squads and corruption of the time. Jan Graffius was charged with the task of preserving Archbishop's Romero's belongings and creating display cases for his relics.
Just last year, Archbishop Romero was beatified. It is well worth reading Pope Francis's letter on the occasion. El Salvador in the 1980s was a small, forgotten place, a place where savage evil was unleashed. But it is in such times that great holiness is also born. The whole country was run by a narrow oligarchy of families who amassed political, military, economic, religious and social control. Jan argued that poverty doesn't just happen; it comes about through human acts of omission and commission, and it is intensified by ignorance and the failure to consider the common good. During the bloody civil war, 75,000 people died, many killed in the welter of lawlessness that engulfed the country, a country overrun with drug cartels and death squads. The murder of a fellow priest had a revolutionary effect upon Archbishop Romero's heart; his witness became a Gethsemane moment for Romero. He knew he was called to be the good shepherd, laying down his life for his flock, identifying with them and suffering for them. On the radio, he railed against the 'empire of hell' and began his how journey to Golgotha.
Jan brought with her a triptych containing a relic of Blessed Romero. Apart from the beauty of the artistry, the script on the triptych records the readings of the day and his homily at the Mass at which he was executed. The words are prophetic. As the Archbishop offered the bread and wine, a sniper appeared at the back of the chapel. Romero saw the sniper, paused, and was killed. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
For the Year of Mercy, the Catholic Chaplaincy have been hosting a series of public lectures. We kicked off with an inspiring talk by Magnus MacFarlane Barrow, founder of Mary's Meals. Mary's Meals is currently educating and feeding over 1 million children in twelve countries, and will not stop until it has fed the 59 million more children who remain hungry in our world. The story of the charity can found in the Child 31 documentary on Youtube. Magnus's amazing work has won him acolades from around the world; last year he was counted in the Top 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. His book, The Shed that Fed a Million, reached the UK's prestigious Times and Sunday Times bestseller list immediately after its release. In his talk, Magnus traced the journey of Mary's Meals from its humble beginnings and helped us to understand how little steps can accomplish great things. Mercy is not a theory, but something that can be lived out by everyone in little ways. Magnus spoke with great passion, incredible humility and joy at the great things that the Lord has done in his life.
Following on from Magnus, we were delighted to be able to welcome Lord David Alton, an Independent Cross-Bench Peer, Professor of Citizenship, and a long-time human rights campaigner.
Over a meal, Lord Alton shared with the students experiences from his visits to Burma, North Korea and Pakistan.
Lord Alton's lecture packed a punch as he explored how mercy can be translated into public policy. He was struck by Pope Francis's call to touch the flesh of those who are suffering, and he highlighted three areas in the current climate: the outcast, those who are discarded by society, 'thrown out', the 8 million children who have been aborted in this country since 1967 and the relentless call for euthanasia and eugenics; the Refugees fleeing violence, sectarianism, poverty and despair; and, the persecuted, in particular citing the genocide of Christians and other minority groups in Syria and Iraq. Lord Alton, in response to these challenges, spoke about the need to uphold the rule of law, particularly the Declaration of Human Rights, article 18 on the freedom of religion, and he observed that many politicians seem more motivated by commercial interests than gross human rights violations. Mercy and justice will not come about by magic, but by a serious choice. In the chapel dedicated to St Thomas More, it was inspiring to hear a statesman speaking in these terms, upholding principle over what is expedient.
The Name of God is Mercy is Pope Francis’s first book-length conversation with Italian journalist, Andrea Tornielli. At its launch, Oscar-winning actor and director, Roberto Benigni, praised the Pope for ‘dragging the whole Church towards Christianity. In such an unrecognisable world, that wants hatred and condemnation, Francis responds with mercy’.
The Latin word for mercy is ‘misericordia’, which comprises two words, ‘miseria’ which means misery, wretchedness, and ‘cor’ which means heart. Mercy, then, is the encounter between God’s heart and our human misery. God taking on our flesh is the ultimate act of mercy – when Jesus Christ stooped down to us – when God took a human heart to Himself so as to enter and share our misery – and in His mercy to love us in a way that saves us from our wretchedness. Mercy is that heart-felt instinct, that openness to be moved in the depths. It is to bend, to reach out, towards the pain and suffering of another – indeed, it’s a willingness to enter their chaos.
The Name of God is Mercy. Mercy is not a new invention, but who God is. From the beginning, when creation was a formless void – chaos – God entered and spoke a good, creative Word, a Word of Mercy. When the Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt, the Lord led them out of their misery and revealed Himself to Moses as ‘The Lord, God of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and abounding in love’. The word, ‘compassion’ in the Hebrew language denotes the depths of a person, the pit of their being, it’s something visceral. God loves us literally in a heart-wrenching, visceral way.
What God felt for His People is felt personally with the coming of Christ. Whether it is Jesus’s response to the blind man, the leper, the woman caught in adultery, the widow of Nain, Jesus’s response is Mercy. Does that make God a pushover? Does that mean that we can do anything and everything and for it not to matter because God will forgive us anyway? Not at all. One biblical scholar has reminded us, ‘that God’s mercy makes the highest possible demands of us, for we are created in order to radiate God’s image and likeness’. Once mercy has been tasted, our life can never be the same again. Think of the woman who wept over Jesus’s feet and wiped them with her hair. Jesus defended her by saying, ‘See this woman, because she has sinned much she can love much’. Jesus is not inviting us to sin more in order to experience His love, but to recognise the truth that we are all sinners, and, as such, now is the moment of grace, the moment of mercy, to bare the truth of who we are to the truth of who God is. In that encounter is Mercy Himself.