Sunday, 29 December 2013

Meet The Catholic Herald people of 2013

Joint Person of the Year:  Pope Benedict

In the 2,000-year history of the Church, few popes have performed greater acts of humility. In 2013 Benedict XVI became the first pope in 600 years to abdicate. Pope Benedict, the exact opposite of an egomaniac, decided it would be best for his flock of some 1.4 billion souls if he left and a new shepherd took the lead. After six decades as a priest and nearly eight years as pope, the dark circles around Benedict XVI’s eyes had grown larger, and he was weary. His conscience told him that a man with more stamina would serve the faithful better. One of the most succinct descriptions of Benedict XVI was given by ArchbishopCharles Brown, Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, who worked with him for more than 10 years at the Vatican. “He has extraordinary intelligence, deep faith and great humility,” the archbishop said. Surely there is no better demonstration of humility, than to admit that one is ailing and to give up the highest place of power for the good of the Church. Benedict has left a spiritual legacy that will enrich the generations to come. He will be remembered as “the pope of Christian unity”, in part because of his visionary decision to create the ordinariate for groups of former Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church. The ordinariate allows ex-Anglicans to keep their traditions while coming into full Communion. 

Benedict XVI also has a special fondness for Britain. Despite calls for his arrest and threats of violence, Benedict travelled to Britain in 2010 and stood up to aggressive secularists. He also beatified one of our own, Cardinal John Henry Newman. In times to come, the papal visit is likely to be a turning point: the moment the Pope defied his detractors and did not let the naysayers dictate the travels of the Vicar of Christ. 

The fact that Pope Francis’s pontificate is on a much smoother road must owe something to the fact that Benedict XVI broke the ground first.

Joint Person of the Year: Pope Francis

Our Holy Father knows who is his worst enemy. He spoke of the Devil when he was barely a day in office. On March 14, in his first sermon in the Sistine Chapel, he said: “When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the Devil.”
Our Pope knows that this is spiritual warfare and that the battle rages for our souls. So Francis blessed a dramatic sculpture of St Michael pinning down the Devil and has placed Vatican City under the protection of the archangel. Explaining why St Michael is so efficacious, the Pope said: “St Michael wins because in him, it is God who acts.” 

Our Holy Father also knows his best female friend. On the very first morning of his pontificate, he made a brief pilgrimage to the Basilica of St Mary Major, the principal Marian shrine in Rome. On October 13, the day of the Miracle of the Sun, he stood before the statue of Our Lady of Fatima, and entrusted the world to her. Making clear the role of Our Lady, the Pope explained: “She constantly guides us to her son Jesus, because in him alone do we find salvation.” Francis recites 15 decades of the rosary each day. 

By his living example, the Pope is showing that faith without good works is dead. His most simple acts of kindness are melting the hearts of millions. Many onlookers were reduced to tears by his embrace of Vinicio Riva, the man whose face is disfigured by neurofibromatosis. Pope Francis’ actions are flying in the face of western culture’s obsession with banishing the disabled and the underprivileged. His actions are the embodiment of Our Lord’s words: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” 

Pope Francis has not sought popularity, but in an age where the majority of people have surfeited on the bubblegum of secularism, they find that following Francis is good food for the soul.  

The Pope is drawing people to him because they have an intuitive sense that he speaks and acts for their eternal good.

Fr Federico Lombardi

This was a year of dramatic and sometimes disorientating change in the Vatican. It was a struggle to make sense of the historic developments, and one priest smoothed over the bumps of misconceptions in the mind of the public. The last year was arguably the 71-year-old Jesuit Fr Frederico Lombardi’s finest hour. 

At every turn, the Vatican spokesman used concise language to make clear the most complex train of events. He restored harmony during the most difficult transitions. For those who loved Benedict XVI dearly and were prone to conspiracy theories about why he resigned, Fr Lombardi explained simply that Pope Benedict no longer had the physical energy for the demands of the papacy.
As a fellow Jesuit, Fr Lombardi was ideally placed to denounce the outlandish rumours that beset Pope Francis from the earliest days of his election. Fr Lombardi insisted convincingly that there had never been a “credible accusation” that would support the idea that the future Pope Francis had betrayed his own priests and been complicit in helping the military dictatorship. The allegations in the global media then subsided quickly. 

There are some points of connection between Fr Lombardi and the Holy Father. In addition to both being Jesuits, they have both served as leaders within the Society of Jesus. Fr Lombardi was superior of the Jesuits’ Italian province.  Like Francis’s father, Fr Lombardi was born in Piedmont, northern Italy. 

A mathematician by training, Fr Lombardi is notable for his role in various Vatican media outlets. He was first the programme director at Vatican Radio and now its general director of Vatican Radio. He is also the director of the Vatican Television Centre (CTV). Benedict XVI appointed him director of the Vatican press office in 2006. 

Archbishop Georg Gänswein
The softly spoken archbishop did his best to change Benedict XVI’s mind. But he discovered that the Holy Father was determined to resign and that “he was not to be shaken”.  Since Benedict’s abdication, Archbishop Gänswein has juggled two sets of responsibilities. He is prefect of Pope Francis’s papal household and personal secretary of Benedict XVI. Archbishop Gänswein manages the smooth scheduling of the Pope’s daily meetings and audiences, as well as sorting through large piles of correspondence. He has huge reserves of energy and incredible diligence. But he says: “It’s a challenge… Every once in a while I’d like to ask advice from my predecessor, but I don’t have one because no one has ever held this double position.”

Aside from his exhausting duties, the heart of Archbishop Gänswein’s life is assisting Benedict XVI. They have breakfast together every morning and go for a stroll in the woods behind the monastery, where they recite the rosary together. Those of us who care intensely for Benedict find it a great comfort that he has Archbishop Gänswein at his side.
The 57-year-old German prelate was born in a village in the heart of the Black Forest and is the son of a blacksmith. 

During the VatiLeaks scandal, it was revealed that some Church leaders were bothered that the media was so interested in Archbishop Gänswein, who they dubbed “bel Giorgio”.  But Archbishop Gänswein modestly maintains that the measure of how good he is doing his job depends on him being imperceptible. “Personally I see my role or service with the Pope as similar to that of glass,” he has said. “The cleaner it is then it will achieve its task… the less you see of the glass then the better it is. If you don’t see it at all that means I’m doing my job well.’’

Cora Sherlock

British pro-lifers looked on in angst when abortion legislation was passed into Irish law. But Cora Sherlock, a gutsy Dublin solicitor says she won’t rest until the law is repealed.

Talking to The Catholic Herald, she says her plan is “to solidify all pro-life voters, and together we will tell our MPs that we are withholding our votes until they agree to repeal the law”.

Sherlock is 38. She has been a solicitor for 12 years and has been deputy chairwoman of Pro-Life Campaign for eight years. In the past year, Sherlock worked like a Trojan to halt the legislation. Shrewd but never shrill, she spoke against the abortion legislation on many radio and television shows. She insisted that abortion is not treatment for depression during pregnancy, and that “the government have switched the focus from medical treatment to abortion which is the direct targeting of the unborn child”. 

Chief among her achievements is that she united pro-lifers. As a direct result, tens of thousands of people attended pro-life vigils held outside the Irish parliament, in the run-up to the legislation and afterwards. 

An intrepid user of Twitter (@CoraSherlock), Sherlock keeps an audience of British pro-lifers informed via her tweets. She has a strategy for using the social networking site effectively. “If someone sends me an abusive tweet because I’m pro-life, I send a calm tweet in reply,” she explains, “to try and bring the conversation to a civil level, so that we can have a back and forth discussion.”  

Sherlock says Irish pro-lifers must enlist the help of their British counterparts. “British pro-lifers have a very big role to play,” she says. “Their voices must be heard because they have lived with abortion on demand and they know what they talking about.”

Alison Davis 

Just a few weeks ago Alison Davis, the woman once described by Phyllis Bowman as “a great pro-life fighter”, died at the age of 58. Davis was born with a split spine and confined to a wheelchair. As she got older, she developed emphysema, arthritis, brittle bones and spinal conditions which caused her spine to coil in different directions. In harrowing pain, she relied on morphine for limited relief.

In 1982, Davis became the co-ordinator of No Less Human, a nationwide organisation which unites people with disabilities and their carers. She gave heartfelt interviews to the BBC, spoke at international conferences and could be found outside Parliament with a sign reading: “Women deserve better than abortion.” In 2009, she published a paper which demonstrated that euthanasia had become more widespread, partly as a result of the 2005 Mental Capacity Act.

Perhaps her greatest triumph was that she used her life experiences to prove that self-destruction is not the answer to despair or disability. She explained that for 10 years she had been obsessed with suicide, convinced that she “burdened” others. Once she tried killing herself by washing down painkillers with a bottle of martini. At first she was “really angry” that doctors pumped her stomach, but later she was delighted to have survived, saying: “I would have missed the best years of my life.”  

In 1987, she met Colin Harte, who became her best friend and carer. On her second pilgrimage to Lourdes, Davis learned that suffering could be offered up, and this was an important step to her becoming a Catholic in 1991. In 1995, she and Colin Harte started a charity for children with disabilities in Southern India. The children of appreciated her immense kindness, and the joy she got from helping them brightened her final years.

Alice von Hildebrand

As a young woman, Alice Jourdain left her native Belgium, and made a fresh start in New York.  At first she found it lonely and “wintry”. But everything changed when she attended a talk given by Dietrich von Hildebrand in his tiny Manhattan apartment where he spoke on transformation in Christ.

Dietrich had left Europe to get away from Nazi harassment. Hitler’s ambassador in Austria considered him one of their worst enemies. At first, the young Miss Jourdain was a student of philosophy and von Hildebrand a professor. Through him, she fell in love with philosophy and in 1947 she became a teacher of philosophy at Hunter College, where she taught for 37 years. She eventually married Professor von Hildebrand, and after his death in 1977 she dedicated her life to promoting his greatest works, chiefly Transformation in Christ, which she calls, “his masterpiece”. 

Alice von Hildebrand draws particular attention to one of her husband’s key points. “My husband said many times that the greatest illusion is that human laws can make the world perfect,” she has said. “The only thing that can make the world perfect is the change of heart.” 

While always underscoring her late husband’s achievements, Alice von Hildebrand is a woman of many talents. Her most notable works include The Privilege of Being a Woman and The Soul of a Lion, a biography of her illustrious husband.  

Earlier this year, Pope Francis made her a Dame of St Gregory, the highest honour that can be granted to a lay person. The American Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, formally invested Alice von Hildebrand on October 30 at a grand dinner in New York. In his speech, Cardinal Burke, thanked God “for the gift of Alice von Hildebrand”.

Mother Antonia

In 1969, Mary Brenner dreamed she was being held captive at Calvary and about to be put to death. Jesus appeared and offered to be executed in her place. She said “No”, and brushed her hand against His cheek, promising Him that she would never leave Him.

In 1977, inspired by that personal vision, Brenner renounced a glamorous life in Beverly Hills to live in a grim prison cell in a Mexican prison. It was the La Mesa penitentiary, which houses murderers, rapists and thieves. She donned a white habit and renamed herself Mother Antonia.

For over more than 3 decades, she would immeasurably improve the lives of thousands of prisoners. She called all of them “my sons”. The prisoners were stunned because Mother Antonia made the choice to be there. She washed in the same icy showers and slept on the same lumpy mattress as they did. 

First, she prioritised giving them basic amenities such as bandages and pillows. But as she grew more confident she shepherded the prisoners to their court appearances, where she questioned the judges as to why they gave softer sentences to wealthier prisoners. She helped expunge some of the unfairness from the Mexican justice system, and one judge credited her with his conversion. He stopped applying sentences according to the convict’s social class. 

As she was twice divorced, Mother Antonia could not enter any existing order. So in 1997 she founded her own, the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour. All the Sisters are financially self-sufficient, and they wear crosses made by an inmate who was once under the care of Mother Antonia, but is now a free man. 

Just two months ago, on October 17, Mother Antonia went to her final reward at the age of 86. But her life of heroic sacrifice continues to astound and inspire many.

This article appears on page 13 of the Christmas edition of The Catholic Herald

Friday, 27 December 2013

The Christmas that Pope Francis held a nation together

It was in 2001 that Jorge Mario Bergoglio really showed his amazing strength of character on the world stage. The highly dramatic year began with a promotion and ended with him calming a storm. 

The first months of 2001 were a time of joy and celebration for the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires. On February 21 he was summoned to Rome by Pope John Paul II to be made a cardinal. Bergoglio insisted that no new clothes be bought for him. He asked, instead, that the robes of the previous cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires be altered to fit his size.

Hundreds of Argentines were penny-pinching in order to travel to Rome and see their archbishop get his red hat. But Bergoglio implored them not to spend their cash on plane tickets and hotel rooms. He argued that the money would be better spent on the poor. 

This was not merely some soft-hearted sentiment: there were then growing numbers of people living in grinding hardship in Argentina. The country was in its third year of raging recession that was getting worse and worse. In some places, as many as eight out of 10 children were being reared in extreme poverty. High percentages of people were eking out an existence on the streets. It would have gone against everything that Archbishop Bergoglio stood for had his followers paid money for airfare, instead of donating it to needy children.

Archbishop Bergoglio brought one companion to the Eternal City, his beloved sister, María Elena. She was proud as punch seeing him created a cardinal. While they were in Italy, they took a trip to the village in Piedmont where their father was born. The hamlet was where their grandparents had worked so hard running a cafe and their uncles had trained to be confectioners. 

Despite his elevated status, Cardinal Bergoglio returned to Buenos Aires to live in his unpretentious apartment. Autumn came and it was time for him to attend the 2001 synod of bishops in Rome. With hardly any notice, it fell on him to serve in a leading role as general relator at the synod. He was asked to take the place of Cardinal Edward Egan, who was compelled to stay in New York following the atrocities of September 11. 

Bergoglio had little time to organise the meetings and plan what he would say. He spoke from the heart, as opposed to delivering lectures, and impressed his fellow bishops so much that when they were electing the 15 members of the secretary’s council, he was awarded the highest vote. The part of his speech that stuck in their minds was when he said that each individual bishop is called to be “a prophet of justice”. 

Little did he know that just around the corner in December that there would be a great catastrophe which would call on him to demonstrate what the words “prophet of justice” meant by his actions.

Every December is a month packed with anniversaries for Bergoglio. On the 13th he celebrates his ordination to the priesthood, and the 17th is his birthday. In December 2001 he turned 65 and celebrated 32 years as a priest. His three decades as a Jesuit in Argentina had made his political antennae very sensitive. That month he was propelled into the political arena during one of the worse economic storms the world has ever seen.

That month Argentina declared that it would cease paying the interest on the $94 billion that it owed a coterie of banks around the world. Ordinary people, the struggling working- and middle-classes, were the victims. Banks shut their doors, accounts were frozen, wages cut to paltry sums and millions upon millions of people lost their life savings.

That December was a sweltering Buenos Aires summer and tempers flared as hot as the sun. Riots broke out on the streets and there was widespread looting of supermarkets. Looters were joined by tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets beating pots and pans and waving flags. The air was filled with the unremitting noise of honking car horns. Both aggressive and passive protesters were of one mind: they wanted the resignation of president Fernando de la Rúa.

The police reacted with brute force, employing tear gas and wielding batons. Twenty-seven people were killed by police. From his window, Archbishop Bergoglio saw a woman being beaten by a policeman. He sought to contact a government minister and would not rest until the politician personally answered his call. Bergoglio advised him to instruct the police to make greater distinctions between the group of thugs and vandals who were taking advantage of the chaos and looting goods for the sake of it, and the group of peaceful protesters who wanted to vent their frustration.

His intervention seemed to have an influence and fewer peaceful protesters were subject to sudden attacks from the police. As a direct result of the phone call, it is unknown how many people escaped being battered to death, and are alive today, thanks to the cardinal.

Bergoglio also delivered homilies in which he spoke about the futility of people engaging in violence on the streets as a means of vengeance for the economic punishments visited on them.  Fernando de la Rúa resigned on December 21, assuaging the rioters. But de la Rúa was followed by a succession of presidents, none of whom were able to cope and had to flee office. Cardinal Bergoglio was to be the steadfast leader, the voice of calm who had an influence over his flock, the one who didn’t run.

Not only did the riots eclipse the Christmas spirit, but there was surely not a worse time of year for people to be cash-strapped, unable to give toys to their children or even to put bread on the table. Bergoglio’s hour had come. His experience of establishing soup kitchens in the 1970s came in handy, as ever more such kitchens were needed. He led his priests in opening food banks and food programmes in the heart of the worst-affected neighbourhoods.

Bergoglio met clusters of lay people who were starting new projects aimed at giving emergency aid to the people who needed it most. He worked with union leaders and acted as a mediator among politicians from opposing sides.

From the time he was made an auxiliary bishop in 1992 to his elevation as archbishop in 1998 and beyond, Bergoglio had developed many close relationships with politicians. Many of the more conscientious ones were now keen to involve Bergoglio in giving government finances to Catholic charities that would ensure it reached the poor. It was Bergoglio’s strictly honest, incorruptible character that appealed to them. They may not always have agreed with him, but they could always depend on him.

The future Pope did not seek to curry favour with the politicians. When he felt they were erring he confronted them with the teachings of the Church, using his bishop’s staff to poke the consciences of the political elite. “Keep in mind,” he told them, “what is taught by the tradition of the Church, which regards oppressing the poor and defrauding workers of their wages as two sins that cry out to God for vengeance.” On another occasion he said: “We are tired of systems that produce poor people so that then the Church can support them.” Inevitably, he was labelled as Left-wing by Right-wingers. But he insisted he was “a bishop of the centre”.

Bergoglio also did not hold back in criticising the wealthy upper echelon of Buenos Aires society, who he accused of ignoring the poor on their doorsteps. It irritated him that they enjoyed their “ill-gotten gains” when so many were going hungry at Christmas. 

A prelate who is so critical of the rich has to give a personal example of unselfishness or else risk being called a hypocrite. But Bergoglio’s own Christmas routine could not have been more self-giving. He did not see his family on Christmas Day. Instead, he used his time to go deep into the slums and cook for priests and families. When the evening came, he retired to his sparsely furnished apartment to enjoy his one comfort: a quiet moment alone. 

I wrote this article for the Christmas edition of The Catholic Herald

Thursday, 19 December 2013

It's true what they say about Daniel Radcliffe...

Just recently, friends of mine introduced me to Daniel Radcliffe. Yes, the very man, of stage (Equus) and screen (The Woman in Black) fame. "Hi, I'm Dan, Mary" is the first thing that he said to me.

I met him after the filming of The Kumars for Sky. My friend and colleague Tom Leopold was a writer on the show.

Dan has a firm handshake and his sapphire-blue eyes are even more striking in real life, than they are on film. His current long-locks hairstyle is not his idea and not even his hair! He has had hair extensions for the part of Igor, the assistant to Dr. Frankenstein.  During the episode of The Kumars, Dan joked that his skin is naturally pale enough of the role of Igor, and that the make-up artists use a foundation on him called, 'rice-paper'.

The re-make of Mary Shelley's greatest work is being filmed in London at the moment. But Mary Shelley never created the character of Igor. The hunchback helper of Dr Frankenstein makes no appearance in her horror story. Igor was the creation of film-makers and inserted into the film, as a companion to Dr Frankenstein, to make him seem a less lonely figure. But the deformed helper of von Frankenstein has evolved to the point where in the current version, the story is told completely from the perspective of Igor.

I was quite impressed with Daniel Radcliffe, or 'Dan' as he prefers. People swarm around him all the time, and he remains unflappable, but doesn't react as though he's pestered.  I have heard reports from friends in Dublin who met Dan that he was polite and kind. (He was in Dublin to film What If with Zoe Kazan). And it was great to find out that this is true. One such fan is Raymond Arroyo. As a fellow actor, Raymond met up with Dan in June, and congratulated the young Brit on his stellar acting in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Raymond did his classical acting training under Stella Adler, and he esteems Daniel Radcliffe's considerable abilities.
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