Monday, 6 August 2012

St Beuno's

(Photos to follow shortly)

The train ride to Rhyll was reminiscent of our journey to Drumalis at the beginning of the year. People were tired but sociable, curious about what the retreat would entail and speculation about the next phase in all our lives was rife. 

From the train station we took taxis further into the middle of nowhere, eventually arriving at St Beuno’s Jesuit retreat centre. On route, the taxi driver had reassured us that, yes he did in fact collect people who had survived their stint of silence. 

We met Fr Dave Stewart SJ and Eric, a seminarian from Texas currently studying in Rome, who would be leading our retreat. After a tour and surprisingly good dinner we were relieved to find out that we were not doomed to miss out on the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. We gathered in the AV room to watch the spectacle unfold and fell into bed that first night exhausted from a day of travelling and apprehensive of our ability to shut up for 3 whole days.

Each morning began with breakfast, like all other meals this was taken in silence, before a one-to-one spiritual direction session with either Fr Dave or Eric. Lunch was served around midday and the afternoon was ours to fill as we pleased before Mass followed by dinner in the evening.

We were each given different passages from the Bible to read and pray and encouraged to consider Ignatian spiritual exercises to help us.

The beautiful grounds of St Beuano’s certainly provided a peaceful atmosphere in which to contemplate the many experiences this internship has given us. Manicured lawns encircled scented rose bushes, with gravelled paths leading to a labyrinth and prayer garden as well as fields and a small forest in which the rock chapel nestled on top of the hill. 

The complex itself included an art room with loads of resources (some of us made better use of these than others… Daniel’s clay farmer with a sheep, Michaela’s clay swan candle holder and Marie’s watercolour paintings in particular) several chapels and prayer spaces, meeting rooms, a dining room and accommodation for over 60 people. 

Most of the interns had wisely been given accommodation away from the main building; Michaela, Marie and I were in a cute stone cottage whilst Dom and Matthew were banished to the other side of the (badger ridden) forest to a cottage on the ‘main’ road.

This provided us all with the opportunity to be sociable as well as to take time out for ourselves. The silent nature of the retreats at St Beuno’s created a deep sense of calm and tranquillity that seemed to either seep from or be absorbed even by the study grey stones of the main building.  

Being quiet was hard. The Olympics were on and leaving the buzz of London to be submerged into the quietness of this retreat centre in North Wales felt somewhat unnatural and uneasy. Maybe those ‘retreatants’ who do the hard-core 30 day or 3 month retreats get into more of a routine and are able to entertain themselves better, they didn’t look that happy when we saw them at meal times or Mass but their inner peace must have been strong.

On the last night Charles, Fr Dave and Eric joined us all in the girls’ cottage for some drinks and we debated the night away in heated and determined tones, until we realised what time it was and that we had to be up for a train in a few hours!

The retreat was a fitting end to an incredible year, which has not been without it’s challenges but which has also been absolutely invaluable in the breadth and depth of the life lessons we’ve all learned along the way.  It put prayer back firmly at the centre of our day to day lives and forced us all to take some time out amidst a really hectic few weeks for us all.

Thank you to Charles for accompanying us and to Fr Dave and Eric for being our spiritual directors at St Beuno’s, yet another interesting and unique experience to bring the year to a close.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

ad vincula, in clink- or ‘a place of redemption’?

This morning, our attendance at Mass was a little different. Our photographs were taken, our fingerprints scanned and our belongings stowed away, before joining Rt Rev Mgr Malachy Keegan, Principal Catholic Chaplain at the National Offender Management Service- i.e. National Prisons’ Chaplain- and scores of inmates in the chapel of Her Majesty’s Prison, Pentonville. A Category B/C  prison, it holds some 1200 men, some serving short sentences or beginning longer sentences, but the majority of whom are on remand.

It was in order to house those on remand or awaiting transportation that construction of HMP Pentonville was begun in 1840- making it one of the oldest prisons in the country- and its [then] radical new design of a central hall with five radiating wing blocks, intended to keep prisoners isolated, was used as a prototype for hundreds more throughout Britain and the empire. Although much refurbishment has taken place, the original four cellblocks are as they were when the prison opened in 1842.

Pentonville is a ‘local’ prison, and inmates have included playwright Oscar Wilde, historian David Irving and singers Pete Doherty, Boy George and George Michael. Pentonville also hosted the executions of Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement and the infamous Dr Crippen.

Every prisoner has the right to pursue their declared faith and to participate in relevant acts of worship- even when segregated.

Thus, every prison has a Chaplaincy department, and when a prisoner first arrives, they are usually seen by a Chaplain within 24 hours. The Chaplaincy are able to organise faith activities for all main religions (as recognised by the Prison Service), and can also intercede on matters of religious dress, diet and artefacts.

When we arrived, the Church of England liturgy was in progress- like in the university chaplaincies that we were used to, everyone has their turn. The acting Anglican chaplain actually played the organ for our Mass; it marked a beautiful symmetry with the twin Blessed Sacrament Chapels to the rear. I must admit that the possibility of the Blessed Sacrament’s being reserved in a prison never occurred to me, and I hope that the inmates draw strength from it.

Fr Malachy told us that there are always more inmates who wish to hear Mass than can be accommodated, which is both impressive and also sad, as it means that many cannot fulfil the Sunday obligation as they would wish, but Pentonville is to receive a new Chaplain next week, and there is talk of a second Mass to meet demand! Certainly those prisoners who were able to attend were enthusiastic, and clearly glad of the Monsignor’s care and attention.

It struck me that many seemed unfamiliar with the words and actions of the liturgy, and that this pointed to prisoners rediscovering their faith as a source of strength while in prison. This was reinforced by the number of men who sought both a blessing and reception of the host at communion.

No matter what certain elements of the press might have us believe, a prisoner’s life is not an easy one. Something bad set them on a path that ended in jail, which is tough enough to begin with, and which very often catches them again all too quickly upon release. All too often, we are talking about drugs. Many have fallen into crime because of the effects of drugs, or because of the company that drug abuse often entails, or in seeking to sustain a drug habit. Despite the best efforts of prison authorities, drugs infiltrate the walls, with cases of prisoners becoming addicted while inside, and the dealers are rarely far from the gates, ready to greet those who have been freshly released.

Effective rehabilitation and education can counter this, but it needs a support structure. Fr Malachy spoke to us about projects designed to support those newly released as they build new relationships and lives, and these are estimated to have already saved the prison service in the region of a quarter of a million pounds through lowered recidivism. This is achieved through daily contact with those offering of themselves for this vital work, and is inspired by Christian solidarity.

We discussed the changing pattern of imprisonment in this country, and its effectiveness- or lack thereof. Britain’s prisons currently hold almost 90,000 people- think Bath surrounded by barbed wire and fencing- while our French cousins have comparable levels of crime despite detaining a third fewer convicts. There is also the issue of short sentences: why do we hand down sentences of mere weeks or months? It cannot conceivably be for public safety or rehabilitation. It is for punishment, it is to show that retribution has been exacted, but does it bring about change?

The nature of chaplaincy provision is also changing. Cuts have meant that the service must be justified in its current form, and there seems to be little understanding of why it wouldn’t do for a general chaplain to provide the majority of pastoral care. There seems to be little appreciation of the different ecclesiologies not only between faiths but also between denominations. A Methodist chaplain could no more hear a Catholic prisoner’s confession than a Buddhist chaplain; there are plenty of such examples. Chaplains do much more than lead services, and even if the bureaucrats and civil servants can’t quantify that, the governors are more than fully aware of their value.

Catholics are called, both in scripture and by church leaders, to help and support the imprisoned. It is almost eight years since the Bishops’ Conference published ‘In Place of Redemption’, which made a series of recommendations to improve conditions in prisons and also to improve the prospects for rehabilitation, and indeed for true redemption. The title paraphrases a quote from Blessed John Paul II:
“Prison should not be a corrupting experience, a place of idleness and even vice, but instead a place of redemption.”
Afterwards, we collected our belongings, handed in our passes and stepped out into the sunlight. We are fortunate in this, and we might all offer a prayer for the thousands who, whatever their story, now live lives where they are largely cut off from loved ones, and who are often alone for the majority of their day. We walked on, in search of tea.

For more information on the work of the Catholic Church in England and Wales with regard to prisons, go here.

Information relating to the prison is taken from, the Ministry of Justice and Wikipedia.
Picture credits: Ian Waldie/Getty ImagesWikimedia; Mazur/; Vatican via Reuters files.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Lord Patten

Lord Patten’s entry on Wikipedia reads like a history of pivotal political moments of the last 30 years. Starting out as a researcher for the Conservative party before being promoted to the director of the Conservative Research Department, Lord Patten’s meteoric rise through the political hierarchy began in the same sort of role as some of the interns have held this year.

Lord Patten has come a long way since then. Between 1979 - 1992 he was the MP for Bath, serving as Minister for Overseas Development from 1986 - 1989. He was then appointed to the Cabinet as Secretary f State for the Environment and became responsible for the unpopular Community Charge (aka Poll Tax).

Under John Major Lord Patten was made Chairman of the Conservative Party before being asked to fulfill the role of Governor of Hong Kong, during which time he oversaw the return of the island to China from the British Government.

Stephen, Lord Patten, Dom, Marie, Lucy, Daniel and Matthew

We met with Lord Patten on a humid Tuesday afternoon in his office in No 1 Millbank, which also gave us the opportunity to see where Matthew has been hiding all year (a room with a solitary desk, computer and TV, it seemed about right).

Fresh from discussing the quality and impartiality of BBC News with their main political correspondent, Nick Robinson, in his latest incarnation as Commissioner of the BBC Trust Lord Petten seemed somewhat weighed down by the many things that must be on his mind.

Nonetheless he was interested to learn about the Internship scheme and where each of us had come from, what we had been up to this year and where we were going next.

We then had the opportunity to ask him about his own experiences as a Catholic in public life. He was honest and open with us but said that, with very few exceptions, he had never found being a Catholic in parliament problematic or suffered because of prejudices. He had, however, found himself in some interesting situations such as advising the Prime Minister on appointing a new Archbishop of Canterbury in 1991.

One of the first things he did after becoming Chancellor of Oxford University was to commission a plaque commemorating Oxford alumni throughout the ages who had died for their faith. This was to be put up in St Mary’s church in Oxford, an Anglican church, despite commemorating Christian martyrs from any denomination.

Of his time in Hong Kong, Lord Patten said he had a very positive experience of the Catholic Church. When asked about how far the conversation on Climate Change has come since he was Secretary of State for the Environment in the late 80’s and on the topic of the continued viability of the Euro, he was far more sceptical.

This scepticism, he said, was a healthy attribute of any journalist especially those dealing with political stories and scenarios. This was in response to the line from the new Director General of the BBC about journalists waking up in the morning and making the government’s life hell. Lord Patten didn’t dismiss that notion outright.

He encourages us to pursue life in public service as he has found it to be so worthwhile and rewarding himself. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

Aid to the Church in Need

Last Friday we met at the Bishops Conference for our last seminar of the year. This was delivered by John Pontifex the Head of Press and Information at Aid to the Church in Need, a global organisation helping Christians who are persecuted.

John Pontifex
John started by telling us that the right to religious freedom, and to choose or change your religion, is enshrined within the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which is as good a place as any to start for defending Christians worldwide.

We learnt about the real life stories behind the news stories we’ve all seen, including the terrible bombing of a church in Nigeria during Mass on Christmas Day in 2011.

The risks people take to continue to be Christians and practice their faith in many places around the world, especially in the East, were astounding and made me feel pretty lazy not to mention lucky. I’ve certainly never had the feeling that I am literally taking my life in my hands by attending Mass, no matter how dodgy Euston may seem.

In North Sudan, for example, Priests have been kidnapped and their houses ransacked. In China and North Korea, priests and Bishops have been jailed or simply disappeared. In Zimbabwe, the Catholic community have been caught up in conflict between the Anglican church and the government. In these countries and many more people carry out their faith at a considerable cost, their courage must not be forgotten by those of us who take such things for granted.

Easter in South Sudan
John Allan, a senior Catholic reporter on world affairs, has described these people as a “New wave of Christian martyrs.” They face persecution on a daily basis and struggle against prejudices which label them as Western sympathisers and outsiders.

The lack of political will to deal with the issue of Christian persecution is staggering. Government’s are aware but unwilling to deal with hate crimes committed against Christians, opting to keep the status quo.

Catholics are often particularly mistrusted by their governments because of our loyalty to Rome and the Pope. Authoritarian regimes try to contain Catholicism like a disease, fearful of it spreading and causing general dissent or disillusionment with the governing authorities.

Upholding the rights of Christians in these countries is especially problematic due to the lack of respect for the rule of law. Local militia groups often claim responsibility for attacks carried out on Christian neighbourhoods or individuals, taking the law into their own hands and interpreting it to suit themselves.

Aid to the Church in Need carries out a range of projects across the world, from building churches in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami, to distributing the Children's Bible wherever it works, as well as funding seminarians in developing countries and providing relief in exceptional circumstances.

The 50 millionth copy of the Children's Bible was published last month

John finished his talk by reminding us that whilst fundraising is crucial to the work of Aid to the Church in Need, so is prayer. 

Friday, 6 July 2012

Intern Alumni Drinks

Eccleston Square Garden has come into its own over the past month, playing host to a great BBQ shared by current interns and a lovely drinks reception for interns both past and present.

Fiona Paley, a former Archbishop’s House intern, organised last night’s drinks reception giving many of those who have been involved with the scheme over the years the opportunity to meet up and reminisce as well as hearing about how the scheme has developed.

The weather was on our side and everyone enjoyed chatting with familiar, and some not so familiar, faces over wine and nibbles.

From having spent a year with an MP, in Archbishop’s House or with the Catholic Education Service, former interns appeared to have branched out into a variety of public sector services, from teaching to local government with a few lawyers thrown in for good measure.

Others continue to work for the Church in some capacity; two former interns, Peter and Luke, are in their second year of training for the priesthood out in Rome. One lady is now the Catholic Chaplain for the University of Greenwich and another is working for the Foundation for Marriage.

There has also been the first internship engagement between Chris and Anna – congratulations to them both!
Congratulations are also in order to Dominic who is set to become the co-ordinator for the APPG on Sustainable Agriculture and Development after a successful interview for the post earlier this week.

After a fun few hours in the garden last night, with spirits running high but funds running low for current interns, we said our goodbyes to our predecessors and headed off to Blackfriars bridge for a light show, highly recommended by Michaela.

With day-old croissants and pre-mixed G&T’s in hand (because that’s how we live these days), we excitedly made our way to the embankment, highly anticipating the new levels of wonder and awe Michaela had promised would be encountered.

The disappointment experienced was overwhelming (Dom got pretty rowdy) and Michaela, Matthew, Dom and I strolled back to Newman House stopping off on route for some truly ‘Independent chips’ – fulfilling Daniel’s prophesy form the beginning of the year.

Thank you to everyone who attended last night and to Fiona for organising it – truly the hostess with mostess 

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Jubilee and Norton Rose

I’m about as neutral as the colour of Kate Middleton’s favourite heels when it comes to the Royal Family. They appear, to me, to be like a lot of other families in the UK, with ups and downs, scandals and celebrations, but all played out in the gloassy pages of Hello! And on the six o clock news – I don’t envy them (well maybe I envy Kate a bit...)

View from our seats as crowds poured in from the Mall

Whether they are there or not, therefore, has little bearing on my day to day life. So it was with some surprise I found myself queuing up in St James’ park with Dom at 9 am on Tuesday morning, Union-Jack-on-a-stick in hand, pic-nic in the other, waiting to take my seat in the stands in front of Buckingham Palace.

What was I there to celebrate? Half my family’s Irish for goodness sake, from the Rebel County of Cork itself, my ancestors would be turning in their potato-famine induced graves!

Still, being entertained by military bands all day, watching the Royals pass by in those gilded open top carriages, then re-emerge on the balcony of the palace after a huge human wave of red, white and blue had been expertly guided down the Mall, was a moment in history and one I’m happy and proud to be a part of.

Daniel, Stephen and Mathew kicked the weekend off at Newman House’s Jubilee boat party on the Friday night, where almost the entire House turned out looking unusually glamorous to toast to the Queen’s 60 year long reign.

Last night, Wednesday we met with Mike Robeiro, a big supporter of the scheme, at the Norton Rose offices where he is a partner. He gave us a very interesting presentation on Norton Roses’ position in the world of globalized corporations and participated in a lively discussion about morality and ethics in the work place with us, after a lovely meal. Thanks Mike!

View from terrace of Norton Rose offices

Friday, 25 May 2012

Happy Birthday Matthew and Marie

On Wednesday 24 May, the interns turned out in force to celebrate Matthew and Marie’s birthdays.

On the hottest day of the year so far, we gathered at a restaurant near Bank to enjoy not only each other’s company but some decidedly sinful looking scallops and steaks.

Since returning from Rome, we have had a talk from Dr Harry Hagopian who is a special adviser to the Bishops Conference on Middle Easter issues. In a talk which could have gone all day, for the wealth of information and passion Harry had for sharing it, we learnt all about the ‘Arab Spring’ last year and what it might mean for Christian groups in the region.

Having been shut away from all civilisation in order to finish my dissertation, this time last year, the events taking place in Northern Africa and the extended Middle East were of interest but low on my to-do list of things to be reading up on.

Harry Hagopian gave us a clear chronology of events and offered an explanation of why they had occurred in the order they did. It was an interesting and informative morning of current affairs and another example of how faith influences political events and vice versa.

Harry’s latest podcast on clashes in Northern Lebanon can be heard here:

Last Friday morning our attentions turned from Middle East hostilities to the Ascension, and the theological and metaphysical questions posed by Christ’s return to heaven in the presence of his disciples – guided by Fr James Hanvey.

This was followed by a tour of Westminster Abbey.

The last week encapsulates the great range of events and issues we are exposed to as interns. We are constantly presented with different perspectives and arguments regarding faith in the public sphere and the potential impact our decisions, or the other decisions of others, can have.

We have a few more seminars with Fr James left as well as another inter-faith day (visiting a synagogue this time) and meetings with some other potentially exciting people... as well as the Eccleston Square Open and our final retreat.