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.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Thirst for Change!

I’m afraid to say this blog really does justify the use of one of Mr Foster’s weather related openings.

It was a cold damp morning, as Dominic, Lucy and Marie opened the front door of Newman House at quarter to eight, to a heavy sky streaked with drizzle, and cars splashing puddles over the pavements that reflected the grey clouds....

Nothing could dampen our spirits though as we headed off to Westminster Cathedral to participate in the final part of CAFOD’s phenomenally successful Lent campaign. The ‘Thirst for Change’ campaign highlighted the fact that 884 million people do not have access to clean, safe water. Something in Britain we take for granted on a daily basis.

As the sun rose this morning, CAFOD supporters gathered at Tower Hill underground station and walked along the river Thames to Westminster, in solidarity with Ethopian pastoralists who have to do so every day to get clean water. At 8am they met with other CAFOD enthusiasts by Westminster Cathedral – who didn’t quite manage to get out of bed before 5 am!

Chris Bain, CAFOD’s Director, addressed the crowd of keen supporters about the success of the Thirst for Change campaign, over complimentary croissants, biscuits and cups of tea as the rain continued to fall outside. A group of school children from Guildford in Surrey spoke about how they raised money and got 900 petition cards singed through various fundraising activities.

As the government has matched the money raised by CAFOD, the total has far exceeded that raised in previous years and will make a huge difference to the lives of many people struggling to survive without adequate access to safe water and sanitation. CAFOD also received three times as many action cards as originally aimed for! 

60,000 action cards
After applauding the efforts of the campaign team and all those involved with raising money for improved access to clean water, we all grabbed our umbrellas and assembled in front of Westminster Cathedral. Once in position, we were each handed a long ribbon with tear-drop shaped action cards stapled along them. These were strung between us and Dom Goggins, CAFOD’s Government Relations officer, who did well to keep hold of all the ribbons and the 60,000 action cards attached to them.

More blue and green ribbons were strung through the ones we were holding and as the wind blew it created a pleasing wave-like ripple bringing the sea of action cards to life.

Katie and Dom
After cheering ‘THIRST FOR CHANGE’ numerous times and being captured on camera by CAFOD photographers, we rolled the ribbons back up into big plastic bags – ready to be delivered to Downing Street later today.

...All before 9.30, well – it’s one way to start your day J

Friday, 11 May 2012

Viva il Papa! Rome Day 3

Revived by sweet croissants and strong coffee we took our seats at the Papal audience on Wednesday morning with the sun beating down. Groups from every corner of the Earth were gathered around us from Mexican nuns to Anglican school groups from the UK. Having decided on what to shout (it took a surprising amount of discussion to decide on Viva il Papa) we waited to be acknowledged by the priest reading out the names of English speaking groups. When the moment came we did ourselves and the internship proud!

Balloons let off during Papal audience

Seeing the Pope up close as he floated by on a specially converted Jeep was a bit surreal but it also made everything we’d been talking about and all the places we’d visited suddenly seem to make sense. The Pope, as Michaela said, had been this omnipresent being the whole time we’d been in Rome and yet seeing him in person and the adoration shown to him by so many pilgrims made the ‘Vatican’ come alive and feel more than a web of bureaucracy.

After the audience, Mgr Paul Tighe, fresh from a conference on Social Communications in Australia, greeted us at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He told us about the effort involved in dragging the Vatican not only in this century but into this decade, reconciling long encyclicals and sermons with 140 character tweets and facebook status updates. He was clearly dedicated to improving and expanding the way in which the Church communicates and passionate about reaching a wide variety of audience.

Our last meeting of the trip was with Fr David Chatres who is training in the Vatican’s Diplomatic Corps. He is the only English student there and was extremely friendly and interesting to talk to over lunch.

In our review of the trip we all took away different highlights and surprises but what seemed to strike us all the most was the humility and conviction of all those we had met. Important people with much better things to be doing had wiling given up their time to talk to us, respond with thoughtful answers to our questions and encourage us in our internships and future work. 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

“Has anyone got a tranquiliser we can give Daniel?” : Rome Day 2

Our second day began with a meeting at Vatican Radio and the head of the English section – Sean Lovett. We learnt that the Pope and Winnie-the-Pooh have something in common as they both live in an area of 100 acres. Whether the Holy Father realises this or not is unknown... Sean also told us that Radio Vatican broadcasts in 40 different languages and has the biggest budget of all media sections to enable it do so. Translation is obviously a key issue and the English section often takes the lead on stories that are then translated into other languages and broadcast around the world. Sean clearly loves his job and his infectious enthusiasm put us all in a good mood as we stepped out into the sunshine and wondered up the Via della Conciliazinoe toward the Pontifical Press Office to meet with Fr Lombardi.

Lucy, Stephen, Matthew, Michaela, Fr Lombardi, Marie, Dominic, Daniel and Edward

Respectfully known by his last name, Lombardi greeted us in a plush conference room with traditional cinema seating and a huge papal coat-of-arms above a stage at one end of the room. Huge plasma TV screens adorned the otherwise bare walls, reassuring us about the Vatican’s acknowledgement of 21st century technology. Lombardi spoke at length about his role as director of Vatican Radio, Vatican TV and the L'Osservatore Romano – the daily Vatican newspaper. Before meeting with him we had been sceptical about the wisdom of having one man in charge of all three media outlets but after speaking with him we were utterly convinced of his commitment to the cause of communications.

It was then time to visit another previous intern – Danny Howard – now working for the Human Dignity Institute. (With a good number of past interns now in Rome, there may be hope for some of us yet!) Danny told us about his work, lobbying different European parliaments that are in t eh process of proposing or passing legislation which compromises the dignity of human life as viewed by the Catholic Church.

Whether it was the ever increasing heat or the ridiculous amount of seafood based antipasti at lunch, no one is quite sure but the afternoon rapidly descended into surreal chaos as we were shown around the Pontifical University of Science. Nothing could have prepared us for the debacle I will refer to as ‘Terrapin-gate’ though. Almost in slow motion, and as if by providence, we walked past a fountain outside the university just as one of the two terrapins fell into the outer groove of the fountain and became trapped on the grate where the water gushed out into a drain! A large branch, plenty of commotion and one brave Michaela later the terrapin soared though the sky and plopped safely back into the fountain.

The Terrapin
Having calmed ourselves we headed for the most powerful department within the Vatican – the Secretary of State. Mgr Philip Whitmore, who previously served at the Westminster Cathedral, talked us through his responsibilities which include speech-writing for the Pope and replying to correspondence to the Holy Father. Mgr Whitmore then led us down a corridor and out on to a rooftop terrace adjacent to the Papal apartments with the most stunning views over Rome. We were all taken aback but none more so than Daniel.

Interns with Mgr Whitmore on the terrace overlooking St Peter's square
An hour later we found ourselves on another beautiful rooftop terrace, this time with a cool glass of Prosecco in hand, having met with the UK Ambassador to the Holy See. Nigel Baker has been the ambassador since September and works closely with his Deputy Justin Bedford and Ecclesiastical Advisor Mgr Charley Burns, both of whom also met with us at the ambassador’s apartment. All those featured on our itinerary had been invited to dinner which was eaten back downstairs and followed by a great opportunity to chat informally to an eclectic mix of people. 

Interns on Tour: Rome Day 1

Between rescuing Terrapins in the Vatican Gardens and consuming our collective body weights in pizza and ice cream – the interns managed to make it to some pretty fascinating meetings in Rome over the last few days.

Dominic, Lucy, Matthew, Michaela and Stephen in front of Trevi Fountain

Arriving on Friday night, the weekend was spent sight-seeing and sheltering from the rain as the forecasted sunshine and showers prevailed. On Sunday morning we found ourselves surrounded by a great deal of pomp and ceremony at the annual swearing-in of the new Swiss Guards. We quickly combated this cultural expereince with a healthy dose of English premiership football in an ‘Irish Pub’ just off Piazza Navona as the downpour continued outside.

Our official itinerary kicked off on Monday morning with a visit to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith – previously know, amongst other things, as the Spanish Inquisition. The job of the CDF is to identify heresy, and act on it. This is a lengthy and heavily bureaucratic process revolving around meetings and letter writing. Mgr Patrick Burke gave us a detailed history of how the Congregation came to be in its present form and showed us some 15th century manuscripts of investigations, in the small library that remains in the CDF today, the rest of the collection being housed in the ‘Secret Library’ or the archive under the CDF. We all appreciated Mgr Patrick’s frankness about the most sensitive and challenging issues facing the Church today and were impressed with his directness and unswerving belief in the importance of consistency and truth.

In the Cardinal's Room at the CDF

From the CDF we jumped in taxis and headed to the English College where English seminarians are training in Rome.  Two previous interns, Peter Stoddart and Luke DePulford are currently students there and sat in on our meeting with Associated Press journalist Nicole Winfeld. Nicole is the Vatican correspondent for one of the major global news wires, from where most other news stations get their information. She has been in Rome for 10 years but it neither she nor the Vatican have endeared themselves to one another.

After this particularly disheartening meeting, we were given a tour of the English College by Fr John Paul who is the Pastoral Director there. He then celebrated Mass for us in the larger of the College’s two stunning chapels.

Chapel in the English College

In the afternoon we visited the HQ of Caritas Internationalis. Michel Roy, the Secretary General, spoke to us about his role and the pros and cons of working for a faith organisation in the world of international aid and development.

The first day had been a long one and we were all more than ready for dinner that evening, at which Peter and Luke joined us again to tell us about their experience of Seminary life and of their time as Catholic Parliamentary Interns.

(Photos/ footage to come!)