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Sea Sunday: Cruise Chaplains

July 12 is Sea Sunday, when the Church asks us to pray for seafarers and support the work of Apostleship of the Sea, whose chaplains and ship visitors provide practical and pastoral help in ports around Britain.

Being a chaplain on a cruise ship might sound a cushy number. You can spend your days sitting in the sunshine by the swimming pool on deck, eating in restaurants, and going to a show in the evening.

But the reality is very different, as Apostleship of the Sea (AoS) cruise chaplains will tell you. And this month [July], the Church celebrates Sea Sunday, when we are asked to pray for seafarers and support the work of AoS.

At one time, cruise ships were synonymous with luxury and associated with royalty, Hollywood stars, and the super rich. This was captured in the 1997 blockbuster movie Titanic, about the sinking of the world’s biggest ship in 1912.

But nowadays many people of more modest means are opting to take a holiday on a cruise ship. According to Cruise Lines International Association, a record 23 million passengers are expected to cruise during 2015, a 4% increase on 2014. There are now nearly 1,000 cruise ports around the world. The Caribbean is the most popular destination followed by the Mediterranean.

Last year cruise company Carnival asked for a team of ten AoS cruise chaplains to work on their ships over the Christmas and New Year period. Their presence on board is recognition by Carnival of the important role chaplains play with both passengers and the crew.

Father Alan Griffin, a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in London, made his first cruise as an AoS chaplain on board the Queen Mary 2 from Southampton to the North Cape.

‘All aspects of parish life can be found at sea – the regular round of Masses and other sacraments: marriages performed by the captain, occasional deaths, sickness, pastoral emergencies and opportunities, anniversaries and celebrations,’ he said.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe added that he had a real sense of being the ship’s chaplain, with a ministry to the whole community aboard. ‘The patterned nature of life aboard a ship makes it seem much more like a ‘religious community’ than a parish at home.’

‘A cruise chaplain needs to make himself visible on the decks and he also needs to be available,’ he explained. ‘One is ‘‘on show’’ every waking hour and likely to be approached by passengers as a ‘‘friendly face’’. I think it is wonderful for non-Catholic Christians to meet and interact socially with a Catholic priest, often for the first time. This can lead to good pastoral contacts and also to some very slight irritations (‘More tea Vicar?’ palls after a time!).’

Cruise ships have rightly been likened to small towns. The larger ones may carry up to 4,000 passengers and have a crew of a 1,000. On many cruise ships you’ll find everything from shops and bars to spas and nightclubs. And you can eat in numerous restaurants, some bearing the name of TV chefs such as Marco Pierre White or Saturday Morning Kitchen presenter James Martin.

‘The passengers are mostly retired people, many of them travelling alone. But there are also lots of families with children. There is something for everybody on a cruise and I can see why so many get bitten by the cruise bug. And yes I’ve got it too, even though for me it was work and at times very demanding,’ said Father Angelo Phillips, who describes himself as an active retired priest, helping out in parishes in the diocese of Leeds and on the Isle of Wight, where his sister lives.

His first cruise was around the Caribbean at Christmas 2010. Following a briefing from AoS, he flew out to Barbados, where he boarded the Ventura, one of P & O’s largest ships.

A cruise chaplain – classified as an ‘entertainer’ by shipping companies – is there primarily for the crew, not the passengers. Many of the crew on cruise ships are Catholic, often from the Philippines and India, and they are away at sea for long periods.

‘The crew miss their families a lot. They can receive low pay and rely on tips to make up their wages. They save most of what they earn to send back home,’ said Father Angelo.

UnknownOne time, when a young Goan member of the crew heard that his father had died of a heart attack, Father Angelo said Mass for him and several of his friends attended. It’s small gestures like this, chaplains say, that makes their work on a cruise ship valuable. And if a cruise chaplain is concerned about anyone on board, he will often inform the AoS chaplain in the next port, so he can visit and offer help.

Entertainment is a big part of a cruise and Father Angelo has enjoyed meeting a number of famous faces, including comedian Tom O’Connor, Rabbi Lionel Blue and Ray Lewis, the former lead singer with The Drifters.
However, he has also witnessed another side to being on a cruise ship: coping with the unpredictable sea. When he served on the Oceana from Southampton to the Canary Islands, he got a taste of just how unpredictable and dangerous it can be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘We sailed away to the delightful voices of a local school choir singing carols and a band playing festive music on the quayside. But within a few hours we were caught up in a fierce storm as we headed through the English Channel towards the Bay of Biscay. Thirty feet waves tried to tear up the deck. The storm lasted for 48 hours. This was truly the cruel sea in action. This beautiful huge ship was bobbing in the ocean like a toy boat in a bath tub.’ He said, ‘Being a chaplain on a cruise ship is all about being present, just being seen around the ship. As the captain of the Ventura said to me,’ Father, just having you present on the ship gives us all reassurance that we have God’s blessing as we cruise from country to country.’

Father Gerard Fieldhouse Byrne, director of St Luke’s Centre in Manchester, which provides therapy for clergy and religious, made his fourth cruise as an AoS chaplain last Christmas.

‘Before I started as a chaplain I was told how important faith and having the sacraments is to the crew members, most of whom come from India and the Philippines. I was somewhat sceptical given what I knew of the busy workload for the men and women working on cruise ships,’ he said.

‘I have to say that I have never met such Gospel greedy people in any other aspect of my 18 years of pastoral ministry. Most of the men and women working on the cruises I have served on have been Roman Catholic and it is clear that this is more than just a cultural identity – they want to practice their faith and it clearly supports them during the long months away from home.

‘All this means that when they have a priest on board they truly welcome him as a spiritual father. I have felt so affirmed as a priest doing this specialised chaplaincy work that I am choosing to go back this Christmas because having a priest and the sacraments is so important in the lives of the crew that I cannot turn my back on it.’

Unknown-1Shift work can make it difficult for some of the crew to attend Mass. Chaplains often celebrate Mass in the crew mess late, down in the bowels of a ship, at night, after their evening shift ended. Even then, however, some of the crew are still on duty in the casino, bars and dance venues till the early hours of the morning.

Father Gerard added that despite the holiday atmosphere on board cruise ships, he has dealt with difficult pastoral situations.

‘I have had some of the most meaningful and significant pastoral encounters of my priestly life as an AoS chaplain. It is pastorally challenging given the complex and diverse context of passengers, entertainment crew, officers, and general crew members.

‘AoS chaplains are always mindful that we are there to serve all on the ship – regardless of creed. Personally I love this part of the ministry. It keeps me on my toes and makes me think about my ministry in new and challenging ways.’

For more information please visit:

Written by Greg Watts


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How One Man and His Shed Fed a Million Hungry Children

A few years ago a fish farmer called Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow started a charity from his garden shed in a remote corner of Scotland. Today, as he explains, it is making a huge difference to countless communities thousands of miles away.

Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow outside the ageing shed in the village of Dalmally, Argyll, where it all began.

Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow outside the ageing shed in the village of Dalmally, Argyll, where it all began.

I am writing this in my father’s shed. An east wind is blowing from behind Ben Lui, whose snow-powdered flanks I can see through the window above my desk. Some of the cold air buffeting and moaning around my corrugated-iron shelter has found a way in. There is a draught gnawing my feet. I can hear someone using a power saw in the distance, perhaps my brother in law, and every so often a tractor chugs down the track towards the farm.

We moved to live here, in Dalmally on the west coast of Scotland, in 1977, and the shed was already here and had been here a long time. Initially it served as Dad’s garage and workshop. Later it became a playroom, and one Christmas my parents opened its doors to reveal a magnificent pool table. Later, the shed became the venue for teenage parties; sometimes, beer would be smuggled in.


Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Later, after we had left home and my parents’ house, Craig Lodge, had become a retreat centre, the shed became a little ‘rosary factory’, where members of a resident youth community made prayer beads of various styles and colours. Then, in 1992, I asked Dad if I could borrow this shed to store donations of aid that were arriving in response to a little appeal we were making for the refugees in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Of course he didn’t hesitate in saying yes. Indeed, he and Mum were doing most of the work involved in collecting and preparing the aid. Even if he had known then that he would never get his shed back, I know he would still have agreed.

 Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Eventually, after serving for some years as a storage space for parcels of clothes, food, toiletries and medical equipment, the shed became our office, first for me as the sole employee of the charity, before I was joined by my sister Ruth and eventually a team of five. At this stage it was so cramped that some, without desks, worked with laptops on their knees. And so at this point we had an amazing purpose-built timber office constructed; it is a thing of beauty and extremely practical too. But when the time came to move into the bright new office, I chose to stay here, in the old shed. This was a good decision. To some it may seem odd, perhaps even stupid, to retain the HQ of a global organisation in this lopsided and tired-looking shed, in a very remote part of Scotland. But being here helps remind me how and why we began this work. Besides, I know some people, living in poverty, who would be deeply grateful to have a house as large and secure as this for their family to live in.

Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Indeed, among the collection of photographs and notes stuck to the wall above my desk is one of a family who lived in a house as small and more sparsely furnished than this. My meeting with them in 2002 during a terrible famine in Malawi, ten years after we had driven that first little collection of aid to Bosnia-Herzegovina, changed my life – and thousands of others – forever.

In the picture six young children are sitting beside their dying mother. She is lying on a straw mat. I remember it being unpleasantly hot inside their mud-brick house. My shirt was drenched and even though I stooped, my head rubbed their low ceiling. I felt awkward; like an oversized intruder in their tiny home at the most intimate of family moments. But they had welcomed me in warmly and so I squatted down beside them to talk. My eyes, with the help of some light that was seeping in through a small glassless window, had adjusted to the deep gloom inside the tiny space and I could see that Emma, the mother, was wrapped in an old grey blanket and was wringing her hands continuously as she spoke to us.

Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

Picture Copyright Chris Watt 07887 554 193

‘There is nothing left now except to pray that someone looks after my children when I am gone,’ she whispered. Her husband had died a year previously, killed by AIDS, the same disease that was now about to steal her from her children. Beside her was Edward, the oldest of the children; he sat straight-backed, as if wanting to appear taller than he actually was. He told me he was 14 years old and explained that he spent most of his time helping his mother in their fields or in the house. Maybe I was just desperately grasping for a chink through which something brighter might steal into our depressing conversation, when I asked him what his hopes and ambitions were. I was certainly not looking for an answer that would change my life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others.

‘I would like to have enough food to eat and I would like to be able to go to school one day,’ he replied solemnly, after a moment’s thought.

When our conversation had finished, and the children followed us out in to the scorching Malawain sunlight, those simple words, spoken like a teenager’s daring dream, had already become inscribed in my heart. A cry, a scandal, a confirmation of an idea that had already begun to form, a call to action that could not be ignored; his words would become many things for me. The horrible family tragedy unfolding in that dark hut had synthesized a multitude of sufferings and intractable problems with which I had become closely acquainted during the previous ten years. And his words authenticated an inspiration recently shared with me; they were the spark that ignited the already smoldering notion that became Mary’s Meals.

Today on the shed wall behind me, a poster, headed boldly, proclaims our vision statement:

That every child receives one daily meal in their place of education, and that all those who have more than they need share with those who lack even the most basic things.

With every passing week, in the years since my encounter with Edward, that vision has grown ever brighter and the belief it can be realised proclaimed more confidently. We have seen repeatedly that the provision of a daily school meal really can transform the lives of the poorest children by meeting their immediate need for food, while also enabling them to enter the classroom and gain the education that can be their escape from poverty. And the number of those daily meals served by local volunteers to hungry impoverished children in schools around the world has grown in an extraordinary manner. Today over a million children in more than 1200 schools across four continents eat Mary’s Meals each school day.

Today there are new pictures on the wall of my shed, drawn by some of those children. The extraordinary ways in which all this has grown and developed have continually surprised me and filled me with a sense of mystery and awe. It would not be true, though, to say I never expected our work to grow so big. I have long felt that the vision of Mary’s Meals is so compelling, and people of good will so numerous, that it must be fulfilled. That is why we are celebrating this landmark as ‘The First Million’. The fact that there remain many more millions without daily meals, and that thousands die each day because of hunger, is a scandal that screams this mission of ours has only just begun.


817YkcfYQVLThe Shed That Fed a Million Children by Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow is published by William Collins, £12.99.  For more information on Mary’s Meals and how to support it, see

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How Gregory’s Girl Grew Up

She’s been a movie star, a pop star and now she’s a children’s author. But life has dealt Clare Grogan a few tough blows along the way – and, she tells Liz Smith, she’s come through.

Clare Grogan is a bit of a Renaissance woman. She’s been a film star (Susan in the 1981 cult musical Gregory’s Girl – remember her with John Gordon Sinclair in the lying-down dance scene?), a pop star in Altered Images and now she’s a writer of stories about teenage girls that draw heavily on her own past and her days as a girl at Notre Dame High School in Glasgow, the city in which she was raised.

Notre Dame, she says, has been much in her mind these last few months, as she’s been working on the third book in her trilogy on the life of Tallulah Gosh, a young girl who feels invisible to the world…except for when she’s in her bedroom, pretending to be a world famous pop star. It was all very similar to Clare’s own past. ‘There are those popular girls at school, and then there are the rest who seem to just fade into the background,’ she says. ‘But the funny thing is that those girls sometimes go on to do something more interesting when they grow up. And sometimes the ones who everyone aspires to be, they don’t necessarily do anything all that interesting.’

Gregory-GirlShe isn’t making judgements about anyone else, she says hastily; and she doesn’t need to. Because the fact is that Grogan went on to do some very interesting things in her life, whether or not she was the coolest girl at school. And her school – which was run partly by nuns, and partly by lay teachers – was a nurturing part of her life, and gave her the opportunities that made all the difference to her life later on. ‘I loved the music, the singing, the choir and the drama opportunities,’ she says. ‘School gave me exactly what I needed, and I’ve been very grateful for it.’ And the nuns, in particular, had that drama and spirit around them that sat well with a girl who would go on to a career in showbusiness. ‘I remember one nun, scary Sister Margaret, who used to say when I was talking that if I didn’t keep quiet she’d get out her tongue-shrinking pills. And I wondered if she really did have pills that did that!’ Overall, she says, her memories of the nuns is that they were warm, and characterful, and friendly. ‘I remember once in primary school, sitting on the headmistress’s knee and feeling so comfortable and safe engulfed in all the fabric of her habit,’ she says. ‘I saw a huge amount of kindness in those nuns.’

The nuns must have been as surprised as Clare’s parents and two older sisters when, soon after leaving school and still aged only 18, she was catapulted to stardom in Gregory’s Girl. What was all the more remarkable about it was that she was waitressing in a restaurant in Glasgow at the time: she still remembers the day when one of the customers asked her if she’d be interested in a part in a film he was hoping to make. The customer was film director Bill Forsyth, but the streetwise Grogan took a while to be impressed. ‘I was like, whatever,’ she says. ‘I definitely wasn’t giving him my phone number: I said, if you want me you know where to find me.’

Fortunately for cinema history Forsyth made sure he did find her, and encouraged her to trust him that she’d be great for the movie: but before filming could start, disaster struck when Grogan was hit in the face by a bottle when she became caught up in someone else’s fight. Her cheek was heavily scarred, and Forsyth came under heavy pressure to recast her part – but he refused, although she had to be shot almost entirely in profile so her scars didn’t show.

91QNF+vrYRL._SL1500_   What is strange says Clare, looking back now, is that Tallulah – the character she has recently invented as the protagonist of her book series – already existed back then, as her alter ego. In fact on a clearout of her parents’ home a few years ago she unearthed her original script from Gregory’s Girl – and there on the front was the name she’d given herself, Tallulah. In real life, as in the books, Clare moved on to being a pop star, fronting the band Altered Images which had a string of hits in the early 1980s including Happy Birthday, Don’t Talk to Me About Love, I Could Be Happy and See Those Eyes.

Altered-Images-resize-2And there was personal happiness too: in 1994 she married a member of the band, Stephen Lironi. Today the couple live in north London with their daughter Elle, who is exactly the right sort of age – 11 – to be enjoying her mother’s books. And there is no doubt, says Clare, that Elle was the person who most spurred her on to write them: not only does her daughter keep her in touch with the reality of pre-teen girls, but she also sharpens Clare’s idea of what the message of the books is all about. ‘I want to say to her and other girls like her, just go for it,’ says Clare. ‘Absolutely go for it. Find something you’re passionate about, work really hard and believe in yourself; and you can do anything, anything you want.’

Like all the best writers, she’s practised what she preaches: because despite being such a successful film star and singer, life has brought its fair share of downs as well as ups in Clare’s life. Her Catholic faith, she says, has always been a quiet source of sustenance and comfort, but there were tough times like her mother’s illness and then losing her, and her husband has also been through a period of ill health. But up there with the hardest parts of the journey was her discovery, after a long time of hoping, that she wasn’t ever going to be able to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth. It was, she says candidly, a shattering moment.

But in true Tallulah style she picked herself up, determined to find another way. That was via adoption: Clare and Steve went to various adoption agencies, including Catholic ones, and after a long search they made a mock-up flyer listing exactly what they had to offer as parents. They sent it to every social worker and adoption agency with which they had had dealings, and that led to a phone call from a social worker who said: ‘We’ve got a baby girl here, and we want you to have her.’

Clare was by this stage well versed in the ups and downs of life as a would-be parent, so she was determined not to get her hopes up too much: but the second she saw the baby on the video screen she fell in love with her and knew this was her child. And bringing Elle home, which she was able to do soon afterwards, made her feel everything she had gone through had been worthwhile. ‘If I hadn’t gone through all that, I’d never have had Elle. And she is the right child for us; she’s the baby I was meant to have.’
Today the family’s life is very much centred, as Clare’s own family life in Glasgow was, around her local Catholic parish, and Elle is at the parish primary school. In a couple of years she’ll go on, as her mother did, to a Catholic girls’ secondary. ‘It wasn’t an easy decision, because in a perfect world I think education should be about unity not division – but as soon as I stepped inside our Catholic primary I was impressed, because I know it’s all about looking after each child’s individual needs. And particularly when you have an adopted child, you really want a school that you know is going to cater for them as a whole person.’

p01kfhs9At the moment she’s hard at work on the third novel which she says, deals with life not always going the way you’d expected it to. ‘It’s very important for young people to know that you can have difficult times, but you will get over them. No matter what life has thrown at me, I’ve always been able to find the joy in it again…and that, I hope, is the message of the book.


Clare Grogan’s first two books, Tallulah and the Teenstars and Tallulah on Tour, are available as ebooks on Amazon. Her new book Tallulah in Tears will be published early next year.

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St Philip Neri, Apostle of Joy

All God’s friends are, in a sense, unusual people, but some are, perhaps, more unusual than others. Philip Neri falls easily into this latter category.

FNeriHis long life, which spanned nearly the whole of the sixteenth century, is a beautiful testimony to what can be achieved when a Christian allows the Holy Spirit to take control of his life. It was the age of the Reformation, and Europe was full of people busily and angrily setting the world and the church to rights. Philip was not by desire a reformer, but the Holy Spirit was to sweep him up along with the likes of Ignatius, Cajetan and Teresa and use him to bring about the renewal and reform of the Church from within. At times he longed to be a missionary in the Far East with Francis Xavier, but the Lord made it clear that his field of action was to be the city of Rome itself, which seemed to have forgotten God and become almost as pagan as it once was in the days before Emperor Constantine.

Philip, a Florentine by birth, arrived in Rome in 1535 when he was eighteen years old, and, as Luther before him, he saw the sorry state of the eternal city, degenerate and worldly. But instead of running away in despair, he chose to remain there doing what he could to help restore the faith and reawaken the love of Christ in the hearts of the Roman people. However, Philip knew that before he was to work for the conversion of others, he must begin by converting himself. First, he enrolled at the Roman University where he studied philosophy and theology with the Augustinians. After a few years he sold his books and gave the money to help poor students. He had decided to give himself completely to the Lord. How did he do this? In order to find God in solitude and quiet, Philip would take himself off to the Catacombs of St Sebastian a little way out of the city and would often spend whole nights there in prayer. He did this because he felt that there he could be in closer contact with the early Christians who had themselves taken refuge in the Catacombs in times of persecution. It was in the Catacombs that Philip had the extraordinary experience that was to shape the rest of his life’s work. On the eve of Pentecost 1544, Philip was praying to the Holy Spirit. Suddenly he seemed to see a ball of fire which entered his mouth and went deep into his breast, filling him with an intense heat and an overpowering sense of the love of God which was to remain with him all his life.

53c18e8fb2df19_88014284 copyIt was at this time that Philip’s apostolate took off. He had no intention of becoming a priest, he simply wanted to love God which was to remain with him all his life.

It was at this time that Philip’s apostolate took off. He had no intention of becoming a priest, he simply wanted to love God and do his work as a layman in the world. Each day, he would wander about the city, visiting the wine-bars, banks and warehouses (places no priest would have been welcome), and he would talk about God to the people he met there, and he did this in such a way that no one ever felt patronized or preached at. Then Philip would issue the challenge very gently, ‘Well, my friends, when shall we begin to do good?’ He made people think about their religion and the meaning of the life God had given them. Rather like the Pied Piper, Philip had the ability to attract young people ‘as a magnet draws iron’, it was said. He began with a few enthusiastic disciples, who came each day to his rooms to pray, sing and hear the Word of God, but before long, Philip’s meetings (soon called the Oratory) became so popular that larger premises had to be found to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend.

Ordination and the Oratory

Eventually Philip was forced to agree with his confessor that the Lord was indeed calling him to be a priest. He was ordained in 1551 and went to live with a small community of priests who acted as chaplains at the church of San Girolamo della Carita. From then on the work really began to flourish.
Each morning, Fr Philip would make himself available to anyone who wished to come to him for confession. Then he would celebrate Mass. In the afternoon, the crowds would assemble in the Oratory. Here they would hear readings from the scriptures or from the Father or some other spiritual writers. There would be sermons and discussions, and always prayer and singing to bring the meeting to a close. In all this lay people took a leading part, and it was only after some years that Philip thought it necessary to have some of the members of the community ordained in order to serve the Oratory. This was how the Congregation of the Fathers of the Oratory came to be.

Making Saints

Philip’s aim was to show people the love of God, ‘to make people saints in their own homes’. He wasn’t one for programmes and plans. ‘Let a little love into their hearts and God will do the rest’, he would say. That was the way he worked. ‘Be good, if you can.’ Instead of giving his friends methods or systems of prayer, he would tell them, ‘Be humble and obedient and the Holy Spirit will teach you.’ He always encouraged people to undertake what they could manage, rather than begin enthusiastically and ambitiously and give up discouraged. ‘Not many devotions, but much devotion’, he would caution them. ‘Better to say one Our Father with devotion than a thousand without.’ He taught one woman to pray by helping her to think about the Our Father clause by clause. ‘Just think what it means to have God as your Father.’

As a spiritual director, Philip was always gentle and never bullied his penitents into adopting a line. For example, to the young man whose ambitions were wholly set on success in this world, he merely posed the question: ‘And then…?’ He left the boy to draw the lesson for himself and in fact he later abandoned thoughts of a career and offered himself to Philip’s Congregation. To a young woman who was wearing unsuitably high-heeled shoes he said cheerfully, ‘Take care you don’t fall over!’

Besides prayer and spiritual direction, another essential aspect of Philip’s work was his encouragement of lay involvement in works of charity. Each day he and some of his group would visit the hospitals. This involved much more than sitting beside a sick person’s bed and being sympathetic. In those days, Roman hospitals offered little more than floor space to the sick, so sick visiting would mean really caring for the patients, washing them, taking them clean linen, food and even medicine. Initially, some of Philip’s grander disciples found this work uncongenial and difficult, but they soon overcame their distaste thanks to Philip’s encouragement and guidance.

The keynote of Philip’s life was joy. This was more than simply good humour, it was a profound and infectious joy which welled up from the indwelling of the Spirit in his heart. Moreover, he had the marvellous ability to communicate this joy to others, and would often hold those who felt desolate or unhappy to his breast. The effect was amazing! Such people went away rejoicing. His sense of humour is well known. One day he struck one of his penitents. ‘It’s not you,’ he explained, ‘it’s the devil I’m hitting!’ Often at High Mass, Philip would sit in the church while his hair was cut. Once he even appeared having had half his beard shaved off. Sometimes he would pretend to be drunk, or if important people came hoping to see ‘the Saint’, he would insist on having jokes read to him by one of the Fathers. Why did he do all these odd things? To hide his genuine holiness. The last thing Philip Neri wanted was that anyone should think of him as a saint. But a light set on a hill-top cannot be hidden, and the people of Rome, rich and poor, clerical and lay, recognized the Holy Spirit working in and through this joyful, colourful character. On his death in May 1595 they were able to perceive the great change that had come over their city and their own lives and they put it down largely to the influence of Fr Philip who had shown them the truth about themselves and taught them to love God. He had teased them into not taking themselves too seriously but above all he had loved them enough to make his home with them. Small wonder then that the Romans claimed him as their apostle, to stand alongside Saints Peter and Paul; a huge honour no doubt, but one he richly deserved.

This article was written by Fr Dominic Jacob, who is based at St Aloysius, Oxford.

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Pentecost – Celebrating the Birthday of the Church

On Sunday May 24, Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the great outpouring of the Spirit, the birthday of the Church, if you like. Pope Francis teaches us about the true meaning of this wonderful feast in the Church’s year.

Today we contemplate and re-live in the liturgy the outpouring of the Holy Spirit sent by the risen Christ upon his Church; an event of grace which filled the Upper Room in Jerusalem and then spread throughout the world.

But what happened on that day, so distant from us and yet so close as to touch the very depths of our hearts? Luke gives us the answer in the passage of the Acts of the Apostles which we have heard (2:1-11).

The evangelist brings us back to Jerusalem, to the Upper Room where the apostles were gathered. The first element which draws our attention is the sound which suddenly came from heaven ‘like the rush of a violent wind’, and filled the house; then the ‘tongues as of fire’ which divided and came to rest on each of the apostles. Sound and tongues of fire: these are clear, concrete signs which touch the apostles not only from without but also within: deep in their minds and hearts. As a result, ‘all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit’, who unleashed his irresistible power with amazing consequences: they all ‘began to speak in different languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’.

popefrancis0602_wideA completely unexpected scene opens up before our eyes: a great crowd gathers, astonished because each one heard the apostles speaking in his own language. They all experience something new, something which had never happened before: ‘We hear them, each of us, speaking our own language’. And what is it that they are they speaking about? ‘God’s deeds of power’.

In the light of this passage from Acts, I would like to reflect on three words linked to the working of the Holy Spirit: newness, harmony and mission.

1. Newness always makes us a bit fearful, because we feel more secure if we have everything under control, if we are the ones who build, programme and plan our lives in accordance with our own ideas, our own comfort, our own preferences.

This is also the case when it comes to God. Often we follow him, we accept him, but only up to a certain point. It is hard to abandon ourselves to him with complete trust, allowing the Holy Spirit to be the soul and guide of our lives in our every decision. We fear that God may force us to strike out on new paths and leave behind our all too narrow, closed and selfish horizons in order to become open to his own.

Pentecost20Yet throughout the history of salvation, whenever God reveals himself, he brings newness and change, and demands our complete trust: Noah, mocked by all, builds an ark and is saved; Abram leaves his land with only a promise in hand; Moses stands up to the might of Pharaoh and leads his people to freedom; the apostles, huddled fearfully in the Upper Room, go forth with courage to proclaim the Gospel. This is not a question of novelty for novelty’s sake, the search for something new to relieve our boredom, as is so often the case in our own day. The newness which God brings into our life is something that actually brings fulfilment, that gives true joy, true serenity, because God loves us and desires only our good.

Let us ask ourselves: Are we open to ‘God’s surprises’? Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit? Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness sets before us, or do we resist, barricaded in transient structures which have lost their capacity for openness to what is new?

2. A second thought: the Holy Spirit would appear to create disorder in the Church, since he brings the diversity of charisms and gifts; yet all this, by his working, is a great source of wealth, for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of unity, which does not mean uniformity, but which leads everything back to harmony.

In the Church, it is the Holy Spirit who creates harmony. One of the Fathers of the Church has an expression which I love: the Holy Spirit himself is harmony – ‘Ipse harmonia est’. Only the Spirit can awaken diversity, plurality and multiplicity, while at the same time building unity. Here too, when we are the ones who try to create diversity and close ourselves up in what makes us different and other, we bring division. When we are the ones who want to build unity in accordance with our human plans, we end up creating uniformity, standardization. But if instead we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit, richness, variety and diversity never become a source of conflict, because he impels us to experience variety within the communion of the Church.

Journeying together in the Church, under the guidance of her pastors who possess a special charism and ministry, is a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit. Having a sense of the Church is something fundamental for every Christian, every community and every movement. It is the Church which brings Christ to me, and me to Christ; parallel journeys are dangerous! When we venture beyond (proagon) the Church’s teaching and community, and do not remain in them, we are not one with the God of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Jn 9).

So let us ask ourselves: Am I open to the harmony of the Holy Spirit, overcoming every form of exclusivity? Do I let myself be guided by him, living in the Church and with the Church?

3. A final point. The older theologians used to say that the soul is a kind of sailboat, the Holy Spirit is the wind which fills its sails and drives it forward, and the gusts of wind are the gifts of the Spirit. Lacking his impulse and his grace, we do not go forward. The Holy Spirit draws us into the mystery of the living God and saves us from the threat of a Church which is gnostic and self-referential, closed in on herself; he impels us to open the doors and go forth to proclaim and bear witness to the good news of the Gospel, to communicate the joy of faith, the encounter with Christ. The Holy Spirit is the soul of mission. The events that took place in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago are not something far removed from us; they are events which affect us and become a lived experience in each of us. The Pentecost of the Upper Room in Jerusalem is the beginning, a beginning which endures. The Holy Spirit is the supreme gift of the risen Christ to his apostles, yet he wants that gift to reach everyone. As we heard in the Gospel, Jesus says: ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to remain with you forever’ (Jn 14:16). It is the Paraclete Spirit, the ‘Comforter’, who grants us the courage to take to the streets of the world, bringing the Gospel! The Holy Spirit makes us look to the horizon and drive us to the very outskirts of existence in order to proclaim life in Jesus Christ. Let us ask ourselves: do we tend to stay closed in on ourselves, on our group, or do we let the Holy Spirit open us to mission?

pentecostToday’s liturgy is a great prayer which the Church, in union with Jesus, raises up to the Father, asking him to renew the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. May each of us, and every group and movement, in the harmony of the Church, cry out to the Father and implore this gift. Today too, as at her origins, the Church, in union with Mary, cries out:’Veni, Sancte Spiritus! Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love!’ Amen.

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A Cathedral For Our Time

Most of the great churches we visit were completed generations ago. But the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is a cathedral-in-progress, a new basilica for a new age. Joanna Moorhead went to visit.

It’s a sunny weekend in early spring, and I’ve just flown across Europe to visit a building site. But I’m in good company: in 2010 Pope Benedict did the same thing. He was charmed by what he saw amidst the blocks of stone and cement mixers, and I’m expecting to be charmed too. Because this is Antoni Gaudi’s magnificent Sagrada Familia, the continent’s most significant religious work-in-progress.

The first stone was laid here in 1882, and back then the surroundings were green fields and country lanes. In one of the earliest photographs taken here there’s a flock of sheep and goats passing by as the workers are laying their bricks. Today it’s very different: the great Mediterranean city of Barcelona has lapped its way to the cathedral door and beyond, and Gaudi’s masterpiece is very much caught up in the hustle and bustle of the city.
It is a masterpiece: there’s no doubt about that, more of which later. But what is most striking about visiting the Sagrada Familia for the first time is the realisation that this really is still a work in creation: you see the cranes stretching up into the deep blue sky above it long before you reach its breathtaking, almost molten, complicated façade. After all, in the cathedral-building timeline 133 years isn’t much of an age. Most cathedrals in the world – think Canterbury, Rennes, St Peter’s – took centuries to complete. Milan’s Duomo, begun in 1386, was finally finished in 1965. How often have you looked round a cathedral and read, in the guide book, that it was built across a couple of centuries? And this is how it is in Barcelona, right now, at the Sagrada Familia. We’re witnessing not the end of a story, but somewhere still before the beginning. And that’s awe-inspiring.
And what’s particularly awe-inspiring it is that Gaudi knew it would be like this. The Sagrada Familia is, more than anything, a tribute to his faith: but it was his faith in human beings, as well as his devout faith in Jesus Christ. Gaudi was raised in Reus in Catalonia, the youngest of five children born to the town’s coppersmith and his wife. After school, he moved to Barcelona with his brother Francesc in 1869; but a few years later his life was shattered by the deaths of both Francesc and their mother. The young Gaudi sought refuge in his architectural studies, having recently graduated after taking an architecture degree: his first project was for the lampposts on a square in the city centre in Barcelona, but soon he was moving on to grander projects, many of them inspired by his deep and devout Catholic faith: chapels, a college, the crypt of a church.
But then in 1883 came an extraordinary opportunity. The previous year, the first stone of a new cathedral had been laid: the Basilica of the Holy Family, or Sagrada Familia. Its original architect, though, had resigned from the project, and now it was offered to the young Gaudi. It was clear to him from the start that this was his lifetime’s work and, moreover, that it was not a work that could possibly be finished within his lifetime. His task, he knew, was to build as much of it as possible, but to give as much of a steer as he could to the architects and designers who would take the project over when he eventually had to hand it on.

Gaudi completely changed the plans for the cathedral, and he worked hard on it – despite, at the same time, revolutionising the architecture of the whole of Barcelona. Walk around the city today and it is dotted with a whole series of extraordinary buildings that owe their existence to Gaudi: the Casa Mila apartment building, whose roof is dotted with chess-like pieces of sculpture, and which hasn’t got a single straight wall in its entire construction; and Casa Batllo, another extraordinary undulating building which is especially striking floodlit, by night. Outside the city centre, meanwhile, he was working on the Park Guell, which was a kind of new vision for a town within a town, and is dotted with little invocations to the Virgin Mary. Gaudi lived at Park Guell, and his former home there is now a museum which tells the story of how his life was dominated by prayer and fasting, almost monk-like.

Gaudi’s other work is profound and it changed the way Barcelona was regarded by the rest of the world: he was the leading figure of a new art movement, Modernisme. But from 1915 he decided to put all his energies into just one project: the Sagrada Familia. He moved out of the Park Guell to the cathedral itself, living on his building site so that he could give all his time to his work there.

The logical thing might have been to have built the lower parts of the cathedral and to leave the upper elements to the generation who would come after him: but that wasn’t Gaudi’s way. He decided to complete one entire front, from the three that would eventually be finished, Sagrada Familia. The Nativity façade, which was the section he concentrated on, has doorways which represent Faith, Hope and Charity, and scenes from Christ’s birth and childhood are ranged around them, embellished with detail and symbolism.
La Sagrada Família
For the rest of the cathedral – the other two facades were to be dedicated to Christ’s passion, and to his glory – Gaudi left detailed plans, taking into account that the architects and builders of the future would have new tools not available to him, and would also want to incorporate their own ideas. His ambition was to have at least the nativity façade finished by his death: but fate intervened. In 1926, on his daily walk to a nearby church for Mass, he was hit by a tram; several cab drivers, believing him to be a vagrant who wouldn’t be able to pay his fare, refused to take him to hospital. Eventually he was taken there, but he died a few days later. The streets of Barcelona were lined with people for his funeral procession, and he was buried where he had lived, in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia.

In the years that followed, the faith Gaudi had that his cathedral would be finished was to be severely tested. A few years after his death Spain was torn by civil war, and part of the basilica and Gaudi’s workshop and plans were destroyed by Catalan anarchists. For a while the project was put on hold: it was also unclear whether there would ever be enough money to finish it. But, as Gaudi once apparently said, his client was in no hurry: and the project, always funded by public donations, eventually became popular again. The Barcelona Olympics in 1992 helped put it back on the map and raised a lot more funding for it, and the team of architects and builders who work on the basilica today do so with the aid of the most up-to-date computer-generated technology. Gaudi’s belief has paid off, and the current aim is to complete it by 2026, the 100th anniversary of his death.

Visit it today and it’s almost impossible not to be moved by its drama, its intensity and – perhaps most of all – by its sheer audacity. Gaudi was inspired by nature, and standing in the nave feels almost like being in a clearing in the middle of a deep forest, surrounded by the tallest of concrete trees – the cathedral’s columns, which rise and branch off at the top to form the arched canopy of the ceiling above. The nave is dominated by the stained glass of the windows: warm reds and yellows on one side, cool greens, blues and turquoises on the other. The choir loft is perhaps the most imaginative of any church in the world: it’s a simple balcony, ranged around the entire perimeter wall: a kind of human surround sound. Everything about the building suggests breath and life, a tribute to the spirituality, in the widest possible sense, of humanity.
Back outside, one of the most striking features of the ornate building is the sight of fruits and vegetables atop the spires: this was Gaudi’s way of giving thanks for the basics of life. His vision, which once must have seemed so unlikely, is now a hair’s breadth from coming to fruition. Pope Benedict, on his visit here in 2010, consecrated the altar: it’s almost certain that whoever is Pontiff in 11 years’ time will follow in his footsteps, and say the inaugural Mass when the cathedral is finally complete. Gaudi, meanwhile, is being talked of as a possible saint: perhaps one day his beatification will take place in this very building he devoted his life to, and bequeathed as his gift to generations to come.


Toni Mascolo
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A Hair’s Breadth From God

The man behind the hugely successful Toni & Guy’s talks to Liz Smith about faith, family, and his rags-to-riches story.

Visit Toni Mascolo at his home in leafy Surrey, and you could easily be forgiven for imagining you’d taken the wrong turning and pitched up at the convent next door. Off to one side of the sweeping driveway sits a life-sized Lourdes grotto, and in the grand hallway with its sweeping staircase there’s a huge statue of Christ in an alcove. In the rolling back garden, meanwhile, there’s a chapel, complete with stained glass and a mausoleum.

But this definitely isn’t the convent. It’s the home Toni, who’s 72, shares with his wife Pauline, 68. They’re both stalwarts of the local parish church, where Pauline sings in the choir, and in March 2013 they received one of the church’s highest honours, a Papal knighthood from Pope Benedict XVI.

Chances are you’ll never have heard of Toni Mascolo. But you’ll definitely have heard of the eponymous business he founded back in the sixties with his brother Guy – and indeed, you’re quite likely to have been a customer of his at some point. There are more than 230 Toni & Guy salons across Britain, and another 175 worldwide; according to Toni’s autobiography, out this spring, the company turns over £175 million annually.

No-one could possibly have imagined, back in the 1950s when an Italian barber called Franco Mascolo decided to move his family to the UK from just outside Naples, that this would be the backstory to a hairdressing empire. Franco and his wife Maria had four sons – a fifth arrived after they moved to London – and the eldest, a boy called Giuseppe, would often help out in the shop. They settled in Islington, conveniently close to the Italian Catholic Church which was at the heart of their community, and Franco worked at a hairdresser’s in Knightsbridge.
05 Mascolo family Clapham
When the young Giuseppe left school and needed a job, hairdressing was the obvious occupation – and he showed a lot of talent, just as he had at school where he was especially talented at maths. The family was by now ensconced in a warm and happy home in Clapham: but in December 1962 tragedy struck when Maria Mascolo died. The loss of his mother hit the young Giuseppe – now renamed Toni by a fellow hairdresser who said it was a better name for the job – very hard. His mother was the heart and soul of the home, and the youngest of the brothers, Anthony, was only five years old.
10 cutting hair age#301082B
Work became the refuge for Toni and his brothers in the months and years after their mother’s death, and the following year he and his brother Gaetano opened their first salon together. Life at the salon, as at home, was tough without Maria holding it all together: but there was a young trainee hairdresser in the salon, Pauline, who was clearly drawn to the motherless family and did all she could to support them, even cooking for them and helping with the younger boys at home. ‘There was only one problem,’ says Toni. ‘She was going out with my brother, Guy.’

The salon, though, was going from strength to strength: the Mascolos were clearly very talented at business, as well as at hairdressing, and in 1965 the brothers hit on an idea that was to help propel Toni and Guy to its huge success. They opened a new salon in Streatham, and this time it was for men as well as women, a revolutionary idea at the time. ‘It was at a time when everyone was becoming increasingly fashion-conscious and aware of their appearance and obviously there were lots of men who hankered after something more than the old short back and sides,’ says Toni in his book. ‘I think we were the first unisex hairdressing salon in the world.’

Pauline, meanwhile, had been to live in Italy for a while; and when she returned, Toni felt he could no longer ignore the fact that he was in love with her (the relationship with Guy had never been especially serious). He proposed, she said yes: and then came a problem. ‘We went to the priest at the Italian church, and he said I can’t marry you here because your fiancée isn’t a proper Catholic! And I said of course she is, she’s more Catholic than I am. What he meant was that she wasn’t an Italian Catholic, because Pauline’s family are Irish and British,’ says Toni. ‘Anyway, we found another priest who said he would marry us at Southwark Cathedral, and we had a wonderful wedding there, in August 1970.’

Over the years that followed Pauline raised the couple’s three children – as well as, when they were older, running a salon – and Toni forged ahead with the business, which was now hitting the big time: the Mascolo brothers were becoming known as ‘the Beatles of hairdressing’, and they were starting to expand their business interests abroad and had set up a hairdressing academy. The 1980s were a time of huge expansion, and today Toni and Guy is one of the most successful hairdressing businesses in the world, known across the globe and with many famous clients as well as countless ‘ordinary’ ones.

13 modern T&G salon

For Toni, though, business has never been the most important thing. ‘Family always comes before business,’ he says. ‘It was my love for my family that led to me setting up the business in the first place, because I had to help support my younger brothers.’ A few years ago he had a stroke, from which he is now completely recovered; but retirement, he says, isn’t even on the cards. For him and Pauline, life revolves around their children and six grandchildren, and around the bigger hairdressing family they have created across the world; sadly Gaetano died a few years ago at the age of just 65, a terrible blow.

Their faith, says Pauline, has always been at the root of everything they’ve done: which is why, when they built their house in Surrey, they decided to build a chapel in the grounds. When they have a priest staying, they have mass there: that, says Pauline, is always a lovely occasion. The house itself, designed by Pauline, was based on Gone With The Wind, her favourite film: she remembers seeing it for the first time and thinking how much she’d like to live in a house like it. ‘But I never thought I would,’ she tells me. ‘I’d have been happy with a three bedroom house provided I was with Toni and my family; I never expected us to live anywhere like this.’

20 with Pope Benedi#3010818

With its marble floors and leather sofas, the house is in some ways more reminiscent of Italy than Surrey: and it has a fully-equipped hairdressing salon where Pauline has often, through the years, cut the hair of the sisters at the nearby convent who are among her closest friends. She and Toni are both closely involved with the work of the Toni and Guy Charitable Foundation which supports, among many other projects including a children’s ward at King’s College Hospital in London, a hostel and apartments for needy people in a church-run project in southern Italy.

But proud as he is of his great success and wealth, Toni says he’s never been afraid of losing all he’s got. ‘Give me a glass of red wine and a bowl of pasta, and I think: what else do you need in the world?’ he says. He still cuts hair, on a Saturday in one of his central London salons: you can’t lose touch, he believes, with the bedrock of your business. His big ambition, meanwhile, is to meet Pope Francis. ‘He’s a real saint, and I admire him very much,’ he says.

Toni: My Story by Toni Mascolo with Stafford Hildred is available from Alive Publishing for £17.99. Call us on +44 (0)1782 745600

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Catherine of Siena The Peacemaker

Pope John Paul II declared the remarkable Catherine of Siena one of the patron saints of Europe. In the light of her feast day on 29 April, Hazel Sillver looks at the life of this formidable Italian lady.

By the time Lapa Piagenti, the daughter of a Sienese poet, was forty years old, she had already given birth to twenty-two children! Being born in the plague-ridden Italian city of Siena in Tuscany, it is no surprise that only half of them had survived. Lapa somehow found the energy to give birth to two more: twin girls, who entered the world prematurely on 25 March 1347. Sadly one of the babies, Giovanna, died very quickly, but her sister, Catherine, survived.

Being such a merry child, the family named the young Catherine ‘Euphrosyne’, which is Greek for ‘joy’ and the name of a Saint. As a very young girl, she was able to see Angels as clearly as she could see people. And at the age of just six, she had a vision of Christ, whilst walking through the streets of Siena with one of her brothers. He was seated with some of His Apostles (including John, Peter and Paul), and radiant with Glory. She began talking to God by going to quiet places to pray and, at the age of seven, vowed to give her whole life to God.

When Catherine reached a suitable age to marry, her parents’ wished that she wed the widower of her older sister Bonaventura, who had recently died in childbirth. Showing early signs of her now famous formidable nature, Catherine refused and protested by fasting and cutting off her long hair. Years later, she would tell her confessor Raymond of Capua, that she got through the stress of losing her sister and being pressured to marry, by leaning upon Christ. ‘Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee,’ she told him. This cell was a visual inner world, in which her Father (a cloth dyer called Giacomo) became Christ, her Mother Lapa became the Madonna and her brothers became the Apostles.

After having a vision of St Dominic at the age of sixteen, Catherine longed to join his Order. Her parents were not keen, until soon afterwards she fell ill with fever. Her Mother Lapa went to the Order of St Dominic and asked them to accept her daughter. Despite protest from the Order’s tertiaries (who were not happy because up until then those admitted had always been widows), the Order’s friars accepted Catherine. Within days, her illness vanished.

Giovanni_di_Paolo_The_Mystic_Marriage_of_Saint_Catherine_of_Siena,As a Third Order tertiary, she lived in the family home, rather than in a convent. She wore a habit and for a period of three years, lived almost as a solitary, rarely leaving her room (where she was at prayer) and only leaving the house to go to Mass and (to her family’s dismay) to give clothing and food to the poor.

At the age of twenty-one, Catherine had a remarkable vision of Christ, within which she was wed to him in what she described as a ‘Mystical Marriage’. The Virgin Mary took her hand and gave it to Jesus, who placed a ring upon it and then told her to leave her reclusive life and head out into the world.

Catherine began carrying out acts of charity for the poor and the sick, around Siena, and soon drew followers, who reported how charming, peaceful and wise she was. Not long after this, she had yet another intense mystical vision, in which she voyaged through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, and was told to venture out further into the world. She began being more outspoken, even political, and journeyed around northern Italy preaching a ‘total love for God.’

Whilst in Pisa in 1375, Catherine received the Stigmata in the form of five wounds (upon her hands, feet and chest), which she hid from view.

It is no surprise that this remarkable woman soon had a huge influence over public opinion. By preaching and writing letters, she tirelessly worked to make peace between the quarrelling Italian states. In 1376, she even journeyed to Avignon, France, where she famously told off Pope Gregory XI for hiding overseas and persuaded him to return to his seat in Rome. She also travelled to warring places, for example putting herself in physical danger amidst riots in Florence; but her presence had influence and peace was declared between Florence and Rome in 1378.

She continued to hold favour with the Papacy and in 1378 went to live in Rome, at the instruction of Pope Urban VI. During the later years of her life, she wrote spiritual works, which are now considered some of the greatest early pieces of Tuscan literature. Her letters and prayers are much admired, but her key work is The Dialogue of Divine Providence, which she is said to have dictated during deep contemplative prayer, over the course of a year. It takes the form of a conversation between a devout soul and God. Here God describes the soul: ‘The soul cannot live without love. She always wants to love something because love is the stuff she is made of, and through love I created her.’

Probably because of her obsessive fasting, Catherine died very young, suffering a stroke in 1380 at the age of just thirty-three. Some decades later, she was canonized and has since become one of the world’s most beloved saints.

There are many miracles and legends surrounding the incredible St Catherine. Perhaps the most iconic is the tale of the Tuscan people secreting her head out of Rome for burial in Siena. When Roman guards opened the bag containing her head, they found it filled with nothing but rose petals, but upon arrival in Siena, it once again contained her head! For this reason, roses are sacred to St Catherine.


The words of St Catherine

‘The soul is in God and God in the soul, just as the fish is in the sea and the sea in the fish.’

‘The soul, as soon as she comes to know (God), reaches out to love her neighbours.’

‘It is only through shadows that one comes to know the light.’

‘Proclaim the truth – do not be silent through fear.’

‘You, eternal Trinity, are a deep sea. The more I enter you, the more I discover, and the more I discover, the more I seek you.’

‘There is nothing we can desire or want that we do not find in God.’


St Catherine of Siena Timeline
1347 – Born on 25 March in Siena, Italy
1353 – Has a vision of Christ with His Apostles
1354 – Dedicates her life to God
1362 – Defiantly fasts and cuts off her hair in refusal of marriage
1363 – Joins the Third Order of St Dominic
1368 – Has a vision of being wed to Christ
1375 – Receives the Stigmata upon her hands, feet and chest
1376 – Persuades the Papacy to return to Rome
1377 – Founds a women’s monastery and learns to write
1378 – Summoned to Rome by Pope Urban VI
1380 – Dies in Rome on 29 April, aged 33
1430 – Her body found to be intact
1461 – Canonized by Pope Pius II
1939 – Declared joint patron saint of Italy, with St Francis of Assisi
1970 – Named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI
1999 – Declared one of six patron saints of Europe by Pope John Paul II

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‘The Odds Were Stacked Against us but I had Faith and I believed my Babies Would Survive’

Three decades ago Janet Walton became one of the most famous mothers in the world when she gave birth to the first all-female sextuplets. She tells Joanna Moorhead how her faith helped her through the long, anxious months of waiting for them to be born.

When Janet Walton found out she was pregnant, one of the first people she told was her parish priest. Partly, she just wanted to share her joy with an old friend: Canon Martin Kehoe had known the family for a long time, and had given Janet instruction and welcomed her into the Church a few years earlier.
There was more to it than that, though, because this was no ordinary pregnancy. An ultrasound scan a few days earlier had revealed something truly amazing. Janet and her husband Graham weren’t expecting just one baby: and nor were they having just two, or even just three. ‘I was expecting six,’ says Janet, 62, and even more than 30 years on, her eyes still light up with the joy and excitement of that unbelievable news.

The problem was that, though it seemed the answer to all their prayers – the couple had been hoping to have children for five years – no-one expected the pregnancy would work out. The odds on it coming to fruition, in fact, were a mind-boggling 104 billion to one against. ‘So you can see why I told Canon Kehoe,’ says Janet. ‘I knew we needed God on our side.’

Canon Kehoe, who has since died, later recalled that when Janet told him she was expecting six babies he was, understandably, shocked – and asked her what she was going to do. To which Janet replied: ‘I have faith and I am determined to have them all.’

Janet spent the whole of her pregnancy in hospital, being cared for by the team who had overseen her fertility treatment. She didn’t have IVF: instead, she was given injections of a drug to stimulate her ovaries, which had never worked properly. The treatment was gruelling, and Janet had endured 12 cycles of it without ever getting pregnant. In fact she and Graham had all but given up hope of her ever getting pregnant, and had approached the local Catholic children’s society in their home town of Birkenhead, in the hope that they could be approved as adopters. ‘We’d decided this would be our final attempt to have a baby ourselves,’ remembers Janet.

After the treatment was finished the Waltons went on holiday to Malta. They had been there the previous summer and Janet had even sat on a ‘fertility stone’ at the ancient temple of Ggantija on the neighbouring island of Gozo. This time around they spent most of their time looking around churches – but, says Janet, ‘every time we came out of one I’d be sick’. Graham was worried it was due to the drugs she’d been taking; but Janet wasn’t so sure. As the days went on and she didn’t feel any better, it gradually dawned on her that perhaps she might be pregnant.
On their return home the couple went to the Royal Liverpool Hospital where Janet had been treated, and a test confirmed she was indeed pregnant. Later that day, she was given an ultrasound scan: and that’s when she got the first inkling of what was in store. ‘The scan operator went very quiet, and then said it looked as though I was carrying more than one. And I thought: hurrah! It’s twins.’

The scan operator called a doctor and slowly, remembers Janet, the room began to fill up with people. ‘There was lots of whispering, and everything seemed to be taking a long time. Eventually I asked them what was going on and that’s when the doctor dropped a bombshell. He said, it’s definitely a multiple pregnancy. There are six babies.’

Janet was admitted to hospital the following day, and there she stayed. Sextuplets are extremely rare – at that time, there were only two known sets in the world – and a pregnancy involving so many babies is fraught with difficulties. It was perfectly clear, Janet remembers, that the chances were stacked against her and Graham taking any, let alone all, of their children home: and yet, deep inside herself, she always knew they would. ‘I simply didn’t consider an alternative. I vowed to be the best patient the hospital had ever had. I was determined to do absolutely everything I possibly could to help my babies survive.’

The weeks in hospital dragged and Janet, who says she ‘didn’t really fit anywhere’ as a patient, was on a general gynaecology ward full mostly of older women having hysterectomies; but she never minded. She had a constant stream of visitors, including her family and Graham’s, and many friends including Canon Kehoe. At first the goal was to get to 23 weeks, when the babies would have some chance of survival; then, it was to get to 25 weeks, then 28. ‘I was getting so big by this stage that I thought I was going to burst,’ she remembers. ‘Often I’d just lie there watching all these elbows and knees moving around in my tummy – it was extraordinary.’

At just over 31 weeks the doctors decided the time had come for the babies to be born. Now transferred to the maternity hospital, Janet remembers how peaceful her room was that day: but outside the door, all was mayhem. The team for her caesarean operation was made up of more than 30 people: separate teams of doctors for her and for each of the babies, and the special care baby unit was standing by with six incubators and three members of staff for each. It was November 1983: outside in the cold the world’s media was camped, eager for news.

Janet was given a general anaesthetic for the operation: she remembers coming round, and her first question: ‘Are they alive?’ And amazingly, they were: six girls, weighing between 2lbs 1oz and 3lbs 8oz. No all-female sextuplets in history had ever survived before, and Janet and Graham were warned that the first 48 hours would be critical. The hospital chaplain arrived to baptise them, and Graham went round each of them with him. ‘Father and father went from incubator to incubator, the priest on one side with his portable pouch of holy water and Graham on the other, for the first time experiencing the touch of each of his daughters,’ writes Janet in her book Six Little Miracles, out this spring.
Walton Family Sextuplets
A few hours later, she was well enough to be pushed in a wheelchair to meet her babies. Many of the staff had come to line the corridors as she was taken to the special care baby unit: everyone was thrilled that things seemed to be working out so well. Janet herself couldn’t think about anything but her babies: and nothing could have prepared her for the sight of six incubators lined up side by side. ‘It was the most beautiful view I had ever, ever seen,’ she says. ‘The babies were labelled ‘baby number one’, ‘baby number two’, and so on. But it was very important to me that, right from the start, we’d be using their names. So I said: this is Hannah; this is Lucy; this is Ruth; this is Sarah; this is Kate; and this is Jenny. I didn’t want my babies to be known as numbers: they were individuals, and I felt I needed to signal that right from the start. We didn’t know beforehand whether we’d be having girls or boys, so we had 12 names lined up, and we’d decided their names would be linked to their birth order.’

Two weeks later Janet was allowed home: within a few weeks the girls had followed. Bringing them back to their house in Wallasey in Liverpool was momentous, but also underlined how desperately they needed a bigger home. Help was essential too: both sets of parents pitched in from the outset – without them, says Janet, the early months would have been quite impossible – and the local authority sent nursery nurses. But how on earth could the Waltons cope with so many babies? ‘I’ve always been a very practical and sensible kind of person,’ says Janet. ‘But as with any mother, some days were definitely better than others.’ What’s clear, meeting the couple, is that Janet and Graham never let themselves be daunted by the challenge: they never let themselves forget how much they had longed for, and prayed for, a family, and they were determined to enjoy every minute of it now they had one. Staying indoors, even when they had no-one around to help, simply wasn’t an option. ‘We’d take a double buggy each, and we’d each have a baby in a papoose,’ says the can-do, unflappable Janet.
SOCIAL Waltons filer
Once the girls were home from hospital, and the family, aided by their helpers, had got into a routine, everyone started to focus on another date: their christening. Because they had been baptised in hospital in their early hours, this would be a service of blessing; but for the family it was a huge celebration, and the church was mobbed by both well-wishers and journalists. Canon Kehoe did the honours: Janet remembers how he wrote the names of three girls on one hand, and three on the other.

Today the Waltons are one of the warmest, as well as the most unusual, families you could meet. The girls are now 31. Only Hannah, a primary school teacher, still lives at home with her parents, in the seven-bedroom house where they spent their childhood; but four of the other girls live just minutes away, and Jenny – who runs a sweet shop – isn’t far away in Leeds. Lucy is now an airline steward; Ruth is a receptionist; Kate works in HR and Sarah at a medical centre. Janet and Graham succeeded in their aim to ensure their girls always felt like individuals: the only pictures ever taken of them wearing the same outfit, other than their school uniform, is one of them in their first holy communion dresses.
They’ve always been a close-knit family, says Ruth; in some ways, says Lucy, it’s been like always being at a party. Graham, who interrupted his work as a painter and decorator for a year so he could pitch in full-time, is now an after-dinner speaker: his topic, what it’s like being a man who lives with seven women. Now, though, there are some male allies, as some of the girls are in serious relationships, and Ruth is lined up to be the first to get married later this year.

A few months ago there was another magical moment for the Waltons: the birth of their first grandchild, a girl (what else?) for Sarah and her partner Kieran. Their ultrasound scan, says Janet, was very different from her own all those years ago, but it was every bit as special. And now little Jorgie is here, she can’t believe how much she is loving looking after her. ‘To have only one baby to care for seems really amazing,’ she says. ‘We really do feel very lucky, and very blessed.’

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Alive News, Bible Alive Articles

Ten Easter Outings

All over the world, Easter is celebrated with wonderful services, retreats, parades and pilgrimages. If you fancy doing something special for Holy Week, Bible Alive has some suggestions.

Passion Plays

Edinburgh, Scotland

The Edinburgh Passion (also known as The Princes Street Easter Play) has been performed annually since 2005 and now attracts huge crowds. This year the free play has been written by Susan Mansfield and presents the death and resurrection of Christ from the viewpoint of some less well-known characters from the Gospels. Please note: minimal seating is provided (for the elderly and disabled) so be prepared to stand; and the play is performed outdoors, so take waterproofs or an umbrella, in case of rain!

Further info:

passion play edinburgh


Trafalgar Square, London

On Good Friday, the streets around Trafalgar Square will come to a standstill as the Wintershall Players once again perform The Passion of Jesus. Now in its fifth year running in the heart of the capital and backed by the Mayor of London, this play attracts a crowd of thousands. This year a cast of 78 actors, two horses and one donkey, will recreate the last day of Jesus’ life. Please note: this 90-minute free play will be performed twice on 3 April, at midday and at 3:15pm. The crowd mostly sits on steps or upon the ground in the square (so taking a blanket or cushion is a good idea!)

Further info:


Easter Retreats

Belmont Abbey, Herefordshire

The monks of the Abbey of St Michael and All Angels invite you to join them on their Easter Retreat. Abbot Paul Stonham and his Benedictine brothers will lead a contemplation and celebration of the holiest days of the Church year, looking at how we can live the Paschal Mystery of Christ. The retreat will run from 2 to 6 April. Should you be unable to attend, but still fancy a retreat, the Abbey is also offering an earlier Easter event entitled ‘St Benedict’s Easter Journey’ – this two-day retreat will look at the Rule of St Benedict and living life ‘with hearts delighting in love’.

Further info:


Douai Abbey, Berkshire

The Easter Triduum retreat at the Benedictine community of Douai will focus on the Paschal Mystery through pondering the scriptures and sacred art. This 4-day event (17-20 April) will be led by Dr. Caroline Farey, who is Director of Studies at the School of the Annunciation, Buckfast Abbey. There will be much opportunity for quiet time and guests will be welcome to take part in the full liturgy of the Triduum with the monastic community. Residential cost for those in employment is £200.

Further info:



Easter Services

Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire

With wonderful music from the Arcadian Singers choir, the services of the Ampleforth Easter Triduum (2-6 April) are special. Make sure you book early (01439 766486 or because the services are very popular. The Benedictine community of Ampleforth Abbey also offers accommodation for quiet retreats, during which you can join the monks at prayer.

Further info:


King’s College, Cambridge

The Easter services at King’s are becoming almost as popular as the Christmas celebrations! The colourful programme includes 16th century Passion music, Sung Eucharists and a procession by the King’s College Choir, James Macmillan’s new St Luke Passion, Bach’s St John Passion and Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Some of the performances and services are free – please see the website for more details.

Further info:


Shrines and Pilgrimages

Walsingham, Norfolk

Many Christians choose to celebrate Easter by walking a pilgrimage route to the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham. The Holy House was built as a replica of the house in Nazareth where the Annunication occurred, and each year over 100,000 pilgrims walk to it, with many of them choosing to make the journey at Easter. There will be services and processions at Walsingham on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.

For further info:

walsingham shrine

Holy Island

2015 will be the 40th year of the Northern Cross pilgrimage to Holy Island to celebrate Easter. Walkers start off from different locations, including Carlisle, Lanark, Melrose, Bellingham and Dunbar, around 28 March, arriving at the Holy Island of Lindisfarne on 5 April to celebrate Easter. The various paths differ in difficulty (including some very easy routes and some more challenging terrain) so that everybody has the opportunity to join in; the routes will retrace old pilgrim paths towards the island.

Further info:


Easter Overseas


Spending Easter in the city of the crucifixion is the experience of a lifetime. Every year, thousands of pilgrims journey to the holy city, where a host of events are held over the course of Easter week. There are processions on Palm Sunday (to mark Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem) and on Good Friday (following the path He took through the streets to Calvary). Pilgrims huddle into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which contains the last five Stations of the Cross) and flock to the city’s many churches for special services throughout the week. It is also possible to visit the site of the Last Supper and the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ prayed on the night before the crucifixion. An Easter in Jerusalem is sure to touch your heart.ECHOES OF CHRISTIAN JERUSALEM



Spain is one of the most magical countries to voyage to for Holy Week, with wonderful parades upon the streets of most villages, towns and cities. Spanish Catholics don’t hold back during Semana Santa (Holy Week), garbing themselves in elaborate outfits and performing well-rehearsed devout processions. These are walks of penance and participants called Nazareno usually parade barefoot through the streets, wearing medieval robes, which feature conical-tipped hooded cloaks that shield their faces. The processions are more colourful in Southern Spain and more sombre in the North, but all feature penitents carrying floats that depict scenes from the Passion of Christ. Some of the most famous processions are held at Valladolid and Seville.

easter in spain