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The Gift of Discernment Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment

The Bishops of the world are getting ready for their next Synod in October 2018 when they will gather to discuss the theme: Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.

Pope Francis has a great heart for young people and recognizes that they face many challenges and hurdles in discerning God’s plan for their lives in conformity with his will.

To this end Pope Francis has written a letter, a heart to heart, person to person, one to one, affectionate letter, expressing his deep and profound desire to encourage them to hear God’s call, as Abraham received God’s call many centuries ago:

‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’. (Gen 12.1). These words are now also addressed to you. They are words of a Father who invites you to ‘go’, to set out towards a future which is unknown but one which will surely lead to fulfilment, a future towards which he himself accompanies you. I invite you to hear God’s voice resounding in your heart through the breath of the Holy Spirit. (Pope Francis).

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales have published the booklet ‘Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment’ in the hope that many young people in England and Wales will read it with intense interest and soak up the challenges and vision it presents.The essence of the booklet is to encourage young people to make decisions for their future in the light of the call of Jesus, who wants only what is best for them, but of course, what is best is not always what is most comfortable!

Pope Francis has suggested that the demographic of what it means to be a young person is between the ages of 16 and 29. If we don’t fall into this category we may feel that the Synod and its theme hasn’t much to say to us but this would be a mistake. Pope Francis is encouraging the whole Church to pay attention, reflect on and pray about what God is doing in the lives of young people today. This is because all of us, young and old alike, are called to respond to the grace of baptism and live the Christian life, a life in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are all called to put into the practice the gift and charism of discernment.

In this sense, understanding young people and the challenges they face helps us to grapple with, wrestle with and pray about how each of us, regardless of our age, or state in life, or job, occupation or profession, discerns God’s will. Discernment, then, is a gift, a gift from the Holy Spirit.

The Bible actually has a lot to say about discernment. The first thing to say, however, is that the scriptures recognize that discernment is not easy, it isn’t a ‘piece of cake’ or like ‘falling off a log.’ As the Psalmist prays: ‘Who can discern their own errors?’ (Psalm 19:12). The prophet Jeremiah, with piercing prophetic insight, wrote: ‘The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. Who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9). One of the reasons for this challenge and difficulty is what is in the heart. Jesus’ teaching on the human heart can be hard to hear for, as much as the human heart can produce many good and wonderful things, the heart can also produce evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander (Matthew 15:19).

We need God’s gift of discernment to figure out what is going on inside of hearts. The grace of discernment is a blessing, an anointing, if you like, poured out upon us from above. But perhaps the key to the process of discernment is the humble confession that we actually find discernment challenging. How do we know what God wants for us? Does God want me to remain single, get married or enter the religious life? What job, occupation or profession does God want me to do? Or how to discern the best way forward in the midst of the problems life throws at us. There is a wisdom, a grace of humility and revelation required, whereby we confess and admit that we struggle to discern God’s plan and will, not only for our lives, but in many of the daily decisions and choices. This was the experience of the prophet Hosea who lamented: ‘Who is wise? Let them realize these things. Who is discerning? Let them understand. The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them. (Hosea 14:9).

How do we get wisdom as the ancient sages used to plead? Well, we must devote and dedicate ourselves to finding wisdom. ‘Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding.’ (Proverbs 4;7). The quest or adventure to acquire wisdom is nothing less than the call to holiness, the invitation of the grace of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist. St Paul expressed it like this: ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is his good, pleasing and perfect will.’ (Romans 12:2).

We get wisdom by asking God for this most precious of gifts (James 4:4). Consider the insight of St Paul: ‘And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness, that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God’ (Philippians 1:9-11).

The gift of discernment, then, involves a two-way process. As St Augustine said: ‘God created us without us but doesn’t save us without us.’ As our love for God grows in knowledge and depth of insight (our part) we receive the tools (God’s grace) so that we can better discern God’s plan and will for our lives. St Ignatius of Loyola is a great example of someone for whom the gift and grace of discernment was an essential aspect of his charism and legacy. He encouraged his retreatants to examine not just their conscience but also the deep, mysterious and often confusing interior movements of the heart as they pondered the scriptures. He encouraged frequent self-questioning: What is God saying to me through this text of scripture? What is its meaning for my life? What do you want for my life, Lord?

This much we know. God definitely has a plan for all our lives. (‘For I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ (Jeremiah 29:11). For young people, part of God’s plan is, of course, the momentous and important process of discerning their state in life, be that as a single person, or to married life or in testing their vocation to the priesthood or religious life. It also involves discerning what profession, occupation or job they are called to. These are huge decisions and require prayer, research, patience, sound advice. Young people need freedom to make their own decision, supported and encouraged by their families but also their parish and the wider Church. However, God’s plan for our lives doesn’t stop there. God’s plan for all of us is the daily adventure and on-going invitation to a deeper conversion and seeing every day as a new opportunity to be a witness of God’s life, joy and love.

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Pentecost Joy – Fr Raniero Cantalamessa

On Sunday June 4 we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost wasn’t and isn’t a once only event but rather a perennial one in which we can expect to receive a fresh and new outpouring of the Holy Spirit – a new Pentecost, if you will. Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher to the Papal Household, leads us in a reflection on this great feast of the Church – the doorway through which we enter into the fullness and joy of the Christian life.

The account of the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles begins with these words: ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place’ (Acts 2:1). These words tell us that Pentecost existed before… Pentecost. In other words there was already a Pentecost feast in Judaism, and it was during this feast that the Holy Spirit descended. Just as we cannot comprehend Easter without considering the Hebrew Passover, of which it was the fulfillment, so we cannot comprehend the Christian Pentecost without considering the Hebrew Pentecost.

In the Old Testament there existed two fundamental interpretations of the feast of Pentecost. At the beginning Pentecost was the festival of the seven weeks, the day of the first fruits when a sheaf of the new crop was offered to the Lord. Later on, however, the festivity was given a new meaning; it was the feast celebrating the giving of the law on Mount Sinai and of the covenant, the feast, that is, that commemorated the events described in Exodus 19‑20. St Luke deliberately describes the descent of the Holy Spirit so as to evoke the theophany of Sinai. Church Liturgy confirms this interpretation as it has inserted Exodus 19 among the readings for the Pentecost vigil.

What is the significance of the fact that the Holy Spirit descends on the Church precisely on the day Israel recalls the gift of the law and the covenant? The answer is clear. It was to show that he is the new law, the spiritual law, which seals the new and eternal covenant and who consecrates the royal and priestly people that forms the Church. What a wonderful revelation on the meaning of Pentecost and on the Holy Spirit himself! St Augustine exclaimed: ‘Who wouldn’t be struck by this coincidence and at the same time by this difference? Fifty days pass between the celebration of the Passover and the day on which Moses received the law written by God’s finger on tablets of stone; similarly, fifty days after the death and resurrection of the one who like a lamb was slaughtered, the finger of God, that is the Holy Spirit, filled the faithful who were gathered together’ (The Spirit and the Letter, 16, 28).

Suddenly the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel on the new covenant become clear: ‘This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them and I will write it upon their hearts’ (Jer 31:33). He will no longer write it on tablets of stone but upon their hearts; it will no longer be an exterior law but an interior one. Ezekiel explains what this interior law consists of when he takes up again Jeremiah’s prophecy and completes it: ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances’ (Ez 36:27). St Paul confirms this interpretation by saying: ‘The law of the Spirit which gives life in Jesus Christ has set me free from the law of sin and death’ (Rom 8:2). Here the ‘law of the Spirit’ means, in fact, ‘the law which is the Spirit.’

But how does this new law of the Spirit work in practice and in what way can it be called a ‘law’? It works through love! The new law is nothing other than what Jesus called the ‘new commandment.’ The Holy Spirit has written the new law on our hearts by pouring his love into them: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’ (Rom 5:5). This love is the love with which God loves us and through which, at the same time, he makes us love him and our neighbour. It is a new capacity to love.

Those who approach the Gospel in a human way find it absurd that love should be a ‘commandment’; they question what kind of love it could be if it is not freely given but commanded. The answer is that there are two ways in which man can be driven to do or not do something: either by force or by attraction, either by pushing or by pulling. In the first case the law forces him under the threat of punishment; in the second case love makes him act because he is attracted to something. In fact, each one of us is drawn to what we love without feeling obliged by external factors. Show a child some nuts, says again St Augustine,  and he’ll stretch out his hand to seize them. He doesn’t need to be pushed; he is attracted by the object he desires. Show the Supreme Good to a soul thirsting for truth and it will reach out for it. Nobody pushes the soul, it is attracted by what it desires. Love is the ‘weight’ of a soul which draws it as if by a law of gravity to what it loves and where it finds its rightful rest (On the Gospel of John 26, 4‑5). Christian life is meant to be lived by attraction, not by force, out of love, not out of fear!

It is in this sense that the Holy Spirit is a ‘law,’ a ‘commandment’; it gives the faithful Christian an energy which makes him do all that God wants, spontaneously and without even thinking about it, because he has made God’s will his and he loves all that God loves. It’s like ‘being in love’ when everything is done joyfully and spontaneously and not out of fear or habit. The same change that falling in love creates in human life and in the relationship between two people is created by the coming of the Holy Spirit in the relationship between God and man. Pentecost is the door to the fullness and joy of Christian life.

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The Gifts of Easter

Eastertide is a wonderful season in the life of the church. It begins with the victory of Easter Sunday (April 16) and reaches its summit, with a new coming of the Holy Spirit, on Pentecost Sunday (June 4).

The glory of Jesus’ Passion gives way to the joy of the Risen Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

The Gifts of Easter invites us on an adventure as we contemplate together the many gifts of this holy season. The first gift of Easter is the gift of the Holy Spirit from which many others flow: the gift of scripture, the gift of life, the gift of prayer, the gift of unity, the gift of peace and, of course, the gift of the fruits of the Spirit.

The Liturgy of the Word focuses on the Acts of the Apostles. St Luke’s masterpiece is a thrilling read, full of the dynamic action and joy of the Holy Spirit working through the apostles.

St John Chrysostom said of the the Acts of the Apostles: ‘To many people, this book, both its content and its author, is so little known that they are not even aware it exists. I have therefore taken this narrative for my subject, both to initiate those who are ignorant and so that such a treasure shall not remain hidden out of sight. For indeed it will profit us no less than the Gospels themselves, so replete is it with Christian wisdom and sound doctrine, especially in what is said concerning the Holy Spirit.’ (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles 1)

I highly recommend its reading. You will be richly blessed. The courage, joy, enthusiasm and conviction of the first apostles is inspiring and infectious.

God is love and it is the gift of love which is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). The first apostles were, first and foremost, witnesses of the love of God poured into their hearts.

We eagerly desire a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit and his gifts on Pentecost Sunday, especially the gift of love (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:1-13).

Be expectant that the Spirit will be poured out in a new and exciting way. Replacing fear with courage, love with hate, timidity with boldness; warming our lukewarm hearts, renewing our spirits and filling us with the joy of the Holy Spirit, forming us into missionary disciples.

And so we pray: Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful. And kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And you will renew the face of the earth.

The Gift of the Spirit

Jesus returned to the Father and sent the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus promised to baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. This promise was fulfilled on the feast of Pentecost. The blessing of Pentecost is a perennial gift to the Church.

In Baptism we receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit; in Confirmation we are strengthened by the Holy Spirit.

Our vocation invites us to fan into flame the fire of the Spirit. God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5) and we receive the forgiveness of our sins.

Through the gifts, charisms and fruits of the Holy Spirit we witness to being children of God.

The Gift of Scripture

The prophet Jeremiah wrote: ‘Stand at the crossroads, and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is; and walk in it, and find you will rest for your souls’ (Jeremiah 6:16).

St Paul wrote many centuries later: ‘Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope’ (Romans 15:4).

The gift of the Holy Spirit opens up for us the gift of the sacred scriptures, and in them we discover ever afresh and anew, the riches and treasures of the mystery of Christ.
The Holy Bible is our gift and our treasure and through prayer and study we find strength and nourishment to carry out our mission.

The Gift of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit

Jesus spoke a lot about fruit. A good tree produces good fruit; a bad tree, bad fruit. ‘We don’t pick grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles’ (Matthew 7:16).

Jesus taught that his disciples would be recognized by their love for one another (John 13:35) and the fruit in their lives (Matthew 7:20).
Through baptism we were chosen and appointed to bear fruit that will last – but what kind of fruit?

St Paul describes the fruit of the Holy Spirit: ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22).

The Gift of Life

Life is truly a precious gift. We value life, protect it and cherish it from the cradle to the grave.

However, in Christ, life isn’t merely existing but is being fully human and fully alive.

Life is about having a living relationship with God and experiencing all that God intends for us as children of the Father (John 10:10).

The key to knowing God’s life is the Holy Spirit, which we received in all its fullness at Baptism, and are strengthened in at our Confirmation.

The Holy Spirit is a pledge guaranteeing our inheritance to the praise of God’s glory (Ephesians 1:14).

The Gift of Faith

The Bible describes faith like this: ‘Faith is being sure of what we hope for, certain of what we cannot see’ (Hebrews 11:1).

Human reason leads us to see in the created world the design and imprint of the good Creator: ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that we are without excuse’ (Romans 1:20).

However, human reason alone cannot grasp the revealed truths of our faith – for this we need the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that we can understand what God has freely given us (1 Corinthians 2:12).

The Gift of Prayer

Jesus did not leave us as orphans but asked the Father to send the Holy Spirit (John 14:16).

The Holy Spirit is the Counsellor, the Spirit of truth, who guides and strengthens us in many ways.

One of these ways is in helping us to pray – the gift of prayer is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit intercedes for us and gives us the grace to pray as children of God, to our heavenly Father, ‘Abba.’

With confidence then, and filled with the Spirit, we pray the ‘Our Father’, that God’s kingdom would come and his will be done, on earth, as it is heaven.

The Gift of Unity

The Psalmist prayed: ‘How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!’ (Psalm 133:1).

Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one, as he and the Father are one, and brought to complete unity:

‘May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me’ (John 17:23).

Unity and peace are gifts of the Holy Spirit.

This week, as we prepare for the feast of Pentecost, we pray for an outpouring of the gifts of peace and unity in our lives, in our homes, in our parishes and in the Body of Christ.

The Gift of Peace

It is striking that Jesus’ first words to the disciples after his resurrection were ‘Peace be with you’ (John 20:19).

He repeated his message twice more, as if to highlight its importance (John 20: 21, 26).

Peace is more than the absence of war or a sense of inner calm. Peace is, first and foremost, peace with God.

‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5:1).

Peace is a gift of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and by God’s grace, peace can dwell in and rule our hearts.

‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful’ (Colossians 3:15)

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LENT – The Cross of Love

Lent is many things. It is a period of retreat; a privileged moment of grace; a time for prayer, fasting and almsgiving; an opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Mercy, grow in faith and renew our friendship with God. However, it is also a special and unique time for us to pray, meditate and contemplate the cross of Christ, the cross of love.

Jesus’ life was a pilgrimage back to the Father’s house from the crib in Bethlehem, to the cross outside the city wall of Jerusalem. Lent is a pilgrimage back to the Father’s house from the sober call of repentance on Ash Wednesday to Jesus’ Passion and Death and victory and joy of Easter Sunday.

Together we enter more deeply into the mystery of Jesus’ cross and experience in deeper measure the love and mercy of God. For the cross, although an instrument of cruelty, death and torture was transformed into the greatest sign of God’s love for each of us. The cross reveals God’s love and we become lovers of the cross. As lovers of the cross we glory in the cross, rejoice in the cross and praise God for the cross.

The Holy Spirit gives us the grace to boast in the cross: ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Galatians 6:14).

Pope Francis said of Jesus’ cross: ‘O Cross of Christ, symbol of divine love and of human injustice, icon of the supreme sacrifice for love and of boundless selfishness even unto madness, instrument of death and the way of resurrection, sign of obedience and emblem of betrayal, the gallows of persecution and the banner of victory.’

Our hearts sing the glory and praise of God as we look upon the depth of God’s love revealed on the cross. How do we know what love is? St John tells us: ‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us’ (1 John 3:16).

Through baptism we are immersed into the mystery of Jesus’ death on the cross. Through this great mystery of faith we die with Christ but we also rise with him, re-born as new creations.

Through the cross we receive so many blessings; we are reconciled to God, our sins are forgiven, we are justified and made righteous, and a new humanity is born.

Through the power of this grace this Lent we fast with joy, pray with hope and give alms with God’s love burning in our hearts.

Our English word Lent derives from the Old English word lencten meaning ‘spring season.’

Lent then is a time for a spiritual spring clean, a retreat or pilgrimage, when we are invited to take up the ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as signs of our desire to deny and purify ourselves so we can draw near to God.

We commit to a path of self-denial and enter a period of examination of conscience, prayer, and seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Lent is a time for renewal and refreshment, in which, by God’s grace, we can grow and mature in faith. It is truly a God-given moment of privileged grace; a divine opportunity, if you like, to enter more deeply into the mystery of faith. At the heart of our faith is the mystery of the cross through which God’s love is supremely revealed.

Jesus’ entire life was focused on the hour of his cross and the deepest meaning of Lent is discovered on our knees before the mystery of Him crucified.

As so often in the Christian life, in order to go forward, we must first look back. We reflect on the pilgrimage of the Jewish people through the desert, to the moment when they were set upon by poisonous snakes, whose bite was enough to kill. Moses interceded with God, for the people had been rebellious. At the Lord’s command Moses fashioned a bronze serpent, raised it before the people and, we read, all who gazed upon it were cured and protected from the evil of the snakes. (Numbers 21.9).

Jesus pointed to this when he said: ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man you will know that I Am He’ (John 8.28). Jesus refers to himself as ‘I Am’ which was the phrase used throughout the Old Testament to express the nature, presence and reality of God.

Faith reveals to us that Jesus: ‘Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Phil 2:6-8)

Lent is a time for us behold the man, the man of sorrow, the man of suffering; the man who had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him; the man who took up our infirmities, carried our sorrows, was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities; the man who by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53).

The message of the cross is the message of God’s love. We cannot earn this love, we don’t deserve this love; we can only receive this love. This is love, not that we first loved God but that God first loved us (1 John 4:19).
The cross however isn’t simply a historic event. Through baptism we were immersed into Jesus death and resurrection and through the the liturgy, and supremely in the Eucharist, the cross is made real and present to us.

The cross has the power to change and transform our lives. We were baptized into Christ’s death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

This new life means that we can conquer old established, deeply rooted, sin patterns, we can be set free from those things which prevent us from enjoying and knowing God’s life, we can have a living sense of God’s mercy, forgiveness and joy.

Pope Francis said: ‘An Iraqi priest came over to me in St Peter’s Square and gave me a small cross: He told me that it was the cross that a priest held in his hand as he was beheaded for his refusal to deny Jesus. When we look upon a crucifix we are gazing on the sign of God’s love. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit we can receive the gift of a grace of revelation which enables us to be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3:19).

When we renew our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil Mass, or on Easter Sunday, we can do so with a renewed sense and understanding of God’s great love for us personally, but also for the world.

For the cross reveals supremely that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his One and Only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).

We can be bold and confident that if we ask it will be given to us, if we seek, we shall find and if we knock the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7). We can also put our trust in God, as St Paul says: ‘Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen’ (Ephesians 3; 20-21).

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Valentine, Saint of Romantic Love

St Valentine’s Day is round the corner: but who was this saint, how is he celebrated – and what advice does the Church have for 21st century couples?

Of all the feast days in the Christian calendar, few are as widely celebrated as that of St Valentine: and yet the irony is that the life of the man himself is shrouded in mystery.

shutterstock_47617744_ValentineAll we know for sure about St Valentine is that he lived in the third century, in or near Rome; and he was probably a martyr. But quite why he emerged as the patron saint of people in love is unclear. One story has it that he healed the daughter of his jailor, who was deaf and blind, and left a note to her on the day of his execution that was signed ‘Your Valentine’. Another is that, at a time when Christian worship was outlawed, he offered religious ceremonies to couples wishing to marry. But whatever the reason for it, his charism emerged more strongly than almost any other saint: people of all faiths and none, the world over, celebrate Valentine’s Day and indeed Pope Francis, in his document Amoris Laetitia, writes that commercial interests have been quicker than many in the Church to see the potential of the celebration of his feast day.

It’s certainly clear, with card shops groaning with Valentine’s day cards and gifts, and the annual February spike in the price of roses, that there’s money to be made out of this particular saint and his feast day.

But across the world, there are also customs that are less about spending money and more about focusing on the fun, the joy, and the life-affirming potential of love. Take Denmark and Norway, for example, where men send women ‘gaekkebrev’ or short poems and rhymes anonymously to serenade their love. Their poems are unsigned, but as a clue to the identity of the sender there’s a line of dots, one to represent each letter of the sender’s name. And rather than roses, in Denmark snowdrops are the flowers of romance – and they’re as likely to be presented pressed as fresh.

In Italy, folklore has it that the first man a young unmarried woman sees will become her husband – or if not him, there’s a wonderful get-out clause that it will be someone who is just like him! In the past, Italian girls would wake before dawn on Valentine’s Day – and sometimes events were engineered so that their ‘true love’ was the first person they set eyes on.

In South Africa, women literally used to wear their hearts on their sleeves on Valentine’s Day. The custom was to pin the name of their love interest to their shirt sleeves – which is nothing if not upfront. France, meanwhile, had a more raucous custom, its ‘loterie d’amour’ or ‘drawing for love’. Single men and women filled houses facing one another, and took turns in calling out names and, if the called party responded, pairing up. Unmatched women later had a bonfire and burned pictures of the men who had spurned their advances; what the unmatched men did after the event is not recorded. However, the tradition was often accompanied by noise and trouble, and eventually it was banned by the government.

More sedate is the festival that takes place each February in the village of St Valentin in the central Val de Loire region of France. Dubbed ‘the village of love’, the festival began more than 50 years ago and sees the village decked out with colourful flowers. Lovers flock there to pin amorous notes to the Tree of Vows, and to plant trees which, it is said, will flourish as long as the relationship blossoms.

LoveSpoonsCloser to home, there are some very special Valentine’s Day customs in the UK. Wales has its very own patron saint of lovers, St Dwynwen, whose feast day is a few weeks ahead of that of St Valentine, on 25 January. Dwynwen is believed to have lived in the 5th century, and her story surrounds a love affair with a man called Maelon who for some reason (accounts differ) she was unable to marry. Dwynwen prayed for release from her feelings for Maelon, and an angel appeared to him with a potion – he drank and was turned to ice. This wasn’t the result she intended, so Dwynwen then prayed for three intentions: firstly, that Maelon should be released from his ice prison; secondly, that she should spend her life unmarried, and thirdly that God should look after all true lovers. She lived out the rest of her life in retreat on the island of Angelsey.

The traditional tokens of affection in Wales, given as gifts on St Dwynwen’s Day, are love spoons, often intricately carved with symbols like keys, which represent the giver’s heart. The earliest spoons date back to the 17th century; as well as symbolising the feelings of the giver, they were intended to demonstrate to her family, via the quality of the carving, that he was a young man capable of working hard and providing for a wife and children.

In England, meanwhile, one of the most poignant customs dates from the 18th century when unmarried women would go to bed the night before Valentine’s Day with bay leaves on their pillows; it was believed they would then dream of their future husband.

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Homeless with a Cause

Joanna Moorhead joined 150 business leaders who gave up their beds for the night – but sleeping out under the stars didn’t seem so romantic in London in the winter.

It’s 3am and there is no possibility of sleep tonight. I hunkered down four hours ago with such high hopes. Ok, so it’s winter; but it’s not a freezing night, I’m lucky there. The sky is cloudless, so I’m not going to get wet. I’m wearing more clothes than I ever have at night before: three pairs of leggings under a pair of tracksuit bottoms, two t-shirts, a cardigan and a thick fleece. Two pairs of thick socks and a bobble hat for good measure; and I’m zipped into a heavy-duty sleeping bag, with a thick groundsheet underneath me. I knew it wasn’t going to be the most comfortable night of my existence, but I thought I’d drift off and get a few hours’ kip.

img_2837 But sleeping rough sucks. It sucks when you have to do it all the time, and it sucks when you have to do it for just one night. Even when it’s a specially-organised fundraiser: I was part of something called the CEO Sleepout, the third time the event has been held in London, to raise money for the Cardinal Hume Centre. The charity recruits business leaders and others and asks them to give up their bed for one night, and to sleep out of doors to raise awareness of, and funds for, homeless people.

When Cathy Corcoran, who runs the Cardinal Hume Centre, asked me to take part I said it would be a privilege. And it was; but it was also an eye-opener (literally) about the reality of sleeping rough; and the moment that reality hit me was 3am. There are so many things wrong with sleeping outside. The hard concrete where there should be a comfortable mattress; the sounds of the sirens and the late night revellers – all much, much too close – when there should be quiet. The street lights, bright and intrusive, where there should be darkness. But most of all there’s the cold: even on a not-too-bad winter’s night, there’s the gnawing, paralysing, all-encompassing chill, a chill it’s impossible to escape from, a chill that works its way into the deepest part of your body and takes up residence there, so you can’t think of anything except how good it would be to be burrowed where you normally are at 3am, in your warm, cosy bed.

The irony was that, compared with people who are genuinely homeless, my sleepout was a bit of a picnic. Unlike them, I was not at the complete mercy of the streets: the CEO Sleepout takes place in a secure environment, which this year was Lord’s Cricket Ground in north London. It starts in a more congenial way than night-time does for most of the 3,000 or so people who sleep out on a nightly basis in the capital: for us, there were drinks in the bar and a bowl of hot pumpkin soup. We were feeling jolly as we headed round the back of the stands into the area that would be our perch for the night. And, again, a homeless person would have seen our billet as palatial. We weren’t even entirely exposed to the elements, since we were bedding down between the seats in the stand. We had a roof above us, even if the sides of the stand were open to the elements. We had a bathroom; we even had a shelter where we could go for cups of tea. It really didn’t seem too tough. But my goodness, at 3am it felt very hard indeed.

If the cold is the worst part of the physicality, the vulnerability you feel is the worst part of sleeping out emotionally. Even though we were safely ensconced in the cricket ground, the sounds of London in the small hours didn’t always sound very comforting. When I go to bed at night, I double-lock my front door and the knowledge that I and my children are secure is part of what makes sleep possible. So how must it be to have to drop off to sleep in an environment where you’re completely exposed to danger; where you can do very little, in fact, to protect yourself?

img_2838Sleep is a crucial part of our emotional and physical wellbeing, and having a safe and comfortable place in which to have that sleep is a basic human right. It’s deplorable that sleeping rough in the UK is on the increase, and has been on the increase for the last five years or so; and it’s outrageous that, under current legislation in England, many homeless people aren’t even eligible for help from their local authorities. That’s because, to quality for assistance, individuals are graded in criteria including, for example, whether they have children, whether they have mental health problem, and whether they’re under 18. In practice, what this means is that those who don’t meet any of the criteria – which is, most of the homeless population – are simply told to fend for themselves, or to seek help from a charity like the Cardinal Hume Centre or its sibling charity The Passage, both of which were founded by Cardinal Basil Hume when he was Archbishop of Westminster in the 1980s.

Now, though, there is the possibility of change on the horizon – a change that could make next winter a lot warmer than this one for thousands of homeless people. A bill currently going through Parliament is seeking to remove that ‘priority need’ category, as well as the requirement of being already physically homeless before you can be housed. If it goes through, councils will be required to help all those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, 56 days in advance of when they expect to be evicted.

A similar law was passed in Wales in 2014, and that’s led to a reduction in rough sleeping, and a change in attitude towards those who are homeless. That’s the inspiration for the English bill, which seeks to ensure that, in the civilised society we like to think we are, homelessness has no place: not in the winter, not anytime, and not for anyone.

Homelessness: The Facts

  • On any one night across England, around 3600 people sleep rough
  • The average age of death for homeless men is 47; for women, it’s 43
  • One in four people sleeping rough has a mental health problem
  • A homeless person is 35 times more likely to commit suicide than the average person
  • Two thirds of rough sleepers say they have been insulted by a member of the public, and one in ten have been urinated on
  • Homeless people are at 13 times the average risk of violent crime, and 47 times more likely to be a victim of theft


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Carols from the Heart

St Augustine said ‘When we sing, we pray twice’ – for Sue Conway, Publishing Co-ordinator at Alive Publishing, is never happier than when she is singing her heart out. She recently fulfilled a life-long ambition to produce a CD of her favourite Christmas Carols, the proceeds of which are being donated to International Prison Outreach.

From a very early age I’ve always loved to sing. My first memory of singing my little heart out was when I was seven. I had been asked to play the part of Judith Durham in a school nativity play at St John Fisher’s Primary School in Alvaston, Derby. Judith Durham was the lead vocalist for the Australian folk group, the Seekers. The shepherds and the three kings were not the only visitors to the baby Jesus that year – as the nativity play finished with me singing ‘The Carnival is Over.’ Not a usual ending to a Nativity play I grant you!

I started having piano lessons when I was eight but only got as far as Grade One. The truth is, like many children, I just didn’t enjoy the practising and gave it up when I was eleven.

I have very fond memories of singing with my dad. He was a good singer and had a deep rich bass voice. He was always very encouraging and got me to sing into a tape recorder and used to give me lots of tips.

I have a vivid memory also of sitting around the breakfast table one Sunday morning and crying because I found Mass dull and boring. It was really because I wanted to join in more. My brother Andy said he would take me to a different parish. He took me to St Hugh’s in Borrowash and there I joined a really lovely folk group and started singing and playing the guitar at Mass. I loved every minute of it. I loved singing to God and for God.

sue-studio1I am actually quite shy but found that my shyness disappeared whenever I sang. In fact, I discovered that I really enjoyed singing in front of other people. They say that Eric Liddle, the Olympic sprint Champion and the subject of the film Chariots of Fire, said that when he ran he felt God’s pleasure. That is how I feel when I sing, I sense something of the joy of God’s love, his glory and majesty.

I remember going on pilgrimage to Lourdes when I was seventeen. Lourdes was very different back then. There were very few of the current big buildings/chapels/churches that are now on site. It was just the main Basilica; the underground basilica was a work in progress at the time. At the far end of the Domain, now known as the Prairie, was a big camp site and this is where we pitched our tents (no hotels for us) and we sang and picnicked and had Mass on the banks of the River Gave with my brother Fr Paul Watson who was a curate at Great Barr in those days and newly ordained Fr Graham Wilkinson. In our party was Fr Eamon Corduff who was only nine then and is now parish priest at Kingstanding, Birmingham. They were very fun and formative days! Our group would often lead the singing standing to the side on the steps of the Basilica for the Marian procession or for the Anointing of the Sick in the square.

I was a member of a Charismatic Prayer Meeting for a number of years and really enjoyed being part of the music ministry. I also enjoyed singing solo at weddings and at other events too. I got married when I was twenty-eight and raised my four children and worked for Alive Publishing. I sang to my children and have passed on to them a love for music. However, at the back of my mind was this hankering, a nagging desire, a longing if you like, that would not go away. I wanted to produce a CD of my favourite Christmas Carols. I made contact with Anthony Menezes, a piano teacher based in Liverpool, and started having lessons to prepare my voice. After several months I felt ready and made contact with Shaun Lowe, Prism Studios. He is a music producer and has a studio in Stoke-on-Trent. He has produced music for The Drifters and Stevie Wonder’s daughter Aisha and also produces at Abbey Road Studios, London. It was such a thrill to have a music studio and to see the music we were producing being mixed and worked on by Shaun. He could not have been more encouraging or supportive and recording Emmanuel with him, with Anthony on keyboard, was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.

sue-studio2I love singing. It fills me with so much joy. I have an eclectic taste and enjoy singers like Barbara Streisand, Karen Carpenter, Celine Dion and Adele. My favourites, though, are religious hymns because I believe God gave me my voice and I want to use it for him. I enjoy old hymns and new. When I sing I feel like I am in God’s presence and my heart lifts and my spirit soars. I have to be honest and say that I enjoy singing what would be considered old traditional hymns the most. I am not sure what it is about them but their melodies and lyrics speak to me very powerfully indeed. Hymns such as: O Jesus Christ Remember, I’ll Sing a Hymn to Mary, O Bread of Heaven, Bring Flowers of the Rarest, God of Mercy and Compassion, Soul of my Saviour and so on.

Christmas can be such a busy time of year that finding time to pray, be still and prepare for the season can be difficult. During this time the traditional Christmas Carols come alive for me. I can find myself singing and humming them as I go about my day. There is a beauty about them which puts me in touch with the wonder of the birth of Christ. Of course, as we all do, I love singing in the car and hope that those who purchase Emmanuel, Christmas Carols from the Heart will do also.

Click here to order Emmanuel, Christmas Carols from the Heart, by Sue Conway. Accompanied by Anthony Menezes. Only £9.99. All proceeds go to International Prison Outreach.

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The Grace of Loose Change

The Bible has a lot to say about small coins. Take the story of the widow’s mite which revealed the widow’s might. Her generosity revealed her inner beauty and strength, which is of great worth in God’s sight (1 Peter 3:4). We see in her witness a profound devotion and love for God and amazing generosity. Her story would have been lost to us were it not for Jesus’ astute observation of this remarkable act of selfless giving.

widows-miteShe gave not from her wealth or her surplus or even her disposable income, but rather she gave ‘all she had to live on.’ (Mark 12:44). The story of the widow’s mite appears in Luke’s Gospel also (Luke 21:1-4) where the account is virtually identical to St Mark’s. Both Evangelists note the precise amount she gave – two small copper coins – two mites (Greek lepta). These two small coins were worth a quadrans, the smallest and least valued of all the Roman coins. These coins combined represented something like six minutes of a manual worker’s average daily wage. It was literally a pittance but in Jesus’ eyes it was a fortune, its value priceless, its worth infinite, its beauty eternal, her gift truly a treasure in God’s eyes.

The kingdom of God is full of paradox – it is an upside down world. Jesus revealed a kingdom logic – a logic definitely not of this world. The last will be first, the greatest the one who serves, the exalted humbled, the humbled exalted, the meek inherit the earth and the gift of a poor widow, rather than the pomp of a rich benefactor, heralded as a perfect example of generosity.

Small coins feature in Jesus’ teaching. The Parable of the Lost Coin highlights the effort a woman will go to seek out one silver coin out of a batch of ten (Luke 15:8-10). Ready cash was rare in ancient societies as they bartered using cloth, crops and food as currency. It is likely that the ten silver coins represented the woman’s dowry and her sole source of income should her husband die. To lose one of these coins was, for her, a disaster not worth thinking about. It is easy to imagine her intense and thorough search of her house; every crook, every cranny, every crevice. It is easy to imagine her joy and rejoicing on finding this treasured coin. The Parable of the Lost Coin, as we know, set the scene for the one of Jesus’ greatest parables, the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32).

the-lost-drachma-byjames-tissot-overall-brooklyn-museum-wikimediaNot many in the early Church were noble or influential (1 Corinthians 1;26) and not many were wealthy or rich. They were, however, despite this, very generous and giving. St Paul highlights the generosity of the church at Philippi. His letter to them concludes with a profound sense of gratitude and appreciation for their financial gifts to him, in support of his ministry. He calls their generous gift ‘a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.’ (Philippians 4:18).

We learn from the scriptures that generous giving isn’t about largesse or show or the esteem and affirmation of being a benefactor. Rather it is a matter of the heart and a matter of love and very often involves small coins!

St Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, records a ‘beatitude’ which could be added to the list of ‘blessed’s’ in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10). St Luke records that Jesus said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35). God is more interested in the heart than anything else and loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7). As Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta said: ‘The person who gives with a smile is the best giver for God loves a cheerful giver.’

Through the cheerful giving and rich generosity of you our readers we are able to reach out to a forgotten and often misunderstood group in society – prisoners. Through your kindness and compassion we reach out to prisoners all over the world with Bible Alive, Bibles and other Christian resources which encourage and give hope.

Bible Alive readers have a heart for prisoners; at the heart of this generosity is the simple conviction that ‘but for the grace of God go I.’

shutterstock_239218606-webAlthough prisoners tend to be forgotten and overlooked they are still our brothers and sisters. The only difference between them and us is that they live out their faith behind prison walls. However, for many prisoners prison is a place of redemption, a place of grace and a place to receive God’s mercy.

Our readers give generously from the heart and prisoners receive from the heart as these letters illustrate:

‘Bible Alive makes me think how lucky I am and that there is always someone else worse off than me.’

‘Bible Alive is very easy to read.’

‘When I read it first thing in the morning it lifts my spirit and me going through the day.’

‘It is a real treat to immerse one’s self in a daily reading and prayer and something I really look forward to. Bible Alive is a great asset to any prisoner.’

‘Bible Alive embraces me into God’s family irrespective of the bars and guards that surround me.’

‘I had never seen Bible Alive before. Some ladies visited the prison regularly arranged for me to receive it. It was a simple and practical gesture but it meant a lot to me and welcomed me into the Bible Alive family and I felt one with all your other daily readers. Isolation and loneliness are real problems that effect people in prison making us feel lost and alone and hopeless. It is so important that prisoners can receive the hope and love of Jesus Christ.’

St Augustine said that we are all beggars before God. We are all in need of God’s mercy. The might of the widow’s mite, its strength and beauty, is rooted in her self-abandonment to God’s providence and her profound sense of gratitude and thanks. She gave so very generously because despite her poverty she knew that God had given to her so very generously. She had received mercy and gave mercy in return. She had received kindness and gave kindly in return; she had received compassion and gave to God with a compassionate heart. Through the power of the scriptures she is for all time a living witness of Jesus’ teaching: ‘Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.’ (Luke 6:38).

Click here to order your FREE Loose Change Jar or Parish Bucket or call us on +44 (0) 1782 745600

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Helping to heal the the broken-hearted

The genocidal Rwandan massacres still cast a long shadow in this small African country. But the unstinting hard work of committed priests like Fr Emmanuel Nsengiyumva has been invaluable in helping the survivors’ deep psychological scars to heal.

Few events in recent history burned their way into the public mind more than the terrible events of 22 years ago. In the space of just 100 days, around a million Rwandan men, women and children were massacred with guns, machetes, farm implements and bare hands.

The causes can be traced to tribal enmities that have their roots way back in the colonial period. Since 1994 there has been a remarkable transformation in Rwandan life. Testimony to its people, Rwanda is now, in sub-Saharan African terms, a peaceful country, relatively progressive and corruption free.

Yet underneath the surface the scars of war remain. Many of those who witnessed the atrocities find it impossible to deal with the trauma, condemned to a living death of hatred, misery and despair.

Typical of this is the story of married couple Edouard and Immaculée. When the killings began, they fled into the mountains that surround the parish of Nyamata. Many members of their families did the same but returned, reasoning that the sanctity of the village church would protect them.
It was not to be. Perpetrators surrounded the church and, finding the doors barred, broke through the walls, throwing grenades inside before entering and brutally despatching the survivors with guns and machetes.

To this day the old church stands as a heartbreakingly poignant memorial to the dead: the matted, bloodstained clothing of the victims left piled onto the pews; the bodies of the victims buried in the adjoining churchyard. In total, the parish lost a staggering 10,000 people before the killing stopped.

13-09-29day_15morning_mass_fr_emmanuel022Today, the new church stands partly completed, thanks to the generosity of Catholics throughout the world and is, once again, a vital hub for the community. However, there is still more work to be done, estimated at around US $85,000. As Fr Emmanuel says, ‘The construction of a new church will be a symbol of the resurrection of hope, resurrection of love, resurrection of faith, resurrection of unity and, in short, of the resurrection of life.’

With the strength of their faith and the unstinting help of their parish priest, Fr Emmanuel, survivors are slowly coming to terms with their memories, learning to forgive, as those who committed these crimes repent as a first step towards forgiveness and redemption. With the anniversary of the genocide, 7 April, falling near Easter each year, Fr Emmanuel’s experience is that the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus has particular relevance to the Rwandan people, and that it is only through forgiveness that broken hearts can be healed.

He is no stranger himself to horror or grief. Born in Kigali, the capital city, he was the fifth son in a family of six children. At 18 years old he was mid-way through his studies when the systematic slaughter began. Fr Emmanuel lost two of his brothers and knows well the deep emotional wounds of his people: ‘Your relatives, your mother, your father, your brothers, are not only killed but they torture them in front of you. Some of them would die in two days… two days of agony… I felt the wounds of my community, as a Rwandan growing up in that horrific atmosphere, sharing the pain and misery of my compatriots’.

To us in the west, it would seem almost unimaginable to have to deal with memories like these, let alone forgive those who carried out such acts. But for Rwanda to function, that’s exactly what must happen. After the genocides, many perpetrators were brought to trial and imprisoned. Having served their time in prison, many of these prisoners are now being released back into the very communities they brutalised. The task of people like Fr Emmanuel is not just to help the survivors to heal but to offer a path of forgiveness to the former killers.

As Fr Emmanuel says; ‘Perpetrators will be healed completely, and ready to reconcile deeply, only if they ask for forgiveness truthfully from the victims whom they know and live with daily. On the other hand, the survivors will be completely healed and reconciled only if they forgive sincerely. It is a ‘Two Keys’ process as the survivors have the key of forgiving and perpetrators have the key of asking for forgiveness’.

community_day_274The Catholic Church began dealing with emergency cases during the immediate aftermath of the genocide, offering sessions on forgiveness and reconciliation for individuals and communities. As the years pass the Church continues to carry out more systematic, deep reconciliation, leading to complete forgiveness and healing.

Nyamata is one of four parishes pioneering the bringing together of both sides. This is done with six months of intensive pastoral care with the perpetrators entering a state of broken communion with the Church where they cannot receive any sacrament. This helps them to understand the level of destruction caused by their acts.

Amongst the survivors it is easier for some to forgive than others. Edouard has felt strong enough to speak publicly, forgiving those who killed his family. He explains, ‘The Church has helped us to be strong, the priests have tried to bring our community together’. His wife, Immaculée, still struggles, even after twenty-two years. However, there is always hope. As Fr Emmanuel puts it; ‘The Church has been a sign of hope and a pillar of recovery of all devastated values during genocide. It was, and is always, the force of living anew’.

The work of Catholic churches throughout the world in places of sorrow and strife is essential. As the Pope’s official charity for overseas mission, Missio works to answer the call to love God and to love our neighbour by bringing the hope of the Gospel throughout the world.

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Sea Sunday – July 10th

Seafarers have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. They sail across vast oceans, often hundreds or thousands of miles from any kind of help should anything go wrong. This is why it is still important today for ships to be blessed.
Father Colum Kelly, Apostleship of the Sea (AoS) port chaplain to Immingham, discovered this in January when he went on board the Star Eros, a new cargo ship that had just completed its maiden voyage.

‘I was welcomed as usual and then the captain arrived to say that he had been praying for a visit from a priest ever since they set sail on their maiden voyage four months previously. Now they had one,’ said Father Colum.

‘The ship needed to be blessed and there was the chance to have Christmas Mass on board. The ship had sailed from Canada and been at sea for three months. It was indeed many blessings all at once.’

So on New Year’s Day he went on board with 20 shoeboxes, filled with gifts from local parishes, and went to the mess room to set up for Mass. After Mass he began the ship blessing.

‘I assumed a new ship would have a lift but not this one. I first went to the engine room. I normally say a blessing prayer from the top level but this captain wanted all eight floors to be blessed.

‘Then I made a 13-floor climb to the bridge, followed by a visit to the cook who wanted the galley to be blessed. Then I blessed the ship’s office and finally the mess room.’

UnknownNext month on 10 July is Sea Sunday when the Church asks us to pray for and support the work of AoS, whose chaplains and ship visitors provides pastoral care and spiritual support to seafarers.

Many people don’t realise how dependent they are on seafarers. Over 90% of the goods imported into the UK come by ship. This includes everything from tomatoes to coffee and iPhones to cars.

Blessing ships is just a small part of what AoS port chaplains do. Most of their time is spent meeting seafarers and seeing if they can provide any practical or pastoral help.

As most ships nowadays are only in port for a brief period, the chaplains understand that the crew want to make the most of their time. They will often arrange transport to local shops or, in some cases, take them to Mass.

One of the most important things for seafarers is to contact their families back home. Very few ships have access to the internet and phone calls from satellite phones are incredibly expensive. This is why chaplains always have a supply of phone and Wi-Fi cards with them.

‘We are dealing with an invisible world. Nobody comes to meet seafarers; nobody knows how they ply their trade,’ said Fr Colum. ‘Look around your homes and you see television sets, lights and other consumer goods, all of which come by ships crewed by seafarers. Yet few people know anything about their lives.

‘A lot of what we do is small gestures; going on board to meet the crew and providing them with Wii-Fi access, phones and other things. These are all small gestures but taken together they make a huge difference and that’s what we’re here for – to make a difference.’