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St Francis Apostle of the Poor

Cardinal Claudio Hummes is a great friend of Pope Francis. In the Conclave when it looked increasingly likely that Cardinal Jorge Bergolio would be elected Pope, Cardinal Hommes approached his old friend to offer words of comfort and encouragement. Pope Francis said of this encounter: ‘He hugged and kissed me and said: ‘Don’t forget the poor.’ These words had a powerful impact on Cardinal Borgolio, who chose to be called Francis – ‘the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. How I would like a church that is poor and that is for the poor.’

Saint Francis has a special place in Pope Francis’s heart and he has a special place in ours too. On October 4 we celebrate this feast day and celebrate the witness of this great saint of the Church, this ‘second Christ,’ this apostle of the poor.

In the Bodleian libriary at Oxford University, a manuscript from the thirteenth century, the Annals of Inisfallen, records for 4 October: ‘On this day the good man Francis of Assis died.’ Every year Franciscans around the world remember ‘the good man Francis’ on the eve of his feast day, in a ceremony called the ‘Transitus’ – the passing over of St Francis. We remember the events surrounding his death. We remember how the doctor told St Francis of his impending death and how he immediately broke into a song of praise. ‘Welcome, Sister Death.’ We remember how the dying St Francis told the brothers to read the Passion from St John’s Gospel beginning with the words: ‘Six days before the Passover’.’ (John 12). We remember how he blessed, read and gave it to his brothers; how he told them to lay him naked on the ground and sprinkle ashes over him; and how his brother Guardian commanded St Francis to accept a loan of a habit and then covered his naked body with it as he lay there. We remember, too, how in a voice barely audible he prayed, ‘I cry with my voice to the Lord, with my voice I make supplication to the Lord. Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name.’ (Psalm 141:17). On the eve of October 4 we give thanks to the Father who called the poor man of Assisi to pass from this life into joy of the next.

Who then was this man who imitated Christ so radically? St Francis was the second son of Peter and Pica Bernadone and was born in Assisi in 1182. He was baptized John, but his father, a cloth merchant, returning from the international fair in Champagne, changed his name to Francis after the country he loved so much. The world St Francis was born into was feeling the winds of change which were blowing over Europe and the East. These winds were of new trade but also war, strife and conflict. Indeed, only a few years after his birth St Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral (1187). Saladin conquered Jerusalem and this led to a bloody crusade.

In an age without the NHS, social care or medical treatment leprosy was a terrible scourge. St Francis was to comment: ‘I was nauseated by the sight of lepers.’ Anyone so afflicted was banished outside the city walls of Assisi. The Church ritualized the exclusion by insisting that lepers wore distinctive clothing, were forbidden to go near wells, speak to children or attend a trade fair and were buried in their own cemeteries. Within the walls of Assisi civil unrest was endemic; the merchants wanted to break the shackles of the feudal system and break free from its punitive tax and form their own guilds. In 1198 Assisi attacked the Rocca fortress of the Duke of Conrad, pitching the merchant and noble class in bitter conflict. In 1202 what began as a local dispute escalated into a full scale war with neighbouring Perugia. Among the families displaced were the family of St Clare of Assisi, who would later become one of St Francis’s faithful disciples. St Francis fought in this war and was taken captive and imprisoned for a year. St Francis the man of peace was once a man of war!

It was during this time that St Francis’s conversion began. Many years later, writing in his Testament, he said: ‘I began to do penance, for when I was in sin it seemed bitter to me to see a leper. And the Lord led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them I noticed that what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of body and soul. After this I delayed a little but then left the world.’ (Testament 1-3). His encounter with lepers taught him about the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. One day, while walking by the church of San Damiano, which was abandoned and in ruins, he was led by the Holy Spirit to enter the church and pray before a crucifix. Deep in prayer, he heard God speak to him, ‘Francis, go rebuild my house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.’ St Francis understood this to mean that he had to find the money to help rebuild the church of San Damiano! He loaded a cart with expensive cloth and went to market. He quickly sold the lot (including the horse and cart) and made a tidy sum. The only problem was that he had taken the cloth without his father’s permission, who duly hurled him before the bishop’s court. During his trial he received a revelation about the grace of poverty and realized that money wasn’t the answer, but faith and service of the poor. He returned the money and even the clothes he was wearing saying: ‘Until now I have a father here on earth but now I can say without reservation, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’ since I have placed all my treasure and hope in him.’ (The Major Legend of St Francis 5). St Francis the went from door to door begging for help to rebuild the church. From that moment on St Francis understood his mission literally as restoring churches and serving the poor and lepers. One day, however, in the church of St Mary of the Angels the Holy Spirit spoke to him the words from Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Go and preach, take no gold or silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey.’ After Mass he asked the priest to explain this reading to him… that the gospel message was to be lived and proclaimed. The veil was lifted. St Francis understood his mission; he was to proclaim the gospel and if necessary use words! Thomas Celano, his biographer, recorded that St Francis exclaimed: ‘This is what I want, this is what I seek, this is what I desire with all my heart.’

For the rest of his life St Francis lived these words. He devoted his life to being a peacemaker; reconciling the mayor and the bishop of Assisi, warring townspeople and taming a hungry wolf. He was even received by the Sultan Melek el Kamil, reaching out to him in friendship and respect. In 1223 at Greccio he reinacted the birth of Christ, wishing to ‘see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infants needs, how he lay in the manger and how with an ox and an ass standing by he rested his head on the hay.’ (1 Celano, 84). And so was born the tradition of the crib! Two years before he died, on Mount La Verna, St Francis received the stigmata, and on October 4, 1226 as he lay dying he said to his brothers: ‘I have done what is mine, may Christ teach you yours.’

St Francis embraced his vocation as a missionary disciple. Through the grace of baptism we have received the same calling and seek the grace of the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us as we pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

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Prayers Before the Blessed Sacrament

Fr Timothy Menezes leads us in a reflection on the treasure, joy and art of praying before the Blessed Sacrament.

Since I have always had an interest in the liturgy, and have studied its principles and for so much of my life as a priest have been asked to teach others about it, writing prayers has also been part of my ministry: prayers for the blessing of new buildings; prayers for the blessing of houses and families; prayers for wedding anniversaries and so on. I enjoy that creative expression which so often depends so much upon the circumstances for which the prayer is required.

Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is, for some, a comfortable and preferred choice and, for others, a struggle and something of an endurance, at the end of which they are not sure what was achieved.

In reflecting on this form of prayer, I have come to understand that, rather like the Church’s understanding of the moments around the reception of Holy Communion at Mass, deeply personal but not private, coming before the Lord in a time of adoration is praying with the Church and uniting ourselves with Christ, with the family of faith and with the human family.

I was once introduced to an ecumenical initiative called ‘Just Listen’. It asked people to consider the art of listening to others and not seeking to give advice of any kind. It was based upon the fact that, for most people in any kind of need, it is not even direction that they seek but the knowledge that somebody is listening to them. Loneliness in society has been likened to serious illness, and the idea that somebody could give an hour or so to say to another: ‘I am here to listen to you, without judgement, without answers’, has been seen to provide a level of response to the problems of loneliness, isolation and frustration.

Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is a very precious form of just listening – and the listening is done by Jesus himself. The idea of God speaking to us in prayer is a difficult concept. Coming before the Lord, present for us, more capable than human beings of listening to more than one person at a time, and knowing that we can place before him the things most precious to us, not worrying about trustworthiness, is a form of prayer that can be of solace and strength to any Christian.

‘I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting himwht by the Lord”’ (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel).

It is likely that, to have chosen to come to prayer, you have either something to ask of God or something to be thankful for in prayer. That is the real starting-point and it is more important than how you pray.

Pray in the way that works for you

The lives of the saints or the example of people we know might be helpful to us, but they should never become a challenge for us. As God speaks to each of us in different ways, so approaches to prayer are different.

Place and Time

These have a bearing on our prayer, but for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament they might well be limited to certain hours of the day and a certain place.

Posture in Prayer

There is something about humbling ourselves in the presence of God, whether by genuflecting or kneeling. However, where those actions are not possible, bowing and then sitting down, or varying posture between kneeling and sitting should lead us to a level of comfort so that our posture does not become a hindrance to our prayer.

Focus for Prayer

The Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle (a dwelling-place for God) or in the Monstrance (the holy object used to ‘show’ the Real Presence of Christ) is the same Eucharist that is shown to us accompanied by the words of Christ in the Mass.

For one person, the Tabernacle or the Monstrance becomes the focus; for another, eyes closed but knowing God’s Presence to be before you, is a way of concentrating; and for another, the reading of Scripture, or the Divine Office or another text of your choice is a way.

To come before the Lord in this prayer is to find the balance between being in awe of the immensity of God our Master and talking to
a friend.

Structure of Prayer

The norm for Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is silent prayer.

It is always good to begin with a time of thanksgiving to God for blessings received from God or answers to prayer.

A short passage of Scripture is an obvious way to listen to the voice of the Lord. This can be the reading of today’s Mass; or a book of the Bible you might be interested in. It can be one line from Scripture that either means something to you already or which you wish to centre on. Repeating it or contemplating it slowly, word by word, can be helpful.

Then you can pray for the needs of others. Our prayer is often so much more focused when we look to the needs of others before our own.

You can then look to your own needs. Let this prayer be an opening of your heart to Christ, who in his humanity can listen to you and understand something of the human struggle and in his divinity can intercede with his Father and our Father for the needs you bring to this time of prayer.

Throughout this time of prayer, you can either pray with familiar words (the Our Father; or a prayer to Jesus, e.g., Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in you) or you can simply structure your prayer as a conversation with a friend, placing before the Lord all that is in your mind and heart.

Always try to conclude a time of prayer with some words of gratitude to the Lord and an expression of hope that you will meet the Lord again in prayer very soon.

Outcomes of Prayer

The first outcome of prayer is the knowledge that, whatever time we give to prayer, the Lord uses that time, regardless of whether or not we felt the time was well spent.The motif of a conversation with the Lord requires both speaking and listening. In the introduction I referred to the Lord listening to us in this prayer and the consolation of being listened to.

The idea of Jesus speaking to us is a much more challenging thought. Some people have a clear sense of the Lord speaking to them; others will openly admit that they are listening but they do not hear much. Perhaps with this in mind, we know that in any conversation, in any friendship, in any relationship of trust, it takes time to build up a rapport, a pattern of communication. Most of all, it takes time and a willingness to make room in life for another person. This is true for prayer. It is a lifelong endeavour, and the more we reflect on the place and time, posture, focus and structure of our prayer, only then will outcomes be in any way possible.

 

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The Pope of Hope Visits Ireland

The Pope’s journey to Ireland this month comes at a tumultuous moment in the country’s history, and at a difficult time for the Church there. Joanna Moorhead spoke to three Catholics about the current climate in the country, and about what Francis’s visit will mean.

Maire Printer 77, lives in Westport in County Mayo

I was born and raised in Glasgow; I met my husband in the early sixties, and we were married in 1965. We weren’t well-off: in fact for our honeymoon we borrowed his sister’s house in Billingham, although things got better when, passing the bookie’s window, Bill noticed there was a horse called Printer running. He put some money on and Printer won: we got £12, and went to Paris instead!

Bill and I were happy in Scotland, but when we came on holiday to Ireland when our children were young, we realised how much we absolutely loved it. We bought some land in Westport, had a house built; and in 1983 we moved here permanently. We had four children by then: two were teenagers, and our younger children were four years old and ten days old.

All was well with our Irish move: but five years after we arrived here, Bill collapsed and died while playing golf. I was 47, a mother of four, a widow, and not in my own country: and the people of our community were incredible. I got amazing, unbelievable support. Funerals are extraordinary events in Ireland: everyone rallies round, you feel so cared-for, there’s a real sense of community.

So, 30 years later I’m still in this country and I still love it. I’ve always been a Catholic: it’s part of my identity, it’s who I am, it’s what I believe. Of course we’ve been through very difficult times here: of course I’m shocked and appalled by the bad things that have happened. But my mother used to say: your body can’t survive a week without bread, and your soul can’t survive a week without the Blessed Sacrament. And that’s what I believe: you can call it blind faith if you want, but I believe the Catholic Church in Ireland will get better, and we have to stay here to help it get better. I’ve got lots of friends who don’t go to Mass anymore and they’re no less Catholics than me: they still believe in the central elements of our faith, but they feel they can’t be part of the institution any longer.

My brother is a retired bishop, and I remember asking him once years ago, when I was a primary school teacher: what should I be trying to teach my children? And he said: you need to bring children up to realise that when they die they will be judged on how they treated others. That’s the important thing in all our lives. It’s how you live your life that matters.

Pope Francis is a very humble man, and even though so many here are disillusioned by the Church, many people here are much in favour of him. I’m sure he’s as sad as the rest of us about what’s been happening here, especially the two thirds majority in the recent abortion referendum. But he’s humble, and he’ll listen. He can show Ireland that God is about love; many people here grew up with a faith that made them terrified of God, the God who was always watching what they did, not the God of mercy and kindness. I’ve always known God loves me: everything in my faith begins with that knowledge.

Catherine Moloney, 61, lives in Dublin

The Pope’s visit centres on the World Meeting of Families, so we’ve got Catholics coming from all over the world to be part of that: I think people will be surprised by how international an event it’s going to be. So many people are coming from Europe, but they’re coming from much further afield as well: from Africa, America, South America, Canada, Australia, Asia. Lots of people have links with Ireland, and I think as it’s the summer many are planning trips that they combine with a holiday and the chance to reconnect with Irish family.

In terms of the feelings around the visit, I’d say this is all about hope: it’s about trying to bring hope and positivity to our Church and our country again. There’s a lot of respect in Ireland for Pope Francis: the Irish people are very warm and welcoming, and he himself is a human being, he’s not a distant figure, and he’s so with the people – with them, and for them. He has a different agenda: he wants to be seen with the poor people, he’s not above them but he’s beside them, in tune with them.

I remember Pope John Paul’s visit to Dublin in 1979. I remember walking there in such good spirits, and we all had to be there hours and hours in advance. There were a million people in Phoenix Park that day: this time, the most they’ll allow is 600,000.

I was newly married at the time, so I was there with my husband David. We went on to have three children, but sadly David died very suddenly nine years ago. Our youngest son was only 12 years old at the time: four weeks beforehand we’d been in the same church for his confirmation, and now we were there for David’s funeral. He’d been a fit, healthy man; he never smoked, and he played tennis and golf. So one great sadness to me this time is that David won’t be part of it.

I’ve volunteered to help with sorting out accommodation for people coming to Ireland for the visit and needing to stay with families here. It’s a huge job but it’s something I know a bit about: I did similar work for the Special Olympics which were held here in 2003, and then for the International Eucharistic Congress in 2012. The World Meeting of Families is at least ten times bigger, but I’m glad I’ve got experience of this sort of thing: and also, I’m confident that it’s all going to go well, that visitors to Ireland are going to love it here, and that we’re all going to enjoy having Francis in our country.

I think we’re past the lowest point in the difficulties now in Ireland. I know people have been very angry with the Church, and they have admitted their mistakes, and I think there has to be forgiveness on both sides. There is hope here for the future: we’re all learning from past mistakes, and I think Francis’s visit will really help with that.

Sarah Gurrie, 73, lives in Dublin

I’d love to meet the Pope: but if there’s someone who would benefit from it more than me, I wouldn’t fight for my place. The Pope is Christ’s Vicar on earth, and he means the world to me – but he means that whether I’ve met him or not. I was lucky enough to be in Rome recently, and I got very close to him in St Peter’s Square.

Back in 1979 I was in Phoenix Park for John Paul, and it was a truly astonishing day: more than a million people, and I remember how the nun standing next to me fell to her knees when the helicopter came into view overhead.

Today’s Ireland is very different from the Ireland John Paul visited, and I worry about whether we’re going to get 600,000 people along to Phoenix Park on August 26. Having said that, I feel that on the day the people of Ireland will turn out for Francis, just as they would for Obama or Clinton or the Queen.

I have great sympathy for people who feel despondent about the current state of the Church in Ireland; I know the scandals have been unbelievable. But we must be honest: there’s no perfect society, and terrible things happen in all walks of life. Of course the Catholic Church should have been different, and it’s very sad that it wasn’t. I do feel, though, that some people use the problems the Church has had as an excuse to not go to Mass any more. I sometimes think that for many of them, shopping and football are the new religion.

But the Church has had its problems before, plenty of them. And there will always be a core of people here who will keep the faith, and the Pope’s visit will give them strength. So we must have faith, and continue to welcome people and to show them the best of Ireland.

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Miracle Makers

Physical healing is all well and good but, according to a new book edited by Fr Frankie Mulgrew, the real miracles happen inside our hearts and souls, every day. He talks to Joanna Moorhead about the messages of his book.

One of Fr Frankie Mulgrew’s favourite stories is about a fellow priest who, when he was first thinking about being ordained, worried he would never be good enough. But then, one day, he met Fr Frankie. ‘And he told me later: I thought well, if they’re taking him, they’ll take anyone!’

It’s a wonderfully self-deprecating tale, and Fr Frankie loves it because it means he can be honest from the very start of our conversation. ‘Who am I that God would call me to be a priest?’ he asks, as we chat over a coffee in central London. ‘But thankfully, as they say, God doesn’t call the qualified; instead, he qualifies the called.’

Fr Frankie, the son of the comedian Jimmy Cricket and a stand-up comedian himself, was ordained in 2013; and in the years since, he tells me, he’s become increasingly aware of miracles. ‘Say miracle and what people tend to think about are physical miracles – the person cured of a terrible illness at Lourdes, that sort of thing. But there’s another sort of miracle, and in a way it’s the most amazing sort of all: conversion, a conversion of the heart. And actually, that’s the biggest miracle of all: because our bodies are finite, but our souls are immortal. So a miracle of the soul, is a miracle that lasts forever.’

Being open to these miracles, says Fr Frankie, means we can find them all around us. One day in his work as a hospital chaplain, he had to come up with a Mass intention quickly – and decided he’d make it a prayer for a miracle. A few hours later, his pager went off: a seriously-ill man was asking to see a priest. ‘I walked into the room and this man was looking very ill, and very sad. And he said to me, I’m dying and I’ve never been baptised – will you baptise me? So of course I did; and I knew that conversion was a real miracle.’

So taken is Fr Frankie with the miracles of conversion that he’s put together a book of them: Miracles R Us, profits from which go to support the charity Mary’s Meals, brings together contributions from figures including L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, former gangsterJohn Pridmore, healing nun Sr Briege McKenna, Dominican Fr Timothy Radcliffe, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, former model Leah Barrow and many more. Each tells the story of their own personal conversion experience: Leah, for example, tells of her days in New York City at the peak of her career, when her face was plastered on the side of taxis and the billboards in Times Square. Her life was changed in the space of one photoshoot: she describes how she felt a growing sense of unease – with the fashions, with the objectification, with the vacuity of it all. In the end, she simply walked out, with the photographer calling behind her that if she did that, she‘d be a nobody. ‘All I could say was, ‘Do you promise?’.’ She returned to the Catholic faith of her childhood – ‘It is never a question of IF God will forgive you, it is only a question of WHEN – and we control the when’ – and is now an international speaker on the true place to find beauty in our lives.

In his contribution, John Pridmore describes how he began to hear God’s voice, and decided to go on retreat. Until this point, his idea of a retreat had been ‘to be on a beach with a nice girl, a spliff and a whiskey’. But the religious retreat gave him the impetus to go to confession; and that experience was life-changing. Our hearts, he says, ‘are like a glass window: on one side is God’s unconditional love pouring down every minute of every day, on the other side are all our sins, so we cannot see how much God loves us’. He now works full-time for the Church, based in a religious community in Ireland.

Sister Briege McKenna, who has been a Sister of St Clare since she was 15, has a worldwide preaching and healing ministry; in her contribution, she describes some of the miracles she has witnessed. One is the testimony of a man who was dying of cancer, and who decided on a whim to go along to one of her services. He prayed, went to confession; and the following morning he got a phone call offering him the chance to try an experimental drug for his cancer. He is now completely cured. And yet, says Sister Briege, physical healing isn’t the best kind; even better is when ‘there’s an opening to God who pours in his grace and that grace can either flood your body and physically heal you or it can flood your soul and prepare you for the Kingdom’.

Going to Mass is an everyday miracle in the life of every Catholic; but in his contribution, Cardinal Nichols describes a Mass in Jerusalem, at the Holy Sepulchre, when he was transported back to the day of the Resurrection. It was, he says, a moment of transformation: ‘never before had I seen so clearly what is there before us…’. The memory of that day, he explains, is always with him.

The contributors to his book, says Fr Frankie, are inspirational characters, and many have a special place in his heart. He wanted to share their stories; but also, he wanted to produce a book that would open up what he hopes are natural conversations about faith and ‘ordinary’ experiences of a relationship with God.

In his own life, he says it was always his dream to be a comedian; as well as the influence of his father there were other comedians, including Ken Dodd, a big friend of the family, who were important in his life. But after a period of depression, Fr Frankie met a priest who proved to be an inspiration – ‘I was aware of this great warmth,’ he explains, ‘that I later recognised was the Holy Spirit’. He went on to embrace his calling to the priesthood; but does he miss showbiz life? In some ways, he says, the answer is yes. ‘But God has blessed me with many friends who are involved with it, so I’m still in touch with that world,’ he says.

As a comedian, says Fr Frankie, he was able to transport people away from their worries and difficulties for the space of a show – for 40 minutes, perhaps an hour, they forgot their troubles and laughed at his jokes. ‘But what I realised was that as a priest you can take away the worries and anxieties for ever. God can take away the fear, and bring a peace and joy into your heart that’s there forever.’

At home, though, the jokes go on. ‘My dad says he’s glad there’s a priest in the family because it means he’ll get a cheap funeral.’ And then, as we wrap up our coffee, there’s a final laugh. Wearing a clerical collar means people turn to you at any moment, he says – especially during journeys. ‘I was in a taxi once and the driver asked me to hear his confession. So I said absolutely yes – but please, could you turn off the meter first?’

Miracles R Us: Supernatural Miracles in the Catholic Church, edited by Fr Frankie Mulgrew is available to order from our shop

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Singing her Dreams: The Pope’s Diva

Carly Paoli was the voice of the Year of Mercy anthem, and a Pope Francis favourite. She’s half-Italian – but her roots, as Joanna Moorhead discovers, are firmly in the British Midlands.

‘They say all roads lead to Rome,’ says opera singer Carly Paoli, ‘and in my life, they certainly seem to have done that!’

Carly, who’s 29, was the voice behind the Ave Maria chosen by the Pope as the official song for the Year of Mercy. She says she couldn’t have been more thrilled, and treasures her memories of meeting Pope Francis. ‘He was smiling and so friendly; and he gave me a rosary which I’ll always keep, it means a lot to me,’ she says. ‘Singing that song has been a real highlight of my career so far.’

With her long black hair and filmstar looks, not to mention her exotic-sounding name, Carly is every inch the Italian; so it’s a surprise to learn that she was raised in a cul-de-sac in Mansfield, the daughter of a long distance lorry driver father, Paul, and mum, Tina, who worked in a travel agent. ‘My dad would leave the house at 4am most mornings and would often not be home ‘til late,’ she says. As a child she loved singing along to Disney videos: ‘even at the age of three or four,’ she says, ‘I was singing along to Beauty and the Beast’. She remembers on one occasion singing on the bus home, only to realise that everyone had gone quiet to listen to her, and that they were passing round a collection-box for donations.

So it was clear she had a talent, and by the age of nine Carly had told her mum that to be a singer was the career she wanted. Her parents duly enrolled her into theatre school, and took turns driving her to the lessons in nearby Chesterfield.

But, says Carly when we meet for coffee, it was her maternal grandfather who was perhaps the strongest influence in her career. He lived in Puglia, where her parents bought a house during her childhood, and summers were spent enjoying the long Italian summers. ‘The thing was that there were often fiestas, and a fiesta would inevitably involve plenty of music and singing,’ remembers Carly. ‘And at one point there was a big Mass in Torre Paduli, and my grandfather decided I should go along to audition to open the fiesta, so he drove me in his tiny Fiat Panda to sing for the priests. I was 14 at the time and it was my first big break: I sang to hundreds of people, and my grandfather was so proud of me!’ The Italian relatives, she says, were where the singing came from: one Italian uncle used to play the accordion and write folk songs, and a great-uncle, who worked as a cook for the Shah of Persia, was known as the singing chef as he would sing arias while doing the cooking.

At the age of 16 Carly won a scholarship to Tring Park School for the Performing Arts in Hertfordshire, and from there went to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester: by now, her heart was set on a classical singing career, which she says is a better fit for her voice than West End musicals – though she is a huge fan of Elaine Paige, and is tremendously proud of the fact that she once sang on stage with her. In 2014 she was heard by 16-time Grammy Award-winning producer David Foster, who invited her to make her international debut at his gala in Calgary, Canada. The following year came an opportunity to sing at Windsor Castle, following which she has added Prince Charles to her list of fans – he apparently asked her, after the performance, if she could send him her album, and invited her to sing at a Prince’s Trust concert.

FLORENCE, ITALY – SEPTEMBER 13: Singers Andrea Bocelli and Carly Paoli perform at the Celebrity Fight Night gala at Palazzo Vecchio during 2015 Celebrity Fight Night Italy on September 13, 2015 in Florence, Italy. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Celebrity Fight Night)

At Windsor Castle she sang alongside Jose Carreras, which she says was very special: he’d been her grandfather’s favourite singer, and he was so kind to her. ‘He was such a wonderful gentleman: he knew how nervous I was, and he really helped me to relax. His advice was to eat pasta al dente with olive oil and parmesan before a performance.’ For the concert in Rome for the Year of Mercy she sang with Andrea Bocelli, and has since sung with him at the London O2. In Rome, she says, Bocelli said to her, as they came off stage, how beautiful she was looking in her red dress. ‘His wife must have told him what I was wearing,’ says Carly, because Bocelli is blind.

Italy has become a second home for Carly; her relatives there are Catholics, although she was raised Church of England and is, she tells me, closely involved in her local parish church, singing regularly at concerts and fundraisers there. She was raised Carly Hopkinson, but at some point along the way it was suggested to her that her mother’s maiden name sounded more like an opera singer’s name, so she switched to that – and has clearly never looked back.

Carly is now widely touted as an opera star in the making, and her 14-track debut album, Singing My Dreams, was released earlier this year. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London and at the Forum Studios in Rome, it begins with the heartwarming ‘Music of Heaven’ and moves on to ‘The Mystery of Your Gift’.

There are several Italian numbers – Carly is fluent in Italian, and says she even texts her friends and family in the language – including ‘Almeno Tu Nell’Universo’, and she’s penned her own English lyrics to Italian composer Ennio Morricone’s ‘Se Tu Fossi’ from his Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso, a song which made number 2 in the classical music charts last year. Among four songs that showcase Carly’s skills as a lyricist is ‘Why’, penned in tribute to her little nephew, who asks lots of questions; and there’s also her words for the late James Horner’s Legends of The Fall. Another highlight is ‘Il Mio Miracolo’, a duet with the Italian tenor Alessandro Safina.

Probably the song that’s dearest to her heart is Memory of You, a song she wrote for her beloved grandfather, who died last year. Before we part we discuss, again, Italy: Carly adores the country, and would like to live there one day. She’s on the brink of a stellar career: not only singing her dreams, but living them too.

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Fr Martin Newell – Priest Protester

We are familar with the phrase ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ – Fr Martin Newell is an example of someone putting his faith where his mouth is – we met up with him to talk about his courageous witness in standing up against the scandalous and unjust arms trade.

Most Catholic priests who find themselves in prison are there as chaplains. Not Fr Martin Newell, though: he’s been an inmate several times, and is likely to be so again.

Fr Newell, 50, who is based in Birmingham, is what might be called a protest priest: like the Catholic priests and nuns who were arrested in Washington last week after demonstrating in support of US immigrants, he believes his vocation is not only to the religious life, but also to making a stand on issues he believes Christ, if he was on earth today, would have championed.

He’s currently facing legal action over an unpaid fine dating back to an act of civil disobedience at the 2009 London Arms Fair, when he and a religious sister covered a sign near the entrance to the fair in red paint. ‘We did it to symbolise the blood of innocent people,’ says Fr Newell, who was arrested, charged with criminal damage, and later fined £515. He has consistently refused to pay the fine, and was recently recalled to court to explain himself; magistrates have given him another 28 days to pay, although he made clear in court that he will not do so.

If he’s eventually sent to prison, he does at least know what to expect: in 2000-1 he spent six months inside after deliberately damaging a vehicle used in nuclear warhead convoys. ‘We got into the base and used hammers to damage the vehicle,’ he says. ‘It was symbolic, of course, but it also meant the vehicle couldn’t be used for something that is immoral.’ Fr Newell argues that direct action like this is the 21st century’s version of conscientious objection. ‘In traditional wars, governments needed young men to fight,’ he says. ‘But these days they don’t need men to fight, they just need all of us to stay silent, and to pay our taxes.’

His six months were served mostly in Bedford and Belmarsh prisons, and there were some unpleasant experiences. ‘Being admitted to the prison for the first time was terrible: the reception staff wanted to intimidate new inmates, and they were very aggressive,’ he says. ‘It was a horrible start.’ He also felt unsafe at times, and on one occasion had to intervene when a fellow inmate tried to commit suicide. ‘He’d slit his wrists – he survived, that time, but I’ve no idea whether he’s still alive now,’ says Fr Newell.

Being a priest as well as a prisoner made him a figure of some interest inside the prison. ‘I think the officers thought I was someone they could trust, and that I wasn’t likely to make any trouble,’ he says. There were some unusual situations: at one prison, the chaplain was a priest with whom he’d studied at seminary. And on one occasion, says Fr Newell, he was able to celebrate Mass in the prison chapel; at other times, he said the prayers of the Mass alone in his cell.

Born in Walthamstow and raised in South Woodford, Fr Newell first thought about becoming a priest at the age of 14, having been an altar server from the age of seven. After grammar school he studied economics at Southampton University, before doing voluntary work with, amongst others, the Jesuits, before going to Wonersh Seminary. After being ordained in 1997 he spent five years working in parishes in Brentwood diocese, before joining the Passionists in 2001.

But it was an ‘epiphany moment’ when he was a student that put him on the road to life as a protester. ‘I was looking for a way of being more radically committed to the option for the poor, and I had this sudden realisation that justice and peace work was what being a Christian was all about,’ he remembers. ‘I realised that, for me, being a Christian would mean living alongside the poor, being with the poor, working for them; and working for the causes I believe Christ would have worked for. I believe Jesus was a pacifist, and I believe that means I should be one as well. And the implications of that are using non-violent means to work for justice; I’m convinced that non-violent action is a legitimate and positive way of standing up for what I believe in.’

As well as the arms trade, Fr Newell has protested against the use of drones in warfare, and he’s currently directing his energy towards stands against climate change. ‘Climate change is the thing that keeps me awake at night,’ he says. ‘To me, it’s the equivalent of protesting against nuclear weapons in the eighties; in fact, it’s worse than nuclear weapons in one sense, which is that the damage is already being done. With nuclear weapons you could argue that it was about preventing them from being dropped: with climate change, the damage is already taking place. We’re currently sending carbon bombs into the air that will detonate in ten or 15 years’ time – and for some reason, we’re nothing like as scared about the implications as we ought to be.’

Now based in a house where he lives alongside asylum seekers, Fr Newell is part of the leadership team for the Passionists in England and Wales. He helps out in parishes, saying Mass and doing baptisms and funerals: but his vocation, he explains, is about hospitality and resistance. ‘This is my parish, this is my community,’ he explains. ‘The thing I often remember is that Christ was arrested, and so were most of his earliest followers. Should we obey God, or should we obey man? Being arrested isn’t the issue here; the issue is, why have you been arrested? Being a Christian is about being a faithful witness to Christ. We’ve got used to a Church that is part of the establishment, but is that right? Should we be on the side of the establishment?’ That, it seems to him, is one of the biggest questions the Church should be asking itself today.

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‘Finding yourself is Key’

Katharine Welby-Roberts, daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury, talks to Joanna Moorhead about the difficulties of growing up in a priest’s family – and how Christianity was crucial to recovering her mental health after a breakdown.

The Church, and Christianity, have been inextricably linked to the depression suffered by Katharine Welby-Roberts, the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has been speaking out about her mental health to raise awareness of the condition.

It was being a vicar’s daughter, she says, that was at the root of her inability to ‘find herself’; and that was to have a severe and negative impact on her mental health. Justin Welby was an executive in the oil industry until, when Katharine was three years old, he made the decision to retrain as an Anglican priest. ‘He was ordained when I was six, and after that we moved around a lot, to different parishes and different communities in different parts of the country.’

Some of the parishes, Katharine recalls, had a population that was 95% white; in others, most people were from ethnic minorities. Some parishes were wealthy, others were poor. In all of them, Katharine learned to become a chameleon, and to fit in. ‘I would adjust quickly – my accent, my likes and dislikes – to where we were living. I liked the Spice Girls without ever having heard them sing. I became what I needed to be; and that was great for getting on with life at the time, but not so good for understanding who I was.’

Added to which, there was the social pressure. ‘I remember my dad saying, when we first moved to a new parish, be aware that people will know who you are, and what you do might be fed back to us. My parents warned us to watch our behaviour; you felt you should always behave as though people were watching. Not many children are defined by their parents’ careers, and it’s not easy.’

Today Katharine, the third of her parents’ six children, is 31 years old: she has the clear-eyed gaze of her father, and she’s vivacious and bright. But all of this, she explains when we meet in her cottage in Reading, hides her battle with depression: a battle she has written about in her new book, ‘I Thought There Would Be Cake’, in the hope that sharing her own experience may help others. Her depression is clinical, she says, but ‘I think not knowing who you are makes it harder to manage and harder to live with mental health problems. And it makes it difficult to identify as anything other than depressed and anxious. The problem for me was partly due to being unsure about what was me, and that was something I learned along the way. I got to 20 and realised there were so many things I didn’t know about myself, including what my accent was.’

Being raised as a vicar’s daughter also meant there were expectations about her faith, she explains. ‘Children of priests are either ultra-rebellious or ultra-religious. And I’m not rebellious, never have been – but nor have I gone down the super holy route either. I denied faith for a while: when I was about 21 I’d say, I’m not a Christian any more. I told my parents and my mum was like, ok…which I was surprised about, I thought they’d hit the roof.’

For a while Katharine didn’t have a lot of contact with her family: she joined the police force, and made her own way. But inside, she was under a huge amount of stress. ‘I disappeared into my head. The way I dealt with my problems was to have a conversation inside my head – that was my coping mechanism. But it was making me more ill, because I was so disconnected.’

It was after a split from her then partner that she suffered a breakdown, which led to a reconciliation with her parents. Her mother in particular, she says, has been a wonderful support. ‘My mum is my hero. She understands me, she understands my mental health. She can spot changes in my behaviour that mean I’m under pressure. I can tell her things. My dad is a great man, he loves me very much, but he’s very busy and it’s harder to talk to him. If we’re on holiday, I get a chance to talk to him: otherwise, I’d have to book myself into his diary.’

As well as her mum, the other significant person in her life is her now-husband Mike, an IT consultant. They were married in 2014 and spent the first few years of their married life in a flat in Lambeth Palace; and it was there that they started their family, with son Elijah who is now one. ‘At first I thought I might like a home birth and that was interesting, because there hadn’t been a baby born at Lambeth Palace for many years,’ she says. ‘But in the end the doctors advised against it. But Elijah spent the first eight months of his life with us in Lambeth Palace, where our flat was at the top of a spiral staircase which wasn’t great with a buggy. There was certainly lots going on: one day we went downstairs and bumped into John Kerry and the president of Nigeria. Another time we met Angelina Jolie, who was there meeting my father.’

Having Elijah has, inevitably, changed Katharine’s life; like all parents with young children, it forces her to live in the moment and to concentrate on her baby and his needs. ‘We go out a lot, which is good, and I love him to bits.’ Her parents’ first child, Joanna, was only a baby when she was killed in a car accident: having Elijah has made Katharine think about her parents’ loss in a whole new way, she says. ‘Joanna was always part of the family: we’ve always talked about her, we’ve always celebrated her birthday. But now I’ve got my own baby I can’t even imagine how it must be to lose a child: I simply can’t imagine my life without Elijah.’

Eijah’s name is testament to the fact that Katharine has rediscovered her faith. ‘I used to ask the why question a lot,’ she says. ‘But I think understanding who God is and reading the Bible means you realise that it’s full of stories of people who are really struggling in life, and God is still with them. God is so big, and yet He cares about us as individuals. God has made promises and He won’t let us down, and that’s what I came to realise. When Elijah cried out that he wanted to die, God gave him the strength to carry on through the journey.’

What she realised, says Katharine, was that God was there even when her life was at its toughest. ‘God is present if you’re willing to see it, but often we’re not willing to see it. The psalms are full of anger and sorrow and depression; and then at the end of them, there’s almost always a verse of praise. The fact is that God can take it; He allows us to rant and rage at him. And that’s worthy of praise.’

Her parents’ faith has inspired her own. ‘My parents are very real, and you don’t look at them and think they are perfect. When they get things wrong they apologise. They trust in God in a way that inspires me.’

As far as her own condition is concerned, she’s not ready to say she’s out of the woods: but she does feel she has amazing support in the shape of her husband Mike, and her mother Caroline. ‘It’s a vulnerability – I’ll always be vulnerable to mental health problems,’ she says. ‘But the key, for me, is accepting who I am, and knowing that who I am is ok. That’s crucial.’

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The Sea of Hope

Thousands of migrants escaping war and turmoil in Africa and the Middle East land up in Lampedusa. Joanna Moorhead reports from the tiny Italian island on the response of the local Christian community to the crisis.

Everything is beside the sea on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa; everywhere you go you hear the rush of the waves, and you see the wide blue of the Mediterranean. At carpenter Francesco Tuccio’s workshop, the water laps at the end of the street, and you can taste the salt on the breeze.

There are plenty of nautical notes in Francesco’s workshop – wooden fishes on the shelves, boat pictures on the walls – but the real story here is in boxes on the floor. They contain pieces of wood – some big, some small – that have drifted onto the beaches as a result of the most pressing, and heartbreaking, humanitarian disaster of our time.

Francesco is in his forties, a father of four children aged between eight and 18. Like everyone I met in Lampedusa, he has been horrified by the influx of desperate people onto his island. They come from Tunisia and Libya, from Nigeria and Ethiopia, from Eritrea and Mali; they come from across Africa and the Middle East, and especially they come from the war zones and the countries that are most politically and economically unstable. Many of those who come are young men, who are usually the people most able to travel in any problem-hit community; but when things are bad the women and children, and even old people, start to move too – and there have been all of these arriving in Lampedusa over the last seven or eight years, since the migrant crisis began.

The ones who arrive here safely are, though, the lucky ones: for every 40 who make it to the shore, one dies at sea. The bodies of the dead are thrown overboard, and sometimes they too are washed up on the beaches; usually, the dead are the women and children. Not only are they weaker than the men, but they tend to be seated in the centre of the boats, and they die from the fumes from the engine, or are crushed when the men seated around the edges of the craft are flung into the middle by the waves. So those who arrive alive are often traumatised; sometimes, they have lost loved ones on the journey. At best, they have nothing; at worst, they have lost everything.

When Francesco, who like most of the islanders is Catholic, started to collect the driftwood from the boats, he wasn’t sure what to do with it; and then, one day at Mass, he had an idea. He would create crosses from the wood, and give them to the incoming refugees. He started to hand out the crosses to people he met at church; many of the migrants, he says, especially those from Eritrea and Ethiopia, are Christian.

In time, the Lampedusa cross, which is one of the exhibits in the British Museum’s exhibition ‘Living with Gods’ supported by the Genesis Foundation (continues to 8 April), came to have a meaning that transcends even Christianity: it came to symbolise hope against the odds, hope in a future that had once seemed so bleak, and was now at least a possibility. And Francesco’s gesture came to symbolise something more than a carpenter’s skills, too; it came to be a reminder that we can all do what we can do, in the face of human suffering. ‘I didn’t know what else I could do to help,’ says Francesco simply. ‘I’m a carpenter, so making crosses was something I could do; it was something tangible.’

Francesco is not the only Lampedusan who is doing what he can for the migrants. Paola Larosa, who runs the bed and breakfast where I stay, looks after visiting journalists; helping them to tell the story of what is happening here, she says, is her contribution. In the shops, where there is hardly any food available, the islanders dig into their own pockets to buy bread, milk and other items for the boatpeople. And they act as unofficial banks for the incomers, too, allowing them to get their relatives to send them money transfers, which they convert into cash.

Life for the migrants in Lampedusa is desultory: this may be a holiday island, with beautiful seascapes and sandy beaches, but the migrants are not holidaymakers, and for them there is nothing to fill their time. They are housed in a prison-like building with no TV rooms or sports facilities; in theory they’re not supposed to leave the premises, but in practice there’s a hole in the fence through which they can squeeze and walk into town. You see them on the streets and in the cafes: young men, mostly (some still children) wandering aimlessly or smoking cigarettes at the outdoor tables of the many cafes (they have no money to buy coffee). This is a holding station, a staging-post. They are lucky to be alive; but many have been bereaved on the journey, some have lost children or partners; and for all, there is the uncertainty of what lies ahead. While the aim is for migrants to spend only four or five days in Lampedusa before being moved on to the reception areas on the Italian mainland, the reality is that many are here for far longer, some as long as a month.

At the moment the numbers of arrivals are low, due in part to measures between the Italian and the Libyan authorities that have been criticised by Amnesty International; but at its busiest, there were 12 boats arriving each day. ‘People were sleeping on the beaches, on the dockside – just wherever they could,’ says Paola. Lampedusa has a population of just 6,000; but in 2013 they took in 23,000 migrants, and in 2014 13,000. Last year the number was around 10,000. And who knows what the future will hold: because of its geographical position, this island will continue to be the entry point to Europe for many of those fleeing war and turmoil in Africa and the Middle East.

In many ways the people of Lampedusa – people like Paola, Francesco, and the island’s parish priest Don Carmelo La Magra, have been the representatives of all of us in the migrant crisis. They’ve been on the front line of the humanitarian effort; they’re not professional aid workers, but they’ve deputised for ordinary people everywhere who care, in providing desperate incomers with practical aid and, most important of all, a genuine welcome. ‘The main problem [in the outside world] is that many people don’t think of the migrants as human beings,’ says Paola. They’re just regarded as ‘a problem’ or an ‘unfortunate phenomenon’; a regrettable by-product of turmoil and wars in other parts of the world that seem a long way from us in the UK.

Not so, says Paola. ‘This isn’t an Italian problem or even a European problem. It’s the whole world’s problem: it’s everyone’s problem. And the real problem is the wars that force people from their homes.’ Humanitarian corridors, which Pope Francis has been pivotal in helping to establish, are a crucial way forward in the medium term: they allow for the processing of would-be migrants through official channels, and so far at least 21,000 people have been given visas as a result. If there’s the chance of a safe way out, fewer people are tempted to risk their own and their families’ lives on overcrowded, leaky boats they’re charged around Euros 6,000 for a place on.

But in the long term, the people on the front line in Lampedusa are very clear about what’s needed to stop the influx of desperate people: an end to war and violence. It’s easy, says Paola, to think the migrant crisis is about poverty; in fact, she believes it’s about wealth. The world does not have too many very poor people, it was too many very rich people; and the fallout of the increasing inequality of our world is what drives extreme poverty.

In the office of Mediterranean Hope, a Christian charity set up in 2014 to respond to the crisis in Lampedusa, no-one pretends they have all the answers. They do think, though, that we should all be aware of more of the relevant questions. ‘European countries, including the UK and Italy, are still selling lots of weapons to the African continent. There are so many issues that aren’t considered when we talk about migration,’ says Alberto Mallardo, one of the workers.

Tomasso Tamburello, his colleague, says we should think about the crisis more in economic than emotional terms. ‘Over the years ahead, Europe is going to be enhanced by the skills of the migrants. In Italy we are not replacing people, our birthrate is very low. We need more people for the future – and these people have so much to give.’

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Bringing God to the House

What’s the role of Parliament’s chaplain? Joanna Moorhead goes to Westminster to meet Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin.

Most of the black women who work in Parliament are cleaners or caterers, and if Rose Hudson-Wilkin didn’t wear a dog collar, she would probably be mistaken for one of them. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a cleaner or caterer, as she’s quick to point out. But she’s a priest, the chaplain to the Houses of Parliament, and a staunch campaigner for greater visibility for people of colour in high-ranking positions.

Rose grew up in Jamaica: as she puts it, she had the great good fortune to grow up there, because it meant she was surrounded by black women and men who fulfilled all roles in society, including the highest of posts. ‘Everywhere I looked, there were people just like me,’ she says. ‘So I knew I could do anything I wanted with my life. It’s so powerful to be able to see your reflection in others.’

Her early life in Jamaica was no picnic, though. When Rose was just a year old, her mother went to live in the UK. Probably, she says, the plan was to send for her and her sister, who remained in Montego Bay with their father: but somehow the summons never came, both her parents found new partners, and it wasn’t until she was nine that she met her mother again, on a trip home to Jamaica.

The lack of a mother didn’t mean a lack of love, but it was the kind of love that’s shown in actions, and cuddles and endearments were in short supply. Much of her validation came from the extended community at her church: the other worshippers were always there for her, Rose recalls, interested in her school career and her life and plans. ‘We were fortunate, because there was a shortage of priests at the time and that meant the people shared the task of leading the worship. So sometimes it was the turn of the young people to lead, and that gave me amazing experiences. I preached my first sermon at 14!’

Around the same time, she began to wonder whether God was calling her to the priesthood. ‘One night I had a dream that disturbed me, and I couldn’t go back to sleep,’ she remembers. ‘I reached for my Bible, and it fell open at Luke 4 – ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me’ – and I thought, wow. And the next day the reading was from the same passage in Isaiah. I thought, this is no coincidence – it’s a call.’

The only problem was that women were not at that time being ordained in the Anglican church: but Rose was unperturbed. ‘I thought, I’ll just trust in God. I believe I’m being called, and I’ll obey that call. If God wants me, things will change.’ She joined the Church Army, and was sent to the UK for training, and while there met her husband Ken, a Geordie who was later ordained. The couple had three children (now aged 27, 29 and 31, and there are also three grandchildren), and for the next few years Rose focused on being a mother – but she never forgot her calling, or her belief that her time would come. As her children got older, and after the Anglican church admitted women to the diaconate, she applied for the training course, was ordained in 1991, and became one of the cohort of women deacons who were waiting eagerly when the Church of England general synod voted to admit women to the priesthood in 1992.

Parishes followed, first as a curate and later as a parish priest – and there were difficulties sometimes with churchgoers who were not comfortable with the idea of women’s ordination. Being a black woman priest made her an outsider twice over, she says: but she was determined to see the positive changes, and the fact that this was the moment to claim her inheritance – not just on her own behalf, but on behalf of young black people and women everywhere, who could now see the church hierarchy as belonging to them, as being open to all. The archbishop of York, John Sentamu, was a strong ally, and she spent 10 years building up strong and vibrant parishes in east London.

A decade seemed long enough in her job, and she was starting to think about moving on when Ken phoned her one day with some news. She was in Jamaica at the time: Ken was calling to say he’d heard that Westminster Abbey was looking for a new priest whose work would include being chaplain to the Houses of Parliament. ‘My gut feeling was, walking around in robes all day isn’t my idea of work,’ says Rose. ‘So I thought, it’s probably not for me.’ But several more people mentioned it to her, and she decided she should check it out. Parts of the job appealed more than others: she applied, as did more than 90 others, and after the final stage interviews it was decided to change the way the role is organised, so Rose could remain in her parish but take on the role of Parliamentary chaplain as well.

We meet in her office in the Palace of Westminster: it’s off the hallway of the Speaker’s House, and while we’re chatting John Bercow appears with his children, back from the school run, and the two greet one another warmly. Rose’s role at Westminster is closely connected with Berkow’s: each day at the start of the sitting in the House of Commons, she delivers the prayers for the day. ‘MPs often come up to me afterwards and say how moving they find the prayers, and how important they are to everything that happens there,’ she says. She doesn’t say prayers in the House of Lords because the bishops who sit there lead on that; but she also leads two communion services a week in the beautiful chapel of the Palace of Westminster, as well as officiating at weddings and baptisms (staff and members of the Houses are entitled to use the chapel for their family occasions).

Rose is the 79th Parliamentary chaplain, but the first-ever woman, and the first-ever person of colour. As at other moments in her life, she’s a trail-blazer. ‘I feel like Esther,’ she says, ‘who was told: you are here for such a time as this. I am able to be visible here, and I go off around Britain giving talks and preaching. I especially enjoy giving talks in schools, because I’m so aware of how important it is that the young people of today see someone like me in a job like this.’

She’s long been spoken of as a likely bishop; she’s not ruling it out but nor is she holding out for it either. ‘I’m not holding my breath,’ she says, ‘but if I’m called to serve then it would be something I’d consider. The important thing is to be focused on what you’re doing, and I’m still very much focused on life at Westminster.’

When I ask what’s been the highpoint of her seven years at Westminster, she answers without missing a beat: that’s an easy one. ‘Without a shadow of a doubt, it was meeting Barack Obama. I was in my robes and he took my hand and he said, ma’am, you look spiff.’ And she throws back her head and laughs, a big, happy laugh, remembering that moment when the most powerful leader on earth met the chaplain of the Palace of Westminster, and both revelled for a few moments in their shared African roots, how far they’d come, and how important it was that they’d made their respective journeys.

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Christmas in the Forest

Jean Vanier’s l’Arche community is a very special place at this time of year; but then again, it’s special all year round, as Joanna Moorhead discovers.

The live nativity at Christmas midnight Mass at the l’Arche community has something different about it: Mary, Joseph and the shepherds are all played by people with disabilities. It’s entirely in character with a place that sums up, and lives out, what it means to treat those who are handicapped as equals, and to see them not as people who need looking after, but as individuals with a great deal to teach the rest of us.

L’Arche, which lies in a sleepy French village in the middle of a forest, feels particularly remarkable at Christmas. Its founder Jean Vanier, who set it up after feeling appalled by the way he saw disabled people being treated in institutions, has spent more than half a century championing the idea that the secret to happiness is to learn from those who are physically challenged, to concentrate on what we can do rather than on what we can’t, and – quite simply – to enjoy our time on earth. ‘Christmas is the moment when all that comes together, because l’Arche is about celebrating, and Christmas is one big celebration,’ he says.

There are a lot of people to accommodate at the Christmas Mass and festivities at l’Arche, because the community now numbers more than 200 people, out of a village population of around 2000. And this village, Trosly-Breuil, while still the heart of the L’Arche movement, is now but a small part of it: there are 150 more communities, in countries as far-flung as Japan, Poland and Brazil, which adds up to many thousands of individuals, physically challenged and able-bodied, whose lives have been influenced, and often transformed, by the movement Vanier started.

It was back in 1964 when he first came to this village, which is a few kilometres outside the town of Compiègne in Picardy. An ex-naval officer who was searching for something meaningful to do with his life, he was invited to the village by a priest friend who lived here. But it was when he accompanied the priest to the institution where people with handicaps were looked after that Vanier realised this was his life’s work: the patients were badly treated, dehumanised, and not seen as the individuals they so clearly were. ‘They were condemned to a lesser life,’ says Vanier. ‘But the truth is that each person is a treasure, and in discovering the treasure in others we discover it in ourselves, too.’ The first l’Arche community was born when Vanier took two young men from the institution to live with him in a house in the village: in a family-like setting they flourished, and Vanier’s life was also deeply enhanced. ‘We are transformed by living with people who are different and who have been humiliated,’ he explains. ‘The great pain of our world is that it is obsessed with competition and the need to win. But if you go down the ladder rather than up, you find people who are interested not in wealth and success but only in relationships – and you discover that is the secret to great happiness.’

Rooted in Christianity – although those who work for it come from all faiths and none – l’Arche has always been counter-cultural, but in today’s world it seems to stand out more strikingly than ever. Does Vanier – an immensely tall man, who I met on his 89th birthday – feel worried about the effect of the Trump era on the philosophy he has spent a lifetime trying to spread? Predictably enough, the ever-optimistic Vanier is still hopeful, even though he concedes that ‘Donald Trump is the perfect example of the person I wish to change. But even though he says he doesn’t want migrants and seems to be turning away the very people I say we could all learn so much from, still we are in a world where, thanks to information technology, people are talking to one another more than ever before. And I believe that is where hope lies. We also have to pay heed to what’s going on: Trump is a cry for something, and that’s what we have to listen to.’

He also has hope in today’s young. ‘Many of them come to work in l’Arche, and what I see are ferocious individuals who want to learn how to live together. They’re interested in how to make the planet more beautiful, and in working out how we can all be together. The young people are different from the generation before, and that gives me a lot of hope.’ As always, Christmas at the l’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil will involve many youngsters who have volunteered to spend part of their lives alongside people with disabilities: the partnership between the young and the handicapped is one of the movement’s many strengths.

Fittingly enough, happiness seems to radiate out of Vanier, and his favourite word is ‘super’ (Pope Francis is ‘a super person, an amazing man, and you get the absolute sense with him that everyone is precious’); but the one time his smile fades is when I ask him how it feels to be the Catholic Church’s most pre-eminent living saint. Like Mother Teresa, who was his friend, many expect him to be fast-tracked to sainthood when he dies: how does it feel, to have that sort of accolade? He shakes his head and looks, for the first time, a little sad. ‘The problem is that when people talk about me being a saint, they aren’t thinking about what they should be doing, who they should be helping,’ he says. ‘Talking of me as a saint suggests I’m doing something other people can’t do, which is the exact opposite of what I want to suggest. Everyone can do what I’m doing, which is to welcome the disadvantaged into their lives and to realise we have much to learn from them. Doing this work hasn’t been a hardship: I’ve had fun, we have fun together. I’ve had the most marvellous time.’

Being with Vanier feels like being with someone who’s very close to God; but it’s only later in the day, when I’m invited to have supper in one of the l’Arche houses, that I start to properly understand what his contribution to caring for the physically disabled is really all about. Life at l’Arche is modelled on family life: disabled people and carers, known as assistants, live in houses that are as close as possible to ordinary homes. There are grab rails and wide corridors for the wheelchairs, but the sitting-room looks like an ordinary family sitting-room, with a large TV, sofas, armchairs and a rug. The house I’m in is home to seven people with disabilities and four assistants; in an ideal world, explains Gail, one of their number, there would be six carers.

Supper is served around a huge table: four of the residents are in wheelchairs, and three are severely disabled. What’s immediately striking is how the disabled people are at the heart of the meal and the conversation: they’re as much participants as the assistants and the less disabled residents. Everyone helps everyone else: one resident helps his neighbour with his spoon, another offers hers a drinking cup from time to time. The vegetables are served by Amelie: it takes her a bit longer to negotiate the spoon and to ladle the leeks in cheese sauce onto the plates, but time is not of the essence here, and enabling people to contribute is.

There’s no sense of exclusion around the table at l’Arche: being unable to communicate verbally doesn’t mean being unable to communicate in other ways, and it’s clear there are some big personalities among the residents. The three-course meal takes over an hour to complete, and involves a fair amount of mess: but mess, as Vanier would say, is part of the reality of life, and there’s no attempt made to sanitise or prettify the proceedings. One resident, who clearly loves his pureed spinach, ends up with it all over his face, neck and hands; but he’s clearly relished every minute of eating it – and everyone else has enjoyed sharing in how much he’s enjoyed it, too.

Christmas dinner will be another meal just like this, a meal in which the disabled and able-bodied sit side by side, understanding the advantages of both states of being, and knowing that both can learn from the other (especially, Vanier would say, the advantaged from the disadvantaged). At a time of sharing gifts, it’s clear that l’Arche is a place where the gift-giving is a two-way street, and where paying attention to those who may seem to have least can turn the world around in an entirely positive and joyful way.

Summer in the Forest, a film about life at l’Arche and what we can all learn from it, is available to download at www.summerintheforest.com