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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.’

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A Not-So-Everyday Miracle

This month sees the UK release of a movie about a real-life miracle that changed the life of a little girl with a life-threatening disease. Joanna Moorhead talks to her mother about how her faith was tested – and how her daughter came to eventually be healed.

In the garden of the Beam family home there’s a tree with a large cross carved into the bark. That tree represents a miracle; and not a miracle from centuries ago, but a miracle that changed the present-day lives of the Beam family and most especially their middle daughter Annabel, now 13.

Because five years ago Annabel, who had been suffering from an incurable chronic disease which sapped all her energy, fell out of a tree; and instead of being killed or horribly injured, as the doctors agreed was what should have happened, she emerged not only unscathed but cured of her terrible illness. Her mum Christy wrote a book about what happened – and it’s now been made into a movie starring Jennifer Garner which is about to open in the UK.

Miracles From HeavenQuite simply, Christy, 43, tells me from their home in Texas, what happened to Annabel was a miracle. ‘I had struggled with my faith, questioning God about where He was in our lives and why he didn’t seem to be hearing us,’ she remembers. But on that day in December 2011 God did hear her – and how. Annabel, who was out playing with her sister in the garden, fell 30 feet from one of the branches into the hollow tree trunk; it took firefighters five hours to rescue her, and they feared she might die before they could reach her.

But after being airlifted to hospital, Annabel was put through a battery of tests that showed she’d escaped without injury. That was one miracle; but the bigger one was to come. When they got home, Christy realised that her daughter, who had been in almost constant pain for four years, didn’t need her medication any more. Annabel was playing and running around and eating normally and behaving just like her sisters Abigail, now 16, and Adelynn, now 11. More hospital tests revealed that her rare medical condition, pseudo obstruction motility disorder, had disappeared. ‘What the doctors told us was that when Annabel hit her head in the fall, the software in her brain was somehow reset – and her condition righted itself,’ says Christy.

It was back in 2006 when Annabel, then aged four, started to suffer with chronic tummy troubles. Medical tests eventually showed an abdominal obstruction and then came the devastating diagnosis. Annabel, her parents Christy and Kevin, 44, were told, could not be cured and would need more and more medicines, and might even die. To give her the best chance of life, Christy and Annabel began to make the long trip by air to see America’s leading specialist on the condition – but to pay for it meant taking out big loans, separating the close-knit family and putting them under enormous strain.

Meanwhile Annabel was suffering terribly. She couldn’t eat normally, and was on ten different medications throughout the day to give her a better quality of life. Any virus or bacterial infection meant a hospital stay and a period when she would have to be fed intravenously so her intestines could rest. At home, she was barely able to do more than lie on the sofa through the day with a heating pad on her stomach to help ease the pain.

Their Christian faith was a big support to the Beam family – although Christy admits she struggled to understand how a loving God could allow them to go through such suffering. ‘Everyone in our church community was so kind, but I did have some big questions,’ she remembers. ‘What I can now see is that I just put my head down and carried on. And what I should have done is to look up and notice how many signs there were of God’s love all around me, because I wasn’t in the dark place I thought I was in – there was light around me, if only I’d noticed.’

The film, which Christy says is broadly true to life, makes clear that although there was one big miracle in Annabel’s story, there were lots of what you might call ‘everyday’ miracles as well; and, says Christy, these were just as important to the happy outcome. ‘There were so many people along the way who supported us and helped us and walked with us,’ she says. One of them is featured in the film – a Boston waitress called Angela who befriends Christy and Annabel when they come to eat in her restaurant, and takes them out sightseeing. ‘She then became a really good friend, and it was so wonderful to have someone in this big city on the other side of the country when we were on our long visits there.’ In the movie others are responsible for more ‘everyday miracles’: an airline employee gives the rest of the family the chance to get on a flight to Boston even though Kevin’s credit card seems to be declined, and a hospital receptionist gets Annabel a consultation with a doctor who’s booked up for months.

Miracles-From-Heaven-One-SheetAll the same, their options were fast running out, and Annabel was weak and in a lot of pain, when in December 2011 she went out to play with her sisters in the garden. For a while Christy thought all was well; then came a commotion, and Abigail ran into the house screaming that Annabel had fallen into the tree. Kevin, who’s a vet, raced home from work and got a ladder so he could peer down into the tree; what he could see was his daughter curled up inside the trunk of the tree.

Firefighters were called and worked for hours to get her out, and she was rushed to hospital where the amazing discovery was made that she was unscathed. And it was when they were on the way home that Annabel told Christy that she had felt she went to heaven when she was trapped in the tree – but that God had told her that her time to die wasn’t yet.

Christy says the big lesson she feels she learned from Annabel’s illness, and miraculous recovery, is always to have faith in God and His plan. ‘If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that God has a plan for everyone’s life,’ she says. ‘God made everyone for a purpose and He has a purpose and a plan for each of us.’
Today, says Christy, Annabel is like her sisters and her schoolmates: an entirely healthy young girl, not on any medication at all, enjoying life and growing up fast. ‘She couldn’t eat normally for four years, so now she jokes she’s making up for lost time,’ says Christy. ‘She’s very strong, very lively, in every way full of life. It’s something that, just a few years ago, we wouldn’t have thought was even possible. And what I hope our story says to others is: never give up hope. However hard life looks, however bad things seem, keep hope alive in your heart.’

Miracles from Heaven, directed by Patricia Riggin, is released in the UK on 10 June. For more information and free resources, including resources designed for church groups, go to www.miracles.damarismedia.com

Catholic Video

Mercy EP

A CD of seven songs for the Year of Mercy. Includes a psalm setting; a song of forgiveness and homecoming within the parable of the Prodigal Son; plus two thought provoking songs based on the Act of Contrition and the Jesus Prayer.

Available to order now for just £6.99

A CD Rom to accompany the Mercy EP. Includes music score, chords, melody line, lyrics, backing tracks, BSL signing videos, catechesis, templates for preparing services plus many more resources surrounding the Year of Mercy. Perfect for use in schools and parishes.

Available to order now for just £21.99

Catholic Video

Dewfall CD

This collection of contemporary liturgical songs was produced and recorded by Mike Stanley in 2012. Mike Stanley spent much of the couple of years of his life- while he was undergoing treatment- writing and recording. His musical creativity and deep faith were an inseperable consolation to him in difficult days. Dewfall has 13 tracks including songs: O Marie and Like the Dewfall.

Available to order now for just £12.99

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Bible Alive Articles, Featured

They Call her Attila the Nun

To the beleaguered residents of an impoverished inner-city area of Manchester, Sister Rita Lee is a champion par excellence. Joanna Moorhead went to meet her.

‘I have come that all may have life, and have it to the full.’ These words from St John’s Gospel are the first thing you see when you arrive at the Lalley Centre in Manchester; and they sum up its raison d’être, and that of the dynamic nun at its centre, Sister Rita Lee – who’s also known, round these parts, as ‘ Attila the Nun’.

Sister Rita is 71 years old, stocky, with glasses and wearing the kind of blue suit that screams ‘nun out of habit’ to any veteran Catholic. The Lalley Centre is her domain: she founded it ten years ago, and she is its pivotal figure. It’s a drop-in centre for those in need, and given its location, slap bang in the middle of perhaps Manchester’s poorest neighbourhood, Collyhurst, that means the people who come here really are in need. ‘Most of them aren’t working, they haven’t been able to find a job,’ says Sister Rita, who’s a trained social worker. ‘And some of them don’t have enough money for food and heating: they’re having to make a choice, eat or heat. The ones with children sometimes haven’t got the money to buy clothes or shoes for them; sometimes they’re having problems getting them into school, or difficulties with their benefits.’

No-one can wave a magic wand for people whose lives are in such deep difficulties, but Sister Rita comes pretty close. ‘What I believe in,’ she says, ‘are instant solutions. I don’t like this approach where people have to go and catch two or three buses to get to this office and that office for the help they need, or when they’re told to come back next week. Their lives are hard enough already; we’ve got to do better for them than that. What I do is get everything sorted, right here and right now.’

Sister Rita 007In action she’s reminiscent of a female equivalent of the Godfather; a Godmother, perhaps. Visitors to the centre are invited, according to a sign on the wall of the sunny cafeteria, to have two free cups of tea or coffee, and two free slices of toast (extra items 10p each), while they wait for the chance to see her. They are ushered into her presence in an office with a sign saying ‘St Jude’ on the door: he’s the patron saint of hopeless cases, but no-one is beyond hope for Sister Rita. Visitors sit down on the sofa in her office, and she listens to their story. ‘What I don’t do is judge them, because we don’t know all the details and we tend to make up our minds about people too quickly,’ she says.

Among the 69 people who came to the centre this morning (‘that’s about average,’ says Sister Rita) was a mother of three who desperately needs new beds for her children, and another woman (‘who was in a real state, very upset’) whose son owed thousands of pounds. ‘The people who need their money back are coming to her house and banging on her door – and it’s not her fault, and it’s certainly not the fault of her other children, but they’re all suffering,’ she says. The woman doesn’t want to go to the Lalley food bank, which is a few minutes’ walk from the centre, and Sister Rita understands that. ‘So what we’re going to do for that woman,’ she says, ‘is make up a food parcel and give it to her here, so she doesn’t need to go to the food bank. For the woman who needs beds, she’s already called the local SVP centre to ask if they have some in their depot – they do, so that problem will soon be solved.’

A few months ago, Sister Rita’s can-do attitude netted her a real coup. ‘I was lying in bed one night, thinking how can we help these people, and we’re seeing more and more of them, who fall foul of the benefits sanctions,’ she remembers. Sanctions are often handed out without regard, she believes, to what’s actually going on in a benefit claimant’s life. ‘And then I thought, I’ve got it,’ she says. ‘I’ll write to that fella who’s in charge of it, and to the Prime Minister, and I’ll ask them to fix it.’ The fella in question was Iain Duncan Smith, secretary of state for work and pensions (she was unaware, at the time, that he was a fellow Catholic). She was invited to a meeting with him (‘I think, to be honest, that he was a bit in awe of me…that’s what it felt like anyway’) and lo and behold, a team of officers from the Department for Work and Pensions now come to the Lalley Centre weekly to talk to people who have had sanctions against them, and to restore their benefits if they didn’t deserve them.

On the wall of the Lalley Centre reception there’s a picture from the 1940s of a group of white-clad first communicants with the priest. It harks back to a time when the Church in Britain was a different world, a kind of protective world for its community. In many ways, the Lalley Centre is a throwback to that era; and there’s nothing wrong with that, certainly for the residents of Collyhurst. What’s more, the protection the Church once afforded its own community certainly isn’t restricted to Catholics in Sister Rita’s 21st century version. ‘I don’t care who comes in here – I want to help them all,’ she says. ‘I don’t care about the colour of their skin, I don’t care what country they came from, I don’t care which religion they practise. They’re all equally welcome here; giving a welcome is one of the things we do, one of the things we ought to do, one of the things that makes a difference.’ Added to which, she says, ‘in my head there’s one God. We might call Him different names, and worship him in different ways, but He’s the same God. I thank Almighty God every day that I’m a Christian and a Catholic, but that’s because it’s what works for me. I couldn’t do the work I do, day in and day out, without knowing God is right beside me, working with me. I ask for His help, and the things that need to be done always are done.’

shutterstock_337104815Sister Rita attributes her success as a ‘fixer’ for Collyhurst down to various things: the fact that she herself was raised in poverty in Ireland, her sense of humour, and what she calls having a heart for the poor. ‘You couldn’t do this work if you didn’t have a heart for the poor,’ she says. ‘Sympathy isn’t enough; you have to have empathy as well. I knew poverty in my youth, and I thank God for it.’ All the same, she’s certainly no soft touch: hard-luck stories are checked up on, and woe betide anyone who comes to her with lies about their needs. ‘I don’t put up with any nonsense,’ she says. ‘If there’s any trouble I go and shout at people.’

She’s been a Presentation Sister since she was 17; like so much else in her life, it was all instant with Sister Rita. She found school difficult, partly because she was deaf but her deafness wasn’t recognised or allowances made for it; so when a Presentation nun came in to talk about vocations, she was put at the front so she couldn’t misbehave. ‘And when I heard that nun talking, I knew straight away I’d be joining them and coming to Manchester,’ she says. ‘I just knew that was the life for me.’

Today the residents of Collyhurst thank their God, whichever God they worship, that she did. And having alleviated the difficulties in so many individual lives in the ten years since she set up the Lalley Centre, she’s now got her sights set on an even bigger prize – local regeneration. The problem with Collyhurst – which is only minutes from the sparkling high-rise centre of Manchester – is that it has no supermarket, no hairdresser, no newsagent’s and no café. ‘But people need these places to create a community,’ she says; and her next big plan is to talk to the city council about what can be done to create more infrastructure. It’s hard to imagine Sister Rita is going to fail; with her behind it, Collyhurst is undoubtedly on the up.