Pope Benedict’s Visit to Britain; John Henry Newman; Tolerance.


Reflection following  Pope Benedict XVI’s  2010 Address in Westminster Hall:

If the walls of Westminster Hall could speak they could tell you most things that you need to know about the history of England.

The sham trials and trumped up charges of treason levelled against Edmund Campion and Thomas More; the State’s determination to force men to choose between their conscience and submission; and the systematic abuse of power and falsified evidence are all a part of the story of the Hall.

I first entered  the Hall in 1965, as a boy, when my school,  a school named for Edmund Campion –  brought a group of us to join the throngs of people gathered to pay their last respects to Winston Churchill, whose body had been brought there to lay in State.

The next time I walked through the Hall was in 1979 as a young Member of Parliament and have now worked in the precincts of the Hall for more than 30 years.

Westminster Hall is at the very heart of Britain’s parliamentary democracy and it was here that former Prime Ministers, political and civic leaders, gathered to hear Pope Benedict XVI remind us that religion still has a vital role to play within our culture.

As we waited for the Pope’s arrival there was a deep appreciation that history was being made but also that it was being healed.

The Pope began his address by recalling “the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides.”

“In particular”, he added, “I recall the figure of St. Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God.”

Pope Benedict then addressed More’s dilemma of how, in modern societies men and women of conscience, can be “the King’s good servant but God’s first”:

These questions”, he said, “take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse.” It is not enough to live by social consensus – or opinion polls.  Religious faith, he said, helps to purify and shed light on the ethics which should underpin political decisions:  “Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.”

Without the “corrective” role of religion, the Pope explained, “reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person.”

I wondered what legislators who had legalised the creation of animal human hybrid embryos, the abortion of disabled babies up to and even during birth, who had imposed party policy on previous conscience questions, such as abortion, or who had supported  measures which penalise the poorest members of society, made of this call to place human dignity at the heart of the political equation.

Pope Benedict also made an explicit plea for religious toleration – and for the celebration of public holidays such as Christmas – and as well as the upholding of conscience he called for the alignment of faith and reason.

In listening to this thoughtful and challenging address I wondered what Campion and More, from their elevated positions, would have made of the day’s events.

In their final agonies I doubt that either would have foreseen a day when the successor of Peter would be respectfully welcomed at Westminster. But both would surely rejoice.  As Campion hopefully wrote in the final words of his “Brag”:

“We may at last be friends in Heaven, when all injuries shall be forgiven.”

Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman at Birmingham

In 1848 John Henry Newman published his novel “Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert.” Recently re-published in paperback by the Echo Library, its beautiful prose and moving narrative is well worth reading – especially as we celebrate Newman’s beatification by Pope Benedict XVI in Birmingham today. It was Newman’s first literary offering after becoming a Catholic in 1845. It also probably means that apart from his extraordinary attributes as a theologian and pastor,  Newman is the first ever novelist to be beatified.

The book was originally distributed by Burns and Oates, whose owner, James Burns, had issued some of the Tracts of the Oxford Movement.    Burns disseminated several of Newman’s theological works – books which saved the company from financial ruin.  It may even be that “Loss and Gain” was written with a more popular market in mind, in order to help Burns – who became a Catholic in 1847 – to survive. It was republished eight times during Newman’s lifetime.   “Loss and Gain” is set in the early Victorian Oxford University that Newman knew so well. It is the story of a young student, Charles Reding, the son of an Anglican clergyman, and the boy’s struggle to find definition to his Christian faith.  As the narrative unfolds, we are introduced to Reding’s friends and tutors, and to the theological controversies and factions that were shaping the lives of a generation.

Newman astutely observes – and surely this is true for anyone arriving in any hall of residence at any university at any time – and as many will be doing this weekend at the start of their academic year – that “Almost everything depends at Oxford, in the matter of your acquaintance, on proximity of rooms. You choose your friend, not so much by your tastes, as by your staircase.” In the case of Charles Reding this finds him living on the same staircase at St.Saviour’s College as William Sheffield, also a parson’s son.

The differences that Newman ascribes to Sheffield and Reding are probably the differences recalled from Newman’s own undergraduate days. While Reding is “gentle and affectionate”, Sheffield “easily picked up opinions and facts…without laying anything very much to heart.”

Reding embarks on his studies, initially keen to take a conventional main-stream Anglican path, and not to become drawn into any of the factions. Sheffield, by contrast, will say, do and believe whatever is necessary to emerge safely with the university’s best degree.

Reding and Sheffield’s paths diverge as Reding comes to realise that, even if he passes his examinations, ensuring graduation, he will be required to take an oath assenting to the 39 Articles of the Protestant Reformation. Gradually he comes to understand that his conscience will not permit this.

Newman now introduces us to Reding’s other compatriots and to their disputations.

We meet Freeborn, a zealous young evangelical, who is insistent that salvation will come through faith alone, without the sacraments or the panoply offered by the comforts of the Church, and certainly not by works.  Here is Bateman who is an ardent High Anglican, delighting in Gothic architecture, vestments, and all the accoutrements, from piscine to tabernacles, but who views the Pope and the Roman Catholic faith as threatening, foreign, and un-English.   And here is Willis, who abandons his studies and becomes a Catholic, and despite attempts by Bateman to “reconvert” him, is ordained as a Catholic priest.

We also meet Reding’s teachers – Mr.Upton, who lectures on the 39 Articles and reports Reding for asking questions which he regards as suspicious and revealing a leaning towards Catholicism; and then Jennings, the Vice Principal, who, after interrogating Reding about his religious beliefs, sends him home, fearing that Reding’s beliefs might corrupt other students.

Most moving of all, as we see Reding part from his College and from his friends, we see him part from his family too.

Reding’s father has died while Charles is at Oxford.  It is to his sister, Mary that he turns and reveals the nature of his troubled soul. She sees his doubt as a betrayal of his family, of their hopes for him  – and for themselves. His mother becomes cold with Charles, rejecting him as he tries to explain his spiritual dilemma and the beliefs to which his journey has led.

Separated from family and friends, Charles now travels to London. On his train journey he encounters a Catholic priest – the first he has ever met (despite the constant accusations to which he is subjected of conspiring secretly with Jesuits).

At his London lodgings he is beset by a series of visitors who try to inveigle him into various philosophical or religious cults and sects.  Charles finally arrives at the Passionist Convent in London, where he is received into the Church, with his friend, Willis present. Now Fr.Aloysius – a Passionist priest – in his joy Willis physically lifts Charles off the ground. Reding tells Willis: “Too late have I known Thee, O Thou Ancient truth; too late have I found Thee, First and only Fair.”

Like the fictional Reding, Newman was received into the Catholic Church by a Passionist priest, Blessed Dominic Barberi. In 1845 Fr.Dominic had visited Newman at Littlemore. In his 1864 autobiography, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,”  Newman describes how the Passionist was soaked to the skin by torrential rain and, as Fr.Dominic dried himself by the fire, Newman knelt and asked to be received into the Church.

Although we should look to the “Apologia” rather than “Loss and Gain” for Newman’s account of his own conversion, there is no doubt that much of Reding’s story is modelled on his experiences and those of his friends. His beautifully crafted prose illuminate the religious contours of Victorian England – what Newman described, in his famous sermon as the English Church’s “Second Spring”  – the sermon preached in 1852 at St.Mary’s College Oscot, where Pope Benedict completed his four day visit to Scotland and England earlier today.

The “Second Spring” sermon began with some words from The Song of Solomon:

Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come. For the winter is now past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers have appeared in our land.”<

He gave emphasis to this metaphor by asking:

Have we any right to take it strange, if, in this English land, the spring-time of the Church should turn out to be an English spring, an uncertain, anxious time of hope and fear, of joy and suffering,–of bright promise and budding hopes, yet withal, of keen blasts, and cold showers, and sudden storms?

Newman understood better than anyone that this new birth would not be without pain. In revisiting Newman’s “Loss and Gain”, we learn a lot about his personal journey but also, why, over 160 years later, men and women are still struggling with the same questions and making the same journey.

That vast numbers of our countrymen still search for deeper spiritual meaning to their lives undoubtedly puzzles

the author of “The God Delusion” and his fellow protestors.  They find it even more puzzling that Christians are willing to surrender something of their freedom – “freedom to choose” – for something of greater worth.

Newman upheld Christian conscience but he did not preach theological anarchy. He warned of a time when  senior churchmen would disavow the Scripture and cast doubt upon central Christian doctrines  – and of a false liberalism . He said that the destruction of the church’s teaching authority would lead to theological

anarchy: “…religion must be based on authority of some kind – not upon sentimentality. It is the church which is the only legitimate guarantor of religious truth. The liberals know

this and are in every possible manner trying to break it up.” He also unequivocally upheld the truth of Christianity:

“To suppose that all beliefs are equally true in the eyes of God, provided they are all sincerely held, is simply unreal

and a mere dream of reason.” He argued that we would come to venerate spirituality or religion rather than Christ

and that “in this way religion is made to consist in contemplating ourselves instead of Christ.” He insisted that it

was a heresy to state that “any creed is as good as any other. The lie teaches that all religious declarations are

equally worthy because they are no more than matters of personal opinion.” Newman’s belief in the truth of the

central Christian creeds, his belief in the teaching authority of the Pope, and his desire that each

person should embrace their duty to share their beliefs and to act on them in a way that would benefit society as a whole,should

be central to our understanding  of  his beatification. Nor is it necessary to be a theologian to understand that

religion can have a transformative effect on society. Unlike Newman’s contemporary, William Gladstone, our greatest

twentieth century political leader, Winston Churchill, showed little sign of religious belief or observance yet, in 1943

he outlined his belief that Christianity was a glue that held together the nation:

“Religion has been the rock in the life and character of the British people upon which they have built their hopes

and cast their cares. This fundamental element must never be taken from our schools and I rejoice to learn of the enormous progress that is being made among all religious bodies in freeing themselves from sectarian jealousies and feuds, while preserving fervently the tenets of their own faith.”

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In Westminster Hall Pope Benedict renewed his call for an alignment of faith and reason – fides et ratio. It was also a call for genuine tolerance. But, in the place where Thomas More and Edmund Campion were both condemned to death as traitors, for refusing to renounce their Catholic faith, it was also a defence of a man or woman’s right to follow the faith of their choice and for that faith to have a place in the public square.

Forming Christian citizens – who balance claimed rights against duties, who participate at every level of society, and whose attitudes and actions are informed by their faith – brings great dividends to society generally.

Figures as diverse as Thomas More and William Wilberforce, and Lord Shaftesbury; Keir Hardie and William Gladstone were all principally inspired by their religious beliefs. But each of us, whoever we are, has a unique vocation and task which Newman said we need to discover if we are to be fulfilled.

In his sermon at Birmingham Cofton’s Park, Pope Benedict recalled the prayer of Cardinal Newman that each of us should discover what is the purpose of our life.

Cardinal Newman wrote a prayer to help us find what that purpose is:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not

committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life but I shall be told it in the next.

I am a link in a chain; a bond of connection between persons; He has not created me for naught. I shall do good – I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do

but keep His commandments. Therefore I will trust Him whatever I am, I can never be thrown away If I am in

sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow

may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers.

He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me – still He knows what He is about.”

– Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman.

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Reflections Prior to Pope Benedict’s Visit to the UK…

Universe Column

December 27th/January 3rd 2009/10


For British Catholics, 2010 will be “A Year of the Lord’s Favour” – a year in which there will be phenomenal interest in the Catholic tradition of Christianity. The historic State Visit of Pope Benedict XVI and the Beatification of the Venerable John Henry Newman will lead to massive interest in the Church.

Some of the coverage and commentary will be puerile, some of it hostile, and some of it will be based on  misconception, or prejudice.

All the usual suspects will be on hand to trot out the same old canards and bigotry. And many will feel bewildered and hurt by the controversial caricature of what they hold to be sacred and holy.

But in amongst that din will be the sweet and small voice of calm; and a rare opportunity for Catholics to reach out to their countrymen. Fair-minded and objective people will have the chance to hear from this country’s Catholics about the beliefs we cherish and why they matter to the nation.

The opening months of 2010 need to be a time of intense preparation. We need to organise ourselves to ensure that the Pope’s visit is a time of mission, evangelisation and out-reach.  We should be planning to throw open our churches, with invitations to the local community, contacting everyone who lives within the parish bounds .

In every parish, school, and Catholic home we need to discuss what little things we will personally do to make 2010 a time of grace for Britain.  Our focus should be on Benedict, Newman, and the Christ who is central to both of their lives.

A good starting point would be the Church’s teaching documents.

It is often said that the teaching encyclicals are the best kept secret of the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict has published three since becoming Pope: “Deus Caritas Est -God Is Love” -on Christian love; “Spe Salvi – In Hope We are Saved” – on Christian hope; and “Caritas in Veritate – Charity in Truth” – on integral human development.

These encyclicals, along with those of his predecessor, John Paul II,  need to be shared with other Christians and  beyond the Christian community.

English translations of the encyclicals are on line at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/

In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict says that in addition to professional training  each of us needs  “the formation of the heart.” He argues that “a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love.” And he contends that “the heart sees where love is needed, and acts accordingly.”

He invokes St.Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which he calls “the Magna Carta of all ecclesial service”: “If I have all the eloquence of men and angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.”

And he distinguishes between what he describes as three different manifestations of love: Eros–passionate, sensual love; Philia – love of friendship; and Agape– unconditional, self sacrificing love.

For Benedict “Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the love of God…” and “This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ, we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: “God is love”

In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, his message is both timely and significant.  It is a message which our countrymen need to hear.

2010 will be a General Election year and although Benedict’s visit to Britain will come after the installation of a new Government and a new Prime Minister, his teachings have an urgent application as Britain prepares to vote.

Benedict’s starting point is taken from the book of Genesis – that every human being, from conception until natural death, is made in God’s image and, therefore, of unique importance and worth. The practical outpouring of love that this belief requires must be directed towards the vulnerable, the weak and the voiceless.  He warns against dehumanizing ideologies and faceless and unethical approaches that devalue or undermine human dignity. He calls for justice and a radical shift in our priorities:

“The Church cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice….The promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.”

He categorically states that “Abject poverty is an offence against human dignity.”

Turning to the way in which a nation is governed he pointedly reminds us of St.Augustine’s maxim that “A state which is not governed by justice is just a bunch of thieves.” Benedict wants to see Christians accepting their duty to be engaged in the life of the nation but he does not want to see a theocracy: “…the Church cannot and must not replace the State”. Her role, he says, is not to govern “but to form consciences”.

In the run up to the 2010 General Election, Catholics should be guided by Pope Benedict’s teaching and should have as their objective nothing short of the stirring and formation of the conscience of the nation – on every question that affects the dignity of the person: from the resources we provide to the developing world to the way we treat the unborn; from the sale of arms to Africa, to the killing of the sick or dying; from the trafficking and exploitation of women and children to the threats to religious and political liberties and human rights; from the breakdown and threats to our families to the shameful treatment of the elderly; from the hateful rejection and vilification of minorities to the practical support of those whom wider society has chosen to reject:    All of these questions revolve around the formation of hearts and consciences, not by the Church seeking to replace the State.

Taking a stand on these issues may, however, require us to stand up to the State. History teaches us that this can have consequences: remember  St.Thomas a Becket, St.Thomas More, St.Margaret Clitherow, St.Edmund Campion and St.Maximilian Kolbe.

State and Church need to respect one another; and in Britain we can see worrying trends of encroachment on the rights of believers – from victimization of people wearing a cross to threats against our schools.

Cardinal John Henry Newman warned against the State acquiring or subverting the Church and eroding Christianity.

He maintained that a local church should not be a branch of the State but a branch of the universal or Catholic Church. This key question greatly influenced his decision to become a Roman Catholic. He wrote witheringly about measures passed by Parliament seeking to regulate worship  in the Church of England – arguing that it was not the State’s business.

Newman believed that the fractured and broken nature of Christian unity had significantly weakened Christianity’s ability to challenge liberal secularism.

It was why he yearned to see all Anglicans of a Catholic persuasion reunited with the Catholic Church – something he prayed for earnestly every day.

In responding to the recent requests of two Anglican bishops to make special provision for the reunification of Anglican communities with Rome, Pope Benedict,  a life long Newman scholar, will have had Newman’s desire in his mind.

2010 would truly be “A Year of the Lord’s Favour” if this element of Christian unity (what Cardinal Basil Hume described as “the realignment of Christianity in England”) were to come about.

No better starting point in understanding John Henry Newman’s vision and dream is Fr. Ian Ker’s magnificent “John Henry Newman – a Biography” .

The Fisher Press, founded by Antony Tyler,  has republished a number of  Cardinal Newman’s greatest works. Echo Publications have also re-issued  Newman’s novel, “Loss and Gain”.  During 2010 we should make the effort to make these works available in our parishes and schools for people to buy, borrow, or share.

We Cradle Catholics need to better understand what attracted men like Newman and Cardinal Manning, and G.K.Chesterton, to join the Catholic Church; and why many of our contemporaries – from Ann Widdecombe to Tony Blair – have also made the journey.

Bishops like Monsignor Graham Leonard and hundreds of other Anglican clergy and lay people have brought great holiness and commitment, deeply enriching the English Catholic Church.

During 2010 others will doubtless make that journey  – and we need to understand what has drawn them to the Church, what it has cost them, and how best we can welcome them among us.

Antony Tyler, who has undertaken such admirable work with The Guild of Catholic Writers and The Catholic Central Library is typical of the many Anglicans who have quietly devoted themselves to the Church

He says: “The Church’s message is about loyalty, about steadfastness, not moving swiftly on to the next fad but holding on to what is true—and that’s not a message you really get from modern society. I also began to understand—and this is something that has grown—how wrong it is to see the Church as a sect, or to get fanatical about one aspect of things, such as the liturgy. There is a richness, a depth, a width, in the Catholic faith. It’s open, it is meant for everyone. That’s why, too, we need—and perhaps this is especially important for converts, who may have arrived after some years of struggle and difficulty in various fields—to foster a sense of real love for the Church and not just to see things in terms of lobbying bishops about this or that, or always murmuring that something is unsatisfactory.

” I discovered that Catholicism is not narrow—it’s extraordinarily wide. That makes it very welcoming, very attractive—and also very intellectually satisfying. It’s a whole vision of life, and within it there are so many different strands, so many different ways of looking at things, that it has given rise to a whole magnificent culture, including, of course, the great range of Christian literature and art.”

Those are the same impulses that drew John Henry Newman towards Catholicism over a century ago.

In 1842, when Newman, along with a small band of followers, withdrew from Oxford to Littlemore, they chose to live in austere monastic conditions while they pondered their future.

They first occupied themselves by writing the lives of the English saints and Newman completed his “Essay on the development of Christian Doctrine” – which set out his intellectual arguments for the Catholic faith.

In 1845 Newman was received into the Church. In 1846 he was ordained a Catholic priest, returning from Rome, in 1847, as an Oratorian priest.

Throughout his years as an Anglican or Catholic – and he lived until he was almost ninety – Newman encountered hostility and rejection – from libel suits to internal disputes within the Oratories he founded.

Frequently there was failure and there was loss.

He found it acutely painful when he was forced to part from friends unable to make the same spiritual journey.   One by one he also experienced the loss, through death, of his closest friends. It left him bereft and distressed. Yet his faith never faltered and his accomplished legacy of writings – from his “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” to “The Dream of Gerontius” remain an extraordinary deposit of faith combined with reason.

To the end Newman was a great Englishman who loved his country and its people. He believes in the Englishman’s innate sense of fairness – singling out “his love of fair play, his compassion for the weak and his indignation at the oppressor.”

He also said, perhaps prophetically in the light of this year’s visit to Britain by Pope Benedict, that should the Pope ever come to Britain he would be “received with cheers, and run after by admiring crowds…winning favour and attracting hearts, when he showed himself in real flesh and blood.”

What Newman meant by this is that if our countrymen could see what is real, rather than the caricature of Catholicism fashioned by those who hate her, the Christian message would find deep favour in the hearts of the English people. 2010 is the opportunity to prove him right and to make it “A Year of the Lord’s Favour”.

Universe Column

March 7th 2010.

David Alton

Much will rightly be written of the historic significance of Pope Benedict addressing Members of Parliament in Westminster Hall – during the Pope’s visit later this year. It was here, in July 1535 that the former Speaker and Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, was tried for high treason for denying the validity of the Act of Succession.

St.Thomas’ judges included the new Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, along with Anne Boleyn’s father, brother and uncle.  The odds were stacked to make acquittal an impossibility.

Brilliant lawyer that he was, More believed he had to do all that was humanly possible to avoid prosecution and in the memorable words from Robert Bolt’s brilliant 1966 script of “A Man For All Seasons” he shrewdly says “Tell me the words” when asked to swear the King’s oath. He wants to assess whether they are words he can say while remaining true to his Faith. If there is any way to avoid direct confrontation and to live easily with his conscience then More will take it.

In the end Thomas More reluctantly concludes that the law is offering no way out and that no room is going to be given to accommodate his conscience. In the film’s exchange with his beloved daughter Meg, he explains the situation:

“If he suffers us to come to such a case

that there is no escaping…

…then we may stand to our tackle

as best we can.

And yes, Meg, then we can clamour

like champions, if we have the spittle for it.

But it’s God’s part, not our own,

to bring ourselves to such a pass.

Our natural business lies in escaping.”

After the corrupted legal process had run its course in Westminster Hall – and his betrayer, Richard Rich had received his reward of a Government post, as Attorney General for Wales – all escape routes were closed for More, and on June 22nd he was beheaded on Tower Hill.

More’s final testimony in Westminster Hall is contained in a still extant transcript. He told the Court that he was being tried for opposing Henry’s marriage to Ann Boleyn which he considered to be adulterous – not because of the Act of Supremacy: “you seek my blood as for that I would not condescend to the marriage”.

No doubt Pope Benedict will reflect on these themes of religious liberty, the right to conscience and the place of marriage in contemporary Britain.

Perhaps it would also be a moment to dwell on  courage and heroism – for Westminster Hall would be the place of trail for many other notable Catholics.

In 1581, forty six years after the trail of More, Edmund Campion was brought to the Hall to face similar charges.

Having spent a year clandestinely celebrating Mass and bringing the sacraments to England’s Catholics, Campion had been arrested and brought before Queen Elizabeth – who asked him if he acknowledged her as the true Queen of England. After he replied in the affirmative she offered him wealth and preferment on the condition that he renounced his faith. His refusal led to incarceration in the Tower of London. He later pointed out that the Queen’s offer of a rich and comfortable life made nonsense of the charge that he was a traitor.

After being tortured on the rack, on September 1st, 18th, 23rd and 27th 1581, he faced public interrogation at the Tower and subsequent torture.

On November 14th Campion, along with his companions Frs. Sherwin, Kirby, Cottam, Johnson, Rishton and a layman, Orton, were arraigned at the Bar of Westminster Hall.

Campion responded “I protest before God and His holy angels, before Heaven and earth, before the world and this bar whereat I stand, which is but a small resemblance of the terrible judgment of the next life, that I am not guilty of any part of the treason contained in the indictment, or of any other treason whatever.”

Ralph Sherwin added: “The plain reason of our standing here is religion and not treason.”

The following day a further seven Catholic priest were similarly arraigned at the Bar of the Hall. The trial took place on November 20th when his accusers described him as an agent of the Pope and the Holy See. He replied that his sole aim was to preach the Gospel.

In addressing the jury he told them “how dear the innocent is to God, and to what price he holdeth man’s blood.” He reminded them who his accusers were: “one hath confessed himself a murderer (Eliot), the other (Munday) a detestable atheist, a profane heathen, a destroyer of two men already. On your consciences would you believe them – they that have betrayed both God and man, nay, that have nothing left to swear by, neither religion nor honesty?”

Campion was convicted and sentenced to death as a traitor.  With words that still resonate in 2010 he rebuked those who condemned him: “ The only thing that we now have to say is, that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen had.  In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England — the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.

“God lives; posterity will live; their judgment is not so liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death.”

As they were taken from Westminster Hall the condemned men broke into the words of the Te Deum. Campion spent the next eleven days in prayer, and then, on December 3rd, with Fr.Sherwin and Fr.Briant he was taken to Tyburn – today’s Marble Arch – where he was hanged, drawn and quartered. He was aged 41.

No one has ever told Campion’s courageous story better than Evelyn Waugh. His 1935 book has been republished by Sophia Institute Press under the title “St.Edmund Campion –Priest and Martyr”, and includes the full text of “Campion’s Brag.”

The sham trials and trumped up charges of treason levelled against Campion and More; the State’s determination to force men to choose between their conscience and submission; and the systematic abuse of power and falsified evidence are all a part of the story of Westminster Hall.

In their final agonies I doubt that either Campion or More would have foreseen a day when the successor of Peter would be respectfully welcomed at Westminster. But both would surely rejoice.  As Campion hopefully wrote in the final words of his “Brag”: “we may at last be friends in Heaven, when all injuries shall be forgiven.”

Universe Column

November 22nd 2009.

David Alton

From time to time secular Britain and believing Britain cast a puzzled eye over one another.  The sight of large crowds venerating the relics of St.Therese of Lisieux was one of those moments and next year’s visit by Pope Benedict, and the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, will be another.

For Britain’s diverse and vibrant Catholic community this will be an opportunity to reach out to the perplexed and puzzled; a chance to explain ourselves and the truths to which we hold fast.

During the coming months every Catholic parish, every Catholic school, and every religious and lay organisation – from the Catholic Union to the Catholic Women’s League – will be preparing the ground so that Catholics can properly tell their story – and particularly the stories of Newman and Benedict XVI – to our puzzled but often fascinated countrymen.

When Salford Diocese carried out their Faith In The Future survey of lay people, the bishop asked what should be the priorities of the church in his diocese, 90% of the 20,000 who responded replied that it should be “mission” or “evangelisation.” Well, here’s our chance.

In this respect we should definitely take our cue from Cardinal Newman.

He said that there is a unique task assigned to each one of us and that the challenge is to discover what the task is.

He also warned against using the excuse of our own inadequacy as a reason for sloughing off our responsibility and leaving it to someone else. We’ll wait for ever if we wait until we think we are perfect: “A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.”

Elsewhere he said “We are not born for ourselves , but for our kind, for our neighbours, for our country: it is but selfishness, indolence, a perverse fastidiousness, an unmanliness, and no virtue or praise, to bury our talent in a napkin”

  • quite a clarion call from one of the nineteenth century’s greatest theologians, and masters of English prose.

Newman also pointed every Christian towards the Pope and towards Catholic unity.

Writing while still an Anglican he prophetically warned against the danger of non-belief infecting the Church – of a time when senior churchmen would disavow the Scripture and cast doubt upon central Christian doctrines  – and of a false liberalism . He said that the destruction of the church’s teaching authority would lead to theological anarchy: “…religion must be based on authority of some kind – not upon sentimentality. It is the church which is the only legitimate guarantor of religious truth. The liberals know this and are in every possible manner trying to break it up.”

He also unequivocally upheld the truth of Christianity: “To suppose that all beliefs are equally true in the eyes of God, provided they are all sincerely held, is simply unreal and a mere dream of reason.”

He argued that we would come to venerate spirituality or religion rather than Christ and that “in this way religion is made to consist in contemplating ourselves instead of Christ.” He insisted that it was a heresy to state that “any creed is as good as any other. The lie teaches that all religious declarations are equally worthy because they are no more than matters of personal opinion.”

Newman’s belief in the truth of the central Christian creeds, his belief in the teaching authority of the Pope, and his desire that each person should embrace their duty to share their beliefs and to act on them in a way that would benefit society as a whole, should be at the heart of our preparation for his beatification.

Nor is it necessary to be a theologian to understand that religion can have a transformative effect on society. Unlike Newman’s contemporary, William Gladstone, our greatest twentieth century political leader, Winston Churchill, showed little sign of religious belief or observance yet, in 1943, he outlined his belief that Christianity was a glue that held together the nation:

“Religion has been the rock in the life and character of the British people upon which they have built their hopes and cast their cares. This fundamental element must never be taken from our schools and I rejoice to learn of the enormous progress that is being made among all religious bodies in freeing themselves from sectarian jealousies and feuds, while preserving fervently the tenets of their own faith.”

In today’s world we need to renew that fervour and proclaim our faith, without either sliding into

sectarianism or a wishy-washy syncretism which seeks to appease everyone and  ends up speaking to no-one. Forming Christian citizens – who balance claimed rights against duties, who participate at every level of society, and whose attitudes and actions are informed by their faith – should be our greatest priority.

Figures as diverse as Thomas More and William Wilberforce, and Lord Shaftesbury; Keir Hardie and William Gladstone were all principally inspired by their religious beliefs.

When Pope Benedict comes to Britain he will remind us of the inspiring role of John Henry Newman – but it would be good if he and we used the opportunity to celebrate and reflect on the overall Christian contribution to our nation’s life.

If men like the Wesley brothers or William Wilberforce had been Catholics we would doubtless have been beatifying them too: they certainly deserve to have their memory celebrated and recalled.

The message of their lives is that, whoever we are, there is some task waiting for us to do. Cardinal Newman wrote a prayer to help us find what that purpose is:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain; a bond of connection between persons; He has not created me for naught. I shall do good – I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore I will trust Him whatever I am, I can never be thrown away If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me – still He knows what He is about.”- Cardinal Newman.

Universe Column

November 29th 2009

David Alton

In 1848 John Henry Newman published his novel “Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert.” Recently re-published in paperback by the Echo Library, its beautiful prose and moving narrative is well worth reading – especially as we prepare for Newman’s beatification. It was Newman’s first literary offering after becoming a Catholic in 1845.

It was originally distributed by Burns and Oates, whose owner, James Burns, had issued some of the Tracts of the Oxford Movement.

Burns disseminated several of Newman’s theological works – books which saved the company from financial ruin.  It may even be that “Loss and Gain” was written with a more popular market in mind, in order to help Burns – who became a Catholic in 1847 – to survive. It was republished eight times during Newman’s lifetime.

“Loss and Gain” is set in the early Victorian Oxford University that Newman knew so well. It is the story of a young student, Charles Reding, the son of an Anglican clergyman, and the boy’s struggle to find definition to his Christian faith.  As the narrative unfolds, we are introduced to Reding’s friends and tutors, and to the theological controversies and factions that were shaping the lives of a generation.

Newman astutely observes – and surely this is true for anyone arriving in any hall of residence at any university at any time – that “Almost everything depends at Oxford, in the matter of your acquaintance, on proximity of rooms. You choose your friend, not so much by your tastes, as by your staircase.” In the case of Charles Reding this finds him living on the same staircase at St.Saviour’s College as William Sheffield, also a parson’s son.

The differences that Newman ascribes to Sheffield and Reding are probably the differences recalled from Newman’s own undergraduate days. While Reding is “gentle and affectionate”, Sheffield “easily picked up opinions and facts…without laying anything very much to heart.”

Reding embarks on his studies, initially keen to take a conventional main-stream Anglican path, and not to become drawn into any of the factions. Sheffield, by contrast, will say, do and believe whatever is necessary to emerge safely with the university’s best degree.

Reding and Sheffield’s paths diverge as Reding comes to realise that, even if he passes his examinations, ensuring graduation, he will be required to take an oath assenting to the 39 Articles of the Protestant Reformation. Gradually he comes to understand that his conscience will not permit this.

Newman now introduces us to Reding’s other compatriots and to their disputations.

We meet Freeborn, a zealous young evangelical, who is insistent that salvation will come through faith alone, without the sacraments or the panoply offered by the comforts of the Church, and certainly not by works.  Here is Bateman who is an ardent High Anglican, delighting in Gothic architecture, vestments, and all the accoutrements, from piscine to tabernacles, but who views the Pope and the Roman Catholic faith as threatening, foreign, and un-English.   And here is Willis, who abandons his studies and becomes a Catholic, and despite attempts by Bateman to “reconvert” him, is ordained as a Catholic priest.

We also meet Reding’s teachers – Mr.Upton, who lectures on the 39 Articles and reports Reding for asking questions which he regards as suspicious and revealing a leaning towards Catholicism; and then Jennings, the Vice Principal, who, after interrogating Reding about his religious beliefs, sends him home, fearing that Reding’s beliefs might corrupt other students.

Most moving of all, as we see Reding part from his College and from his friends, we see him part from his family too.

Reding’s father has died while Charles is at Oxford.  It is to his sister, Mary that he turns and reveals the nature of his troubled soul. She sees his doubt as a betrayal of his family, of their hopes for him  – and for themselves. His mother becomes cold with Charles, rejecting him as he tries to explain his spiritual dilemma and the beliefs to which his journey has led.

Separated from family and friends, Charles now travels to London. On his train journey he encounters a Catholic priest – the first he has ever met (despite the constant accusations to which he is subjected of conspiring secretly with Jesuits).

At his London lodgings he is beset by a series of visitors who try to inveigle him into various philosophical or religious cults and sects.  Charles finally arrives at the Passionist Convent in London, where he is received into the Church, with his friend, Willis present. Now Fr.Aloysius – a Passionist priest – in his joy Willis physically lifts Charles off the ground. Reding tells Willis: “Too late have I known Thee, O Thou Ancient truth; too late have I found Thee, First and only Fair.”

Like the fictional Reding, Newman was received into the Catholic Church by a Passionist priest, Blessed Dominic Barberi. In 1845 Fr.Dominic had visited Newman at Littlemore. In his 1864 autobiography, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,”  Newman describes how the Passionist was soaked to the skin by torrential rain and, as Fr.Dominic dried himself by the fire, Newman knelt and asked to be received into the Church.

Although we should look to the “Apologia” rather than “Loss and Gain” for Newman’s account of his own conversion, there is no doubt that much of Reding’s story is modelled on his experiences and those of his friends. His beautifully crafted prose illuminate the religious contours of Victorian England – what Newman described, in his famous sermon as the English Church’s “Second Spring.”

The “Second Spring” sermon began with some words from The Song of Solomon:

“Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come. For the winter is now past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers have appeared in our land.”

He gave emphasis to this metaphor by asking:

Have we any right to take it strange, if, in this English land, the spring-time of the Church should turn out to be an English spring, an uncertain, anxious time of hope and fear, of joy and suffering,–of bright promise and budding hopes, yet withal, of keen blasts, and cold showers, and sudden storms?

Newman understood better than anyone that this new birth would not be without pain. In revisiting Newman’s “Loss and Gain”, we learn a lot about his personal journey but also, why, over 160 years later, men and women are still struggling with the same questions and making the same journey.

Universe Column

September 19th 2010.

David Alton

Mahatma Gandhi once remarked that “what has most depressed me in life has been the hardness of heart of the educated.” Gandhi understood the difference between being clever and being wise.

On venturing into the lion’s den of these islands Pope Benedict is visiting one of the most educated nations on earth but its educated classes – many of whom seek to lead public opinion – are often disfigured by a hardness of heart.

Many will not welcome him and some are downright hostile. Benedict will have gathered that we are not the angels in disguise who prompted one of the greatest of his predecessors to send the Roman mission to Britain.

When, in 573, Pope Gregory the Great encountered the Anglo-Saxon slave boys in Trajan’s Market, he asked who they were: “Angli” he was told,  famously retorting with the aphorism: “Non Angli, sed angeli” – not English (Angles) but angels: “Well named, for they have angelic faces and ought to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.”

To help us achieve that objective Gregory sent his trusted friend, Augustine, to evangelise these same English.

By the time of Pope Gregory’ death, in 604, the conversion of the Kentish King and his nobles had created a bridge-head for Christianity at Canterbury.  Gregory summed up his relationship with the bishops of the universal church – and his responsibility to them – with the official appellation that the Pope should be the “servant of the servants of God.”

He also held that continuity and adherence to the central tenets of Christianity were crucial to the teaching authority  of the church: “For the rule of justice and reason suggests that one who desires his own orders to be observed by his successors should undoubtedly keep the will and ordinances of his predecessor.”

The prayers of the pontiff and Augustine’s successor, Archbishop Rowan Williams, at the tomb of St.Edward the Confessor, will surely have given thanks for Gregory and Augustine and for a renewal of their evangelising missionary zeal in our own times.

Like Gregory, Pope Benedict also sees himself as “the servant of the servants of God” and as upholding the principles of justice and reason.

If some of those who have hardened their hearts against him were to open their minds to his teachings and to the spirit in which he has come, then his visit will not have been in vain.

Trajan’s Market may no longer trade in slaves but western nations like our own have become a different kind of market place – where a materialistic vision of mankind denies the existence of a soul, generates a lifestyle of self-centred individualism, and where broken lives, broken families, broken homes and  broken communities are the consequence of market place values.

In speaking at Westminster, in the Hall where More and Campion stood trial for their Catholic faith, Benedict needed only to hold up a mirror to contemporary society and ask us if we like what we see.

Pope Benedict won’t have come to Britain in the expectation of finding a nation of angels – but he might find below the thin veneer of intellectual hostility – something more interesting, more appreciative, and more welcoming.  He might not find the fabled angels but he could discover a nation with an extraordinary story, a nation which, when roused, can achieve great things. He will also discover people who understand the intellectual deceit which has robbed them of something infinitely important.

He will encounter such people at Westminster Cathedral, at Birmingham’s Cofton Park for the beatification of John Henry Newman, and at the prayer vigil in Hyde – and among the innocent and expectant children who gathered for The Big Assembly.

Pope Benedict will see in the faces of the serried ranks of faithful Catholics people who continue to be animated by faith in the God who made them, and in whose image man has been made.

Throughout Great Britain many will be giving thanks that Gregory and Peter’s successor has come to call us back to the worship of God rather than the worship of ourselves and the things we possess; and, whatever our individual or collective failures, they will pray that this will be a moment of grace and renewal.

Beginning in Scotland – from where in 1320 the earls and barons of Scotland wrote to the Pope asking him to urge the kings of England  to let them live in peace and independence – Benedict encountered a vibrant and resourceful people.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s prophetic voice has so often pierced through the cacophony of noisy opinions – and has been raised to such effect on issues such as the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos.  Cardinal O’Brien has received significant support from other Christian denominations.

I was present in Edinburgh when Cardinal O’Brien addressed the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

The Cardinal held high a small towel from his bag and said that although he had no basin or water he had come to wash their feet.  Greatly moved, he was given a rapturous reception

Under his leadership, and that of the late Cardinal Winning, Scotland has come a long way from the sectarianism of the past; a long way since  John Hamilton, the last of the mediaeval Archbishops of St.Andrews was driven from his see and executed, and the cathedral of St.Andrews left in ruins.

The Pope will have heard more about this theme of religious tolerance and mutual respect when he arrived in England at Twickenham.

Given that this event was a celebration of British religious diversity, it is ironic – and telling – that secular opponents of the papal visit announced that they would demonstrate.

The original, inspired,  proposal for the inter-faith gathering –unprecedented during a papal visit – came from Professor  David Khalili. He is a devout Orthodox Jew who, quite exceptionally, has received a papal knighthood from two Popes – for his work in furthering relations between the great faiths and cultures and for his pursuit of peace.

Professor Khalili is the chairman of the Maimonides Foundation, an interfaith organisation that fosters understanding and co-operation between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is named for Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who was a great physician and theologian who succeeded in understanding the faiths of others, which allowed him to live in peace amongst them, while still being loyal to his own beliefs.

Maimonides had an open heart and an open mind – something which those who seek to disrupt or demonstrate against Benedict should bear in mind.

In Psalm 95 the psalmist famously warned the people of Israel not to harden their hearts “as you did at Meribah, as you did at Massah in the desert”.  While Pope Benedict is with us this weekend it’s not such a bad thought for the people of Britain either.