One year ago, at Westminster, Pope Benedict told English Catholics not to lose their identity; not to forget their Christian roots; to remember who they are; to pass on their beliefs to their children and to share their love of their Faith with their countrymen.
Some flavour of that identity has memorably been revealed in the remarkable “Treasures From Heaven” exhibition recently staged at the British Museum and sponsored by two significant Catholics, John Studzinski CBE and Michael Hintze. Both men have been honoured with Papal Knighthoods by the Holy See for their services to arts and culture.
The queues which have formed at the British Museum underline the public appetite for sacred culture. I saw the same phenomenon during 2008, when Liverpool was European Capital of Culture and, at St.Francis Xavier’s church, and an exhibition was staged entitled “Held in Trust”. Around 30,000 people poured in to the magnificent setting of SFX to see some of the wonderful artefacts loaned by Stonyhurst College and by the Society of Jesus. Arising out of the “Held In Trust” exhibition, Stonyhurst College published a beautiful book, by the same name, detailing some of the Collections which they hold and which they want to house in a permanent Christian Heritage Centre.
As a lasting legacy of Pope Benedict’s historic State Visit, the College Governors and the Society of Jesus have made available a Grade Two listed site, close to the College, the Corn Mill Buildings, which would be developed into an exhibition and interpretive centre. John Cowdall, the Chairman of Governors, Andrew Johnson, Stonyhurst headmaster, and the outgoing Provincial, Fr.Michael Holman SJ are all to be warmly applauded for this initiative.
Open to visitors The Christian Heritage Centre will have a mission to tell the Catholic story to future generations. Much more than a museum, it will be an interactive and inspirational educational centre; a study and retreat centre; a major visitors’ attraction; and a place where the rising generation will be inspired by the sacrifices of the past. The Christian Heritage Centre will be administered by a free standing charitable Trust. Knowledge of those who went before – and the price which they paid for the religious liberties and freedoms which we enjoy today – will help and guide our young people as they face today’s challenges and aggressive militant secularism.
The Lancashire Stonyhurst location has national and international significance – demonstrating the Catholic story of suppression to integration; the story of sacrifice, mission, emancipation, and Christian culture. Stonyhurst has a long and distinguished history, firm in its faith and strong in its patriotism, having produced three saints, twelve beati, twenty two martyrs, seven archbishops and seven recipients of the Victoria Cross.
During the period when Catholicism was suppressed many wonderful and historic artefacts were secretly hidden by Catholic families and then given to the safe keeping of religious orders and ultimately passed to Stonyhurst College and the Jesuit Province. Some of these unique manuscripts, relics and sacred vestments are quite breathtaking – Mary Queen of Scots’ psalter, which it is believed she gave to her chaplain before being led to the block where she was executed. There are very early prayer books and Scriptures, the rope used to drag St.Edmund Campion to his execution at Tyburn, hats worn by St.Thomas More, medieval manuscripts and volumes of Jacobite interest. There are which include 16th century manuscript verses by St.Robert Southwell SJ, the letters of St.Edmund Campion SJ (1540–81) and autographed poetry of the 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ. Some are in the ownership of the College others are owned by the English Province of the Society of Jesus. There is a first folio of Shakespeare – which will also be on display next year at the British Museum.
Elsewhere in the Collections are blood-soaked garments from Jesuits martyred in Japan; a beautiful portrait of the great Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci; the skull of Cardinal Morton; a cope made for Henry VII (on exhibition at the Victoria and Albert); and a thorn said to be from the crown of thorns placed upon Jesus’ head at the Crucifixion and exhibited as part of the British Museum’s Treasures From Heaven Exhibition. There are also fascinating links with the origins of the United States of America. John Carroll, first Catholic Archbishop in the US, and his cousin, Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signatory of the American Declaration of Independence, were alumni and books bearing the signatures of the Carrolls, as well as Latin compositions written by them for performance at public occasions, are kept in the Archives and illustrate Christian engagement in the birth of America. But many of these objects are rarely seen and obviously it is not possible to let the general public roam around a school. Hence the plan to create a freestanding building – and it is receiving significant endorsement.
The Christian Heritage Centre’s Royal Patron is Lord Nicholas Windsor and the Ecclesiastical Patrons are Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor and Cardinal Christoph Schonborn. Other patrons include Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank GCB, LVO, OBE, DL, KCSG, KM, KCJCO, former head of the British Armed Forces; the Anglican Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt.Revd.Nicholas Reade; Professor David Khalili KCSS, KCFO a leading Jewish expert on Islamic, Christian and Jewish art; and Nigel Evans MP, Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and Member of Parliament for Ribble Valley – an illustrious supporting cast.
Professor Khalili recently spoke at an event held to encourage support for The Christian Heritage Centre, at the Jesuit church in Farm Street. He reflected on the nature of the ownership of sacred culture, saying that “these items do not belong to any single individual, but to humanity as a whole” and that “the custodians of these pieces have a great responsibility”. He quoted the Persian poet, Jami:
Each tinted fragment sparkles in the sun;
A thousand colours, but the light is one.
In these hidden collections there are no shortage of sparkling fragments to bring the English Christian story to life. All they now need is a public home.
Since Pope Gregory first sent St. Augustine of Canterbury to these islands the Christian faith has animated the life of this nation. Yet, today, many children are growing up unaware of that story or their heritage and their parents are no wiser.
On this anniversary of Pope Benedict’s visit we have an opportune moment to rectify this. The Christian Heritage Centre is a superb initiative deserving of our support. Further details may obtained from the Development Director, Mrs.Rachel Hindle: email@example.com