Monday, 30 September 2013

Our free speech is a universal call to justice and peace

“It’s alright. You are safe. They have freedom of speech here.” Those wonderful words broke into my silent irritation at the sight of the mess and the noise outside Parliament the evening before the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. One of the two young men walking behind me was visibly scared when he saw the demonstration about Britain’s continued presence in Afghanistan. His friend’s words, however, made me want to turn cartwheels for joy.

In spite of the untidiness and frequent disconnect, in spite of sometimes being regaled with sights and sounds we would rather not see, we have a freedom which is unmatched in many other countries across the world. We are not expected to ‘toe the party line’ and fall in unanimously behind every thought word and deed of David Cameron or any other Prime Minister.  The Opposition, or to give it its full title, the Loyal Opposition, does not expect to be silenced for objecting to whatever words of wisdom (real or apparent) which might come from across the other side of the Parliamentary chamber. We might have a superabundance of CCTV cameras positioned in every conceivable place, but their aim is not to spy on the legitimate activities of the law abiding general public.

It might seem unimportant, but a small, tangible sign of our democracy-in-action happened when, over the August Bank Holiday weekend, the poorly-regulated noise from a nearby fairground and an almost equally close music festival became unbearably loud. Personal complaints had no effect. Eventually, late at night and trapped indoors by the inescapable nuisance of window-rattling sound, I e-mailed my local MP. Within fifteen minutes of her office opening on the Tuesday morning, a response appeared in my Inbox. Since then, I have had two letters detailing the progress of the negotiations between the two adjacent local Councils. I am impressed! As with any human institution, nothing is perfect, but we do have a system which, by and large, works.

The Chief Justice of India P. Sathasivam, recently remarked that, “All the major legal systems of the world... recognise that the expression of facts and ideas and opinions can never be absolutely free. Words can do damage in many ways even if they are true, such as by prejudicing a trial or by inciting communal hatred... ‘free speech is what is left of speech after the law has had its say.’”

We have recently seen a very good example of that! A prospective demonstrator from the English Defence League argued his case for free speech and democracy – but the police still wisely moved the demonstration from the heavily Islamic and multicultural area of London’s Tower Hamlets to an area which could be more easily controlled. The man did not lose his right to protest, but neither did the residents of Tower Hamlets lose their right to safety.

The media play a huge part in, not only exercising our right to free speech, but also in channelling its exercise. How often do we know, for instance, more about the misbehaviour of celebrities than about their words and deeds which are to be highly commended? How often are so-called leaders of public opinion celebrities who have perhaps never been encouraged to think more deeply than their next photoshoot?

It is very noticeable that, at present, Pope Francis is extremely popular with the world’s media, which seems to hang on his every word regardless of the journalist’s agreement or disagreement with its content. So it is that many of the same stories, quotes and images are available time and again in both the religious and the secular press. It is not a problem: suddenly the world seems to be waking up to the fact that the Church has something to say which might be worth hearing and which might offer hope in a frequently troubled and violent scenario. Some have not noticed that the basic content of the Pope’s message happens to be the same as his predecessors over the course of the last 2,000 years. He just happens to say things differently, in catchy soundbites and with brilliantly personal, genuine and meaningfully spontaneous gestures. He has a gift which, surely, must be the envy of opinion leaders across the world. How many other Heads of State, for instance, could call for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria and be assured that millions will hear and respond, regardless of their nationality, language, gender, colour and creed?

Certainly, Pope Francis has a delightful talent for saying the most profound things in words which anybody can understand. Perhaps that is one reason why the media are so eager to listen to what he will say next, knowing that it will probably be unexpected and will probably be in words which journalists and writers will wish they had thought of for their own use.

Take, for instance, the forthcoming visit to Assisi in order to celebrate the feast of St Francis on 4 October. The Bishop of Assisi, Domenico Sorrentino, said, “Just after he was elected Pope I sent him a letter on behalf of the diocese, reminding him that as Bishop of Assisi I live in the place where Francis undressed before his speechless father, Pietro di Bernardone, eight centuries ago, to free himself entirely for God and for his brothers... I remember him being really touched by this. So I took the liberty to say to Pope Francis: ‘So, Father, it would be great if among your many other commitments today, you came here at least to say the Our Father, as Francis did 800 years ago.’ The Pope’s answer really threw me. He said: ‘The Our Father? But I want to talk about how the Church should undress and somehow repeat that gesture Francis made and the values inherent in this gesture.’” What a call to simplicity – and yet unselfconsciously couched in words which really did hit the headlines!

Yet what happens when people have no chance of obtaining the rightful publicity that they need for justice and for peace? Pope Francis is trying to be ‘the voice of the voiceless’, but what about local advocates? Where is their voice heard? Where are they allowed to be heard? Why do some die before anybody pays attention? Take, for example, 4 year-old Daniel Pelka whose mother and stepfather recently beat and starved to death. It is only after, and as a result of, his death that things will change. Banner headlines across media outlets proclaimed the cruelty and injustice of his treatment – but in a country which is proud of its record for freedom of speech, why did we only become aware of Daniel after the event? How many others will never be heard?

It takes considerable effort, courage and time to sensitize the world to justice and peace. Even the incredible lead offered by Pope Francis will not change things overnight. Syria, in spite of a day of fasting and prayer, will be a problem today and tomorrow. Yet we could listen to the words of St Francis, who said, “Let us begin, for until now we have done nothing.” We could make a start. Our free speech is also a universal call to justice and peace.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The uniqueness of Jane

Jane was unique! Nobody knew her age or where she lived. Everybody said the same thing: “She has a sister somewhere”, but push for more information and there was none. Yet Jane was everywhere, her small, lean frame, huge grin and battered saucepan in every place where she should not have been. She was ageless. Jane could have been 60 or 160 years old. There was no way of telling.

There were two responses to Jane: most people tried to be invisible. Others attempted to become larger than life in the hopes of driving her away. It didn’t work. Hide in the house, and her big grin and friendly wave appeared at the window. Shut the door? She refused to go away, trapping the householders until they gave in and dealt with her needs.

Did Jane’s psychiatric condition have a name? Probably, but in the remote Zambian village of Lubwe, a diagnosis made little difference. There were no medicines for her unless she was sick. Wherever Jane should not have been, she was, and where she should have been, she wasn’t.

Jane’s ‘normal’ behaviour did not fit into most people’s scheme of things. She was a crafty old so-and-so. Many housewives complained of their unexpected visitor. “I put the food on the table, went into the next room for a few seconds and when I came out, she was in the house, beside the table and had eaten the whole lot!”

Leave a door or a gate only slightly ajar. Somehow, Jane would squeeze through the gap, into the house and into the kitchen, only agreeing to leave when her ancient, blackened saucepan could hold no more food… and then she would select a banana (always the best!) on her way out.

Nothing was safe when Jane was around. Sister Jean had long given up looking for her missing dress when, one morning, Jane arrived wearing it. By that stage the dress, stolen from the washing-line, was filthy and barely recognisable. Sister Jean did not ask for its return!

Jane’s nuisance-value was enormous. Yet there was something endearing about her grin and peculiar run as she escaped from her latest venture. Illness never troubled her. She had no worries, was never hungry and never put on weight. It was useless to scold her because Jane merely grinned and laughed aloud as she walked away, leaving the frustrated individual even more frustrated… and minus whatever it was that Jane had stolen in the first place.

Jane’s good health ensured she would probably outlive most people and she was probably one of the happiest women that most of us had ever seen. Someone wryly remarked that she would probably succeed in driving everybody else to an early grave!

Every so often, Jane vanished for a few days. People breathed a sigh of relief and then, just as they were enjoying their peace and quiet, she would reappear and the whole sequence would start all over again. Yet however much she exasperated people, nobody lifted a finger to hurt her. She was a fact of life.

One of Jane’s outstanding characteristics was that she refused to be ignored and, even if her behaviour was always directed by self-interest, nobody escaped her attention. In her own peculiar way, she was a community builder, partly because she demanded help from others and partly because, when she had temporarily disappeared from sight, people came together to talk about her latest escapades.

Jane was totally free. She belonged to everyone and to no-one. She received care from everybody, asked or unasked, but at the same time, nobody cared. They responded to her immediate request and then happily escorted her from their premises. She was unrestrained, walking and doing wherever she wanted. There was no local police station at that time, so her thefts were unchallenged, and, in any case, what court could have produced a lasting effect for her betterment?

Contrast Jane with some of those whom our ‘enlightened society’ allows to have ‘care in the community’. What would happen if they were to wander in and out of people’s houses, helping themselves to food or to the occasional item of clothing as it hung on the washing line? What would happen if someone like Jane were to stand outside a house, banging on the door or the window until the householder supplied food?

My memory of Jane is of an elderly woman who laughed and never seemed to mind that she had no home. How many of the homeless men and women in our streets are smiling and enjoying life?

Jane’s conversation was not very sensible. A sentence always ended with a toothy grin and a burst of laughter. There was not an atom of malice in her, a small child within the body of an adult. So it was that even her greatest misdemeanours were never evil. Mischief-maker that she was, being caught out and yet still escaping with her ill-gotten goods was all part of the game.

…but doesn’t it also say something about the innate goodness of the village that, with kindness and a great deal of patient forgiveness, accepted Jane as part of its daily life? Her counterpart in Britain would probably receive some form of medical diagnosis, treatment and perhaps at least an ASBO or two. Social Services might grudgingly accept her onto their books but would find great difficulty in placing someone who belonged everywhere and nowhere. Restrain her and Jane’s laughter would turn to tears. She was the child of whom Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me for of such is the kingdom of Heaven”.

Not long ago, four celebrities chose to become homeless for several days, their paths carefully monitored by television cameras and members of an organisation which cares for the destitute around London. None found it a pleasant experience. One man described his unhappiness as he found himself lonely and ‘invisible’, with everybody passing him by, looking past him lest he ask for money. They were wrong on a few counts: he is a Sikh and Sikhs don’t beg, but also they were, unconsciously, part of a real life re-enactment of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

I once found myself in conversation with an elderly man. “I’ve actually got a home”, he said, “but my wife died and I’m so lonely that I come down to the shelter every day, to talk to the tramps and then, at the end of the day, I go home again.”

Then there was a tramp, in hospital with severe cellulitis on both legs. “When my wife died, I sold the house and took to the road”, he declared. “I have two sisters, one in Kent and the other in the West Country. I spend my days walking between their houses. When I reach the home of one sister, I stay for a few days and then start walking again until I reach the other.”

Jane was unique: she was homeless, happy and constantly receiving the care of the community, even if reluctantly and almost blackmailed into responding to her needs.

Some people don’t even receive a greeting.

Jesus said, “As long as you did it to the least of my little ones, you did it to me”.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Titanic Martyrs

“The ship was sinking but the priests refused to go into the lifeboats. They stayed on the deck, hearing Confessions, helping passengers to climb into the boats and offering whatever support they could until the Titanic finally sank.”

This was a lovely and unexpected tribute from a member of the Titanic Society as he gave a slideshow and talk in Liverpool’s Maritime Museum. Searching through the list of victims of the Titanic, I found the names of several men described as ‘priest/minister’ and one woman, described as ‘missionary’. Of these, three were Catholic priests. All put the safety of others before their own.

The woman, Miss Annie Clemmer Funk, aged 38, went so far as to climb out of the lifeboat in order to allow someone else to take her place! She was the first female Mennonite missionary to India, where she learned Hindi and opened a one-room school for girls. Annie had received a telegram from her father, informing her of her mother’s illness and summoning her home to America. Her memorial records:
'On the night of the sinking, she was asleep in her cabin, was woken by the stewards, dressed and went on deck. She was about to enter a lifeboat, when a woman came from behind, pushing her aside by calling: "My children, My children". The last seat was gone, Annie had to step back. She died in the sinking. Her body, if recovered, was never identified.'

Rev Charles Leonard Kirkland, aged 57, was a Scots Presbyterian minister from Glasgow, Scotland, travelling to visit his sister in Saskatchewan. Kirkland died in the sinking. His body, if recovered, was never identified.

Rev William Lahtinen, aged 30, and his wife Anna died together, their bodies never recovered. When the Titanic collided with the iceberg, Anna initially boarded a lifeboat, but then decided to stay with her husband. Their friend was rescued and later reported that Anna had appeared very nervous, whilst William calmly smoked a cigar.

Rev John Harper, aged 39 and a Baptist minister, was travelling with his daughter Nina. Hours before the collision, he and a friend stood on deck admiring the sunset. "It will be beautiful in the morning," he remarked heading to his cabin. After the collision, Harper awakened his daughter, picked her up and wrapped her in a blanket before carrying her up to A deck. There he kissed her goodbye and handed her to a crewman, who put her into lifeboat 11. Rev Harper went down with the ship.

Revd Ernest Courtenay Carter, 54, was the vicar of St Jude's in Whitchapel, London.
"On the evening of 14 April, Rev Carter presided over a hymn service for about a hundred passengers in the second class dining saloon, he preceded each hymn with a history of the hymn and its author… Marion Wright sang a solo of Lead Kindly Light. Among the other hymns sung were Eternal Father, Strong to Save (also known as For those in peril on the Sea), On the Resurrection Morning, There is a Green Hill Far Away ... The final hymn was Now the Day is Over. Around ten o'clock the steward began to lay out coffee and refreshments and Rev Carter drew the proceedings to a close by thanking the Purser for the use of the Saloon and added that the ship was unusually steady and how everyone was looking forward to their arrival in New York. 'It is' he said 'the first time that there have been hymns sung on this boat on a Sunday evening, but we trust and pray it won't be the last.'
But it was and Rev and Mrs Carter died in the sinking. Their bodies, if recovered, were never identified."

Rev Robert James Bateman was a Baptist Minister, married with seven children.  As he helped his sister-in-law into lifeboat 10, he said, “If I don't meet you again in this world, I will in the next.” He gave her his necktie as a keepsake. She later reported:
"Brother forced me into the last boat, saying he would follow me later. I believe I was the last person to leave the ship. Brother threw his overcoat over my shoulders as the boat was being lowered away and as we neared the water, he took his black necktie and threw it to me with the words, 'Goodbye, God bless you!"

Three Catholic priests were amongst the victims of the Titanic: Frs Peruschitz, Montvila and Fr Byles. A survivor recalled that they offered daily Mass on the voyage. Another remembered seeing them together in the library:
“In the middle of the room are two Catholic priests, one quietly reading... the other, dark, bearded, with a broad-brimmed hat, talking earnestly to a friend in German and evidently explaining some verse in the open Bible before him...”

Another eyewitness report possibly refers to Frs Peruschitz and Montvila as Fr Byles was engaged in guiding steerage passengers towards the deck:
"When all the excitement became fearful all the Catholics on board desired the assistance of priests with the greatest fervour. Both priests aroused those condemned to die to say acts of contrition and prepare themselves to meet the face of God. They led the rosary and others answered. The sound of the recitation irritated a few passengers, and some ridiculed those who prayed and started a ring dance around them. The two priests were engaged continuously giving general absolution to those who were about to die. Those entering the lifeboats were consoled with moving words. Some women refused to be separated from their husbands, preferring to die with them. Finally, when no more women were near, some men were allowed into the boats. Father Peruschitz was offered a place which he declined."

Fr Josef Peruschitz OSB, aged 41, was a German Benedictine monk who taught mathematics, music, physical education and shorthand in the scool attached to his monastery in Scheyern in the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising. In 1912, he was appointed Principal of the Benedictine school in Minnesota, where he was travelling on a £13 second class passenger ticket when the iceberg struck the Titanic. He died in the sinking. His body, if recovered, was never identified.

Fr Juozas Montvila, a Lithuanian, was only 27 when the Czarist regime forbade him to practise his ministry. He decided, therefore, to emigrate to the United States. After the collision, eyewitnesses reported that the "...young Lithuanian priest,  Juozas Montvila, served his calling to the very end" by refusing a place on one of the lifeboats, “choosing to administer his priestly duties and offering solace to his fellow travellers.”

Montvila’s body, if recovered, was never identified. Revered as a hero and martyr in Lithuania, he is currently under consideration for canonization.
Most seems to be known of Fr Thomas Roussel Davids Byles, a 42 year-old Yorkshireman, a convert and the eldest of seven children, who eventually became the parish priest in Chipping Ongar, Essex. A member of the Catholic Missionary Society, Fr Byles was travelling to America for his brother’s wedding. The Titanic held insufficient lifeboats for the number of passengers on board. Frighteningly, there was no provision for steerage passengers, who were expected to fend for themselves. Equally scaring, apparently when bodies were recovered, because of the limited amount of space on board the rescue vessels, those of steerage passengers were merely weighted down with chains! Hence Fr Byles’ assistance of third class passengers stands out as a further act of heroic generosity.

Fr Scott Archer notes in his biography of the priest:
Of the very few passengers willing to brave the cold, Father Byles had been reciting the Breviarium Romanum, fully dressed in his priestly garb, while walking back and forth on the upper deck at the moment the Titanic struck the iceberg. He acted bravely in his capacity as a spiritual leader of men. Descending to the third class and calming the people, Father Byles gave them his priestly blessing and began to hear confessions; after which, he began the recitation of the Rosary. He then led the third class passengers up to the boat deck and helped load the lifeboats. He gave words of consolation and encouragement to the woman and children as they got into the boats. As the danger became even more apparent, he went about hearing more confessions and giving absolution. By all accounts, Father Byles was twice offered a seat in a lifeboat but refused. After the last lifeboat was gone, he went to the after end of the boat deck and led the recitation of the Rosary for a large group kneeling around him of those who were not able to find room in the boats. Father Byles also exhorted the people to prepare to meet God. As 2:20 a.m. approached, and the stern rose higher and higher out of the sea, Father Byles led the more than one hundred people kneeling before him in the Act of Contrition and gave them general absolution.

Other reports add that Fr Byles stayed alive in the icy ocean until shortly before the arrival of the Carpathia, swimming between the people floating in the water and hanging on to wreckage, still offering support and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Eventually, through sheer exhaustion, he died.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Our Lady of Bonaria becomes the Pope’s port of call

The rose petals floated away from the ferry on the River Mersey in a beautiful, poignant and deeply precious moment of remembering deceased family members and friends. A nearby passenger sobbed quietly into the enfolding arms of her male companion. Everybody stood or sat in silence, busy with personal thoughts and memories as the chaplain said a brief prayer, the signal for the participants on this special Jospice-arranged cruise to scatter the rose petals onto the waves.

My own ‘special people’ featured my late grandfather, Henry Stuart Knight, whom I never met. His long years in the Merchant Navy and, subsequently, as the Captain of the Duchess of Bedford and the Empress of France spanned two world wars. I remembered my 19 year-old Uncle Frank, shot down into the North Sea as he and his crew returned from Germany a few months before the end of WWII. There were also the two crew members of the Royal Daffodil, to me, forever anonymous, but who saved the crowded ferry, its crew and passengers from a mine which had come adrift and floated between Liverpool’s Pier Head and Wallasey on the opposite bank. Years later, on realising the nature of the large ball with shiny spikes which, at 5 years old, I thought exciting and beautiful, I understood with a gasp why the adults stood in silence, watching the two sailors risk their lives to save us. Something uniquely valued and meaningful tempered the joy of an afternoon on one of the famous ‘Ferries across the Mersey’.

That is why, when Pope Francis visits the Sardinian town of Cagliari, he will tap into a 700 year-old tradition of the perils of the sea and care for all those who sail on her, in war and in peace. Visiting the shrine of Our Lady of Cagliari, also known as Our Lady of Bonaria (good air), he will inevitably pray for all those who travel by sea.

Every year, on 25 April, the statue of Our Lady is taken from the cathedral in Cagliari, becoming the honoured passenger on a similar memorial cruise. In the midst of the noisy enjoyment of an Italian festa, there are also the sombre moments as people remember their loved ones and throw their flowers onto the waves. The difference is that the people of Cagliari recall, not only those who have died, but also those who have been saved from the sea.
According to local tradition, on 25 March 1370, the feast of the Annunciation, a terrible storm overtook a Catalonian ship travelling towards Italy from Spain. In danger of sinking, its desperate captain instructed his crew to jettison the cargo, hoping that, by lightening the weight of the vessel, they would be able to survive the tempest. There seemed to be no improvement and the danger only intensified. He ordered the last remaining large crate to be thrown overboard. Immediately it touched the water, the storm ceased! Also, to the surprise of the crew, despite its great weight, the crate floated, rather than sank.

With the danger over, the sailors retrieved as much of the cargo as they could, but were unable to bring the large crate back on board. Eventually the captain decided to cut his losses and abandon it, returning to his original route towards the Italian mainland.

The crate finally washed up on the Sardinian shore, close to Cagliari and not far from the local church. Local inhabitants, hoping for profitable beachcombing after the storm, came down to the shore. The large chest attracted their attention, but it was far too heavy to lift. Local tradition relates that a child suggested that the priests might know how to move the box and its contents away from the beach, where it was threatened by the incoming tide.

The priests, Mercedarian friars, committed to the redemption of slaves, apparently succeeded in lifting the chest without any difficulty. On opening it, they discovered a wooden statue of Our Lady, holding the Infant on her left arm. Her right hand carried a lighted taper in a boat-shaped holder.  Jesus, the world in his left hand, extended his right hand towards the boat and candle.

Perhaps inevitably, sailors began to look on Our Lady of Bonaria (good wind - ‘bon aria’) as their patroness. After all, she had saved the lives of the crew of the ship in which her statue had reached Cagliari. Several centuries of stories of her intervention led Pope Pius X to proclaim her as Patroness of Sardinia on 13 September 1907. Pope Paul VI visited the shrine on 24 April 1970, whilst Pope Benedict travelled to Cagliari and to the shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria on 7 September 2008. During his time in front of the shrine, he told the assembled crowd:
“Mary is the harbour, refuge and protection for the Sardinian people who have within them the strength of oak. When the storm has passed the oak stands strong; fires rage and it sends out new shoots; the drought comes and it wins through once again. Let us therefore renew joyfully our consecration to such a caring Mother. I am sure that generations of Sardinians will continue to climb to the Shrine at Bonaria to invoke the Virgin's protection. Those who entrust themselves to Our Lady of Bonaria, a merciful and powerful Mother, will never be disappointed.”

The Cagliari statue of Our Lady of Bonaria is one of a group of so-called Taper shrines, one of which, Our Lady of Cardigan in the diocese of Menevia, dates back to the 12th century. In the period around the date when the Catalonian ship ran into difficulties offshore from Cagliari, their sailors and merchants thronged British waters. Sadly, in 1538, the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII led to the destruction of the original shrine and statue of Our Lady of Cardigan.

There is also a special link between the Cagliari devotion to Our Lady of Bonaria and the Pope’s former diocese of Buenos Aries. Spanish navigator, Pedro de Mendoza, who founded Buenos Aires on 2 February  1536, dedicated the city to Our Lady of the Buon Ayre (Fair Winds), keeping a promise which he had made to the Patroness of Navigators. Later on, when the city was resettled by his countryman and fellow Conquistador, Juan de Garay, in 1580, there was a problem and a compromise became necessary. As Pope Francis explained, “The founders who established Buenos Aires wished to name it the city of Holy Spirit, but the sailors, who had brought [them] there, were Sardinians and wanted it to be named the city of the Madonna of the Bonaria.” He continued: “There was a dispute between them and in the end they negotiated and [...] the name of the city is very long; it is called the Ciudad de la Santísima Trinidad y Puerto de Santa María del Buen Aire (City of the Holy Trinity and Port of Saint Mary of Buen Aire), but it was so long that only the last words remained: Buon Aria, Buenos Aires, but it is due to your Madonna.”

It is no coincidence that the Pope from Buenos Aires in making the sanctuary of Our Lady of Bonaria his port of call!

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Fr Murray Bodo, storyteller of St Francis

Experts say that the best way in which to give God a good laugh is to tell him our plans. Perhaps Fr Murray Bodo should have known better than to think he knew his future path after ordination: as a Franciscan, life would inevitably be surprising. If anything, to be a Franciscan means being pre-programmed for the unforeseen ideas of the God of the Unexpected!
“I never expected to spend my life teaching, writing and leading pilgrimages to Assisi. I had thought that, after ordination I would be working with the Navajo people. Life just did not turn out as I had predicted.”

Fr Murray Bodo OFM, Franciscan friar, writer, poet and author of the modern spiritual classic, Francis: The Journey and the Dream, laughed. “I grew up in Gallup, New Mexico quite close to the Navajo Reservation, and my father worked for a while on the Reservation.  We had friends there and knew two of the Franciscan missionaries.  I was also inspired by Fr Berard Haile, who put the Navajo language into writing, inventing a morphology to visually transmit the sound of the Navajo words.  I wanted to be a Navajo Missionary like them.”

The contrast could scarcely be greater. Thousands of people across the world, for more than 40 years, have associated the name of Fr Murray with teaching, writing, poetry and Franciscan study pilgrimages. How did the change of plans come about?
“I ended up teaching literature and writing at St Francis High School Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, right after my ordination. I was asked if I would replace the friar who taught English and who was terminally ill. I was assured it would only be for one year.  Twelve years later I was moved from the High School Seminary to our Franciscan college as Professor of English there until it closed two years later.  I then taught English at other universities and colleges, having, by that time, a Master's Degree and a Doctorate in English.  I was writing poetry seriously from my undergraduate studies through my theological studies before ordination.”

The name of Fr Murray Bodo OFM conjures up an image of a gently-spoken American Franciscan, whose book, Francis: The Journey and the Dream, has sold more than 200,000 copies and has been translated into French, Spanish, Danish, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, and Maltese. With more than 30 books in print, several of them collections of his own poetry, it is not surprising that he comments, “Writing is something I just have to do to be me. It’s intimately a part of my identity.”

Fr Murray did not simply wake up one morning and decide to write Francis: The Journey and the Dream, a poetic, story-like version of the life of St Francis of Assisi. He points out, “I was asked to write the book by Father Jeremy Harrington, OFM, who was at that time the editor and publisher of St. Anthony Messenger Press.  The thought was that there would then be a book on St. Francis released at the same time as Franco Zeffirelli's film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon.  I was sent to Assisi for three months to work on the book.  It is a mystery to me why it has been so popular and been translated into so many languages.  St Francis must have been using me as an instrument to speak to others in a way that touched a chord in people all over the world.”

Forty years later, Fr Murray wrote Francis and Jesus, another small book and one which is, in many ways, a continuation of Francis: The Journey and the Dream. What inspired him to write Francis and Jesus? Why is it so different from its predecessor?
“I wrote this book because I found the writing voice I had used in The Journey and the Dream.  I was working with a scene from Francis's life, and suddenly that voice was there again, and I just went with it to see where it would lead me.  The book is different because I was forty years older and had spent those years working three months of the year in Assisi and doing research on Francis's life.  I had also grown in my understanding of the inner life and the Franciscan charism.”

Many insights enshrined within Francis and Jesus are the result of long years of reflection and life experience.
“The book, Francis and Jesus, grew out of the silence that lies between the lines of what St Francis said about himself and what was said about him by the early biographers.  He says so little about himself and only the imagination, I found, could give me access to what was inside the lines, what was contained in the silence, in the unsaid, as it were.  As with my first book, Francis: The Journey and the Dream, so, too, in this book, when I began to explore the inner silence for what was inaccessible to me historically, St Francis began to emerge on the page as a developing character who had feelings and thoughts, dreams and aspirations, discouragements and disappointments, fears and triumphs, sadness and joy.  And above all he emerged as someone deeply in love with God whom he saw concretely in Jesus Christ.  Jesus was for Francis, in an extraordinarily powerful way, the Incarnation of God, a God whose love was so great that Francis could do nothing but return that love with his own love.  Jesus was his all, his everything. I let Francis lead me on the page, let him speak and think and lead me where he would.”

St Francis was the first recorded person in history to receive the Stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Jesus in his hands, feet and side. This happened on the mountain of La Verna, a mountain in northern Italy, given to Francis and his followers as a place for prayer and solitude. Despite the passage of 800 years and countless thousands of pilgrim feet, its forest-clad rocky slopes, sometimes ghostly with mist still seem pristine and untouched.

Francis received the Stigmata on 17 September 1224, two years before his death. Since then, Franciscans across the world have celebrated the memory of that unique event. Do his Stigmata have any relevant meaning for us today? Fr Murray is convinced that it has.
“I believe it has great relevance because it seals St Francis and his way of living the Gospel with the sign of the Crucified Christ in whose footsteps Francis had walked all his life following his conversion as a young man in his early 20s.  The Stigmata is a sign of God's approval of a way of living and of St Francis himself.  It says that in Francis we see an image of God's own son, Jesus.  In fact, in the Middle Ages St Francis was called, Alter Christus, Another Christ, and also, Speculum Christi, A Mirror of Christ.”

One thing is certain: on 17 September, celebrated as the feast of the Stigmata of St Francis, Fr Murray Bodo will simply be one of many thousands worldwide to thank God for ‘the little poor man of Assisi.’ Their thanksgiving, however, will be deeper and more real because of Fr Murray’s writings.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Pope who wins hearts one by one

He drives in the Ford Focus, and his car number is SCV 00919, instead of SCV 1, and is carrying his own mitre as he walks to the church!! His mitre is not even in an expensive case: it’s only in a cloth bag.”

On the Feast of St Augustine, Pope Francis travelled to the Rome church called after the saint who once prayed, “Lord, give me chastity – but not yet.” His intention was to preside at the opening Mass of the Augustinian’s General Chapter. He also touched at least one priest’s heart, however, by his simple gesture of carrying his own mitre rather than having someone else carry it for him. Neither did the Pope travel in one of the luxurious papal limousines. Instead, he used the navy-blue Ford Focus which has, within the space of a few weeks, become his hallmark mode of transport. Heads of State (and even cardinals!!) might opt for the more spectacular and vastly more expensive Mercedes, but the Holy Father deliberately selected one of the least spectacular cars of the Vatican fleet – and moved at least one person by his purposeful sign of his ‘option for the poor’.

But Pope Francis has touched many hearts, one at a time, since his election. His former newspaper vendor and shoe repairer in Buenos Aires will surely treasure their papal phone call for the rest of their lives. No doubt their families, friends and customers (as well as the press) will be told and re-told of how he rang them to cancel his newspapers and to ask that the pair of shoes which he had left for mending be sent to the Vatican! Similarly, the hotel desk clerk who received the payment for Cardinal Bergoglio’s stay directly from the hands (and wallet) of Pope Francis will cherish a unique moment which will stay with him for ever.

There have also been other occasions when the Jesuit Pope has imitated St Ignatius of Loyola, who worked to win “one soul at a time”. Likewise, he has followed the path of St Francis of Assisi, not only in remembering the poor, but also in “speaking to a multitude with as much attention as if he spoke to a single person, and to a single person with as much care as if he spoke to a multitude.” Within the last few weeks, stories have emerged to show a man of outstanding thoughtfulness, kindness and sincerity.

At the beginning of July, thieves shot and killed petrol pump attendant, 51 year-old Andrea Ferri during a robbery at a filling station in the Italian coastal town of Pesaro. Andrea’s younger brother, Michele, wrote to the Pope, telling him of his inability to forgive the killers. Imagine the unexpected comfort and support that Francis gave to the family when he phoned Andrea’s mother and brother, to pass on his condolences. "He told me he cried when he read the letter I wrote to him", Michele said afterwards. 

The following month, Stefano Cabizza, a 19-year-old engineering student from Padova, attended the Pope’s Mass on the Feast of the Assumption on 15 August, carrying a letter he had written to the Holy Father. Handing it to a passing cardinal with the request that it would be given to its intended recipient, Stefano expected nothing more. To his amazement, three days later, Pope Francis rang Cabizza’s home, found him out, phoned a second time and chatted to the student for a full eight minutes!

Those are two families which have been changed for ever by a single unexpected phone call. Touchingly and unforgettably, there was no formality about the greetings. "Ciao, Michele. It's Pope Francis." The word ’ciao’ is so friendly and affectionate, the Italian equivalent of ‘Hello’ – the greeting used by family members and friends.

Whilst still on the theme of informality, the Pope recently posed with three young people who wanted a group photo with him using a mobile phone, making himself the first-ever Bishop of Rome to make a ‘selfie’. Little imagination is needed to imagine the many hundreds of times that photograph will be shared with others! Yet, at the same time, by his simple and spontaneous gesture, he gave three young people a “Wow!” moment which created an unforgettable moment of intimate personal involvement with the Church.

An Argentinean woman recently wrote to the Pope in despair after being raped by a policeman in Cordoba. The mother of six children and foster mother of six others, three of whom “have disabilities”, Alejandra Pereyra found her children repeatedly hassled after she tried to report an incident of police harassment. In her letter to Pope Francis, Alejandra told her story: “With all the pain I carry in my heart dear Holy Father, I ask you for your help because after all the talk of rape, they finally did it. One night in September 2008, around midnight, a police car turned up at our house and a policeman who presented himself as Police Chief Sergio Braccamonte, got out.” Mr. Braccamonte asked her to follow him to the police station but instead drove her to an isolated place “where he pointed a service pistol at my head and raped me.”

“When I heard the Pope's voice I felt like being touched by God", Alejandra commented shortly afterwards. "He restored faith and peace in me and gave me strength to carry on fighting." In that one conversation, Pope Francis offered love, hope and healing, not only to one suffering family, but also to the many thousands of rape victims across the world, degraded and traumatised by the lust of others.

Yet he has not only reached out to the suffering. Leandro Martins, a Brazilian cyclist on a 2,300 mile ride wrote to him: "I know I am not an important person, a Head of State, an authority or even a Catholic, but maybe I am also a sheep of God (or at least a neighbour of the Pope) and that makes me feel that if I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is possible, it really van happen. As everything I got in life, as this trip that was a huge impossible dream, but now it is happening. So I thought: why not try?" – and Francis met Leandro, chatted with him and signed the cyclist's Brazilian flag.

He wrote a thank you letter to Fr James Martin SJ when the priest sent him Spanish translations of his books, autographed a child’s plaster cast on her broken leg, gave a young man with Downs Syndrome a ride on the swivel seat in the Popemobile... It really does not take much to make a person feel special. The Pope has the gifts of intuition, compassion and spontaneity. He does not consider himself too important to pick up the telephone and chat to someone. This is what he meant by advising the bishops to become ‘shepherds who smell like their sheep’. By means of such simple gestures, he proclaims God’s Gospel of love from the rooftops, even to those who had thought themselves deaf to such a message.

The Pope who touches hearts one by one also wins hearts one by one.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Do as you would be done by

No wonder prisoners in Guantanamo Bay complained of music torture in 2008! One report declared that the same five pieces of music blared relentlessly through the loudspeakers strategically placed around the detention facility. Apparently it was not the volume which caused the problem as much as the unending monotony of the selection which nearly drove inmates crazy.

As a result of Clapham’s August Bank Holiday weekend, perhaps the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay had little cause for objecting. Perhaps the music festival on the Common and the fairground less than 100 yards away both kept their sound levels within legal limits. To residents, the noise from one music festival plus one fairground still meant double the overall volume of disturbance.

Three days of a constant rhythmical pounding of drums (no music could be heard above them), from 11.00am until 10.00pm quickly had more than nuisance value. Windows rattled. Doors shook – and still the seemingly endless din continued. Double glazed windows offered no protection. Earplugs did not work. Complaints had little effect. As a result of raising grievances, music festival event organisers sent a technician to measure their own sound levels to ensure compliance with legislation. “It’s not us. It’s them”... and he left, happily justified that he had done his job. The fairground? A group of men shrugged their shoulders. They could not see what the trouble was: without loud music, who would know that there was a fair as well as a music festival?

Meanwhile local residents felt trapped, the sick and the housebound more so than the mobile, some of whom, driven from their homes, became refugees beyond the Clapham boundaries and the constant noise. Others, their weekend spoiled by others’ thoughtlessness, waited longingly for that blissful moment when, at 10.00pm, blaring loudspeakers at last became silent.

Yet the thoughtlessness of the few against the many did not only affect Clapham residents and their aching eardrums. Elsewhere the lack of consideration and thinking ahead led to generous individuals risking their lives to rescue unnecessary victims. In one of its busiest summers on record, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) said that, this summer, the number of rescues performed by its courageous and unpaid volunteers has increased by more than one-third over those of 2012. The Newhaven lifeboat recently reported fourteen launches in a single month. This summer has also witnessed the tragic heroism of rescuers who lost their lives in saving others. A fisherman who worked on trawlers in the North Sea once remarked, “We know the sea and are afraid of it”. Often, the emergencies have been entirely avoidable, but, yet again, people just did not think ahead or listen to advice. As the proverb declares, ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’.

A man recently needed the services of a North Wales Mountain Rescue team because, by way of a change, he wanted to climb a mountain in Snowdonia by night. Close to the summit, he discovered that he carried the wrong map of the area and felt vulnerable on finding that he did not know his way in the dark. On a mild, starry night and in no immediate danger, why did he not simply wait until dawn, when he would see a well-marked path, trodden annually by countless thousands of visitors? Why summon the search and rescue helicopter?

There are the genuine emergencies which happen when ill-equipped and inexperienced individuals suddenly become selectively deaf, ignoring expert advice not to climb, walk the fells or sail in the prevailing weather conditions. There are those who always carry an umbrella “in case it rains”. Yet, as soon as they see a blade of grass and the open countryside, they seem to believe that suitable footwear and clothing are unnecessary. Sooner or later, they are surprised to find themselves stranded, perhaps seriously injured or in a life-threatening situation and call for help. Many rescuers must have thought, “If only you had listened to my warning in the first place, this never would have happened”.

People always find it easier to point the finger at someone else rather than to accept responsibility for wrongdoing. All of us can make excuses. Children are experts. Somehow all sorts of things happen “just like that”. The difficulty is that some people do not grow up. What happens when the matter is serious and many lives are at stake?

The news at present is filled with constant reports from Syria and Egypt. In Syria, first of all the Government and then the opposition blamed each other for appalling bloodshed, violence and devastation. The air is filled with cries of, “I didn’t do it. He did!” That is the sort of blame game to be expected of small children, not of grown adults and so-called Heads of State. It is far more serious when the mutual shifting of responsibility surrounds the use of chemical weapons with thousands of casualties and hundreds of deaths. The many innocent victims are helpless in the face of the overwhelming lust for power of the few.

It is easy to see the horrors perpetrated at a distance and to be unaware of those closer to home. The time-wasting 999 call might divert emergency services from a genuine emergency when a rapid response means the difference between life and death. On one occasion, an emergency control room received a trivial 999 call about poor restaurant service at the same time as a witness reported a hit and run accident involving a young child. At least three times this week in London, someone has committed suicide in front of a moving train: how many were facilitated by the thoughtlessness, selfishness and perhaps undisguised cruelty of others?

Pope Francis, when he visited the shanty town in Rio de Janeiro pointed out that giving "bread to the hungry," while required by justice, is not enough for human happiness. Thoughtlessness and selfishness need to be replaced by consideration. A policeman complained as he returned from a major road accident with multiple fatalities, “People enjoy the speed and the added danger of swerving around corners and between lines of traffic. They forget that I am the one who has to deal with the immediate consequences. I am the one who helps to pick body parts off the road. I am the one who has to go to the family and break the news. I am the one to go home to my family and cannot let the traumas of my day overflow onto my wife and children. People see that I am a policeman, but they forget that I am also a human being, a husband and a father.”

In The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, Mrs Be-Done-By-As-You-Did was a stern, inflexible woman who taught the babies that if they did not like someone’s behaviour, then it is best not to imitate it and inflict those same actions on someone else. If I believe that I deserve respect and consideration, then I must respect and consider others, however difficult or inconvenient that might be. Clapham’s weekend of music torture might seem trivial to some. The same cannot be said of the emergency service personnel who risked their own lives to save the thoughtless.

Animal or human priorities?

Three beautiful photographs showed a leopard and a minutes-old impala, standing shakily between the legs of the big she-cat. Naively, the tiny antelope even tried to suckle the leopard whilst its real mother stood at a distance, helpless to do anything to protect her youngster from its inevitable death. Two days later, the same free newspaper portrayed two more expert images from Africa. This time a stalking lioness found itself hotly pursued by the herd of buffalo amongst which it had tried to find a meal.

Wildlife photographers perform a massive service in bringing to our eyes the sights and sounds of a world we cannot encounter when busily occupied in the daily commute and the routine which is part of earning a living here in Britain. The photographers’ skill is a constant wonder, joy and stirrer of all sorts of emotions.

However, within a couple of hours of seeing the images of the leopard and impala, an e-mail from India arrived in my inbox. Written by a Catholic journalist who campaigns on behalf of the indigenous peoples (Adivasi) of Gujarat, Mari Marcel Thekaekara often creates word pictures which also make a permanent home in people’s minds. Mari also wrote of wildlife, on this occasion an elephant, but on this occasion, the victim was a woman.

“On March 30, Kokila, an Adivasi woman, was collecting firewood with a few friends... when she was charged by an angry elephant... The elephant kicked her around like a football and smashed her into a pulp. An Adivasi who saw the incident said, ‘It was terrible. She was smashed to pieces... We could not prepare her for burial according to our rites. There was no body left.’

...Kokila was a lively, feisty, irrepressible woman... I recall her taking a lead on stage in dramas. She was bold and theatrical, making everyone laugh, dancing infectiously with abandon, urging everyone to join her. How do you compensate the death of such a woman? Of any woman for that matter? Can you replace the person for her family? Her children? Her people?”

Perhaps Mari’s article came too soon after the photographs of the leopard and impala in the Metro, beautiful pictures with a touching story. Yet this woman, who, during the brutal massacre of Christians in Orissa in 2008, travelled to London to personally plead with journalists to write about what was described as ‘the worst anti-Christian violence since India achieved independence’ does not forget the needs of endangered species: she merely challenges us to take a closer look at our priorities:

“What does one do when a tiger's life is apparently more precious than an Adivasi's?...  I believe we must protect our tigers and our elephants and the less exciting unknown species that co-exist with them...[but] It's hard to explain to ordinary people... why a tiger's life is deemed so much more important than our laughing, dancing, full-of-the-joy-of-life Kokila. A tiger's death mostly makes it to every newspaper in the country; each life is precious, counted, documented by tiger lovers in London and New York. It makes for eye-catching, sexy photographs too. Our Kokila will never make headlines...”

Sadly, Mari is telling an all too-familiar tale. Conservation of the environment and of wildlife is vital. Species which cannot speak for themselves need advocates and money. We are well-accustomed to seeing campaigners raising publicity and funds on behalf of whales, orang-utans, foxes, badgers, grey seals and so on (interestingly, never for spiders, slugs or snails!). Time and again, London’s Victoria Station is graced with defenders of the orang-utans, dressed in orange look-alike suits. Yet I have never seen groups of people crusading on behalf of the Adivasi of India, Australian Aborigines, Alaskan Inuit or the Amazonian tribes whose land is continually taken over by greedy and profiteering multi-national companies.

Some years ago a camera team discovered a hitherto unknown group of people living in the Amazonian rainforest and stayed for a while, living with the tribe, filming them and producing a wonderful photographic record of their stay. As the team left the area, their leader commented that they would probably be the first and last outsiders ever to encounter the indigenous group. “We may be carrying bacteria from all sorts of diseases which they have never had to face and for which they have developed no resistance. The fact that we have stayed here will probably kill them.” If this were to be the case, how could an historical or anthropological film possibly justify the deaths of an entire group of people?

Mari Marcel Thekaekara comments, “Poor people battle for their lives, their livelihoods and their precarious homes.”

Fr Xavier Manjooran SJ a long-time worker on behalf of the Adivasi (indigenous peoples) and Dalits (Untouchables) of Gujarat, explains:
“People from outside with different value systems and worldview have pushed the original inhabitants to the interior forests and mountains, and snatched away their land and rights over the resources. As time went by and more outsiders came into India, the British took control of the forest and forest resources and started using these resources to make profit. This approach was quite different from that of the indigenous people who have dealt with forest, land and natural resources from time immemorial. Besides, the rules and regulations created by the British, which were continued in India even after Independence, made the Indigenous people ‘encroachers’ and law breakers in the forest and in their own land. Thus the original inhabitants were pushed to the receiving end. It is a fact that the majority of Adivasis or tribals continue to live below the poverty line, have poor literacy rates, suffer from malnutrition and disease and are vulnerable to displacement and seasonal migration. They are also subjected to physical, psychological and sexual exploitation... the poor are becoming poorer and increasingly dispossessed. The majority of the poor and the displaced are from the indigenous communities.”

In our multicultural society, it is easy to forget that some of the immigrants against whom strident voices are regularly raised, suffer intolerable burdens in order to provide for their families back home. Yes, there are many who are benefit frauds and tricksters, but there are also those who need and deserve compassion. A journalist recently interviewed a homeless Indian living near one of the bridges on the Thames. Rajiv dare not let his family know that he is destitute because they are completely dependent on what little money he can send them. He entered Britain legally, but with the credit crunch, he lost his job and soon found himself homeless. Now, he lives under a bridge and depends on food supplied by The Passage and the Salvation Army so that he can still send money home to his family.

In the early Church, we hear that nobody was hungry because the new Christians shared all that they had and cared for each other. Is their level of generosity possible or impossible in today’s world? We can respond magnificently to natural disasters and raise huge sums through Children in Need, Sports Relief and other such charities, but, sadly, these are annual one-off occasions. Is there an answer to someone leaving many thousands of pounds to a cat’s home when people are starving? To quote Mari Marcel Thekaekara, “What does one do when a tiger's life is apparently more precious than an Adivasi's?”

Cardinal Van Thuan, a prisoner for Christ

‘My name is Francis-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, and I am Vietnamese, but in Tanzania and Nigeria, the youth call me Uncle Francis, which is a bit simpler, or, even better, just plain Francis. 

Until 23 April 1975 I was, for eight years, bishop of Nha Trang in central Vietnam... On 23 April 1975, however, Pope Paul VI named me coadjutor archbishop of Saigon. When the Communists arrived in Saigon, they told me this nomination was the result of a conspiracy between the Vatican and the imperialists to organize resistance to the Communist regime. Three months later... I was placed under arrest. It was the day of the Blessed Virgin's Assumption, 15 August 1975.’

19 years of imprisonment, 9 of them in solitary confinement, followed the arrest of the future Cardinal Van Thuan. Facing suffering and perhaps torture and death, at the time of his arrest, his thoughts were, nevertheless, not for himself but for his flock. Years later, he described his agony: 'My people, whom I love so dearly: a flock without a shepherd! How can I reach my people in the very moment when they most need their pastor? The Catholic libraries have been confiscated, the schools closed, the Sisters and Religious who were teachers have been sent to work in the rice fields. The separation was a shock that destroyed my heart.'

Still under house arrest, his prayers received an answer. “One night a light came. “Francis, it is very simple. Do what St Paul did when he was in prison: write letters to the different communities.” Very early next morning, he summoned a 7 year-old boy, telling him to ask his mother to buy some old pads of paper and then, every night for the next two months, Van Thuan wrote his messages to his people. Each morning the same child would collect his work and, with his brothers and sisters, would copy and distribute the prisoner’s words. Scared of being transported elsewhere before he had finished, during those few weeks, Van Thuan wrote 1,001 pages to comfort and support those he would leave behind.

Eventually Van Thuan’s house arrest ended and the anticipated moment of transfer to prison arrived. Yet again, his thoughts were for others: “When the Communists put me in the hold of the boat, the Hai-Phong, along with 1,500 other prisoners and moved us to the North, I said to myself, ‘Here is my cathedral. Here are the people God has given me to care for. Here is my mission: to ensure the presence of God among these, my despairing, miserable brothers. It is God's will that I am here. I accept his will’. And from that minute onwards, a new peace filled my heart and stayed with me for thirteen years.”

At first, Van Thuan was with other prisoners. “I was taken to prison empty-handed. Later on, I was allowed to request the strict necessities… I wrote home saying ‘Send me some wine as medication for stomach pains’. On the outside, the faithful understood what I meant. They sent me a little bottle of Mass wine, with a label reading ‘medication for stomach pains’, as well as some hosts broken into small pieces. The police asked me: ‘Do you have pains in your stomach?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Here is some medicine for you!’” Then, with three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of his hand, he celebrated Mass. “At 9.30 every evening when ‘lights out’ rang, everyone had to be lying down. I bent over my wooden board and celebrated Mass, by heart of course, and distributed Communion to my neighbours under their mosquito nets. At night, the prisoners took turns and spent time in adoration.”

Gradually Van Thuan started teaching, not only prisoners, but also his guards. Even lessons on the French and Latin languages and history were opportunities for catechesis. A combined group of prisoners and guards began studying Latin. “One of my guards was in the Latin class and one day he asked me if I could teach him songs in Latin. ‘There are so many and they are all so beautiful’. ‘You sing and I'll choose,’ he retorted. And so I sang Salve Regina, Salve Mater, Lauda Sion, Veni Creator, Ave Maris Stella. You'll never guess the song he chose: The Veni Creator! I can't begin to tell you how moving it is, to be in a Communist prison and hear your guard, coming down the stairs at seven every morning on his way to the gymnastics yard for physical exercises, singing the Veni Creator.”

Van Thuan was freed on 21 November 1988 and forced into exile, carrying with him to Rome the tiny wooden cross which he had made in his cell and had hidden inside a block of soap. Mounted in silver, this became his pectoral cross, which he wore until his death from cancer on 20 September 2002.

Finally, in July this year, Vatican Radio announced the closure of the diocesan phase of the beatification process for the Cardinal whom they described as a ‘gentle hero’. Two miracles are required for a candidate for beatification: at present three possible miracles are under consideration.

The first possible miracle is that of Sister Marie Thi Lan, of the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, whose eyes were healed in 2009 without the surgical intervention which was considered essential if her sight were to be saved.

The second also occurred in Cardinal Van Thuan’s home diocese of Hue, where Mrs Mary Le Thi Than, aged 70, was bed-ridden for over 40 years because of a severe form of neuralgia. She prayed to the Cardinal and has recently resumed a normal life.

The third involves a seminarian from Denver, Colorado, Joseph Nguyen, who went into a 32-day coma during a ‘flu-like illness’ which was actually H1N1 ‘Swine Flu’, and severe pneumonia. Placed on life support, his death certificate had already been written when Nguyen suddenly and unexpectedly emerged from his unconsciousness. “During my coma, there are only two things I remember,” he said. “The only two things I remember are two visions of Cardinal Van Thuan … He appeared to me twice.” Within a few days, Nguyen had recovered full health.

Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan never once said that his imprisonment, with its hardships and humiliations, was easy. Perhaps, somewhere in Heaven, he might compare notes with the late Bishop Hong of North Korea, also imprisoned by a brutal Communist regime, and the late Cardinal Adam Koslowiecki SJ of Zambia, who survived 5 years in Dachau and Auschwitz. Cardinal Koslowiecki often declared that his incarceration was the most fruitful learning experience of his life. One thing is certain: both Cardinals Hong and Koslowiecki would identify with Van Thuan’s prayer:

"I am happy here, in this cell, where white mushrooms are growing on my sleeping mat, because you are here with me, because you want me to live here with you. I have spoken much in my lifetime: now I speak no more. It's your turn to speak to me, Jesus; I am listening to you."