Stephen Walford was a 20-year-old music student at Bristol University when he experienced what he calls “demonic interference”. He was praying on his own in church one evening in November. Something hadn’t felt right the moment he walked in – it seemed as if he was being watched. Later, when he opened his eyes, he realised the candles had gone out and he was in almost total darkness. He could hear footsteps in front of him even though no one was there. In the end, he was so unnerved that he cut short his prayers and left. “I was aware in that moment that I had failed,” he says.
The “demonic interference”, he says, wanted him to stop what he was doing – at the time he was praying for souls that were dying. “My one regret is not staying there till the end and ignoring it.”
Walford is telling me this story at his home in Hedge End, Southampton. I have visited him because of his sudden prominence in the debate about Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the family. In the past few months he has emerged, almost from nowhere, as one of the Pope’s chief defenders in the row over Communion for the remarried. His denunciations of the text’s critics have been fierce – and the reaction has been too. One priest told him he was “leading souls to hell”. Another Twitter opponent said: “You obviously don’t care about your own soul.”
That he is a piano teacher, with no training in theology, and was granted a 45-minute private audience with the Pope in July, seemingly as a reward for his online articles, has only made him more of a target for people’s anger.
His critics, though, have got him wrong. And within minutes of walking through his front door I realise I’d got him wrong too. I had assumed that, given his strong support for the possibility of Communion for the remarried, he was a liberal. But he hands me tea in a Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club mug (“Putting the smackdown on heresy since 1981!”) and says he would describe himself as a conservative Catholic. He is blokey and forthright. “I love the popes,” he says. “I stick with the popes no matter what.”
Walford may be a piano teacher but he is no theological slouch. He has written two books and his latest, Communion of Saints, about how souls in heaven and purgatory are united with the faithful on earth, was described as “inspiring” and “theologically reliable” by none other than Fr Thomas Weinandy, the former head of the US bishops’ doctrine committee, who recently published a scathing letter accusing Pope Francis of creating “chronic confusion”.
Walford’s house is quiet when I arrive: his wife and five children are out for lunch at Pizza Hut. We settle into deep, comfy sofas under a photograph of the family meeting Pope Francis. His kids, he says, told him it was the best day of their lives. “It’s something I will treasure forever,” he adds.
He explains that he had a typical conservative Catholic upbringing. He was raised on the daily rosary, Fatima and “stories of Padre Pio fighting the Devil”. He shows me two relics given to him by family friends – one, a hair of St Maria Goretti, the other a piece of Padre Pio’s purificator. At school, he says, his folders were always covered with pictures of John Paul II.
For Walford, the real issue in the Amoris controversy is papal authority. As the row broke out late last year, he was dismayed to see “normal conservative Catholics starting to be swayed by traditionalist rhetoric” that the Pope “wasn’t a Catholic”, or that “something’s gone haywire with the papal office”. But, he says, “The Pope is the Pope – the spokesman for the will of the Lord.” The office of the papacy is similar to Doctor Who, Walford says, where each Doctor is the original Doctor “regenerated”. (Walford is a big Whovian.)
At the beginning of this year, he emailed a pitch to Andrea Tornielli, editor of Vatican Insider, a website run by La Stampa, and then wrote a series of articles attacking papal critics. They were provocative: Walford accused the dubia cardinals of fuelling “satanic abuse” of the Pope. They were also unprecedented in their all-out defence of the principle of Communion for the remarried. To question Francis on the subject, he said, was to “call into question the teaching authority of previous popes and consequently the entire fabric of Catholicism”.
That struck some as extreme. After all, swathes of the Church, including many senior figures, explicitly reject Communion for the remarried and don’t accept that Francis has introduced it. But Walford says he always thought Amoris was clear – from the start he read footnote 351 as allowing Communion for the remarried in some cases. And since then, he says, Pope Francis has given various signals that that was what he meant.
But he thinks that the circumstances in which a remarried person would be admitted to Communion are “probably rare”. There has to be a “desire to get out of the situation”, he says. He imagines a person in anguish who wants to change the situation but “feels trapped” and can’t.
He cites St Faustina Kowalska, the Polish mystic who inspired the Divine Mercy devotion. In her diary she describes a dialogue between Jesus and a despairing soul. Jesus tells the soul that, even after continually rejecting his advances, they would be saved if they showed a mere “flicker of goodwill”.
Walford has a lifelong devotion to St Faustina and a painting of her hangs on the wall. (Aside from the photograph with the Pope, it’s the only other picture I see on the wall.) He says “a real, authentic Catholic life” is to do “everything we can to help [people] get to heaven”.
Life, he says, is “not straightforward”. “Most people do not live lives of heroic virtue. They have to strive for that. Of course they have to strive for that. But, for me, Jesus surely takes into account the intention, that desire to change. It’s not taking away the sin but reducing the culpability because they’ve acknowledged their state and they want to change it.”
Walford thinks the Pope’s “merciful” approach to the remarried is in line with the Divine Mercy tradition – and that this is the direction the Church will continue to go in. Traditionalists, he says, “don’t like Divine Mercy”. “They prefer the security of God’s justice. You know where you are with God’s justice. It’s a lot harder to accept mercy.”
Walford says the abuse he has received this year has been “unreal”. He thinks the reason is that he’s been so vigorous in defending the Pope: “It’s the fact that I haven’t buckled.” I try to suggest that some of his arguments haven’t been entirely polite either (he called the “filial correction” of Amoris “risible” and criticised it for its “glaring hypocrisy”). But he doesn’t see it like that. He insists he has never attacked anyone personally. “I will admit that on a few occasions I have responded with humour,” he says.
I ask him about people deriding him as a piano teacher. “It doesn’t bother me,” he replies. “God sometimes uses nobodies – put it like that. To me, God has opened a door for me to be part of the debate.”
Communion of Saints by Stephen Walford is published by Angelico Press. Mark Greaves is news editor of the Catholic Herald