It’s not every day that you get to hear a double grace at Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair. But when you are having lunch with a former Herald “Catholic of the Year”, who is one of Europe’s leading cultural and religious philanthropists, not to mention a successful global business figure, you do what you are told.
After I gave a short schoolboy grace, head bowed towards the starched white linen table-cloth of John Studzinski’s regular VIP corner table, John added his own eloquent personal grace. I got the feeling he had a whole library of à la carte graces – Latin, Italian and English, Polish (he is of Polish-American descent) – stored in his head, picking the right one for the right occasion.
John speaks quietly, with a soft, donnish, melodic and infectiously intelligent force that reminded me of a contemporary description of John Henry Newman’s voice – one of his most commented-on features – that I had read only an hour before on the train, from John Cornwell’s masterful biography of England’s newly canonised Victorian saint. As the poet Aubrey Thomas de Vere put it: “A voice so distinct that you could count each vowel and consonant…when touching subjects that interested him, he used gestures rapid and decisive, though not vehement.”
I get a sense of this keenness, like a falcon lowering his head at the excited sniff of a new scent in the air, when I start talking about the Herald’s series of pilgrimage walks to Britain’s lesser-known “sacred places”.
I was originally asked to lunch at noon which I thought, rather ungraciously, a little “American early bird” (John was brought up near to Boston and spent years as a Master of the Universe at Morgan Stanley, running their M&A operations) until we began to talk about the disciplined, almost monkish, ritual of his day which begins at 4:15am.
“When I get out of bed, I quietly pray. I have a period of meditation and contemplation – thinking about the cross, and thinking about the day, what’s coming toward me, and deciding what aspect of the Holy Spirit sort of toolbox that I might have to call upon that day.”
As the dressed crab was ordered, I realised that John had already been up for six hours: rising before dawn, saying his rosary, going to the 7am Mass at the Oratory, a personal training session, listening to Pope Benedict’s daily meditation podcast, walking his dogs, praying in his Chelsea house private chapel – and also knowing the latest prices and financial news on the Asian markets (as vice-chairman of Pimco, a leading global investment firm based in California).
I ask about his personal chapel which includes candlesticks once owned by St Ignatius Loyala, founder of the Jesuits. Prayer guests include Mark Carney, fellow Catholic and former chairman of the Bank of England. “It’s not a very grand or big chapel. It’s a wonderful prayer chapel. There’s a nice chair in there that Basil Hume left me, where he prayed and I sit and pray. He said a lot of interesting things to me about prayer.”
When Hume was Archbishop of Westminster, John and Cardinal Hume used to have tea on Thursdays every two weeks. “I think he did so much for people’s understanding of devotion and prayer in the UK when he was Archbishop of Westminster. And he said to people: ‘When you really want to pray, sit in a comfortable chair, relax and really focus on the prayer’ – as opposed to being on your knees in pain after about three or four minutes.”
John adopts a similar approach to choosing which church to attend on a daily basis as to which grace to say before lunch. There is little predictable about him; he is always open to new ideas, financial or cultural. Through the Genesis Foundation, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, he has gifted £20m to over 5,000 artists and performers over two decades, and provided £1m this year in grants to creative freelance artists.
One senses part of the reason for his admiration for Pope Francis (John is a double papal knight) is that his Holiness has something of the “disruptor” about his approach to the papacy. It’s worth noting that the Pope and Studzinski have won both finance and religious awards, with the Pope winning a Harvard Business Review award for his encyclical The Joy of the Gospel.
How does he decide which church to attend, I ask? Is it on a whim, or is there a schedule? “I have about four churches, and depending on my mood on the weekend, I’ll either go once or twice. I try to go to church every day. I either go seven o’clock at the Oratory every day or eight o’clock to Farm Street. I like St Joseph’s chapel at the Oratory on Sundays, or depending on my mood, I might go to Westminster Cathedral.”
He has a special gold sixth-century ring worn by two popes that he wears on a Sunday – appropriate since he is both a Knight of St Gregory and a Knight of Pope Sylvester. “I’m always a little cross that we’ve lost, on Sundays, the seven o’clock mass. And sometimes I go to Holy Redeemer, your church, where you were married, which I also love.”
How does John know this, I am thinking. Clearly this is a man who does detailed research. Or maybe he just has a “damn good” team of research assistants? I don’t know but I’m impressed. It’s certainly the first time in my life that I’ve interviewed a global financier who can also talk about the aesthetics of the Holy Redeemer (“a beautiful space: a beautiful interior, beautiful art”) and the pros and cons of Mass in half a dozen of London’s finest Catholic churches (“Farm Street is for a vigorous Jesuit-led sermon. And they are all… pretty, pretty damn good”).
In a feeble attempt to try and keep up with his schedule of religious devotion, a first-class honours practitioner of the Catholic Life, I mention that I had tried to go to confession at Farm Street – some 100 yards away from Scott’s – at their midday confessions before our lunch. But alas, no priest appeared; only a tramp who slept soundly on a pew.
Then John smiled and, in an almost wispish and mischievous way, added: “Well, the intention was there. But I have to go to a Mass that is not also doubling up as a day care centre because, as much as I like children, I like to go and pray in a church rather than have them walking up and down the aisle looking at me.”
Do you go to a particular church to hear a sermon by a particular priest, or is it more about matching your mood to the architecture? “I go to church, principally to pray and to focus on the scriptures of the day and to have Communion and really to focus on the consecration. I think the Oratory is really one of the great sacred spaces of London. It is what I call a praying church – you can go in there at any time of day and there are people quietly, in different niches, praying. And I love it.”
For John, the Oratory is the closest we have to St Peter’s in Rome, where he loves to stroll around the chapels and pray between seven and eight o’clock on a Saturday when all the different priests are saying Masses in the side altars. “There are people everywhere saying Mass: sometimes priests alone, some in groups, down in the crypt and St Peter’s crypt. It’s like a beehive that’s emerging with the sun. And Oratory has something of that.”
But it is the almost divine inspiration he received while in Rome in October 2019 for the canonisation of John Henry Newman that we are really here to talk about. For it was while he was sitting quietly praying in the Santa Maria Maggiore, for a special service the night before Newman’s canonisation, and suddenly “up pops” Newman’s famous meditation, which decorates the basilica of the RC National Shrine in Walsingham: “In which God has identified a role for you in life, there is a specific service for each individual to provide.”
This touched a nerve, not the least as he sat in the church – which the Pope uses regularly – amidst the great and the good of the English Catholic Church. “Having taken young people to Lourdes for many years, I have always found the easiest way to embrace Christianity and Catholic values and Christian values is through service. And it was something that Mother Teresa taught me.”
As he speaks, ever more mellifluously, I decide to leave his friendship with St Teresa of Calcutta for a later course.
“So I sat there and this meditation appears, and it really does get to me, to the core. Think about it: Newman wrote that 150 years ago. God has a specific role for you, William Cash, some service that only you can do.” I glance at the menu again, and suddenly think: perhaps that’s why I ended up becoming the entirely accidental editor of this magazine, founded two years before Newman died in 1890.
“I became struck in the service – where HRH Prince Charles was present – by the notion that we are all individuals in front of God, in front of Christ. Service is a way of enhancing your self-worth and dignity with respect to God. So then I immediately… sitting in the church, waiting for this all to start, with the meditation going to be read, not sung… I then immediately texted James MacMillan and Harry Christophers and I said: ‘Has this text ever been set to music?’”
When Harry replied no, John immediately conceived the idea of commissioning a new work by Sir James MacMillan, the world’s great living Catholic composer, and another work by Will Todd, to form part of a special concert inspired by the life and writings of Victorian convert and priest of letters Cardinal Newman.
Thus Newman: Meditation & Prayer was born, performed by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers, with the world premiere attended by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, with readings by Alexander Armstrong (A Meditation on Trust in God) and a lucky, select audience (see page 57) in the magnificent setting of Farm Street Church.
The Herald was fortunate enough to be invited for what was a truly sublime evening with Sir James composing a new work called Nothing in Vain which nobody present will forget. The “wonderfully flowing” – as Sir James describes it – and singable adaptation was by Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral.
“I have been intrigued by Newman’s poetry since I heard Elgar’s setting of his Dream of Gerontius when I was young,” says Sir James of the commission. In 2018, MacMillan created a memorable 50-minute Stabat mater for the Genesis Foundation.
The meditation tackles existential issues with a challenging suggestion that God has created each of us for a special vocation in life, a philosophy that it is easy to understand why John relates to.
His whole life, indeed, is a form of vocation to serve the arts and the homeless and see social justice in the world, especially in regard to human trafficking and human rights.
I also learnt on the night – which John modestly didn’t bring up at lunch – that Nothing in Vain was dedicated to John Studzinski by Sir James to mark his 65th birthday.
What a present, not just to one of Britain’s greatest Catholics, but to the world, tuning live into Classic FM.
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