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Catholic of the Year: A generous man in a mean world

John Studzinski receives The Prince of Wales Medal for Arts Philanthropy in 2014 (Paul Burns)

In the neon-lit hellholes of the developing world, young women dressed as sex workers keep a wary eye on the street. Would-be customers who approach them will get nowhere – for these women are not prostitutes but undercover Catholic nuns risking their lives to rescue girls from pimps and sex traffickers.

In April this year, Gramophone magazine named as its Recording of the Month a performance by The Sixteen of the Stabat Mater by James MacMillan, the first setting of the beloved Marian hymn by an important composer for many decades.

Near Victoria Station in London, volunteers at The Passage Day Centre, founded by Cardinal Basil Hume, hand out food to the homeless. They include a man with a gentle American accent who has been working in soup kitchens since the 1970s.

At the British Museum until April, there is “an exhibition so powerful it makes you cry”, according to the Daily Telegraph. Living with gods gathers 160 objects that represent 40,000 years of mankind’s search for the sacred. It begins with an Ice Age sculpture of a creature, half-lion, half-man, and ends with an installation made from the shirts of two tiny children whose bodies were washed up on the island of Lesbos during the Syrian refugee crisis. It was this that made the Telegraph’s critic cry.

The undercover nuns, the new Stabat Mater, the soup kitchen and the heart-wrenching exhibition have one thing in common – or, rather, one person.

He is John Studzinski, a transatlantic investment banker who, after a stellar career at Morgan Stanley, is now one of the most senior figures at Blackstone, the private equity giant.

“Studs”, as his friends call him, is many things: a Wall Street veteran, a connoisseur of the arts, a human rights campaigner, a New England Anglophile with dual British citizenship and a CBE. It goes without saying that he is an exceedingly rich man.

Above all, though, he is a Catholic who was giving his time and money to the poor long before anyone knew about it – and before he had tens of millions of pounds to devote to deserving causes. But now he does.

Those heroic nuns, for example, belong to a network of Sisters in consecrated life known as Talitha Kum, the Aramaic expression used by Jesus in St Mark’s Gospel when he told the daughter of Jairus: “Young girl, arise”. Studzinski started the Arise Foundation to support these nuns and other frontline groups in 2014, “to underscore the fact this is a world that has lost innocence, where dark forces are active”.

The Stabat Mater – premiered to huge acclaim at the Barbican last year – was commissioned by his Genesis Foundation, which has donated £10 million of his own personal money to young artists in every field. It was also the sole sponsor of Living with gods, which accompanied the Radio 4 series by Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum.

And, as you may have guessed, “Studs” is the soft-spoken American who volunteers at The Passage, which he helped found. Basil Hume was one of his spiritual mentors, something he has in common with Cardinal Vincent Nichols.

Studzinski is one of the key supporters of Nichols’s campaign against modern slavery, perhaps the Cardinal’s signature achievement, on which the two men have worked closely in the past year. Through the Genesis Foundation, he also sponsored a service of Vespers at Hampton Court Palace in 2016 led by the Cardinal and the then Bishop of London, Richard Chartres – the first Catholic worship in the palace’s Chapel Royal since the Reformation.

He promotes his causes and projects with the same determination with which he manages gigantic sums of money. Although he cannot imagine not giving away money (“it would be like cutting off a leg”), no one could accuse Studzinski of being a soft touch for an ill-conceived charitable venture. He brings to mind Margaret Thatcher’s controversial observation that no one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions.

But, crucially, the toughness of his philanthropy is a reflection of the dauntingly high standards he sets for himself in his religious life. Not many Catholic businessmen have private chapels – but, then again, not many of them subject themselves to such rigorous spiritual exercises. He writes prayers, beautiful ones, influenced – and read – by Benedict XVI, the Pope Emeritus, with whom he stays in touch.

He has a vision of a world shrugging off materialism and rediscovering spirituality. Perhaps that is naïve. But one could argue that Studzinski represents a revival of Catholic philanthropy that is becoming more and more vigorous in his native United States, and which he is bringing to England.

There is an old Puritan saying of which he’s very fond: “You have what you gave; you had what you spent; you lost what you kept.” Studzinski has spent many years working on a Catholic expression of this impulse, one that recognises the innate and often hidden spirituality of works of art that are ostensibly secular. He sees in them the heritage of Catholic civilisation, whose ethos also inspires human rights campaigns and other projects run by non-believers.

So when, for example, the very liberal South African actress Janet Suzman – a strong opponent of certain Catholic teachings – told him that “we’ve got to make sure that all the actors and actresses in the world are not just from the upper-middle class”, he seized the initiative and started the Genesis Foundation. It’s not a Catholic organisation, except in the sense that everything Studzinski funds is a working-out of his faith.

That faith is orthodox but not partisan. At a time when many leading Catholics are plunging into American-style culture wars, he stays away from the barricades. When he talks of “dark forces”, he is referring to the twin evils of moral blindness and fanaticism that have been repudiated as firmly by Pope Francis as they were by his predecessor. He fights these forces at grand dinner parties, in the boardroom, in his prayer life and, by proxy, in the slums of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Studzinski is, to be sure, a virtuoso networker, employing deal-making skills developed in the overheated markets of Gordon Gecko-era corporate America. But those skills are deployed in a spirit that is intended to undermine the dehumanising philosophy of both money-obsessed capitalists and their equally materialistic hard-Left enemies. He’s a generous man in a mean world, opening his wallet when – alas – some other wealthy Catholics give as little as they can get away with. In short, the Church needs more networkers like John Studzinski and that is why the Catholic Herald is delighted to name him as our Catholic of the Year.


John Studzinski: Key dates

1956 Born in Peabody, Massachusetts, to a Polish Catholic family

1980 Joins Morgan Stanley in New York

2000 Receives the Prince of Wales Ambassador Award for his work with the homeless

2001 Establishes the Genesis Foundation and is made a Knight of the Order of St Gregory by Pope John Paul II

2003 Moves to HSBC

2004 Awarded the Beacon Prize for Philanthropy

2006 Joins Blackstone

2007 Voted banker of the year by the Bank of England

2008 Named a Commander of the British Empire for services to the arts and charity in the Queen’s New Year’s honours list

2016 Appointed a non-executive director of the Home Office

2017 Awarded the Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award for the UK

This article first appeared in the December 15 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here