Every year, for the past quarter of a century, a Christian charity with which I am involved has run a nationwide Schools Bible Project. Its aim is to give schoolchildren an opportunity to study the Gospels and encounter Christ. They are invited to reflect on various incidents in the Gospels – chapter and verse given, plus some background info – and then choose one and write it up as if they had actually been present. It’s essentially an Ignatian exercise.
We get many really good essays (as well as some utterly hopeless ones). This year, pleasingly, a number of Catholic schools produced prizewinners. No, I’m not telling you who they are – the schools have to hear first. The main winners come to London and get their prizes from the splendid Baroness Cox at the House of Lords, are shown round Parliament, have tea, etc. You will often be told that Christianity is banned from Britain’s schools. It isn’t. It’s part of the RE curriculum.
I spent a stimulating if exhausting day with a group of young American Catholics in London. We began at Tyburn with Mass at 7.30am. It was in the lower chapel at that small altar beneath the powerful reconstruction of Tyburn Tree. Gulp.
A delightful Sister then talked us through some of the martyrs’ stories. It was inspiring but of course also grim. Did you know that the expression “pulling someone’s leg” seems to have originated from the mercy of people tugging on a poor prisoner’s legs as he was hanged, thus making the rope do its work quickly and shortening his agony?
As we left, we crossed that traffic island at Marble Arch where the site of the actual Tyburn Tree is marked by a plaque, and I mentioned the tradition of kneeling to kiss the spot. All stopped to do so.
The young Americans had been to the new Catholic Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst and loved it. They had also had a day in Oxford, and in London they tackled the Tower, Parliament, Westminster Abbey and our own Cathedral and still seemed to exude energy. We ended up talking long and late and enjoyably over beers (in my case, gin and tonic). We tackled politics, pro-life issues, concepts of law and justice, and more. There is a vigour among them on pro-life issues which we in Britain lack. Their pro-life movements are more inclusive (black pastors, women’s groups, edgy student campaigners) while ours too easily dissolve into Catholics talking about Church issues. And their annual March for Life has a patriotic theme: speakers talk about America and there are prayers asking for God’s blessing on their country.
Back in the days of communism a number of us were involved in taking books, publications and magazines offering an anti-Soviet perspective into Eastern Europe. It involved a minor amount of faintly 007 stuff with codewords, and arrangements about when and where to meet, to ensure things got to the right people.
What I remember most were the fascinating conversations, the humour and, above all, the commitment to truth among the people we in the West called “dissidents”, who were brave, witty, insightful and realistic. They refused to fit into the mentality of a system that insisted on clichés and lies. Frighteningly, in today’s Britain, I sometimes now have the same feeling here when, in a conversation, someone has the courage to speak the truth, eg about the latest official “gender agenda” demands or promoting lesbianism to 10-year-olds or similar. Dissidents then, dissidents now. May we have the courage those Eastern Europeans had.
This has been a difficult time to be a Catholic. Headlines about hideous sexual practices of a retired American cardinal and how-much-did-the-Pope-know? It’s not so complicated for those who relish controversy, harder for most of us. A useful and sane commentary from Bishop Robert Barron on his Word on Fire website includes the thought that this is a time to pray seriously and grasp the concept of helping the Church through penance.
Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster and historian. For more information about the Schools Bible Project, visit christianprojectsocu.org.uk
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