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Diary: Hunting for headless martyrs in Paris

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My first visit to Paris, when I was 17, was with my school, St Clare’s Hall. Our group included a dozen French students and four very rowdy American rowers. The latter spent most of the Channel ferry crossing downing beers, so by the time we arrived in the City of Lights, they were loud and stubborn.

Which was why, when one of them said he had heard that there was a church featuring the headless body of a martyr, our French teacher could not dissuade the boys from heading to the Chapelle des Missions Étrangères de Paris.

We all had to follow suit, of course – mon Dieu, what chaos those four might have caused otherwise! Although the rowers were tremendously disappointed that there was no Chain Saw Massacre-style headless corpse, I was moved by the relics of martyred missionaries who had made their way to the Far East over the centuries.

I have been reminded of this over the past fortnight, watching the protesters in Hong Kong. With hymns on their lips they have marched down the streets in defiance of China’s regime and its latest power grab. The people of the former British colony – Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical – rightly feel that they and their faith would be crushed if the communist mainland succeed in tightening its grip on the island.

Hong Kong’s 400,000 Catholics must be feeling particularly vulnerable, as last week’s Catholic Herald leader explained. The Vatican has all but caved in to Beijing over the appointment of bishops in mainland China. When Bishop Michael Yeung, the much-loved leader of the island’s Catholic community, died earlier this year, the Holy See dragged out of retirement 79-year-old Cardinal John Tong Hon to serve as apostolic administrator of the diocese. Why? Because the leading candidate for the post, Fr Joseph Ha, was sympathetic to the protest movement.

The same kowtowing is also found in the West – including, shamefully, the UK. Here there is one ray of hope, however. A brilliant young Catholic, Benedict Rogers, is leading an impressive group of peers, MPs, human rights lawyers, journalists and business people to monitor China’s moves on Hong Kong. Hong Kong Watch, which includes Helena Kennedy, David Alton and John Bercow, is lobbying Government to step in and show support to those who are fighting for their freedom.

Benedict’s initiative has caused him a great deal of trouble – he’s been barred from entering Hong Kong, and has felt even in his dealings in the UK the long shadow of China’s oppressive regime. But like those missionaries who in the 17th century ventured forth from the Chapelle on Rue de Bac, he is indomitable. Bravo.

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The fraught relationship between the state and religion surfaced also in the superb production of Don Carlos performed at the Grange Park Opera in Surrey. Giuseppe Verdi’s music swept you up in an improbable plot – think Love Island in the shadow of the Inquisition – which featured the struggle between Don Carlos, prince of Spain, and the leaders of the Counter-Reformation.

The opera contrasts the confusion at court with the grim certainties of the fanatical religious. Verdi portrayed the sinister nature of the latter so powerfully that when the Grand Inquisitor strode forth for the curtain call, the audience booed. These days, we prefer our religious soft and pliable, and our statesmen steely and determined. But is it what we’re getting?

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I have been suffering atrocious pain because of a condition called adhesive capsulitis, also known as frozen shoulder. I realise with immense relief that no one, witnessing my troubles, has trotted out that insufferable line, “offer it up”.

This was the favourite response to any show of discomfort when I was younger. Pain, the nuns taught me, was to be embraced as it made us feel closer to Jesus. I knew even back then this wasn’t true: pain brings out the worst in us, not the best. I admire the martyrs’ courage, just as I did when I saw their relics in Paris so many years ago. But I humbly acknowledge that I am not in their league.

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For some years now, my friend Marina Gratsos has been supporting El Sistema Greece, a charity that brings world-famous musicians to refugee camps in Greece, to teach and make music with the children there. Joyce DiDonato, the fabulous American soprano, has been instrumental in putting the charity on the map.

This year the cellist Yo-Yo Ma came to help. After joining the refugee children in Athens for a masterclass, he decided to wander into the port for some al fresco playing. He was in T-shirt and jeans. An elderly Greek lady, who had stopped to listen, nodded approvingly before dropping a euro at his feet: “You show promise, dear boy. Keep up the practice!”

Cristina Odone chairs the Parenting Circle charity