'We have become mission territory again,' says Lord Nicholas Windsor
But for his Catholic faith, Lord Nicholas Windsor is every inch what you might expect to find in a member of the Royal Family. He is bright and engaging, exuding a benign interest in the world and its affairs and in any company he finds himself in.
Occasionally, gestures such as a gentle, angled nodding of the head, can evoke comparisons with Prince Charles, for whom he served as page boy at his marriage to Diana. Perhaps they give him away, like his physical appearance, as a member of the House of Windsor, a great-grandson of King George V.
But as we chat in a room off St James’s Park in central London, I am pleasantly surprised to discover just how much fun he is, too.
Speaking about the magnificent collection of historical and religious artefacts of Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, for instance, his mind is drawn to the nightcap of St Thomas More, one of two hats on display there which belonged to the former Lord Chancellor and allow him to be pictured, says Lord Nicholas, “kicking his shoes off and lighting his pipe”.
Similarly, Lord Nicholas says that he would rather sit next to Pope Francis “at breakfast and have a chat” than attend a papal audience.
Yet his apparent lightness of heart only thinly disguises the fact that he is a serious and thoughtful man who chooses his words carefully, conscious of who he is and of the weight they might carry; though this has not deterred him from previously expressing the opinion that abortion is a greater societal threat than al-Qaeda.
On this occasion, Lord Nicholas, a philanthropist, wishes to discuss Theodore House, of which he and his wife are Royal patrons and which he will open today. He says that the new house in the grounds of Stonyhurst College represents “a very exciting moment” in the life of the Catholic Church in England.
Its opening marks the culmination of a £4 million project of the Christian Heritage Centre to convert a Grade II-listed disused mill into a retreat, study and renewal centre and for training laity in Christian leadership and how to bear witness in an increasingly secular society.
Such activities will draw on the Ignatian spirituality of Stonyhurst, formerly the Jesuit college of St Omers, and will allow visitors to see some of the most remarkable relics and artefacts in the country.
These include, for instance, the prayer book that Mary, Queen of Scots held on the scaffold at Fotheringhay Castle; the rope that bound St Edmund Campion to the hurdle that dragged him from the Tower of London to Tyburn; a cope made for the coronation of Henry VII; and a pearl-laden crucifix given to Lady Alice More by her husband, Thomas.
Theodore House sits amid the stunning countryside of the Ribble Valley, once frequented by such Catholic figures as Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet; JRR Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who, as a Stonyhurst pupil, carved his name on a desk at the school, very close to the engraving of a contemporary called Moriarty (the name of Holmes’s arch enemy).
Lord Nicholas says he feels a personal connection to the region because the Worsley family of his mother, Katherine, the Duchess of Kent, have their origins there, in what is now part of Greater Manchester.
But, of course, he has other connections, not least to the Jesuits. His mother became the first member of the Royal Family to become a Catholic since the passing of the 1701 Act of Settlement when she crossed the Tiber in 1994 and he is the first blood Royal to do the same. He is also surely the first British Royal to undertake the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (as well as the first to marry at the Vatican).
He followed the Spiritual Exercises in an abridged form during a nine-day retreat at the Benedictine Abbey of St Joseph de Clairval, near Dijon in eastern France, and found them “very effective”. He says they helped him both to mature in his faith and to understand the reigning Jesuit Pontiff, of whom he says he is a “great fan”.
He has been particularly impressed by Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis’s 2018 apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness, which he describes as “extremely powerful”.
“I am slightly surprised that it hasn’t been talked about more or seen perhaps as important as it might be for the Church,” he says. “It is not too long, it is easy to read and it is the most beautiful spiritual primer from a spiritual father to his spiritual children.
“I read it like that and I think it is the kind of thing that one could lead a retreat on [at Theodore House].
“He has the most wonderful things to say about the Beatitudes, for instance, as the model of our lives. I think the Pope has given us amazing new material, an impetus to feed into this project … People might go to Theodore House for that experience of renewal and take it back to their parishes.”
One of the most important teachings of the document, he says, is the Pope’s emphasis that mankind must rely on God, that it is a heresy for people to think they can succeed in doing true good without Him, and without aspiring to holiness. Francis, he explains, sees moral crusades as temptations, and invites Christians instead to question their motives ruthlessly to avoid “a kind of corruption of spiritual life”.
“Jesuits spend an awful lot of time examining their consciences and rooting out this stuff,” he says, “and I think he is asking all of us to do that, and discern what must we do – not just because I am really good at speaking or campaigning against abortion, or whatever it happens to be, but [to discern] the stuff that we can only do by grace and not of our own efforts.”
Lord Nicholas, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Life, shares Francis’s vision of a consistent ethic of life that cherishes all vulnerable or suffering humanity – the unborn, the homeless, the enslaved, refugees and prisoners, for example.
But he also speaks with great reverence of Pope St John Paul II, to whom the chapel at Theodore House has been dedicated along with St Teresa of Calcutta – two guiding lights at the end of a century of darkness.
Now 48, Lord Nicholas says he remembers, as a man in his 20s, “being totally engrossed” watching St John Paul on a Catholic television network, and found his teachings “immensely stimulating and immensely attractive”.
“I think he inspired not only me, but many conversions – and not just in the sense of being received into the Catholic Church, but in reviving faith. That is very much what Theodore House is hoping to bring about.
“We have become mission territory again, that is the reality,” Lord Nicholas adds. “It would be the purpose – squarely and fully – of Theodore House to be part of the new evangelisation and I think that is the mission.
“But you have got to remember that it’s a daughter of a Jesuit institution. We have the first Jesuit Pope and it makes me think about what is the nature of this project and what is the nature of this papacy.”
Simon Caldwell is a freelance journalist