Brother André becomes Holy Cross Congregation’s first Saint

By Tania Mann

They gave the newborn Joseph Alfred Bessette no more than a day to live. They were wrong. Instead, Brother André – as he was later called – would persevere until age 91, continually beating the odds and giving hope to others that miracles really do happen.

An orphan from age 12 who was frequently ill and barely literate, Br. André’s life was riddled with suffering. But in the nearly 40 years of his work in the Holy Cross Congregation as a doorman, he found meaning and healing in Christ and helped those he encountered to do the same.

“When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door”, Br. André is known to have said kiddingly of his job as the porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal. Joking aside, however, the Holy Cross Congregation had in fact once turned André away, thinking his poor health would impede his ministry. Rather his humble work of hospitality carved a path of holiness that has now extended all the way to Rome. On Sunday, 17 October, Br. André became the Congregation’s first Saint.

Photo by Steven Scardina

Fr Edwin Obermiller, CSC, Assistant Provincial of the Indiana Province, was one among the thousands of pilgrims who travelled from across the globe to Rome for Br. André’s Canonization. After the ceremony on Sunday, he said: “My experience today took me back to the heart of why I became a Holy Cross religious: that sense of hospitality and care for those among us, especially for those who are in need of not only physical but also emotional and spiritual healing”.

The Holy Cross Congregation was established in 1837 by Fr Basil Anthony Moreau, who Benedict XVI beatified in 2007. Today the legacy of both Bl. Moreau and St Bessette lives on through the Congregation’s presence in 16 different countries.

The Order runs several universities in the United States, for example, including the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana. In his homily during Opening Mass this fall, the institution’s President, Fr John Jenkins, CSC, emphasized a need to learn from Br. André’s example: “André has something to teach us”, Jenkins said. “He did not make great plans, but simply watched the door, and waited… He saw each visitor as a call from God to respond with compassion, attentiveness, and faith. And, remarkably, miraculous healings occurred”.

Indeed, André came to be known in his day as the “Miracle Man of Montreal” – a nickname to which he objected. He pointed instead to St Joseph, the patron of the Holy Cross Congregation.

In addition to fervently encouraging prayer for Joseph’s intercession, the doorkeeper also emphasized a view of the Lord as one who is near to us and always listening. He was known to say, for example, that “when you say to God, ‘Our Father’, he has his ear right next to your lips”.

This intimate relationship was what bolstered André’s faith in God’s aid. “André’s own innate trust in Divine Providence” – explained Fr Andrew Gawrych, CSC, Associate Director of the Office of Vocations in Indiana and the Eastern Provinces — “was so nurtured in Holy Cross that it empowered him to persevere in building St Joseph’s Oratory despite all the setbacks, famously asking for a statue of Jesus’ foster-father to be placed inside the unfinished shrine so the Saint himself might do the final fundraising. And he did!”.

Br. André was to work 16-hour days in the Oratory as its guardian, welcoming the pilgrims who flocked there and praying with them for healing. Often, those prayers were said to be miraculously answered. Today, St Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal is the third-largest basilica of its kind in the world and draws close to 2 million visitors a year.

Photo by Steven Scardina

Aside from running the Oratory and several top-tier universities, the Holy Cross Congregation is also dedicated to serving the poor. One of their best known efforts in this vein is André House, which serves the poor and homeless Arizona, U.S.A. Gawrych, who was recently stationed there, described the House as one way that André’s charism “continues to flourish in the community’s ministry today”.

With André’s official recognition as a Saint comes an invitation to the universal Church to participate in carrying on his legacy. It is a call to “search for God with simplicity, in order to discover him always present at the core of our lives”. as the Holy Father said in Sunday’s Canonization Mass Homily.

“Canonization allows people to see that they can make a difference in the world,” said Obermiller. “We begin to realize the capacity we each have to effect change in the world. Looking to St André, who didn’t even have a sixth-grade education, we can start to imagine the kind of potential we have to give back to the Church – to show the face of Jesus to others, in compassion, understanding and support”.

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 10/20/2010


A force of unity against factories of extremism

By Tania Mann

“Interfaith cooperation isn’t just about trying to find harmonies between Islam and Christianity… it’s about building real relationships between Christians and Muslims”, says Eboo Patel, the founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization building a global movement to empower young people of all faiths to work together in service. Named by US News and World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Patel has emerged as one of the most prominent mainstream voices — in print, TV and radio — for interfaith dialogue and action worldwide. Last year, he was appointed by President Obama as a member of the newly established Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Patel was born in India but grew up in Chicago, where the IFYC is based today. He attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship — receiving a doctorate in the sociology of religion — and is the author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation . In the following telephone interview with L’Osservatore Romano, Patel speaks on the roots of his passion for interfaith action and on how youth can fight in favor of unity and against the distorted depictions of religion so rampant today.

Eboo Patel (Photo courtesy of IFYC)

What led to your founding of the IFYC?

It was my introduction to the Catholic Worker movement, where my experience showed me that the heart of religion is about serving others, and about bringing creation in line with the intention of the Creator. And that, I believe, is about people from different backgrounds living together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty.

There, I saw Catholics taking the social dimension of their faith so seriously that they were truly living it. My Catholic Worker time shaped how I understood the relationship between faith and service. That is what led to me founding this organization. I later discovered that same drive and impulse in my own religion, and I realized that so much of how religion is portrayed on the evening news is just the opposite. It is depicted as a barrier of division instead of a bridge of cooperation. I figure that, if so many young people can be involved in these factories of extremism — these forces of intolerance where religion serves as a barrier or a bomb — then young people could be equally mobilized while working to form a bridge. Because so many of those changes happened for me in college, I happen to think that college is a very special space and a really powerful time in a young person’s life when they make certain value commitments. They commit to the ethics that they are going to carry into the world.

How did the organization itself come about?

When I was a grad student at Oxford, I would leave for one or two months at a time to run interfaith youth service projects around the world — in South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and across Europe. I was convinced by the young participants in these projects that there was a critical mass of young people inspired by faith to work with people of different religions, and to apply that shared value to the way they could affect other people’s lives. The evidence was there and it was inspiring.

By the time my PhD was finished, I had developed a methodology, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I was tired of the factories of extremism and forces of intolerance being so strong. I thought: “Why can’t we build a movement for interfaith cooperation that is stronger?”

The U.S. has recently seen heightened tensions between Muslims and those of other faith traditions. What do you think lies at the root of these tensions? How can they be overcome?

In my view, at various times in American history, forces of intolerance have targeted different groups. Earlier, it was Catholics, but these forces have also targeted Jews and African Americans, among others. Now its Muslims. But the good thing is that every time these forces have gone into action, they have been defeated by the forces of unity. It is our time to be the forces of unity. In the previous generation we had leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr but those leaders are no longer around, so now we have to do that.

Can you explain a bit about President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — its function, your role, and how you came to be involved?

One day, I received a phone call and was told: “Congratulations! The President has selected you for his Advisory Council”. That is a special phone call to get! Our initial meeting was in February of 2009, during which the President said: “I want this council to focus on four things: 1) Faith communities have to be involved in service, especially in this time of recession, 2) members of those communities ought to view service as a shared value that they can build better understanding upon, 3) we ought to show the world that this is what America is about: that we can work together and be a model of cooperation and harmony, and 4) young people should be the leaders in this”.

Well, my jaw about hit the floor when I heard that! So I got up the gumption to stand up and thank the President, and to add that: “The vision that you just laid out is exactly our vision at the Interfaith Youth Core”. He looked at me, smiled, and said: “We will be following up with you about that”. It was very inspiring to me to learn how close to the President’s heart this vision is. My formal term on the Council is over now [council members serve one-year terms] but as a part of it I helped make progress concerning the importance of interfaith movements on college campuses. The White House also hosted an interfaith summit in June, and will be kicking off two interfaith leadership training institutes with hundreds of students in late October.

How have your studies in the sociology of religion affected the way you think about religious interactions?

One of my main influences is Wilfred Cantwell Smith. He was very focused on the notion that interfaith cooperation isn’t just about trying to find harmonies between Islam and Christianity, for example, but it’s about building real relationships between Christians and Muslims. It’s not just in how you learn things about other traditions; it’s in the way you interact with them. Just because you can identify the commonalities among certain faiths doesn’t mean you have the skills to do something with that knowledge.

At Interfaith Youth Core, we believe that just as college campuses have been models and beacons for promoting environmental and multicultural causes, they can do the same for interfaith cooperation. That’s why we are training college students to run an interfaith action campaign called “Better Together” on their campuses. The goal is to teach college students to be interfaith leaders; to lead a concrete campaign, to mobilize large groups of people to participate in interfaith service projects, and to speak compellingly about the importance of interfaith cooperation.

Over 100 campuses are participating this fall, many of which are Catholic schools, and that doesn’t surprise me at all. My parents went to Catholic schools in India, the reason I came to this country was because of my father’s studies at Notre Dame, and my son goes to Catholic school now. Catholic institutions take very seriously the values of learning, diversity, faith and service. Today there is a need to lift up these shared values as a priority and integrate them into the way we live our lives. That’s what the Interfaith Youth Core seeks to do through our programs.

Interview conducted 10/1/2010. © L’Osservatore Romano English edition 2/23/2011.

Botanical findings tell story of the Turin Shroud

By Tania Mann

Over 1.7 million pilgrims have already booked their visit to the first public exposition of the Shroud of Turin in 10 years. But is the piece of cloth that so many visitors are flocking to see really  the same one that was wrapped around the dead body of the man Jesus Christ? While many have questioned the Shroud’s true origin, one small book by a widely-respected Jewish botanist provides strong evidence of its authenticity.

In only about 100 picture-filled pages, Prof. Avinoam Danin – professor emeritus of the Department of Evolution, Systematics and Ecology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – tackles the ambitious goal of answering every question he has ever been asked during his 14 years of research on the Shroud. His book Botany of the Shroud: The Story of Floral Images on the Shroud of Turin (Israel 2010:  Danin Publishing, pp. 104) clearly outlines the steps which led Danin to reach a set of highly significant conclusions.

As Danin explains, what has occurred on the Turin Shroud is similar to the process of drying flowers between the pages of a book. Hundreds of plant images have remained imprinted on the cloth. These images thus help to determine facts pertaining to where and when the flowers could have originally been strewn across it.  Also decipherable are the images of: nine thorns (most of which appear around the head and shoulders); a reed laid alongside the body of the “Man of the Shroud”, as he is called; approximately 2,600 fruits that were spread over the body; and partial images of a rope or cord.

The author’s research on the Shroud began when he was shown enhanced photographs of it in 1995.  At first glance, he immediately recognized the images of plants from the Jerusalem area.  The list of this prolific writer’s accomplishments in the field of botany – specifically pertaining to plants in the Middle East – is extensive. Suffice it to say that his 44-year-long career has involved discovering plant species never before found in Israel, Sinai and Jordan; and his work has enabled the creation of a data base from which a new phytogeographical map of Israel was drawn.

Danin’s first conclusion from his botanical findings is that, since the plant images appear in the same locations on photographs produced by different photographic techniques and on the linen of the Shroud itself, they must be real and not artefacts created by one photographic method or another. Of the hundreds of flower images, Danin focused his research on those which are most useful as geographic indicators, as well as on those with the most specific blooming times. He concludes that “the area where the assemblage of the three indicator plants could be freshly collected and placed on the Shroud near the man’s body is the area of Jerusalem to Hebron”. As for flowering seasons, he deduces that “March-April is the time of year when the whole assemblage of some 10 of the plants identified on the Shroud is in bloom”.

Regarding the thorns, Danin suspects that they belong to the plants Ziziphus spina-christi and Rhamnus lycioides, “an important historical indicator”. Both of these are considered among the “most ferocious” plants in Israel, and the thorns of the latter were once “used by Arab farmers to make the ‘knife’ of the plough”, he said.

The cord images on the Shroud show that the ropes were made from plant fibres using the same ancient method that has been used for thousands of years in Jerusalem. This cord is believed to be the one with which Christ was tied to the Cross.

For the Jewish botanist, sindonology – the study of the Shroud –  has always been an intriguing endeavour from a botanical forensic perspective, but Danin says he is completely detached from any religious significance the Shroud might possess. Recounting a conversation he had in 2000 with the then- Apostolic Nuncio of Jerusalem, Danin writes: “I described to him my excitement upon first seeing on the Shroud itself the plant images that I had seen on photographs. I said that I did not feel any particular emotion towards the object revered by millions…. I was a bit apologetic when I was telling him about it. He told me to keep on with my work, because if I were not a Jewish but a Christian botanist, only a few people would believe me”.

Since then, Danin’s years of work as a sindonologist have led him to conclude that the burial cloth already existed in the 8th century CE, and also that “the high similarity of the face of the Man of the Shroud to an icon of ‘The Pantocrator’ in the St Catherine Monastery, Sinai, takes the Shroud back to 550 CE”.

What the botanist calls “the holographic era” of sindonology began in 2007. This involved his collaboration with Dr Petrus Soons, who was responsible – along with his collaborators in the Dutch Holographic Laboratory in Eindhoven – for the creation of three-dimensional holograms of the Shroud. During this period Danin was able to observe that there is “an almost continuous carpet” of more than 300 flowering heads that were arranged in an orderly fashion on the forehead of the “Man of the Shroud”.

Another discovery resulting from his work with Soons was that it was a helmet – not a crown – of thorns that was used to torture the Man. Soons explained that “when he created life-size holograms and displayed them in Regina Apostolorum in Rome, they had to take a ladder to see the top of the head. This part of the body of the Man of the Shroud had not been seen by anybody before”. There Soons observed many small wounds that had been bleeding, whereas these wounds were not visible on the forehead.

The theological significance of Danin’s conclusions is immense. Each of these scientific observations recall Christ’s suffering: his Passion and Crucifixion as they were recently commemorated in the Catholic Church worldwide. Danin’s research – accompanied by that of other sindonologists – can help to reveal a physical reality that points to a transcendent truth: that of Christ’s death and Resurrection. Studies like his help to identify a tangible connection with those mysteries that stretch far beyond the capacity of the human mind.

In the words of Pope John Paul II: “The Shroud shows us Jesus at the moment of his greatest helplessness and reminds us that in the abasement of that death lies the salvation of the whole world” (Address, Pastoral Visit to Vercelli and Turin, 24 May 1998).  Indeed, when Christians speak of the Shroud, they speak of the very cloth that was wrapped around the only human ever to break the chains of death. It is a concrete record of his extraordinarily temporary state of death – the “mystery of Holy Saturday”, as Benedict XVI called it during his Visit on Sunday.

And as his Venerable Predecessor said years ago, “The Shroud thus becomes an invitation to face every experience, including that of suffering and extreme helplessness, with the attitude of those who believe that God’s merciful love overcomes every poverty, every limitation, every temptation to despair”.

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 05/05/2010

Student Cross pilgrimage: more relevant today than ever

By Tania Mann

Over Holy Week, more than 250 people of all ages walked across England to participate in Britain’s oldest annual pilgrimage: Student Cross. Upon arrival on Good Friday, the majority of the pilgrims had travelled about 120 miles, carrying a life-size wooden Cross in small groups along city streets and country paths to reach their destination: the National Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham, Norfolk.

Though it may be the oldest yearly pilgrimage in Britain, it is “more relevant today than it has ever been”, said the national director of this year’s event, Dave Stanley. Amid an increasingly complex and uncertain society so laden with material burdens, “going on pilgrimage is a fantastic way to strip back to the basics and examine the fundamental questions in life”, he said. L’Osservatore Romano spoke with Stanley on his way to Walsingham on 30 March.

The pilgrimage – which began in 1948 and became officially ecumenical in 1972 – is a way to observe Holy Week that attracts all kinds: “from people who feel secure in their faith as Christians, to people who have simply found that walking with friends restores them in some way; fit and unfit, wildly enthusiastic and apparently reluctant. What we have in common is that we find this pilgrimage an invaluable way of connecting with what is most important in our lives”, said the director, adding that this year’s Student Cross has drawn people from New York, Mexico and the Philippines.

From its founding group of 30 students, the pilgrimage has grown to see numerous participants return year after year. It is divided into 10 different groups, called “Legs”, that depart from various parts of England and travel different distances. Six of the 10 groups walk approximately 120 miles over Holy Week, but there are also less intensive programmes, such as the two organized for families. These meet in Norfolk for a series of short walks and activities.

And that is precisely how Dominique Gelder Smith, a 22-year-old student of Durham University, has gone on Student Cross every single year of her life. Her parents had participated in the pilgrimage since they were students, and they took her with them on these  family pilgrimages when she was an infant.

Now, for Gelder Smith, Student Cross and Holy Week are inseparable. The same goes for Stanley, who said that the pilgrimage offers a unique way to celebrate the holiday. But he added, “To me, it’s not just something that I do at Easter; it’s become a cornerstone of my life”.

Stanley – who met his wife on Student Cross – spoke of the strong intimacy intrinsic to this experience of carrying the Cross together. He emphasized just how profound the relationships are that form over the week and endure long after Student Cross is finished. This intensity stems not only from the opportunity to spend a week so charged with meaning with a close-knit group of people but also from the difficulties that the group must overcome.

“It seems that there’s nothing that could make you imagine how terrible the experience of Christ actually was until you carry a Cross across the country”, said Gelder Smith in a telephone interview given en route with the “Midland Leg” on 31 March.  “You get a mixed reception – there are lots of people who are encouraging and welcoming, but often you come across people who are quite hostile, as well”, she said. “But because we’re all sharing the experience, carrying the Cross together, it brings us closer. To actually be carrying a symbol of faith – it’s a really good witness to what we’re doing and what we’re all about”.

Beyond these reactions, the physical aspect itself is the most difficult, said Stanley. “One hundred and twenty miles is a long way, and it hurts. Even with three people carrying –  two in front and one in back – the Cross feels heavy, particularly as the miles go on”.  But at the same time, he continued, “You do feel that very immediate connection between the witness of carrying it on the road and the suffering that Jesus went through”.

The Crosses that each “Leg” carries are all the same size – over 7ft tall and over 4ft wide – but are made of different kinds of wood and thus vary in weight. On average, the pilgrims who walk the entire week spend from about 9a.m. to 6p.m. on the road each day, with a break for lunch and 2-3 other rest stops. As they walk, some pilgrims sing or even play instruments. There are also “stations”, modelled after the Stations of the Cross, during which they pause to share and reflect.

When the ten groups converge on Good Friday, they walk the last mile into Walsingham –  a place of pilgrimage since medieval times – together.

“Even though I’ve been going for so many  years, it’s always overwhelming to arrive on Good Friday, if only for the sheer number of young Catholics that descend upon the town”, said Gelder Smith. “We all meet just outside the Shrine, and go in group by group. There are always people cheering you on as you walk into the Shrine, where each group spends a few moments of silence, and prays together for the last time on their own”. Everyone is very emotional when they arrive, she said, after having reflected for the whole week on the significance of the weekend’s celebrations.

In Walsingham they participate in a Good Friday service at the Church of the Annunciation, and on Holy Saturday, an ecumenical prayer service is held in a Methodist church. Easter Vigil Mass is followed by a celebration that begins at 2a.m. and, for the majority of pilgrims,  lasts until Sunday. Since there are so many regular participants, the event functions as a sort of yearly reunion for people who do not see each other otherwise. Easter Sunday begins with an Anglican service, followed by a “holy trot”. This entails parading the Crosses –  decorated with flowers – around the holy sites of Walsingham, pausing three times for reflection.

“Student Cross enables people to think deeply about the direction they are taking, how they can see their role in the world and how God can play a part in their lives”, concluded Stanley, who hoped that every pilgrim might come away with a similar experience to his very first, when he was 19:

“I was awestruck by how powerful it was. It makes you look at life and at relationships in a completely different way. You start to think not just about what makes you happy, but about how to serve others”. Likewise Gelder Smith said that the pilgrimage is a wonderful way to reaffirm one’s faith, and that “you go home filled with the grace of God”.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster also commented to L’Osservatore Romano on the profound significance of the event: “Going on pilgrimage is one of the oldest expressions of our Christian discipleship”, he said. “Carrying the Cross on pilgrimage shows our awareness of our own sins and the forgiveness that comes from the Lord”.

“May this Student Cross Pilgrimage bring us all closer to Christ”, the Archbishop concluded.

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 04/07/2010

Turning darkness into light: Interview with Tomm Moore

By Tania Mann

“I have seen suffering in the darkness, yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the Book – the Book that turned darkness into light”.

The Secret of Kells opens with these whispered words. The independent film produced in Kilkenny, Ireland, was one of this year’s surprise Oscar nominees. It was up for Best Animated Feature against such box office hits as Disney-Pixar’s Up and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. The film’s plot centres on 12-year-old Brendan, an orphan in 9th-century Ireland living among a community of monks who practice illumination, the art of illustrating and embellishing Gospel texts.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon

Brendan’s adventures begin when a quirky old illuminator named Aidan arrives with his cat Pangur Bán. The monk is renowned for his work on a famous Gospel manuscript  under the legendary St Columcille (also known as St Columba). Br Aidan’s seemingly whimsical arrival is a harbinger of danger, however; he comes seeking refuge, having fled from the Viking raids that destroyed his home of Iona.  Prompted by Aidan’s request for inkberries, Brendan ventures beyond the village’s fortified walls against the wishes of his stern uncle, the Abbot of Kells (voiced by Brendan Gleeson). There in the forest he meets Aisling, the sprightly and boisterous girl who accompanies him on his journey.

Director Tomm Moore, a 33-year-old Irish illustrator, comics artist and filmmaker, spoke about the significance, historical background and creation of The Secret of Kells in a telephone interview granted to L’Osservatore Romano‘s English edition on 12 March.

Moore explained that extensive research was involved in the making of the film. This included studying the actual Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels which is considered Ireland’s finest cultural artefact. Today it is displayed at Trinity College in Dublin, but originally it was housed at the Abbey of Kells, the monastery founded by St Columba where the story is set.

By combining history, fantasy, and myth, Moore’s team aimed to illustrate the importance of preserving valuable traditions and shed light on the truth common to all faiths. The result is a dream-like journey that speaks of sacrifice, gaining strength through suffering, reconciliation and hope.

Several of these themes emerge in the way the film’s catch phrase – turning darkness into light – is interwoven with the story: “We took that language from a poem that a monk wrote about his cat, Pangur Bán, and it’s a direct translation from the old Gaelic”, said Moore. “He wrote it in the corner of the Gospel he was transcribing. He said that his cat had a like path to him – that his cat was chasing mice but he was chasing words, and that they worked all night turning darkness into light”.

Brendan’s adventures involve facing the darkness both within and without. As the boy struggles with the idea of leaving to brave the forest, Br Aidan assures him of the importance of experiencing the outside world: “I lost my brothers to attackers from the outside. Now I only have the Book to remember them by. But if my brothers were here now, they would tell you that you will learn more in the woods … than from any other place. You will see miracles”.

In the forest, Brendan’s enemy takes the form of Crom Cruach, known in Irish legend as a pre-Christian deity to whom pagans would make human sacrifices in the hope of good crops. But in the film Crom appears as a snake-like creature that devours its own tail, an Ouroboros.

“The Ouroboros is a symbol that you see a lot in the Book of Kells”, said Moore. “It was a symbol of eternal life that was used often in the crossover period between pagan and Christian faith in Ireland”. He explained that the scene symbolizes an inner battle: “We decided to make Crom very abstract so that it was more Brendan’s own fears that he was defeating rather than a specific pagan god. It’s Brendan’s journey into his own subconscious where he has to fight with his own fears, and then comes out triumphant with a new vision”.

In his defeat of the creature, Brendan’s character parallels the figure of St Patrick, who was said to have struck down Crom Cruach, bringing an end to paganism in the country.

If Brendan can be likened to St Patrick, then perhaps the film’s illustrators can be compared to the Gospel illuminators.  “Whenever we were looking at the Book of Kells, a lot of people pointed out that it must have taken a certain meditative quality to create that work. The monks would have had to be completely calm and focused, because it’s almost impossible to imagine how they created such detail with such rudimentary tools that they would have had at the time”.

Similarly meticulous is the work entailed in creating a 2D animated film like this one, which is 95% hand-drawn and produced “without a lot of fancy computer equipment”, Moore said. “People are forgetting how magical it can be that just a pencil and a piece of paper can bring something to life”.

The director explained that each second of animation took approximately 12 drawings per character, in addition to the extremely elaborate backgrounds. “We spent four years working full-time on creating the film, but prior to that there were about six years of designing and developing”.

These artists’ pencil-sketched creations include a diverse group of monks from Italy, Africa and the Middle East. Moore explained that the choice of characters came from researching the Book of Kells, in which there are inks from Afghanistan, Moroccan designs, and other foreign influences. The artists imagined that perhaps people had come from across the world to work on the Book. “We also read a book that talked about how Ireland was a kind of a refuge, that the library in Kells was one of the few refuges existent in the Dark Ages”, he said. “That’s how Ireland became known as the land of saints and scholars, because during that period people came from all over the world to study or to work whenever it was more dangerous on the Continent”.

Moore’s favourite character, however, is Aisling. The fairy-like girl seems to be bursting with both youthful energy and ageless wisdom. Her character grew out of ideas from literature and from real life. “Aisling is often a figure in 18th-century Irish poetry, where Ireland is represented by this beautiful woman, very serene, and she appears to the poet in a dream – because aisling means ‘dream’ in Gaelic. We decided to turn the tradition on its head and make her a mischievous little girl instead of a sombre matriarchal figure”. Moore based Brendan’s relationship with Aisling on his own relationship with his younger sister, whose personality he claims is similar. “My sister even looks a little bit like her, except for Aisling’s white hair!”.

As the film begins to open to record-breaking crowds in the United States, it seems the “secret” is definitely out. And with it comes a message rife with Christian meaning.

“The Book was never meant to be hidden away behind walls, locked away from the world which inspired its creation”, Br Aidan tells Brendan, destined to become Abbot of Kells. “You must take the Book to the people, so that they may have hope. Let it light the way in these dark days”.

For further information visit the film’s production blog,

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 03/17/2010

Interview with Archbishop Vincent Nichols

The Church in England and Wales has become a “meeting point of Catholics from all over the world”, having recently grown significantly in diversity, said Archbishop Vincent Gerard Nichols of Westminster in an interview on Monday, 25 January 2010. The Archbishop, who is President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, also expressed the Church’s hopes for Benedict XVI’s upcoming Visit to Great Britain, as well as for the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. The following is the full transcript of the interview, which he granted to L’Osservatore Romano‘s Tania Mann and Nicola Gori at the beginning of the Bishops’ ad Limina visit to Rome.

*  *  *

How would you describe the proper role of faith in public life?

At this time in England, I believe, society is at a point of change. I think there is the beginning of a greater openness to the expression of faith in public life. For some years now, there has been a great scepticism and suspicion of religious faith, because in many minds it has been associated with extremism and a lack of rationality.

But I think there is a sense of uncertainty in our society and people are asking about the kind of values that we want to live by; the values around which might hold us together. In that search, there is a greater openness to the light which comes with religious faith, especially in the Catholic tradition, which lays such emphasis on the partnership, the combination, of faith and reason.

There are small signals of this shift in English public opinion. For example, the visit of the relics of St Therese of Lisieux attracted a great and wide interest. On the whole, that visit was received very positively in the public arena.

Just now, an art exhibition has finished at the National Gallery. It has been open for three months, and it is called “The sacred made real”. It is an exhibition of Spanish religious art from the 16th and 17th centuries which is very direct, very vivid and contains very strong images of the Christian faith. Many people have said that 10 years ago it would not have been possible to show this art. But this exhibition has been very successful — attendance has been 250% higher than the Gallery expected. One of the exhibits is particularly dramatic; it’s a polychrome sculpture of the dead body of Christ. It has been said that in the middle of the art gallery people have knelt and prayed. It has been a very remarkable lifting of a kind of deep-rooted unease in English culture about the art which in our country disappeared at the Reformation, but now in this exhibition is being seen again. So there are small indicators that the contribution which religious faith can make is finding a cautious welcome again.

The Catholic Church is manifest in very diverse ways throughout the world. Beyond the stereotypes, are there aspects that particularly characterize the English Catholic Church?

Well, one of the most evident characteristics of the Catholic Church in England at the moment is that it’s changing rapidly, and that it is very diverse. It is in fact a meeting point of Catholics from all over the world, from many different cultures and languages and ethnic groups. So in most parishes in the Westminster Diocese, in the Birmingham Diocese, and in the big cities, every parish has a great international feel to it now. There are parishes in Westminster where there are 90 different languages spoken by the congregation. That would be true of parishes in many of the other big cities as well.

I was in a parish yesterday, in North London. I was there 10 years ago; 10 years ago it was predominantly Irish, and yesterday there were people from five different continents. So there is a great enriching in this diversity of Catholics present now in the Church in England and Wales, and the contribution that those who are coming make to our churches is one of great strength, enthusiasm and vibrancy. So, there are many Polish Catholics; there are Catholics from Kerala, from the Philippines, from Africa. They are fervent in their faith, and they help to revitalize the English expression of faith as well.

It also means we have a number of different liturgical rites. In Westminster Diocese, we have about 60 different ethnic chaplaincies in the diocese, and a whole number of different Catholic rites. So we are slowly deepening our appreciation of the diversity within the unity of the Catholic Church.

Speaking of bringing new people into the Church, would you like to speak a bit about the initial reactions to the recent Apostolic Constitution, “Anglicanorum Coetibus”?

For 20 years now we have been developing the process of the rite of Christian initiation of adults as the normal way in which people come into the Church. So, at the beginning of Lent, Westminster Cathedral will be filled with those who are becoming Catholics and with their sponsors, for 2 days in succession. It’s not big enough to accommodate all those people in one day..

Some of those seeking membership in the Catholic Church will be people coming from different religious backgrounds. A large proportion will have had no religious upbringing. Some will be people who have been baptized and so are candidates for full communion. Some of those will be from the Church of England, and that has become part of our routine, year by year.

The Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus I think it’s very important to understand that this was not put in place particularly with England in mind. As you will know, the issuing ofAnglicanorum Coetibus was a response by the Holy See to requests that had been made to the Holy See by people within the Anglican Communion from all over the world, principally from America and from Australia. The request that was made to the Holy See was, “Is there a way in which we, who are convinced of the primacy of the Pope and of the gift of visible unity around the Pope as that ministry is at present fulfilled — is there a way for us who have that conviction to come into full communion with the Pope and bring with us some of our patrimony which is consistent with Catholic faith?”. So that was the question. And the response was Anglicanorum Coetibus.

In England we remain to see how many people will decide to respond to that opening by the Holy Father. There is in the Church of England quite a strong Anglo-Catholic tradition, but that’s not the focal point of Anglicanorum Coetibus. The focal point of Anglicanorum Coetibus is those, who have not just a deep understanding of the Catholic nature of the Church’s life and the Christian discipleship but, as its central point, an understanding of the papacy. There are many in what is called the “Anglo-Catholic” part of the Church of England who would not share that view of the papacy. So I hope the Anglo-Catholic feature — strength — of the Church in England will continue and I don’t think Anglicanorum Coetibus, as it were, is going to have a significant impact on that.

There are some who, as well as sharing that Catholic sense of Christian discipleship also have a definite and positive regard for the role of the Bishop of Rome. Now they will have to choose. As Archbishop Rowan Williams and I said in our Joint Statement, the issuing of this Apostolic Constitution could well “bring to an end a period of uncertainty” — a period of uncertainty for those who didn’t know whether they wanted to act on their conviction about the papacy. So I think now it will be a moment of decision.

We know that there are people within the umbrella of the Church of England who at this time are pondering that over carefully. They have chosen the 22nd of February, the Feast of the Chair of Peter, to begin to formulate their response.

It’s important to remember, however, that Anglicanorum Coetibus refers to groups of Anglicans, not individuals. It’s a way for small communities of members of the present Church of England, or the Anglican Communion, to enter into full communion.

There have always been conversations with individual members of the Church of England. That continues, but Anglicanorum Coetibus is not just talking about maybe half a dozen clergymen but rather it’s talking about groups of laypeople. We have to wait and see.

What can be said of the current dialogue between Christians and Muslims?

In England and Wales we recognize the very great importance of the interfaith dialogue. We would also want to emphasize the importance that this is not simply a dialogue with Islam.

I have just come from Birmingham, and in Birmingham there is a very fruitful interfaith leaders’ group and series of contacts, but it is with the six or seven major faiths. In Birmingham, there is a large Christian community. Then, probably, the next biggest communities are the Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists. There is a small Jewish community and a growing Muslim community. There we have tried to maintain the dialogue with all the different faiths. I think that’s important to remember —that the interfaith issues are not just to do with Islam.

What is particularly a challenge with regard to Islam is that neither in Birmingham and nor in London is there a leadership or a coherence or a uniformity about Islam. In Birmingham now, there are about 160 mosques. But a lot of them actually relate to a single village — in Pakistan, or in India. They don’t necessarily have any great cohesion.

In London, there are Muslims from all over the Muslim world. But African Muslims have a quite different agenda to those from Iran, or from Turkey, who have a quite different stance to those from Pakistan, or from India. So it is not really possible to talk about Muslims as a generic whole.

I think also we understand a little bit, as a Catholic community, about what it is to arrive or to emerge as a minority in England and to be the focus of a lot of suspicion. I think we have an empathy with Muslims who, because of an atrocity carried out by extremists, who use the title of Islam to excuse what they have done. Because that has resonances with the Catholics in England and their experience at the time of bombs set off by the IRA for which all Catholics were blamed. So there is some empathy for the moderate Muslims — which is the majority of those in Britain —who want to live peacefully, who see their faith as a motivation for good, and who want to play their part in British society.

This kind of contact can happen at local level, and it can happen at the level of Church leaders. It’s important that we give that witness, so that those in authority slowly move away from a position that they sometimes take up, of viewing religious faith as a problem for society; whereas in fact we believe that religious faith is an enrichment of society and an important contributor to the work of fashioning a modern city. And there is evidence to support this view.

Looking to the future of the Church in England and Wales, what are your greatest hopes?

We are obviously looking forward to the proposed Visit of Pope Benedict XVI. While that Visit hasn’t been officially confirmed, we are confidently getting ahead with preparations. It is very encouraging that the British Government and of course Her Majesty the Queen are extremely positive about the Visit of Pope Benedict.

We are working closely with both Ministers and officials of the Government in fashioning a short but what we believe will be a very effective program for the Visit. This program will focus, we hope, on the role of faith in what Pope Benedict often describes as a society of “positive and open secularity”.

Then, of course, we are looking forward very much to the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who everybody knows as a scholar, as a famous convert to the Catholic Church, and we would very much want to present him as a man of English culture, as a man who has great stature within the cultural and literary life of our country. We would very much want him to be appreciated as a parish priest because for over 30 years he was a parish priest in Birmingham, and his beatification comes at the end of the Year for Priests. So here we have the Beatification of an English parish priest, just as we close the Year for Priests. We hope that that will lead to a greater understanding of the role of Catholic faith, how it is really part of an English way of life, and perhaps a flowering of new vocations to the priesthood.

I think our hopes would go wider than that as well, because we hope for continuing fruitful dialogue with the Church of England and other Christian partners, and we are very pleased to see the announcement of the third set of International Anglican Roman Catholic Dialogue, ARCIC III, and obviously the outflowing of that into a refreshing of a vision about what a good modern society stands for

Because sometimes I sense that British society today tries to hold together around negatives. It holds together round its determination to be non-discriminatory. It holds together round its determination to be tolerant. But these are not substantial enough a vision to motivate people, to lift their spirits. And so I hope that together we might be able to have more positive convictions about what is for the good of a human society and for families within that society.

And your greatest fears?

My fears would be to do with a failure to get beyond the cynicism and the suspicion of religious belief. Such cynicism impoverishes everybody and therefore it will lead to a greater fragmentation of society. We do have — perhaps in a particular way — a great capacity to be cynical.

It’s the marginalizing of religious faith that is the biggest fear, because I think that would be really corrosive of good things in society. What would go with that would be a loss of confidence, even within the communities of faith themselves.

I think that one of our biggest challenges is to deepen faith within the Catholic community and to strengthen the substantial understanding of faith, because in these circumstances, anyone who wants to be a disciple of the Lord has to be strong from within and therefore needs an understanding and needs a practice of prayer which is quite deeply rooted. So they are the big challenges, too.

Your last book was entitled “Missioners”. Would you like to speak about the importance of mission?

Well, the book called Missioners was actually about the ordination of priests and deacons. I gave it that title because when the diocese in England and Wales were re-established in 1852 after the Reformation, one of the great founding Bishops of the Diocese of Birmingham, Bishop Ullathorne, spoke of priests who, if they had the right spirit and the right heart, deserved the name “missioners”. So his view was that every priest was essentially a missioner.

And that is partly because, at that time, priests had been moving around the country, using places of safety for Catholics to gather Catholics together and celebrate Mass. And these were not called parishes, they were called missions. What became a parish at the beginning of the 20th century up to that point had been called a mission. So the very nature of what we would call a parish was to be missionary.

It was that spirit that I was trying to recall by using that as the title of the book. The double movement in the life of the Gospel and in the life of the Church, because it reflects the inner mystery of the life of God, is outward and back. So we breathe out and we breathe in. We breathe in when we are drawn into the life of God and into a communion of life, and we breathe out when we engage in expressing our faith in action or in word.

And the interesting thing, when we take that reflection back to our understanding of God, is that in a way the first thing we know of God is because of God’s mission of sending — the missio, the sending of the Word in the act of creation, and the sending of the Word in the action of the Holy Spirit in history, and then in the incarnation in the person of Jesus. So the missio of the Trinity comes first, and in a way, the mission of the Church is what gives it its reason for being. The communion that we celebrate in Liturgy and in prayer and when we try to be closer to God is like the breathing in, and the mission is the breathing out. So they are inseparable in the life of the Church.

Of course, mission is as subtle as breath or breeze; and yet also as evident, at other times, as a storm. Just as the creative action of God is sometimes entirely delicate and entirely unseen, and other times quite remarkable, vivid and very visible, so too the way a disciple of Christ, a member of the Catholic Church, fulfils their mission sometimes will be very delicate and very unseen, within the context of a family or towards a neighbour, and at other times it will be quite public and maybe even controversial.

What is the current state of vocations in England and Wales?

It varies, I think, from diocese to diocese. My sense is that some of the bigger diocese are able to generate interest and momentum, and some of the small diocese are finding it more difficult. In terms of diocese, I can only speak for Westminster, and we have about 35 in the seminary and we have nine people who are applying for interview and selection this year. I think there is overall an increase, but it varies from place to place.

If you were me, what would you ask you today, and then of course what would be the answer?

Perhaps I’d ask about the role of modern media and things like digital communication, particularly how people relate to each other. With communication today, young people now talk to each other online. How does that work in terms of the way the Church communicates?

In terms of young people communicating through Facebook, Twitter and all these different forms of communication; these are quite superficial. They don’t necessarily invite people to reflect, and to spend time thinking about where their life is going. It’s very quick and immediate, whereas our message very often requires some reflection. Engaging with that level of communication — that can be quite challenging.

Just as a discussion point, there’s a very interesting topic of study at the moment around uncertainty. I read a most fascinating paper arguing that since the Enlightenment, Western efforts in the face of uncertainty have been based on the belief that if you get more information about something, then you remove the risk, you remove the uncertainty. So if you talk about health and safety, risk assessment and security issues, the more information you can have, the less that is left to risk and uncertainty.

But in fact the opposite is true. The more information you have, the more uncertain everything becomes. Once you begin to think you can base judgments primarily on information, then you find that everything becomes more uncertain. There what you find is that you end up with everybody having their own view of things and there is a greater degree of uncertainty.

I think that’s the perspective we have to get past. In a way, we are all beguiled by fact and information and the latest. Yet information overload doesn’t invite us to sense deep uncertainties which of themselves begin to open us to a new set of questions, which are much more the realm in which the invitation of God works.


© L’Osservatore Romano English edition

To seek wisdom is to seek Christ

The following piece was written to accompany the Pope’s Homily to Rome’s university students.

“We students have to seek the Face of God in everything we study”. With these words Emanuele Raimondo, a law student in Rome, took up a central theme of Benedict XVI’s Homily to students on 17 December. “It is our vocation to search for wisdom, that is, for God”, Raimondo continued. The academic’s role is then to help reveal the Face of Christ to others in “intellectual charity”, illuminating it by the diverse knowledge discovered through study, said the Pope. Rome’s academic community came together for Vespers in St Peter’s on the third Thursday of Advent, meaning that it was also the only night of the year in which the “O Antiphon” invoking Christ as Sapientia – Wisdom – is sung.

When considered together with the Nativity scene in Bethlehem, the Pope said, this invocation points to the “provocative” paradox of Wisdom seen from a Christian perspective. From “the mouth of the Most High”, Wisdom “comes to lie in swaddling cloths in a manger”, the Holy Father explained.

This identification of Wisdom with the Baby Jesus struck a chord with students: “In today’s society when one thinks of wisdom, so often the last thing to come to mind is humility”, said Emanuele Vincent, who also studies law in Rome. “The way the Pope brought the two together was truly beautiful”.

Contrary to what many may think, Benedict XVI said, drawing near to Christ in the manger is not an obstacle to successful academic study. “Education is a way for me to express and share my faith”, said Jenna Hensby, a nursing student from Sydney. “Rather than a stumbling block, it’s actually a platform”.

Hensby participated in the Celebration as a member of the delegation that had come from Australia to pass on the Icon of Mary, Sedes Sapientiae, to a delegation from Africa, its next destination.

The handing over took place at the conclusion of Vespers, a “small symbol of an immense project: that of creating a new bridge of knowledge between Rome and Africa”, said motor sciences student Angela Tozzi, representing Rome’s university students in an address to the Pope. “Remembering that Mary walks with us in our university hallways calls us to place our talents at the service of humanity… to build a new civilization founded on love”.

At the end of the ceremony, the organ’s chords faded into the rhythm of African drums and song, symbolizing the progression of the pilgrimage. Afterwards Christine Tesch, who studies business in Brisbane, expressed the Australian delegation’s hope for the Icon’s journey in Africa: that it might serve as an inspiration in the development of both its “Catholic faith, which is so young and vibrant, and its growing education system”.

The gathering was therefore a chance for the young students to recognize the interrelatedness of a worldwide academic community of the faithful. It also shed light on John Paul II’s original sentiments in commissioning the Icon, as expressed at its presentation: “Every day you are committed to proclaiming, defending and spreading the truth…. Even in research on areas of life which seem quite far from faith, there is a hidden desire for truth and meaning” (Homily to University Teachers, 10 September 2000; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 13 September, p. 1).

For Benedict XVI, it was an opportunity to invite his fellow academics to draw near to that Grotto in Bethlehem, in which lies the only answer to “the Christian paradox”: that with a “Love that infinitely exceeds human and historical dimensions”, the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).


© L’Osservatore Romano English edition