Brother André becomes Holy Cross Congregation’s first Saint Sunday, Apr 24 2011 

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 Thursday, Feb 24 2011 

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 Thursday, May 6 2010 

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

Interview with Muslim scholar Prof. Mona Siddiqui Thursday, May 6 2010 

By Tania Mann

The principal message of the Qur’an? That God is merciful. And according to Prof. Mona Siddiqui, this conviction, along with the importance of belief in God, constitutes a meeting point for the three monotheistic religions. Siddiqui, a prominent Muslim scholar, is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Glasgow and founder of its Centre for the Study of Islam, which she now directs. She is well-known for her broadcasting work in the British media, and on Wednesday, 5 May, she will come to Rome to give a lecture at a conference on interfaith dialogue at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum). In the following interview with L’Osservatore Romano, Siddiqui speaks on relations among religions and on how innovative ways of thinking about faith can facilitate meaningful exchanges on a wide range of levels.

You are originally from Pakistan, where Christians have accused Muslims of using blasphemy laws to justify discrimination and even persecution. Do problems like these paint an inaccurate picture of Islam?

What faith represents for one person might be very different from what it represents for another. In many countries, blasphemy laws are simply about state control and it’s very easy to use “an offence against Islam” to silence people or deny people basic rights, with the claim that that is exactly what God wants.
For others, they will turn to Scripture and to Islamic theology and anthropology; they will look at interreligious issues. They will look at the march of human rights and democracy, and they will say that Scripture is fluid enough to give us a variety of interpretations which reflect the reality of a pluralist society. Many Muslims countries have forgotten an intrinsic pluralism which can be found in Islam.

Personally speaking, I think it’s really important for people who are interested in how civil society can be visionary rather than reactionary to keep engaged in these debates and to know that oppression in the name of faith can never be good, and is never good.

You have pointed out the need for an Islamic theology that is based more solidly on compassion as opposed to salvation, and that is therefore also more inclusive. Can you elaborate?

Things are changing now, because there is more interreligious work being done both by academics and others so that people are realizing that in many circles we have moved away from being representatives of faith with exclusivist claims.

So if I were to become entrenched in a way of thinking in which I represent Islam in the context of thinking that my path, in simple terms, is the only path to salvation then I would really be closing myself off to interaction with a lot of people.

Because personally speaking, I don’t know that the truth I have is the only truth. There’s no way I can know. I can’t reduce the Scripture and God to a single truth. This is the case especially if I look at my own scripture. Its insistence really is on belief in God. If belief in God is the essential kernel to salvation, then surely ways of expressing that belief must be open to newer, more inclusive ways of thinking about how we do believe in God and also about what good we can do in human society because of our belief.

So the only thing that I can do is to have a view of other people, whether they are believers or non-believers, that is based on compassion and mercy. If anything, the one consistent message in the Qur’an even if you take away everything else is that God is merciful.

Now if God is merciful, how do I live out that mercy in my real life? And it cannot possibly be by starting off either vocally or intentionally or emotionally by thinking:  “Well, I have the full truth and I’m going to start talking to you based on that premise”. That is not a way for me to talk to anyone.

Through your theological work, you have sought to demonstrate that the traditional Muslim perspective according to which the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are considered “corrupt” can be reinterpreted. How?

The theory of abrogation was eventually developed in Islam, that somehow not only are there verses in the QurÆan that abrogate one another, but it was also asked whether the Qur’an abrogates previous Scriptures. And this was based on this notion that perhaps other Scriptures were valid at their time of revelation, but they had been corrupted by their believers.

But the interesting thing is that the Qur’an does not mention that the previous Scriptures are corrupt and must be abrogated. It talks about people as following wrong beliefs. The prime example would be that with their belief in the Trinity, Christians have divided God, so to speak. Now I’m putting it very crudely but even this debate opened up a whole polemical literature between Muslims and Christians. The challenge for many Muslims is to re-assess their approach to other faiths which is based on reason and compassion

And so for me, even a very cursory approach would be:  at the end of the day, what the Qur’an is constantly referring to is essentially about belief in God and surrender to God.

Therefore if I’m looking at Jewish and Christian thought, they are also submitting to God in their own ways, and if that can be the essential kernel that binds us, then that is a very powerful kernel and not something that we can just brush aside.

In your view, given the current conditions, is the search for a substantial ethical common ground possible among the three monotheistic religions?

There are quite a few things happening in terms of humanitarian work. I know for example that Christian and Muslim organizations have come together. But also groups are working together irrespective of whether they are faith practitioners or just people from different backgrounds.

I think there is real practicable advance in that, because people know that with the effects of globalization, cultures, civilizations are colliding and public space is getting smaller and smaller. Especially over the last 50 years, with the effects of migration, people are already living in such mixed societies that there is an inevitability of coming together at some level. Whether it’s at a personal, professional or social level, it is enriching. And I don’t think we should underestimate the human social level, because that’s really where real change take place in people’s minds.

And at the religious level?

At the religious level, it is of course important to see and hear what religious leaders say. Religious leadership is heard by people of that community and also by people of other communities. And when you have two individual faiths and their leaderships say something irrespective of whether you believe in it you know that it’s going to reverberate across the globe.

So at a symbolic level, I think it’s really important that people see that to be religious today is to be interreligious. You cannot just speak for a community, you have to be cognizant that there are going to be other communities that are affected by what you say. Sometimes people feel distant from it, but sometimes it can really cause a reaction in people. It still has a resonance and it still has a presence.

What of the ethics of gender discourse in Islam?

To me gender is very much about the dialectics between both men and women to make society a more just place. It’s about how society works:  the result of the relationship between the two sexes. The issue of how women have a voice in private, public and to some extent religious life is obviously very important across the faith traditions. Judaism and Christianity have their own struggles; they have a different religious structure. But in Islam I think we’re looking at how women especially Muslim women in the West are trying to find alternative spaces for religious discourses where their voice carries weight, and where their voice is seen as equal to a man’s voice, because society is made up of both sexes. And for them to be silenced on matters of religion and religious sensitivity cannot work for a flourishing society.

What do you think is the most important thing for the West to keep in mind so as not to have a distorted view of Islam?

On various levels, Islam has come under so much focus in recent years. Much of traditional thinking about Islam has been eclipsed by 9/11 and by equating Islam with not necessarily just fundamentalism but a militant fundamentalism. Whereas before it was very much a religion of the other but didn’t really concern the West, suddenly it’s become a predominant concern among both political and civil circles. It has made people rethink what democracy means and what rights people have in democracy.

I think that for the majority of Muslims in the West, they are enjoying life being Muslims in a western democratic context, and they would never dream of returning anywhere else. But I think what has happened is that a lot of Muslims feel constantly on the defensive, because they see that any discourse about fundamentalism or militant Islam is a reflection on them.

And on the other side of the scale you have people feeling, “Well, we cant really talk about Islam in a negative way, because that will upset people”. So that has created a bit of a polarization in meaningful exchanges among people.
As I have said in the past, the way the media talks about monotheistic traditions albeit the events of the last few weeks, but I think over a period of years has been reduced to saying that the Catholic Church is just about child abuse, Islam is just about terrorism, and the Anglican Church is essentially about homosexuality and the crisis over that. So that any story that is picked up which reverberates to their archetype of these religions has become inflammatory. And then people are constantly reacting to these inflamed reflections of their faith.

I don’t mean one bit to say these are not serious issues. But I think they have been amplified so much that we can’t really talk about anything else. And I don’t necessarily mean the good stuff. I mean real critical thinking that needs to go on about how we can live together, how we can talk about social and economic ethics and education.
Religious debate has to be kept alive in the public psyche, but it has to be kept alive in more nuanced ways, so that people are not just reducing religion to something that’s negative in global society.

Has engaging so extensively with the media affected your academic work?

For me engaging with the media has been a way of opening my own way of thinking. Because the media often asks very direct questions that you can’t give very nuanced or long, rambling responses to. And you need to think, “What is it that I’m really saying here?” For many people, the media is their only way of learning about anything in life.
I do feel that when I give public lectures, there is a hunger for theology made simple, that people want beyond media sound bytes, but that they are interested precisely because of these sound bytes to know “What is other thinking around religions?”.

Even if people think that there is no place for religion or for God in life, they also know that we are almost naturally drawn to something which is beyond ourselves.

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 04/28/2010

Student Cross pilgrimage: more relevant today than ever Thursday, Apr 8 2010 

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 Tuesday, Mar 23 2010 

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

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