“What a waste of time, organizing a Festival of Catholic culture, with the Cardinal, when there are so many real worries, in the Church and in the world.” Thus stated a critic recently in denouncing the forthcoming Towards Advent Festival at Westminster Cathedral Hall.
The critic’s perspective is unfortunate. And incorrect. The Festival is not pointless; it has enormous value and meaning – not only because it offers opportunities for people to learn and to celebrate their Catholic faith and culture, but because doing this is crucial for the transmission of that faith and culture in the future.
The Festival was first held at the turn of the Millenium and has been thriving ever since. This year, on Saturday November 28th, Cardinal Vincent Nichols will open it, with the choir of St James’ School, Twickenham singing, culminating in all joining in a rousing “O come O come Emmanuel”. There will be a prize presented to the young winner of our essay project on “The real meaning of Christmas”, and events during the day will include a talk on the plight of Christians in the Middle East, a workshop on how to sing Gregorian Chant, and a presentation on the Franciscan way of life by the Friars of the Renewal.
In addition, a range of Catholic groups and organizations will pack out the Cathedral Hall with stalls and displays, and a team of volunteers will serve freshly-brewed coffee and cakes and sandwiches. Books, DVDs, statues, rosaries, craft goods, and monastic produce all jostle with displays by the Knights of St Columba, the Ordinariate Ladies Group, various pro-life organizations, Catholic publishers, Youth 2000, music groups, and more.
It’s easy to announce that things in Europe are ghastly as the Christian faith is slowly marginalized. Any serious Catholic commentator can do that. The dramatically sloping figures for Mass attendance, the hideous reality of so many children destroyed in their mothers’ wombs, the enforcement of laws imposing same-sex unions…it’s all tragic. And announcing that It’s All the Fault of The Bishops is simply to remain within a comfort zone of noise that has been present for all of my adult life. But it doesn’t change anything.
Perhaps a Festival of Catholic Culture won’t change much, either. But along with the prayers and work of groups seriously committed to the New Evangelisation, it can play its small part. And the work of the Church has always really been a great many parts that seemed small in their own time and place.
The Festival began years ago with a gathering of representatives of various Catholic organizations including Aid to the Church in Need, the Association of Catholic Women, the Catholic Writers’ Guild, and some publishers including the Catholic Truth Society. The CTS nobly took on the paperwork and bookings in the early years and still plays a major role at the Festival: today a committee including people from the Catenians, the Knights of St Columba and the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham tackles the organizing of the event. And the whole venture has grown and grown and is now a standard part of the annual calendar of London Catholic events.
If it is a waste of time, then so probably are the Catholic History walks that I lead around London throughout the year telling the story of the Viking battle on London Bridge at the end of the 10th century, the heroism of Catholic martyrs in the 16th, the opening of Westminster Cathedral at the start of the 20th, the State Visit of Benedict XVI in the 21st. Perhaps, too, the Schools Bible Project, in which students at schools across Britain study events in Christ’s life and write about them as if they had actually been present. The young winners will be in London at the beginning of December to receive their prizes at a ceremony in the House of Lords. And the junior pupils who take part in the Handwriting and Artwork venture that involves writing out the Lord’s Prayer, who will be busy as their schools begin the 2016 project. Last year I visited a number of schools to present awards for the best work and to join in praying that most glorious of prayers with the children.
If we are to counter the sense of hopelessness induced by the emptiness of so many of Europe’s churches and the feeling that Christianity is in retreat before the power of the followers of Mohammed, we will need to understand that God does not see things as we do. We need to look beyond and see things in a fresh way: our prayers and efforts are a gift to him. The real initiative in everything good is always his, and when he invites us to share in good work we can be sure that he will provide the larger share. And for God, nothing good is a waste of time.
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