A warm heart may still beat beneath the glass

Mark Greaves takes soundings among Catholics as the relics of St Anthony begin an eight-day British tour

This article was first published in The Times on 26 October 2013.

Pilgrims venerate the relics of St Anthony at Westminster Cathedral (Photo: Diocese of Westminster)Pilgrims venerate the relics at Westminster Cathedral (Photo: Diocese of Westminster)

Today the relics of a 13th-century saint begin an eight-day tour of Scotland and England. A friar in a rented van will take them to cathedrals and churches from Aberdeen to London. Large crowds will pray in front of the relics, touch the glass they are sealed in, and maybe place flowers by them. The practice may seem bizarrely medieval to non-believers, but over the past few years the veneration of relics has had a revival among Catholics in Britain.

These particular relics are of St ­Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things. They are a piece of bone and a layer of skin. Each is sealed in glass and placed in an ornamental container, the reliquary. They have been brought from Padua by Father Mario Conte, a Franciscan friar. He sees the tour as a way for people to feel close to a saint they regard as a “friend of the family”. When people touch or kiss the reliquary, he says, it’s “an act of love, a search for a connection”.

Others may find the notion hard to fathom, but Father Conte says everyone keeps relics of a sort. He keeps his mother’s wedding ring: “I know it’s a piece of gold, a common thing I can buy anywhere, but at the same time it’s very important to me and when I hold it in my hand I feel a connection with her.”

The relics of Catholic saints are more than just keepsakes. Since the 2nd century, when martyrs’ bones were first venerated, they were regarded as joining heaven and earth — the saint was in heaven, but still had a link to his or her earthly remains. And, as saints are next to God, if we pray to them they may tug His sleeve on our behalf.

Father Conte says it is understandable that people pray to St Anthony about their problems.

“We all want God to help in one way or another,” he says. “No one can say they don’t need any help.”

The tour would probably not be happening were it not for the visit of St ­Thérèse of ­Lisieux’s relics four years ago. The ­remains of the much-loved 19th-­century French nun attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims. It changed how Catholics saw relics.

Josephine Siedlecka, who runs the indcatholicnews.com site, says the idea of relics — the “adoration of so and so’s big toe” — used to seem to her “slightly repugnant”. But during the St Thérèse tour she began to think differently. “There was such a beautiful atmosphere,” she says. “It meant so much to people.”

Even Catholic bishops were sceptical about the tour at first. The Right Rev Crispian Hollis, then Bishop of Portsmouth, says he and his fellow bishops weren’t “over the moon with enthusiasm” initially. Relics were regarded as “distant things in the past” and associated with pre-1960s forms of worship.

However, he describes the experience of the relics visiting his cathedral as ­“extraordinary”. The “sheer intensity of prayer,” he says, made it “one of the most important couple of days” in the cathedral during his time as bishop. He adds that it wasn’t that people “came to gawp at relics”. Instead, he says, people were praying that St Thérèse “would help them get closer to God”.

In the Catholic Church relics went out of fashion after the reforms of the 1960s. Instead of being placed on altars they were put away in boxes. In Oxford Jesuits even took their relics to the crematorium.

Alexandra Walsham, a professor of history at Cambridge, says there have always been “recurrent cycles of concern about relics”. Protestants rejected the practice, of course, but so did the iconoclasts of the 8th century. Christian humanists were worried about it, too. Walsham suggests that Christian­ity has an “ambivalence about the ­materiality of religion”. A fear of idolatry, of “external objects getting in the way of a personal relationship with God”, is present from the start, she says.

Catholic bishops took two years to approve the St Thérèse tour, according to its organiser, Monsignor Keith ­Barltrop. They were worried about ­upsetting the Anglican establishment, he says, and “terrified” of seeming ­fanatical.

“They want to present the faith as something bland and reasonable,” he says.

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The Catholic enslaved in Bedfordshire

Mark Greaves meets a former slave who says he finally found ‘paradise’ in a Church-run safe house

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on 20 September 2013.

James was having lunch at a homeless centre in Brighton when three men came over and offered him a job and a place to stay. They said they’d feed him and pay £40 or £50 a day. He thought it was a decent offer. At the time he was unemployed and living on his own. The men took him back to their Traveller site and set him up in a caravan. Every day he would Tarmac and pave driveways. In the evenings he would clean up his family’s static caravan.

The first few years, he says, were brilliant. He felt part of the family: he called the parents mum and dad, and thought of their children as his brothers and sisters. They would go to weddings and christenings together.

But then, for no apparent reason, things changed. The father began to beat him up, punching him in the face and throat. He would shout “you’re useless” and “I’ll break your face in”, James says. “He just seemed to lose it. It’d be all right one minute and the next he’d start shouting and hitting you.” James didn’t understand why: as far as he was aware, he was doing nothing wrong. Towards the end it was happening every week.

In other ways, too, he was treated as a lower class of person. He was not allowed to speak to anyone outside the family. He was rarely allowed to go to Mass. While the family had hot running water, he washed himself with cold water from the sink. To begin with he showered once a week. Later, it was every three or four months. Oddly, he had to have his head shaved. And for all his work he earned little or nothing – just the odd £5 or £10 pocket money.

James, who is in his mid-50s, lived with them for 15 or so years. In all that time he guesses he probably received £80 to £100 in total.

He often thought about escaping, he says, but was frightened of getting caught. And if he escaped, his prospects were limited: he had no money, and nowhere to go. When I meet James (this is not his real name), he has been free for nearly six months. He is a handsome, slight man with a very tanned, very lined face. He is quiet, and hangs his head down a bit in the way that self-effacing people do.

Months earlier, police had knocked on the door of the shed the family had put him in. They talked to him over a cup of tea and a cigarette. A few minutes later he agreed to go to police headquarters and a medical centre.

He was one of 24 men freed from a Travellers’ site near Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, in a raid involving 100 police officers. Seven people – all members of the same family – were charged under a new slavery law. In a landmark case, four of those accused were found guilty and, in May, were jailed for between four and 11 years.

Suspicions of trafficking among some Travellers had been growing for years. According to the UK Human Trafficking Centre, more than 200 potential trafficking victims among Gypsy and Traveller groups were identified between 2007 and 2010. (Trafficking does not have to be international: it means moving a person from one place to another in order to exploit them.)

Subsequent headlines appeared to blame Travellers in general for the crimes. Damian LeBas, editor of Travellers’ Times, says the media gave the impression that trafficking was somehow part of the culture.

“The idea that it is a Traveller habit to enslave people is ridiculous,” he says. “I’ve never met any Traveller or Gypsy people who’d do anything like that.”

That said, the practice of taking in homeless people, giving them food and accommodation as well as a job, is actually quite widespread among some Traveller communities. They do heavy labour and are treated like part of the family. Brian Foster, a trustee of the Irish Travellers Movement in Britain, says the arrangement generally benefits both parties and is “not essentially exploitative”.

James, like all victims of trafficking, was given the option of staying at a safe house for 45 days. He went to a house run by the Medaille Trust, a charity set up by Sister Ann Teresa, a Sister of St Joseph of Annecy, which helps people who have been trafficked. He describes it as “paradise”. When I visit, there are five men there: one English, two Polish and two Czech.

Kerry Ste De Croix, who runs the safe house, says the men can be highly traumatised and are likely to have problems with drugs, alcohol and aggression. They are given help in all kinds of areas – relationships, budgeting, “life skills”. They go on days out to museums and national parks, and are encouraged to ask for things in shops and cafés as part of rebuilding their confidence.

Once they leave, they keep in touch with an outreach worker every day until they are ready to be independent.

“The important thing is that they’re equipped to move on, so they’re not re-trafficked and they don’t end up back on alcohol and drugs,” Kerry says.

It’s certainly a nice place to relax. Each room has a television. In the living room there are board games, DVDs and a chess set. Upstairs is a Wii and a Play Station.

James has left the safe house, though he still visits most days. He is working as a car valeter. On Sunday mornings, the only time he has free, he goes to Mass. He has even been on a parish singles’ night. “I’ve put my life back together quite well,” he says with a grin.

Kerry is massively proud of him. She says: “He’s got everything that everybody else has now. Every time we see him he’s really happy.” He has lost the fear he had when he arrived, she says, and now just “wants to achieve everything”.

Staff at the safe house even found his brother on Facebook. James last saw him at his mother’s funeral, just over 15 years ago. He lives in Hungary (their dad was Hungarian) with his wife and two kids. James plans to visit him. “That’s what I thought I’d lost,” he says.

James says he is grateful to the two policemen who gave him a new life. “I would never have got away if it weren’t for them. I can’t thank them enough.”

Sisters in shades herald a new generation getting into the habit

Joining a community of sisters, monks or friars is becoming increasingly popular, Mark Greaves finds

This article was first published in The Times on 31 August 2013.

A sister makes her final profession (Photo: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

A sister makes her final profession (Photo: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

Janet Hopper, a 33-year-old novice at the Society of the Sacred Heart, says she used to have hang-ups about the word “nun”. She didn’t think it quite fitted her. “I played football too much. I was too independent and too mischievous.” She doesn’t exactly fit my idea of a nun, either — she plays the guitar, likes the Rolling Stones and wears her sunglasses on top of her head.

Janet is one of three novices who have joined the Society in the past year. Before that, the group went 15 years without anyone joining at all. This spike in interest is part of a national trend. The number of people becoming religious sisters, brothers, monks and friars in England and Wales is at its highest level for 16 years. The figure has more than doubled over eight years, from 19 in 2004 to 53 last year. A sharp decline over several decades seems to have been reversed.

Part of the reason for this is simple. For the first time, religious congregations are making an effort to attract people. At the Society of the Sacred Heart, the reason lies with Sister Barbara McSweeney, a retired teacher.

I meet her at her community house in Fenham, a suburb of Newcastle. Janet is there, too. Sunlight pours in through French windows. On the side is a half-finished shopping list: “Potato, Onion, Washing-up liquid.”

Sister Barbara is a genteel, well-dressed lady; her red earrings match her red skirt. At her request five years ago it was agreed that she would focus on vocations work. It was a subject she was “always banging on about”, she says. The Society (in England and Wales) was shrinking, and ageing; out of its 70 or so members, only two were under 50. The largest group were in their seventies. Yet they weren’t doing anything to encourage vocations.

Read the rest of the article here.

The charity that could make you love social workers

…and why many social workers don’t like it

This article was first published in The Spectator on 31 August 2013.


Is any public service more reviled than social work? Policemen, when not drinking with journalists, chase down baddies; firefighters save babies, and doctors cure diseases. Social workers, on the other hand, take away people’s children. They miss catastrophic abuse. In no news story are they ever heroic. The perception of social work is unremittingly grim. It’s badly paid, box-ticking, mired in bureaucracy. Only go into it if you like being a martyr.

Josh MacAlister, the chief executive of Frontline, wants people to imagine things differently. In a decade he thinks social work will be one of the main options for top graduates. At an Oxford careers fair, he suggests, students will be queueing up at the social work stand. Entry will be fiercely competitive. ‘These things are not unimaginable,’ he says. ‘It’s happened in other professions.’

You might think he is daft. But he’s right: in the past decade something similar has happened to teaching. It’s down to Teach First. The scheme, set up in 2002, recruits bright graduates to work in challenging schools. It’s been a ridiculous success — this year it received applications from one in ten Oxbridge graduates.

Teaching has clear similarities with social work. They are both tough jobs that can transform people’s lives. The pay is comparable, too. A newly qualified social worker can earn £27,000 in some areas — enough to make a freelance journalist envious.

MacAlister is a product of Teach First. He became frustrated with the social workers he encountered at his school in Manchester. He started off with the idea of a Teach First for children’s social work and, after writing a policy document about it, quit his teaching job to make it happen.

His organisation, Frontline, is recruiting 100 graduates for a pilot scheme in London and Manchester next year. It has cross-party support — Michael Gove and Lord Adonis are speaking at its launch next month. But the idea hasn’t gone down brilliantly well with social workers. Some regard it as elitist and insulting. The assumption that a bunch of Oxbridge types can swoop in and sort out the mess must be galling. But to see it like this — an attempt to make social workers posher — misses the broad changes that a scheme like Frontline can bring about.

I meet MacAlister at the Frontline office. He is tall and rake-thin, with a quiff and a bit of designer stubble. The aim, he says, is not just to tackle the image of social work. ‘We also need to change the way we train and do social work.’ The training programme, devised by social workers and academics, squeezes what is usually a two- or three-year degree into 13 months. MacAlister says it is not just a compressed version of the current course, but something ‘built from scratch’.

Like Teach First, it begins with a five-week summer boot camp. Then for a year the students are placed in local authorities in teams of four. They ‘co-work’ complex cases under the supervision of a consultant social worker (who is legally responsible for those cases). At the same time they continue to study. Steve Goodman, a social worker who helped devise the scheme, compares it to the way doctors and barristers train. ‘You can’t really beat working alongside someone who’s an expert in their field,’ he says. At the end of the year they qualify; for their second year they complete a master’s.

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Recycled graves – coming soon to a cemetery near you

For 150 years, Britain has tightly restricted the re-use of graves. That may be about to change

This article was first published in The Spectator on 15 June 2013.

Gary Burks

Gary Burks, superintendent of the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium (Photo: Mark Greaves)

Two marble graves are side by side. One is grey and encrusted, with moss growing over the top. The other is smooth and shiny white. It looks new but, in fact, like the grave next to it, it’s more than 100 years old. It’s not just been cleaned — its top layer has been shaved off completely. On its front are potted plants, hydrangeas and a can of Guinness. These are tributes to its new resident.

Its old resident, Robert John, died in 1894. His inscription is still there, on the back of the headstone. His remains are there, too, if they haven’t disappeared into the soil.

John’s grave is among 700 or so that have been re-used, or ‘shared’, in the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium in east London. They are all at least 75 years old. Any remains that are found are put in a hessian sack and reburied. A chatty porter admits it’s ‘a bit controversial’. ‘Not everyone is happy with it,’ he says.

The re-use of a grave is extremely rare in Britain. It is allowed in London, but not generally elsewhere. The Ministry of Justice won’t approve it. But the people who run them believe it’s the only way they can safeguard their cemeteries’ future.

And it’s slowly becoming more common. The London borough of Enfield has recently started the practice. Southwark and Westminster are considering it.

Gary Burks, the superintendent in charge of the cemetery, run by the City of London Corporation, is giving me a tour. He is burly and shaven-headed and a bit East End. He claims that over the past ten years people have become more accepting of re-use. ‘We spell out the choices to everyone. There are no secrets.’ Some families, he says, even go ‘shopping for themselves’, selecting the grave they will be buried in.

Burks knows the place quite well. He’s worked here for 28 years. He used to dig the graves and mow the lawn. Before that, his father was a gravedigger here, and his family lived on site — he moved into the cemetery when he was seven. ‘I don’t tend to get lost,’ he says.

As we drive round, he rattles off statistics. There are 25,000 roses. Seven miles of roads; 150,000 burials. It opened in 1856 and is beautiful, with huge tree-lined driveways.

Before the cemetery re-uses any of its graves, it has to announce that it is doing so, with public notices in the cemetery and adverts in papers. It tries to contact the families of those buried there, who have the right to veto any re-use for a generation. Recently, the cemetery claimed 200 graves for re-use. Only one family wrote back saying they did not want the grave disturbed.

We go back to Burks’s office and I ask him what the alternative to re-use would be. He looks slightly angry. ‘It depends how much damage I do to the heritage value of the site,’ he says. To cram in more graves he would have to ‘rip up the trees or the shrubbery or the planted areas’. One cemetery nearby, he explains, ‘dug up all its roads’. He is appalled. ‘It undermines everything that a cemetery is about.’

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