The Catenians have a lot to offer the Church, the association's grand president tells Luke Coppen
You settle into the infamous black leather seat. In the harsh spotlight Magnus Magnusson informs you that your chosen specialist subject is "the history of the Catholic Church 1900-2000". He starts the timer and asks: "Which Catholic men's organisation was originally known as the Chums' Benevolent Association?"
You clench the chair so tightly that your knuckles begin to whiten.
"Do you pass?"
"The answer is: the Catenian Association."
You wake up from your nightmare, relieved to find you are not in the Mastermind studio. You are, in fact, in an elegant living room in Wallington, Surrey. The gentleman with the silver hair and golden tie is Gerald Soane, grand president of the Catenian Association. He is explaining the origins of the organisation that now has 10,000 members in Britain and throughout the Englishspeaking world.
Agroup of Catholic laymen founded the Chums' Benevolent Association in 1908, with the encouragement of Bishop Louis Casartelli of Salford. The group's primary aim was to promote solidarity among Catholic piofessional men. In the early twentieth century Catholics still found themselves passed over for work or promotion because of a latent anti-Catholicism.
The association started in Manchester," Mr Soane says, "but it soon outgrew the city. Members formed a circle in London, and quite quickly London thinking came to influence the association. The first evidence of this was the change of name. So they devised this name based on the Latin word for chain — catena — for the love and fellowship that binds the members."
The Catenians are often jokingly described as "the Catholic Masons"; there are, it must be said, superficial similarities. The Catenians are an international brotherhood of businessmen and professionals who meet socially, at least once a month, in local circles. These meetings are governed by strict protocol. (The seating arrangements are set out in minute detail
in a confidential booklet entitled The Catenian Handbook and Manual of Procedure.) Gatherings are marked by "moderate ceremonial", and are usually followed by a convivial meal.
"We are not like the Masons at all," sighs Mr Soane, slipping hack into a pink-striped armchair. "We don't have any arcane rituals. Our purposes are wholly consistent with the Gospel commandment to Christian love. We're here to bolster people in their belonging to the Church."
When new members enrol in the Catenians, they are urged to practise "perfect charity". The emphasis on charity is one of the hallmarks of Mr Soane's presidency. Again and again he returns to the theme, explaining how the CatenianAssociation is a school of Christian love.
"You don't have to like people to love them," he argues. "Most Catenian members are likeable, but occasionally you'll meet someone who is a bore. But you say to yourself: 'No, I'll go and sit next to him."
It is clear that belonging to the Catenians is a signif
icant commitment. Members are expected to be "exemplary Catholics" and to attend meetings regularly. They also undertake to support other members, spiritually and materially, to pray for them after their deaths and to take care of their dependents.
The association undertakes to support members facing financial difficulty and each year it invites young Catholics to apply for a grant from a bursary fund to enable them to work on voluntary projects in developing countries. (All it expects in return for its generosity is a short report with photographs.) The association has also promised to give £3,000 a year to the new National Office for Vocations.
Over the past 95 years, the organisation has adapted to changes in the Church and society, and it is currently rethinking its identity in the build-up to its 100th anniversary in 2008.
With the encouragement of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the association has decided that it should speak out on social issues of concern to Catholics. This is a significant departure: since its foundation the association has been instinctively "nonpolitical". Political discussion is forbidden at meetings and membership literature states that the association isnot a "Catholic action pressure group".
But Mr Soane believes that the Catenians can contribute to public debates without becoming merely another pressure group: "We're a major Catholic lay body for men, and there are times when numbers count. We can say we represent more than 10,000 people. so there's something we can do for the Church. We're in a country where our law, which is based on our Christian heritage, is being eroded. In this post-Christian society, with a Church with a diminishing number of priests, the laity must take responsibility and not sit back."
For further information visit www.thecutenianassociation.org, or contact Hilary Sutton by phoning 01252 782617 or 'mailing email@example.com Editorial Comment: Page 9