Counter Culture Leonie Caldecott
Last Sunday, Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Birmingham, sent a pastoral letter to all the parishes in his diocese. The letter dealt with the Nolan Report and the measures that the diocese was taking to implement it. Yet the archbishop was rightly concerned to situate this matter in its wider spiritual context. He referred to the gospel of the day, in which Jesus sits with tax collectors and sinners.
"In his words and in his actions he has one clear message to give us: as sinners we are welcome in his presence. He, alone, does not reject us, no matter what burdens we bear, whether they be of harm done to us, or hurt we have caused to others. He is the one physician, the one counsellor, who can ease our burden and restore us to health. To walk in his way is to take the path of life. But it is a path which is often demanding, especially when we have seen, or touched, the face of evil or failure.
"As we come to know the love that Christ offers to us, so too, step by step, we come to know the freedom of heart that he alone can give. Then we will find ourselves filled with a surprising and rare gift: the gift of mercy for others who are marked with the wounds of sin."
It seems to be an apposite moment to look again at initiatives in the Church which have sought to foster exactly this quality. One of these is the Foyers de Charite, founded in 1936 by Marthe Robin and her spiritual director, Pere Georges Finet. I described the mission of Marthe Robin in these pages last year, but for those of you who missed it, suffice it to say that, like St Therese of Lisieux and Cardinal Newman, Marthe was a prophetic soul who, decades before the Second Vatican Council, foresaw the need for an active and effective lay apostolate in the coming century, an apostolate which would respond specifically to the social upheaval, confusion and wounds of the increasingly godless era in which we find ourselves.
The response of Marthe and Father Finet was to set up a foyer — literally, a "hearth", or a place of welcome — where people could come on retreat and be filled with the goodness and love of God, mediated to them through the sacraments, prayer
(particularly in front of the Blessed Sacrament) and a gentle, very Marian and motherly witness by those who had turned their lives over to God. The revolutionary thing about the Foyers, given the period in which they were founded, is the collaboration between the lay people running the Foyer, and the priest who gives himself over, with the full and glad assent of his bishop, to be the spiritual Father of the community.
The initial Foyer at Chateauneuf de Galaure, where Marthe lived, gave rise to other such "centres of light, love and charity" first in France, and eventually all over the world. At present there are more than 60 Foyers, approved by the Pontifical Council for the Laity (which in 2000 gave them official status as a "private association of the faithful of an international character"). Apart from coun tries in both Western and Eastern Europe, many of these are in Africa and Asia, three are in Canada and one in the USA. But there are as yet no Foyers in the United Kingdom. Why should this be?
Speaking as a Catholic convert of nearly twenty years standing, who has had extensive contact with Catholics in a number of places around the world, I feel it is, sadly, symptomatic of the ills that dog the Church in this country. I find myself constantly in the middle of a sort of ideological struggle between seemingly rigid stances in the Church, be they of the "Right" or of the "Left" which prevent us coming together and working together as a community.
Recently I was mocked by a young man half my age because of what he assumed were my liturgical preferences. A few days later, I found myself being patronised by various conservative Catholics who couldn't quite believe that I could be trusted to produce work which would be doctrinally sound. Neither of these incidents should have mattered to me, but they did.
They hurt. They made me feel that I did not belong — in either camp. I wonder how many other Catholics are feeling the same way, and if so, how many non-Catholics are put off entering the "one fold of the Redeemer" by this uncharitable sniping, smugness or worse. Sexual molestation is not the only form of abuse we can deal out.
There is a crying need for the sort of holiness, among both clergy and laity, which mitigates these natural manifestations of original sin with a burning charity that takes the example of Christ himself as its source. I can't help wondering if the model of the Foyers might not provide at least a partial response to this need? Reading and hearing the witness of those who have attended Foyer retreats in other countries, it seems to me that it would be helpful to have such places in this country. Places where anyone and everyone is welcome to come and find refreshment and peace, where there is no "organisation" behind the scenes which one will be pressured to join, there is no "agenda", other than the Gospel, no "affiliation" to any body in the Church other than the Church herself. We need places where clergy and laity live alongside of one another in sincere fraternal charity, where the one can vouch for the other on the basis of a lengthy period in which they have lived out their parallel vocations in the service of Christ.
A group of people who are interested in seeing a Foyer of Charity founded in this country get together once a year for a five-day retreat. This year's retreat will be from September 9-14 at the Carmelite Priory in Boar's Hill, Oxford, and will be led by Father Ian Ker, the great Newman scholar, who has also written about many of the lay movements. May it prove to be a time of genuine refreshment, when as Archishop Nichols put it last Sunday: "We know why we are here, gathered together in the Church. We are here because we acknowledge how fickle our love for God can be; we know our need of God's love and mercy."