The spirit of St Augustine lives on in Stroud Green, London, discovers Antonia Willis as she meets the Canons Regular of the Lateran and discovers an enthusiastic clergy that Catholics can be proud of
WHY DO so MANY of us take for granted our clergy and our Religious? Why is there this automatic assumption that Father John or Sister Mary will always he there, running our parishes, educating our children, available at the end of the 'phone if we need to have a word?
I suspect that one reason for our complacency is an unconscious belief that the Church is here for ever, and that it is therefore inconceivable that the structure we have all known and loved (and occasionally hated) could ever pass out of existence. We also tend to forget that those of us who arc lay men and women are every bit as much a part of the Church as our consecrated fellow-Catholics, whom we somehow expect to carry us forward, with minimum backup, into the third millennium after Christ.
That is all very well, but eternal though the Church may be it can hardly expected to be impervious to change, or immune to the son of difficulties that beset the rest of society. In this week leading up to the Day of Prayer for Vocations, perhaps we ought to celebrate, to be proud of, the courage of our clergy and religious who have seen us through many extraordinary periods of chaos and upheaval. After all, it's hard to take for granted something that we take pride in.
One community we can all take pride in. and which has a remarkable record of faith in and through adversity, is based in London's Stroud Green the Canons Regular of the Lateran, at the parish of St Peter in Chains. This parish celebrates its centenary this year. One hundred years may be a long time, but the Canons Regular have been around for a lot longer; since the 1 I th century, and the reforms of Pope Gregory VU.
The ideals on which they are founded are older still; the central tenets by which the Canons Regular and their sister order, the Canonesses Regular govern their daily lives were set out by that
remarkable visionary and product of modern day Algeria, St Augustine of Hippo, in the fourth and fifth centuries after Christ.
Hippo, Augustine's bishopric, was on the fringes of the Roman empire. He was the son of a Christian mother and a pagan father, later (if not quite at the last minute) converted to Christianity. Born into the ruling class of a provincial family, Augustine reflects the astonishing collision and co-existence of cultures that characterised that area at that time. Latin was his language, and he taught at Rome and at Milan; he was given a Christian baptism, but his adolescent years were devoted to the Manichees, a Babylonian sect that he came to reject, but those ideas heav ily influenced much of his philosophical writing. The Canons Regular of the Lateran are heirs to this extraordinary man.
St Augustine drew his inspiration from the Acts of the Apostles; he understood the importance of clergy living together as a community, sharing everything in common prayer as well as material goods. Before his time there Was a tradition of laity banding together in mutual support, or of holy men wandering off into inhospitable regions to seek God in their hermit lairs; it has to be recalled that he was a near-exact contemporary not only of St Jerome, but also of St Simeon Stylites, whose last perch in this world was reputed to be some 60 feet up in the air.
Augustine offered an alternative way of life, a way which could perhaps be said to show that he at least managed to keep his feet on the ground. "Our age is an age of change", says Fr Anthony Maggs, Visitor of the English Province of the Order of Canons Regular. 'e read reports almost every day of the disintegration of what we had previously taken to be normal". How familiar St Augustine would have found this; and the alarmingly eventful year of his death has strikingly modern resonances.
430AD was a brutal, bloodstained year; not so bad if you were a Visigoth or a Vandal, but exceedingly dangerous if you were an unarmed peasant or, indeed, a member of the educated sedentary classes settled in the frontier provinces of the disintegrating Roman empire. We find echoes of contemporary conflicts in accounts of the early Church's attempts to deal with the horrors of collapsing civil order and emergent barbarism: the historian Henry Chadwick has written: "In 429 the Vandals crossed the Straits of Gibraltar. Augustine's last letters dealt with the problem of conscience whether clergy might join the refugees. What were the African clergy to do? Augustine did not want all the best priests to be lost in the coming massacre. Yet them was a clear duty to be there to minister to those who would be clamouring for baptism or for the last rites before the cruel invaders cut their throats. Augustine recommended that some should go and some stay, and that to avoid invidious decisions the clergy should cast lots. He himself stayed in Hippo for the Vandal siege, but died on 28 August 430 before the barbarians broke through the defences."
So the Saint died as his world was falling apart: his ideas, needless to say, lived on. When the 1 1 th century reforming Pope, Gregory VII, sought to find a model for his somewhat erratically-behaved clergy, he turned to St Augustine, and established the Canons Regular ie, of the Rule to carry his example into parish life.
As Fr Maggs explains, "the idea at the heart of our Rule is that priests should live together in such a way that they would learn to be holy by sharing their goods and their prayers, but at the same time leading a pastoral life, committed to help with other people's needs".
The Order grew in strength until the Reformation, and having survived the turbulent 16th and 17th centuries came
close to extinction as Napoleon's armies marched through Europe, devastating the social fabric. Houses and lands belonging to the order were sequestrated, the priests being cast out into the world to fend for themselves as individuals, their communities having been destroyed. At one point they were reduced to a tiny core of only seven men.
Revival came through the energetic actions of Abbot Garofali, who set about reclaiming lost lands and gathering together the dispossessed fathers. There are now some 400 Canons Regular of the Lateran world-wide. To this day, Abbots General of the Order wear the pectoral cross of Abbot Garafali, in memory of his achievements.
One hundred years ago, in 1894, a group of lay Catholics in north London's Stroud Green petitioned Cardinal Vaughan for a parish of their own. The Cardinal called upon the Canons Regular to take up the challenge, and the Order has been in Stroud Green ever since. The current parish priest is Fr Garry Murphy, who is by all accounts a formidable football player and all-round fosterer of team spirit.
The spirit of St Augustine still lives on in Stroud Green, but the future is uncertain; "It is increasingly clear", says Fr Anthony, "that our numbers are dropping, not through persecution but through our own indifference."
How ironic it would be if the indifference of a modern age accomplished what the Vandals failed to achieve. Fr Anthony is, however, optimistic; this weekend the Order celebrates the blessing of a new Abbot in Gubbio, Italy, and looks forward with interest to the outcome of the Synod on the Consecrated Life.