Idon’t know whether St John of the Cross ever rode a bicycle, but his work displays a remarkable insight into the mind of the professional cyclist. OK, so The Ascent of Mount Carmel isn’t actually about cycling, but there is an uncanny correspondence between the soul’s journey up the holy mountain and the Tour de France competitor’s chain-breaking climb up the Alpe d’Huez. Both begin with a radical mortification of the senses, are followed by a “dark night” of suffering and culminate in a moment of illumination as the summit is reached.
If you are near Malvern, Worcestershire, on July 21 you will have a chance to watch this in practice. From a vantage point on a hill you will see a group of 50 Lycra-clad cyclists pass from mortification to purification as they heave their weary bodies up the slope. In the middle of this doughty peloton, his face set in a determined grimace, will be Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham.
This will be his third consecutive day of long-distance riding and, with more than 100 miles left to go, the strain will be beginning to tell. As rain soaks into his socks and mud bespatters his shirt, he may wonder how he was ever persuaded to cycle a tenth of the distance of the Tour de France in five days on some of the steepest roads in central England.
When I meet the archbishop a few weeks before his epic ride he looks trim, relaxed and confident. He leans back on a chair in his study, his fingertips pressed together thoughtfully. I have just explained my theory about Carmelite spirituality and cycling.
“Certainly,” he ventures, “it’s refreshing psychologically to be in the fresh air and out of doors, so in that sense it refreshes the human spirit.
But whether it actually contributes to the growth of God’s spirit, in the Christian sense of spirit, depends on what you do with the time. And I mustn’t pretend that I spend the time on the bike either praying or thinking profound theolog ical thoughts, because I don’t.” The arch bishop has been in train ing since February, slipping out of Arch bishop’s House, when time permits, on his Trek mountain bike and pedalling along the canal. His longest ride so far has been a three-hour jaunt to Wolverhampton. What he apears to fear most about the forthcoming 235-mile ride is not the distance but the hills.
“That is probably the key thing that I lack — any real chance to tackle a long hill,” he explains. “I’ll get off and walk. I’m not proud.” When I last met Archbishop Nichols he was shuffling around on crutches following a hip replacement operation. Two years on, he walks without discomfort.
“Up to six or seven years ago I was able to go running quite regularly. But I had to stop that because of the condition of my hip. And I’ve not really done any exercise since. So this is recovering the practice of exercise and I feel better for it.” But why, exactly, is the 58-year-old archbishop prepared to put himself through the agony of an epic bike ride? He sees it as a way of “travelling around the diocese with a difference”, meeting young people and raising money for the Birmingham Catholic Youth Service.
“When I was a youngster my association with the local parish, which was my experience of the Church, always had a large component of fun in it,” he says. “And I see that today. You see lots and lots of happy young people around in parishes and this is just to add another dimension to that, another strand of colour to their experience of the Church.” The archbishop hopes that the sponsored cycle will build on his highly successful programme of diocesan prayer and reflection, known as “Walk with Me”. (“Perhaps,” he jokes, “we should call this ‘Ride with Me’.”) He wants to draw alongside the people of the diocese and encourage them to persevere in the Christian journey.
“I met a priest in Lourdes a few weeks ago, not from this diocese, who told me he was seven years ordained before he ever saw the archbishop,” he recalls. “He was now in his eighties, so that speaks of another age. But I think that speaks of an age when, comparatively speaking, there was a great certainty about what a Catholic was. I think today we live in a much more dispersed society. As Catholics we do need to be confident in ourselves, not in a defensive way, but in a very open way. And I think having clear, visible leaders is very much part of having that confidence. So I think it is important that the bishop is seen and that people know they can approach him.” But surely this is difficult when bishops are insulated from the faithful by the bureaucratic apparatus of the Church? The archbishop shakes his head.
“I think that the role of the bishop towards the people of the diocese is always, to a certain extent, strongly symbolic. I cannot pretend to have, as it were, a personal relationship with 300,000 people. That is a nonsense. That is why it remains true that the most important priest in a Catholic’s life is their parish priest.
“Now clearly we live within an understanding of the Church that is always bigger than the parish, and a focus of unity between parishes within the diocese is the bishop. That’s not quite the same as having an immediate pastoral care for everyone.
“Even if I delegated every bureaucratic job I still would not be in a personal relationship with every member of the diocese. It’s not about that. It’s about the power of the symbol and the symbol of course gets quite close then to the sacrament. So in that broad sense of the word, like the priest, like the religious sister, the bishop is a visible, tangible sign of the presence of the Church in the world.” Archbishop Nichols describes himself as a “natural optimist” and it’s not easy to get him to speak about the statistical decline of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Like Lance Armstrong descending on his ultra-light carbon fibre bike, the archbishop swerves skilfully around such contentious issues.
“The word ‘decline’ has a kind of blanket effect and I don’t believe that the areas of numerical decline are that specific to Catholic life,” he argues. “So yes, there are parishes where the population that attends Mass is going down — on the whole the general population is going down as well. There are parishes — and I could reel them off for you — where the Mass attendance is going up and up.
“The challenges that we face come as much from without as from within. But they also come from the fact that our society has a very different stance towards the commitment of faith than it used to have. And in a funny way there are opportunities in that change of stance as well as difficulties.
“I’m more and more convinced that there is, in society, a readiness to respect a commitment in other people. Not necessarily an understanding, sometimes a curiosity, but it’s OK to be committed to things today. I say to people — parishioners, headteachers of our schools – ‘Don’t apologise for being Catholic. Don’t apologise that this school is a Catholic school from top to bottom. Don’t be aggressive, and certainly be open, but don’t apologise for what we are. There’s no need at all.’ The Catholic faith is intellectu ally coherent. It is socially engaged and it is personally satisfying and I don’t think we should apologise for it one bit.” The archbishop’s natural optimism is likely to be tested during his five-day ride. But I suspect he will succeed. As long as he tightens his back brake (to avoid going mitre over heels in the Malvern Hills) and stuffs his pockets with PowerBars and Lucozade, he should be able to make it to the finish ing line at Fawley Court in Oxfordshire. And while, on the face of it, Henley-on-Thames looks nothing like the summit of Mount Carmel, to Archbishop Nichols it will probably feel like it.
Sponsorship forms for Archbishop Vincent Nichols are available from Jackie Craig at Birmingham Catholic Youth Service. Tel. 01675 466912. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org