Monday, 30 April 2007

Cathedral Connexions

Sunday was a day of extraordinary comings and goings at the Cathedral, with a range of visitors showing the fascinating links between the Church and the world. At 10.30 Mass we welcomed two special guests, His Grace Archbishop Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, and His Grace Archbishop Concessao of Delhi, India. They are in London to join a deputation to Downing Street today to campaign agaisnt world poverty; they will then travel in Europe, and end by reporting to the Holy Father in the Vatican. Both spoke to the crowded congregation, encouraging us on Vocations Sunday to consider our own vocation, and to challenge young men and women to hear the Lord's call as priests and religious.

At lunch, I suspect a first; our two guests were Hassan Jameel, a Muslim from Saudi Arabia, and Yoram Allalouf, a Jew from Israel. They are close friends, and were delightful company - a wonderful sign of interfaith co-operation. They are shown above: Hassan next to Fr Michael Seed, and Yoram (or 'Yo-Yo') next to Kalman Sporn, another Jewish friend who joined us for a tour of the Cathedral.
I had carefully checked with our sisters that we were not serving Pork for lunch!

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Conference of Catholic Directors of Music

Sunlight streams into the Clergy House library, illuminating the discussions of the Directors of music from the Catholic Cathedrals and Dioceses of England, Wales and Ireland. This is the second annual study day organised by the Master of Music, Martin Baker (standing talking mid-left) and the Precentor, Thomas Wilson.

This is wonderful initiative for several reasons. Firstly, now is a good time to access where Catholic music is, and to consider what its role should be, especially in the light of recent documents from the Holy Father and imminent new translations of the Missal. Secondly, it is an opportunity to share practice, and highlight problems. Many Directors of Music are working without strong financial or administrative support - it is good to see how we can assist each other. Thirdly, it is an opportunity to formulate a strategy to encourage good music in the Church, from seminaries to schools. Many of the initiatives adopted here at Westminster to support parish music are echoed in other dioceses (notably Leeds), and these should be made more widely available.

A report on the discussions will be published soon, and I shall report further.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

St George's Day - Mass and Reception

Some images from the Feast of St George, last Monday. Mass was celebrated in the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs, by Dom Cuthbert Johnson, Abbot of Quarr. At a reception following Mass, the polite conversation and tinkling glasses of guests were suddenly interrupted by the clarion tones of Geoffrey Streatfeild delivering the great Agincourt Speech of King Henry V ("...Cry God for Harry, England, and St George!!). Geoffrey will play King Henry V at Stratford in the Royal Shakespeare Company's autumn production.

We were then addressed by Clare Asquith, author of the bestseller Shadowplay, about Shakespeare's Catholic roots. Clare demonstrated how many of the Bard's poems only make sense if one understands the coded references to Catholicism in them - a sort of Da Vinci Code in reverse.

Tom Phillips (here seen on coversation with Abbot Cuthbert) then spoke about the influences behind his design for the mosaics of the chapel, which you can view here. The designs focus on Eric Gill's altarpiece, where the crucified Christ yet reigns triumphant. From this image radiate rays of light, emphasised by the inscription drawn from the Martyrs' picture in the English College, "I have come to send fire on the earth." Accordingly, the names of the martyrs who bore witness to the call of the Lord appear in flame on the ceiling. On the back wall, the image of the Tyburn gibbet echoes that of the cross in the altarpiece, and reminds the worshipper of the proximity of this place of execution, where so many of our martyrs suffered.

It was a thrilling evening, and a fascinating tribute to the men and women who gave their lives for their Catholic faith, and an exciting launch to the appeal for the mosaics.

Your correspondent even ended up being serenaded by two of England's fair daughters!

Friday, 27 April 2007

The Golden Age

Two production stills from Working Title's filming of 'The Golden Age', which took place in August last year. The film follows on from their earlier multiple-oscar nominated film 'Elizabeth', starring Kate Blanchett. 'The Golden Age' deals with the middle years of Queen Elizabeth I's reign, including her relations with Philip II of Spain, and the events surrounding the Armada.

We were approached by the film company, who wanted an 'exotic' and un-English location to stand in for Lisbon Cathedral and the Escorial, in contrast to other English locations (Ely, Winchester and Wells Cathedrals are all featuring). Having seen the script, we had no objections per se, but pointed out that, as a busy working Cathedral it would be unlikely that time would be available for their filming. The Company adopted the imaginative approach of throwing money at the problem, and decided to film at night, lighting the Cathedral to look like day. They also laid down a fake-marble floor (partly visible above), which was fascinating, as Francis Bentley had originally intended a marble floor for the nave.

The crew was very respectful, and filled with admiration for the building. It was an extraordinary sight to see Spanish courtiers (including a clutch of Cardinals) walking down the nave. Philip II is played by the Spanish actor Jordi Molla. Above, you see the director, Shekhar Kapur. The film is due to be released this autumn.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

The Grand Organ Festival

Last night there took place the first recital in Westminster Cathedral’s 2007 Grand Organ Festival. It was particularly appropriate that this opening concert should be given by James O’Donnell, a former Master of Music of this Cathedral, and now Head Organist at Westminster Abbey (just down the road). In his time here, James did much to continue and develop the tradition of organ recitals. Fitting, too, was the appearance on his programme of work by the famed French organist Marcel Dupré, who inaugurated the first stage of the Grand Organ here at Westminster Cathedral in 1922, and who was closely associated with its evolution and completion.

The grand Organ Festival runs throughout this year, and revives a long and revered tradition in the Cathedral. A Grand Organ deserves grand music, and we are welcoming to this Festival some of the greatest International organists of our time. On July 4, Jean Gillou will be performing - possibly the world's greatest exponent of organ improvising. Other performers are Ludger Lohmann, Gillian Weir, Matthew Martin, Nicolas Kynaston and our own Martin Baker.

The Cathedral Henry Willis III Organ is one of the finest instruments in the world, here revealed in stunning photographs by Simon Lloyd, our organ scholar. Built between 1922 and 1932, it occupies the whole of the west gallery of the Cathedral, an unusual posiiton for an English cathedral organ. The spaciousness of the gallery allowed the various departments to be disposed on the same level, the pipes - concealed behind the wood and amrble screen - still having ample room to speak.

In 1984, the instrument was completely overhauled and restored by Harrison and Harrison. Improvements in the mechanical layout were made, and these included conversion of the pneumatic actions to an electro-pneumatic system. In 1996, Harrison and Harrison cleaned and overhauled the instrument, re-voicing selected stops to their pre-1984 state, and adding a stepper to control the general pistons.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Pax Tibi Marce, Evangelista Meus

The flag of St Mark, flying proudly on the terrace, proclaims my onomastico - my own Saint's day!

I was last in Venice with a Cathedral pilgrimage in 2003, when we went to northern Italy to look at the Byzantine roots of our own Cathedral. Venice creates a knotted fist of excitement in my stomach; its images are so powerful, so beautiful, so evocative. I've been lucky enough to wander its streets in lazy summers, explore the lagoon on brittle winter days, and drink in the giddy excess of Carnevale.

My love affair was, however, severely tested that 2003 pilgrimage, for as we approached the St Mark's Basin, where once the Doge's gorgeous state barge was once moored, the heavens opened monsoon fashion. The fragile tracery of the Doge's place disappeared into a grey blur, and our pilgrim group disappeared into a nearby shop for a mass purchase of umbrellas, thoughtfully supplied by the retailer at three times the normal price.
Water was besieging us from below, as well. It was the notorious acqua alta, when a combination of high tide and scirroco wind drives the waters of the lagoon over the threshold of the city, and the sea floods into St Mark's square. Considering that this occurs more than fifty times each year, the Venetian solution is still curiously makeshift - duckboards raised on tressles, providing a precarious and lengthy passage above the icy water. The four Roman Emperors set into the corner of the basilica seemed to huddle against the weather and rising tide. Nor was the sea held back by the hand of God - it flooded into St Mark's, and access to the nave was over a temporary bridge across the flooded narthex. Whatever problems we face at Westminster, five inches of sea water is not one of them.

Nevertheless, once inside, the magic works, the jaw drops, and we are transported to heaven. As at Westminster, it is the space that overwhelms, the massive volume of air seems as solid as the monumental masonry. The lower parts of the wall are encased in marble, familiar to us, of course, in our Cathedral's own Byzantine decoration. But above, where we know darkened brickwork, the domed vaults of St Mark's are coated with shimmering gold. Against their heavenly background, saintly figures glimmer, seeming to come and go. We are gazing, as the Byzantine artists intended, upon the vault of heaven. It is dimly lit - many would think too dimly - but this is part of the mystery. It occurred to me that ancient Venetians would never have had the benefit of today's high powered lights, and that even in the height of summer, the recesses of the basilica would have been shrouded in shadow. This is surely as intended. Byzantine churches do not bludgeon us, as in the baroque west, by pushing heaven into our faces. Here, all is subtlety and suggestion, an evocative glimpse for straining eyes.

Will Westminster Cathedral ever look like this? Certainly not in our lifetimes - but the intention is there, and St Mark's is the nearest we can know to the finished effect. I am struck at how simple the designs are in St Mark's; the plans for our Westminster mosaics, such are they are, crowd the vaults and walls with complex scenes, with throngs of interacting figures. In Venice, figures tend to stand alone, starkly and powerfully against the vast golden background. Even over the apse, the solitary figure of Christ reigns tremendously amid a heaven of shimmering gold. Of course, individual figures need to be impressive figures, and the question of finding craftsmen of the calibre of the mosaicists of St Mark's is an acute one.

As in our own Cathedral, there are intimate spaces within the vastness of the basilica. It was in one of these, the chapel of St Theodore, where we celebrated Mass, my nose mere inches away from the Madonna Nicopeia, the venerated ikon stolen from Constantinople, and carried before the Venetian armies into war. As I turned to our Cathedral pilgrims, their numbers swollen by pious or curious tourists, to share the Peace, I knew I would never forget the moment. To offer Mass was to become part of the story of St Mark's, linking this ancient basilica with our newer Cathedral, and the church throughout the ages. The weight of history was heavy, the sense of unity strong, and the magnificence of the surroundings made the promise of future glory seem very real. mm

Soon after Mass, we filed past the shrine of the saint himself. St Mark is buried in simple unadorned stone, but the Venetians have not been wanting in their devotion, having stolen the costliest relic in all Constantinople, the lavish and intricate altarpiece known as the Pala d'Oro, to adorn the evangelist's shrine. As I stood aside to offer a particular prayer to my namesake, I reflected that the solidity, beauty and subtlety of this basilica pay homage to the strength, beauty and subtlety of the first of the gospels. St Mark's is a monument to the superb pride and majesty of the Most Serene Republic, but also witnesses the hold of the gospel over a Christian people, and their ambitious desire to mirror the treasures therein in the most glorious creation of human hands.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

A relic of St George - among others ...

A correspondent asked yesterday whether we had any relics of St George in the vaults. I don't recall seeing any of St George (although there are hundreds of relics, as you may recall from this posting!) - but I do boast a relic of England's patron in my office, as part of this astonishing reliquary which contains a relic for every day of the year.

George is duly there, for 21 April, as is St Mark two days later. In between (that is, today) is St Leo III martyr.

In the centre are the truly serious relics (sadly, a crack runs through the reliquary here, but the relics are undisturbed). From the top (as seen below) they are:

The True Cross (just off the top of the picture)
The Cradle
The Manger
The Table of the Last Supper
The Column of the flagellation
The Crown of Thorns
The Purple Robe
The Title of the Cross
The Tomb of our Lord
The Veil of Our Lady
The Cloak of St Joseph
Now that should be enough to keep you going for some time!

Monday, 23 April 2007

St George's flag

The flag of St George (purchased, I must confess, for the last World Cup) flies proudly from the Cathedral.

The Mosaic designs for St George's Chapel

Tom Phillips has been commissioned to produce a mosaic design for the chapel of st George, and an appeal to raise funds for it will be launched after Mass this evening. Tom has envisaged the vault of the chapel as a striking blue sky, filled with flames (which may also be falling leaves) each bearing the name of a martyr. The east wall above Eric Gill’s altarpiece will be filled in marble emphasising the sculpture, echoing the red and white stripes of the Cathedral exterior. At the summit of the east wall is an inscription from Luke 12; ‘I have come to send fire on the earth’ - the famous motto on the Martyrs’ picture in the English College at Rome.

The legend of the dragon is present in the edging of the design, while the west wall will feature the gallows at Tyburn (now Marble Arch), close to the Cathedral. Here many of the martyrs, including St John Southworth, suffered. The design is surmounted by a text from the Te Deum, the hymn of praise sung at the news of a martyr’s death.
Tom Phillips CBE, RA is one of Britain’s foremost contemporary artists, winning wide respect in most aspects of the arts. He has collaborated with many great figures across the art world, and his paintings hang in major galleries - notably the National Portrait Gallery. Tom has already competed major commissions in the Holy Souls’ Chapel at Westminster Cathedral.

St George's Chapel

On the feast day of our national patron, a visit to his chapel in the Cathedral. As usual, the early morning Masses, Vespers, and an additional evening Mass, will all be celebrated in the chapel today.

St George was a Roman solider, put to death for his Christian faith about 320AD. His cult was brought to England by the Crusaders, and King Edward III made him patron of England in the fourteenth century. The chapel, which awaits its mosaic decoration, is a special place to pray for England, and for all those who have witnessed to their Catholic faith in our land - especially by shedding their blood in the troubled years when Catholicism was proscribed.

In the centre of the floor is a rose, symbol of England; the rose motif is continued behind the altar and around the walls. Either side of the altar the red cross of St George is displayed on marble shields. Panels list servicemen who gave their lives in battle, and who are prayed for in the Cathedral.

On the facing wall is a carving of St George, patron of England by Lindsay Clarke (who also carved the Cathedral crib figures, and the figure of Christ in the apse). It was added to the chapel in 1931.

Above the altar is the last carving of Eric Gill, dating form 1947. It portrays Christ on the cross, not defeated and dead, but rather gloriously triumphant over death as priest and king. To his left stands St Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, and to his right St John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. Both men were executed in 1535 for their refusal to deny the Supremacy of the Pope under king Henry VIII.

In a shrine by the grill lies one of the Cathedral's greatest treasures - the body of St John Southworth, martyred in 1654 at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) for his Catholic faith. His body was retrieved from the scaffold and taken to the English College in Douai, France. Rediscovered after the destruction of the college, St John's body was brought to the Cathedral in 1930.

The chair and kneeler in the chapel were made for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1996 - the first time since the Reformation that a reigning monarch has attended a Roman Catholic service, and showing the journey that Christians in this land have made since the dark days of the Reformation.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Richard runs the Marathon

Today our deacon, Richard Nesbitt (right) swaps his dalmatic for a running vest, to run the London Marathon, together with seminarian Robert Colquhoun. They intend to raise funds for the Catholic Children's Society. We wish them well - it is a humid day, better for spectating than participating!

Farewell to Monsignor David

This week we said farewell to Monsignor David Norris, whose health has been failing for some time. Following a fall in february, which resulted in hospitalisation, we had hoped that he might be able to return here to Clergy House with an intense care package. Sadly, however, it soon became clear that his needs could not be met at Clergy House, and his doctors advised that he needed an environment that could provide more support and medical treatment. Mgr Norris moved this week to Nazareth House, a Catholic nursing home in north London.

Many parishioners will remember Mgr Norris from his early morning Masses for his ready wit, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the diocese. He is quite a unique treasure in this respect, having served as priavate secretary to Cardinals Griffin, Godfrey and Heenan. Below is a picture of him with Cardinal Godfrey, and the Duke of Norfolk.

As his health failed, Mgr Norris was less able to take an active part in the life of the Cathedral. In earlier times, he was quite ready to don his robes - below he is seen with a younger Fr Langham, greeting the Queen's representative at the doors of the Cathedral.

The chaplains, especially, will miss him as a wise and widely-read member of the Cathedral team. His stories - fascinating insights into the inner workings of the Cathedral and duicese in the last half-century - were always a joy, and demanded immediate recording. Just last week he was telling us about Cardinal Godfrey's drive to impose the subject matter of weekly sermions upon his preists, on a yearly cycle! We will miss Mgr Norris deeply, and wish him well in his new home.