Just give us a break...
DECEMBER 22, 2006 THE CATHOLIC HERALD
In the first scene we see Lucy recording a happy-slap attack in the playground on her phone. Her father immediately goes to the headmaster. The head staunchly defends his school’s record using the sort of feeble bureaucratic jargon that would make David Milliband beam with delight. Her parents take her out of the school and, after checking out several unsatisfactory local alternatives,
Igor Toronyi says that yet another anti-Catholic drama has really got its messages mixed. But why did ITV decide to screen it over the festive season? The new ITV drama Perfect Parents wasn’t exactly recommended viewing. It was offered as an example of anti-Catholic television at its worst, a risible nadir in this overcrowded field. It was –so it was said –a drama so egregious in its portrayal of the Catholic Church, so overthe-top in its Catholic-bashing that even by the standards of this well-furrowed and hyperbolic genre, it would make one gasp or at least force a dislocation of one’s jaw. So, not without a certain amount of relish, I placed the preview DVD on and prepared to be outraged. Indeed the titles were promising. This was the sequence of shots: statue of St Peter; knife; baptism of a girl; a gun being shot; statue of Mary and Jesus; money being counted; statue of an eagle; bloodied garments; St Anne (why St Anne?); bloodied hands; Mary again; bloodied hands again; Christ on the cross. The whole introduction was filmed in the negative. A hint of what was to come perhaps; might the film suggest, I wondered, that all that one considers benevolent (including the Catholic Church) is actually wicked. Smeared on top of these images was some eerie music: glockenspiel, piano, raspy strings, all in the minor key, all insipid, all in the form of an innocent lullaby. Sca-ry. As the titles faded out, the camera swooped into the lives of Stuart (Christopher Eccleston), Alison (Susannah Harker) and their daughter Lucy (Maddy Garrood): a contented lower-middle class family. Their world is perfect in every way but for Lucy’s school, which is what one might call, a “failing school”.
The premise of the drama is that a family would literally murder to get a place at a Catholic school –quite a compliment for the Catholic Education Service, I say
find a highly successful, but over-subscribed Catholic institution called St Mary of the Veil. Lucy and her parents fall in love with it –cue major chords rippling up the piano –but, and it’s a big and important but –a but that will, apparently, sustain the drama for another hour and a half, they will have to become Catholic in order to be sure of a place. So the drama begins: the whole family embarking upon a conversion to Catholicism. The process, however, leads Stuart and Alison to fraud, blackmail and murder. According to the makers of
the drama, they found “many parents had experience of Alison and Stuart’s dilemma”. Is that so? What became clear to me was that the drama’s main shortcomings were not really to do with its anti-Catholicism at all. In fact in many ways the drama was not anti-Catholic. For one, its underlying moral message –that deceit begets deceit –was, quite obviously, a very simple Christian one. And what’s more, the only decent human being in the drama, the only person who isn’t corrupted or tarnished by the bizarre goings on around her, is the headmistress of the Catholic school, Sister Antonia (Lesley Manville). This is not to say that there isn’t stereotyping: there certainly is. The Sister is steely-eyed, of course repressed, and in her first scene malevolent. “We make no distinction between the secular and the religious curriculums [sic],” she tells the parents like some female Joseph Goebbels. “There’s nothing here that doesn’t ultimately relate to God.” Worse is to come with the bent Fr Thomas. He helps the family pretend to be Catholic, forges documents for their application and accepts money in exchange for his services, then also turns out to be a paedophile. Naturally. And the drama has no shortage of anti-Catholic rants either. One of the most hilarious is this from Stuart near the end: “He was murdered by the man he abused as a child. That’s what your religion did to him. Your Jew-hating, queer-hating, woman-hating, collection of bedtime stories for losers that [sic] can’t face the fact they’re going to die; going to die alone, and that
Perfect parents? Stuart and Alison, above, contemplate the Almighty and, right, baptism for beginners
there’s nothing up there.” But in spite of all of this, one still cannot say that the Catholic Church comes off that badly. The rants sound stupid and vindictive; the Mother Superior forgives throughout and, after all, the premise of the drama is that a family of anti-Catholics would literally murder in order to get a place at a Catholic school, quite a compliment for the Catholic Education Service I’d say. There’s even one funny line. A gay man is ridiculing Sister Antonia, so she turns to him and says: “Shouldn’t you be at home reading The Da Vinci Code ?” Well, maybe not that funny. Still, the drama as a whole can hardly compare to the indiscriminate attacks on the Church one sees in many films. This is not to say that the film is any good, it isn’t; in fact it’s truly appalling, but its faults lie elsewhere, in the emotional implausibility of the characters, in the non-existent character development, in the script (see above), in the sociological distortions, in fact in every other aspect of the film’s dramaturgy. The single most absurd aspect of the film, however, is the ceaseless accumulation of pointless plot twists. Here are just a few: Fr Thomas reveals he’s a paedophile, Stuart kicks him to the ground, Fr Thomas dies, friend’s mother hospi
talised in a hit-and-run accident, Stuart finds out the fixer shot the priest after he left him on the ground, fixer shoots Stuart, Stuart stabs fixer, Stuart survives, nun finds out about them lying, nun threatens to call the police, nun doesn’t call police, Lucy leaves the Catholic school for her old one but remains a Catholic, the end. In its garrulousness, the film breaks the cardinal dramaturgical rule: enter late, leave early. That is, enter the action as late as you possibly can, and leave the audience wanting and expecting more. Perfect Parents is like some geeky party guest who arrives bang on time and well overstays his welcome.
Of course, none of us minds a witty guest staying a little longer than expected, but Perfect Parents was not the witty guest, it was the messy babbling wreck in the corner who can barely finish a sentence. Indeed, by the end Perfect Parents had descended into almost complete incoherence. The plot was unravelling in such a perverse way the actors, themselves, seemed to give up developing their characters to suit the ever-changing circumstances. At one stage the seemingly well-heeled wife advises her husband to kill their fixer. “He deserves it,” she says, “It’s called a just war.” Something she picked up from her Catholic
ism for Dummies book no doubt. The one interesting aspect of the film is that the directors allowed Lucy to become Catholic. In the final scenes, they show her doing a truly good deed, giving up her place for a friend. In this one shot the film attempts to vindicate itself from any charge of anti-Catholicism. But then, in the closing sequence, Stuart and Alison look on as Lucy walks back through her old school gates. “What have I done to her,” Stuart asks. “God won’t last,” Alison replies. Cue glockenspiel...
Perfect Parents will be screened on ITV1 on December 28
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‘I wished that I might live’
Being at the back of the queue is a frequent experience for the street children of Colombia, but one priest has vowed to help. Christina Farrell reports on the lost children of the barrios
Most weeks in the Catholic Herald there will be stories that relate to Aid to the Church in Need, to Cafod or to one of the myriad pro-life organisations. It is only right that we should report the endeavours of men and women who struggle to live the Gospel values. Compassion for the abused, for the poor and the vulnerable is, in essence, what makes us Christian. However we are guilty, sometimes, of charity fatigue, of compassion overload. It is easy to become inured to suffering but there are pictures or stories that still break the carapace. I remember when the package arrived from Let the Children Live! This was a charity struggling to make a difference in the poorest shanty towns of cities like Medellin and Cali in Colombia. These children, the literature said, were always last in line, the forgotten children of the barrios. It was one photograph, in particular, that stopped me in my tracks –a rubbish dump and a cardboard box, partly opened, and just visible, the bare feet of a child –murdered, disposed of and dumped with the rest of the city’s detritus. The children that Let The Children Live! aims to help are orphans of the street, who try to survive in a consumer society that has long-since abandoned them. These are not the wide-eyed starving children of Africa, but boys and girls who beg, who earn a pittance doing errands and who sniff glue to try and escape the poverty and the hunger. Some may steal. They are called “the disposable ones”, the children who live –and sometimes die –in the streets and the rubbish dumps of the cities of Colombia. These gamines range in age from six-year-olds to teenagers, and they are unloved, unwanted, beaten, robbed, abused, raped and murdered. It takes tremendous courage and faith to step into this environment and say “I will make a difference”, but that is what one English priest, Fr Peter Walters, has done. He has one simple aim: to speak up for
A child drinks water from a dirty cup in a shanty town in Colombia Photo: CNS
the children of Colombia and since the charity’s inception in Walsingham on July 9, 1982 thousands have been helped through the generosity of supporters across the world. Let The Children Live! has financed the building of night-time dormitories to offer the street children some measure of protection. They work with local communities and with other Catholic partners to offer security to children in danger of being pushed out of the shanty towns and forced into homelessness. Above all, the charity offers hope. And the children’s stories are heartbreaking.
Irwin Orlando Ropero was just 11 years old when he was used as a child bomb in an attack on a military checkpoint in Fortul, in Arauca on April 20, 2002. He died instantly. Another little boy, Daniel, was asked what he wished for on his 12th birthday. “I wished that I might live to be 13,” he replied. But he was killed near Pereira on August 27, 2006, when gang members forced him to play Russian roulette. The newsletter that the charity sends to its supporters does not gloss over the hard edges of life in Colombia. Visitors to this South American country are warned of the dangers of kidnapping –a lucrative sideline for the drug warlords and their foot soldiers. The charity has been robbed twice and struggles to
survive. Let The Children Live!, in common with the children it helps, is often last in the queue for world aid. Major relief efforts such as the aid for the Tsunami victims or the refugees of the conflict in Darfur divert funds. Yet this is a charity with low levels of bureaucracy and a promise that any money donated will truly make a difference. The children here live troubled lives. Often they fail. Fr Peter tells of a boy who could have received a scholarship to go to a Church school but he hit another candidate and was eliminated. Limited resources mean hard choices but they allowed him to join the singing lessons at Casa Walsingham, the charity’s home for children in Medellin, and he may try for school again –if funds allow. Fr Peter finds himself defending the fact that they are building a choir in Medellin but this, he explains, will give these invisible, forgotten children a voice that will be heard around the world. “We want to show that our children are just as talented as those from any other country,” he says. “And we hope that their success will encourage other children in Colombia to develop their skills instead of turning to drugs and crime.” I don’t suppose the authorities knew the name of the dead child abandoned on the rubbish dump. He was just another piece of flotsam and jetsam. It’s not just the drug barons or the gang leaders that order these executions but corrupt police chiefs and members of the public – people in authority, who value power and control more than they value the life of a child. When I place rubbish in the bin on Christmas Day I will remember the gamine whose life ended in a cardboard box. He may have been treated as worthless, but if there is any justice in the world he should be remembered with love this Christmas. A love that extends to all the lost souls of the streets.
To make a donation send cheques payable to “Let the Children Live!”PO Box 11, Walsingham, Norfolk, NR22 6EH Tel: 01302 858369 THE CATHOLIC HERALD DECEMBER 22, 2006
‘Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts’
The saying of grace is becoming a forgotten art, confined to schools and Oxford colleges, but it’s time, says Anna Arco, to give thanks
‘Ihad a weird experience the other day,” a New York friend said on the phone a week ago. She had seen a family take the time to say Grace in a busy restaurant on a Friday night. But prayer before mealtimes is not an unusual occurrence in the United States, where it is an accepted part of mainstream culture, especially when families are together for holidays such as Thanksgiving or Christmas. The act of saying Grace crops up in books, in television programmes and in films – and in the multi-faith environment of America, where people are not shy of saying prayers, there is ample opportunity for comedy when different faiths meet. There is a wonderfully awkward moment in the comic film Meet the Parents when the hapless Greg, a young man (Jewish) meeting his prospective in-laws (Gentiles), is asked to say a prayer before supper by his fiancée’s terrifying father. “Greg, would you like to say grace?” “Oh. Well, Greg is Jewish, Dad. You know that.” “Are you telling me that Jews don’t pray, honey?” “No, no, no. I’d love to. Pam, it’s not like I’m some kind of Rabbi or something. I’ve said grace at many a dinner table,” says poor Greg, and begins to stumble through a prayer he invents in his desperation, “Oh... Dear God. Thank you. You are such a good God to us; a kind and gentle and accommodating God. And we thank you, Oh sweet, sweet Lord of Hosts for the smorgasbord you have so aptly lain at our table this day, and each day, by day, by day. Day by day. Oh dear Lord, three things we pray: to love Thee more dearly; to see Thee more clearly, to follow Thee more nearly day by day by day. Amen.” While saying a prayer before mealtimes is common enough in the United States, whether in public or in the privacy of the home, it would seem that here the tradition of saying grace has been relegated to schools, formal hall at Oxford colleges and meals where priests are present, as a somewhat uncomfortable ritual. Of the 20-odd people interviewed for this piece, all devout, practising Catholics, only three said that they
said grace with their families. And while Anglicans seem to have a multitude of different table-prayers, variations on the theme of thanksgiving, most of the lay English Catholics spoken to could only offer the prayer they had learned at school: “Bless us O Lord and these Thy Gifts, which we are about to receive, from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” Last month, during the Angelus on the official Italian day of thanksgiving, the Holy Father emphasised the importance of prayer at mealtimes, and urged Catholics to “rediscover” the custom. “In our families we teach the little ones to thank the Lord always before eating, with a brief prayer and the sign of the cross. This custom must be kept or rediscovered, because it teaches [us] not to take our “daily bread” for granted but to recognise in it a gift of Providence,” he said. Grace, or “graces” as the prayer was known in early English, comes from the Latin, to give thanks. The Christian tradition of saying grace begins with the example set by Christ and the Apostles. St Paul sets a precept in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the Glory of God.” In the third century, Clement of Alexandria counselled prayer when taking nourishment in Paedagogus, his work on Christian life and manners and his contemporary Tertullian writes of early Christians making the sign of the cross and praying before “reclining”. A fourth century text attributed to St Athanasius has one of the earliest formulas for prayer before eating. “”We give Thee thanks, our Father, for the Resurrection which Thou hast manifested to us through Jesus, Thy Son; and even as this bread which is here on this table was formerly scattered abroad and has been made compact and one, so may Thy Church be reunited from the ends of the earth for Thy Kingdom, for Thine is the power and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” Humorous graces abound. After “Bless us O Lord” they were the most popular offerings sent in. “Rub-a-dubdub, thank God for the grub”; the grammatically dubious “Bless this
bunch while we munch our lunch”; and “We give thanks, O Lord for this food, and for the enzymes to digest it”, an offering from a biology master no less. Seminarians at the English College in Rome, troubled by the quality of college catering, are purportedly saying: “Bless O Lord our food, forgive those who prepared it, and have mercy on us. Amen.” One reader of TheCatholic Herald wrote in a few months back with the story of a pet cat that would wait patiently in front of its food until the family had said grace. Culturally, English Catholics seem to show a certain reluctance when it comes to saying grace, particularly in public or even in private in the presence of guests. Giving my first dinner parties as an undergraduate at Oxford, I remember bewildering my English friends (non-Catholics and Catholics alike) by insisting on saying grace before starting, and giving thanks when finishing –a practice so customary at home that I did not think twice about it. Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, once Chaplain to Cambridge University and longtime resident of the Traveller’s Club in London is said to have refused to say grace audibly or make the sign of the Cross in public. In his opinion, it was wrong for Catholic priests to draw attention to their priesthood by flouting the conventions of Protestant English society. Things have changed since Mgr Gilbey’s day, and while society on the whole appears to have become increasingly secularised, being a Catholic in the Diaspora has become much more socially acceptable. But saying grace outside the anaesthetising context of formal occasions is often embarrassing, and can feel ostentatious. After the conversation with my American friend I tried saying grace with a group of four friends in a London restaurant. As we made the sign of the cross over our food and prayed, the people around us fell silent. Once we had sat down to eat, and the din recommenced, we received confused and angry looks from our fellow diners. It felt odd, but no one said anything nasty.
‘Prayer’ by Norman Rockwell. Public displays of faith are rare and greeted with suspicion
As Christmas is upon us and families come together, it is perhaps the time to lay aside the reluctance many of us experience where saying grace is concerned, and to take Pope Benedict’s dictum to heart. The advent edition of the Magnificat prayer and Mass books has mealtime prayers specifically for Christmas. One Christmas grace that can be used for family meals:
Leader : Lord, you have made our
gladness greater, you have made our joy increase. For you are called: Wonder-counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
All : Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Alleluia!
Leader : Lord our God, bless this food we are about to eat and look kindly upon those who have prepared it: We ask this through your Son, who out of the wonder of your love lives in
our midst, now and forever.
All : Amen.
According to one last anecdote, an elderly monsignor, at another Englishspeaking seminary, normally concluded grace with the words “bless the Lord, for he is gracious”. On feast days, when his eye caught bottles of champagne on the table, he would say with enthusiasm, “...for he is very gracious”.
FAITH OF OUR FATHERSAn illustrious thinker who anticipated the reforms of the Second Vatican Council
This Christmas marks the sesquicentenary of certain interesting events at my family’s former home at Chipping Campden. A guest of theirs, in that winter of 1856, was the illustrious and (for the time) progressive French Catholic thinker and writer, Count Charles de Montalembert. It was while staying with the Noels that he wrote one of his most important works, L’Avenir Politique de l’Angleterre . All of this requires brief reference to a segment of family history which I hope will not prove tedious. My great-grandfather was Charles Noel, at this time Viscount Campden, later Earl of Gainsborough. He was living at what was then called “new” Campden House, the original Campden House having been burned down in the Civil War. The family spent intermittent periods thereafter at yet another Campden House, which gave its name to Campden Hill in London. This house was, in 1862, also destroyed by fire. This great-grandfather of mine first became interested in Catholicism through his wife, Lady Ida Hay. She was the illegitimate grand-daughter of King William IV, who, though himself quite antiCatholic, had a Catholic sister-inlaw in the person of Maria FitzHerbert, the wife of George IV. The latter became friendly with the young Ida Hay and introduced her to a lot of her Catholic friends. Charles and Ida were further drawn to Catholicism through their frequent continental travels and friendships with such European families as the Bandinis, Rospigliosis, Clarys and de Lignes. Inevitably they were later drawn towards the Oxford Movement in England and both became Catholics in 1851. Though impressed and influenced by Montalembert, he, in turn, was much influenced by them. He based his liberal views largely on their opinions which, though liberal and progressive, adhered strongly to a peculiarly English upper-class paternalistic view of what was the most desirable form of government, chiefly directed by the aristocracy. Translated into theological terms,
Pius XI: ‘Uncompromising’
Montalembert’s views finally came to be accepted as Catholic teaching
Montalembert’s views saw their most important expression in a strong support, more than a 100 years before its time, for religious freedom for all beliefs. This ran completely against official Church policy as expounded by the uncompromisingly hard-line pope of the day, Pius IX. Among Montalembert’s allies were Lacordaire and Lammenais, whose views were condemned by Pope Gregory XVI. Montalembert’s views, resoundingly endorsed at the Second Vatican Council, thus came finally to be accepted as official Catholic teaching. They are relevant today in a rather convoluted sense. Though more valid and applicable than ever, they bring out, by way of apposition, the fact that many stale reactionary Catholic thought-processes are still distressingly active. Particularly distressing is the fact that some of our so-called “leading Catholics” obstinately hold on to certain views that are either discredited or outmoded, or both. Some of such, well-meaning, but dangerous individuals occupy key positions in prestigious, opinionforming Catholic associations. Some of their colleagues, in private of course, find their views not only unacceptable but expressed, often enough, in intemperate language. Arguments for what calls itself
“Catholic Order” –also the title of an eccentric periodical –thus receive a disproportionately generous hearing. It is sad that such earnest Catholics, in influential positions, are often so harmfully fanatical. They are as bad as the Christian Right in the United States, whose desertion of a liberal Catholic candidate ensured the election of Bush as President of America six years ago. Enough said about that. Such extremists have always been with us. In the time of Montalembert, they included in their number such men as the ultramontane Englishman W G Ward. He was a strong supporter of a pronouncement in favour of papal infallibility, which Montalembert opposed. More importantly, the latter dreaded the possibility that – because of the extremists –the First Vatican Council might try to turn the (now totally discredited) propositions of the Pope’s Syllabus of Errors into doctrinal definitions. My great-grandfather, Charles, was greatly influenced by Montalembert, and was involved in developing what came to be a vivid Catholic presence in Chipping Campden. His son, my grandfather, built the Catholic church in 1891, and this supported the establishment of a school. The parish is now the centre of a Catholic life which, though not quite so happy and united as it once was, nevertheless exerts a benign influence. A mixture of religious backgrounds, moreover, played a notable part in both the life of Montalembert and the Noels of his day. Montalembert’s mother was an English Catholic convert from Anglicanism, and he profited greatly from the enlightened influence of his English Protestant uncle, James Forbes. Many years later, my uncle Robert Noel regularly attended Eventide at the Anglican Church in Campden, pointing out that this was the successor to the traditional Benedictine Vespers and Compline which, though preserved by the Church of England, had long since been jettisoned by the Catholic Church in favour of the comparatively modern service of Benediction.
Photo: A. Nisar, MMI Engineering/EERI
The devastating earthquake that hit India and Pakistan in October 2005 is still etched deeply in the memories of the many thousands made homeless as a result.
With the arrival of winter, the severe cold in the Himalayas and Jammu brings with it misery and suffering to the most vulnerable.
SPICMA has been asked to fund a project to supply 50 houses and repair many others in Jammu Diocese in India to give the worst-affected families a roof over their heads during this bitterlycold season. The project being requested by Bishop Peter Celestine will cost around £70,000.
Please give what you are able. And help these families in desperate need. Thank you.
Registered Charity No: 270794. Est. in 1967. Patrons: Bishop Thomas McMahon, Sir Hugh Rossi.
YES, I WANT TO HELP. I enclose a cheque/PO in favour of SPICMA to be used for the Jammu project.
I am a UK taxpayer. Please treat all my donations since 6th April 2000 and until I notify you otherwise as made under Gift Aid. I confirm that the annual income tax or capital gains tax that I pay is more than the tax SPICMA will reclaim.
PLEASE SEND TO: SPICMA, PO Box 250, Hertford, Herts SG13 9AW