Sleeping out in Durham for youth homelessness


By Anna Couper, Community Fundraising Manager, Depaul UK

As the sun set on Durham Cathedral on a relatively balmy night for mid-October 2017, I prepared to join 140 others who were sleeping out to raise money for Depaul UK and our vital emergency overnight accommodation service Nightstop.

There are few things in life that make us feel truly vulnerable. Sleeping on a stone floor, in the cloisters of a cathedral, with only my sleeping bag for comfort was one of them. And to know that this was only a fraction of the emotional turmoil that a young person might face sleeping on the streets was sobering.

I had access to a toilet, running water, and people looking after my security and wellbeing. For many, it is a much lonelier and scarier experience, and one that does not end when the sun comes up. Instead, the dawn only brings another day of uncertainty and danger. As I tried to shake out my aching muscles and wash away the chill that had settled over me as I tried to sleep, I could not shake off the feeling that for someone else this morning, the future felt empty, hopeless, and broken. That those experiencing homelessness lose far more than their security. It takes away their identity, confidence, and strength to keep going.

Depaul UK wants to change that. Founded on the values exemplified by Saint Vincent de Paul, our charity supports young people facing homelessness in the UK. And like St Vincent 400 years ago, Depaul reaches out to bring light into even the most difficult and complicated situations.

I think of Ashleigh, one of the many young people with whom Depaul works. Following the death of her mother to cancer, Ashleigh, who was aged just six, moved in with her aunt and eventually her grandmother. Sadly, Ashleigh’s grandmother was dependent on alcohol, having never recovered from the tragic loss of her daughter. After a difficult time and many arguments, Ashleigh found herself moving out and sofa-surfing, unable to return home. She was only 16.

“Then I found Depaul Nightstop.” Ashleigh discovered our emergency hosting service. She recalls. “I started to realise how it felt to be a part of a family!”

Now living in her own flat, with continuing support from Depaul, Ashleigh is confident and excited about the future. She adds: “I can honestly say I would not be the lady I am today if it wasn’t for Depaul.” Depaul is committed to not only meeting the urgent needs of vulnerable young people, but helping them discover their potential, and their value.

Sadly, her story could have been very different. It is estimated that in London alone there are 12,000 “hidden homeless”, most of them young people.

In Rome, thousands gathered on 14 October 2017, to hear Pope Francis, as he received the Vincentian family, calling us to adore, welcome and go forward to serve – a call we are committed to follow. With Depaul, we can be the light in the darkness to thousands of young people going to sleep afraid and alone tonight. We can be the answer, the friendly face, the family.

I will sleep out again, not simply because of the challenge (it was amazing and exhausting) but because if I sleep out, and others join me, through donating, volunteering and praying, it means that another young person won’t have to.

Picture: Durham Cathedral, medieval door knocker for people seeking sanctuary


Work with refugees celebrated in the Diocese of Leeds


By Carol Hill, Director, Catholic Care (Diocese of Leeds)

Over 120 people from every corner the Leeds Diocese attended the Diocesan Refugee Response: One Year On event on 31 January 2018, at Hinsley Hall. As in November 2016, when the Leeds Diocesan Response was first launched, and in spite of the wintry weather, people’s enthusiasm to help the most marginalised in our society was as strong as ever.  The buzz in the room was electrifying.

The purpose of the evening was to update each other about the work taking place in response to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers and also to connect those wanting to be involved with a variety of volunteering opportunities.

We watched a short film highlighting the work of Catholic Care’s Gianna project, which is more and more being called upon to support asylum seeker and refugee families. The Bishop of Leeds, Rt Rev Marcus Stock, invited the meeting to join him in prayer and gave a brief reflection on his visit to PAFRAS (Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers) that had taken place earlier in the day.

First to present was Sean Ryan MBE, National Coordinator for the Community Sponsorship Scheme, which seeks to settle Syrian refugee families in the UK. Sean reported that this is a growing area of action in the Church, with over 70 parishes in England and Wales already working their way through the application process with the Home Office.

John Battle introduced several organisations working in the area, that then made an appeal for additional volunteer support. These included the SVP’s St Vincent’s Centre in Leeds, City of Sanctuary in Wakefield, the Conversation Club, and St Monica’s Housing.  Many more organisations had a stall in the “Market Place” which was the focus for the second part of the evening.

Finally, to highlight the powerful Spaces of Sanctuary photographic exhibition, two former asylum seekers, who have been helped by, and now volunteer for, the Refugee Council, told a little of their harrowing stories. The first had been in the country for 16 years, often sleeping in churches where she found sanctuary, before finally being given leave to remain 3 years ago after 13 years.  The second was on the verge of suicide, she was so desperate, and it was only the kindness of a GP that enabled her to turn the corner and keep going.

So much good work is already taking place but there is so much more to do.  After this inspiring event, many more are positively charged to help those who are disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalised, living in our very own communities.

Faithful communities come together to transform lives in North Yorkshire


By John Hinman, Trustee of Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland, Core Group Member of Caritas Diocese of Middlesbrough 


Over four years ago, the Church Urban Fund and the Anglican Archdiocese of York set up a pioneering community programme, Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland, to help those in poverty and in need across Middlesbrough and the borough of Redcar and Cleveland.

Its Board of Trustees is chaired by Bishop Paul Ferguson, Anglican Bishop of Whitby, who wanted to ensure that the programme attained an ecumenical character. I was consequently appointed by Bishop Terry Drainey to represent the Catholic Diocese of Middlesbrough on the programme’s Board of Trustees.

At Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland, which is a Core Group Member of Caritas Diocese of Middlesbrough, we work with churches, other faiths, charities, local groups and organisations to help transform lives and build flourishing communities. Churches play a keep role in alleviating suffering caused by hardship and poverty, so our work is focussed on communities where people face such challenges.

Through working together, Anglicans, Catholics and Methodists have achieved a great deal in four years. Our tangible contribution to the initiative has been the offer of the John Paul Centre as a community hub for four local charities who were finding it difficult to pay rent at other properties.

At this centre, we support the homeless, those in poverty and refugees. The long-standing ethos of the centre is hard to miss. The slogan splashed across walls and notice boards reads: “Where Strangers Become Friends.”

The work to support refugees and asylum seekers in the area is second to none and the John Paul Centre has two dedicated charities working in this field. For example, the Upper Room Project serves food and the Mary Thompson Fund provides financial support and groceries to meet the critical needs of those who are seeking sanctuary or are settled refugees in the Tees Valley. Without the support of the Diocese of Middlesbrough, both vital charities would be unable to deliver services to this vulnerable group of people.

Several Catholic schools offer support to the John Paul Centre, and we receive support from students at Ampleforth Sixth Form and students from the Middlesbrough College Exclusion Unit, which serves as an example of troubled youngsters giving back to the community.

Downstairs in the basement, we give out hundreds of clothing items donated by two North Yorkshire communities to refugees and people seeking asylum. The gifts are collected by the organisation 2Dales Action for Refugees, involving people living across Swaledale and Arkengarthdale. Over eighty adults and children benefited from the kindness of Dales folk over the last Christmas period, and Tyne Tees Television were on hand to record a news item based on the stories of refugees and their appreciation for the gifts.

To many, the John Paul Centre is both an important social hub and a sanctuary. All of these activities go hand in hand with the spiritual work coordinated by Father James Benfield.

Middlesbrough has some of the poorest wards in the country and the highest recorded figures for child poverty. In Redcar and Cleveland, the community programme is supporting those affected by the closure of the SSI Steelworks. We have two project workers, one an Anglican and one a Catholic, coordinating many community initiatives. These include a programme called Feast of Fun, which served over 5000 meals to children in the summer holidays. This project has now been extended to cover all the annual school holidays. Food poverty is an alarming issue in the area and we have asked Frank Field MP, and others, including local MP’s who have proved to be very supportive, to take action. We also set up a food bank in Middlesbrough and this has expanded six-fold in the last two years.

We also have a thriving programme for the elderly in Christian parishes throughout the area. The association with Mind and Ageing Better has moved forward this year by the appointment of a project worker to work in Christian and non-Christian settings to support the elderly. We call the new programme “Faithfully Ageing Better” – FAB!

It would be appropriate to conclude, and to demonstrate the ecumenical focus at the heart of the work that Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland does, with the following words.

The Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Dr. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, commended the programme for doing “a huge amount to tackle the issues of poverty in Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland”, and stated that he is “very proud that the Diocese of York, in partnership with Church Urban Fund, has taken a lead in making this possible”.

The Rt Revd Terence Patrick Drainey, Bishop of Middlesbrough and Chair of Caritas Social Action Network, and the Rt Revd Paul Ferguson, Anglican Bishop of Whitby, commented how “it’s wonderful that Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland has already opened up more ways to bring hope to so many people”, and that “in Christ’s name we will continue to work so that people can find a way out of poverty, and have dignity, justice and honour.”

This article first appeared in the CSAN ‘Caritas in Action’ column in the Catholic Times on 09.06.17.




Helping to carry the cross of London’s homeless


By Mick Clarke, CEO of The Passage

Every Good Friday, at midday, a procession starts off from Westminster Central Methodist Hall. The ‘Crucifixion on Victoria Street’, as it has become known, unites Christians as they commemorate the Passion and death of Christ.

Several hundred people walk in silence from Methodist Central Hall, including Church leaders, along Victoria Street in central London to Westminster Cathedral and then finally back down Victoria Street to conclude at Westminster Abbey.

Leading this procession are people who are homeless and served by The Passage, with one carrying a large cross.  It is a very moving experience to witness.

This year, as we were about to set off on the final stage of the procession from Westminster Cathedral to Westminster Abbey, I went to help the person carrying the cross get ready to set off. As I approached him he turned to me and said “thanks for helping me carry my cross”. For me, this one sentence summed up the mission of The Passage, and the role it plays in the wider mission of the Church.

The mission of The Passage is to provide resources which encourage, inspire and challenge homeless people to transform their lives. The Passage runs Europe’s largest Resource Centre for homeless people. Hundreds of people a week use the Centre to access basic services (such as food, showers, clothing etc) as well as housing advice, health services and assistance to get into education or employment.  The Passage also provides accommodation services. Passage House works with those coming straight off the streets in order to provide shelter and stabilise their situation, and Montfort House prepares clients to move out of homelessness and into their own flat, as well as community and homelessness prevention schemes.

At The Passage, we believe that any person is only a couple of steps away from becoming homeless and we aim to address the root causes that have led to someone becoming homeless: family breakdown, mental health or addiction issues, etc. If these issues are not addressed, it is hard to ensure that a homeless person can break out of homelessness for good. The litmus test for The Passage is ensuring that those people we resettle into their own permanent accommodation can sustain it; that’s where our Home for Good programme comes in, ensuring that those resettled have the support of volunteers from their new local community to help them keep their accommodation and not end up back on the street.

The Passage has a Vincentian ethos, in that it takes its values from St. Vincent De Paul.  St. Vincent saw that faith requires a practical demonstration in doing good amongst the poor. Vincent was intensely motivated by the Christian faith, and took on board the inclusivity of the Christian message. He looked at the life of Jesus and saw his concentration on those in need, never leaving suffering people the way he found them and constantly transforming the life of the poor. He identified the death of Jesus with all the sufferings of the poor. He literally took the passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus says: “whatever you do to the least of these brothers and sisters, you do to me”. For Vincent, this meant that every human person, and particularly the poor, has God living in them. Every individual was a whole person, with their individual story, and in serving their practical needs attention must also be given to their spiritual and emotional being. Each person therefore must be treated with total respect, with immense dignity, with gentleness and kindness and, in the manner of Jesus, be helped to transform their lives at every opportunity.

For me this is what the mission of the Church is about; to be a visible sign of justice and compassion in a world that seems, at times, to value materialistic gain over the intrinsic value of the human person.

That homeless person, when thanking me for helping carry the cross, was thinking very much in the literal sense as they led the procession. However, the deeper meaning reflects on the work The Passage does; helping to address the issues that have led to homelessness in the first place, helping people overcome those issues and bring them to a place of recovery.

Whilst most of us will never (hopefully) experience the trauma of homelessness, we may experience a sense of inner homelessness – times of bereavement, loneliness, and depression. At times some people feel they are without hope. We all have to carry our own cross at certain times in our life; if we are lucky, we have someone there with us to help us carry that cross; that burden of inner homelessness.

At The Passage we have the honour of doing this every day, thanks to the support of so many people.  It truly is a privilege.


This article first appeared in the CSAN ‘Caritas in Action’ column in the Catholic Times on 26.05.17


A friend to Irish inmates and their families


By Fr Gerry McFlynn, Manager of Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas at Irish Chaplaincy

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Irish Chaplaincy (CSAN member) became engaged in caring for the personal, social and family life of Irish emigrants. Various members especially developed concern over the problems facing Irish prisoners in England and Wales and their families at home in Ireland.  As a result, the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO) was born in 1985, and it has been providing an outreach service to Irish prisoners and their families ever since.

For many people ICPO is known for its support of high-profile cases such as the Maguire Family, the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four.  While we are pleased to be of assistance to those prisoners and their families, the ICPO’s involvement in such cases has sometimes led to a narrow perception of its real role and activities.   The reality is that the ICPO works with ordinary rank and file prisoners and their families every day.  Today, most of the ICPO’s work is away from the media spotlight.

The bulk of day-to-day activity involves serving prisoners and their families, many of whom feel isolated and helpless on first hearing of a loved one’s detention.  This means offering advice, organising letters and prison visits, as well as helping with modest financial assistance.  Other activities include the mailing of Christmas Day and St Patrick’s Day cards and a twice-yearly newsletter.

As well as addressing immediate concerns of prisoners and their families, ICPO also carries out advocacy work on their behalf.  Key advocacy issues in recent years have included the deportation of Irish prisoners and, more recently, the plight of IPP (Indeterminate Public Protection) sentenced prisoners wishing to be repatriated to Ireland.

We work for all Irish prisoners wherever they are and make no distinction between prisoners of different religious faiths, convictions or status.  More than 1,200 Irish-born people are now imprisoned in countries as far afield as Australia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, the USA and South America.  Irish prisoners now constitute the second largest ethnic group in prisons in England and Wales.  They are to be found in regions that have large Irish populations such as London, the West Midlands, Merseyside and Greater Manchester.  But, there is scarcely a prison in the country which doesn’t have an Irish prisoner.  Visits to prisons are usually made via the prison Chaplaincy or the Diversity and Equality department.

Around 45% of Irish prisoners come from a Traveller background and many have learning difficulties.  To help such prisoners, the ICPO works closely with the Irish Chaplaincy’s Traveller and Equality Project, which has done sterling work in recent years in bringing Traveller issues to the attention of the Prison Service.    We have also developed a close relationship with the Irish Embassy in London in respect of other issues affecting prisoners.

The ICPO, and the Irish Chaplaincy as a whole, is a practical expression of concern for the most vulnerable of Irish emigrants and is appreciated not only by the prisoners themselves and their families, but also a wide range of caring agencies.  It performs a valuable function in reminding the Government that the human needs of prisoners cannot be dictated by political or financial considerations.  Furthermore, the organisation takes the view that the only punishment imprisonment should impose is a loss of liberty.   Otherwise, prisoners should be treated with the same respect accorded everyone else in society.

Speaking at our 25th anniversary celebration, the former Irish President, Mary McAleese (herself a founding member of the ICPO), said:  “Over the past twenty-five years, as many people turned away from prisoners and washed their hands of them, it was your (ICPO) unexpected and reliable hand of friendship which let prisoners know that they had an innate dignity that no system could overwhelm and no act of their own could obliterate.”

The ICPO can be contacted at: 50-52 Camden Square, London NW1 9XB, Tel: 0207 4824148

This article first appeared in the CSAN ‘Caritas in Action’ column in the Catholic Times on 19.05.17

Welcoming people with mental ill-health in church


By Ben Bano, Director of Welcome Me As I Am 

Having had a career in mental health services, as well as being active in my own parish, I began to realise a growing problem when someone close to me developed a serious mental illness. I wanted to be able to remember him in the prayers of intercession at Mass as well as having Mass offered for him. Many Mass intentions were offered for those with a physical illness such as cancer, but it was only with the encouragement of our priest that I felt confident enough to mention that he was suffering from a serious mental illness.

There is still a lot of stigma associated with mental illness, but I was fortunate that other parishioners were able to share some of the concerns they had over mental health with me. I took part in the Mental Health Reference Group of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and it was through this involvement that I started Welcome Me as I Am – a charity with the specific purpose of promoting awareness of mental health issues in the Church. In 2011 an online toolkit was launched to promote discussion of mental health issues in parishes and deaneries. A series of awareness raising workshops, funded by MIND and Faith Action, has been organised in the Archdiocese of Westminster.

While much progress has been made in recent years, people with conditions such as depression may still feel excluded or even unwelcome. Yet, a quarter of us are likely to seek help for mental health problems at some point in our lives.  We remember the courage with which people face physical conditions, but how often do we acknowledge the courage of those who face an equally debilitating condition such as manic-depressive illness?

Soon after Welcome Me As I Am was formed, I became aware of another issue which needed addressing more openly  – that of people whose lives have been touched by dementia. Thanks to the interest shown by Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) in this issue, it was possible to make the film ‘It’s still ME Lord’. We have now launched a revised online toolkit for parishes and deaneries as well as for those whose lives have been affected by dementia. The focus of the toolkit is on personhood – seeing the person as someone with their unique qualities – rather than the dementia. It has been very helpful to have financial support from the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in taking this project forward.

It has been a privilege to be able to work with parishes and deaneries on these issues through the workshops I have facilitated in the last few years. I have been humbled by the many stories of love, compassion, courage, and above all hope, which chime with the Christian message of the Resurrection. We have been able to reflect with carers on how love and compassion helps us to nurture and appreciate the God-given qualities of our loved ones. We have also reflected on the role of many people connected with parish groups, who need to have an inclusive attitude to a problem that is so often hidden and difficult to discuss.

Our current programme includes a series of workshops on mental health in partnership with MIND and Caritas Westminster, as well as a number of sessions on dementia such as ‘Our Church as a Dementia Friendly Church’. One recent session in Salford attracted more than 50 people who all became ‘dementia friends’. We also provide awareness training on the prominent issue of the Mental Capacity Act and the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards, since these legal provisions are important to understand for those involved in pastoral work with people who have a mental illness or dementia.

Let us hope that we can continue to explore these issues in an open and constructive way, and that our parishes can always be a place of welcome.

For more information on our activities, or if you would like a workshop in your parish or deanery, visit www.welcomemeasiam.org.uk. You can find the new CSAN dementia toolkit here. More information about workshops focusing on mental health issues in the Archdiocese of Westminster is available at www.caritas-westminster.org.uk.

Revive group’s vision for empowerment of women refugees


By Hattie Ditton, Revive UK, Manchester

Revive supports refugees and people seeking asylum. As part of our welcome project, we have a successful resettlement process. We have recognised that, while our work reaches hundreds of people, there is a noticeably lower number of women who are accessing our services.

Realising this, we decided to create a space specifically for them. In 2016, Revive set up a Women’s Group, with the aim to empower female members of refugee communities in Greater Manchester. The group not only provides an important support network, but also gives women the opportunity to learn new practical skills.

Members of the group have opportunities to practise with different mediums such as spray paint, needlework and collage to make cards, jewellery and other crafts. They are then able to go on to sell their creations at local fairs and events.  Unsolicited, some have donated proceeds back to Revive.  In doing so, they have expressed that they are pleased to be able to offer something back to the organisation.

Sustainable products are becoming fashionable. ‘Artisan’ everything can be found in almost every shop window. It seems that people are becoming more and more interested in where items come from and the story behind them. The Women’s Group seized this new trend, responding to demand for ethical, handmade products. They made a beautiful collection of brooches from recycled metals. The women produce really intricate and unique pieces, each telling a different story.

Many women have reported that the resettlement period in the UK can be a lonely one; they value the Women’s Group for its inclusiveness. The group enables women from different cultures and backgrounds to unite, share and learn from each other.

Mabel, from Eritrea, attends every week. She arrived shy and quiet, who rarely voluntarily got involved with group conversations. In just a few months, her level of confidence has noticeably rocketed and she has benefited enormously from the support of the group.

“Since I started coming to the Women’s group, I have made new friends, I have learnt new skills and I have more confidence than before,” she told Revive.

Maureen, a Lay Spiritan from Manchester, has been volunteering and coordinating the group for ten years, with the help of other volunteers. She shares Revive’s vision of breaking down barriers, ending discrimination and promoting social justice.

She described to us the fulfilment she gets from the group: “It brings me such joy to watch the women’s journeys”.

Maureen is there every step of the way. She told Revive how much it means to her to be able to watch women like Mabel grow.

“Even when ladies begin work, or move on, they still come back to share their news when they get their status, or have babies”.

Her enthusiasm and energy is infectious, and helps to maintain a positive and welcoming atmosphere in a group that is based on mutual respect.

Another member, Mahtab, explained, ”If I didn’t used to be able to do something I would be shy to speak out but Maureen has taught me that you can learn new skills, no matter what your age”.

We have a big focus on giving women a voice and enabling them to develop their own skills. It’s about taking back control for the women, and being able to reclaim ownership of their future.

Finally, Mabel said: “This group has helped me so much. I have always been creative and now I can put this creativity to use, making things like cards and needle-work, which I can sell to make money and earn a living”.

Through Revive’s Women’s Group, ladies like Mabel can get back some self-belief, which ultimately is the most precious thing to drive forward their future in the UK.

The asylum-seeking process can be especially challenging for women, many of whom have experienced gender-specific forms of persecution in their home countries or during their journey here, which can have a lasting impact on somebody’s mental health. This can leave women frightened, misunderstood and alone. The Women’s Group is a space where trust can be rebuilt and struggles and insecurities can be forgotten.

“Some days, all the women want to do is laugh”, explained Maureen.

Such a simple thing, like having somewhere to be listened too, is invaluable.

“Monday is the best day of the week for me”, said Agnes, who has been coming to the group for the past year.

At Revive we have no doubt that each one of these ladies will go on to do amazing things.

Make an effort to get to know the women in your community. It could mean a lot to them and, you never know, you could end up making a friend for life.

This article first appeared in the CSAN ‘Caritas in Action’ column in the Catholic Times on 28.04.17

Marriage Care: Helping couples rediscover joy in love


 By Elizabeth Davies, Director of Volunteer Recruitment, Training and Formation at Marriage Care 

A year ago, on April 8th, the long-awaited papal exhortation The Joy of Love was finally published, concluding two and a half years of worldwide consultation and deliberation on marriage and family life. The document’s key themes of mercy, discernment and pastoral accompaniment are well lodged in our hearts now, though, like Mary, we may still be pondering (and no doubt will continue to do so for some time yet) their fullest meaning and implication for our pastoral practices.

This time last year, Marriage Care’s Chair of Trustees, Kit Dollard, welcomed the Pope’s reference to ‘new pastoral methods’, saying that “we hope to take a central role in making this a reality in our dioceses”. At the same time Marriage Care was entering into a research partnership with Roehampton University, supported by the Charles Plater Trust. We aimed to explore how Marriage Care’s Catholic ethos shapes the way we provide, and couples experience, our services. We wanted to see more clearly how our work embodies Catholic social thought and to discern where our own pastoral methods might be renewed.

We know from research that it is couples from lower socio-economic backgrounds who are most likely to experience relationship distress. We know also that a healthy couple relationship improves their own and their children’s life-chances. So the information, skills, time and space we offer through our marriage preparation courses all help to relieve relationship poverty by equipping couples for healthier relationships, enabling them to reflect together on their relationship, values, sacrament and future. Equally our relationship counselling services, offered regardless of ability to pay, are there for the more difficult times, especially for those who live below the poverty line.  In this way, our work clearly offers an ‘option for the poor’. However, we also found other ways in which Marriage Care’s work reflects Catholic social teaching.

Among these were questions of solidarity. As Pope Francis has said recently, it takes great courage today to get married.  We know that many couples have experienced the effects of marriage breakdown and fear it for themselves. A sense of uncertainty and vulnerability can hold them back from giving themselves totally to each other in complete trust. We want to be a source of hope for them, so that no matter what difficulties they encounter, they learn it is possible to work through them, even if sometimes that means accessing professional support. One couple told us that their experience of our marriage preparation day “opened both of our eyes. That is something that will stick with me. Whereas before I would have seen counselling, as [something] you only go [to] when you’re really in trouble.”

Our volunteers were also interviewed as part of the study. Their responses highlighted a deep concern for the dignity of each person, a welcoming and non-judgmental attitude that is woven throughout the process and content of our courses. In many ways, we seem to represent the ‘smiling face’ of the Church to the couples we meet: “It’s almost like us opening a door that they may decide they want to come through later.” “We’re there to show that they’re welcome and it doesn’t matter where they are at the moment, we’re just glad that they’re coming back now; even if it’s only temporary.”

We found too that Marriage Care supports the call to community, family and participation that underpins all Catholic social thought. Our work waters and fertilises the seeds of the domestic Church, which have been planted by God through the relationship of the couple with each other.  What we recognised was that not only is the ‘spirit at work’ within the confines of the marriage preparation day, FOCCUS© sessions and in counselling sessions, but that there is also preparation going on spiritually within the couples before and after: “I walked away from it not feeling like someone had tried to sort of convert me … I found it engaging … I thought it was good.”

In a recent address in Belfast, Cardinal Vincent Nichols noted two central axioms of Pope Francis’ vision for the Church: time is greater than space and reality is more important than ideas. At the heart of these two axioms, he said, are the need to supply a concrete sense of belonging to those we serve and a respectful regard for the reality of a person’s life.  Marriage Care is already guided by these principles and making them a reality in dioceses. In the next phase of this research project we aim to facilitate a series of local conversations to further enable our volunteers to discover this. At a national level, we are examining the formation implications of this research for ourselves and for the wider Church community.

Marriage Care delivers counselling and marriage preparation services through a network of 53 centres, more than 100 counselling locations and the sheer dedication of over 700 professionally trained and accredited volunteers.

If you are interested in volunteering for Marriage Care please visit www.marriagecare.org.uk

If you would like to make an appointment for marriage preparation or for counselling, please use our Freephone number 0800 389 3801

This article first appeared in the CSAN ‘Caritas in Action’ column in the Catholic Times on 07.04.17

Seeking Sanctuary: Speaking out on behalf of ‘strangers’


Phil Kerton, Co-Director of Seeking Sanctuary (CSAN Member Charity)

I start to write this on a ferry heading towards Calais, a journey often made when representing my employers on European collaborations. But, unlike about twenty other voyages during the past couple of years, this one is not for business, nor for shopping or dining in France. I’m again delivering goods to one of the Calais warehouses for distribution to needy migrants across France and beyond. I’m also taking a cheque to a project that has been supported by Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN), the “migrants’ wardrobe” of Secours Catholique – approximately France’s Christian Aid – currently harassed by the local council and national riot police.

It’s not too difficult as I live only an hour’s drive from Dover. What is tough is seeing and hearing about the sorry state of thousands making dangerous journeys to flee violence and poverty, only to end up blocked from further travel towards their chosen goal. They may be misguided in choosing Britain as a destination – reaching Calais some do not know that there is another sea crossing to make – but they arrive cold, hungry, weary and unwashed and usually with shoes and clothes worn to tatters.

Many think that “Calais is over – the migrant camp has gone.” But the recent episode of the “Jungle” was only the most recent in the decades-long saga of the arrival of exiles. Although thousands were dispersed across France as November began, people remain in the camp near Dunkirk, along with a couple of smaller settlements nearby, totalling about 2000. Additional scores of newcomers and returnees turn up daily; about 500 sleep rough in woods and fields around the town or are hidden by sympathisers. The streets of Paris are home to thousands too, who for the present, hesitate to travel further.

A great network for finding and bringing donations to the Calais aid warehouses and kitchens still operates. Some items are often in short supply, volunteer workers are less numerous, and cash donations remain welcome. Money goes toward buying food locally and ordering items in bulk to benefit from wholesale prices and generous discounts.

The former camp developed an amazing society. Smelly in the summer and boggy and partly flooded when winter gales blew in from the sea, its residents always offered warm welcomes and generous hospitality. There were bars, cafés, clubs, gyms, hairdressers, a library and mosques (regularly filled for worshippers marking the daily sequence of prayer). There were also two churches, until French bulldozers demolished the supposedly safe Protestant Church whilst clearing a space around the camp perimeter in May 2016. The Eritrean Orthodox Church remained until the end, with an ever-growing number of impressive icons produced by one of its flock, some now in London.

The scriptures tell many tales of migration, with prophets repeatedly warning rulers that they would be judged by their treatment of the least of their inhabitants – widows, orphans and strangers. The Church has long recognised the right of people to flee war and natural disasters, and the right to try to escape from poverty and seek a better life. Yes: we are called to do what we can to provide constructive help and spiritual support to so-called “economic migrants”, within generous limits. Pope Pius XII wrote a masterly account of the development of Church practice in 1952, when Europeans headed for North America to seek new lives in the aftermath of war. All travellers are human beings, made in God’s likeness. Pope Francis has not invented a new concern, but follows other recent Pontiffs in speaking out on behalf of “the strangers”.

Discovering unprecedented numbers leaving the Middle East and Africa to reach southern Europe, the European Union seemed ill prepared and without a plan of solidarity to support the nations at its external frontier. A small proportion arrive at the French coast where they find very little state support, just humanitarian aid from a large number of volunteers. I find a warehouse needing donations and volunteers, as expected, and with kitchens still preparing food despite an official Calais ban on crowds gathering in locations known to migrants. As a consequence, distribution points now move around. One group reported a 20% drop in the number of meals being collected.

I carefully pass by the armed riot police outside the Secours Catholique premises. There are objections to their provision of showers, a necessity for health and individual dignity. The police detain those who use the facility and staff and volunteers are saddened and puzzled that services offered to the sick and vulnerable are being denied to their sisters and brothers in Christ. Please pray for their perseverance in the face of adversity.


This article first appeared in the CSAN ‘Caritas in Action’ column in the Catholic Times on 17.03.17