In Plain Sight – Conference report


By Mark Wiggin, Director, Caritas Salford

In Plain Sight, the first national Catholic conference to promote the domestic strategies in parishes and dioceses to counter Modern Day Slavery and Human Trafficking was held on 15 October 2019 in London. Organised by Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) and organisations involved in delivering vital services, the conference attracted over seventy participants and was sponsored and hosted by CCLA Investment Management Limited. 

Many dioceses and parishes are awake to the de-humanising impact of modern-day slavery and human trafficking in England and Wales. Leadership from our bishops and action from many religious congregations and Catholic charities has enabled the Catholic church to play its part in beginning to eradicate in the UK one of the world’s most organised, profitable and criminal activities that causes so much misery and long-term damage to its victims.

The conference was designed to equip delegates through shared practical experience and planning to combat Modern Day Slavery and Human Trafficking at a diocesan-parish level.  A session on supply chains helped diocese to appreciate the need for organisations to operate ethically in their procurement.

Peter Hugh Smith, Chief Executive of CCLA focused his welcome and introduction on the mission of CCLA as “good investment” not just as a financial mission but as a social justice commitment to supporting organisations to develop positive approaches to managing their resources and supply chains. CCLA hopes to act as a catalyst to investing ethically and humanely in people and recognise the difference they can make to eradicate modern day slavery. 

The first independent government commissioner Kevin Hyland, now Senior Advisor to the Santa Marta Group of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, spoke of the 150 million children today in positions of exploitation, many of them integrated into business models, and where many displaced people are the market for this trade. It’s estimated that 20,000 children die every year though slavery, yet little if any action is taken against organisations that exploit children. Globally, 99.98% of human trafficking goes without criminal prosecution, so why wouldn’t a criminal do it if they will get away with it? Kevin concluded, “The Santa Marta Group is developing strategies to reset the moral compass within the Church to make sure we are not complicit by indifference to this massive global crime. It’s events like today that will help make this change from words into action.”

Those who contributed included Santa Marta, local parish initiatives from Caritas Salford and national perspectives and victim support from The Medaille Trust, Caritas Westminster’s Bakhita House, JRS UK and women@thewell.  Andrew Adams (CCLA Ethical & Responsible Investment Team) & Sion Hall (formerly Head of the East Lancashire Police Anti – Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery addressed the issue of supply chains & ethical investment.

Anthony Brown (Caritas Salford) spoke of parish initiatives and involvement and how the resources within a parish when harnessed in partnerships can lead to awareness raising through local press and radio, prayer cards for parishes as well as networking with the police and their anti-trafficking units. 

Beatrice Grasso, Detention Outreach Manager for the Jesuit Refugee Service UK described the supporting work of JRS in detention centres. These centres are not part of the criminal justice system. But detention centres look and operate like prisons even if those in detention have not committed any crime but have sought asylum in this country. Therefore, they are not places that aid recovery from the trauma of slavery and trafficking. The main role of JRS is to accompany people and stand in solidarity with them in detention. There is no statutory time limit for a person in detention and the UK is the only country to have no time limit to detain a person. There were 24,200 in detention last year. Many people who have been trafficked are eventually released but often back into the hands of their handlers in the trafficking and slavery world they came from. There is a need to build trust within a holistic approach of partnerships to support the victims of human trafficking. 

Karen Anstiss shared the work of Caritas Bakhita House.  Twenty-two religious congregations led to over seventy volunteers with many relevant skills including languages and therapy skills. In common is the non- judgemental approach they all share. “Don’t judge, don’t promise and believe the unbelievable” are the bywords that Bakhita House operates by.

Marc Pearson, the Community Engagement Coordinator, and Zoe Smith, Director of Communications and Advocacy, spoke of the work of the Medaille Trust. The Look Up project is a six-year partnership between the Medaille Trust and the Archdiocese of Birmingham, to raise awareness in every parish of the Archdiocese. “The take-up by the Archbishop himself has been a wonderful blessing to the project,” said Zoe, who added, “There is always hope for victims of modern-day slavery who can have a fulfilling life after slavery.”

Caro Hattersley from women@thewell shared stories of women exploited in the sex trade who managed to tell their stories of brutality in brothels and escape to the security and recovery supported by the charity. “Consent cannot be purchased,” she said, and, “decriminalising women caught up in forced exploitation is an important way forward to address the wider issues of modern-day slavery.”

Sion Hall, formerly the lead in the Lancashire Police Anti-Trafficking Unit reminded the conference that there are 140,000 people at any one time caught up in trafficking and modern-day slavery in the UK. The business model of supply and demand means that organised crime is the driving force behind forced labour and prostitution. He said, “Partnership between statutory services, police, NHS, probation, prison services, NGOs and voluntary organisations is the way forward in tackling slavery. Public awareness is the starting point for preventative work.”

Andrew Adams from CCLA gave an investor’s perspective on modern slavery and the supply chains to which investors need to be sensitive. The everyday products that are part of our everyday lives means that practically everything we purchase has a direct or indirect connection to slavery. He said, “CCLA will be working with other investors to develop strategies to help companies keep their supply chains clean.”

Luke de Pulford of the Arise Foundation brought the conference to its conclusion by asking questions about the obstacles to collaboration and partnership working that included building trust rarely fits into measured outcomes but is vital to address the problem of slavery. In a hard-hitting assessment of the barriers he had experienced in this fields, he named money, ego and institutional self-interest. Leading the plenary session, he gathered the key points from the focus groups which will inform a new strategic plan. The message that came through was that we all needed to collaborate and work together, sharing resources and where necessary sharing the platforms that individual charities had developed to pioneer their work. 

Cardinal Vincent Nichols thanked the organisers for the conference – Caritas Salford, CSAN and CCLA – for bringing together so many charities and organisations committed to the fight against human trafficking. He said, “We need a detailed public account of the good work of the Catholic Church in this field”, “Difference properly used creates harmony”, and “Agencies engaged in anti-trafficking need some clear and shared objectives.” He concluded by saying that the work of this conference was opening the door to the next phase.

Using the Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking developed by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, the conference agreed the key effective action that the Church can adopt to contribute to the eradication of this growing problem. Summing up the day, Philip McCarthy, Chief Executive of CSAN said, ‘Partnership, Presence, Hope, Trust and Encounter are the words that have resonated throughout the conference.’

Any views expressed in this blog post are those of the author.

A different approach

In the run-up to the Third World Day of the Poor, on 17 November 2019, we have assembled a series of three articles. Each reflects on emerging developments in Catholic social mission. In November 2018, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales encouraged leaders of Catholic organisations to work together on addressing the housing crisis. This first article in the series explores some progress in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, within the wider context of the Church’s pastoral work and mission in communities.

By Steve Baylis, Head of Development, and Jane Bamber, Senior Development Officer, at the Archdiocese of Birmingham

Over the last five years, the development team at the Archdiocese of Birmingham has been hard at work connecting with its deaneries, parishes and communities to discover their unique needs and to identify their priorities. Through this work it became clear that there was a need to develop strategies and plans to support the maintenance and long-term sustainability of the Catholic community’s buildings. With approximately 1,200 buildings in the Archdiocese alone, these are significant assets which support the fulfilment of the Church’s mission. These buildings hold Masses and services, others provide outreach and support for those affected by poverty, or those who experience social isolation. These buildings can provide the setting in which communities come together in fellowship and mission.

By identifying the priorities, and the issues our communities face, we have secured more than £4.4 million of new funding, specifically for the development and improvement of our buildings. We have invested this funding in projects valued at more than £7 million. This is a wonderful achievement which allows us to make real improvements for the benefit of our community, but, as always, we are looking to the future.

To achieve the greatest positive impact with our resources, we have strived to ensure that Catholic-owned buildings remain a vital, relevant resource to the people and communities who need them the most. In keeping with the Archdiocese’s mission, we want to continue to use our expertise and funding to improve the lives of those who feel disenfranchised, who are experiencing poverty or are subject to discrimination.

The Archdiocese has a diverse mix of parishes with some that are particularly land or asset rich, despite being in deprived areas. We continue to invest in our churches as sacred spaces where we come together to pray and worship God, however we also want to ensure that we are fully utilising all our assets in pursuit of our wider mission, and that means looking at ways that we can respond to the needs of the local communities, working with them and reaching out to those in need.

We are currently working with a number of partners to scope and develop new housing schemes that will increase local people’s access to good quality affordable housing. This is a long term project that will contribute to our vision and mission, and demonstrates a commitment to future sustainability. When scoping these major projects, the team is especially keen to foster wider community engagement and participation. One of our partners is offering parishes 40 per cent nomination rights for any new social housing projects we develop with them (meaning we can nominate people we know who are in need, so this could be a local family, refugees or a retiring priest). We see this work as being key to our department’s role of developing sustainable and vibrant parish communities.

We believe in starting at the grass roots of the problem. By carrying out a full feasibility study on a site we are able to gain a wider picture than the one which may seem immediately obvious. We are committed to enabling and empowering individuals and communities to have their own voice and to get involved in shaping their neighbourhoods. By supporting the community to support itself we believe we can promote greater well-being and a sense of belonging. In our commitment to the community, we always ask ourselves: what would really work best for the community and its people? How can local people gain from this project, what are their housing needs, and how can we campaign and deliver safer, greener spaces as well as services and facilities that are meeting the needs of the whole community?

We recently secured some £430000 from the National Lottery to work in partnership with two of our churches, the local Irish Centre and two Muslim organisations to deliver a joint project around early intervention activities for socially isolated older people.

We are currently developing a project in partnership with the travelling community, having invested £9,000 to employ an outreach worker to engage and work with this community, to fully understand their concerns and issues, to make sure we have their voices embedded in how the project will be developed and ultimately delivered. We hope to have this project funded by the Lottery and expect to be submitting a funding application early 2020 based on a clear evidence of need with end users at the heart of the solution.

Alongside our major project developments, we are becoming more aware of the increased need for parish and community based responses to homelessness and localised poverty. Many of our parishes are facing daily challenges: from the pressures of sustaining food banks, with people seeking refuge, requiring support for addiction and experiencing a lack of safe pastoral areas, which has led us to develop a pilot in a cluster of four parishes to make sure we have training and resources to deliver a “dementia friendly” church.

By producing skill banks – how we engage, identify and build the skills of local people and by utilising the strengths that our parishes already have – we are committed to getting the best out of our resources and thus supporting and developing truly effective parish action.

This article was first published in The Tablet.

Seeking Sanctuary: Calais update, May 2019


By Phil Kerton, Seeking Sanctuary (CSAN member organisation)

Volunteers continue to work hard for migrants who exist in an extremely hostile environment: to offer a welcome, food, clothing, shelter, dignity, and to support them have their stories heard.

Over 90 people, a third of them from the Pas-de-Calais area, attended a gathering in St Paul’s Church, Dover, in October 2018, organised by the Justice and Peace Commissions of the Westminster and Southwark dioceses, together with Kent-based Seeking Sanctuary and the Maria Skobstova House of Welcome in Calais. This event enabled concerned people to share experiences, efforts and hopes for those in need and to try discern ways ahead and share ideas for action. Discussions were enlivened and provoked by a short interactive play, “Stage 3”, presented by students from Queen Mary University of London. The piece looks at the bureaucracy and power of the naturalisation system and young people’s sense of belonging and citizenship rights. By addressing the process through which individuals are dehumanised and arbitrarily categorised on the basis of race, age and socio-economic background, the performance highlights questions about perceptions of power and powerlessness.

Among the wide variety of organisations supporting migrants in the Calais area is CSAN’s sister Caritas agency in France, Secours Catholique. They run a Day Centre, where people can relax out of the weather, to chat, take a cup of tea or coffee, get a haircut, watch videos, play games together, seek advice from volunteers, or get involved in arts and crafts work. Another is the Association Maria Skobstova – a Catholic Worker House of Welcome. This is a residential community, serving people pushed to the margins of society since February 2016. They do not just try to ‘help’ refugees, but prefer to be there with them, providing support and friendship. Everyone lives as a community, sharing meals, friendship, and daily prayer; and supporting one another in the work that is done. Neighbours are invited to join the extended community and take part in the work. The main ministry is to youths who are suffering in mind or body and, as at the Secours Catholique centre, efforts are made to treat each person with dignity, as individuals each with their own hopes and concerns.

Groups working in Calais constantly need fresh volunteers and donations of supplies. The number of displaced people living in Calais is fairly constant at 600 to 800, while the number sleeping rough in woods at Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, has recently more than doubled to above 1,800. These are mainly Kurds, including many women and children. Dozens more can be found near any port or harbour between Bilbao and Flushing and near their approach roads, not to mention hundreds eking out a precarious existence on the streets of Paris and Brussels.

Jean Vanier RIP


By Eddie Gilmore, Chief Executive, Irish Chaplaincy (CSAN member organisation), following the death of Jean Vanier (10 September, 1928 – 7 May, 2019)

As I was told of the death, at the age of 90, of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, there immediately came to mind my favourite story connected with him: an important story for me, and one which I discovered years later from Jean I’d actually misheard!

Jean was a son of Georges Vanier, a Governor-General of Canada, and he crossed the Atlantic at the height of the Second World War to join the British Naval College at Dartmouth. After the War, one of his tasks, together with a fellow young naval cadet, was to ‘entertain’ the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret on a long sea voyage to South Africa. I was touched to hear that when Jean went to Buckingham Palace in recent years to collect an award from the now Queen Elizabeth she said to him, “Hello Jock”, this being the name that those close to him used when he was growing up.

From this rather privileged background, Jean found himself in 1964 in a village called Trosly in the North of France, moving into a dilapidated old house with two men, Raphael and Philippe, whom he had met and befriended at a large institution, and whom he had invited to come and live with him. The house was named L’Arche, French for the ark, and it would grow into a worldwide network of 150 communities in almost 40 countries, where people with and without learning disabilities live and work and share life together. I joined the L’Arche community in Canterbury in 1988 and was there for 28 years, and it’s where I met my wife, so I have a particular reason to be grateful for what Jean started.

In 2006 I was attending an event in Trosly for directors of L’Arche communities in Europe, at which Jean spoke to us. In one of his talks he recalled how he’d been visiting a prison in America where one of the guys had told him proudly (or at least this is what I heard at the time), “I’m the best card-dealer in the State of Virginia”. Jean went on to say, “You know, we all need to be the best something; but where do I want to choose to be the best?” I interpreted this as meaning, ‘Where do I want to choose to use my gifts?’ At that time I was coming to the end of my initial 4 year ‘mandate’ as Director and unsure whether or not to continue for a second 4 year term, but this story inspired me to do so.

I told this story often to people, and I hoped I’d have a chance one day to say thank you to Jean. Years later I drove a full minibus of people from L’Arche Kent over to Trosly to visit Jean, whom we knew could be in his final years. It was never easy to get to speak to him one-to-one, but following Mass in the lovely converted barn of a chapel, I spotted that he was momentarily on his own in the courtyard, and seized my chance. I went over and said I wanted to thank him for something he’d said years earlier that had been very important for me. “Oh yes”, he replied, “what was that?” I said he’d been speaking about the man in a prison who claimed to be the best card-dealer in the State of Virginia. “No, no, no!” said Jean, “the best car-stealer in the state penitentiary”! And we both roared with laughter.

God bless you Jean, and Thank You.

Tabor House responds to Birmingham homelessness figures


Report from Father Hudson’s Care

After recent Government statistics showed a 60% rise in the number of people sleeping rough in Birmingham, Father Hudson’s Care (CSAN member charity) has spoken about the work at Digbeth homeless shelter, Tabor House.

Since opening in September 2017, Tabor House has supported ten people to move into their own accommodation. Yet more people have been supported to move back in with families or shared living arrangements. Volunteers at Tabor House provide hospitality to guests, offering them a warm and friendly welcome as they adjust to the shelter. Volunteer mentors assist guests in accessing the support they need to move forward – training, managing debt, building their employment skills – whatever they need to turn their lives around.

Christy Acton, Deputy Community Projects Manager at Father Hudson’s Care said, “The rise in homelessness is disappointing. We can see on the streets of Birmingham that the issue is getting worse. Tabor House is here 365 nights a year, and we’re trying to help people for the long-term. Some guests stay for three or four months, and during that time we work with them to give them every chance to move on. This may be into their own accommodation, or into work – we give them time and space to take steps forward.

“You can find yourself on the street very quickly. You can lose your job, a relationship might end – there are a whole range of complex issues. You end up with no choice but to sleep on the streets. But there’s a lot of good work going on in the city to try and help. Ideally we want to catch someone before they have that first night or those first few days because we find that once someone has had a few weeks or months on the streets, it’s a much harder situation to deal with.”

Tabor House is a collaborative project between Father Hudson’s Care, Midland Heart, Housing Justice, Irish in Birmingham, the Society of St Vincent de Paul (England and Wales), the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham, corporate philanthropists, and local homelessness specialists. Together they have formed iShelter—a new homelessness organisation that aims to help homeless people turn their lives around. Homeless people are referred to Tabor House by the Birmingham charities Midland Heart and Sifa Fireside. The project is managed by the iShelter Management Committee, made up of representatives from the key partner organisations, under the umbrella of Father Hudson’s Care.

European Catholics discuss future of work


By Kevin Flanagan, Director, St Antony’s Centre for Church and Industry, Manchester (CSAN member charity)

I was pleased to attend a meeting in 2018 of the Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (Comece), as a representative for England and Wales. There are several committees, of which the Social Affairs Commission is important in relation to the work of many of CSAN’s members. My main participation on the Commission was to represent the situation in England and Wales, in their discussions on the ‘Future of Work’. I participated in three Commission meetings and, together with Bishop William Kenney (Auxiliary in Birmingham), the launch conference for their report on The Future of Work which took place at the end of November 2018.

The primary purpose of the report was to put before the Commission and other partners a vision for decent, sustainable and a participatory world of work, that serves the common good and reflects the dignity and value of each person. This discussion is vital given the significant changes taking place globally: automation, more precarious work and the need to be alert to the impact that work is having on individuals, families, societies and global resources. There have been many reports that some sectors of the economy and communities will be increasingly impacted due to not having the ability to compete within the new forms of economy that are demanding high levels of skills. Within Europe, the percentage of those in work who are at risk of poverty is estimated to have increased by 2%, to 9.6%, over the 10 years to 2017. I was delighted to give evidence from my Trade Union work, the work of St Antony’s Centre for Church and Industry, and my knowledge of CSAN’s members.

The Commission also discussed the challenges facing young people. For example, youth unemployment had in some countries (for example Spain, Greece, Italy and Croatia) grown to around 30-40%, while the EU as a whole had record employment levels of 239m people in work. An expert from the Spanish Bishops’ Conference highlighted the need for vocational training and good school-to-work transition.

The opportunity to be part of these discussions dovetailed well with our engagement at St Antony’s Centre with EZA (the European Centre for Workers’ Questions) and GEPO (the European Workers’ Pastoral Group), both of which held conferences in Manchester last year.

Readers may be interested to know that Comece has published other relevant documents including, ‘Robotisation of Life: Ethics in View of New Challenges’ and a ‘Contribution to the consultation on “challenges of work-life balance faced by working parents and caregivers”’.

Dementia in Faith Communities


By Margaret Hinton, Marriage and Family Life Coordinator, Diocese of Wrexham

The Dementia In Faith Communities group was set up as part of Prime Minister David Cameron’s work towards the Big Society, to work as an ecumenical and interfaith advisory group. The main purpose of the group was to share good practice in supporting those living with dementia among the faith groups represented there, and to be a reference group to Livability (the country’s largest Christian disability charity) and to Alzheimers UK.  There were representatives on the group from Christian denominations – Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Quaker and free churches, and from Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Jewish communities. I have been a Catholic voice on this group since 2017, keeping CSAN abreast of progress.

The group were pleased to assist Livability and Alzheimers UK in the organisation of the first national conference on Faith, Culture and Dementia which took place in the Friends’ Meeting House in London on 11 April 2018.

The packed conference was opened by Jeremy Hughes, Chief Executive of Alzheimers UK, who summed up the essence of the day to come: ‘Faith is an anchor to who we are; so much of our personhood is held in our faith. This continues to be the case after a diagnosis of dementia.’  Other contributors included Shelagh Robinson, a Quaker who is living with dementia, who spoke about the experience of living with dementia as a person of faith in a Quaker community; Rabbi Menachim Junik, of Jewish Care, and Balvinder Kaur of Sikh Council UK. Their experiences painted very different pictures about how those living with dementia were supported (or in some cases not supported) by their own faith communities.  The remainder of the day was taken up with lively table discussions on Finding solutions to the challenges people with dementia face, enabling them to continue to interact with their faith and cultural communities; Becoming a dementia-friendly place of worship and supporting the wider community, and Dementia friendly services, sermons or prayers.

There was much to take away from the day and a much more good practice and prayers shared than I can write about in a short blog, so I urge you to read more about the conference here.

Caritas Leadership Week – Part 2


In September 2018, around 50 leaders of Catholic charities in England and Wales gathered in Rome for a few days, dedicated to leadership development. Two of the Directors have written a personal reflection on the experience. This is the second, from Steven Webb, Director of Development for the  Diocese of Brentwood.

Last week I was privileged to be in Rome with over 50 people from Caritas organisations all over England & Wales. We were engaged in discussions about topics such as how to promote this important work, how to train leaders for the future and how to ensure we meet the needs of those we serve. We met together in the company of our colleagues from Caritas Europa and we shared experience and learning. We visited the Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis and the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, where we discussed the importance of working together and facing issues that cross national boundaries. We also met with the UK Ambassador to the Holy See and had an opportunity to share matters of concern under Chatham House Rules.

All of this brought home to me just how important is the work that we have embarked upon together in our diocese. I simply wanted to share that with you and to express once again my thanks for all that you are doing. Not everyone likes the word “Caritas” and I understand that it is not an everyday word. However, the fact that it is not an everyday word should give it special meaning for us. We should take time to ponder and pray upon the meaning.

The fact that it is a word shared by our brothers and sisters across Europe and the whole International Catholic Community should give us a sense of solidarity with them and all those they serve. To see the amazing work of Caritas Europa and Caritas Internationalis was wonderful, to feel so at home with them as Caritas Social Action Network was fantastic and to realise that Caritas Diocese of Brentwood is taking its first steps on the same journey is genuinely exciting.

At the same time as we were in Rome, the Bishops of England and Wales were having their visit ad limina Apostolorum. During this visit to the various dicasteries and Vatican departments our Bishops discuss issues relevant to our dioceses and also meet with the Holy Father. They also pray together in the Basilicas and at the tombs of St Peter and St Paul. They were constantly in our prayers as we met just across the eternal city. It was a wonderful experience to celebrate Holy Mass and to pray together with our bishops at the tomb of St Paul.

At the end of their visit, the Bishops of England and Wales made a statement that is published in full on their website. Of particular relevance is the following extract from it:

“Our reports of the Eucharistic Congress ‘Adoremus’ have been well received, as has the strength of our compassionate outreach to those in need. Indeed, the leaders of Catholic charitable works from England and Wales were present in Rome at this same time, at the instigation of Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) and we were able to spend time and pray together. In encouraging this work of outreach, Pope Francis urged us always to walk with those engaged in its projects so as to draw them nearer to the Lord who is the source of compassion and mercy.”

The fact that our Bishops and the Holy Father place so much importance on the exercise of the ministry of charity should be most heartening to all of us involved in this work. The fact that Pope Francis links it so firmly with drawing people nearer to the Lord makes clear the role of evangelisation played by exercising the ministry of charity.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est and repeated in “On the Service of Charity”, the exercise of this ministry is one of three equally important and inseparable responsibilities that express the deepest nature of our Church. For this reason Caritas is included as one of our 12 Strands of Renewal as we work together to evangelise in the Diocese of Brentwood.

May we always walk with those engaged in our projects so as to draw them nearer to the Lord who is the source of compassion and mercy.

Caritas Leadership Week – Part 1


In September 2018, around 50 leaders of Catholic charities in England and Wales gathered in Rome for a few days, dedicated to leadership development. Two of the Directors have written a personal reflection on the experience. This is the first, from Eddie Gilmore, Chief Executive of the Irish Chaplaincy, based in London.

I get the chance through my work to meet a lot of great people, in some interesting places (from prisons to palaces), and the Caritas Leadership Week near Rome did not disappoint. We were a group of fifty, representing a range of Catholic charities and dioceses in England and Wales, staying at Villa Palazzola, a 13th century Cistercian monastery perched above a volcanic lake, Lago di Albano, and according to the website ‘Rome’s best kept secret’.

From the garden terrace at the Villa (where pre-dinner drinks were served in the evening!) the view is vast and truly breathtaking. On the opposite side of the lake can be seen the twin towers of Castel Gandolfo, the summer papal residence; beyond that in the distance the urban sprawl of Rome; and further still on a clear day the bright blue of the Mediterranean. I loved to stand on that terrace at various times of the day and to behold the subtly changing vista and colours. The sunsets over the lake were especially stunning.

According to the program the purpose of the four days was: ‘the formation of leaders within the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) through personal development, developing relationships as a community of leaders, and experiencing ourselves as part of the global Caritas family and universal Church’. I would say in retrospect that the meeting achieved all of those aims. A key element for me of such events will always be meeting people and building relationships, and I was really touched and inspired by those I met. I could see how everybody in the group was enjoying meeting one another on a very human level, and getting a sense of being part of something greater than ourselves and our own organisation. The nice location helps with that; also being well cared for, with good food and wine (occasionally I resisted, but mostly I didn’t!). And there’s also a swimming pool, which I had been particularly looking forward to using. I managed four swims during the meeting, also three runs through the woods that circle the lake (there are some very sporty types in the CSAN family!)

Another central element of the week was prayer and liturgy. Amongst the group were four of the loveliest and most down to earth priests (also a deacon) and they led us in a daily celebration of Mass, and in the Morning (7.15 am!) and Evening Prayer of the Church. One morning the Mass was in the crypt of St Peter’s, in front of the tomb of St Peter; and the following day it was with the Bishops of England and Wales in the magnificent basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls, and which included a final prayer at the tomb of St Paul.

And there was music! I found a guitar in the house and one evening after the bar had opened I got together with Sean who had a collection of tin whistles and recorders, having worked as a professional musician before joining Caritas. What a session that was! We spent about two hours singing mainly Irish songs, some of which I hadn’t sung in over twenty years but somehow could still remember the words to. Being a mainly Catholic group, a lot of people had Irish roots and there was no shortage of either requests for yet another Irish song or people joining in. Then on the final night Sean compered a musical evening during which several people did turns. One of my favourite pieces was a music hall song called ‘Light fingered Freddy’ which is from a Salvation Army musical (I never knew such a thing existed). Yes, one of the CSAN directors is a Salvationist, and what a great guy he is. He runs as well!

We were not just eating, drinking, singing, swimming and praying: there was excellent input, besides two trips into Rome to meet different groups (and to have lunch with the British Ambassador to the Holy See). The main speaker was Kerry Robinson, who founded ‘Leadership Roundtable’ based in Washington DC. She was particularly eloquent on the urgent need for the Catholic Church to harness the gifts of women in leadership at all levels. I was excited when Kerry mentioned Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest who had been a member of L’Arche in Toronto and of how he had encouraged us to be people of joy and gratitude. This was in the context of fundraising which was one of the themes of the week and I later shared with the group something Henri has once said in a talk about fundraising: “When we ask people for money we shouldn’t be embarrassed or apologetic; we should say ‘it is my pleasure to invite you to share in our mission’”!

Another inspiring speaker was Sally Read, an English poet living near Rome, who told one evening the very moving story of her journey from atheism to faith. And I was touched as well by our meeting with members of Sant’Egidio, a community in Rome that reaches out to those in need, including many homeless.

To all the wonderful people I met at Villa Palazzola: keep up the great work and hope to see you again.