This was my first visit to Westminster Cathedral, which is situated a short distance from Victoria Station. Constructed between 1895 and 1903, the cathedral has a neo-Byzantine style with large domes, balconies and a tall tower, all made from red brick and Portland stone. I loved the mosaic work both on the exterior and in the interior of the building.
The sung Latin mass was celebrated by Fr Edward Hiiboro Kussala from Sudan. Not so long ago, Pope Benedict XVI also celebrated sung Latin mass in the same cathedral during his papal visit to Britain. To be there, in such an august setting, and celebrate the Eucharist with fellow Catholics was a wonderful experience.
Hope without Fear
ACN’s Hope Without Fear Event was held in the Cathedral Hall after mass. The event was attended by at least three hundred people. Speakers included: Neville Kyrke-Smith, UK Director of ACN; Fr Martin Edwards, ACN UK’s Ecclesiastical Assistant; Fr Martin Edward Hiiboro Kussala; Fr Michael Shields from Magadan, Siberia; and John Pontifex, ACN’s UK Head of Press and Information. There was a reflection by Fr Martin Edwards on Pope Benedict XVI’s highly successful recent visit to Britain and the close relationship between ACN and the Holy Father. This was followed by reports on various ACN priority countries.
Fr Edward Hiiboro Kussala talked about his native Sudan, which has been blighted by bloody internal conflict for many years. Fr Edward lost his own mother during a military raid when he was just two months old. Somehow his life was spared, and he was brought up by his grandmother who was a strong Christian woman.
Northern Sudan is predominantly Muslim while the southern part of the country has a sizeable Christian population. Over one and half million, predominantly Christian, people have been killed over the last two decades by government backed militia in Southern Sudan. Although some peace has prevailed since the signing of a peace agreement in 2005, tension is increasing again because people in Southern Sudan are due to vote in a referendum on self-determination soon. The president of Sudan has made it clear that he will not accept independence for Southern Sudan; and to complicate matters further, Southern Sudan has substantial oil deposits, which countries like China wish to exploit. Fr Edward expressed his gratefulness for the work of ACN in Sudan and for supporting his studies.
Alaskan-born Fr Michael Shields spoke about Magadan, Siberia, where some two million people, including many Catholics, perished in former communist gulags (labour camps). He told how his parish is involved with helping survivors of those gulags, who had previously been social outcastes. Things have certainly improved in the Russian Far-East since the end of the old Soviet regime, but there are some persistent social problems including alcoholism, unemployment and abortion. Russia has the highest abortion rate in the world with 13 terminations for every 10 live births. Fr Shields, with the help of ACN, is involved in pioneering pro-life work in Magadan.
John Pontifex began his talk about Pakistan by quoting the nation’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who wanted Pakistan to be a homeland for Muslims but not an Islamic state. The reality is that Pakistan has not turned out to be the tolerant, secular state Jinnah expected. Over time, minority ethnic and religious groups have faced more and more discrimination and persecution. According to Catholic bishops in Pakistan, the country today is experiencing a ‘Talibanisation’ of society due to the influence of extremists.
Pakistan has notorious blasphemy laws that are meant to protect Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, but they have frequently been used as a pretext to attack minorities. Innocent Christians can sometimes find themselves the victims of malicious accusations made by angry Muslim mobs. Although the current government is beginning to think again about the blasphemy laws, change is likely to be a slow process.
Despite the many adversities Christians face in Pakistan, many of them are willing to suffer and even lay down their lives for the sake of their faith. ACN continues to provide disaster relief in the wake of the devastating floods, as well as helping to repair damaged churches and building a new seminary outside Karachi.
Finally, Neville Kyrke-Smith gave a report on Ukraine. In this former Soviet state the Orthodox and Catholic churches faced widespread oppression under the communists, but today they are undergoing a major revival. The number of seminarians has picked up markedly since the Soviet Union imploded and church attendance is high among the population. Although the shadow of Russia is still there, the revival of the church’s fortunes in Ukraine gives hope for Christians in other countries where they face oppression. In Ukraine, ACN is supporting the training of priests in seminaries, catechetical education and construction of churches.
I enjoyed this event which was well organised. All the talks were highly interesting and informative. It was clear the church faced some serious challenges in various countries like Sudan and Pakistan, but the revival of Christianity in states of the former Soviet Union showed that the church had incredible staying power despite severe persecution. That was the inspiring lesson for me.
ACN does some sterling work in many different countries throughout the world, helping to support persecuted Christians and fulfil the church’s missionary commission. All the speakers were grateful to ACN’s benefactors who made the organisation’s work possible, and rightly so. It was an event that made me feel proud to be a Catholic.