Thursday, 16 December 2010

Age and decay ...

The winter brings thoughts of mortality. Someone was asking me the the other day about a 20 year plan for the school, and the thought of what the world and I might be like in 20 years' time kept me awake much of the following night.

Now in my 40th year, I thought I would dig out a photo of me at 20, for everyone's amusement. I think I was better-looking then, but rather too dreamy ...

Deep in school reports today, but looking forward to a trip to Nantes on Saturday: Christmas shopping, Advent confession, a change of scenery.

Seasonal song
This year's Carol Service was quite a success. We have about ten trebles at the moment, so the choir is improving. Our CD from 2004, Les Choristes de Chavagnes, has been re-issued, and is available from me for 15 euros including post and packing. (Send orders to

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

New photo book from Chavagnes

Father Talbot and I have produced a photographic record of life at Chavagnes, available now from Amazon. (see link, left).

The book contains portraits of the College's office-holders (including our house captains), plus images from the sciences, arts, sports (boxing, fencing, rugby, rowing, rising ...), music, worship ... every aspect of school life is represented. And Father Talbot's photos are also beautiful works of art in their own right.

An ideal gift, this book should also help to promote the College to a wider audience.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

How boys become men: advice for quiet dads and over-protective mothers ...

I have just read a fascinating book by a New Zealander lady who worked for fifteen years as a prison officer in prisons for young men. (He'll Be OK: Growing Gorgeous Boys into Good Men, by Celia Lashlie.) She was commissioned by a group of private boys' boarding schools in New Zealand to carry out a large research project, 'The Good Man Project', interviewing pupils, parents and teachers in about 25 large schools across the country.

Her aim was find out what is going wrong, and right, with the raising of boys.

This book presents the conclusions of 18 month of intensive 'action research'. In action research, the focus is on collecting testimonies and opinions from large numbers of people, and then coming to general conclusions. The result is chatty and easy to read. There are no tables or graphs.

There are some interesting conclusions, especially about the role of men in guiding adolescent boys through the most difficult time in growing up (around age 14, the author says) and the way in which men are not in general fufilling their role, often because mothers won't let them ...

My experience as a Headmaster certainly tallies with what Celia Lashlie found: contact between school and home is usually managed by the mother and the mother is - in most cases -  the main decider in all matters relating to her son. It is also my experience that most mothers are not prepared to step back as boys approach the key period of 13-15, and and that most fathers are not making enough time to be with their sons, go fishing, play football, and the rest. (Lashlie hints that while women talk with their sons, men spend time with them, and that this is the male way: non-verbal communication sometimes works best. Women, suggests Lashlie, have trouble understanding this.)

There are some useful reminders about what is and what is not normal for a teenage boy. For example, we need not worry when they suddenly go quiet and uncommunicative. Lashlie explains why, as well as offering suggestions about how to support them through their trials, whilst still giving them clear guidelines and rules.

She suggests that once they have reached 16 or 17, if we have got it right, then one can ease off with the rules and sanctions (this is my experience also as a Headmaster.) But around 13-15 she says you need 'an electric fence' to keep them under control! (I agree there too.) One amusing passage about punishment suggests that one should isolate the one thing they love the most, and then take it away from them. I suppose she is talking about MP3 players, IPhones and the like ...

Celia Lashlie sent her own son to Catholic boarding school for a while. But this is not a book that takes an especially Christian view. It does take a fair and humane view, however, and tries not to fall into the trap of political correctness. Catholic families (especially mothers) could benefit from reading it, especially if they are worried about their sons.

Interesting and challenging reading, especially for father and mothers of teenage boys.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Well done, Monsieur le President

I saw President Sarkozy on the television the other day, being savaged by three interviewers at once. I had never seen anything like it. Three against one didn't seem fair. But Sarkozy equalled his performance in the interview just before he was elected, in which he showed up Segolene Royale for the sanctimonious old volcano of hatred that she is.

Sarkozy is a bit of a chancer, but he is a survivor also. And his public speaking gifts, born of his time as a lawyer no doubt, are impressive.

One issue he tackled was the high taxation and social security in France that made the country uncompetitive in the European market. He cited Spain as an example of a country in which even a socialist government was realising it had to keep tax and social security low in order to let the economy compete. All of this was of course completely rejected by Royale and Co. afterwards.

Sarkozy actually promised not to increase taxes, but instead to replace only one in two civil servants leaving for retirement from now on. Hurray! Perhaps that means the end of the stranglehold of the French communist bureaucracy (which survives, and runs most aspects of the country, whoever is in power.)

Today in my email inbox I received the following junk email, sent out to thousands of French business managers. Judge for yourself if Sarkozy is right to fear an exodus of French business to countries with a smaller state and lower taxes/social security.

"... Vous souhaitez vous installer à l’étranger ? Développer vos affaires vers l'Europe ? Rejoignez les chefs d'entreprises qui se sont implantés soit :

En Espagne, où les charge sociales n'excèdent pas 260 euros quelque soit le montant du salaire pour un dirigeant,

Ou en Tunisie où les sociétés totalement exportatrices de biens ou de services sont exonérées de toute imposition.

Pour toutes informations merci de contacter ..."

I think that hundreds, if not thousands, of French companies are already looking at the arguments for relocation, so Sarkozy had better 'carry on regardless' and get on with his reforms in the 18 months he has left. Even if the socialists get into power again they will not bother to reverse his changes. Bonne chance, Mr le President.

Incidentally, Sarkozy, a Hungarian imigrant's son, also had something to say about the need to limit immigration if cultural and social integration is not working fast enough. Those who noted the President's remarks that he doesn't want 'an Islam in France' but rather a 'French Islam' (ie. integrated and accepting values and traditions of the country), might like to know that Mr Sarkozy's full name is Nicholas Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa. His Hungarian ancestor was enobled by Ferdinand II Habsburg for his courageous service against the Turkish agressor in 1628.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Poland's whodunnit: paranoia or are they on to something?

A number of years ago I visited Poland and stayed in a special hotel attached to the parliament, as a guest of one of the deputies. It was an interesting experience: there was a gas mask under the bed - only one, even though we were two friends sharing a room, so thankfully I never had to face that dilemma, and in any case the instructions were in Polish and Russian neither of which are my strongest languages ... The only MPs around at the time (it was a recess for the parliament) were draped in gold bling, and looked decidedly unparliamentary. The old coldness and reserve of communist times was still tangible, especially among the staff ... and when I took my Polish friends out for a couple of bottles of Russian champagne (for the price of a London cup of tea) it felt like a revolution for them.

The country was in the throes of an identity crisis. Catholic or progressive; nationalistic or mulitcultural ... it was a long list of dilemmas. And on the country's western borders the Germans were busy buying back all the land conceded after World War Two. The whole of this new 'lebensraum' land was filled with garden centres, advertised mainly in German, selling garden gnomes which, apparently, Germans smash up each New Year in order to make way for new ones.

There was not much talk then of threat from Russia. Russia was humiliated then by all the prestige she had lost after the fall of communism. Even as we looked down from Lenin's gift to the people of Warsaw, the towering, Cathedral-like, Palace of Culture, we did not guess that ten years later, the eyes of worried Poles would be glancing furtively towards the east again.

A friend of mine, a young law professor, not known for his devotion to conspiracy theories or rashness, sent me these links to an English-dubbed version of a recent Dutch documentary, which explores the theory that Poland's loss of 95 of its leaders in a tragic plane crash may have been something more than an accident. Perhaps you had better watch these before the successors of the old KGB get youtube to take them down. Or am I being over-dramatic?

Links: (part 1) (part 2) (part 3) (part 4)

Friday, 5 November 2010

Was Shakespeare Irish?

On this blog I have discussed before the vexed question of whether Shakespeare was a Catholic. Listening to the following rendition in 'Original Pronunciation', the Bard certainly sounds very Irish, which is almost as good ... enjoy:

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Mel Gibson needs our prayers

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Of course we all admit to being sinners, and draw comfort from Our Lady's prayers.

But does your average Catholic sinner spare a prayer for those people whom in gossipy conversation we simply write off as hopelessly beyond the Pale? Perhaps we need to develop the reflex of praying earnestly for every soul we publicly denegrate, as well as remembering to repent of our general lack of charity, good manners and discernment.

One man who has been battered by life recently is Mel Gibson, and it's no consolation for him to hear that it's all his own fault. About a year ago, when his wife of many years (and mother of his children) filed for divorce, he begged the Bishops of the Eastern Catholic Church in the US to pray for him, flying in for their conference especially to enlist their intercessory help. Since that time, a great many difficult and embarassing things have happened to Mel, and I own up to being uncharitable about him in my conversations with friends. Sorry, Mel.

A few years ago I met the man, when he was making 'The Passion of the Christ' and found him to be a humble and deeply religious person. There was, I would say, something of the wounded animal about him, something of the boy still trying to grow up, trying to prove something. I suppose most men are like this (I know I am, for a start), but Mel wore it on his sleeve, I think. He was also rather tired the day we met (see the photo!), so that might account for some of it.

He came across as loveable, passionate, unpredictable, creative .... like so many great artists. I asked some of the people working with him what they thought about his religious convictions. They agreed that these were something of a mystery, but that they were deep, and that 'Mel has a big Catholic heart'.

Mel now needs our prayers more than ever. So I invite my friends to remember him especially in the time approaching Christmas, a time when families feel the pain of separation even more keenly.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Philippe de Villiers and the Vendee

The Vendee was yesterday shaken by the news that Philippe de Villiers, who has been President of the Department's Conseil Général for 22 years, has resigned.

It all follows a vote of no confidence last week, precipitated by the disillusionment of Senator Bruno Retailleau, a spiritual son of de Villiers, and Vice-President of the Vendee, who has resigned from the party (de Viliers' Mouvement pour la France). Shades of Julius Caesar and Brutus ... I know how de Villiers feels, because I have been stabbed in the back a few times in my life. Unlike Caesar, I have somehow managed to get up and keep going. And I suspect that de Villiers will do the same.

Perhaps at 61, he feels that if he is going to make his mark in another kind of public life, he needs to make a start now. He has also just got over a rare form of eye cancer; and there are other problems the family.

The national papers are speculating that perhaps he will join the government. My gut feeling is that he will move into a more spiritual/cultural role as the Father of the Vendee, immune from the nastiness of political life.

He is one of the few great men alive today in France, and he has been good to us at Chavagnes. Here is what he has said about us in print too.

We will be praying for him and for the Vendee he loves so much.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

My first laptop

Yesterday, as a belated birthday present, I bought myself my first ever portable computer. I am even looking forward to my next journey on a French train now: all the commuting gentlemen are well-ensconced with them, thought I suspect that most of them are just watching films. The man in the shop tried to sell me a more expensive one because the "entry-level" model I settled for "would only store 300 films" ....

It was only when I returned home from the shop that I realised it had a French keyboard. I am getting used to its vagaries now and will have to start thinking about all those accents I had become accustomed to leave out.

I have been listening to BBC Radio 3, with wonderful sound quality. It's almost as if I had never left Blighty.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

On ‘Empathetic Capacity’ in the perspective of Eternity

I recently read about some 17th century Dominican dialogues with Zen Buddhist monks and the many interesting and moving consequences that such cultural openness brought to the men of that age. I am also currently engaged in some research into the work of Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary in China. These men were Christian humanists, engaged in bold cultural outreach in faithfulness to the Gospel injunction to preach to all nations.

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts (of which I am a Fellow) recently gave an illustrated talk, now available online, which calls for a ‘21st century enlightement’, or a new humanism for the new century. This is going to be the RSA’s new ‘strap’ or byword. You can watch his fascinating, entertaining (and short) lecture, complete with cartoons at:

Taylor speaks of progress in the development of ‘empathetic capacity’ and notes what he sees as the decrease in person to person violence down through the centuries. It seems to me that such an observation is inevitably anecdotal and subjective, rather than empirical. Try telling that to the child-slaves, or urban beggars in India and China, or the child prostitutes in Thailand; people whose ancestors perhaps serenely tilled the fields; or indeed to the millions of aborted babies who bloody our hands without – it would seem – making much of a dent in our consciences. ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ is always with us. The 21st century – is seems to me – is no time to get complacent. And yet, one knows what Taylor means.

And Taylor is right that popular culture is encouraging us to think about other people. He is, here, in the same optimistic line as men such as Pius XII and Paul VI who saw in the new means of social communication the way to achieve not just a shrinking planet, but a more mutually aware and loving one, as long as we can avoid the very modern curse of ‘compassion fatigue’.

He is right to draw attention to the truth that education has no value if it does not, above all other things, foster ‘empathetic capacity’, or - in simpler terms – love. “For I can have all things, but if I have not charity …” as St Paul observed.

Taylor, remembering the inhumanity of various episodes of 20th century history, and the intolerance of some moderns to those different from themselves, invites us - in true humanist spirit, to “have a relationship with your (emotional) reactions, but not to be a slave to them”. And yet he counsels a suspicion towards too much abstraction, for that has tended to ignore human suffering and practical human needs: such abstraction was what permitted the extremes of Nazism and Communism, where the ends (perhaps never fully understood, let alone ever realised) justified the diabolical means. So a relationship with our visceral, emotional reactions is as important to our humanity as is the relationship with our critical faculties. It all seems very incarnational, doesn’t it?

There is a even a distributist note, I feel, in his avowal that technical progress does not necessarily bring happiness, and his despair at the idea that that just because something can be discovered, developed or sold, then it must be. Here there is room for the still, small voice of a reflective conscience, for the voice of the wisdom of the ages.

It has been said ‘In my end is in my beginning’ and this is what Taylor suggests too. How great that we are keen to get man from A to Z with maximum efficiency. But where is Z and what is Z? We need to reflect on our ultimate destination in order to live well and justly now. The sacredness of every human life, the value of every human life (with all the necessary conclusions one ought to draw about abortion – even if Taylor perhaps cannot see or admit that) is a kind of light that might well illuminate the metaphysical darkness.

Taylor rightly deplores the desire to “cram education into the first quarter of our lives” (although it might be worse to respond by placing less emphasis on education in that first quarter, and less still thereafter, which is the modern tendency.) Childhood should be the solid start of lifelong learning. Education, not just in terms of technical skills, but also in terms of the formation of right feelings and taste, can be the key to a life fully lived. Now, who said that first? “Veni ut vitam habeant …” - I came that they might have life and life in all its fullness. Yes, that’s right. It was Jesus Christ who first noticed that we were all half-asleep, or half-dead.

Taylor says that we must stop chasing myths of justice and progress (might this be a veiled reference to political correctness?). Instead we must become more practical and more spiritual.

Margaret Mead, quoted by Taylor, said a lot of odd things. But one observation, that “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world” is undoubtedly true. All we need, according to our Lord, is two or three gathered together. The Royal Society of Arts, founded as Britain’s more ‘hands-on’ response to the Académie Française, has, despite its establishment image, a rebel side. Marx was one of our Fellows, and Nelson Mandela too. The RSA today is a mixture of university professors, literary figures, industry chiefs and the rising stars of the new left. The latter group tends to dominate.

Faithful readers will know that I am very pleased to be described as a conservative, and that have no illusions about Marx, and yet it seems to me that men such as Matthew Taylor do care about people’s lives. Their empathetic capacity, despite its awful name, is a challenge to men like me. Perhaps it is now time for the Christian humanists to join debates like these and to bring to them the light of the Gospel, just like – for example - the great Jesuits and Dominicans of the post-Reformation era. 21st Century Christian humanism’s time has come. Because man is indeed the measure of all things. But it was God who made him so. And, in the man Jesus Christ, He has given us some powerful answers about the Z of A-Z: answers about our final destination. Modern man needs these answers more than ever now, as the world grows ever smaller and history moves ever faster, towards its ultimate consummation.

If you are wondering who popularised that thought about beginnings and endings, even before TS Eliot in his Quartets, it was Mary, Queen of Scots, who embroidered it in French, while in prison awaiting her execution for the Faith: “En ma Fin gît mon Commencement.” And she would know.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Father's photos

Father Anthony Talbot, our chaplain at Chavagnes, has launched a website featuring his photography. Please do pay him a visit at

Friday, 13 August 2010

Today in the Old Roman Martyrology ...

From the third lesson at Matins:

"On the same day, at Imola, the martyr Cassian was put to a most cruel death. He was a schoolmaster, and was given up to his scholars, with his hands bound behind his back, to be stabbed and torn to death with steel pens. Owing to the weakness of the means, the suffering of his martyrdom was very grievous and long, and his palm all the more glorious."

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Scouts de Chavagnes

My colleague, Mr Crawford, has been putting some of his scouting reflections online on the new Scouts de Chavagnes website. Stirring stuff ...

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Praying for Patrick

Any of you who have been praying for our former pupil, Patrick de la M., will be pleased to hear that after news that his chimotherapy had not worked, there is now some more encouraging news.

Things are looking up for Patrick, as some more digging has removed all the cancerous material; tests of the leg and lungs are showing all clear. He has 3 days of chimo then 2 weeks holiday with his family and then a month of super-chimo in a sterile room to try and make sure everything is ''nuked'. So keep praying.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Lithuanian monks

It seems that there are French (and Lithuanian) monks just a few miles away from where I am going in Lithuania. The Priory of Palendrai is presiding over a new liturgical movement in the country, with promotion of liturgical catchesis and Gregorian chant workshops ...

It is a daughter house of Solesmes. So it looks like I am going to have to include this splendid site (beautiful stone buildings, only built a few years ago) in my itinerary.

Lithuania, here we come ...

I have recently booked myself a ticket to Lithuania in early August, to give me a little break from Chavagnes. I have always been a fan of Scandinavia and the Baltic, and Lithuania is the one country (other than Iceland) that has so far escaped me ...

From a Catholic point of view, I am interested in discovering a Nordic/Baltic culture that is still in touch with its medieval roots. However, it seems that there are some unpleasant surprises in store. I had been aware of the Lithuanians' terrible suffering under communism, and in particular of the suffering of the Lithuanian Church. And yet I had no idea of how the functioned under Nazism. My first little researches seem to suggest to me that the attitude that Lithuanians demonstrated to the Germans in 1941 was essentially enthusiastic. They felt that the Nazis were coming to liberate them from Russian communist domination: they were liberators who would restore the relatively new idea of a Lithuanian state (like all the Baltic states, the notion of a nation state to accompany the ethnic group and its language was an early twentieth century one.)

What is more troubling is that many Lithuanians would seem, from 1941 to 1942, to have considered it worth carrying out their own enthusiastic purges of Jews, just to impress the Germans. But it all back-fired, and although apparently the Nazis were impressed at Lithuanian anti-semitic zeal (the documentary evidence makes rather sickening reading), this was not enough for them to give independence to them. It seems that at this point the Lithuanian nationalist intellegetsia, and the peasantry, began to realise that Nazism posed a much greater threat to Christian tradition and Lithuanian honour than had Bolshevism or 'international Jewry'.

From late 1942, then, the Lithuanians started to help the few remaining beleaguered Jews, while compromised religious and nationalist leaders worked on their alibis, seeing how the Nazi approach was going ultimately to be radically discredited. The Israeli authorities have, it is important to note, recognised 723 'just gentiles' who risked their lives to help Jews during this period.

In 1940 it is estimated that there were about 280,000 Jews in Lithuania. From June to December 1941 they were almost completely wiped out. The Jewish population today is around 4,000.

The wikipedia article on the subject ( reveals that there have been, from 1995 onwards, some public apologies from Lithuanian politicans, but that the issue remains something of a hot potato.

In this context, it is surprising to see that Lithuanian nationalism has survived undinted. The knocks it took from Communism (and there were severe and bloody) seem sufficient to have ensured there would not be the kind of embarassment one found in post-War Germany about national identity.

I am to visit Kaunas, whose Technological university boasts a few interesting student fraternities that aspire to keep intact the 1930s nationalist ideals (having learnt a few lessons from the War, one hopes):

One of these, "Plienas" (Steel) was first founded in 1931 and, "despite the disruptions of history, still continues to preserve the interwar University "Plienas" corporation traditions of manhood."

The aim of the corporation is to develop a noble sense of public spirit. The activities of "Plienas" members are based on the principles of moral, concord and tolerance. "Plienas" slogan is – "Lithuanianism, brotherhood, endurance and work!" ...

"In order to become strong as steel, the members of Plienas do a lot of exercising, says the blurb, including (a schoolboy favourite, this one) "arm bending", which one presumes means arm wrestling.

Another fraternity, this one open also to ladies, promotes 'faith and perfection' and also fosters the same kind of nineteenth century student flummery, including special peaked caps, sashes, shoulder stripes and flags.

It is a long way away from the total lack of any kind of idealism which is now the default culture of British universities. The only real display of any kind of youthful idealism one witnessed regularly when I was at Edinburgh in the early nineties was three or four angst-ridden young men in red jeans who used to sell Living Marxism on the library steps and who sometimes heckled student union meetings to make their obscure and unpopular points.

So Lithuania, viewed from Chavagnes, seems like a different world entirely, and no doubt a very interesting place to visit, before it becomes just the same as everywhere else.

I have emailed the Archbishop and also a lady in the university who is in charge of the second of the two fraternities I mentioned; I hope that they might give me some local contacts so that I can get beyond the tourism and encounter the real Lithuania.

Watch out for a couple of posts from Kaunas soon. Apparently there is Wifi everywhere ...

Monday, 12 April 2010

Pray for the Pope - special Novena

It's not too late to join in this special novena for Benedict.

Pray with me and millions of others for the Pope to be given strength, courage and discernment at this difficult time.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Hallowing the Flesh

Strict Protestants, Manicheans and over-Augustinian Catholics take the view that the flesh is just bad news. And they have a number of Scripture quotes to throw at us: ‘All flesh is grass’, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” … OK, more than a few in fact. There are hundreds.

But St Thomas favoured Aristotle over Plato, and so did, on the whole, the mainstream of the western Catholic tradition. The same St Paul who opposes flesh and spirit (Gal 5:13-18, echoing Mark 14:38 ) also resists a dichotomy of body and soul whose separation at death is a mere temporary aberration, awaiting the correction of the general resurrection of the dead. Indeed, the human body, for the same St Paul, can be an instrument for God’s glory here and now (1 Corinthians 6:20).

The flesh is good news, because the human body is a precious reliquary for the human soul and an icon of it. In fact, they are just aspects of the same reality.

Human bodies are, or can be, very beautiful. That’s no surprise if they somehow bear testimony to God’s desire to mould us in his own image. The human body then, all things being equal, ought to be a source of divine inspiration to us. Ay, there’s the rub …

Original sin gave a new (presumably temporary) dimension to human physical beauty. It made it a kind of snare. Like many other beautiful things it can lead us to evil as well as to good. When Adam and Eve, a man and a woman, discovered original sin, they also discovered that a man and a woman standing naked together in a beautiful garden had a new and troubling connotation. They were ashamed of their nakedness not just before God, but before each other, as man and woman. Ever since, while segregated nakedness has in some contexts survived without any sexual connotation, nakedness of the two sexes together quickly retreated from the public sphere and became either something holy or scandalous.

One theologian (Father Paul Quay, SJ, in The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality, Ignatius Press) has suggested that the problem of masculine and feminine nakedness is that men’s nakedness seems to imply strength and readiness for violent attack while female bodies suggest vulnerability to that attack. Man towers while woman cowers. One can see how in most cultures, precisely because of this vulnerability of the female body, it is women who have historically been expected to make all the effort of modesty. It is sometimes presented as a question of men being protected from women’s charms, but it has historically been just as much about women protecting themselves from men.

This primeval wound, as well as the primeval attraction, between man and woman, has done more than merely give a different significance to their bodies when they are together. It has had an impact on the way in which the body is viewed in all contexts, and this tendency, many thousands of years after the Fall, seems to be accelerating today. The body is becoming increasingly instrumentalised. My body, and your body, are now objects for consumption, rather than the beautiful expression of individual beings, body and soul, created in the likeness of God.

What an exhilarating experience it was then for me to attend two exhibitions in the National Gallery, London, this Christmas, both exploring ways in which the human body can communicate profound meaning. I have been meaning to set down my thoughts about them for some time, and it has been the thoughts and emotions of the recent Holy Week that have brought these images back to me.

The first of these two exhibitions was Ed and Nancy Kienholz’s The Hoerengracht, a walk through Amsterdam’s red light district. In the characteristic low light, one walks around streets of minature houses, with various plastercasts of real prostitutes, painted in glossy polychrome, waiting for their customers in their depressing little bedrooms, each equipped with wash basin, make-up and a few empty cigarette packets. None of them is with a customer. They are all in a permanent pose of silent waiting (though there is a discreet soundtrack playing, with street noises) which provides a sort of eery atmosphere of religious contemplation.

Each woman wears a kind of window over her face – fixed into the base of a biscuit tin, so that each of those heavily made-up faces is like a television set, providing a barrier between the prostitute and her client. In this particularly disturbing context of sexual power and vulnerability, one is not sure who that psychological protection is for: for the woman, or for the man? Perhaps, when sex is reduced to this, both parties experience the need interiorly to retreat from the act and totally instrumentalise their bodies.

Feeling somewhat sullied, I moved into the next exhibition at the National Gallery, the one I had in fact made to effort to come and see. Whereas the Kienholzs’ exhibit was free, The Sacred made Real cost me about the same price as my lunch that day. But it was worth every penny. Situated in the basement of the Salisbury Wing, the low lighting of this exhbition was deliberately calculated to recreate the atmosphere of candles in an ancient church. The gallery had brought together in one collection an amazing collection of Spanish polychrome religious sculpture of the 16th and 17th centuries, coupled with paintings from the same era. Each art form, we learned, informed the other …

It seems that the regulations of the different guilds of artisans meant that the men who carved the statues were not allowed to paint them, although some daring artists broke the rules. In an obsessive search for autheniticity real hair, real bones and real teeth sometimes adorned these statues, incredibly lifelike, their glass eyes filled with simulated emotion.

In the artificial crypt of the National Gallery I gazed on the polychrome statues of Spain, ridiculed by many art critics over the centuries, and hopelessly out of fashion in the rest of seventeenth century Europe. And as I did so, drinking in the anatomical detail of the coagulated blood cloying around St John the Baptist’s severed head, the glistening, salty tears dripping from a delicate madonna, the blue and purple veins and arteries bearing witness to the last traces of oxygen in the macerated body of a newly dead Christ, I felt my own flesh purged of its grosser connations, like a penitent coming out of confession.

My favourite statue of them all was one of St Mary Magdalene. All the flesh on show was her face, shoulders, arms and feet. But what a face! And then the wonder at discovering that her sackcloth dress was painstakingly carved out of wood, to the last, delicate thread: the same care and love had been lavished on the drab and penitential shroud that covered her body as might have been given to the body itself, had modesty permitted its display. And so the body was honoured, even when totally hidden. So, not only was there a beautiful theology of nakedness, but even a theology of clothèdness.

The other thing I have known, closest to the experience of passing through the Kienholz Hoerengracht to the work of Zubarán and his contemporaries, was a time, last year, when my friend Professor Anthony O’Hear helped me and a few friends through Dante’s Divine Comedy, taking us out of Hell, out of Purgatory and then into the dazzling light of Paradise, up into the pure Empyrean, the fire wherein the Most High dwells in unapproachable light. In fact, the statues stopped just short of that, but that is where they were leading us: onwards and upwards.

Although I am remembering it all in Eastertide, it was a fine mediation for Christmas too, which is when I saw it, and when, two thousand years ago, Almighty God made a new creation that recapitulated all the original beauty of our father Adam: “And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we beheld His glory.”

“Lord, by the mysteries of your incarnation, passion, resurrection and ascension, bless my body and soul and make me a worthy temple for your Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Thursday, 1 April 2010

More on the New York Times smear campaign against the Pope

The Pope, the judge, the paedophile priest and The New York Times
From Damian Thompson's blog ...

Fr Thomas Brundage, the former Archdiocese of Milwaukee Judicial Vicar who presided over the canonical criminal case of the Wisconsin child abuser Fr Lawrence Murphy, has broken his silence to give a devastating account of the scandal – and of the behaviour of The New York Times, which resurrected the story.

It looks as if the media were in such a hurry to to blame the Pope for this wretched business that not one news organisation contacted Fr Brundage. As a result, crucial details were unreported.

Moreover, Fr Brundage – who seems to have shown admirable tenacity in pursuing the loathsome Fr Murphy – claims that a document of questionable provenance was quoted authoritatively by the media as a source for his own opinions. At the very least, The New York Times and many other organisations have some explaining to do. They must be held to account for the way they pursued this story, which led to hysterical attacks on Benedict XVI.

I am reproducing Fr Brundage’s article in full, with thanks to the Archdiocese of Anchorage, where Fr Brundage now works. I implore you to read all of it. My emphases are in bold type. (Hat-tip: Simon Caldwell.)

Setting the record straight in the case of abusive Milwaukee priest Father Lawrence Murphy

Then-presiding judge for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee gives first-person account of church trial



To provide context to this article, I was the Judicial Vicar for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee from 1995-2003. During those years, I presided over four canonical criminal cases, one of which involved Father Lawrence Murphy. Two of the four men died during the process. God alone will judge these men.

To put some parameters on the following remarks, I am writing this article with the express knowledge and consent of Archbishop Roger Schwietz, OMI, the Archbishop of Anchorage, where I currently serve. Archbishop Schwietz is also the publisher of the Catholic Anchor newspaper.

I will limit my comments, because of judicial oaths I have taken as a canon lawyer and as an ecclesiastical judge. However, since my name and comments in the matter of the Father Murphy case have been liberally and often inaccurately quoted in the New York Times and in more than 100 other newspapers and on-line periodicals, I feel a freedom to tell part of the story of Father Murphy’s trial from ground zero.

As I have found that the reporting on this issue has been inaccurate and poor in terms of the facts, I am also writing out of a sense of duty to the truth.

The fact that I presided over this trial and have never once been contacted by any news organization for comment speaks for itself.

My intent in the following paragraphs is to accomplish the following:

To tell the back-story of what actually happened in the Father Murphy case on the local level;

To outline the sloppy and inaccurate reporting on the Father Murphy case by the New York Times and other media outlets;

To assert that Pope Benedict XVI has done more than any other pope or bishop in history to rid the Catholic Church of the scourge of child sexual abuse and provide for those who have been injured;

To set the record straight with regards to the efforts made by the church to heal the wounds caused by clergy sexual misconduct. The Catholic Church is probably the safest place for children at this point in history.

Before proceeding, it is important to point out the scourge that child sexual abuse has been — not only for the church but for society as well. Few actions can distort a child’s life more than sexual abuse. It is a form of emotional and spiritual homicide and it starts a trajectory toward a skewed sense of sexuality. When committed by a person in authority, it creates a distrust of almost anyone, anywhere.

As a volunteer prison chaplain in Alaska, I have found a corollary between those who have been incarcerated for child sexual abuse and the priests who have committed such grievous actions. They tend to be very smart and manipulative. They tend to be well liked and charming. They tend to have one aim in life — to satisfy their hunger. Most are highly narcissistic and do not see the harm that they have caused. They view the children they have abused not as people but as objects. They rarely show remorse and moreover, sometimes portray themselves as the victims. They are, in short, dangerous people and should never be trusted again. Most will recommit their crimes if given a chance.

As for the numerous reports about the case of Father Murphy, the back-story has not been reported as of yet.

In 1996, I was introduced to the story of Father Murphy, formerly the principal of St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. It had been common knowledge for decades that during Father Murphy’s tenure at the school (1950-1974) there had been a scandal at St. John’s involving him and some deaf children. The details, however, were sketchy at best.

Courageous advocacy on behalf of the victims (and often their wives), led the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to revisit the matter in 1996. In internal discussions of the curia for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, it became obvious that we needed to take strong and swift action with regard to the wrongs of several decades ago. With the consent of then-Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, we began an investigation into the allegations of child sexual abuse as well as the violation of the crime of solicitation within the confessional by Father Murphy.

We proceeded to start a trial against Father Murphy. I was the presiding judge in this matter and informed Father Murphy that criminal charges were going to be levied against him with regard to child sexual abuse and solicitation in the confessional.

In my interactions with Father Murphy, I got the impression I was dealing with a man who simply did not get it. He was defensive and threatening.

Between 1996 and August, 1998, I interviewed, with the help of a qualified interpreter, about a dozen victims of Father Murphy. These were gut-wrenching interviews. In one instance the victim had become a perpetrator himself and had served time in prison for his crimes. I realized that this disease is virulent and was easily transmitted to others. I heard stories of distorted lives, sexualities diminished or expunged. These were the darkest days of my own priesthood, having been ordained less than 10 years at the time. Grace-filled spiritual direction has been a Godsend.

I also met with a community board of deaf Catholics. They insisted that Father Murphy should be removed from the priesthood and highly important to them was their request that he be buried not as a priest but as a layperson. I indicated that a judge, I could not guarantee the first request and could only make a recommendation to the latter request.

In the summer of 1998, I ordered Father Murphy to be present at a deposition at the chancery in Milwaukee. I received, soon after, a letter from his doctor that he was in frail health and could travel not more than 20 miles (Boulder Junction to Milwaukee would be about 276 miles). A week later, Father Murphy died of natural causes in a location about 100 miles from his home

With regard to the inaccurate reporting on behalf of the New York Times, the Associated Press, and those that utilized these resources, first of all, I was never contacted by any of these news agencies but they felt free to quote me. Almost all of my quotes are from a document that can be found online with the correspondence between the Holy See and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. In an October 31, 1997 handwritten document, I am quoted as saying ‘odds are that this situation may very well be the most horrendous, number wise, and especially because these are physically challenged , vulnerable people”. Also quoted is this: “Children were approached within the confessional where the question of circumcision began the solicitation.”

The problem with these statements attributed to me is that they were handwritten. The documents were not written by me and do not resemble my handwriting. The syntax is similar to what I might have said but I have no idea who wrote these statements, yet I am credited as stating them. As a college freshman at the Marquette University School of Journalism, we were told to check, recheck, and triple check our quotes if necessary. I was never contacted by anyone on this document, written by an unknown source to me. Discerning truth takes time and it is apparent that the New York Times, the Associated Press and others did not take the time to get the facts correct.

Additionally, in the documentation in a letter from Archbishop Weakland to then-secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone on August 19, 1998, Archbishop Weakland stated that he had instructed me to abate the proceedings against Father Murphy. Father Murphy, however, died two days later and the fact is that on the day that Father Murphy died, he was still the defendant in a church criminal trial. No one seems to be aware of this. Had I been asked to abate this trial, I most certainly would have insisted that an appeal be made to the supreme court of the church, or Pope John Paul II if necessary. That process would have taken months if not longer.

Second, with regard to the role of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), in this matter, I have no reason to believe that he was involved at all. Placing this matter at his doorstep is a huge leap of logic and information.

Third, the competency to hear cases of sexual abuse of minors shifted from the Roman Rota to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith headed by Cardinal Ratzinger in 2001. Until that time, most appeal cases went to the Rota and it was our experience that cases could languish for years in this court. When the competency was changed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in my observation as well as many of my canonical colleagues, sexual abuse cases were handled expeditiously, fairly, and with due regard to the rights of all the parties involved. I have no doubt that this was the work of then Cardinal Ratzinger.

Fourth, Pope Benedict has repeatedly apologized for the shame of the sexual abuse of children in various venues and to a worldwide audience. This has never happened before. He has met with victims. He has reigned in entire conferences of bishops on this matter, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland being the most recent. He has been most reactive and proactive of any international church official in history with regard to the scourge of clergy sexual abuse of minors. Instead of blaming him for inaction on these matters, he has truly been a strong and effective leader on these issues.

Finally, over the last 25 years, vigorous action has taken place within the church to avoid harm to children. Potential seminarians receive extensive sexual-psychological evaluation prior to admission. Virtually all seminaries concentrate their efforts on the safe environment for children. There have been very few cases of recent sexual abuse of children by clergy during the last decade or more.

Catholic dioceses all across the country have taken extraordinary steps to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable adults. As one example, which is by no means unique, is in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, where I currently work. Here, virtually every public bathroom in parishes has a sign asking if a person has been abuse by anyone in the church. A phone number is given to report the abuse and almost all church workers in the archdiocese are required to take yearly formation sessions in safe environment classes. I am not sure what more the church can do.

To conclude, the events during the 1960’s and 1970’s of the sexual abuse of minors and solicitation in the confessional by Father Lawrence Murphy are unmitigated and gruesome crimes. On behalf of the church, I am deeply sorry and ashamed for the wrongs that have been done by my brother priests but realize my sorrow is probably of little importance 40 years after the fact. The only thing that we can do at this time is to learn the truth, beg for forgiveness, and do whatever is humanly possible to heal the wounds. The rest, I am grateful, is in God’s hands.

Father Thomas T. Brundage, JCL

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The Pope and the Press ...

Thanks to Jack Valero (forwarded to me by email) for the information I am going to post here, explaining how the attack on Benedict XVI re two cases of child-abusing priests is - though sad and shameful in itself - just a stick with which to beat the Pope.

Valero writes: "The idea of some in the media was then to find a story that involved Cardinal Ratzinger directly, before becoming Pope. First there was a story based in Munich, where Cardinal Ratzinger had been archbishop and he had authorised for a priest from another German diocese to come to Munich for treatment. He was an abuser. Without Cardinal Ratzinger’s knowledge, he was placed in a parish situation where he abused again. By the time this was found out Cardinal Ratzinger had been in Rome for a few years. So he was not involved.

The second story broke in the New York Times on 25 March and was about a Fr Murphy who had abused deaf children in the 70’s. He had been reported to the civil authorities who investigated him but dropped the case. In the early 90s his archbishop decided he was guilty and withdrew him from public ministry. He then wrote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) because some of the offences included solicitation in the confessional, which always had to be reported to the Holy See. A process of laicisation started but in 1998, Fr Murphy himself wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger saying he was dying, he had lived in isolation for some years, had not abused for many years – could the process be stopped? Cardinal Ratzinger agreed and thee priest was not defrocked. Fr Murphy died 4 months later. Now one can argue whether the decision was right or wrong, but one cannot say Cardinal Ratzinger was either complicit in the abuse or helped to cover it up in any way."

Details of the case can be found in two pieces in Zenit, which explain it well:

Valero was called by Sky News and actually appeared in their afternoon service explaining the above. You can see it here:

He says: "I wanted to say so many more things! But at least I was happy to be given the opportunity to put the record straight in some way."

Valero continues:
"Actually the truth is the opposite to what the media are trying to portray. Since 2001, when Cardinal Ratzinger was asked by Pope John Paul II to take over these types of cases, he speeded up the procedures and made everything much more transparent than had been up to then. In other words, it is thanks to Pope Benedict that the Catholic Church has such good procedures in place. This is well explained by John Allen here:

An excellent piece well worth reading is Archbishop Nichols writing in the Times:

- End of Valero's comments -

God bless our Holy Father and protect him from all attacks upon him.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

On us thy dear children ... St Patick's Day 2010

Singing 'Hail, glorious St Patrick' always brings a tear to my eyes, especially the verse about the exiles keeping alive the fire lit by the man at Tara, now spread throughout the world. In our own school we have the relics of a 7th century Irish missionary saint in our altar, one of the early spiritual sons of St Patrick.

This year my Irish sentimentalism was tinged with a dose of collective shame about the whole saga unfolding in Ireland regarding child abuse. It is just all so horrible.

But, let's get one thing straight: to pretend that priestly celibacy is the problem is a very myopic idea. How many women do you know who would have liked to marry one of these men? It is blindingly obvious that in the case of sexual abuse, we are concerned with men who enter the priesthood for false motives. In the famous case of Father Sean Fortune, and in almost all the others, the abuse starts as soon as the priest has the chance, shortly after ordination. The issue for ths Church is that such men should never have been allowed through to ordination in the first place, not that the priestly life has corrupted them. Suspension, imprisonment, even excommunication is what should happen here.

On occasion, and I guess this is in the minority of cases, a good priest (or doctor, or teacher, or parent, or whatever) can be uncharacteristically weak and silly with someone in his care. In such cases, usually, things do not go too far, but are a great source of embarassment and shame. For men in this situation, it could well be the loneliness of celibacy which is the proximate cause, or at least the trigger. In that kind of situation, perhaps the advice of Jose Maria Escriva is pertinent: act like Noah's good sons confronted with their father's drunkeness and be forgiving and compassionate. And yet, even for them, the Church needs to learn the lesson that 'no-one is above the law.' Still, if Catholics made sure to love their priests, and pray for them, it would help ...

Saturday, 27 February 2010

To be a Leader: lessons from Richard Branson and Jesus Christ

Every human community has a leader, starting with the smallest of human communities, the family. And the quality of life of those within a community depends to a significant extent on the quality of leadership exercised within it. At a national level, this is why leadership change is hailed each election time as a time of new opportunities, or new frustrations, depending on one’s point of view. One of Britain’s recent leaders was prepared to go to war, in Iraq, to achieve ‘régime change’ for that country, which effectively amounted to the removal of a strong (and admittedly rather unpredictable) leader to be replaced by a weaker (and much more controllable) one.

Even in our scientific age the mysterious and risky business of leadership is what determines, on all sorts of levels, the content and quality of our lives at home, at work, at church, in the world at large, in fact; but perhaps especially in those unique, self-contained worlds to which we consign our children for somewhere between eleven and sixteen years of their lives: schools.

In this essay, I will begin by briefly introducing some of the problems leaders in schools face and the expectations that we have of them. Since school leaders should be ready to learn lessons in leadership from outside the school gate, I shall discuss some of the techniques and characteristics of two famous leaders who have impressed me in the light of some well-known leadership theories.

Finally, reflecting on my experience and challenges I will propose a synthetic view of what might be considered the essentials of good leadership for a head teacher in a school.

Heads are busy people. They are - depending on the school - responsible for marketing, finance, training of new teachers, strategic planning, curriculum changes, quality control, discipline of pupils (and staff!) and, somewhere low down the list, teaching. In some schools the Head Teacher does not even teach at all.

In years gone by a Head Master might have been able to content himself with simply teaching a full timetable in an exemplary manner and counting on his colleagues to do the same. Matters of discipline might be brought to him if prefects and other teachers could not cope with them, but in the days before the explosion of ‘admin’ the Head was what his title implied: the Head Master, and yet a Master just like his colleagues. He certainly would have embodied stability and authority but he probably did not spend a great deal of time finding the right strategy for leading his school, although an obvious exception might have been Heads who were taking over schools in need of reform.

Since then, people have changed, schools have changed and their business has also changed. A different type of leader seems to be required, one who is prepared to reflect on his leadership style and to learn from other successful leaders. Part of the reason for this is that the ordinary man in the street no longer has a hierarchical instinct, but an egalitarian one. Perhaps since the French Revolution, Joe Public has become increasingly uneasy with authority in all its forms, so a leader in any community of today needs to earn respect and cooperation, rather than simply taking it for granted.

Leadership advice, for want of a better term, seems to fall into four main (admittedly overlapping) areas: attitudes, strategies, qualities and behaviours.

Attitudes: these are the ways you really feel (about your job and about your colleagues) and that you cannot help showing to your people. If the attitudes are problematic, one can work on them, but they are hard work.

Strategies: these would be such things as setting up clear models for followers to imitate, the art of delegation, turning one’s followers somehow into stakeholders, remembering people’s birthdays or remembering to say something encouraging to each person each time you meet. They are all techniques that could be employed in a calculated manner by any kind of person in a leadership role.

Qualities: These are the core values that are part of the personal potential of the leader and which give rise to everything else. An example of this kind of classification would be Stephen M. R. Covey’s ‘Four Cores’ of Integrity, Intent, Capabilities and Results.[1] As with attitudes, qualities are reformable. We can all turn our vices into virtues, because both are closely tied into our habits of behaviour. We just need to force ourselves to do what we know we need to do. All we need is the willpower (and, perhaps, if you believe in it, some grace.)

Behaviours: Things one does and the way one does them, often out of habit. Not so much a question of strategy as a way of being. They are the sort of thing that people will generalize about when talking about their leader: Mr X always respects us, Mr X always listens, etc. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People[2] promoted this label, but really mixed up attitudes, qualities and behaviours, but it has been made more intelligible by the son of that author in his list of ‘Thirteen Behaviours’.[3]

Two successful leaders and their attitudes, strategies, qualities and behaviours

About 25 years ago, when I was 13, a man with a mane of untamed red hair and a fuzzy, ginger beard landed on our school field in what looked like a red car seat attached to a parachute. He was wearing a red bomber jacket and a motorcycle helmet, both emblazoned with the already famous logo of ‘Virgin.’

We schoolboys rushed to get his autograph and I still have mine a quarter of a century later. It is a little drawing of an air balloon with the initials RB inside it. As for the man himself, he came along to the school assembly, in front of 900 boys, a few minutes after so dramatically falling out of the sky on to our cricket square. The Head Master introduced him as Robin Bachelor, the right-hand man (and stunt double, we all thought) of the famous entrepreneur Richard Branson. He had been taking part in a balloon race in a new mode of transport called the G-seat; an invention I never heard of again, although I have noticed that its patron has hardly been out of the headlines ever since.

Richard Branson started his entrepreneurial career very young. One of his first business successes involved a student magazine and then a sales tax fraud involving the pretence of exporting records to the continent when in fact they were only driven around the docks at Dover and then brought back to London to be sold for cash. This escapade cost him a night in prison and his parents an expensive remortgage (for £60,000) to bail him out and save him from a criminal record.[4]

Branson has had his share of success and stress (though not, since that night in jail, abject failure). He seems to lead a charmed life as a genial, boyish 60-year-old millionaire who loves his work and family. He was close to Princess Diana, and got her (famously) to wear a Virgin T-shirt in public. Now he has somehow contrived – seemingly effortlessly – to set up his two children, Holly and Sam, together with a nephew and a young protégé, as the leaders in the social circle of the young royals.[5]

Yet how does a man who appears so often as naïve and rash achieve such success in business, and why do so many follow him? He claims that his aim is to turn Virgin “into the most respected brand in the world”.[6] Part of his strategy for doing this is to court publicity, (something I have often done myself): "Generally speaking, I think being a high-profile person has its advantages … Advertising costs enormous amounts of money these days. I just announced in India that I was setting up a domestic airline, and we ended up getting on the front pages of the newspaper. The costs of that in advertising terms would have been considerable." High visibility is a good thing, maintains Branson, "as long as you're not in the headlines for the wrong reasons."[7]

Branson believes that even if leaders are not exactly born leaders, their upbringing does mean a great deal. Because habits and attitudes are so important the formative years can make or break a leader: in this respect Branson had an especially good start, with parents who were extremely ambitious for him, but not in the least smothering: “At age six, his mother would shove him out of the car and tell him to try to find his own way home. At age 10, she put her son on a bike to ride 300 miles.”[8]

Apart from his mother’s early attempts at leadership training, what mark Branson out in business? He attracts incredible loyalty, because he genuinely seems to like people. He claims that his other main hallmarks are an ability to listen and offer feedback to suggestions from his employees and also being an expert at delegation: "I have to be good at helping people run the individual businesses, and I have to be willing to step back. The company must be set up so it can continue without me." In fact, when he starts or takes over a new business, he spends about three months getting immersed in the nitty-gritty, developing the concept, building up the culture, then he gives his senior managers a stake in the business and lets them get on and manage it as if it were their own.

Part of his delegation strategy has to do with the fact that there are some areas where Branson himself is incredibly weak. For example, he is dyslexic and rather poor at arithmetic. He jokes that he can never remember the difference between gross and net profit. Various leadership theorists[9] have suggested that showing your vulnerability in this way can be a good strategy, especially if within your management structures you have made allowance for it. Branson himself underlines the importance of employees’ seeing the boss’s human side. He advises leaders “not be embarrassed about the staff seeing the weaker side of you. They don’t lose respect for you because they see your human side. They actually gain more respect for you”.[10]

Branson has a certain gentleness about him too. He feels that employees should not live in a relationship of fear with their managers: "If a flower is watered, it flourishes. If not, it shrivels up and dies. It’s much more fun looking for the best in people. People don’t need to be told where they’ve slipped up or made a mess of something. They’ll sort it out themselves."[11] And when an employee is not doing well in one area of the company, he is given an opportunity to excel in a different Virgin Group job. Despite the enormous size of his empire (350 companies and counting), Branson still realizes the value of at least creating the impression of the personal touch. Apparently, “For the companies in which he serves as both chief executive and chairman, Branson writes his staff "chitty-chatty" letters to tell them everything that is going on and to encourage them to write him with any ideas or suggestions. He gives them his home address and phone number. He responds with a letter personally, even if he doesn't follow up and deal with the details. Sometimes people come to him with personal problems, while others have suggestions for improvements in their companies”[12] People feel close to Branson. His light touch (through delegation) coupled with his air of personal accessibility and affability make him a figure of unusual adulation in the business world, sometimes with (even for him) unnerving results: while visiting New Zealand, Branson was once approached by a male admirer who told him, "Richard, I love you. I wish you were gay - and that I were gay too!"[13]

But, more importantly, the whole Virgin philosophy is about selling people an idea as well as a job or a product. Branson believes in making working for his companies an enjoyable life choice: “I don’t see Virgin as a company but as a way of life and I fully enjoy it”[14] he says, and he evidently endeavours to communicate this vision to his employees and especially to the senior managers.

Based on Kurt Lewin’s 1939 study[15] identifying what he saw as the three main leadership styles (authoritarian, democratic/participative and laissez-faire), Branson is clearly a democratic/participative leader with extraordinary personal qualities, originality and courage.

Another leader who has inspired me, in a much deeper way, is Jesus Christ.[16] As a Christian I believe that he was (and remains) the incarnate son of God[17]. But another aspect of that belief is that he was a man like us in all things but sin[18]. Because of this, it is entirely appropriate to examine the leadership that gained him a group of dedicated apostles who were prepared not merely to live for him, but also to die for him. He also left an organization behind him which has had an unparalleled impact on the course of human history, and indeed on the whole intellectual, cultural and spiritual outlook of modern man.

Of Kurt Lewin’s three broad types, my first instinct was to identify Jesus as the ultimate authority figure and therefore an authoritarian, who was, quite literally, always right! As an admittedly rather unempirical exercise I took a personality test online[19] in persona Christi, as it were, to determine which leadership would best describe Christ. In doing so I tried my level best to think of situations described in the four Gospels and relate them to the generalities put forward in the survey questions. The result was that Christ was labeled as a participative leader. In the wake of that reflection I searched further in the Gospels and found a clear pattern in their account of Jesus’ ministry, which shows a clear bias in favour of the participative style.

This example of participative leadership is one that he not only practices himself, but also sets as normative for the Church in the future. Regarding prayer he says that ‘whenever two or three of you are gathered together in my name’ to pray, then those prayers will be answered[20]. For governance and teaching, he vests in Peter a special authority of loosing and binding[21], called by Catholics ‘the power of the keys’, but he seems to make a point of giving this power to Peter individually and also the same, or similar power to all the apostles collectively.[22] From an ecclesiastical perspective, the bishops share in the same authority given to Peter, the first Pope. Peter is a leader who will have to act in a participative way for his authority to make sense.

Part of good leadership must include looking ahead to the day when one cannot be around to make all the decisions oneself. A good leader does not delegate simply because other people can do things better than he can. He delegates as a way of empowering his people, giving them the chance to develop their own leadership qualities and contribute to the expansion and success of the enterprise. At the height of his public ministry, and during what can be seen as a period of leadership training for the apostles, Jesus sent them out to do the kind of thing he himself had been getting a name for:

“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” [23]

When they have tried this for a few weeks they come back for more instructions and to witness the culmination of Christ’s public ministry, leading to his Passion and death. The apostles who return from these exciting missions in the outlying towns are real leaders now, capable of stewarding and managing in an impressive way the large crowds that now gather to hear Jesus, surrounded by his leadership team. [24]

This seems an appropriate moment to mention the role played by trust in the leader/follower relationship. Christ, and Branson both have the same attitude to taking this unique kind of risk. Jim Burke, former Chairman and CEO of Johnson and Johnson claimed: “I have found that by trusting people until they prove themselves unworthy of that trust, a lot more happens.”[25] This is precisely what Christ did with Judas. Judas was sent out on those mini-missions of preaching, healing and casting out demons and yet ultimately betrayed Christ’s trust. But Christ will go even further than Burke: he will forgive a betrayal if he is sure that there is a real willingness to make a new start. Hence Peter’s three betrayals of trust are sorted out when Christ asks him three times if he loves him. The ability to trust – and to delegate (not because one can’t do a job oneself, but because one wants to empower others and the organization) is a mark of the ability of a true leader to see the larger picture: “Even an overdose of trust that, at times, involves the risk of being deceived or disappointed is wiser, in the long run, than taking for granted that most people are incompetent or insincere.”[26] Many great business leaders have found that high-trust interaction, when a clear vision has been imparted, inspires creativity, creates new possibilities and energises a team. In the simple maxim of Lao Tzu, the great Chinese theorist on leadership: “No trust given, no trust received.”[27]

Clear instructions for the mission are essential, of course. There needs to be a model which followers, or in the case of a school, teachers, can imitate. The best person to model good practice is the leader himself, and this brings us on to one of the most challenging features of what has been called “Level 5 Leadership”[28], the kind that can make the difference between good companies and schools and great ones.

Here the real character of the leader comes into play. It is not just about a clever game of risk-taking on trust with your followers. You want to make them trust you too. You might have a default position of trusting them, as a kind of winning leadership strategy, but the kind of trust they give you as a leader will depend on a few important personal qualities that relate to, dare I suggest, a man’s soul. That is to say, they are aspects of our personality that are very interior and private, yet which manifest themselves often enough through our actions. They are the deepest things one cay say about our outlook and values. Covey (Junior)[29] identifies four core values : Integrity, Intent, Capabilities and Results. It is the first of these that is the most intimate, but the others are very personal too: What is my real vision? Have I got what it takes? Can I come up with the goods?

The key one, it seems to me, is the first, and here the ancient leadership theorists would agree.[30] A leader, to be great, needs to be a virtuous man. For Covey (Junior) the attributes needed for integrity are: congruence (“walking the talk”), humility and courage. The truth, as if we did not already feel it in our bones, is that the really great leaders are “self-effacing … even shy … a personal blend of humility and professional will. They are more like Lincoln and Socrates than Patton or Caesar.”[31]

So on a personal level, Jesus is a perfect fit. He speaks with an assurance and solidity that come from integrity of life, a perfect coming together of what I say and what I do. (A tall order for any Head Master to follow, to be sure, but a worthy point of reference nonetheless.)

In terms of Jesus’ strategies, like Branson, he develops winning approaches and paradigms that can be repeated time and time again (‘a system’.) He provides real structure and continuity within the organization, through the apostolic succession. Through the Christian doctrine of the mystical body, enunciated by his follower St Paul, Christ also makes the members of his organization real stakeholders. This is pre-eminently true perhaps for the priests and bishops, but it holds for every Christian.

Christ too, is a man who recognizes the importance of the personal relationship with each follower. He is prepared to go the extra mile for his men … the good shepherd. I remember that in a staff meeting at the beginning of term a couple of years ago, I told the teachers in my school what I expected from them, and invited them to say what they expected from me. One of them said, much to my surprise, “to be loved”. It is a deep need, and one that Christ surely satisfied better than anyone. (His answer to our other key needs is strangely attractive even if it would not please the teachers’ unions.)[32]

As for vulnerability, well, Christ has no faults per se, but the vulnerability (literally ‘ability to be wounded’) shown in his Passion not only makes him more loveable, but is precisely a sign of his love: “greater love hath no man than this, than a man lay down his life for his friends”.[33] Now that kind of love and that kind of vulnerability would command undying respect and devotion to any leader. There is also, despite his awesome divinity (or perhaps because of it) the man who makes a barbecue on the seashore[34], the man who is reputed to be a ‘glutton and a drunkard’[35] because he likes to have a few drinks with his friends. Like Branson, Christ is not afraid to show his humanity to those he leads. He even shows, so some scripture scholars tell us, a sense of humour.[36]

Also, he did sometimes reveal that, in his humanity, he was finding it difficult to bear the burdens he had been given by his Father. And yet he bore them. That kind of example of heroic strength, drawn from God, in moments of weakness, must have been incredibly compelling.

There are many other home-truths of leadership that must surely come down to us from Christ’s example, or from that of the few really great men who have resembled him: give your followers a clearly repeated and articulated message; don’t be afraid to ask 100% because that’s what people want to give; choose different people for your team, not just clones of yourself (the apostles really were a mixed bag); give clear productivity targets and modes of assessment (“by their fruits shall ye know them”.[37])

Christ was also capable of reasonable pragmatism: he was able to slip away from dangerous crowds[38]; his disciples, although preaching non-violence, at least took one sword between two on journeys, for minimum protection[39]. (And at least one sword was carried to the Last Supper). The Messiah also knew his own limits (yes, as a human being, he had limits), so that for example he was able to make time for himself to rest, and to get away from the crowds[40], even if they still managed to catch up with him.

Lewin’s democratic/participative label is particularly to be seen in Christ’s teaching style: he almost always gets his questioners to answer their own questions in order to give them ownership of the profound answers (“whose head is on the coin?”[41] or “what did Moses command?”[42]and so on.) Even for something as crucial as his own divine identity, he goes through various people’s views, asking in turn, “who do they say I am?”[43]until Peter gives the earth-shattering answer.

Finally, from a chronological perspective, the whole story of Christ’s public ministry on earth is framed by his participative leadership style: the ministry is launched at a wedding feast, where he allows himself to be persuaded (by his mother) to perform his first miracle. As he dies on the Cross he says “Woman, behold thy son … son, behold thy mother”, thus mystically uniting by yet another bond his followers with himself and with his mother.

From a corporate point of view, and indeed from any point of view, there is little denying that (so far) the Virgin Mary and her son have had a larger impact on the history and flourishing of the human family than Branson and his Virgin have had. And yet both men embody the kind of leadership traits that a Head Master, or any leader, would certainly want to emulate, even if his corporate ambitions were more modest than those of the Church or of the Virgin Group.

One message that both of our examples would seem to underline is that an organisation’s ethos is the key to its success, and that the organisation’s leader should both create, and be an example of, that ethos.

The Church and the Virgin Group, bizarrely enough, are both places where leadership is constantly being taught and learnt as part of the vision of the organization. Good schools produce good leaders, because they too are places of participative leadership (with house captains, prefects, team sports and all manner of similar structures and activities). A good leader in a school ought to be a leader in a school of leadership, because training the young in such qualities is part of our vocation as teachers, because leadership is the essence, the living teaching, the self-perpetuating tradition, the genius loci, of a good school.

As Newman writes of an ideal place of learning " [it] will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow."[44] And Newman's ideal education, a liberal education, was oriented to developing the qualities needed for leadership.

The vocation of a school leader, then, within the universe that is his school, is to create loyalty to something greater than himself, but which he somehow embodies. Like a ‘home-maker’ – a woman who creates a total environment by the mode of her being as well as by her actions (ie. attitudes, strategies, qualities and behaviours) – a leader in a school should be a creator of that genius of place, the ethos. He should embody it, preach it, and teach it as well as engineering it into existence by careful planning and daily hard work.

And in part because the good leader gives of himself in continually engendering the ethos of his school, the spirit and values of good leadership will be part and parcel of what his school is all about.

[1] Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust, Free Press, New York, 2006, p. 34 ff.
[2] Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press; 1st edition (September 15, 1990). (The father of the author of The Speed of Trust.)
[3] Stephen M. R. Covey, op. cit., p. 136. ff.
[4] Mary Vinnedge, ‘Richard Branson: Virgin Entrepreneur’ in Success Magazine, June 2009.
[5] Nicole Lampert and Rebecca English, ‘Virgin on royalty: Richard Branson's children have forged an intriguing social alliance with the young Royals. But is Daddy pulling all the strings?’ in The Daily Mail, 6th February 2010.
[6] ‘The Importance of Being Richard Branson’, knowledge@wharton (University of Pennsylvania).
[7] ibid
[8] ibid
[9] For example, Carol Kinsey Gorman in "This Isn't the Company I Joined": How to Lead in a Business Turned Upside Down, Kcs Pub; 2 Revised ed. (February 27, 2004). She even lists vulnerability among six core values for leaders. (The full list: vision, integrity, trust, values, vulnerability, motivation.)
[10] knowledge@wharton, op. cit.
[11] ibid.
[12] ibid
[13] November 30th 2004, during a TV phone-in interview by satellite on WHYY TV channel, Philadelphia, quoted in knowledge@wharton, op. cit.
[14] knowledge@wharton, op. cit.
[15] Lewin, K., LIippit, R. and White, R.K. (1939). ‘Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates’ in Journal of Social Psychology, 10, pp. 271-301
[16] A personal comment: In the realms of metaphysics, sexual ethics and philanthropy (inter alia) I am personally more on the side of Christ than Branson, but still admire Branson’s business style.
[17] Colossians 1:15
[18] Hebrews, 4:15.
[20] Matt. 18: 19.
[21] Matt 16:19 “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven …” etc.
[22] Matt 18.18.
[23] Matt. 10. 5-8.
[24] Feeding and generally looking after the large crowd of over four thousand described in Matthew 15 is an impressive logistical miracle as well as a culinary one.
[25] Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust, Free Press, New York, 2006, p. 316.
[26] Warren Bennis, author of On Becoming a Leader, quoted in Covey, op cit, p. 318.
[27] Quoted in Stephen M. R. Covey, op cit, p. 320.
[28] Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, Random House Business, 2001.
[29] Stephen M. R. Covey, op. cit.
[30] Lao Tzu, Plato, et al.
[31] Collins, op. cit. p. 22.
[32] Abraham Maslow’s 5 needs (in Motivation and Personality, 1954) and Matthew 6:28, “Consider the lilies of the field …”
[33] John 15:13.
[34] John 21: 12.
[35] Luke 7:31-35
[36] eg. Donald Wayne Viney, “The Humor of Jesus of Nazareth” in Midwest Quarterly (Winter 1997)
[37] Matt. 7: 16.
[38] Luke 4:29-30
[39] Luke 22:36
[40] John 5: 13.
[41] Luke 20: 24.
[42] Matt. 19: 7.
[43] Mark 8:27-38; Matt 16: 16.
[44] John Henry Newman, The Idea of A University, Discourse 6. Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Learning.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Chavagnes - On TV again ...

This time for the French documentary series '90 minutes'. In a progamme called : Boarding school - the return to strict values.

Chavagnes comes off quite well, out of a selection of several boarding schools across France.

Watch online:

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Just for kids ...

My good friend Denis Boyles is this year continuing to host the Brouzils Seminars, courses for aspiring writers.

This year I am especially happy to be associated with the Turner-Tripp Workshops, which will focus on empowering aspiring creators to launch books, screenplays, teleplays, or other projects intended for children and their parents.

In an age when wholesome entertainment for children is sometimes hard to find, this initiative will help new writers with good ideas to bring their projects to completion.

The course is being hosted by two world experts in the field:

Jenny Tripp was recently nominated for the Sequoyah Book Award for Children's Literature. She’s the author of Pete and Fremont and Pete's Disappearing Act (Harcourt), and Fais Do-Do, a children's picture book, forthcoming from Harper-Collins. She is a Lifetime Member of the Writer's Guild of America and has written for most of the major studios in a variety of genres, from feature animation, to live action, to movies for television, including Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Swan Lake, The Prince and the Pauper, The Trouble with Angels and others. She’s a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times Travel Magazine, Family Fun Magazine, DIG Magazine, Family Life Magazine, Mothers Today Magazine and others. Her “Santa’s Homepage” (1995-1997) on AOL was one of the platform’s most popular features. She also wrote the spin-off television special, produced by Brandon Tartikoff and based on the AOL site.

Her friend and colleague is veteran Brouzils faculty member Priscilla Turner, a former executive story editor at Columbia Pictures and the author of television scripts for Miami Vice, the Cosby Mysteries and other network programs. In addition to her film and television work, she is the author of several children’s books, including The War Between the Vowels and the Consonants and Among the Odds and Evens: A Tale of Adventure (both Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and the co-author (with her sister, Susan Pohlman) of The Girl’s Guide to Life (Scholastic).

Our College will be hosting a three-day family film festival as part of the course.

The Brouzils Seminars take place just down the road from Chavagnes International College, and this year, the Turner-Tripp workshops will be finishing just before our own summer course on the Great Books, this time focussing on 'Renaissance to Revolution: French Literature in an age of change." Of which more very soon ...