by Gordon Nary
Gordon: What are your primary responsibilities as Chaplain at Maryton Carmel Monastery?
Msgr Peter: The main service I perform is celebrating Mass most days of the week. On Thursday I am always in Aintree Hospital, where I am also a chaplain, and on Tuesdays - in seminary term-time - I am in Birmingham, at Oscott College. On all other days, I celebrate Mass at Carmel, which is an enormous privilege because it gives me a role in a community of strong spiritual women, who really appreciate nourishment in the Scriptures and the occasional challenge. They seem to be really keen on anything exegetical or to do with explaining different ways to read the Biblical text.
The Sisters also need other sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of the Sick, which occasionally is part of a Mass, but sometimes in the Sisters’ cells, particularly the older ones in the infirmary. Occasionally they ask me to talk to them on all sorts of subjects - usually their choice of subject, not mine. That means there are some interesting challenges for me, too. I have also convinced them to be part of preparations for the Adoremus Eucharistic Congress to be held in Liverpool, with 5 preparatory talks + adoration + evening prayer + Benediction + scones and tea. On two afternoons during Adoremus, they will have extended adoration and evening prayer (possibly also Benediction).
Gordon: Please share with our readers some of the histories of the Maryton Carmel Monastery.
Msgr Peter: I was a good friend of Carmel in West Derby in Liverpool, but their life there became difficult when housing and school buildings started to encroach on their space; they were even overlooked in the private parts of the monastery, where I had never been. The national network of Carmelites seems to be an efficient organ of communication, so three Carmels decided to shut up shop and come together to form a new community in a new home. Sisters from Golders Green (London) and Up Holland (Lancashire) came to Liverpool, but to a brand new convent, in a place called Maryton Grange, so that in theory none of the communities was more important than the other two. As it happens, the former prioress of the Liverpool monastery - Sister Mary of the Incarnation - was elected their first prioress, and in the summer of 2017, she was succeeded by Sister Patricia, another member of the former Liverpool community, but a woman with her own vision.
The new monastery was built to house the three communities together as the new Maryton Carmel. It is an exciting design, completed in 2013, which does as much as it can to use natural energy, and the architects worked on the idea that the two main characteristics had to be silence and light. If you enter the chapel when the Sisters are there, you experience the grille between Carmelites and the rest of the world in an amazing way. If you imagine the sanctuary and the Sisters’ enclosure as a circle, behind them is what is effectively a symbolic grille. Visitors see all the Sisters from behind, themselves sitting in another arc. Simplicity is the keynote and on the walls, there are only two icons; there are only two statues. The altar is circular and behind it is a simple but majestic crucifix. Acoustics are perfect if you are sitting near the walls, so people at the back of the chapel have no idea that I hear absolutely everything they say. Many regular worshippers tell me they value the peace they experience in the liturgies at Carmel. It is impossible to do it justice in words: it really does need to be experienced.
Gordon: You also serve as Visiting Lecturer in Philosophy at Saint Mary's College, Oscott / What courses do you teach?
Msgr Peter: I teach the history of modern philosophy, in other words from the 17th century onwards, but in September 2018 I shall begin another course as well, on classical and mediæval philosophy, which means that, from now on, I have to cover the whole of the history of Western philosophy. Until last year I also taught epistemology, but the course has been reorganized so I no longer do so. I also taught philosophy at the now-closed seminary at Ushaw, near Durham, and in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Beda College.
Gordon: You are on the Advisory Board of Inform. What are some of their current initiatives?
Msgr Peter: When INFORM was founded in 1988, it was with the support of the Home Office and the mainline Churches. They were concerned to help parents of young people who had joined what was often called 'cults'. Its work has developed on various trajectories since then, and its many seminars have served as platforms where both observers of religious or spiritual organizations and their members can meet in a semi-academic setting, which has often had positive practical spin-offs. I used to attend when I worked for the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe and got to know some of the people there, particularly Professor Eileen Barker, the founder. Activity has reduced in the last two years, partly because of a move from the London School of Economics to King’s College in London. Put simply, I suppose INFORM is where you go to find out about any movement that claims in any way to be 'spiritual'.
Gordon: Please share with our readers your perspectives on the evangelization of culture in Europe
Msgr Peter: Having worked both in the Vatican’s "culture ministry" (the Pontifical Council for Culture) and the Secretariat of the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe, I have had many opportunities to realize what a complex continent this is. Almost 30 years after the end of the Soviet Union, there is still no real unity of purpose between the Church in the North and West of Europe and the Church in the East of Europe.
Different histories give people different perspectives, particularly on human rights and democracy. The Church in Europe cannot be experienced as a uniform phenomenon, and the cultural challenges vary enormously in the different regions. The chaos surrounding the United Kingdom’s forthcoming departure from the European Union adds to the mix! Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both tried very hard to call Europe back to its European roots, but that has failed, partly for the reasons at which I hinted above. Interestingly, Pope Francis looks much less at Europe and sees the Church of the peripheries, far from urban centres, far from capital cities, far from the administrative centre of the Catholic Church in Rome, indeed much more those peripheries constituted by neglect and people’s experience of insignificance (the very poor, the old, the unwanted).
Those peripheries are on every continent, in every society, and perhaps they are the 'places' we need to look in every country to see what the evangelization of culture means. You will gather my vision of a united Europe has begun to fade. Programmes of evangelization, in my humble opinion, must be more modest than the idea of evangelizing a continent or 'the culture' of a continent.
Pope Francis may be on to something with his constant encouragement to look people in the face rather than to categorize them, and that is exactly where the evangelization of culture begins. Pope Benedict XVI asked us not to be tricked into thinking our task is to create big schemes to dominate and solve the problems of our time but to focus on our encounter with Christ. Pope John Paul II said exactly that in the letter with which he began the Third Millennium: Novo Millennio Ineunte, one of his least read but most inspiring documents, whose center is the Holy Father’s insistence that the heart of our life is the contemplation of the face of Christ.
Gordon: What is the biggest challenge facing the Catholic Church in the UK?
Msgr Peter: A friend whose opinion I respect and who now works very closely with Pope Francis said to me a couple of times, over twenty years ago, that the Church in England and Wales will make no real progress until it is poor again. As you can tell, I think of that challenge quite often. When he and I were at school, the Catholic Church was still slightly austere, even the priests. It is no longer like that, and I guess the presumption that life has to be easier as time goes on is a risky one. In all the parishes where I have served (not many, I admit, but all of them), sooner or later one of the older parishioners has said, "You know, Father, when we had to pull together and collect to build a church or a school, the parish was more of a community".
I realized that they were right, and now, years after some of them have gone to the Lord, we are in a situation where it is almost impossible to find volunteers committed to altar-serving, making coffee and tea after Sunday Mass, opening the church and so on and so on…. Imperceptibly the idea that being a member of a parish is about appearing at Mass every now and then has crept in. How to solve this is a mystery every parish priest, scout leader and charity organizer would love to solve. In Rome, people often say, "se stava mejo quanno se stava peggio" - "we were better off when we were worse off".
Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional and inspiring interview.