The firebrand preacher who put Martin Luther in the shade

‘Now tell us, you miserable wretched sack of maggots,’ wrote Thomas Müntzer, sounding like the love child of Owen Jones and Ian Paisley, ‘who made you into a prince over the people whom God redeemed with his own precious blood?’ The question Müntzer posed Count Albrecht of Mansfeld was, you’d think, rhetorical. Like his contemporary Martin Luther, if less unremittingly scatological, the radical millenarian preacher wielded a sharp pen. Don’t forget Ezekiel’s prophecy, he wrote to Count Albrecht’s brother Ernst: ‘God would command the birds of the air to feast on the flesh of the princes and command the unthinking beasts to lap up the blood of the bigwigs.’ Only

The FBI has a problem with Catholics

On board Aello She was built in 1921, a beautiful wooden ketch that is as graceful to look at as she’s uncomfortable for fat cats accustomed to gin palaces. I’ve sailed her over many years, the last time giving her to my children as I was in plaster having fallen from a balcony in Gstaad. This time it was worse. In fact it was the greatest no-show since Edward VIII skipped his coronation and showed up on the French Riviera instead. Michael Mailer had hinted that some Hollywood floozies were eager to sail around the Greek isles, but arrived empty-handed. The absent floozies were missed, but were immediately replaced by

Stephen Daisley

A papal visit would be another blow to Scottish anti-Catholicism

You wait 2,000 years for a papal visit and three come along almost at once. Reports in the Scottish press suggest that Pope Francis would like to say Holy Mass while in Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit in November. It would mark the third time a sitting pope has visited Scotland and celebrated Mass there. Saint John Paul II was the first to come, in 1982, and led an estimated 300,000 in worship at Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park, then in 2010 his apostolic successor Benedict XVI gave an open-air Mass in the same park to a crowd of 70,000. Both events were seen as successes, attracting interest from non-Catholics and

Pope Benedict helped me know and love Christ

It was Benedict XVI’s election as Pope, his speeches and his writings that prompted my conversion, and it was his words at Bellahouston Park during his 2010 visit to the United Kingdom that first made me seriously consider my vocation. Without Pope Benedict XVI I would not have become a priest. His passing is for me incredibly personal, but it’s not just because of that, that I find him so incredibly difficult to sum up, it’s because whatever his detractors and admirers insist, he didn’t follow an ideology so much as a person.  ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter

If Sister Nijole can be happy, so can you

In the past five years I’ve met many people who’ve had direct, sometimes horrific, experience of communist rule. But I was more excited about doing a recent interview than I had been about any of the previous ones. It was going to be with a nun in a convent in Lithuania. I had imagined the scene: we would enter a large, gloomy, medieval stone convent. We would be cautiously admitted into a cavernous hallway and then ushered by a silent nun into a small, bare room for visitors. Then, dressed in black nun’s garb, Sister Nijolė Sadūnaitė would enter the room, head bowed, and sit in a plain wooden chair, her face lit only

Why has Oxford killed off a much-loved Catholic college?

Few institutions can match the global prestige of Oxford University. Just look at the gifts lavished on it, like offerings brought to some mighty emperor of the ancient world. There’s the Saïd Business School, controversially funded with £50 million from Wafic Saïd, who helped to broker the British-Saudi arms deal. There’s the carbuncular Blavatnik School of Government, criticised by Russian dissidents for how the funder made his millions. There’s the new student housing at St Peter’s College, partly paid for with a donation whose original source was the mid-20th-century fascist demagogue Oswald Mosley. Yes, people do sometimes ask whether there’s any cash the university won’t accept. And now they have

What is Pope Francis up to?

If you think your diary looks busy over the next few days, spare a thought for Pope Francis. The 85-year-old, who was confined to a wheelchair for several months this year, is preparing for a big weekend. He will be spending it in the company of the world’s cardinals – the red-clad figures who are supposed to be his closest advisers but seldom meet en masse in Rome these days. Now the pope has finally decided to gather them together – in the Eternal City’s unforgiving August heat. The pope will be adding to the cardinals’ number today. Tomorrow, he will be dashing off to L’Aquila, the Italian city that

Rocked by rebellion: the short, unhappy reign of Edward VI

As Tory writers reflected on the safe passage of the Stuart dynasty through the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81, an anonymous author urged contemporaries to learn the lessons of English history. The Rebels Doom (1684) offered some thumbnail sketches of various unsuccessful rebellions and attempted revolutions that had threatened the monarchy since the reign of Edward the Confessor, in order to show ‘the Fatal Consequences that have always attended … Disloyal Violations of Allegiance’. The writer paused especially over one Tudor insurrection from 1549, in which 10,000 rebels from Devon and Cornwall took up arms against the administration of Edward VI and besieged the city of Exeter, but were ultimately crushed

Why was Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s beautiful wife, so reviled?

On 15 June 1645, as Thomas Fairfax’s soldiers picked over the scattered debris on the Naseby battlefield, they made a sensational discovery. Amid the corpses and musket balls, dismembered limbs and severed swords there nestled a carrying case of personal letters and papers. It was nothing less than the king’s private correspondence. The cache included letters between Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria – his always opened ‘My deare harte’ – which discussed in detail the tactics and strategies of the war. Never ones to miss a PR opportunity, the Parliamentary high command ordered that a selection should be published with a guiding commentary. The first editorial note got

Three men on a pilgrimage: Haven, by Emma Donoghue, reviewed

I used to envy Catholic novelists – Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, François Mauriac – as having that extra point of view, namely eternity. The Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue doesn’t entirely qualify as a Catholic writer, even though she’s on record as saying she’s currently obsessed with Catholic theology, specifically Purgatory, but there’s a thread of Catholicism (particularly the Irish variety) in many of her books. Also, it has to be said that she’s frightfully good at suffering and endurance. I thought this when reading her 2020 novel The Pull of the Stars, set in the 1918 flu epidemic, and Haven is no exception. This must surely be her most Catholic

An intimate, lucid and unforgettable new James MacMillan work

On Tuesday night I was at the world première of a motet by Sir James MacMillan and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more haunting piece of music. It begins in half-light, with pinpricks from the organ so widely spaced that you could be listening to a forbidding tone row from the Second Viennese School. A four-part choir enters in close harmony and you realise that those apparently unrelated notes hint at austerely beautiful chords encircling the melody. In Carmel’s Shade is one of the smallest but brightest jewels in the MacMillan collection There are moments when we could be listening to Palestrina, to César Franck, to Benjamin Britten

Fresh air and fascism in the Bavarian Alps

The village of Oberstdorf lies in the Bavarian Alps, geographically remote but, as this gripping book demonstrates, deeply etched by the politics and violence of the Third Reich. Julia Boyd and Angelika Patel have used diaries, letters, newspaper reports and the official papers of Oberstdorfers as a lens through which to look at the rise of Nazism in Germany. The result is a fascinating and often surprisingly discordant cacophony of experiences. Oberstdorf was a small village but it had a wide range. By the early 1920s it was a favoured tourist spot: its population of 4,000 was swelled to 9,000 by visitors who came for health cures and winter sports.

Friend of Elizabethan exiles: the colourful life of Jane Dormer

Thomas Cromwell’s biographer Diarmaid MacCulloch once told me that my father’s family, the Dormers, had been servants of the great enforcer of Henry VIII’s Reformation. This may have been a tease. It is a matter of family pride that Jane Dormer’s great- uncle, the Carthusian monk Sebastian Newdigate, was executed for refusing to accept the Royal Supremacy. Jane, Duchess of Feria (1538-1612), was named after his pious sister, her grandmother. Most of Jane Newdigate’s Dormer descendants remained stubbornly Catholic over the centuries of persecution that followed, but they were never aggressive about it. Under Elizabeth I, the Dormers paid fines as recusants rather than attend Church of England services, and

A tale of forbidden love: Trespasses, by Louise Kennedy, reviewed

Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-winning recent film Belfast chronicles the travails of a Protestant family amid sectarian conflict in 1969. Louise Kennedy’s much hyped first novel, set outside Belfast in 1975, explores the same tensions from a different perspective. Like her protagonist Cushla, Kennedy’s Catholic family owned a pub in a Protestant-majority town, and Trespasses captures how it feels to be outnumbered and under scrutiny. Kennedy’s career is enough to inspire anyone. A chef for 30 years, she only began writing at 47, but her ascent since is far from typical: nine publishers fought over her debut short story collection The End of the World is a Cul de Sac and she

Monsignor Michael Nazir-Ali on his first Easter as a Catholic

22 min listen

My guest on this episode of Holy Smoke was an Anglican bishop for 37 years – one of the Church of England’s foremost scholars and its leading witness for persecuted Christians. He was also an evangelical who, as bishop of the ancient see of Rochester, ordained women priests. But, as of this month, his title is Monsignor. I am, of course, talking about the Pakistani-born Michael Nazir-Ali, whose decision to join the Ordinariate has come as an enormous, if surprising, boost to the fortunes of that small but dynamic organisation for ex-Anglicans set up by Pope Benedict XVI. This will be his first Easter not just as a monsignor –

Is the Virgin Mary being sidelined by Rome?

The Catholic church has always venerated Mary (‘Mother of God’) above other saints. But in recent years there has been a slight (a very slight) cooling in the church with regard to the inclusion of Mary in the liturgy of the mass. It’s been an English custom since medieval times to recite a Hail Mary (a verse of the rosary – the traditional Marian prayer) at the end of the ‘Prayers of the Faithful’ – the sequence of introductory prayers in the main body of the service. But just over a decade ago Rome decided to gently discourage this practice. It still continues in many churches (old habits die hard)

Poland’s abortion culture war is a battle for the country’s soul

This week it emerged that a hospital in the city of Białystok in Poland refused to grant an abortion to a pregnant woman, even though her baby had no chance of survival. The abortion was requested because of the woman’s psychological state after learning about the foetus’s prospects. Although two psychiatrists confirmed she had severe depression, the hospital said this did not meet the level of risk required for an abortion under Polish law, after a ruling by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal last year made it illegal for doctors to carry out abortions unless a woman’s life is at risk or if the pregnancy is the result rape or incest.

Profound and original and unashamedly religious: Midnight Mass reviewed

I was turned on to Midnight Mass by Ricky Gervais who raved about it in one of his social media chats: ‘I absolutely loved it, and it got better and better. It’s like all the themes like love and death, regret, second chances, but it’s about good and evil in a biblical sense.’ Yes. Midnight Mass is very unusual in that (so far, at least; I’m only two and a bit episodes in) it seems to take Christianity at its own estimation. God is real, miracles do happen, even (or especially) the most miserable sinners can find redemption through repentance. Watching it is quite unsettling because you keep expecting the

Why I left the Church of England: an interview with Michael Nazir-Ali

By now, almost everyone who’s remotely interested will know that Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, a man once tipped to become Archbishop of Canterbury, has converted to Catholicism. Dr Nazir-Ali is the second senior Anglican cleric to jump ship this year, which makes church gossip sound pleasingly Shakespearean: ‘Ebbsfleet has fallen… what and Rochester too?’ But it’s also sad. It’s as if the Church of England is exploding in slow motion, all its constituent pieces — bishops, buildings, parishioners — drifting off for want of a centre to hold them. When I went to meet Dr Nazir-Ali this week, I expected to find him full of vim. As Bishop

The faith of Tyson Fury

As soon as he had beaten Deontay Wilder last weekend, Tyson Fury gave thanks “to my Lord and savior Jesus Christ”. He said that he was going to pray for his fallen opponent. He has said that when he was recovering from depression and mental illness he “couldn’t do it on [his] own” and got down on his knees to ask God for help: I went down as a four hundred pound fat guy but when I got up off the floor after praying for like twenty minutes…I felt like the weight of the world was lifted off me shoulders. Most media reports glossed over these (admittedly eccentric) expressions of Christian