Thursday, 25 April 2013
Wednesday, 24 April 2013
Come on, you saints
Patrick West on why so many priests love the beautiful game
One of the great comic devices of the television comedy Father Ted was
having Ardal O'Hanlon's Fr Dougal wear a Republic of Ireland football shirt
in bed. Good comedy is often based on incongruity - a horse walks into a
bar: "why the long face?" - and whereas there's a common perception that
priests are responsible, kindly and serious types, football conversely
brings to mind stereotypes that are more aggressive or frivolous. To connect
things that belong in opposing mental categories is funny in both senses.
Putting priests and football together makes us smile. Hence the graffiti
legend: "Jesus Saves but Keegan scores on the rebound."
This was why much of the media thought it a wheeze to report that Pope
Francis is a card-carrying fan of the Argentinian football club San Lorenzo.
The Sun certainly did so with a gallery of photographs of him holding aloft
a replica shirt and club flag. That newspaper also had a striking headline
after Pope Francis's election: "The New Hand of God", a reference to
Maradona's fist, which put England out of the 1986 World Cup. And it's the
reason why one of the most celebrated Father Ted episodes is the one about a
When you think about it, football and faith is not really an unlikely
association. At the beginning of the 20th century, a Buenos Aires priest
named Lorenzo Massa, who was concerned about children playing football near
tram tracks, told the boys that they could instead play in the church's
backyard - as long as they went to Mass on Sundays. A football club was
eventually established in 1908, and although he initially refused the
honour, Lorenzo finally accepted the proposal to name it after him.
San Lorenzo team's nickname, "the Saints", is the same as Southampton FC's.
The English clubwas founded by members of the St Mary's Church of England
Young Men's Association a reminder of how sport and muscular Christianity
were intertwined in Britain. The Northampton Saints rugby union team was
established in 1880 by a vicar for this reason, and in Ireland the clergy
were at the forefront in the creation of the Gaelic Athletic Association. So
while it might appear odd to many atheists when American Football players
kneel to praise God, or southern European footballers cross themselves
before games (by my logic, asking God to make the other team lose), it's
only superficially irrational.
In 2009, a priest in Manchester who reads the scores after the Saturday
evening Mass was quoted saying he asked worshippers to pray for Manchester
United victories. But Fr Paddy McMahon, of St John's in Chorlton, hastened
to add: "...and Manchester City, but then they really need it! It's a bit of
fun." (His prayers came true: City won the league last season). You'd have
to be rather dim to take his exhortations literally, and Fr McMahon
explained that "talking about football at the end of Mass means people leave
with a smile on their faces". The spectacle of a group of people seen
leaving a church smiling: what a fantastic advert for the Church.
Indeed, some have used football deliberately this way. In 2006 Fr David Cain
of St Barnabas, Nottingham, established a "World Cup chapel" to coincide
with a poster recruitment campaign for the priesthood. Fr Cain was also
asked about partisanship and its potentially divisive nature. "Although,
understandably many people will be fiercely cheering on their own nation,"
he said, "sport generally, and football in particular, can provide a great
bridge in promoting harmony between nations despite differences that exist
in race, religion or politics."
Like religion, football teaches you life lessons. It instills discipline,
hard work, self-control and self-respect. It makes you value leadership and
the virtues of co-operation, and to realise that there are some situations
you can't change and some you can. This is why Christians of the 19th
century were so keen on football. It's true that money has ruined the game
in recent years, but that's because footballers have become spoilt. The
sport remains inherently a good thing.
These are some of the reasons why in 2007 the Vatican established its own
domestic competition, the Clericus Cup. It was the creation of Cardinal
Tarcisio Bertone, a fervent Juventus fan and a football commentator in a
country beset by corruption in politics and sport itself. It was devised
consciously as a way of setting a good example.
The relationship between football and the Church in Italy has always been a
close one. As an expert on Italy, Paddy Agnew puts it: "Ninety-six percent
of Italians are nominal Catholics, but the same 96 per cent are committed
football fans." Most children play their first game at church-run youth
clubs, and a lot of priests remain players. For them, the Clericus Cup can
serve as a reminder in humility. Players must do community service if they
are issued a yellow or red card. A player given a blue card is sent to a
"sin bin" for five minutes of contemplation perhaps even to ask for
As the captain of the British team, Tony Preston, reflected after losing to
a team of Croatian priests in the 2008 semi-finals: "The whole idea, not to
get too heavy, is the idea of sport bringing the finer qualities out of
humanity, like humility in victory and gracious in defeat we've got a bit
of experience in that." Sport and religion can be an ideal combination. As
in life, football teaches you that you win some, you lose some. Apparently,
however, football has no agreed patron saint. A fine choice would naturally
be St Mirren.
Patrick West is author of Beating Them at Their Own Game: How The Irish
Conquered English Soccer (Liberties Press, 2006)
Sunday, 14 April 2013
The Anglo-Saxon bishop who fought slave masters
Time's Anvil, by Richard Norris, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £25
by Patrick West
As every schoolboy knows, St Patrick became apostle of Ireland after having been kidnapped by pirates. What they don’t teach you in school is that the Irish had a fearsome reputation for piracy in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages – and most slaves in Europe in those times were Romano-British or Anglo-Saxon.
The tale of Pope Gregory being stirred to send a mission to England, after seeing English boys for sale in a Roman market, is probably legend. But in 595 Gregory did write to his agent in Gaul asking that income from papal estates be used to purchase Anglo-Saxon boys, then to be placed in monasteries. Still five centuries later, the last Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Worcester, Wulfstan (1062-95), confronted shipmasters at Bristol to protest against the export of English boys and girls to Ireland.
So, to invert that silly phrase from The Commitments, it was the English who were once “the blacks of Europe”, exploited by the Irish. I don’t expect the Taoiseach to apologise to the English people for this “deeply traumatic” episode, but being half-Irish I have already apologised to myself profusely.
The truth is that most cultures have practised slavery. In Wulfstan’s time it wasn’t considered immoral, which made his stance against slave merchants particularly brave. Like the new Pope, Wulfstan was a robust figure who spoke up for the poor and washed their feet in public. Such was his authority that he was the only Anglo-Saxon bishop not removed after the Norman Conquest. If Pope Francis is a first, Wulfstan was the last of his kind.
History is a messy affair. Later it was the English who, after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, transported hundreds of Scottish prisoners to Virginia and sold them as slaves. Yet, under one flag, the English and the Scots together became among the first European powers to abolish the slave trade. And it was Britain that later let Ireland starve in the 1840s. History has no good guys and bad guys.
If all of this doesn’t sound much to do with archaeology, that’s because Time’s Anvil’s subtitle, England, Archaeology and The Imagination, is deceptive, as the work is part-history, part-archeology, part-autobiography. Morris is avowedly multi-disciplinary, in that he believes the classification of the past into different areas, and indeed the past into separate epochs, has been to the detriment of all. This approach is this book’s strength and its failing.
Although most well-read Catholics will have heard of the Lollards, many don’t believe that England in the Middle Ages was inherently destined to become Protestant. England was renowned as a Marian country, and the Province of Maryland was later established as a haven for Catholics. Yet we read here that in the spring of 1303, the Bishop of London reprimanded the people of Barking for dancing, wrestling and holding athletic contests in the church’s courtyard, and in the parish and abbey churches. It seems a Protestant mindset was already in place. Up until the late Middle Ages, it was common to have in churches devotional dramas on biblical subjects, the lives of saints and miracles of the Virgin. Dancing in circles conducted by one person in the centre – from where we get the word “ring-leader” – was also popular. Prohibitions on all these activities well predated the Reformation.
Protestants disapproved of athletics in sacred areas because of its association with gambling. It didn’t help that such activities reflected the popular cult of saints. As such, gaming often took place on public holy days. Thus, Morris writes, “by cutting the link between games and God, the Reformation outlawed things which had previously been at the heart of the community ... religion and recreation, the spiritual and the carnal, life and death, things which nowadays are normally considered separately or as opposites were until the Reformation aspects of each other”.
Morris suggests that separating things into categories is lamentable in all aspects of life. I’m not so sure. Parts of Time’s Anvil are certainly fascinating. The Neanderthals arrived in Eurasia 500,000 years ago and settled in a space of land from the Atlantic to modern-day Uzbekistan.
Homo Sapiens followed into Europe only in around 43,000 BC, and as soon as 30,000BC the Neanderthals had disappeared. The fate of the Neanderthals remains a tale of “fascination tinged by alarm, a pang of horror, even pity”.
Elsewhere, we learn that cathedrals were only built over centuries when there was political disruption or irregular funding. They weren’t inherently badly designed, as popular myth has it. The cathedral begun in Canterbury by Archbishop Lanfranc in 1070 took only seven years from start to finish – faster than the planning decision for Heathrow Terminal 5. By 1875 Birmingham was making over 10 thousand billion nails a year.
While all of this is intriguing, one is left with the nagging impression: what is this meandering book actually about? “The hankering after framework is fairly recent.” No, it isn’t. Like music and language, placing things into categories is a universal human instinct. A totem pole, a ying-yang symbol and a layout of a supermarket are manifestations of this. Most people are also aware of the fluidity of categories. History students don’t think the Industrial Revolution was launched on January 1, 1760 and was completed on the last day of 1840. Yet thanks to the belief that teaching history by era is “dogmatic”, many school children today think Shakespeare and Dickens were contemporaries. History is indeed messy and fascinating, and so is this book.