Virginia Barton

Once upon a nightmare when Christmas is forgotten


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Catholic Herald, 9 December 1988


Once upon a long time ago, I got into a dreadful muddle through shopping by mail order. So tangled were my sums, the area director of the firm was forced to visit me to sort them out. It was not so difficult in those days of shillings and halfpennies to mess up columns of money.

Since then I have been wary of postal purchasing; this cannot be widely known – judging by the tonnage of catalogues that thump through my letter box.


Dear dear Albert

The most recent came from the local bookshop. On the cover was one of those sinister late nineteenth century children, sitting crosslegged in a holly-decked hoop, blowing bubbles. Its pinched features, overdressed and undersized body and prematurely adult expression, put me off the contents before I even looked inside. (Mr Dickens and “dear dear Albert” must shoulder the blame for the English obsession with the Victorian Christmas: all those muffs, mitts, skating scenes and outsize puddings).

Before confining the Christmas book choice to the waste-paper pile – a fire hazard Friends of the Earth are kind enough to collect once a month for re-cycling –  I did, in fact, scour the contents. A bland and non-provocative choice it was. Something for everybody and nothing for anybody. The bestsellers, the prize-winners, the cook/ garden/ sports titles, the funnies and the predictable coffee-table weighties. Hey-ho, one hurtles back to the classic re-prints for real meat.

I was actually looking for a book on European Christmas customs. Our continental cousins have many charming traditions that revivify the Christmas message. In Poland, for example, celebrations proper don’t begin until the appearance of the first star on December 24. One can imagine how eagerly the children look for it, and the disappointment if the darkening sky is clouded.

St Matthew’s is the only gospel to mention that twinkly celestial body. He tells how the Magi were overjoyed to see the star they had seen at its rising in the East, and which went ahead of them “until it stopped above the place where the child lay”.

The star in the East is a shiny symbol to Christians celebrating the miracle of the Incarnation.




Eastern promise

One watches events just over our Eastern horizons with a mixture of hopeful anticipation and fear. New words will be added to future editions of the dictionaries: glasnost  and perestroika. Exotic words, full (perhaps) of eastern promise. The ripple-effect of millions of Balts, straining against the harness of 40 years, can be felt as far afield as Tunbridge Wells and Saskatoon.

The Soviet bear seems to be waking up after an hibernation of many decades. Or maybe not? Maybe he’s only turning over in a nightmare. One trembles at the prospect of it being too much, too soon, too fast – that heads may be broken in the melee.

Spare a thought and a prayer for those who work for change behind Churchill’s Iron Curtain – which may now be rusty enough to permit some real exchanges. And next time one catches oneself grumbling about a cold church, an uninspiring priest or lacklustre liturgy, one could remember the millions who have neither church building, sacraments, priests nor bishops. I speak of the 70 million believers in the Soviet Union.

Yes, the Chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs in the USSR, Mr Kharchev himself, declared this year that there are that many. For those 70 million there are only 7,000 churches, the majority of which are in the cities. Before the Revolution there were 50,000.

To put these huge figures into more manageable proportions, here is a comparison with the UK, published by MARC Europe in 1988 and based on attendances and communicants in Protestant and Catholic churches. In the UK we have approximately one priest (or minister) per 174 church goers. In the Soviet Union there is perhaps one priest per 100,000 believers.

What can it be like to live in a place where it is impossible to receive the sacraments year in, year out?

Imagine, for example, the burden on a soul denied the sacrament of penance. It was to ease this burden of deprivation that the Voice of Orthodoxy was founded.


Orthodox voice

Since 1981, a dedicated group operating on a shoestring has been broadcasting religious programmes to the Soviet Union. Before the millennium year of the Baptism of Russia draws to a close, I want to tell you something about their work. Programmes of a strictly religious content, directed at Orthodox believers, are compiled in Paris and transmitted from a radio station in Portugal.

Because they contain no political or controversial themes, or possibly because the climate really has changed, the broadcasts have not been “jammed”; neither do they involve the people who receive them in law-breaking.

The main aim of the Voice of Orthodoxy is to help those many Orthodox Christians in the Soviet Union who are deprived of churches and priests. During the millennial year the broadcasts have been increased to five times a week, a total of 180 minutes. There are regular Sunday transmissions of the Liturgy, usually recorded by Russian priests and choirs in France.

Then there are programmes where the Orthodox services, rites and sacraments are explained; or the basics of Christian faith and morality. Regular “feed-back”, letters from listeners from European Russia and as far East as Tashkent, encourages the group to continue and expand. The letters, touchingly grateful, show the need and longing for such help.

The Voice of Orthodoxy has built up a worldwide network of Friends. One minute of broadcasting costs £20 – despite the fact that there are only two full-time and one part-time employees; everyone else works voluntarily.

Why, I hear you whisper, should we Catholics give them our support? Because all people searching for God deserve our help. And in this particular case, of all our separated Christian brethren, the Orthodox are the closest.


Fragrant harbour

A few thousand miles east of Moscow glistens the glitz and glam of Hong Kong, engaged – to the untutored eye that is – in the worship of the almighty dollar. Things are seldom what they seem. Scratch the sparkle of Asia’s premier shopping centre and you will find the command to “love thy neighbour” manifested through good works.

Good works are too often caricatured as the middle-aged, middle-class hatted female, caught somewhere between the hairdresser and a cocktail party. This image is grossly unfair. The Catholic Women’s League, one among dozens of voluntary groups, has been active in Hong Kong for years.

Members who now live in the UK and Ireland still keep in touch and meet annually in London. As one of them I attended the 21st reunion lunch. The occasion was preceded by Mass in an upper room of the restaurant.

Fr Louis Tchang celebrated and we prayed for Cardinal Wu and the impending changes in the Fragrant Harbour. Outside lay London’s China Town, teasingly similar to the real McCoy, but too clean, too quiet, uncrowded and odour-free. The lunch was deliciously authentic though, and the chopsticks clicked competently – and old skill remembered.

Other memories flooded back: of padded jacket manufacture, peanut oil and noodle distribution; of sampan clinic and Christmas parties for line upon line of orphans; of the provision of a water-tap for a remote village and a wooden leg for a disabled rickshaw-puller . . . CWL members in Hong Kong carry on the good work and the London group helps by sponsoring a youngster or a family in need.

Currently this is Fung Kar Ming, a Chinese quite alone in the world since his grandmother died. His letters were passed round the lunch table – and no one was wearing a hat.




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