Virginia Barton

To hail heroes, and my “Man of the Decade”

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Catholic Herald, 12 January 1990


Is there some atavistic urge in us to publicly acknowledge the most popular member in our society? Have we always needed heroes, idols, role-models? When I was a schoolgirl we frequently played a horrid game to find out who was the most popular girl in the class – or the cleverest, prettiest, beastliest.

Each person wrote down the names of the others in order of popularity, then the lists were· collected and some clever dickie who was good at sums calculated the winner.

In the interests of charity, I hope this game is now out of fashion. For while it was a splendid ego-massage for those at the top of the list, it was pretty grisly for the unfortunates at the bottom.

This is the time of year when the media play a variation of this game in a big way. Every rag and mag nominates its Man/Woman of the Year. In 1990 its of the Decade. In 10 year’s time it’ll be the biggie: of the Century – mega league popularity stakes.

Today Mikhail Gorbachev has won hands down. From Oslo to Hokkaido he is hailed in dozens of glossies as Man of the Decade . Fair enough. If Brezhnev or (perish the thought) Stalin were still alive, much of what has happened during the last few months would either not have happened, or would have been much prolonged and bloodier.


rosefrench_1331308599_popejohnMan of decade
But no-one can contemplate the awesome events (the search for a suitable adjective sends the hack reeling from one end of the Thesaurus to the other) in eastern Europe without acknowledging the role of our Pope.

His visit to Poland in 1979 precipitated the birth of Solidarity. Future generations, with the perspective of hindsight, will – I am sure – recognise the Pope as the spark that lit the blue touch-paper.

His was a supremely positive role, whereas Gorbachev, though undoubtedly a man of courage, has been forced by circumstances into a defensive backs-to-the-wall position, where some bowing to the inevitable was unavoidable.

The Pope’s inspired encouragement to the people of Poland qualifies him in my column for the title Man of the Decade. I was pipped to the post by Tom Murphy in the Universe a couple of weeks ago. And we were both outstripped by Tim Garton Ash of the Times who chose the Pope as his man of the decade way back in 1988.


It’s impossible to leave the home of the re-crowned white eagle without giving you an update on the parcels to Poland project. You may recall that in December I wrote about the Abingdon school that is sponsoring a Polish family. The generosity of Herald readers knows no bounds.

Considering the many calls on one’s purse – Romania and Ethiopia leap to mind – the response has been magnificent. Within 24 hours of that Chronicle being published £1000 was pledged.

Never again will I poke fun at yuppies. The donor was one of that despised species: a big-hearted City gent whose gift arrived in Poland in time to send the Carmelites dancing to their Christmas Masses. Since then money and offers of help and sponsorship have come from all over the country.

From Exmouth, Preston, Lurgan, Accrington, Dublin, Romford, Slough and London, and many points between. An Abingdonian sent £100 to help pay for the carriage of parcels. A message carne from a school in the North, about to change their uniform; they are arranging to send a load of duffle coats and jerseys to the despatch centre in Oxford. And a sweater shop, carrying out a post-sale audit, is donating its surplus stock.

For all this benevolence – thank you. Please bear with me if you have not yet received my reply to your offers of help; it takes time to sort out the easiest, cheapest way to collect the goodies.


Polish plan
You will probably think I’m a desperate Polonophile, but I cannot leave the subject without reporting on another school that is forging a link with Poland. Just before Christmas, Prior Park College near Bath sent a 12-ton lorry and a minibus to Krakow.

James Cornwell, who told me about the venture, was one of the group of sixth formers and staff members whose destination was a secondary school in Katowice. The nuns of the Presentation Order, who run the school, arranged for the visitors to stay briefly with local families; so experience of the economic collapse was gained at first hand.

The clothes, shoes, food, toys and basic medical equipment taken out in the lorry were shared among families, a hospital and an orphanage.

Gerard Kilroy, who masterminded the trip from Prior Park, is – I gather – already planning another. Those of you who live near Bath may be able to help. There is also a plan to bring a group of Polish schoolchildren to the UK later this year.

The “two-way” angle to such schemes is important for both donor and recipient, as anyone who has been involved with the transfer of aid will tell you. The prospect of travel abroad is beyond the wildest dreams of most Polish schoolchildren.   


Sinai sunrise
Which makes Gran feel a bit sheepish about her own travel plans to the Holy Land in March. The reading-list for this adventure has just been circulated by Our Leader.

It consists of 27 volumes, not counting the Bible. Thank goodness the note that prefaces the list says that the only essential preliminary reading is the Gospels. (Guess what Gran will be hurriedly leafing through on the outward flight.)

The other tiny hurdle is the 3000 steps up to Mt. Sinai to watch the sunrise. Admittedly this is an optional excursion, but one doesn’t like to be shown up. Imagine the crowing by those fit and early birds. And then there is the problem of which shoes to take . . .

Nevertheless I’ve put the departure date in my new diary.


Scholar saint
Does your parish provide you with a free Catholic diary? Ours does, and very useful it is. Referring to it I note that many of you will read this edition of the Herald on the feast of St. Hilary. He was a 4th century bishop of Poitiers who studied rhetoric, philosophy, and was the most respected Latin theologian of his day.

He was a great scholar and defender of orthodoxy. His style is said to be difficult. He reminds me of my Man of the Decade. Happy New Year.



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