Dominic Cunliffe is a Youth Worker and Catechist at Holy Ghost Balham, South London and is currently studying for a Bachelor of Divinity with Maryvale Institute. He is also a prolific singer-songwriter and has recently released his debut single “You Sustain” which is available for download at http://dominicjames.bandcamp.com/track/you-sustain. You can also find him on Facebook.
My life, like many of us, has been a long and winding road of discovery. As for my life as a Catholic, that has been so winding it could make you giddy. I was raised Catholic from the cradle and always counted myself as an intensely spiritual man and involved myself quite actively in the church as a young teenager. However, I lost any concept of faith by the time I left university. I left God behind and ended up in a very bleak, dark and godless place. Any remnants of joy in Christ had evaporated.
I later befriended a wonderful group of non-denominational Christians from New Life Church, Cardiff. It was during this time that my joy began to slowly return. I will always see those days as an Oasis for me that got me back on my feet. I even re-discovered my joy in song-writing. Their compassion and mentoring helped me incredibly and I will forever be thankful for them. In general though, I had never fully left behind (what I called at the time) “my Catholic routes” I was not going to mass but I would still attend the odd Catholic retreat or two. One particular Catholic event however was to stir my heart beyond anything I could have predicted.
It was September 2010 and Pope Benedict had come to England. My aunt phoned to inform me there were tickets available to go to Cofton Park in Birmingham where he would be celebrating Mass and beatifying John Henry Newman. I may not have been new to Catholicism, but I did not truly understand the whole “Pope thing” I always understood he was head of the church but I had little interest other than that. Yet something within me said “yes” to this invite and before I knew it I was making my way there on the pilgrim bus. The journey began at 3.00am, a perfectly ungodly hour for an ex-Catholic to ponder why he has got up so early to see an 83 year old man beatify someone you know nothing about.
We arrived in Cofton Park and took our place in the field. As the hours went by, a sense of anticipation swelled up in me. This anticipation increased to a state of nervous excitement, inexplicable emotion, and intense longing. I was suddenly longing, not just to see the Pope arrive, but for something I could not describe. The Holy Spirit was stirring within me like a wild, dancing flame! Pope Benedict arrived. The service began, and I stood in total peace. A quiet, intense joy filled me. I was suddenly aware that I was witnessing something beautiful. Something I didn’t fully understand at the time. It was The Church gathered together in unity with the vicar of Christ. I felt like I belonged to this, yet at the same time felt so distant. I recognised that around me was “The Catholic Church” but my head was telling me I had left this “institution” a long time ago. It was a fond memory and one that was simply part of my CV of “religious experiences” Yet my heart was on fire. Here, with this 83 year old man, in a field next to a disused Longbridge car plant, I felt one at heart with the 80,000 people that surrounded me and every word Pope Benedict said resounded with me. Most profound was the Pope’s exposition on Cardinal Newman’s motto “heart speaks unto heart” and how the Christian life is;
A call to holiness, experienced as the profound desire of the human heart to enter into intimate communion with the Heart of God
Cofton Park, Birmingham, 19 September 2010
The cogs in my head started to wind. Over the following months I slowly began to realise that faith was an internal dialogue with God on an individual level, but not separate from that universal and communal dialogue, expressed by a true, visible reality, The Catholic Church. We, The Church, were summoned that day to bear visible witness to Christ and proclaim the faith as One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, united in Christ with the Pope as the “perpetual and visible source and foundation of unity” (CCC 882) I can express that now, in those words, but at the time, all I could express was that I was really, really, excited to be there. Although I did not leave from here and immediately jump back into the nearest Catholic Church, I sensed that a big change had happened within me. I felt there was more to this “old man” other than a fancy hat and robe and I knew there was more to the church than just “my personal faith” and that God was asking more from me. He was asking me to be re-united with His Church. I recalled Jesus in the Garden where he earnestly prayed that we “may all be one” (John 17:21) and I sensed, as I looked around this field, that this could well be an answer to that prayer.
How apt it is for me now, to read Benedict’s final address as Pope to the crowds in St Peters Square. Gathered exactly like we were in Birmingham, Benedict addressed the mystery of the universal church with words that give me goosebumps in their relevance to me.
Here you can touch what is really the Church – not an organization, not an association for religious or humanitarian goals, but a living body, a community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ, who unites us all. We experience the Church in this way and could almost be able to touch it with your hands.
St Peter’s Square. Wednesday, 27 February 2013
That day, in Birmingham, I felt like I touched the Church with my hands. The Catholic Church for me at that time was a “memory” that I had left behind. Little did I know how symbolic and providential me being there was, for 2 years later I would be studying with Maryvale Institute, who are based in Birmingham and whose founder is none other than John Henry Newman, a convert to Catholicism. That day, I did more than just go through the motions of “Catholicism” For the first time, I entered into the visible reality of “The Church”, I opened my heart to it. If I am honest, I was scared. Scared from all the lies I had heard about the them, that they were not biblical, not founded on Christ and deeply routed in error. I was also worried about what my fellow non Catholic Christian friends would say. In that moment I abandoned those fears and stepped out. Over the next few months, those fears soon dissolved. And why fear? There is no need, as Pope Benedict so passionately exclaimed at the start of his Petrine ministry.
Dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.
St. Peter’s Square, Sunday, 24 April 2005
Amen indeed! Thank you Benedict helping me open the doors to Christ. For helping me touch that living and mystical reality that is The Church. Thank you for your humble and unwavering service to uphold the truth. You have served the flock. You have served me. I have indeed opened my heart and God has spoken directly to it. Thank you for leading me, vicar of Christ. I am proud to be part of Generation Benedict.