There are a small group of students and myself getting ready to travel to Tanzania and help out at one of the Jesuit schools in Dodoma. Tanzania is a relatively stable country in East Africa thanks to the legacy of their great president at the time of independence, Julius Nyerere. Amongst that generation of independence leaders in Africa,Kenyatta, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe – Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere stands head and shoulders above them. He became a Catholic at the age of 21, and when independence came in 1961 it was achieved without bloodshed, partly due to Nyerere’s widely recognised integrity and respect and also his good relationship and co-operation with the British Governor Sir Richard Turnbill. Although many would argue that his policy ‘ujamma’ (extended familyhood) was economically disastrous, as were his links with Mao’s China. However he relinquished power peacefully, unusually for that generation of leaders, and although Tanzania was a poor and one of the least developed countries in East Africa, it was peaceful and has since proven to be safe from the bouts of tribal violence that have affected surrounding countries and is threatening to rear its ugly head again in neighbouring Burundi.
The capital Dodoma is in the center of the country (275 miles away from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s biggest and richest city and economic hub). Nyerere moved the capital from Dar to Dodoma in 1974 in order to create a centralising force in the country to unify the different tribes so they didn’t feel isolated from the coastal Dar. In January 2005 the Catholic diocese of Musoma opened a case for the beatification of Julius Nyerere. Nyerere was a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily throughout his public life and was known for fasting frequently. Last years visit by Pope Francis rekindled hope that Nyerere may be one day declared a saint – link. The Jesuits have established a parish and schools in Dodoma, and when I used to visit with groups of sixth formers from London we would stay with the Jesuits and help out in the school. The last time I went in 2011 we were privileged to have an exclusive interview with the Prime Minister of Tanzania Mizengo Pinda. Pinda, an ex-seminarian would attend Sunday Mass at the Jesuit Parish and then had the reputation for being clean, and straightforward. He retired in 2015 from being prime minister and political life after allegations of corruption (BBC link). Maybe my question at the beginning of the interview, although uncomfortable was a little prescient? The video quality isn’t great but the questions and answers are informative. When we put the video on YouTube back in 2011 on returning to the UK is was rapidly taken down by someone …. maybe it will stay up this time!
*Hagiophobia, I have just discovered is the fear of saints or Holy things…. ok so we are all familiar with Vampires cowering from crucifixes, or troubled by holy water, but I am thinking about a more subtle and perhaps more serious form of cultural hagiophobia.
Christopher Hitchens’ almost visceral hatred of Mother Teresa would be an example of this, his book the Missionary Position, is a classic case of a hatchet job. But at least Hitchens described himself as a polemicist and was quite open about this. However Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf Hall and its sequels contain a more subtle but equally relentless character assassination of St Thomas More. Her distorted and cruel caricature of one of the great figures of the Tudor times, is a great calumny.
Mantel, raised a Roman Catholic and educated at convent school, has turned her back on the church of her youth with an unusual and unbalanced venom. In an interview in the Telegraph she said “ I think that nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.” With the stroke of a pen she condemns 1.2 billion people. At the time I remember reading many comments expressing relief that we have been saved from the ‘respectability’ that Mantel obviously craves. And she has achieved that respectability in glorious fashion with back to back Booker Prizes and now wall-to-wall gushing praise for the BBC adaptation of her books.
This leaves me very uneasy, as one of the biggest problems that a post-Christian culture faces is a cultural amnesia. A lack of historical grasp can be dangerous, repeating mistiakes and underpinning prejudices. This portrayal of More as a zealous monster, and Cromwell the destroyer of the monasteries, as a hero, flies in the face of history. This is important as so many of viewing the series will see this as history, my atheist sister after reading the books declared with a certain provocative pleasure – what an unpleasant character More was. The vast majority of historians describe More as one of the intellectual greats of Europe, a renaissance man, the author of Utopia, great friend of Erasmus who worked for the reform of the church from the inside. As the newspapers are full of gushing praise about Wolf Hall – they focus on the lavish production values, the great acting, its what the BBC does best, historical dramas – and I can see the producers eyes filling up with dollar signs as they anticipate the DVD box sales, and BBC Worldwide licks it lips anticipating the sales to foreign broadcasters. The problem is the History Sucks – and we will be exporting it around the world and most people will be watching it as fact.
The series has just been reviewed on Thinking Faith
With the rise of ‘Jihad Tourism’ in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, we are told in the UK that the majority of the resources of MI5 is now spent on tracking British Jihadists. Whilst it is alarming to see masked young men with British accents calling for others to join them, I haven’t seen many intelligent reflections on what is attracting them. What are the underlying causes? Sadly sectarian hatred between Sunni and Shia Muslims is out of our hands. However close behind is a hatred of ‘the West’. Some of the disillusionment is justified, most of it isn’t. Perhaps our culture excludes more that it includes – with a jaded consumerism, a morally bankrupt celebrity culture and a pornography addled internet with an increasingly toxic and angry social media. Secularists seem to be in denial of all of this and the public debate about faith becomes shriller, with religion being marginalised and often portrayed as being problematic.
As well as some mosques there seem to be three places were radicalisation often occurs, prisons, the internet and universities. A brief look at the history of university education in this country may be in order at this point. Up until the middle ages the universities in these isles were places of theological formation – often run by monastic orders. Of the seven ancient universities (founded before 1600), three of them were founded by papal bulls (Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen) the rest by royal charters (Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Dublin). After Henry VIII’s schism, Catholics were banned from attending many of these universities, and they became exclusive to Anglican students. In the 19th Century, the new generation of ‘redbrick’ universities, based in the growing industrial cities saw it as their civic duty to accept any students without reference to religious belief, and so were proudly secular.
The universities in Manchester fall into this category and because of this secular background they have an uneasy relationship with religion and its presence on campus. It is time for them to rethink this. It maybe that things are changing as they realise how chaplaincy services provide valuable student support and can be at a basic level be a useful addition to student welfare provision. Generally in universities with huge populations of students, (In Manchester 40,000+) – this support for students welfare is inadequate. More importantly universities need to realise that their most effective weapon against radicalisation is well-funded and supported chaplaincy provision. Most young people who are serious about faith will adopt a more conservative/traditional religious identity in order to distinguish themselves in a secular and sometimes hostile culture. A good chaplain can bring experience and wisdom to smooth of some of the harder edges…. universities don’s seem to realise that, students unions often put chaplains in backwaters in freshers week, or their offices in out-of-the-way, hard to find places. Chaplains often complain of institutional apathy, or obstruction and tokenism from the institutions. This needs to change.