Feb 15, 2005


Online Edition – February 2005

Vol. X No. 10

A Festival of Catholic Culture – Lent is Not Too Early to Plan for Advent!

by Joanna Bogle

How do you communicate and celebrate Catholic culture? Well, obviously through the Liturgy, through books and tapes, through family customs and traditions. But how about a festival — bringing together glorious music, good Catholic books and tapes and art and monastic products, displays by Catholic organizations, and talks and demonstrations on topics ranging through art, history, lives of saints, and the Church’s work at home and overseas?

This is the idea behind the annual "Towards Advent" Festival of Catholic Culture, now in its fifth year at Westminster Cathedral Hall in London. It grew out of a realization that, at many Catholic conferences, one of the most popular features is usually the sales area, where people browse through the books and tapes and other items, meet to talk, and are often surprised and inspired by the wide range of good Catholic activities that are going on, despite all the problems and challenges facing the Church.

So we had a get-together: Antony from the Catholic Writers’ Guild of England and Wales who also runs his own publishing house, Fisher Press, my own publisher Tom from Gracewing books, Fergal from the Catholic Truth Society. Neville from the British section of the international charity Aid to the Church in Need. I brewed coffee and we talked. We all knew that we’d like to have a large and inspiring event that would bring together all the various groups that are really doing something positive in the modern Church.

Such a festival should include music, talks, activities for families, and a splendid opening ceremony. It should have an upbeat message, be in a central and prominent location, be linked to one of the major feasts in the year, and be well publicized. It should also have opportunities for people to exhibit and buy things and for groups to make profits from the day.

A Cooperative Effort

We didn’t even have a name at first. We booked Westminster Cathedral Hall in the name of the Catholic Writers’ Guild, and the Catholic Truth Society agreed to take on the administration and keep an account of all funds. We planned a November event, but we were emphatic that we weren’t going to join the ghastly Christmas-starts-in-early-Autumn trend. We came up with "Towards Advent" — a festival that looks ahead to the Advent season (it is always held on one of the weekends shortly before Advent begins) and that also looks toward the Church of tomorrow, seeing itself as part of the process of revival and renewal that is essential if we are to survive and thrive to re-evangelize our country.

There is a vast amount of work in organizing a festival! Every year, we start work in February, having booked the hall and settled the date some while before.

We find a school choir — so far, all that we have approached have been delighted to come and sing and show off their pupils’ achievements. We ask them for two or three pieces of music, of which one should be in Latin.

The first year, we had the world-famous choristers from Westminster Cathedral itself. The festival date was November 11, which is Remembrance Day in Britain (Veteran’s Day in the US), when silence is observed across the country at 11 a.m. in memory of the war dead. We incorporated this silence into our opening ceremony, along with a boy’s singing of "Eternal rest …", and the result was intensely moving.

But most of our choirs aren’t famous — they are just London Catholic schools, and we have been thrilled by their performances. Over the years, we’ve had choirs from schools in different parts of the city, and each has been superb, singing Mozart’s "Ave Verum", settings of "The Lord’s my Shepherd", "Panis Angelicus", and more.

A girls’ comprehensive school choir from Croydon in beautiful long skirts and white blouses, boys in smart blazers from a big South London school, enchanting youngsters from a prep school with clear fresh voices and wide eyes as they sang – we have never yet been disappointed. And their parents come, and stay to enjoy the bookstalls and displays and to buy and browse and talk.

The "Towards Advent" opening ceremony has been performed variously by the cathedral administrator, a bishop or two, and one year — a real delight — the Maltese High Commissioner, as that year we had a sparkling young Maltese harpist playing as part of the festival in a musical meditation on the Rosary.

Every year, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster — his house adjoins the Cathedral Hall — comes in and greets everyone, touring the hall, good-naturedly posing for pictures at different stalls (and, to my mother’s pleasure, buying a pot of her home-made jam at the refreshment stall!)

Refreshments were a challenge — should we simply get a commercial firm to sell coffee and snacks, or do it ourselves? We decided that good hospitality is, after all, a central part of Catholic culture, so the Association of Catholic Women rose to the challenge and organized sales of tea, coffee, cakes and sandwiches. After a slightly messy first year we now have brisk efficiency with tablecloths and nice flower arrangements, plenty of disposable cups and plates, quantities of black plastic rubbish bags. We even have a cheerful corner where children and their families can relax, with toys kindly loaned each year by a big pro-life group!

We hire extra rooms in the cathedral complex for talks. Our speakers have included distinguished Catholics such as Lord Guthrie (former Chief of the Defense Staff and a recent convert), historian and pro-life leader Professor Jack Scarisbrick, art expert Gabriele Finaldi from the National Gallery in London, Gregorian chant enthusiast Mary Berry, and bioethics campaigner Peter Garrett.

The program of talks runs throughout the day, and we sell tickets in advance for these talks, as well as making them available at the door. By advertising the names on our handbills distributed to parishes from the summer onward, we get good attendance.

Problems? Of the trivial kind, plenty. Once, an extra room that was to be used for talks that could only be reached by a walk down the rainy street with helpers posted along the route to show the way. Occasional bickering among stallholders ("why are we in this place? We asked for a more prominent position"). The Welcome Desk team (excellent youngsters) having to sit in a whistling draft by the door with November air chilling them to the bone. And — memorably one year! — a weird experience when a poor soul visiting the cathedral somehow managed to clamber out on the tower, announcing she was going to jump. The police arrived, the street was cleared – eventually the poor woman was talked down and went to a local hospital.

Early Planning a Must

Planning for a November event means action in the early part of the year. So, if you hope to have a "Towards Advent" Festival this year, the work needs to start very soon. February and March are the right time to start booking the date, and inviting groups to take part — even a school choir generally likes to have dates fixed well in advance.

We publicize the festival by handbills and letters sent to every parish (hand-addressed letters to the clergy seem to work better than printed labels), and to Catholic groups and organizations. Every group that has a stall is also urged to publicize the event. Each group pays for its stall, and this covers the cost of hiring the hall. This means that we not only cover our costs, but have even made a modest profit – part of which we used to buy a set new of steps for the hall, enabling elderly people to reach the platform area more comfortably.

As we go to press, things are coming together for "Towards Advent" 2005!


Joanna Bogle lives in London, is active in Catholic movements, writes frequently for the Catholic press, and often appears on radio and television. Mrs. Bogle is a contributing editor for Voices, the publication of Women for Faith & Family, our "sister" organization. Excerpts from her A Book of Feasts and Seasons (1988) appear on several pages of the Prayers and Devotions section of the WFF web site, www.wf-f.org.


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Joanna Bogle

Joanna Bogle has an MA in Theology and is Visiting Research Fellow at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London.