Online Edition: October 2011
Vol. XVII, No. 7
Towards Advent: Festival of Catholic Culture
by Joanna Bogle
The annual “Towards Advent: A Festival of Catholic Culture” begins its second decade this year. The festival will take place on Saturday, November 19, at Westminster Cathedral Hall in London.
To be honest, I didn’t initially think it would last that long. It began with a gathering together of representatives of several Catholic groups in London, including the Catholic Truth Society, a publishing company founded in the 1840s, which agreed to take on administration and paperwork, offering a London base and postal address so that the whole venture could take off.
We wanted to promote good music, good art, good liturgy. We wanted speakers examining these topics and also many other aspects of Church life and culture and history. We wanted to celebrate some of the great achievements of the Christian centuries.
But would people come?
That first festival back in 2000 brought together some excellent speakers: Dr. Gabriele Finaldi from the National Gallery gave us a feast of glorious paintings with an illustrated lecture on “Eucharistic images in art”. Rory O’Donnell of English Heritage spoke on “Catholic church architecture in England since Emancipation — a special patrimony”; Dr. Eamonn Duffy, Cambridge historian of Christianity, whose best known book is The Stripping of the Altars, spoke on “Rethinking the Reformation in England”.
The hall was packed. Members of the Association of Catholic Women did a roaring trade at the refreshment stand. We covered all our costs, and a tradition was begun.
Celebrating Catholic Life
The aim of the festival is to celebrate Catholic life in Britain, and so all sorts of groups and organizations have exhibit stalls, including pro-life groups, Catholic publishers and booksellers, the Society of Catholic Artists, the Association for Latin Liturgy, and makers of statues and devotional items.
From the start, a major aim was to promote beautiful Catholic music and liturgy.
Each year, a different school choir is invited to sing — beginning with the world-famous Westminster Cathedral choir and continuing over the years with the Schola of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School (featured in Adoremus Bulletin, April 2006) — and choirs from Coloma Girls School in Croydon, the John Fisher School in Purley, and More House School in Chelsea, among others.
We try to alternate between a girls’ and a boys’ school each year. In 2011, we are having the Gallery Choir of the Cathedral Choir School. We ask for two or three pieces of music, with at least one in Latin.
The standard of music over the years has been consistently high. People particularly love the old favorites — Panis Angelicus, Mozart’s Ave Verum — but have shown appreciation for a whole range of glorious music.
We don’t disdain the chance for everyone to sing a good hymn, too. The opening ceremony always ends with the Advent hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel”.
Workshop on Gregorian Chant
A popular feature of the festival, repeated several times over the years, is a workshop on Gregorian chant led by Jeremy de Satge, director of music at Holy Ghost parish, Balham, and of The Music Makers, which makes and sells CDs of Church music.
The idea is that anyone can learn to sing Gregorian chant, and within ten minutes of starting the workshop, people begin to realize that indeed they can. At the end of 40 minutes, the voices are raised in a glorious Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The message is clear: you could achieve this in your parish or Catholic school. This could be part of your weekly Sunday liturgy.
Cathedral Tours — and More
We have been blessed with wonderful support from the cathedral clergy. Every year, the archbishop visits — initially Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor and now Archbishop Vincent Nicholls.
A popular feature of the festival has been guided tours of Westminster Cathedral.
One memorable event was the praying of the Rosary interspersed with beautiful harp music by young musician Cecilia Sultana de Maria, in the cathedral’s Lady Chapel.
The 2010 festival had a note of special celebration as it took place in the wake of a highly successful papal visit — an enterprising stall selling scarves in the specially woven papal tartan did a roaring trade.
Our guest speaker will be Monsignor Keith Newton of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham — formed this year and with more than 60 former Anglican clergy and some 1,000 faithful joining during 2011.
We are also having a celebration of the beatification of John Paul II, featuring a film, and music and presentations from an Oxford-based youth drama group.
Celebrating Catholic culture has proved popular, energizing, and creative. We rely entirely on volunteers and the support and goodwill seems always to increase — people distribute leaflets, sell tickets, organize refreshments (all the cakes and sandwiches are homemade), and tell their friends.
Every year, a school choir does us proud, small children crawl and scribble and toddle about in the play corner, friends meet to gossip, stalls sell everything from Christmas cards to rosaries. And every year the festival committee meets in January and the first question is “Well, do we do it again?” Popular demand has given a very clear answer.
As the Towards Advent festival enters its second decade, we’ll be singing “O come, O come Emmanuel” with grateful hearts.
Joanna Bogle writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio and television.