Saint Inspires Catholic Writers' Guild
by Joanna Bogle
Back in the 1930s, some Catholic journalists in London decided to establish a Catholic Writers’ Guild. The core of the group were men who wrote for GK’s Weekly, the magazine established by G.K. Chesterton. The idea of the guild was that it would revive something of the tradition of the Medieval guilds fellowship, mutual support and the celebration of a common faith, by members of linked trades and professions. Membership of the Catholic Writers’ Guild could be authors, journalists, publishers, editors, or people working in linked fields such as broadcasting.
Today the Catholic Writers’ Guild still flourishes. There is a branch in the northwest of England, meeting in Manchester, and one in London. The London branch is called The Keys honoring the Keys of the Kingdom that Christ gave to Saint Peter. It met for many years at St. Etheldreda’s in London’s Ely Place, where a plaque commemorates this link and the support given over the years by the parish priest Father Kit Cunningham.
A couple of years ago The Keys moved to St. Mary Moorfields, where the parish priest Father Peter Newby took up the position as chaplain. The current chairman of the guild always given the traditional Medieval title of Guild Master is journalist Melanie McDonagh. She is the third woman writer to hold this position. (Others have been Frances Gumley, formerly editor of Britain’s Catholic newspaper, The Catholic Herald, who is now headmistress of a leading Catholic girls’ school in London, and the Right Honorable Ann Widdecombe, who as a Member of Parliament and former Government Minister attracted considerable publicity to the guild). In fact, women were not members of the guild in its early years there was a separate organization for Catholic women writers, known as The Quills. This merged with the Catholic Writers’ Guild in the 1960s.
Patron of the Catholic Writers’ Guild
The patron saint of Catholic writers is Saint Francis de Sales, and so the guild adopted him as its formal patron too. The Annual General Meeting of the guild is always held on or near his feast-day, January 24. As with all guild meetings, there is Mass followed by supper and a guest speaker. Members can bring guests, and there is always a lively discussion.
Who was Saint Francis de Sales? He was a great bishop and writer, working at the time of the Reformation, when religious tensions ran high. His great message is that all who preach, write, and debate in the cause of the Church must do so with love: charity must always prevail. When he was given charge of a territory where most of the people had gone over to Calvinism, he won them back not by bitter argument but by love: in four years most had returned to the Church.
In 1601 he was appointed bishop of Geneva, a difficult diocese badly in need of reform. Preaching and teaching, he reached many souls. He was known for his perfect manners and his gentleness. A Calvinist minister would later say of him “If we honored any man as a saint, I know no one since the days of the apostles more worthy of it than this man.”
Francis believed and taught that busy people “in the world” are called to be saints: married women raising children and working busily at home, soldiers, people running shops and offices, people in public life or around the royal courts. His Introduction to the Devout Life is regarded as a spiritual classic, and was admired by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists.
Saint Francis de Sales was a writer of pamphlets: in the passionate debates of the post-Reformation period, it was crucial that people understood what the Catholic Church really taught, and could see how the teachings were grounded in the Scriptures and had been part of the Faith from the earliest days. This meant that time and patience must be given to teaching and explaining, accurately and thoroughly. His tracts, tackling issues such as the primacy of the successors of Saint Peter, the reality of Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament, the forgiveness of sins, purgatory, the Mass, and much more, were passed around, slipped under doorways, shared between friends, and much discussed. Because they were readable, and free from anger or pointless polemics, they rang true. He was also always scrupulously honest, disliking any duplicity.
In 1604 Francis met Jane Frances de Chantal, with whom he would in due course found the Order of the Visitation. This was a new form of religious life at that time and provoked considerable criticism as it departed from the ideas of severity and strict enclosure that had been regarded as the norm. It flourished and by the time of Saint Jane’s death in 1641 there were some eighty convents spread across Europe.
Jane Frances de Chantal was a widow, and her founding a new religious order of this type was an innovation that would have been quite impossible without a strong bishop to support, teach, encourage and help her. Francis de Sales was a spiritual director who knew that his role was to guide souls to God and perhaps with His help to bring out gifts and talents to be used in the service of the Church. The friendship between Saint Jane and Saint Francis is one of the great spiritual stories of the Reformation era. It has echoes, too, of the friendship between another Saint Francis and a woman saint Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Clare.
Saint Francis de Sales is in a sense my patron saint, as I have been a member of the Catholic Writers’ Guild since the 1970s when I joined as a young journalist writing for local newspapers in the London suburbs. My husband is now also a member and guild meetings are an important part of our lives. The talk is lively, the atmosphere convivial, the discussions wide-ranging. It’s a wonderful place to which to bring friends.
Current members include a number of authors including novelist Piers Paul Read who is a former Master of the Guild journalists, reviewers, and broadcasters. We run an annual Catholic Young Writer Award (the 2007 winning essay, “Saint Thomas More: A Saint for Today” by Bernadette Pfang was published in Voices, Michaelmas 2007); and we sponsor the Towards Advent Festival of Catholic Culture held each November at Westminster Cathedral Hall.
We need good Catholic communicators today on TV and radio, in the press, as authors, commentators, columnists. There are whole fields where the mass media is in a pitiful state: pornographic magazines aimed at teenage girls, TV soap operas with vicious and sordid messages and images. On the other hand, we have seen some good initiatives in recent years among Catholics: EWTN, the US Catholic television network, now has its own British base with St. Clare Media. Thriving Catholic publishers in Britain include Family Publications in Oxford, Gracewing Books, and an expansion of the Catholic Truth Society. The internet is also providing massive new opportunities for Catholic writing at every level.
The Catholic Writers Guild of England and Wales (its full title) has established friendly links with an American Catholic Writers Guild that operates on the internet. We love the idea of international links and enjoy swapping news and information.
Sometimes it seems that the task of being a Catholic writer presents special difficulties today: tensions within the Church, ferocious criticism of Catholic moral teachings from many sides, and frequent media bias against traditional Christian views, especially on pro-life issues.
We need courage, wisdom, good humor, and mutual support. We need to remember the importance of prayer. We need a patron. We could all usefully invoke the aid of Saint Francis de Sales in seeking inspiration for all Catholic writers and communicators, working with vigor and enthusiasm to communicate truth with joy and with charity.
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, 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. Her blog, Auntie Joanna writes... is accessible at http://joannabogle.blogspot.com.
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