Minsteracres on the Northumberland / Co Durham border is a truly beautiful place, well known to me since my childhood and teens and for many years later, as I was a parishioner of St Patrick’s, Consett for 4 decades before we were ‘exiled ‘to the East Riding of Yorkshire!
The Estate lies between Consett and Hexham on the A68 and the tops of the amazing avenue of giant sequoias can be seen for many miles around. You would think the perfect place to reflect on peace and non-consumerism.
However, the mansion house originally was built in 1758 by George Silvertop, who was the first Catholic High Sheriff of Northumberland, after the repeal of the Penal Law and belonged to that family, for almost 200 years. It is a beautiful house sumptuously decorated with vast ceilings and huge rooms.
After some family tragedies and after the son and heir Francis Silvertop was killed in WW1, the family sold the property in 1949 to the Passionist Fathers, who became involved with St Patrick’s, giving retreats and supplying to the local parishes
In the early 70’s the Retreat House was rebuilt and transformed from carriage and stable blocks by the men of Consett parishes during a steel strike. They did the work voluntarily but were fed by the Brothers. It was truly a labour of love. After it was finished Minsteracres opened its doors for summer fairs, family days and retreats for parishes. Myself and my family spent many happy hours in those grounds.
The theme for the day was: Reflections on the Pope’s encyclical, Countering Consumerism: Lessons from Gaudete et Exultate.
This retreat was organised by CAFOD and hosted by David Cross, Community Participation Coordinator and was advertised in both Hexham and Newcastle and Middlesbrough Dioceses. It was a lovely opportunity for me to ‘touch base’, I was delighted to be there again! AND it was a FREE day! I just had to go.
The presentations were led by Sarah Croft, CAFOD’s Campaigns Manager, who remarked that it seemed incongruous that we were discussing non-consumerism which didn’t fit easily with the painted ceilings, grand rooms and collections of antiques. However, the fact that this beautiful property is being used for people to come together to pray and find peace, is a wonderful use for the many, instead of the few. Like the tiny seeds from the great sequoias, our lives we hope, will grow and flourish.
Our opening liturgy took the theme of the Beatitudes- that God’s blessings do not follow the logic of the world we live in. In fact, the opposite is true. The world believes that the rich are blessed but Jesus reminds us that it is the poor who are blessed, the poor in spirit and the materially poor as well.
While people covet power, Jesus blesses the meek and asks us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and the marginalised, which is CAFOD’s ‘raison d’etre’. We ask Jesus to show us his presence in the faces of those the world forgets.
This theme continued with thinking of a more just world in which all have enough and none are left behind. We were asked to reflect on how the Beatitudes affect us in our own lives, our relationship with those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, our lack of humility, our fight for justice for others, being merciful, forgetting ourselves and our desires and being peacemakers.
In groups we discussed things which are seldom considered – our desire for newer, bigger, better set against the working conditions of those who make electronic devices, clothes and food – the ‘labour behind the label’.
Following the Beatitudes, we are asked to let Jesus’s words unsettle us, challenge us and demand a real change in the way we live.
The Beatitudes contain eight blessings. In the almost two millennia since it was spoken by Jesus, no other text or teaching has come close to it, as guidance for how to live a good and moral life.
We were asked to identify which of these blessings affect each one of us in our own lives. It was a bit like a preparation for the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Am I poor in spirit? When I mourn a loved one, am I just thinking of my own loss? Do I lack humility and am I prepared to be self- effacing? Am I merciful – do I forgive enough? Am I prepared to be persecuted or criticised for righteousness sake?
We were then asked how these Beatitudes can be our ideal to follow each day. In Gaudete et Exultate, the Pope calls us all to work at being holy in our own lives. Jesus explained with great simplicity what it means to be holy when he gave us the Beatitudes. If anyone asks,
“What must one do to become a good Christian?”, the answer is clear. We must do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount. We find a portrait of the Master. The word “happy” or “blessed” become a synonym for “holy”. It expresses the fact that those faithful to God and His word by their self-giving, gain true happiness.
The Pope expresses this and encourages us to have open hearts and minds: – “A community that cherishes the little details of love, whose members care for one another and create an open and evangelising environment, is a place where the risen Lord is present, sanctifying it in accordance with the Father’s plan.”
In the next session we were invited to experience a reflection hour with a relaxation and silence exercise. We were given questions to reflect on how easy or difficult it would be for us to live out the Beatitudes in our own life. Do we have role models in our lives, like St Theresa, Mother Teresa, the English Martyrs and what made them stand out as saintly figures? They are usually people who forget themselves and are totally focussed on Christ.
We were asked what our greatest distractions or obstacles were in responding to the call to holiness. Pope Francis suggests we are obsessed with our own pleasures – however simple they may be – perhaps our own comfort or needs. Could we develop daily or weekly habits that would help us grow in holiness, perhaps a bit less TV and more time for prayer, visiting sick or needy, writing to politicians and protesting for the innocent?
It is interesting but tragic that public opinion has now become more aware of the damage we have done to our earthly home, a world of beauty created by Our God. People are now more aware of the kind of messages which CAFOD and other voices have been warning about for so long. We pray that it is not too late.
So, we spent the day reflecting on how we can BE DISTURBED by the gospel of the Beatitudes, challenge the culture of consumerism and how we can accept Pope Francis’ invitation to more fully care for our common home.
The day was concluded with sharing views and thoughts provoked by these questions. Finally, we read the CAFOD livesimply prayer, Walk Lightly.
Each leaf, and each petal, each grain, each person, sings your praises Creator God. Each creature on the earth, all the mountains and the great seas, show your glory, Spirit of love. And yet the hand of greed has patented and plundered Your splendour, has taken and not shared Your gift,has lived as owner of the Earth, not guest. And so, the ice is cracked, the rivers dry, the valleys flooded and the snow caps melt. God Our Father, show us how to step lightly, how to live simply, with respect and love for all that you have made. Amen.
Thank you, David, Sarah and CAFOD for this inspirational day in such a beautiful place – especially as it was FREE!
Mary-Rose Stokoe. CAFOD Volunteer, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Market Weighton.