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High Profile

Love supreme

Christina Rees

As editor of the Catholic Herald and then deputy editor of New Statesman, Cristina Odone gained a reputation for feistiness. However, she showed a more vulnerable side when Christina Rees visited her home off the King's Road in London.

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Tell me first about the family you were born into. You are half Italian, half Swedish, is that right?

And I was born in Kenya, so that throws in another ele- ment. Whenever my husband wants to have fun at my expense, he introduces me as his African wife.

It was an extraordinary family, in that the gulf be- tween the two cultures, the Lutheran Scandinavian and the Mediterranean Catholic, was present everywhere. My parents had a terrible marriage, it was very turbu- lent and acrimonious. And that, as any child of a bad marriage will tell you, is a very wounding experience.

Otherwise, I had a very happy life. I loved my school - I was educated [in Rome] in this tiny little convent school which was like an extended family - in fact, it was the loving, quiet, calm family I never had. I loved learning - it was a very important part of my life. I was quite an egghead, quite nerdy.
And then when I was nine we were wrenched away from that and brought to Washington DC; but that was very exciting as well. I missed Italy tremendously, but there was something so adventurous about America, it was so huge and there was endless possibility. And an element of competition, too, so I learnt what the real world was like outside my Catholic cocoon.

How old were you when your parents finally divorced?

I was 13 - a very tricky period at the best of times. But actually what happened was that all the strife, all the conflict was gone and for the first time I saw my par- ents being really co-operative. My mother understood that, no matter how difficult a husband my father was, he was a loving, very hands-on father and we needed him; and so she allowed access at any time, day or night. Confrontational becomes collaborative - and all with a word of divorce.

This was in 1973, before divorce became almost cool...

Exactly. I remember being the only one at Marymount Junior School [in Washington] whose parents were divorced. I remember my great-aunts in Italy begging me not to let anyone in the village know. I remember being really odd. It was very difficult to cope with, and also it was very confusing: my Catholic upbringing was very clear that they had done something really evil, but everything around me told me that this was better. You know, it was better for me, it was better for my mum, it was better for my dad. There was a real conflict there.

Was that when you started to think, 'Maybe the church isn't right about everything...'?

I'm afraid that came much later. I was so convinced that my parents were the exception to the rule - and also I thought: 'If only they had continued to love each other, it would have been better.'

And then my father remarried and that was very difficult, to accept someone else in my mother's role. And then [my half-brother] Lorenzo was born, and that was very difficult as well.

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When did you realise that he was ill with ALD?1
Well, that didn't come until I was 21 and Lorenzo was six, and… Just gutting. I mean, it was just awful. It happened so fast, in the space of a summer. I'd been away studying journalism in Italy and my father rang me and said, 'You've got to come back, because...' He didn't want to tell me the truth, so he said: 'Lorenzo is going blind.'

And so I went back and it was just horrific, because every day something was lost: every day he could walk a little less, he could hear a little less, he could see a little less... It was very wrenching, really heart-rending... I remember I cried every single night, and... I can still...

Yes, I can see.

I can still cry every single night about it. You'd think that after all these years...

One of the horrors of it is, he was [the same age that my daughter, Isabel, is now] and I just keep thinking how you can go from assuming everything is perfect...

We'd go to the playground and children would make fun of him because he'd been shaved for the Cat scans and you just looked at this tiny, vulnerable creature and you thought: 'Where is God in this? You know, what is this?' That was when my debate with my God and my church started. You know, I didn't have an untroubled childhood but I never knew the desolation, the despair, that Lorenzo's illness showed me. I remember my father saying to me: 'You go to sleep and when you wake up, the sun is shining and then it hits you like a sledgehammer that the most important thing has gone awry.'

Years ago, I saw the film [Lorenzo's Oil]2 -

Oh, my God! I almost killed myself then...

- and I was so impressed by your father's dedication.

And that was life-changing in terms of my faith as well, because I saw this cherishing of life that left so many others utterly shocked. I remember my father saying: 'Cristina, there are colleagues of mine, friends of mine, who cross the street to avoid me. They don't want to ask how Lorenzo is, they can't handle the emotions - and in many cases they disapprove of what I'm doing.'

They thought: Just let him die! Why are you bothering?

Put him away! Put him away! That was the leitmotif of so many conversations with people outside the inner family. You know, he lay in a bed at the very centre of the house - which was very important: they wanted him to feel he was at the core of their household - and there he was, unable to move, unable to talk, unable to see, and yet you felt him, and you had no doubt -

You knew he hadn't gone.

No. No. And that for me was a very important change in life. In my teens and my early twenties, I'd been - I wouldn't say a wild child but, you know, I'd rebelled, I'd had fun, I hadn't given my religion thought - I always believed, but I sure as heck tried not to practise.

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And what was interesting was that so many people said to me, 'Surely this has shaken your faith?' and instead I found that it gave me a whole other dimension of faith.

Until then, I'd been taught about the magisterium, I had been taught about the community, but now I understood about the mystery - and it really was a mystery. I never thought: 'God has washed his hands of us. He has turned his back on Lorenzo.' I thought: 'There's something here I cannot understand and it fills me with awe and a sense that there is something beyond all of this.' And as my father and stepmother kept working on the oil, the mystery of science - you know, what was causing [Lorenzo's condition]? What could cure it? What could prevent it? - was reduced, whilst the mys- tery of God grew. It was a very interesting process.

And that was the other very important lesson: not only did I understand how sacred life is, and that spirit that we all have, but I also understood how questionable science is. Diagnoses can be totally wrong, prognoses can be wrong - and what is certain today, tomorrow can suddenly... You know? So, it gave me a healthy scepticism, towards medicine, and science in general.

But it increased your sense of awe.

And my sense of humility, and absolutely that sense of 'How dare we?' How dare we throw something away? And it's something that informs my attitude towards so many things. I think that it is such an important aspect of our society that we write people off, whether they are infirm or elderly or poor - and there's such an ease with that. And yet there is dignity in every breathing moment of our lives: even if we are physically unable to respond to our nerve impulses, unable to think ration- ally, there is life and there's that spirit, and that spirit is what we must fight to preserve.

How old was Lorenzo when he died?

It was right after his 30th birthday.

So, the oil your father helped to develop really did work?

Well, what it keeps being shown to do is, if taken early enough, it prevents boys with adrenoleucodystrophy from getting all the symptoms: it keeps them on their feet and conscious. The problem with Lorenzo was that it just kept him alive. They'd hoped it would restore all his faculties, but that never happened.

I want to move on to another subject -

I hope you're not going to make me cry with this one!

How did you find the move from Washington to Oxford?

I described America as adventurous and huge, but I'd always felt this hankering for the Old World. I'd missed the traditions, the architecture, that slower tempo, the courtesy, in the exchanges even between strangers, that I associated with Italy. And I fell in love with England the moment I saw it, and what I loved about it was the way that it was in between the two worlds. It was not as slow as Italy, not as beautiful, but it had so much more charm than America and it was not as rushed. And it was not scarred by the materialism of America, though it was not perhaps as obviously spiritual as Italy was.

So, here was this wonderful country whose literature and theatre I had always loved and whose history I had studied - and I felt much more comfortable in it. In America I was a weirdo, and I was odd in England, too - I spoke with a mid-Atlantic accent, no one knew how to pronounce my name and they couldn't pigeonhole me classwise - but there was such a respect for the eccentric, for the different. I really appreciated that.

What do you say when people ask where you're from?

Oh, don't! Isn't it tricky? It's so funny, in America I'm asked where in England I'm from, in Italy I'm asked where in America I'm from. I always say I'm Italian when I'm here, but when I'm in Italy I have difficulty, because they can smell that I'm not.

But in your heart where is home?

Here, because of my family... What is wrong with me today? It's because I've got mascara on. That's what it is.

I know just how you feel. I wasn't born here either and at times I feel dislocated; but since 1978 I've made my home here because, like you, I married an Englishman.

And that is one of the things that has changed my whole attitude to faith: finding somebody who is my soulmate. He's Anglican and he's much more devout than I am. But I wasn't lucky like you: I met him really late on...

How important is it to your sense of who you are that you're a Catholic?

My sense of identity has certainly been shaped by my Catholic faith, and often my Catholicity has been the most solid bit of my identity. But I don't have that sense of tribalism that I've noticed with English Catholics. It still takes me aback: whether they are Irish immigrant stock or they're toff recusants, this sense of 'us against them' is very, very strong. They really see themselves as a very special minority.

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A beleaguered minority or a privileged one?

At once privileged and beleaguered, because theirs is heaven but they will have a difficult time on earth.

It took me completely by surprise when as editor of the Catholic Herald I would find incredible doors open to me, and I thought, 'My God! Is this because of me, or is this because of the Herald?' And then, little by little, I understood: I was appealing to their tribal sense.

It's quite cool nowadays in this country to call yourself a Catholic, but not to call yourself a Christian, and still less an evangelical. Why do you think that is?

Well, I have to say... H'mmm. You know, there is too much literal interpretation, there is too much dancing and wailing... There's a slight vulgarity. I really didn't like what I saw of Holy Trinity Brompton. I was really shocked. It was Oprah Winfrey religion.

You know the Ignatian idea that every Christian sees an aspect of Christ that no one else can see. What do you think is your unique vision of Christ?

I don't know that it's unique, but I do know that what I see is this warm welcome - you know, when his arms were stretched across that cross, it is because he is an open-armed embrace.

And do you feel called to extend that embrace yourself?

Yes. Yes.

My husband has shown me that what Jesus means to me is love, this incredible ability to embrace and not exclude, and, you know, everything else is secondary. Of course they're important, the roots and reins of reli- gion, the identity, the discipline, the understanding of authority, the understanding of mystery; but they're all a kind of sub-clause to the love. The essential is love.

You mention authority. What do you recognise as your spiritual authority?

It's very difficult because I was raised with an absolutely unquestioning understanding that God's greatest interpreter on earth is the Pope, and the magisterium of the Church is perfectly embodied in the Vatican. It was such a crucial part of my understanding of what faith was about. When I think about what I mean by 'faith' now, I still accept the magisterium, as every Catholic does; I still respect the understanding of dogma.

And yet I fear that this particular pope has made some mistakes in communicating our faith. I think that this has been such a tricky time for Christianity, a time when it has been attacked by a secular society that is obsessed with political correctness, by materialism, by a reawakened Islam that really believes in its own superior teachings and by a liberal wing within both the Anglican communion and the Catholic church, and I can see why Benedict feels the need to stand strong, to stand still, to be the rock in all these swirling waters; but as a communicator I think he has risked alienating some of the most integral members of the church's community.

Who are...?

Gays and women. And for me that has been painful because of what I said about love and inclusivity. It's been difficult because I want to be a good Catholic, and disobedience is not part of that, and yet I need to say: This is not what Jesus meant. I just do not believe that Jesus stands for exclusion. I just don't believe that.

And where does your greater loyalty lie?

Well, of course this is terrible, this tension within me. I will avoid going on a programme to say, you know, Benedict has it wrong, because I think that would be disloyal. But I know that in my heart (and I have actually said this in the Observer) I do not believe that the Catholic church can turn its back on people who have given so much, and continue to give so much, to the Catholic community. I just can't see Jesus judging people who devote their lives to his Church and saying, 'I find you wanting' or 'I find you flawed.'

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I've spent the last 20 years working as an advocate for women priests in the Church of England, and now for women bishops, and we're almost there. Do you think you will ever have them in the Roman Catholic Church?

I think it will happen. Cardinal Newman spoke of the evolution of theology and I think he is absolutely right. When the orders are literally dying, because the members are so aged, and so many young, dedicated women all over the world would do anything to be closer to their church and to their God, I think we're not talking about 'if', we're talking about 'when'.

Do you think that it's time to review the idea of priestly celibacy?

Absolutely. Absolutely. What we must not ignore is the loneliness of clerical life now. If you are a vicar and you have a wife and a family, you are that much more protected from that sense of loneliness and alienation that the poor Catholic priest suffers from day in, day out.

You see, for many centuries the priest was never alone. He was part of the family. OK, it wasn't his family but he was part of the village community, he was part of the city... I remember my great-aunts in Italy vying with their neighbours to host the priest at dinner. They bought one of the first television sets in the village in order to lure him round to watch the films. Community life revolved around him. Whereas now, in today's fragmented, indifferent society... [Celibacy] tears him out of the context of the community, it gives him in many cases a limited experience of the extraordinary life of the 21st century. And for what? For what?

You know, there is a tyranny of physical love (and I am dreading it when it comes to my daughter and my stepsons), but on the whole I think it is something we should celebrate. I think it can be overpowering, it can be overwhelming, but it also can be so joyful and can so transport us. It's no wonder that it has inspired some of the most beautiful things that we have in our cultures.

Because you are married to a divorcé, you are no longer
allowed to take Mass. Do you take communion with your husband in his church?

No. I get blessings, from both his church and Brompton Oratory.

I have had many liberal Catholic priests say to me, 'Cristina, come to my church! I promise you, there is no problem.' But I've never done it, because, you know, I am a Catholic, I know what the teaching is and I cannot break it. I walked into this with my eyes open. I knew, I just knew, that this man needed love, he'd been left, he was broken, and this was God's work, not the devil's. But I knew that for my church it was a different matter.

So, when it came to humane reality versus the teachings of the church, you'd go with the reality every time?

Yes, I'm afraid I do. I'm afraid I do. And that makes me a lesser Catholic, I'm afraid.

But a better Christian?

Possibly a more humane one.

And a better human being?

Yes. The last person to make me cry as much as you have was Timothy Radcliffe, the recent head of the Dominicans. I was with him at a friend's house and she was ribbing me about being married to a divorced man and how could I accept the church's teaching on this, and she said, 'Timothy, what do you think?' And he said: 'You know, when I think how demanding marriage is today, I wonder if I were married whether I would've lasted so long.' And it was just so brilliant, I just cried and cried; and I cried for three hours.

(I have to say, the two most inspiring and amazing spiritual figures [I know of] are Timothy Radcliffe and Rowan Williams. I think they both are just fantastic.)

Can we talk a little about your professional life? Is there a conflict between all you have learnt in your spiritual life - the sense of mystery, the sense of the supremacy of love - and the values of the world of journalism?

Yes. Oh, of course there is, yes.

HP6.jpgTo me, everything we've been talking about leads to truth, humanity, peace and yet the world of journalism tends to be fixated on conflict and sensation - and spin, of course. How do you reconcile the two?

Well... I love journalism. I love the drama, I love the excitement, I love the adrenalin, I love the spin - I am so guilty of all of that. If I hadn't had a child I'd still be in there 24/7 and that conflict between the two would plague me until the end of my days. Even at the Herald - you know, Bishop Casey was the first big story I had to do and I just sort of let it rip.3 'I want sensationalism, I want the sex, I want the women, I want -' You know. And my little minions, who were all incredibly pious, said, 'But, Cristina, this is not good for the Church!' And I didn't say, 'Eff it!' but I almost did; I just said, 'Come on! Let's just go for it! This is so exciting!'

Do I regret it? No, I don't. Because it was the truth, it was just trumped up in a negative way, if you see what I mean. You can come at the truth from many different angles and this was a kind of drum-rolling naming-and-shaming. It wasn't very Christian, it wasn't very humane, but boy! did it sell a lot of copies and it was fun. You know, I loved it. I loved it.

But I've been saved from continuing in that vein...

Did that conflict ever make you feel like a hypocrite?

Yes. I think it's very difficult. But as long as you don't cast stones, and you don't say, 'Do as I say, not as I do!' -

And you don't say, 'Look at my life!' No. I was very careful even when I was editor of the Catholic Herald. You know, I was practising birth control and [so] I never talked about birth control. I was very careful to toe the Catholic line on abortion...

What I am very conscious of, and very pleased with, is that I defend the church very often. I use journalism to protect, support and promulgate its teaching. When I write my articles or broadcast, I graft its agenda onto a public agenda.

What would you like to be remembered for?

The epitaph I'd like would be: She helped us to understand the Catholic church.

Are you at peace?

More than I've ever been, but not entirely. I don't think I'll ever get there, I don't think I'm that kind of person.

And that's OK?

And that's OK, yes. Because I think the most horrific people I have met are smug and complacent and tell me that they're at peace.

When you finally meet Christ and he says to you, 'Well done, good and faithful servant!', what might he be referring to?

I'm generous-spirited. I'm not always forgiving, but I can honestly say that I throw myself into things and people and on the whole I will give of myself or what I have to people I sense are in need. I just give, sometimes recklessly.

And although often it is ignored, or it is not received with gratitude, I always know that that is when I am closest to what God wants.