DEBORAH JONES meets Mgr Anthony Stark, Master of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, now devoted to freeing people from the snares of the Devil rather than slavery and captivity
MONSIGNOR Anthony Stark is nothing like the austere ecclesiastical grandee his title of Master of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, might suggest. A warm and brisk gentleman, two months away from claiming his old age pension, he met me at his favourite Italian restaurant in Wimbledon for the easiest interview ever. Few questions were needed to prompt a succession of anecdotes, stories and potted histories from his encyclopaedic knowledge of English Catholicism, and the place in it of his beloved Guild.
Mgr Stark is only the fourth Master of the Guild, having been in office since 1968. Unlike all his predecessors, he is not a convert, and chuckled at the memory of an Anglican bishop who had asked when he'd been "poped". At about five weeks old, he'd replied. Under his direction the work of the Guild has grown enormously, not only in the numbers taking part in the many pilgrimages he organises, but especially in the amount of money raised and distributed.
Born in Birmingham and educated "in the shadow of Cardinal Newman" at St Philip's Grammar School, his ambition was to have been a missionary. But after training with the Mill Hill Missionaries in London, he was found to be medically unfit for the tropics, so finished his seminary training at Allen Hall and was ordained into the Westminster Archdiocese as an Oblate of St Charles. After two years as parish priest in Paddington, he was invited by Cardinal Heenan to take over the Guild, "a life sentence" in which he has lived "in happy exile in the Southwark Archdiocese for 23 years" having bought his house in Wimbledon in the days before property prices there rocketed.
When Mgr Stark took over the Guild there were 20,000 enrolled "Ransomers"but in 1970 could distribute only £7,000 among five dioceses. However, in 1995 there were 13,000 members with funds to distribute nearly a quarter of a million pounds, resulting entirely from the Master's tireless efforts. The large amounts of money are managed by a "wonderful team", led by the Queen's own financial advisers who give their services free. It is Mgr Stark's policy to invest 10 per cent of annual income and 75 per cent of all bequests, with all money distributed coming from interest.
This distribution of money goes entirely to poor parishes to support their pastoral work and is one of the two main activities of the Guild. The parishes are selected by the diocesan bishops after a grant has been made to each diocese, ranging, in 1995, from £5,000 to £21,000.
The other is the witness to the Faith through reviving the tradition of pilgrimages and public processions. The whole purpose of the Guild is for the conversion of England and Wales, including the restoration of lapsed Catholics, and to pray for the forgotten dead. It is not antiecumenical, however, for the brochure of the Guild states categorically that "prayer for the conversion of our country implies prayer for Christian unity". Good relations with other denominations have resulted in the use of Anglican cathedrals and shrines being used for Masses and pilgrimages.
The Guild was founded on 29 November 1887 by two converts, the intellectually brilliant former Anglican priest, Fr Fletcher, and the lawyer, Lister Drummond. In
1900, on a visit to Rome, they secured the enthusiastic support of Pope Leo XIII who requested to be appointed the Guild's first President. The present Holy Father is known as its Personal Protector. The year before founding the Guild, Fr Fletcher had produced a magazine "Faith of our Fathers, a magazine devoted to the cause, Past Present and Future, of the Faith in England", which became the organ of the Guild intermittently until in 1893 the present title The Ransomer appeared. The early Ransomers tended to be nearly all converts from other Churches. An anecdote that Mgr Stark is fond of telling involves Cardinal Manning, himself a convert from the Church of England, replying to a group of disaffected Anglicans who nevertheless could not take to following Rome and who wanted him to join their "Church of Free Catholics": "I've just left a boat which itself had left a ship three centuries ago. I'm not now going to jump onto a tug!"
After the Reformation, pilgrimages and public processions were no longer part of Catholic life until the Ransomers relaunched them. At first the scale of pilgrimages was small, but grew steadily until dioceses and parishes were able to organise them themselves. One procession still run by the Guild is the atinual one on the last Sunday of April known as the Tyburn Walk, in which hundreds of Catholics follow the route taken by the martyrs on their last painful journey towards the scaffold at Tyburn. Built on the execution site is now the Tyburn Convent, from the balcony of which Benediction is given by the invited bishop to the crowd below. Other London-based activities include the July procession to the Chelsea parish church of St Thomas More, and several Evening Rambles taking in places of historic Catholic interest.
Another event in the Guild calendar is the annual visit to the Shrine of Our Lady in the Slipper Chapel at Walsingham. The first-ever postReformation pilgrimage to England's foremost Marian shrine was made by the Guild in 1897. Mgr Stark chatted excitedly about the new window for the Slipper Chapel depicting the Annunciation. Commissioned by the Guild, it will mark the centenary of devotion to the shrine when it is blessed in August of this year.
The publication of informative booklets, and promoting Novenas and prayers for the conversion to Christianity of England and Wales, are part of the Master's work, and Mgr Stark's enthusiasm for it all seems undiminished having worked almost singlehanded in it for 30 years. In that long time he has seen many changes, and marvels still at the generosity of ordinary people.
We parted on the happy observation that Mgr Stark has witnessed the rise of young people coming into the Church in the last few years: many no doubt the result of the prayers and intercessions of Ransomers under the inspiring leadership of the Guild's Master.