This article originally appeared in The Tablet on 22 March, 2014. It is re-used here with permission.
As you read these words, the chances are that Fr Martin Newell will be watching television. Depending on the time you get round to the article, it might be EastEnders, Ice Road Truckers or perhaps Gardeners’ World. He will also be lying on a bunk. I know this because of what he told me the other week, two days before his arrest.
“The real problem with being in prison,” explained the Passionist priest, a veteran of six jail sentences, “Is that every cell has a television set. Your pad mate usually wants to watch it, and I’m not one of those people who can ignore a TV.”
Last week Fr Newell was sentenced to 28 days in prison for non-payment of fines arising from several non-violent peace protests against war and war preparations, including British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and its use of drones and Trident. He will inform his fellow prisoners why he is there: “That’s something I always do as soon as possible. Before anyone finds out I’m a priest.” There is usually only one kind of crime that brings a cleric to prison these days, and things are not going to be pleasant if fellow prisoners get hold of the wrong end of the stick “When they find out what really brought me here,” he said, “they’re usually pretty respectful.”
So what lies behind Fr Newell’s sentence at HMP Wandsworth? The short answer to that is “God is Peace” words he wrote on the walls of the Ministry of Defence building in London’s Whitehall on Friday last week, along with “Choose Life: No Trident says God”. This followed on from his part in the Pax Christi and Catholic Worker Ash Wednesday service during which the pillars of the MoD were anointed with ashes. It was typical of the nonviolent, uncompromising peace activism that he has conducted for 17 years.
He told Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 15 March: “Jesus taught us to love not just our neighbours but also our enemies. He showed us by his life and example how to resist evil not with violence but with loving, persistent, firm, active non-violence. It was this revolutionary patience on behalf of the poor and oppressed that, humanly speaking, led to him being arrested, tried, tortured and executed by the powers that be.”
I first met Martin as he asks me to call him just before Christmas in the beautiful Minsteracres Passionist Retreat Centre. Set in the rolling Northumberland countryside, nothing could be further from Martin’s usual element of urban disadvantaged London where until recently he helped run a Catholic Worker house for rejected asylum seekers.
Gentle, bearded, bespectacled and (to my Northern ear) cockney, the worker-priest faces spells in captivity like most of us take holidays. His longest stretch was in 2000, a 12-month sentence for burglary and criminal damage when he cut the wire at RAF Wittering, illegally entered the base and disabled a nuclear weapons convoy vehicle, putting it out of use for six months.
Martin’s most striking trait is his quiet courage and his gentle, though intense, demeanour. But it was not long before his sense of humour showed itself as we chatted about his forthcoming incarceration. “I once read that prisons are the new monasteries. Both have got regular hours, communal meals, cells and plenty of time for contemplation.”
Behind the laughter, though, there is seriousness. For the Passionist, prison really is a place to meet God. As the celebrated Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan said: “Faith is not a matter for the heart or the mind, but the backside: faith is where your ass is.” During previous sentences, Martin found that faith is also a pair of ears. “You do a lot of listening. Prisoners tend to have lacked listeners throughout their lives.” Warders often choose him to room with a suicide risk, and sometimes he shares with people clucking (coming off heroin). “In most cases, the only time prisoners ever see the clergy is when they’re inside.”
Given Martin’s background, a very different life might have been anticipated. Inspired by a father who worked in London’s financial “square mile”, the north London lad did a degree in economics. So what made him choose to be a parish priest on humanity’s skid row when the wealth of the City beckoned?
Born into a loving Catholic family, with two brothers and sisters, Martin was an altar boy and Spurs fan. As a youth in the 1980s, he would stand on the terraces of White Hart Lane through rain and shine and wonder whether anything else would ever matter so much as the magic of Argentinian geniuses Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa. The answer came when he volunteered with the Catholic Worker movement as a student, and experienced life in “basic communities”. This helped confirm that he wanted to be a priest.
It was as he trained for the Brentwood Diocese that he encountered the person and writings of Fr Austin Smith, the Passionist famous for his work with the poor in Toxteth, Liverpool, described in his book, Passion for the Inner City. It led Martin to join the Passionists himself. “This was the religious order where I could live out the preferential option for the poor as a priest, in the way I felt called to.” What captured his heart in particular was the Passionist conviction that Christ’s Passion continues through history: “Look in the eyes of today’s crucified: the poor, the oppressed, the asylum seeker, the sufferer, and you’re looking into the eyes of the man at Golgotha.”
Martin’s path has certainly taken him alongside today’s crucified. His first brush with law and order, when he scaled the fence of British Aerospace’s Preston premises, was in the company of an East Timorese man called Kupa, whose whole family were among the 200,000 murdered by Indonesian dictator Suharto, in a genocide facilitated by British Aerospace firepower. “We carried a small coffin in memory of the murdered. Dropping to our knees, we prayed.” For the young priest this was a sacramental moment, as much an expression of his priesthood as celebrating the Eucharist. It was, he says, “my small way of being in solidarity with Kupa. My way of walking a few steps with him.”
His many years of working quietly in such ventures as the Catholic Worker’s hospitality home for refused asylum seekers in Haringey has also deepened his relationship with Christ’s Passion. It is often a practical relationship: the same hand that disabled the nuclear weapons vehicle has performed the 101 no-nonsense tasks required in housing, feeding and clothing a group of destitute people who were given nothing to live on and refused permission to work. “Most of the time we’re bodging together plumbing parts to make a toilet. Or collecting out-of-date food from the supermarkets.”
Helping to give dignity to those whom our governments treat as non-people must often require that sense of humour of his. But in all our conversations, I never heard Martin laugh so loudly as when I said I thought he ought to be a bishop. I was not joking. To me, he is the kind of person that Pope Francis surely meant when he said priests ought to truly “smell” their flock; the kind of priest who, when he is not sacrificing his liberty for God’s peace, quietly gives the rest of his life to the injured, the broken, the despised.
If he knew Martin, I feel certain Pope Francis would agree. In recent conversation with the Congregation for Bishops about selecting new bishops, Francis outlined his view of what makes a good pastor: “Humble and trusting sowers of the truth… those who are patient because they know the weeds will never be so many to overtake the field…” So far, so Martin Newell.
Bishops too, Pope Francis continued, need to safeguard doctrine not by continually measuring the world’s shortfallings but by enchanting, seducing people with the beauty of love. Also, in a bold, radical statement that makes me picture Martin being led away in handcuffs from the MoD building, the Pope stressed that any bishop “must be willing to argue with God on behalf of their people”.
The Church has nothing to fear from elevating Martin, and everything to gain. He is not remotely anarchic; on the night before his first non-violent action he even rang up his bishop for permission. He also has a bishop’s vision. Whereas much of the hierarchy fears the future, and are hurt by the Church’s demise in Britain, Martin believes it is full of hope and truth.
“As mainstream culture grows increasingly wealthy,” he told me at Minsteracres, “Our churches are emptying and falling apart. We wonder why no one’s interested in what we’ve got to say. But should we be surprised that the rich aren’t interested in God’s message? Jesus never said blessed are the wealthy. In fact, the opposite. He lived on the margins, with the criminals, the poor, the ill-reputed. As our Church is shunted to the margins, at last we can rediscover who he was, what he wants, what we can do.”
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