Stephen Walford was a 20-year-old music student at Bristol University when he experienced what he calls “demonic interference”. He was praying on his own in church one evening in November. Something hadn’t felt right the moment he walked in – it seemed as if he was being watched. Later, when he opened his eyes, he realised the candles had gone out and he was in almost total darkness. He could hear footsteps in front of him even though no one was there. In the end, he was so unnerved that he cut short his prayers and left. “I was aware in that moment that I had failed,” he says.
The “demonic interference”, he says, wanted him to stop what he was doing – at the time he was praying for souls that were dying. “My one regret is not staying there till the end and ignoring it.”
Walford is telling me this story at his home in Hedge End, Southampton. I have visited him because of his sudden prominence in the debate about Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the family. In the past few months he has emerged, almost from nowhere, as one of the Pope’s chief defenders in the row over Communion for the remarried. His denunciations of the text’s critics have been fierce – and the reaction has been too. One priest told him he was “leading souls to hell”. Another Twitter opponent said: “You obviously don’t care about your own soul.”
That he is a piano teacher, with no training in theology, and was granted a 45-minute private audience with the Pope in July, seemingly as a reward for his online articles, has only made him more of a target for people’s anger.
His critics, though, have got him wrong. And within minutes of walking through his front door I realise I’d got him wrong too. I had assumed that, given his strong support for the possibility of Communion for the remarried, he was a liberal. But he hands me tea in a Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club mug (“Putting the smackdown on heresy since 1981!”) and says he would describe himself as a conservative Catholic. He is blokey and forthright. “I love the popes,” he says. “I stick with the popes no matter what.”
Walford may be a piano teacher but he is no theological slouch. He has written two books and his latest, Communion of Saints, about how souls in heaven and purgatory are united with the faithful on earth, was described as “inspiring” and “theologically reliable” by none other than Fr Thomas Weinandy, the former head of the US bishops’ doctrine committee, who recently published a scathing letter accusing Pope Francis of creating “chronic confusion”.
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