(This blog was written before the momentous news of Pope Benedict’s resignation. That news is being covered almost to saturation point in the media, understandably. What could be a bigger event on the world stage? However, as we also know, the Church will go on, public and private prayer will go on and in particular, during this Year of Faith that was initiated by the Holy Father, small, barely noticed, humble deeds of evangelisation will continue to go on. The evangelical mission of St Patrick’s, Soho Square, described below, points the best way forward for all of us foot-soldiers in the Church ie we who won’t be voting in the coming papal conclave.)
I tackled the wind and the rain on Sunday afternoon to drive over to Littlemore in Oxford, former home to Blessed John Henry Newman, to listen to Fr Alexander Sherbrooke, parish priest of St Patrick’s, Soho Square, give a talk on “Living as a Christian in a Secular Society”. Not surprisingly his talk, from start to finish, was about prayer – specifically, the kind of prayer that comes from the practice of Eucharistic Adoration. I had vaguely expected an address that would fortify the “ghetto mentality” that it is very easy for Christians to assume in our society: a reflection on how to live as a brave and persecuted minority within a larger, largely indifferent but occasionally hostile, majority. That would have kept us within our comfort zone.
But not a bit of it; Fr Sherbrooke’s talk was not intended to make us feel comfortable; it was about what it means to be a (Catholic) Christian, an altogether more radical idea. He told us that the “new evangelisation” and the current Year of Faith are complex expressions of something really very simple: the call “to live a life of holiness”. The best way to embark on this journey, he believes, is by immersing ourselves in the unconditional love of Jesus Christ in regular Eucharistic Adoration.
Fr Sherbrooke sketched in for us his own experience as a parish priest in Soho. When he arrived there 12 years ago he found a church building tumbling down, no money in the bank and a body of parishioners which, in the main, had migrated to other, more salubrious parishes. He prayed, “I don’t know what you want me to do here, Lord”. Then, nothing daunted, he set about his task, and immediately established regular Eucharistic Adoration as a way of “letting the Lord be present”; no parish renewal or evangelisation would work unless it was rooted in this practice. He described Soho mildly as “A violent expression of the modern world”. He also paid tribute to his mentor, the late Fr Michael Hollings, in whose presbytery he had been living before the summons to Soho. “He used to offer welcome to gentlemen of the road and give them a bed for the night: often this was my bed.”
After Eucharistic Adoration had been established at St Patrick’s, other things happened. Fr Sherbrooke started a “School of Evangelisation” where a small group of young men and women, their average age 25, spend an intensive year learning about their faith, theologically and practically. This includes the establishment of “Saturday Night Fever”: the church being open, welcoming, lit with candles to the accompaniment of music and the opportunity for Confession, and the students of the “school” going out into Soho Square with a lighted candle and inviting local revellers to come inside; to “Come and see”. As Fr Sherbrooke said, when this happens it might be the first time these revellers find themselves in the presence of God, open to the “constant beating heart of God’s love in the tabernacle”.
Mother Teresa, alongside Fr Hollings, has been an influence on him. To understand what the New Evangelisations is about “we have to be close to the poor” – those who are spiritually impoverished and those who need a square meal. Every Tuesday and Thursday St Patrick’s parish feeds between 60 and 80 homeless people. This involves many willing volunteers who also learn a practical expression of Christian love – the “love of the Heart of Jesus that longs to save the world”.
It was an excellent talk with the central point driven home several times: we need to be evangelisers; on our own we lack the courage; it is Eucharistic Adoration that gives us the confidence to go out and bring others to Christ. Otherwise we can easily feel discouraged, worn down, reacting to what the world throws at us rather than showing the world what true love is and where it is to be found. This last remark was an allusion to the same-sex marriage Bill, given its second reading last week. Fr Sherbrooke commented that although the teaching of the late Pope John Paul II on the theology of the body is “radiant”, we have to learn to present it to others in a life-giving way.
The talk made me ponder. I am a member of a small, rural village parish in the comparatively wealthy Home Counties, where you do not generally encounter “gentlemen of the road” or late-night, party-going revellers. But we still have our mission and we still need to evangelise. We began weekly Eucharistic Adoration during last Advent and we are repeating it for Lent. It is a start.
And God bless our Pope as he begins his own private journey of prayer and Adoration of the Lord he has served so faithfully and so well.