At London’s Waterloo station the announcements have a ritual lilt: “You must wear a face-covering unless you are exempt…stay safe…social distancing…” I am inadvertently reminded of a scene from a film about St John Paul in which he is seen catching a train at Warsaw while an announcer chants a Communist mantra. It’s unfair, of course, but London does feel rather bleak at present: shops closed or even boarded up, random closures of streets, police heavily armed and in horrid new uniforms (anti-stab, introduced over recent years because of rising crime and terrorism) and minus their reassuring traditional helmets. There are notices everywhere telling us all to stay apart from one another.
Posters reminding us of official regulations are all achingly politically-correct: carefully racially mixed, no mum-dad-and-children scenes, lots of female empowerment. Newspapers have whole-page Government announcements where once they had commercial advertisements.
As I cross the river, the view of Westminster is depressing. Because of urgent repair work unconnected with the coronavirus, Big Ben has disappeared behind scaffolding and plastic sheeting and Parliament is unrecognizable. The Prime Minister isn’t even there at the moment, of course – he speaks from a screen via Zoom because he is “self isolating”.
There are not many people about, but quite a lot of litter. As there is nowhere else to eat or drink, people do it on the street, leaving beer-cans and pizza-boxes, coffee-cups and plastic rubbish.
I am indebted to George Weigel from across the pond for my regular trips into London from the suburbs. Some months back, as we settled into the first coronavirus lockdown, he wrote about what was happening at St Patrick’s, Soho, with which he is familiar from many visits and where the parish priest, Fr Alexander Sherbrooke, is a longstanding friend. He mentioned that homeless people were being fed from St Patrick’s, the Blessed Sacrament brought out for adoration, and great Christian witness given at a time when it was badly needed.
St Patrick’s is something of a home base for me, too, as for so many other Londoners. A quick email or two and I was joining the team. It is every bit as splendid as Weigel described – hot breakfasts being served with friendliness and efficiency, teams of cheerful volunteers on early morning shifts to cook and prepare the food. And, amid the general buzz of activity, the sound of a bell, indicating the presence of the Blessed Sacrament as it is carried through to the street, and everyone breaking off for a moment to kneel as it goes by. It’s all a haven of goodwill and humanity in a London badly needing both.
Nor is St Patrick’s alone in this work. The Jesuit church at Farm Street not far away is serving excellent lunches to the homeless several days a week, and the team there brings together, as does that at St Patrick’s, people from many different London churches. When I say “excellent” I mean it – the lunches are provided by top London restaurants: while I was serving at Farm Street the other day the choices included seafood with calamari and fresh mussels, a choice of different meat pies, and lots of salads and pasta, plus the most wonderful cakes and desserts. Credit should also go to the businesses and charities that fund the whole project.
And there’s more: St Patrick’s will be offering a good Christmas dinner: information about this is already being spread around the homeless community as people will need to book in advance, to ensure compliance with Coronavirus regulations.
Closing the churches at the start of lockdown back in the spring was a mistake; it seems that our bishops believed that the lockdown would only last for three or four weeks, then found it wasn’t so. The weeks of that first lockdown were bleak until July saw the churches reopened at least for prayer and then later, temporarily, for Mass. Once reopened, every parish, with its share of enthusiastic bossy women like me, offered plenty of scope for making us tiresomely officious as “stewards”. Apparently Government regulations were based on the idea that people couldn’t be trusted to work out which pews were sealed off (er…those with striped sticky tape at each end, and notices saying “Not In Use”) or how to use the hand sanitizers (er…the liquid comes out of the spout).
The bishops have now called for every church to have the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar for adoration. This is glorious, and entering to be met by the blaze of glittering candles and the sight of people kneeling is joyful. It has also hushed the officiousness of “stewarding” which has, in turn, also slackened anyway as a certain grasp of the routine of things has developed everywhere.
In a weird London, where the pubs have been shut (reopening for Christmas, we are told), offices closed, political life lacking inspiration, and even our constitutional security feeling wobbly (Scotland seeking to end the Union, Royalty under scrutiny following the fictionalized version from Netflix), the Church is still there, offering chinks of light in what is an undeniably dreary winter.
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