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London by night in a culture desperate for light

The theme of Night Fever is simple: people come in to pray, and teams go out with lanterns inviting passers-by to join in. But not everyone appreciates the invitation.

The interior of St Patrick's Church, a Catholic church in Soho Square in London. (Image: Tom Morris/Wikimedia Commons; candles image: nightfever.org)

“I find your presence here very offensive”. Pushing her way through the crowd, the assertive young woman accosted me. She didn’t like what I was doing: inviting people into the church to light a candle.

Her problem was essentially the acceptance of diversity. As she tried to explain, she felt that only people who shared her particular opinions were allowed in that London park that day. She assumed that I didn’t share her opinions and so felt she had a right to tell me to leave.

I didn’t, of course. Nor did I engage in much of a discussion. The church – unusually old by the standards of London Catholic churches – was there long before the young people celebrating their “trans rights” march, and will be there, God willing, through many more such events. As a church built in the 18th century, when the area was a semi-rural slum on the edge of land that had housed a pre-Reformation leprosy hospital, it has seen a good deal of history.

The large crowd in the park was overwhelmingly young, noisy, prosperous, and healthy. Vast quantities of food and drink were being consumed. Screams and shrieks echoed as slogans were shouted out or when a banner or poster was raised up. Spirits were high, with that sense of excitement and heady thrill that comes from enthusiastic certainty of being united in belief and doing something at once extremely important and very enjoyable.

It was a warm night. Clothing, or lack of it, reflected this. Many of Britain’s young are very overweight and the crowd reflected that as well. There was also some assertive dressing-up with young men draped in frills and floral wreaths and tattooed girls carrying slogans announcing their preferred sexual activities.

The church glowed nearby, its doors open with the candlelit interior beckoning a welcome, the Blessed Sacrament on the altar. Music, despite its gentleness, somehow drifted out and above the tumult in the square, which is why I think my complainant was annoyed. We were holding the first celebration of Night Fever since being allowed to hold such events with the easing of the Government-imposed lockdown. The theme of Night Fever is simple: people come in to pray, and teams go out with lanterns inviting passers-by to join in.

On this night, as usual, lots did. But a lot didn’t, and there were odd and poignant encounters as the invitation was issued. One small group got as far as the church porch before handing their candles back and saying they didn’t want to enter after all. A more frequent response was simply “I’m not religious” or “I don’t like the Church”. There were also responses which revealed a deep lack of self-worth and confusion “You don’t want me” or “I know you all hate me.”

And that last response is also a sad reminder that, however much we are trying to teach an authentic message about human love, sexual union, and the meaning it all, what young people hear is too often simply “The Church hates gays”. It’s a slogan that is easy to promote and hard to dispel.

And it is not helped by campaigners who seize on the sadness to urge that the Church abandon truth and push a wholly different agenda and message. Nor is it helped by simply and directly asserting the Church’s teaching on homosexuality: there is a time and place for doing that, but it’s not the first option in a conversation even if the angry wounded person would like it to be in order to retaliate with affirmations of how much hurt the assertion has caused.

That there is a brokenness among large numbers of our young is only too evident at rallies of this sort. It’s not something that can be healed quickly or easily. It can really only be tackled one lonely, unhappy soul at a time, with much prayer and kindness. “They don’t know that they are loved, and lovable” one priest said of the young generally, sadly, reflecting on the subject. He recalled the comment made by one youngster “I’m a contraceptive mistake – I shouldn’t be here.” Many lack the natural confidence of knowing that they have a right to be alive: somehow they need to be helped to know that, as Pope Benedict XVI put it “Each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”.

Night Fever concludes with Benediction, and before the teams go home there is usually a general debriefing, in which topics for prayer are raised and some stories shared. This happens in the crypt as the church is being made ready for the next day’s Masses. For some of the team there is time for a quick pizza before catching a late Tube or bus.

The park was still crammed and noisy as I made my way to the Tube station. For the first time in my life I had a sudden sense of what it might have been like to be a Christian in first-century Rome, in a dying culture.


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About Joanna Bogle 72 Articles
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom. Her book Newman’s London is published by Gracewing Books.

10 Comments

  1. Very nice thoughtful, insightful, and compassionate article. Love the Night Fever event, and the welcome to come into the Church, and the observations about the protesters outside. But that photo confuses me. Is it double exposure?

  2. Thank you for this one, Joanna. Very insightful, very revealing – so much said in so few words and with so much love. Fr John Fleming.

  3. At the risk of beating a dead horse: The problem remains a reluctance or refusal of church leaders, Priests and Bishops to expound on church morality regarding sexuality. The vacuum allows the media to control the message and focus on homosexuality and the church’s opposition to it, rather than church teaching on sexuality as a whole–that sexual activity of ALL kinds is to be reserved to marriage.And that sex is a gift to be used with love and respect.One night stands of any kind do not fall into this category. My own adult son, who is NOT gay, recently asked me why the church “hates” gays. I could see my explanation to clarify the truth barely registered as he had already made up his mind that his impression was correct and I “didn’t understand”. It would be vital for the church to stress God’s love at the same time it is explaining the need and reasons for sexual continence. Sadly, the concept of physical and shallow love is all some of the young know. Sex is an uncomfortable topic for the church, and with abortion, the Holy Grail of the left tied into it, the church may indeed be trying to accomplish too little, far too late. The flip side is that saying NOTHING will compound the damage and the church’s dereliction in this area.

  4. “So let your light shine” You did, Joanna Bogle and the light will be remembered and bear fruit–in God’s time.

    “…they have a right to be alive: somehow they need to be helped to know that, as Pope Benedict XVI put it “Each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”.

    Thank you.

  5. Well done Joanna! There is a lot of sadness but a great deal of potential hope. However one gets the feeling of demonic oppression is evident. Everything to Christ through Mary! If ever there was a time that these souls need their Heavenly Mother it is now! All those who expressed an opinion deserve a prayer!

  6. Dear Miss Joann, what a very uplifting article. You are doing wonderful work and even if you only touch one soul it is such a blessing. God bless you all.
    Fr. Luke ofm Parish priest of Rhodes and Kos Greece

  7. That last paragraph has great impact Joanna. So true! Keep up your valuable witnessing. The Catholic Church is the only community which holds out hope for our sad, sick society.

  8. Joanna,
    So good to see an article by you! I feared you were unwell, since I haven’t seen anything in the Nat. Catholic Register for ages. I know you don’t remember me, but I was a friend of Helen Hitchcock. However, I remember you WELL and wish you good health, joy in our Lord, and every blessing!

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