In the heart of New York's financial district, Stephen F Auth went from managing money to missionary work
As I write this book blog I am reminded that May 13 is the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. In one of her apparitions, Our Lady told the little shepherd children of Fatima that many people went to hell because they had no one to pray and make sacrifices for them. It is a sobering thought and one which, if one develops any zeal for souls, demands action. This is what happened to Stephen F Auth, author of The Missionary of Wall Street (Sophia Institute Press), who subtitles his book: “From Managing Money to Saving Souls on the Streets of New York”.
My image of Wall Street, based on the 2013 film, The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese, as a place of predatory financial wheeler-dealing, has now been replaced by an equally dramatic but kinder – indeed more soulful – image: that of the author and his missionary companions, spread out during Holy Week around the area in front of St Patrick’s Old Cathedral, SoHo, and engaging the hundreds of passers-by in conversations about their faith (or lack of it), the mercy of God, salvation and the prospect of eternity.
Think of doing this in the City, the hub of London’s financial sector, and you realise it is a tall order. But it can be done and as you read Auth’s persuasive prose (not surprising in a graduate of both Princeton and Harvard who, by his own admission, was an “indifferent agnostic” until he married Evelyn, a devout Catholic) you cannot fail to be caught up in the drama of pavement evangelisation.
It was a heart attack in 2002 that helped change the author’s life. Told by a priest, “You are being very selfish with the gifts [God] has given you”, he became a lay member of Regnum Christi, an ecclesiastical movement. In 2009, urged on by his wife, he first engaged in a Holy Week mission. His book is made up of the notes he made in each subsequent year, based on his own experiences and the anecdotes of his co-missionaries. The book includes many miraculous changes of heart.
These missionaries of Wall Street and the surrounding streets follow a tried and tested formula. They ask pedestrians whether they are Catholic; offer them rosaries and holy pictures; give them schedules of the Holy Week services and ask if they would like to light a candle in St Patrick’s – where several priests are waiting in the confessionals. Engaging people in conversation is only the start; the aim is to try to get Catholics who have lapsed from the Faith to go to Confession before Easter – and thus re-engage seriously with the sacramental life of the Church.
Inside the church, along with the priests, is an Adoration team and a welcome team (which waits inside the door to encourage the timid and wavering who have been persuaded to come inside). Those who go to Confession often come out weeping tears of joy, their faces transformed by a confessional “glow”. This makes it worthwhile for their new friends in Christ who can otherwise be discouraged by the indifference they meet, as well as by inhospitable weather.
There are many rebuffs, naturally; for every successful encounter “an average of 40 people reject or ignore or yell at them.” Without prayer to the Holy Spirit the mission would not be possible. As Auth explains, fear of embarrassment, of being insulted, of being ashamed, even of being recognised, can deter potential new missionaries. Nonetheless, he writes, “I’ve become convinced that each missionary is called for a chance meeting with maybe just one lost soul who can relate to and might respond only to that missionary.”