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What it’s like being a missionary on Wall Street

Stephen Auth talks to Francis Phillips about his work saving souls in New York's financial district

Having blogged about The Missionary of Wall Street recently, I was keen to ask its author, Stephen Auth, some questions about his intriguing “mission”. For a start, is he still working on Wall Street? Very much so, he tells me: “Many of the skills one develops as a missionary of the Lord – perseverance, self-mastery, integrity, respect for the dignity of others, joyfulness, prudence, humility and yes, a certain optimism – all play well in the investment world.” He reflects, “Although a Wall Street guy like myself may not have been on most people’s short list if they were looking for a missionary, in retrospect I’ve begun to understand why the Lord may have called me for this job.”

I tell Stephen that I was arrested by his remark in his book, that “Lost souls hunger for love”. He explains, “All souls are created by God who is by definition pure love. So naturally, all of us long for our creator and pure love, whether we know it or not. In today’s world, we are often distracted or confused by the difference between pure love and other lesser forms, such as Facebook “likes” or a one-night stand. When we pursue these forms of love we are unsatisfied and long for more. We meet many people like this on the streets of New York and in the course of our encounters they see in the missionaries the richer form of love and are attracted to it.”

I note in his book there is a great emphasis on inviting those encountered on the streets towards sacramental Confession if they admit to being Catholics. Auth tells me that this is because “when we don’t avail ourselves of the graces of Reconciliation, it becomes relatively easy to begin to rationalise bad behaviour and attitudes. Gradually we build up a wall between ourselves and God and we are less and less able to speak with Him. We often find ourselves hiding from Him. Eventually we despair.”

He adds that in his experience, “Many of the ex-Catholics and lukewarm Catholics that we are seeking to bring back to the Church have, at their roots, this as their primary issue. Giving them the chance to reconcile with God through Confession represents a kind of radical intervention that can, in a short period of time, change their spiritual course.”

What is the missionaries’ response to those who fob them off with “I am spiritual but not religious”? Auth responds that “We often respond with a simple question: “How is that working out for you?” Often the reply is, “not well”. Our goal in these encounters is to get the person to realise that pursuing a spiritual life without the structure of a religious practice and without the graces of the Sacraments is a very difficult endeavour – which is why the Lord gave us the Church. If we can get the person to start to think about this, we are confident that over time the Holy Spirit will work on him or her and gradually have an impact.”

In his book, Auth comments that atheists are the most hostile group they encounter. Why? He observes that in the ten years of missionary work on the streets, he has seen atheists become much bolder about proclaiming their beliefs. “They seem particularly energised to argue with people of faith about the existence of God. We don’t try to out-argue them but rather to witness God to them through a joyful and loving encounter. This often – but not always – leaves them at least with a better impression of us “crazy Christians.” From there, we hope the Holy Spirit can work on them.”

Auth’s book suggests that the missions are centred on Holy Week. What about other times of the year? He points out that they try to anchor the mission “around a significant religious holiday because it creates a greater sense of urgency within even lukewarm Catholics to improve their relationship with God. So we do missions during Advent, on Ash Wednesday and the San Genaro Festival in September. “So you’re almost ready for Christmas? And did you get a chance to get your Christmas Confession in yet?” “Uh, not yet…” You get the idea.”

I remind Auth that he provides some fascinating stories of pet dogs simply lying down on the pavement until their owner agrees to enter the church. Doe he seriously think they are divine instruments? He suggests that even if one comes up with a “logical explanation that doesn’t include the actions of the Holy Spirit, when you add them all together, what deeply impresses me is the sheer number of “coincidences” with profoundly important consequences for the soul involved.”

He agrees that it is up to each reader to draw his or her own conclusions –“ but my own conclusion is yes, I believe the Holy Spirit is involved in these encounters in a profoundly mysterious way.”

One of the recurring themes of the book is that “There may be one soul waiting out there for you”. Could he expand on this? Auth replies that in the ten years he has been doing missionary work “I’ve simply experienced too many absolutely crazy stories of encounters with a lost soul that seemed to have had a lasting impact on their lives, may be for eternity.” He adds that a number of these encounters happened just as the missionaries were ending work for the night, “and a number happened just after I almost gave up.”

Finally, I am curious to know how the Devil shows he is “not happy about our new evangelisation” as Auth comments in his book.  He answers, “First, I’ll point to the many stories in the book of souls emerging from the church and the sacrament of Confession glowing, who an hour earlier were walking the streets in spiritual despair, in the clutches of the Devil. He had convinced them that what they had done was “unforgiveable” and that there was no path back to God. Now, suddenly, through the radical intervention of a missionary, the Holy Spirit could speak to them.  There is just no way that the Devil could be happy about any of this.”

“Second, I’d point to the many temptations each missionary feels to give up, to take a break, to go home. Many of these temptations come to us just minutes before an incredible encounter that changes someone’s spiritual course. Hmm.”

“Lastly”, Auth adds, “I’d simply refer you to the many priests who have accompanied us on our missions, waiting in the confessionals of the church nearby. Of course, they can never tell us what happened. But they almost always say something like this, “Steve, lots of big fish tonight. Really big ones. The Devil isn’t very happy right now, but the Lord is!”