Comment Comment and Features

The saints go marching into Soho

The mission arrives at Oxford Street (Penny Badwal)

In these last few days we have welcomed the relics of St Claude de la Colombière and St Margaret Mary Alacoque to the streets and the centre of London to mark the end of the Holy Year of Mercy.

Appropriately we received the relics of St Claude, a Jesuit, at Farm Street, where we were taken deep into the days of persecution of Catholics and the dangers that Claude and others faced as they brought the sacraments to the recusant community.

Later we visited the Queen’s Chapel at St James’s Palace, where he had celebrated the sacraments and preached on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as revealed to him by St Margaret Mary.

We were constantly reminded that it was in penal times and in an anti-Catholic city that the message of the mercy of the Sacred Heart had been first preached about. Claude had some diplomatic protection as the chaplain to Mary of Modena, Duchess of York, but that didn’t stop him from being cruelly taken, imprisoned and eventually exiled to France. The message of God’s mercy is as inconvenient and challenging today to our world as it was some 350 years ago.

As part of the journey of the relics we also visited the hospice at the Hospital of St John & St Elizabeth, the Oratory School in west London, the enclosed Carmelite Sisters in St Charles Square and the prison at Wormwood Scrubs. The graces given and received remain incalculable and eloquently answer the call of Pope Francis to go to the peripheries of our world.

These were days of mercy and extraordinary generosity from our missionaries. We had some 60 who joined us with five young people funding their own travel costs from Australia. They came because of a passionate belief in the power of prayer and in the intercession of the Holy Spirit bestowing a mandate to go out into the streets and meet the stranger and orphan and share with them of the mercy of God.

We started at the Tyburn Tree, where some 200 Catholics had been executed having been dragged along Oxford Street to Tyburn, where the coup de grâce was performed as their beating hearts were cruelly torn out – but then the gates of heaven were opened for them. For those innocent as to the ways of evangelisation to watch some mad, singing and joyful Catholics slowly meandering along the street carrying two caskets of old bones would only confirm one in disbelief. However, that is what we did, and then on the following day in the same manner around Soho, Covent Garden and Leicester Square.

For nine days we had prayed to the Holy Spirit, asked our respective communities and parishes to pray for us and besieged heaven to bear us up with protection and the strength of the saints. The public days of witness were marvellously blessed and it was almost as if the waters of the Red Sea of Oxford Street had parted to the left and right. There was something beautiful and mysterious as God’s peace and joy suffused every step we walked. Yes, we were clowns, but we were also walking in faith. As we gathered at the end of the mission at Our Lady of Victories in Kensington High Street, many stories were shared of those occasional conversations, moments of meeting and accidental encounters in which we had been channels for the Sacred Heart to touch the streets of London.

The Holy Door of St Patrick’s, Soho, was closed by the bishop after we had carried Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament around the square and then back into the church at the end of Nightfever. The love of the Most Holy had met and been exchanged in the physical presence of St Claude and St Margaret Mary and now had walked the streets of London. St Claude in his journal wrote about visiting the “English Ladies” (the companions of Mary Ward) in a house near Leicester Square. We do not know where it was, but somehow this last weekend in the mysterious ways of God he had returned.

The mission was possible thanks to the Emmanuel Community and its guardianship of the shrine at Paray-le-Monial. The community has as its charism the call to compassion, adoration and evangelisation. These three characteristics should be emblazoned on the hearts of all the baptised over this country as we seek to bring all to know and love Christ.

Evangelisation is a word that can much more easily slip off the tongue of the institutional Church than it did in years past. What makes it real and concrete and gives witness to one’s true commitment to evangelisation? Surely it must be a readiness to “give witness to the hope that is within you” (1 Peter 3:15) and to baptise all nations in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This must mean a readiness to leave the physical confines of our church buildings and the comfort of the computer screens to engage people in the street in conversation and so lead them to Christ. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gently but strongly told the German clergy that no soul was saved from the other side of a priest’s computer.

Street evangelisation gives an energy, joy and total dependency on the Holy Spirit as one reaches out into the crowds of our contemporary culture. It is a freeing journey which had allowed St Margaret Mary to contradict the cloying and suffocating Jansenism of 17th-century France. It also enabled St Claude to bring that message to Protestant London, which had successfully outlawed the sacraments of mercy.

We have more freedom today then they did but our fearfulness and concern not to upset leaves us still often confined to barracks. How much we need to believe that all the world hungers for us to speak of Christ and that He on the Cross thirsts for us to take Him on to the streets. Let us pray that this Holy Year now completed, if it has done anything at all, has emboldened us to do that.

This article first appeared in the November 25 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here