To St Patrick’s, Soho, for another Nightfever at the start of the Year of Mercy. I approach through throngs of Christmas shoppers on Oxford Street and groups of young men in Santa hats outside pubs and bars, many already worse for wear, though it is barely 7pm.
I feel anxious for the missionaries, those young people who will take a lantern – the square kind you see in crib scenes and Dickens illustrations – into the streets round Soho Square and invite passers-by to come into the church for a moment’s reflection.
Those who accept are led by the lantern-bearer into the beautiful church which is in semi-darkness. There are many people in the pews praying silently. Some are other young volunteers who are praying for the missionaries outside. The central aisle is lined with candles, forming a path of shining lights, and along this path the lantern-bearer leads the guest up to the altar, where more lights burn before the Blessed Sacrament exposed and enthroned. Tonight, at the foot of the altar on a bed of straw, are the serene figures of mother and foster-father, ox and ass and the empty waiting manger. The candlelight, the gentle music, the familiar scene, the praying witnesses, all combine to make an atmosphere of extraordinary peace that infects all who come in. Even those who at first appear somewhat ill-at ease, in whom bravado would urge some small demonstration of insolence or indifference, relax and become receptive. Oxford Street seems miles away spatially, spiritually.
The guides with the lantern will kneel next to their visitors for as long as they wish and pray silently with them. They will give their guest a slip of paper with a scriptural quotation and invite him or her to light a candle and add it to the sea of lights at the foot of the altar. Some visitors stay just a minute or two, others longer. It seems to me that many are foreign tourists and probably at least cultural Catholics. The majority of the visitors are in their twenties or thirties.
All around the church are priests hearing confessions. This is my part, and for more than three hours penitents come in succession. Again, many are not English, judging by their accents and their requests to make an act of contrition in a mother tongue. Over and over I repeat the prayer of absolution: “God, the Father of Mercies…” I never tire of this prayer, this name of God. Tonight it seems to have a very profound emotional effect on those who had come seeking forgiveness. I remember that preparing for ordination I felt as much in awe of saying the words of absolution as I did about the words of consecration, perhaps because of the context in which they are spoken – directly to one person who has just opened their hearts before you and laid bare their failure, their shame, their unspoken fear that they are unloveable as they are.
With these words, the priest holds up a mirror in which the penitent can see himself. It reflects back God’s everlasting choice of each one as his beloved child; all sins are refracted through the death and Resurrection of Jesus so that the Father sees reflected his Son’s face, superimposed on this prodigal who can hardly bear to raise his eyes. He runs to meet him and clasps him in his arms. One hopes the outcome of this year will be to remind Catholics that there is nothing extraordinary about mercy. It is the bread and butter of Saturday evening confessions.
Nightfever is a parable for Advent. I must dare to withdraw from the bustle and priorities of ‘‘ordinary’’ life, especially from the lemming-like rush to the shops. Drawn by the word of God which is light for my path and a lamp for my steps, I must come literally, if I can, into church and into the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, but certainly into a different place in my heart, a sacred space where Christ waits to be born in me; Christ who is already present in the midst of the temple of my body and who in countless Holy Communions has enthroned himself within, but who, because of my finite ability to receive him and the attachment I retain to other fantasies of what fulfils, is yet to come.
And Mary and Joseph and all the angel saints, with outstretched hands, watch and pray over the waiting, empty manger in my deepest heart.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London