My parish in central London is a very different place from the Calcutta of 1989. But when looked at in a certain light, I can see how they are linked in God’s plan. The name of that light is Mother Teresa.
Calcutta, a teeming port city home to millions, had then as now its fair share of darkness, pain and suffering. You could be distracted by other aspects of the city – political battles, economic enterprise, cultural and intellectual life – but you could not ignore man’s suffering at the hands of his fellow man, the sense of human tragedy.
As a newly ordained priest, to spend idle weeks under the tutelage of Mother was something never to be forgotten. I learnt from her that, despite the darkness and evil all around, we must persevere in helping others to know the love, mercy and healing touch of Jesus.
I can remember so many moments when her touch broke down the conspiracy of evil and let God’s love shine out. Some of the most memorable of those moments took place at that crucible of love, Kalighat, which was the first house she opened for the dying.
I also especially remember one Christmas Day, when a newborn child was delivered at another house. The love she showed just shone out and, as always, it drew volunteers: those searching to know their vocation as well as consecrated men and women and priests.
Somehow God’s love triumphed in her, all the more so after the pain and abandonment in her heart – something only revealed after her death, in her writings about her spiritual darkness.
One occasion that seemed to say it all was the visit of a certain Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) to Mother’s house. I watched his hands (even then, I suspect, in the early days of Parkinson’s), which had sent packing so many opponents in the ring, being held and embraced by Mother’s own hands. Curiously she had big hands too! Their unexpected size seemed to hint at the gentleness and tenderness of God.
Every year at St Patrick’s, Soho, we mark our patronal feast just before that of Saint Joseph (March 17 and 19). This year, that was a terrible week for many as the reality of the pandemic started to show its true face.
For many there was confusion, anxiety and concern. A swathe of uncertainty and worry had been unleashed, whipped up by a governmental machine encouraging fear and hysteria. Politicians and the media did not want to hear the story of Resurrection, of hope, of fighting the evil of plague by prayer and fasting.
The West End of London in late March and April reminded me of Jerusalem after the departure of King Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon, when only the poor were left behind.
In our neighbourhood the streets were deserted, shops closed and windows boarded, businesses closed down, major charities ceased operation; but the poor and homeless were left behind. Indeed the City Council came and asked us to feed them twice a day, seven days a week. We discussed and agreed that we would say yes with one condition: that we could have Eucharistic Adoration on the street, side by side with the food distribution (which has now produced over 18,000 hot meals). It felt like a little island in the heart of this great city.
Almost six months later, miracles, stories of grace, intense moments of peace and gestures of gratitude abound. Amid all the confusion, emptiness and anxiety, the love of the Sacred Heart has shone through.
Ultimately, our best weapon is the tender love, suffering, obedience and joy of Christ. This was Mother’s message and it worked. So many times she would tell us that “Joy is the net with which to catch souls.”
Calcutta 1989 and Soho 2020 are distant and apart but the story of grace is the same. So many doors have opened for us in the parish: extraordinary generosity from hotels, restaurants and benefactors; the support of the police and City Council, volunteers who were prepared to travel considerable distances as key workers to serve the poor, vulnerable and homeless; and the poor themselves, who have taught us the beauty and saving power of God’s love.
As Mother taught in words and deeds, Christ is present not only in the Eucharist, but also – in a different but very real sense – in and with the poor.
We have now completed a project, long in the making, to install a stained-glass window of Mother. She would have never sought such things, but she would be rejoicing in Heaven to see the light of God’s tender love, shining into the darkness and emptiness of our world and certainly into Soho Square.
Also, she will have been interceding for us! Let us pray that the poorest of the poor will not be left behind in the Jerusalems of our world.
St Teresa of Calcutta – pray for us.
Fr Alexander Sherbrooke is parish priest of St Patrick’s, Soho
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