Extraordinary evangelization in extraordinary times

George Weigel

I’d heard about Father Alexander Sherbrooke long before we met in June 2011; Father Sherbrooke had been a mentor for young friends of mine who had worked at St. Patrick’s Church in London as pastoral assistants and catechists. When we finally got to know each other in person, I had that wonderful experience of knowing, almost instantly, that here was someone with whom I would remain in serious (but also rollicking) conversation – someone on whose friendship I could rely as spiritual ballast.

What Father Sherbrooke has done at St. Patrick’s in his 17 years as its pastor is little short of miraculous. Soho Square, where the parish is located, is in London’s West End, a thoroughly decadent part of the city that caters to every imaginable human appetite. The church’s roof was penetrated by a Luftwaffe bomb during World War II and the parish was in tough shape, pastorally and financially, when Father Sherbrooke arrived.

Then came the miracles of grace, channeled through constant prayer, hard work, pastoral imagination, and support from the pastor’s many friends and followers.

Today, St. Patrick’s is the thriving center of the New Evangelization in one of the unlikeliest neighborhoods of one of the world’s most diverse cities. Beautiful liturgy in a magnificently renovated church, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a prayer-line the afflicted can call for spiritual assistance, an extensive ministry to the poor, and a catechetical school that’s trained dozens of young Catholics for work in the trenches of 21st-century evangelization fill out an exceptional pastoral program – all of which is fueled by the parish’s intense Eucharistic and Marian piety.

I’ve been a frequent guest at St. Patrick’s over the past nine years (and had hoped to return in late May). On one occasion, I was permitted to pour the gravy at the Christmas dinner the parish hosts for those who would otherwise have no Christmas dinner. On another, I participated in an Advent procession through the streets of the West End: a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was borne on the shoulders of parishioners, amazing those who came out of the local pubs and shops to see what was afoot (anyone who inquired was given a Miraculous Medal or a rosary, and a prayer card). There was little about St. Patrick’s, I thought, that could surprise me.

But Father Sherbrooke and his people have now outdone themselves.

The parish had long helped the homeless who depend on whatever they can beg from those going to toney West End restaurants, theaters, and pubs. With those venues shut down by the Wuhan virus, many were in desperate straits. So Father Sherbrooke and the parish stepped up, persuaded two well-regarded restaurants and the Pret-a-Manger chain to provide meals and sandwiches, and in recent weeks have been feeding over 200 people a day, some of them twice a day. Meals are served and lavatory and shower facilities are available in the church’s undercroft; the volunteers who staff this work of charity and solidarity take appropriate measures to ensure that St. Patrick’s doesn’t become a center for spreading infectious disease.

At the center of this striking example of Christian service is the Eucharist. Mass is celebrated on the sidewalk in front of the church and Eucharistic adoration follows, typically accompanied by the rosary. A prayerful reading of the Scriptures, the traditional lectio divina, is available for those who wish to participate; so is confession; both are conducted in special tents. Those who come to the church to be fed are also offered spiritual sustenance in a printed weekly program that includes suggestions on how to pray, biblical readings, and simple meditations. Evangelization and catechesis are thus wedded to service of the poor.

The glue that binds it all together is the deep Catholic conviction and intense spiritual life of Father Sherbrooke, which inspires a generosity of spirit and a passion for mission in others. At St. Patrick’s in Soho Square, truth and mercy meet, as they’ve met in the lives of Father Sherbooke, his parish staff, and the volunteers. There is something quite biblical about this, as those who’ve been reading the Acts of the Apostles with the Church during this strangest of Eastertides will recognize.

Evangelization, which must always include the witness of caring for the Master’s lost sheep, is the new normal in the Catholic Church. It was the new normal at St. Patrick’s years before COVID-19. And that prepared the parish for its extraordinary work in extraordinary times.

Featured image courtesy of St. Patrick’s Soho Facebook page

COMING UP: Games intellectuals play

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Shortly after President John F. Kennedy’s cabinet met for the first time, Vice President Lyndon Johnson waxed enthusiastic about the best and the brightest to his mentor, Speaker Sam Rayburn. They were all so brilliant, LBJ raved, especially “the fellow from Ford with the Stacomb on his hair” (Robert McNamara). Mr. Sam paused (perhaps taking a contemplative sip of bourbon-and-branch) and then replied, “Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

That gem of political wisdom came to mind while I was pondering one of the strangest phenomena in this season of many discontents: the emergence of a new “Catholic integralism” that (in the words of an advocate) promotes the notion that “the state should recognize Catholicism as true and unite with the Church as body to her soul.” The proponents of a confessionally Catholic state as the optimum form of government are small in number. But they’ve demonstrated an impressive ability to rile up the debate about the current American political situation, and about Catholic social doctrine generally, so a few questions are in order.

Question #1: Haven’t we seen this, or something like it, before? European Catholic intellectuals’ dismay over their continent’s cultural and social disarray after World War I led some of them to flirt (and worse) with various forms of authoritarian rule in which the Church partnered with the state. Some found in Italian Fascism a rough but serviceable form of the social doctrine of Pope Pius XI (before being caught off-guard by Pius XI’s condemnation of Mussolini’s thuggery in the 1931 encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno). In 1933, a priest from the Benedictine abbey of Maria Laach described the ascendant National Socialist German Workers Party as the “realization” of the Body of Christ in the secular world. Emmanuel Mounier, a prominent French thinker and activist, first found a complement to his rejection of modernity in the right-wing statism of Marshal Petain’s Vichy regime, before pivoting 180 degrees after World War II and trying to forge a Catholic alliance with Stalinist communism. Living in the rarified air of high-altitude abstraction, the new integralist seem uninterested in this history. Nevertheless, such fiascos are important cautionary tales for any Catholic thinker who imagines that the moral and cultural crisis of the West is going to be resolved by the Catholic Church allying itself with state power or by the state endorsing the Nicene Creed.

Question #2. Has Pope Leo XIII been swapped out for Hegel?  There are many, many disturbing things about American culture, society, and politics today; in some quarters, “I Did It My Way” has displaced “America the Beautiful” as an alternative national anthem. But to suggest (as some integralists seem tempted to do) that the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision imposing same-sex “marriage” on the country was gestated in the womb of the Declaration of Independence is ahistorical nonsense. There is a complex causal chain leading to Obergefell and it doesn’t run back to “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” To suggest that it does – and that Catholic social doctrine provides the key to understanding Obergefell’s alleged inevitability – is to replace Leo XIII’s interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas with G.W.F. Hegel’s historical determinism in the foundations of the Church’s social teaching.

Question #3. Where did John Paul II and Benedict XVI go?  As I explained in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, John Paul and Benedict offered acute analyses of the crisis of the West without falling into an authoritarian trap in their prescriptions. Emphasizing the crucial importance to democracy of a vibrant, truth-based, public moral culture, they correctly diagnosed the deepest causes of today’s political distortions and dysfunctions. Teaching that the Church’s public role is to shape that public moral culture by forming citizens who live in the truth, they set Catholic social doctrine in the context of the New Evangelization and defended the Church’s liberty to be itself. Stressing the theological incompetence of the state, they helped strengthen the barriers to any new form of authoritarianism, left or right.

The more sober of the new integralists admit that they’re not offering a practical program for here-and-now. What’s the project, then? Would it be uncharitable to suggest that this might be a game played by Catholic intellectuals who, so to speak, never ran for sheriff – a game that, however unintentionally, is complicating the Church’s public witness by misrepresenting Catholic social doctrine?