Soho Pilgrimage: A Christmas Meditation

Advent and Christmastide are full of journeys and pilgrimages: Mary goes to Judea to visit Elizabeth. Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem, ostensibly to fill out their tax forms, in truth to fulfill an ancient prophecy. Amazed shepherds leave the hills, come to town, and find the desire of the nations. The Magi go on a star-led trek and then return to the mysterious East. Mary, Joseph, and the Holy Child go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for what we celebrate on February 2 as the Feast of the Presentation (after which, and only after which, serious Catholics pack up the Christmas crèche). The Holy Family flees to Egypt, then journeys back to Nazareth.

Biblical religion taught western civilization that life is journey, pilgrimage, and adventure, not repetitive cycles or one darn thing after another. Advent and Christmas remind the Church of that deep truth. That’s why processions are a helpful way to celebrate these two linked liturgical seasons.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in one of the most remarkable processions you’d ever want to experience. It took place in Soho, the most decadent part of London’s West End. And it literally stopped people in their tracks on a Sunday evening.

This nocturnal pilgrimage, in which a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was processed from St. Patrick’s Church in Soho Square to Warwick Street and the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory, was the culmination of a weekend-long Advent Mission at St. Patrick’s — which, under the leadership of Canon Alexander Sherbrooke, is the vibrant center of the New Evangelization in London. The weekend mission involved Masses, confessions, conferences, caroling and street evangelization, and a Saturday “Nightfever” experience of prayer, song, and Eucharistic adoration during which some 300 people, many of them unchurched, walked through St. Patrick’s open doors, lit a candle, and wrote down a prayer.

On Sunday evening, after a concluding Mass in honor of the Immaculate Conception, more than 200 of St. Patrick’s Brazilian and Spanish-speaking Latino congregants joined their Anglophone fellow-parishioners in the Marian procession. Led by a cross, thurifer, candle-bearers, and one of London’s auxiliary bishops, Nicholas Hudson, Our Lady of Walsingham was borne on the shoulders of sturdy men and accompanied by Ambrose, Father Sherbooke’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and the parish’s secret evangelistic weapon. We sang Marian hymns, prayed the rosary aloud — and offered often-startled by-standers, taking a smoke-break outside one of the area’s ubiquitous pubs, a small packet with a candle, a Miraculous Medal, and a Bible verse.

Our route was certainly tawdrier than the Flemish landscape through which Christ carries the cross in Pieter Bruegel’s painting, The Procession to Calvary. But like the Lord, we were on pilgrimage through the world: a world that included the aforementioned pubs, upscale restaurants and cheap curry shops, foreign exchange bureaus, several 24-hour grocers, a pharmacy, two porn shops, and any number of clothing emporia. (Further verifying Oscar Wilde’s observation that life often imitates art, we turned one corner at a high-end jeans outlet called “True Religion”). The procession ended at the headquarters church of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, where we sang the Litany of Loretto in Latin before going our separate ways.   

St. Patrick’s in Soho is that which every Catholic parish should want to be. Its rich pastoral life, which includes an extensive ministry to the homeless, is built around Mass and daily Eucharistic adoration. The liturgy is celebrated with dignity and beauty; its music is supernal. The parish sponsors an “SOS Prayerline” that has helped thousands of lonely or desperate souls over the past decade. The young people who live and work at the parish are not only involved in its liturgical life; one works at an archdiocesan center for trafficked women, another is about to return to the seminary, and all are involved in street evangelization. This is the “Church permanently in mission” of which the Pope writes in Evangelii Gaudium, and like that document, the all-in Catholicism of St. Patrick’s is animated by the joy of the Gospel.

To be a pilgrim is to be going somewhere. That somewhere is the Kingdom come among us at Christmas, and coming again in power and glory. The St. Patrick’s Advent Mission procession invited an aggressively secular and sometimes sordid part of London to join that journey to beatitude.

COMING UP: Books for Christmas

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The flurry of instabooks published shortly after the election of Pope Francis didn’t shed much light on the formation, character and interests of Jorge Mario Bergoglio or the likely trajectory of his pontificate. Now comes something serious and useful: “Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend – Personal Recollections About the Man Who Became Pope,” edited by Alejandro Bermúdez and published by Ignatius Press. In 20 interviews, longtime friends and associates of the pope “from the ends of the earth” give readers real insight into the radical Christian disciple who is leading the Church “into the deep” of the new evangelization, following the call of John Paul II in 2001.

This coming July, the world will mark the centenary of the First World War, the seismic calamity that began the 20th century as an epoch and that, in another hundred years, may well be regarded as the sanguinary first act in the end of Europe as “Europe” had been known for over a millennium. Three new books try to explain how this civilizational disaster happened. Sean McMeekin’s “July 1914: Countdown to War” (Basic Books) lays primary blame on Austria-Hungary; Christopher Clarke’s “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” (Harper) and Max Hastings’ “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War” (Knopf) spread the responsibility around, with both Clarke and Hastings assigning Wilhelmine Germany the decisive role amidst a desperately inept performance by the Great Powers. All three books are helpful antidotes to the confusions created by Barbara Tuchman’s eminently readable, but dubiously argued, 1960s bestseller “The Guns of August.”

Evelyn Waugh was one of the supreme English prose stylists of the 20th century. Many of his novels are profoundly Catholic without being pious, cloying, or sentimental – literary gems shaped by a Catholic sacramental imagination that is both unyielding and redemptive. Waugh fans have long indulged friendly arguments about the master’s greatest work; a recent re-reading of “The Sword of Honour Trilogy” (Everyman’s Library) persuaded me (again) that these three books easily stand with “A Handful of Dust” and “Brideshead Revisited” at the summit of Waugh’s achievement, even as they brilliantly lay bare the European cultural crisis that was vastly accelerated by World War I.

The finest piece of biblical exposition I’ve read recently is C. Kavin Rowe’s “World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age” (Oxford University Press). This is theological exegesis at its finest: informed by historical-critical scholarship, but going far beyond the biblical dissecting room to show how the experience of the Risen Christ both formed the Church and impelled it into mission. Rowe, a Duke Divinity School professor of New Testament who is not a Catholic, thus makes an important contribution to the evangelical Catholicism of the future by reinforcing the biblical foundations of the new evangelization.

On several previous occasions I’ve noted that my friend Rémi Brague, who teaches at the Sorbonne and at the University of Munich, is one of the smartest (and funniest) Catholics in the world – his brilliance being recently recognized by the award of the Ratzinger Prize. In his most recently translated book, “On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others),” published by St. Augustine Press, Brague explores the God who is Father but not male, the God whose way of being One is to be Trinity, the God who doesn’t bestow goodness but who is the Good, the God who respects human freedom while inviting humanity into the tangled journey of a salvation history in which God himself is an actor.

Francis Rooney’s “The Global Vatican” (Rowman & Littlefield) is a timely reminder of the Holy See’s important roles in world politics

And perhaps I may be permitted to note two recent books of my own: “Roman Pilgrimage: The Stations Churches” (Basic Books), co-authored with Elizabeth Lev and my son Stephen, and “Practicing Catholic: Essays Historical, Literary, Sporting, and Elegiac” (Crossroad). I’ve never recommended an eBook before, but I’ll happily note that the glorious color in the eBook edition of “Roman Pilgrimage” may yet convert me to reading-(at-least-some-books)-on-a-tablet, a confession this veteran paper guy never expected to make.