My flight landed at London’s Heathrow Airport on October 1, 2003 – the Feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The real significance of this date would become apparent to me much later, but at the time I noted it since she is a patron saint of (among other things) pilots and flight crews.
On that day, I was bound for Allen Hall, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Westminster, where I would be living for eight or nine months. I arrived jet-lagged and not entirely sure what I was doing in this strange new place.
I had come to London to enroll – if enroll is even the right word – in a program that would come to be called “St. Patrick’s Evangelisation School,” SPES for short. It had been recommended to me by a priest that I knew as an opportunity for vocational discernment and evangelization. I would be living in community with a small group from four different continents. There was one other American. We’d be housed in the seminary (which had lots of rooms and few seminarians) and work in the parish of St. Patrick’s in Soho.
Explaining the purpose of my visit to the customs official at Heathrow had been tricky. No, I wasn’t a tourist. No this wasn’t a business trip. Yes, I was going to be living in a seminary. No, I wasn’t studying to be a priest. At least I didn’t think so. Yes, I would be working in a Catholic parish. No, I wasn’t being paid. No, I wasn’t sure what sort of work I would be doing.
She seemed almost as skeptical about my being there as I did.
What I did know when I arrived was that I was just a few months out of college, listless and suddenly unsure about my vocation, and about to move into a seminary in a foreign country. Sometimes God works in subtle ways, sometimes he can be astonishingly blunt. That last thought had me rather nervous.
The months that followed were transformative. The parish in which I spent most of my time was under the leadership of Fr. Alexander Sherbrooke. Fr. Sherbrooke is one of those rare men who is equally at home with both the great and the lowly: Eton-educated and from an old Recusant family, he tends a flock disproportionately comprised of (and I say this lovingly) castoffs and misfits.
Under the watchful eye of Fr. Sherbrooke, we SPES students lived a quasi-monastic life. Morning prayer together in the basement of the church. Lectures from guest speakers on a wide and varied range of topics: theology, scripture, the spiritual life, etc. Then came an hour of Eucharistic Adoration, followed by Mass. Then lunch, catechesis (we covered the Catechism from cover to cover), afternoon rosary, and an evening meal.
The parish sits in the middle of London’s West End: close to high-end shops on Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus, the theater district, and the famous music clubs of Old Compton Street. There is a seedier side, too: gay bars, sex shops, and brothels. In the middle of all this is Soho Square and St. Patrick’s. People come to Soho looking to find satisfaction in all the wrong places. Some wash up in the back pews of St. Patrick’s like human flotsam – broken and disappointed by Soho’s false promises. They find respite at St. Patrick’s.
One night a week, we would welcome a few dozen of Soho’s homeless in for a meal. Father Alexander would lead us all in prayer. Some afternoons we went out into the Soho Square to evangelize (both awkward and humbling). We’d invite those we met into the church for a quiet moment of prayer.
The bell tower of the church housed a tiny chapel with a tabernacle and two telephones. Volunteers would man the phones every evening to pray before the Blessed Sacrament with anyone who called in. No advice, no counseling, just prayers. I manned the phones one night each month. Some callers were a bit cracked. “Yes, ma’am, we can pray for your cat.” (And why not?) One man called nightly from Nigeria. Then there were the callers so desperate and alone that they were resorting to a telephone prayer hotline. These were the calls when I was relieved that He was in the room with me.
Four hours in adoration can be exhausting. The thought of the phone ringing, with some needy or desperate stranger on the other end of the line, could be terrifying. Witnessing God’s mercy in the face of human suffering – suffering far beyond any capacity of mine to help or heal – was one of the rare privileges of my life. I usually dragged my feet into that little chapel with the telephones. I could have floated out.
I’m sure Soho has changed in various ways since I was there, but only in some. The parish closed the Evangelization School some years ago, but Fr. Alexander is still there. He’s still serving his flock in a mission parish; still inviting people in to meet Our Lord.
Prayer and the Sacraments are the driving force of Christian life. I knew this before my time in London, but I experienced it there as a tangible, undeniable fact. Prayer and the Sacraments – all those hours in adoration, the Mass – these are the cause of charity.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, on whose feast I first arrived in London all those Octobers ago, knew this. She proved it by her life. She entered the convent at 15 and died at just 24, yet she became a doctor of the Church and a patron saint of missions. And this, I would eventually learn, was why Fr. Alexander chose her as one of the patrons of our little evangelization school, and why we had begun our year on her feast. Her life was small and hidden, seemingly insignificant. But her “Little Way” changed the world.
It still does.
St. Thérèse, pray for us!