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Catholic World News News Feature

Finding God in the Secular City February 01, 2005

London’s Soho is a district known for sex, shops, and seediness. At night you are likely to see prostitutes and transvestites parading through its streets, drug addicts and the homeless shivering in its doorways; by day the area throngs with tourists en route to the glitzy department stores of nearby Oxford Street.

At the heart of Soho is a square with a green park, surrounded by banks and coffee shops, busy with tourists. Respectable by day and sordid by night, Soho Square seems very much part of this landscape of consumerism and depravation—except in one respect. On a corner, facing the park, stands a large, imposing church. Vast, Victorian and red-brick, St. Patrick’s looks at first glance typical of an inner-city London parish. Like many others, it is in desperate need of repairs, is chronically short of funds and has a tiny resident congregation (about 150 all told).

Frankly, it does not look promising, but enter St. Patrick’s and you discover a dynamic hub of spiritual outreach to Soho and London beyond. The church offers exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for 12 hours per day, a weekly dinner for the local homeless, a weekly prayer group for drug addicts and their families. The parish ministry to drug users seeks to send addicts to rehabilitation centers where recovery is centered on prayer, manual labor, and Eucharistic adoration. (Set up by an Italian nun, these centers are appearing all over the world, and recently permission has been given to open one in England). The church is also used by London’s burgeoning Latin American community and the Chinese chaplaincy.

Next door to St. Patrick’s church stands the rectory, a fine 18th-century building, now used for evangelization initiatives. A floor-by-floor guide conveys a better sense of the parish activities. The basement houses a fertility clinic where a qualified nurse teaches Natural Family Planning to engaged and married couples. On the next floor, at ground level, is “Xt3,” a Christian web site for young people founded by the leader of a British Catholic youth movement. One flight up is the dining room, used to feed the homeless and offer a free catechetical talk and meal once a week for young Catholics seeking to discover more about the faith. Another two floors up is SOS Prayerline, a phone line located in a rooftop chapel, where trained volunteers pray with distressed callers. And to top it all, during the day, the rectory is also the headquarters of the International School of Mission, a one-year mission school for graduate Catholics which aims to give them an intellectual grounding in the faith, a chance to deepen the personal spiritual life and discover their vocation, and to evangelize on Soho’s streets.

All these initiatives have been set up, with virtually no funds, in just three years, by Father Alexander Sherbrooke, a tall, imposing figure of a priest energetically committed to the “new evangelization” called for by Pope John Paul II.

Asked to explain the abundance of parish programs, he says:

Poverty is very real. It comes in many forms. There is material poverty, which I hope we meet through our Open House suppers for the homeless, and Cenacolo (the prayer group for drug addicts). There is also spiritual poverty: loneliness, lack of love, guilt. There is a great need to bring to people the healing love of Jesus, especially through the Blessed Sacrament.


The parish prayer line—called SOS Prayerline—was a scheme Father Sherbrooke first started in his last parish assignment in Twickenham, a wealthy, leafy West London suburb. Callers to this service do not receive advice; what they get is simply prayer: “The volunteers are simply there to pray with callers, they are not offering counsel or information though we do give some training beforehand on how to use Scripture and how to deal with difficult callers,” Father Sherbrooke explains.

The Blessed Sacrament is exposed in the rooftop chapel while volunteers man the nearby telephone lines for SOS Prayerline. Father Sherbrooke—who leads a Blessed Sacrament procession around Soho Square and past Soho’s sex shops on the feast of Corpus Christi—believes that exposition of the Eucharist is vital to the mission of the parish. He explains:

In Soho we are surrounded by the culture of death, a place were God is seemingly not present, so the most important thing is that he should be adored and made present. Many little miracles and reconversions have taken place through the daily exposition.

Adoration is also essential to the daily spiritual timetable of the six students at the School of Mission, all of whom are required to attend daily Mass, recite the Divine Office and the Rosary, and have regular spiritual direction with plentiful opportunities for Confession. They are also, throughout their year in the school, invited to take part in retreats in England and occasionally abroad. During the day, they attend talks and lectures on aspects of the Catholic faith, and a thorough grounding in the Catechism. Father Sherbrooke set up the school two years ago in response to the apostolic letter Novo Millennio Inuente, in which the Pope described young people as “a special gift of the Spirit of God” and asks them to respond to the message of Christ, becoming “morning watchmen (Is 21:11-12) at the dawn of the new millennium.”

Father Sherbrooke explains the purpose of this unusual parish offering:

For the last 15 years John Paul II has been calling on priests to form young people as apostles of the “new evangelization” and we’ve seen at World Youth Day that young people have tremendous zeal and have no fears about taking the Lord onto the streets. However, young people need a fertile ground in which to discern their vocation: What is it that God is calling them to? So you need to present them with an atmosphere in which people can listen and hear the voice of God. We try to do this by offering them a daily life centered around prayer, the Divine Office, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary, and Mass—plus frequent retreats and regular confession. But you also need to give a young person a solid experience of the Church’s teaching: how to explain, justify, and argue the faith and to give them an opportunity for evangelization, and help them touch Jesus in the poor. There is also a great need in the life of the Church for the formation of young people. Very simply, we need to find vocations for the Church for the future.

This reporter met with Father Sherbrooke just after the students in his School of Mission had completed a “street mission,” evangelizing passersby by striking up conversations with them, and attracting attention by performing lively music in the nearby tourist spot, Leicester Square. “I think what they’d say about this is that people are open to hearing about faith,” the priest remarks. He comments that ordinary people on the streets of London “have such ignorance that when people speak to them of faith, they listen very carefully.”

The Britain his students seek to evangelize is very secular, far more so than the United States, he believes. To illustrate the point, he rattles off statistics and observations:

Forty percent of the population go to Church in America. Between 4 and 5 percent of the 59 million people living in Britain attend church regularly. One in five conceptions ends in abortion, and one in three marriages ends in divorce. The present government plans to introduce gay civil unions. Some would argue the American presidential elections were won as much on values as it was on an interest in politics. In other words, people’s religion was a determining factor in how they vote. But you could not say the same here.

The Church of England is always being quoted in the press, and exists in every city and town and England. Its name is always on people’s lips. But whether it is a teaching voice in our country is another question. Do we have anything definite about important moral questions of our time? Are they setting out to evangelize the country to bring it back to God? Cardinal Newman’s great thing about the Anglican Church is that it is justified in its existence in so much as it represents a bulwark against the forces of secularism. Some would argue it isn’t that any more.


As for Catholicism, 500 years after the Reformation, British Catholics are still seen as “eccentric,” a little removed from mainstream culture, argues Father Sherbrooke: The prejudice is still there: that Catholics are not quite English, they stand up for funny things on abortion and euthanasia, when the reasoned person would say these are permissible. Catholics in England are almost seen as a bit quirky. People are fascinated and intrigued by Catholicism, by our teaching of moral doctrine, the way we are not in accord with how people are in the world, the fact that effectively we have allegiance to the bishop of Rome. All these things are rather un-English. In short, we’re just odd.

He would never say this about himself, but Father Sherbrooke is well placed to know the views on Catholicism held by the Establishment. Unlike many of England’s Catholic pastors, he cannot trace his Catholicism back through an Irish ancestry. Instead he descends, via his Anglican father, from Viscount Sherbrooke, a former British Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Victorian England.

Father Sherbrooke avoids discussing this family background but confirms it, with a certain diffidence, when pressed. This is a topic he is reluctant to discuss, seeing it as a potential distraction from his spiritual mission. His personal background and family history are irrelevant, he argues, explaining: “As St. Therese says, we are no more than instruments—and very sinful and broken instruments at that—bringing people to the healing love of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.”

So when discussing his Catholic mother’s Scots ancestry, Father Sherbrooke merely says that he supposes they could be called “recusant”—the term given to British Catholics, usually of the prominent noble families, who refused to give up the faith despite severe, government-imposed restrictions and penalties. “My mother’s family was typical of recusant families: cousins married cousins and they kept the faith going,” he says, briefly mentioning that he said his first Mass post-ordination in Traquair House, the family seat (though he does not identify it as such) outside Edinburgh.

A glance at Traquair’s web site reveals that it is said to be the oldest inhabited house in Scotland, with a property on the site since 950 AD. Moreover, the first member of Sherbrooke’s family to marry a Catholic was fined £5,000 (nearly $10,000)—at that time, a substantial fortune—for doing so. Mary Queen of Scots once stayed at Traquair, and the house, now open to the public, still owns the Catholic queen’s crucifix and rosary. It is, Father Sherbrooke discloses, “full of ‘priest holes’”—the special hiding places for priests that were common in the houses of aristocratic Catholic families, where clergy would hide when government officials came hunting them.

For centuries, this sort of existence was common to English and Scottish Catholics. They were forced to live in seclusion, hiding their faith. Those brave enough to preach Catholicism in England, if they were caught, faced the likelihood of imprisonment and death. One such brave evangelizer was St. Claude de la Colombiere, the French patron of the School of Mission.


Father Sherbrooke recounts the role of St. Claude in London’s Catholic history:

St. Claude was the confessor of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the French nun who had visions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When he was invited to England in 1676 as chaplain to Mary of Modena, the Catholic princess married to James II of England, he was supposed to just preach to her in court. But he went around London preaching about the Sacred Heart, an activity that led to his imprisonment. He narrowly escaped being put to death in England and was deported to France, dying in Paray-le-Monial.

In 2002, to mark the opening of the School of Mission, Father Sherbrooke brought the relics of St. Claude from France for the feast of the Sacred Heart, and, during a Triduum, the priest and his young students prayed for the saint’s intercession. “The Sacred Heart of Jesus is central to what we do,” Sherbrooke explains.

The fate that St. Claude narrowly escaped was common to Catholic priests in post-Reformation Britain. Seen as a threat to the security of the English Protestant state, many in the 16th and 17th centuries were imprisoned, hanged, and dragged to the Tyburn gallows, for the public to witness their final demise, a bloody dissection of their bodies into chunks of flesh.

“Their bodies were dragged past where St. Patrick’s stands now in Soho,” Father Sherbrooke observes. “First they were hanged in the Tower of London, and then they passed here en route to Tyburn where they would be chopped up, as a public demonstration of the idiocy of Catholicism.”

This is not the version of history Alexander Sherbrooke learned at school. Apart from two years with the Sisters of Mercy—who taught him, as did his staunchly Catholic mother, “that God loves us and that we are called to love him”—Sherbrooke was educated exclusively in what he calls “Protestant schools”. His use of that term neatly glosses over the fact he actually studied at Eton College, that most established of British boarding schools, the alma mater of Princes William and Harry.

“I went to Protestant schools and learned Protestant history, much of which I swallowed,” he comments. That version of his country’s history encouraged the beliefs “that people wanted to get rid of Catholicism at the time of the Reformation, that the Church was corrupt and was standing in the way of economic progress.”

“In the light of recent history this is not accurate,” Father Sherbrooke now realizes. “The piety of the English people had to be ripped out of them with brutality,” he says, citing The Stripping of the Altars, a recent revisionist history of the Middle Ages. That book, by the Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy, demonstrates that most of the English people were deeply attached to Catholicism at the time of the Reformation.

This other, untaught history Sherbrooke learned after school when, at the age of 23, he went to Rome to study for the priesthood at the venerable English College, which boasts an illustrious line of martyr priests amongst its first students. After university studies (leading to a history degree in Edinburgh), Sherbrooke had begun to “dabble” in politics and was considering a spell teaching in Africa when he one day felt the calling to be a priest. He remembers:

I went to see my bishop and was almost on a plane to Rome three weeks later. I could say it was not ideal, but God knows what he is about. Perhaps if I’d dithered, things might be different. I believe God acts on vocations in different ways.


Eight men were ordained from Sherbrooke’s class at the English College in Rome—a fraction of that year’s overall seminary graduates. Less than 20 years later, a mere 18 men are expected to be ordained next July for all of England and Wales. This dramatic decline in priestly vocations should prompt Catholics to ask themselves hard questions, he says, listing a few of them:

Do our Catholic young people really understand what it means to be a Catholic? There is still a tribal awareness, but is there really an understanding of Catholicism as to chastity, the importance of Sunday Mass, the teaching authority of the Church, of what the Mass is about and what it means to have a personal relationship with Christ? You have to ask why we are not producing vocations anymore. Do people see the importance of priesthood?

Father Sherbrooke—whose own understanding of the “beauty” of priesthood was deepened by his frequent contacts with Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—believes that several factors are to blame for England’s current dearth of vocations to the priesthood. Among those factors are a general trend toward secularism, and ignorance of the faith. To respond to those problems at St. Patrick’s, Father Sherbrooke has begun “Catholicism for the Curious”—a series of catechetical talks for confused young Catholics.

A third possible explanation for the shortage of priests is the fact the “new movements” within the Church, for whatever reason, have failed to take root in England. “If you visit Spain and go to the diocese of Madrid or of Toledo, there are so many vocations,” Father Sherbrooke points out. “Half of them will have come through Opus Dei or the Neo-Catechumenates, and all of the seminarians will have been touched or influenced by the new movements. Yet this doesn’t apply to England. What is the Holy Spirit trying to tell us?”

A frequent visitor to the US (where he was recently interviewed on the EWTN television network), Sherbrooke says he has encountered young British Catholics who are joining American Catholic orders. He relates just one such story:

Recently I went to Dunwoodie seminary in New York, and recognized several postulants for the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. They were all Brits, who had met the order through the house they had set up in London. The friars came because of their contacts with British Catholics through Youth 2000 (a British Catholic lay youth movement centred around Eucharistic adoration, and the founders of Christian website

“I am a huge fan of Steubenville,” adds Father Sherbrooke, referring to the Franciscan University in Ohio. “What is being done there in terms of catechetics is simply fantastic.” He has an additional affinity to the US due to the history of his parish, which was a firm favorite with the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen. The renowned American “television priest” came so often to stay and preach at St. Patrick’s (his sermons packed the church) between the 1920s and 1960s that he jokingly called himself the parish’s “unofficial curate.”

Archbishop Sheen is just one of the illustrious associations for St. Patrick’s. The 18th-century parish was founded on the premises of a house originally built for the Earls of Carlisle, which then passed from aristocratic hands to Mrs. Cornelys, a Venetian opera singer known as “the Circe of Soho” whose scandalous masquerade balls attracted wealthy admirers including the Prince of Wales. Bankruptcy forced her to leave, and the Irishmen who bought the property in 1792 broke through the floors separating her ballrooms to make the original chapel, the first post-Reformation church in Britain to be named after St. Patrick. Today’s church was rebuilt on the foundations of the original in 1893 and has an Italianate feel, with a painting above the altar and numerous side altars dedicated to saints.

“Our work here is about bringing a new mission to a parish with a great history but no people,” Father Sherbrooke says. “What does that mean? That the devil’s won, and therefore we pack up, we’re lost? Or do we get out there and respond to the Spirit?”

“John Paul II often talks about the ‘new evangelization’,” the energetic pastor continues. “Where does it start? It starts with helping people to live a life of holiness, a consecrated life, and allowing people to discover the life of the Gospel.”

Despite the obstacles to evangelization in 21st-century London, Father Sherbrooke takes inspiration from St. Therese of Lisieux, a favorite saint. “She is wonderful. How is it someone stuck in the Carmel can touch millions of people around the world, without the telephone, the Internet, or mobile phones?” Her prayerful missionary work, he believes, is an inspiring ideal for his mission today: to bring God to a secular, spiritually alienated city.