Charterhouseig Everyone must know by now that Balham, "Gateway to the South" — the place Arthur Ransome described "the ugliest and most abominable of London's unpleasing suburbs" — has become almost unendurably trendy since I moved there 23 years ago.
But what the trend-spotters have failed to notice is that the neighbourhood is groaning with spiritual riches. It fair makes your eyes water.
Immediately to my south lies St Bede's: immediately to my north, Holy Ghost. Both churches are models of pastoral good practice and centres of orthodoxy. At St Bede's, furthermore, the Old Mass is offered daily. The church is a key centre of traditionalism.
So why all the mourning and weeping in the neighbourhood, why all the sobbing by the fish counter in Waitrose on Friday, why the sad, rather distant smiles from the nice ladies who attend Tuesday evening yoga classes?
The answer is that we have recently heard that the assistant priest at Holy Ghost, Fr Marcus Holden, is leaving for Tunbridge Wells at the end of the month. and we are pretty gutted.
Fr Marcus is a remarkable young man. He is also (and let's get this out of the way irnrneaiately) the second from the right in the Men in Black vocations poster put out by the Archdiocese of Southwark. You will probably have seen it if you live in south London. You may even have torn it from the wall of a church porch in a fit of senescent rage.
The picture used in the poster was taken at the English College in Rome four years ago. What's going on here? Is the poster supposed to be cool and groovy? Fr Marcus is far too hip to use that sort of language. The poster's appeal is ironic, countercultural. he insists. "I don't think young people respond to cool priests."
No. indeed. Not if they are cool.
The Rev Marcus Holden MA (Oxon), STL is a wise and youthful 31. He arrived at Holy Ghost, his first posting, three years ago. His parish priest is the magisterial and no less remarkable Fr Stephen Langridge, vocations director for Southwark. Together they make a strong and charismatic (but not clappy charismatic) team, almost Batman and Robin: Massgoing numbers in the parish have risen from 500 12 years ago to 1,200 now, and there are five hours ' of confessions a week.
The sense of impending loss in the parish is explained by Fr Marcus's gifts as a'preaeher. He is cofounder of Evangelium, the catechetical initiative for adults, and, in a homily lasting not much more than 10 minutes. he can make even the most jaded among us feel buoyed, hopeful. He smiles a lot — as though there really is something to be happy about — and makes the difficult things seem possible. reasonable, desirable.
Something is stirring in the seminaries, if Fr Marcus and many of the other of the young priests now arriv ing in our parishes are anything to go by (not to mention the young men emerging from the seminaries of the FSSP). There seems to be a seriousness abroad — a cheerfid seriousness.
Fr Marcus is reluctant to call the new priests "conservative". however. "There has been a dramatic shift in all the seminaries," he tells me. "but not necessarily a conservative shift. The individuals concerned come from a variety of backgrounds.
"Some might be more charismatic, some more bells-and-smells traditional, but all are keen on being orthodox, and being faithful to the Church, and all have a very deep missionary sense that they can change things for the better — as vehicles of faith and the sacraments."
Fr Marcus is liturgically conservative: he says the Offertory in silence and keeps thumb and forefinger joined after the Consecration. As for the Old Rite: "I think it's going to be important eventually for every priest to be able to say the extraordinary form, and for two reasons: to meet the increasing demands of the faithful and to preserve the true liturgical sense that's been bequeathed to us. "We have a pearl of great price that reflects our theological heritage. If the ordinary form in many of its manifestations has veered away from theological authenticity, the extraordinary form acts as a sort of harness to bring it back into line. Maybe in the future there will be some convergence."
What else might the future hold? Is England going to become a Catholic country again? I ask. Might the Anglicans now be presenting us with an opportunity?
Yes, he says, and anyway the conversion of England is something we have to aim for, the purpose of our witness. We must be prepared to be generously accommodating to those who convert. "I hope the Anglicans are given a certain amount of personal jurisdiction. They could carve out an Anglican identity within the Catholic Church."
A Catholic Anglo-Catholic identity, perhaps? Fr Marcus smiles. "I have never admitted the term Anglo-Catholic before. but it could actually become a reality. They would be true Anglo-Catholics."
The Church must continue to insist on her own identity, of course. I return to a theme that has been concentrating my mind lately and ask him about Humanae Vitae.
"I think we have failed — as priests and bishops — in not equipping the faithful with the spiritual weapons to be chaste," he says. "I do think more should be said about the teaching on contraception, absolutely. It's where we must start because denial of that teaching — the separation of life and love — is the root cause of so many of our other problems, including abortion."
No doubt Fr Marcus's departure will be the start of something good, both for Tunbridge Wells and for Balham. Whatever happens in the immediate future, at any rate, we who guard the Gateway to the South will remain spoilt for choice. It's not just Holy Ghost and St Bede's, either. We have Waitrose, Starbucks, Marks and Sparks and Pizza Express. Eat your heart out, Notting Hill. The temptation I must resist this week is Mamma Mia! Oh, the remorse if I were to fall. Every time I pass a picture house I must follow the instruction of my prayer book and say: "Lord, save me, or I perish."