Looking after the lost sheep
THE COLOUR ONE associates with Clerkenwell is grey. Sandwiched between Grey's Inn Road home to ITN and the charmless Farringdon Road, it is a treeless One, all fumes and office blocks. Once London's Little Italy, now the immigrant Italian population is spread all over the capital and beyond, and what remains is a few restaurants and shops and the unitalian Leather Lane market.
But the most enduring feature of the quarter's Italian legacy is St Peter's, known simply as The Italian Church. Padre Carmelo di Giovanni, parish priest, has been based at the Italian Church since his arrival from Rome in 1971. He greeted me in baggy shorts and a sports shirt: "Ciao, ciao, come on it," he said with a huge grin, as if I were a visiting cousin, just off the boat from Calabria.
Padre Carmelo is a diminutive, though rotund, man of 52, with the energy of an excited child and the compassion of a hundred men. He is also author of Light From Behind The Bars (St Paul Publications, £4.95), a moving account, through letters, of the conversion to Catholicism of 15 former terrorists, from groups such as the Red Brigade, befriended and counselled by Padre Carmelo in the 1980s. His work in this country includes visits to nearly 80 prisons at least once a year, although he visits London prisons, almost daily, as well as a number of hospitals. When there is a prisoner or patient in need of an Italian-speaking priest it would seem almost anywhere in England he is called.
His work, which also includes pastoral care for young drug abusers in his parish, reflects the history of his parish and its origins.
The Italian Church was built between 1853 and 1863 at the behest of St Vincent Pallotti, a Roman and founder of the Pallottine Order, which has continued both his work in prisons and his guardianship of the immigrant Italian population in London since his death in 1854. If St Peter's is the most enduring legacy of Italian London then the proCession in honour of Our Lady of Mount Carmel each July, which began in the 1880s, is an extension of that continued presence in
the centre of London, its tableaux and community spirit drawing Italians from all over Britain. Indeed, Padre Carmelo says that the draw of St Peter's brings in a congregation as likely to have spent an hour in the car to get there as to have walked round the corner. Weddings, baptisms and funerals for those living away from London are the norm an extraordinary fact and a gratifying one, keeping the parish alive, its pastoral work on the boil and its church in an immaculate condition. Why is there this loyalty to the church? lb Padre Carmelo, the answer is simple. "They feel at home. The atmosphere is completely different to It is art opulent-looking church, with marvellous paintings, murals and mosaics. But at a cost. Recent renovation and work on the roof cost over £350,000, and £150,000 of that is still needed to clear the debt. But this has not distracted the parish from following in the footsteps of St Vincent Pallottine. There is a drop-in centre for drug abusers, which can attract up to 60 youngsters, mostly Italian, some HIV-postitive. 'Mice a week they are prepared a hot meal (Italian, of course), watch Italian television, chat and play table tennis.
The parish also hopes shortly to open a residential drug rehabilitation centre, with the help and advice of Sicilian Bishop Alfredo Garcia (an expert in this field) as well as the Westminster Archdiocese.
This work with drug abusers "does not please everybody" in the community, however. "We do have a lot of funerals, but I'm not afraid. We have a duty to dirty our hands like Christ we put the Gospel into practice. We have to look after the lost sheep. Most of the people who come here are very far away from the Church. They've had bad experiences in their youth with priests. They are coming back to the sacraments after so many years.
"We accept them as they are already everybody else has kicked them. It's Christ, we do nothing special.
"It is the Church of the poor, but most of the time this is not the case." He asks: "Is it the sign of Christ crucified, or is it just a play?"
One can look at a church and think of it as a place of beauty, but fail to consider the symbolism of the building as a place of congregation not just for worshippers with spiritual needs but for the plain needy. The real beauty lies in what work is being done in a parish. This does not develop over night, nor the support for it.
"It takes time," says Padre Carmelo. "It takes courage. I don't say that everyone has to open the door to the poor, but if we don't do it, we fail."
The word he uses is "responsibility", a burden shirked by Catholics who are caught up in the politics and not the love of the Church.
"It may create a conflict, but I don't mind. In the world, you only find justice, not compassion. This is not our mental
ity.,, Joe Jenkins