JOHN Sherrington didn't bother to mention he was a Catholic priest when he applied for a job as a roadsweeper. For relevant. For another, they'd never have believed him.
He got the job and started next day. Nine years later he's still at it, cleaning the streets of Islington in London.
He is one of just a handful of worker priests in Britain, a member of the Passionist order which was founded in 1720 by St Paul of the Cross to minister to sections of society the Church had lost touch with, and to keep afresh Christ's passion by witnessing to the struggles and suffering of the poor. ("The name of Christ,", St Paul once said, "is written on the foreheads of the poor".) Today, his followers concentrate their efforts on the inner cities, in places like Toxteth in Liverpool as well as London's East End.
"What we do is establish a presence within the inner cities, to be in solidarity with the people there," explains John. "One way of doing that is to actually live and work among the low paid, which I do here. It wouldn't be easy to make contact unless you really live among them."
Nine years has certainly given John plenty of time to make contact with low paid and unemployed, and to experience for himself the life of a roadsweeper. It hasn't hardened him, though, to the drudgery of it. "You could never get used to that," he says wryly.
"The first thing that strikes you when you start as a sweeper is that, once you're out there with your barrow, you literally cease to exist. People look right through you."
"People think someone who sweeps the road is of no worth or intelligence. If he could have done better in life, he would have done. But often, among the sweepers I know, the opportunities just weren't there."
"Can you imagine the humiliation of having to clean dog dirt off the pavement? I wouldn't mind if people tried to control their dogs, but they don't. I've had a few rows with people when I've seen their dogs foul the street. Some of them have actually turned round to me and said: "Why should I care? I don't live in this road.'" Before he joined the Passionists, John, originally from Newcastle, worked as an interior designer. "It wasn't until I was 25 that I decided to become a priest. In those days, I was considered a 'late vocation' now, of course, it would be an absolutely normal age to join."
He studied for seven years for the priesthood and after ordination asked immediately to be allowed to take a job rather than work in a parish. When his request was granted he headed straight for the Islington sweepers' depot.
John isn't surprised some
The Church has expressed its concern for Britain's poor and marginilised in recent weeks, but Joanna Moorhead reports on a worker priest who puts such concerns into action amongst Islington's roadsweepers
people think he's wasting his priesthood. "They have a concept of the priesthood that's based on power and authority. They equate being a priest with having status. It's hard for them to understand the idea of it being about solidarity with the weak.
'At the ordination ceremony, one of the first things the bishop demands of the new priest is that he cares for the Lord's flock. The trouble is, the word 'flock' carries with it patronising overtones, and sets the 'professional' priest against the 'simple' faithful, who need things done to them and for them."
"But the real function of the person who cares for a flock, as the prophet Ezekiel points out, is to 'bind the lame and strengthen the weak', to live with them and ensure they have good pastures in other words, good conditions and to be involved with them and build up a community. And how do you become involved? Surely by really sharing life with others, not by being apart and different."
"Work is one of the most important things in people's lives. And more than a third of those who work are on low pay. Why shouldn't a priest share their conditions? I'm not saying they all should, but I think it's a good thing for some to do. I'm following a lifestyle others have no choice but to follow."
Most of his workmates, says John, bracket priests and ministers with people like doctors and lawyers — middleclass professionals with little knowledge of their lives and little relevance to it. What he does proves it is possible for a priest to live like them.
Few of his fellow sweepers had any idea John was a priest,' in fact, until one of them,' Jimmy, died suddenly. He had no family, and the sweepers' were worried about where his funeral would be and who would attend. Eventually, one of those who did know about John asked why didn't he take the service?
John agreed. The funeral was held at a church near the sweepers' depot during their lunch hour, and many came to pay their last respects. The last thing most of them expected to see was their mate John celebrating the mass...
"You can imagine their amazement but afterwards, as we were standing round chatting, one of them came up to me and said it had been the finest day of his life. I was a bit taken aback and asked, why's that? Well, he said, I just think it's marvellous that one of us sweepers has been able to do something like this for another of us."
Since Jimmy's funeral, inevitably, all the sweepers know John is a priest. None of them, he says, have been all critical of what he is doing. "Most of them just seem pleased someone in the Church is sharing their life, although they're quick to point out that not many do!.
Don't any of them feel he is just playing at being one of them? "Not that I know of,"
he says. "I live off my wages, just like them the things that
affect them affect me just the same. I don't get special treatment."
"I talk to them a lot, but I certainly don't try to teach them
catechetics! Usually we talk about work, sometimes they talk about their families and their He plays no part in parish life. Passionists, he says, are based in the community, not in parishes.
e shares atworoom Hackney with another priest, Michael, who's a hospital porter.
He meets regularly with other Passionists working in the inner cities to share experiences and to discuss the development of a theology and spirituality of the crucified Christ which reflects the sruggles of the low paid and unemployed in the world today.
Some who gather for these meetings come from other parts of Europe, where worker priests are often more common than in Britain. (France even has a factory worker bishop in one diocese.) After nine years, whether I carry on sweeping the roads or not isn't important. All I know is that whether I'll carry on sweeping the roads or not isn't important. All I know is that I'll carry on living and working among the low paid, sharing their poverty and conditions.
After all, they are the people in our society who bear the sufferings of Christ. They are the ones who are being crucified today."