by John O'Keeffe
IT'S so easy to gel into the
presbytery. From 6.30 in the morning until past midnight you can just push the door open. No knocking. You just walk in.
The altar boys are more likely to call the parish priest "Michael" than "Father,"
Variously described as a multi-racial parish, a freak parish and even a dying parish St. Anselm's, Southall, just 20 minutes by train from Paddington, is hardly run-of-themill.
When I arrived to spend the weekend there recently. my system was reeling tinder the depredations of Spanish stomach and several other things. Although physically and mentally below par and hardly prepared for the hectic atmosphere of St. Anselm's, I found my slay a tonic in more ways than one.
It was more in the nature of a trip to another world, not the sort of thing you expect to encounter in a dingy industrial area with a steadily worsening employment situation. Southall also has the highest concentration of coloured immigrants in the South of England.
Beyond lip service
Southall's main interest lies in its being one of those still all too rare parishes where the teaching of Vatican It has got beyond the desultory, lip-service stage, As in all parishes its character is largely determined by the parish priest. Fr. Michael Hollings has been there just over a year. Ile succeeded the much-loved. late Canon Leo Ward, a priest of the old school, who nevertheless gave initiative to curates such as Fr. John Robson and Fr. lan Dommersen in getting aggiornamento under way.
The presence of Fr. Hollings. with his patrician Beaumont. Oxford and Coldstream Guards background in a predominantly working and lower middle class parish. coming as he did straight from a ten year stint as Catholic chaplain to Oxford students. looks more like an act of folly than faith.
However. the parishioners of St. Anselm's and Fr. Michael seem to like the arrangement although Fr. Hollings' style still raises eyebrows mentally if not physically.
One of his first innovations was to have the presbytery door opened at all times. He recalls his young days as a curate fresh from the Beda when his own presbytery door was bolted and barred, with a judas window as the sole means of contact between the Cerberus-like housekeeper and any caller. He was forbidden even to answer the phone during mealtimes. Fr. Michael tells his parishioners: "The presbytery helongs to you, not me."
The parish has a mass count of 1,700, and a debt of over £20,000 which it pays off at the rate of L200 a week. 'I he church is new and spacious, although the present parish priest does not consider it purpose built for the sort of parish he is trying to help form.
Showing their duty
Parish bingo is used for paying off the debt, there is an active branch of the Catholic Women's League. an over sixties club and a parish welfare committee. There is a 20 strong parish council whose decisions must be ratified by the parish priest. Charities at home and abroad are supported.
Fr. Michael insists that all they are trying to do at Southall is to run a parish properly and show their people that they have a duty towards those in any sort of need whether on their doorstep or far away.
Even the weekly newsletter has the title Our Parish. The process of showing the parishioners. particularly those who hold some sort of office, that they should and can take responsibility without necessarily getting everything rubberstamped by a priest is perhaps slower than in more sophisticated. middle-class parishes.
Efforts to give co-responsibility to members of the large West Indian section of the parish have met with negative response. As individuals they have yet to find self-confidence.
Fr. Michael decided the best way of watching the parish in action was for me to spend a weekend there. Thanks to his literal "open door" policy the presbytery manages to resemble a busy airport lounge while retaining an exciting communal spirit.
Within minutes of leaving Southall station I sat down to a quick supper before setting out to attend a House Mass celebrated by the parish priest at the home of Annie. former housekeeper at St. Anselm's. who is spending an active retirement living in a house provided by the parish.
Out of deference to Annie, the dozen-strong congregation sang one of her favourite hymns. "Hail, Queen of
We then drove on to two house discussion groups where participants were discussing pastoral problems as it affected their particular area.
At the end of a reasonably concentrated evening I slept in a room thoughtfully vacated by an American deacon from the Beda of ample proportion' known as "Frank the Yank."
Frank had repaired to the "Deacons' Room" where dea• cons, generally from the Missionary Institute at Totteridge, spend the night on a variety of camp beds and in sleeping bags. gaining pastoral experience during the daytime.
After Mass and breakfast next morning, I looked in at a catechetics section conducted by Sister Madeleine Simon. a Sacred Heart Sister in the large presbytery dining room.
Two dozen children of assorted age, size, colour and sex were given pieces of paper and cardboard to cut up. were divided into two groups. the "haves" and "have nots" with an imaginary river between them.
Imperceptibly, step by step, Sister Madeleine was guiding them towards the Gospel theme of the forthcoming Sunday Mass-the theme of the Parable of Dives and Lazarus.
Both the Sacred Heart community of nuns and Mother Teresa's Missionary of Charity novitiate came into Southall at Fr. Hollings' invitation. Both do corporal and spiritual works of mercy such as visiting the old and unwanted and instructing children in their religion, many of whom will not be able to attend a Catholic school.
Both communities are housed in unpretentious semidetached houses a few minutes' walk away from the parish church.
While Fr. Michael and his team got on with the normal Saturday parish chores, I met various key men in the parish structures, such as Mr. John Wilcock who. besides running a sweetshop and tobacconists, can-thanks to the co-operation of his family find time to chair the parish council which recently opened its ranks to 18-year-olds.
Others included Mr. Norman 'Turner. Mr. Norman Payne and Mr. Paul Forsdick, actively tied with the parish zoning committee and the St. Anselm's Housing Association. Both these bodies represent the "need not creed" approach of St. Anselm's.
The zoning committeesthere are now eight of themare sub-committees Of the parish council and take the responsibility of noting anyone sick or alone or who has just moved into the parish. Sooner or later all these are visited by a priest, nun, deacon or layman.
The Housing Association
has helped over 7(1 families with their housing problems, including members of the large Sikh community.
By the time the evening came and confessions were over. the lounge-cum-diningroom at the presbytery which had already been trooped through by dozens that day was full of hubbub as the weekly contingent of deacons had arrived.
With a journalistic eye for the main chance. I took a census of some 20 people who sat down for supper -we were drawn from nine different nationalities.
The deacons came from as far apart as Malawi, France, Germany, Belgium and the United States. An unexpected guest was Fr. Preston Moss from the Bahamas, who had just taken over his first parish at the age of 32.
He was on his way hack home from a catechetical congress in Rome. The communal aspect of the Church Universal was certainly in evidence at that meal.
After supper a series of people with things to talk over had interviews with Fr. Michael in his study. They lasted until well after midnight.
The next day at the main Mass. Fr. Preston Moss was asked to preach-something he did in a highly individual style. He told us that he had only been 24 hours in England. but thanks to the welcome he had had in Southall he already felt so much at home.
"I come here to share faith with you," he told us. Like Sister Madeleine at the catechetics session the day before. his homily centred around the sharing-through-love theme of Dives and Lazarus.
His method of putting this over was the most graphic I have ever seen or am ever likely to see in a Catholic church in this country. He showed us the difference between sharing and non-sharing by the contrast between a frown and a smile that is reciprocated.
Without at any time losing his thread of argument, Fr. Moss used expansive gestures and the range of his West Indian voice to underline his point.
He strode from the pulpit to the altar, lit one candle from another and showed how when the two flames were united they shot up with greater strength than their individual size warranted.
He then drew them apart to indicate that they had not lost their individuality. The more we loved, he told us the more we become ourselves.
Then, most startling of all, Fr. Moss continued his theme by advancing 20 yards down the centre aisle, folding his arms across his chest and saying: "If you don't love, you won't get hurt: but one day you'll die and have nothing."
He then opened his arms right out to signify loving and said: "If you love you will be hurt." With his arms open he asked the silently startled congregation: "What shape am I now?" Anglo-Saxon reserve maintained dead silence.
"Please." said Fr. Moss. "What shape am I?"
"A cross," replied several. It was then, and only then, he returned to the pulpit to wind up a remarkable sermon. It was dramatic, perhaps melodramatic. but the sheer sincerity Of the preacher put it beyond mere gimmickry.
After Mass, Fr. Preston
joined the priests and deacons in greeting as many people as possible as they left the church. Two Irishmen had obvious reservations about his didactic technique. "We bet you even make up your own Mass," they said.
The Sisters of the Sacred Heart, some of whom always wear the habit and others who more often wear lay dress, entertained several of us to coffee. 'they agreed that when and where to wear the habit depended on the particular pastoral situation.
Although St. Anselm's may be forging new traditions it does not neglect the old. That Sunday. Fr. Joe McGuanne, the young Irish curate at St. Anselm's, presided at a Holy Hour of prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
"Anything I could say about this situation would only become political," said Fr. Joe simply, "so I will say nothing." A large congregation spent an hour in silent prayer.
The newsletter extolled the Rosary as a devotion, and Fr. Michael, for long a proponent of the vernacular Mass, has a Latin Mass once a week because there are some who still prefer it.
In the evening Fr. Moss repeated his sermon during the Folk Mass which had been assiduously rehearsed by the largely young choir earlier in the weekend. Once more clergy and deacons mingled with parishioners.
As I said goodbye to Sister Madeleine at the back of the church, she was just coping with the crisis of a homeless mother and child who had somehow sprung from nowhere and had been referred to St. Anselm's. Her concern was typical of the type of "open to the world" spirit that Fr. Michael and his people are trying to build up.