I actually went into Westminster Cathedral for a rather technical reason…I needed to amend something in the Cathedral magazine, OREMUS, for which I write. I had listed some dates for forthcoming Catholic History Walks – I lead these regularly from the Cathedral, exploring Westminster, and the Thames – but one of the Walks cannot now take place as I am needed elsewhere…a relative is sick and I need to help out.
So I dropped into the Cathedral armed with a pen, to spend some time at the desk drawing a line across the announcement of that particular Walk from each copy of the magazine. The volunteers who man the welcome-and-enquiries desk, keep the magazine rack stocked, etc are good friends and I knew they would help.
But on the Cathedral steps I was caught up in hundreds of people pouring in through the great doors too…and inside all was candlelight and glorious music, with crowds and crowds of people filling every available place. And then came a great procession, teams and teams of young people with banners, then altar servers, priests, the Cardinal…and as the organ music swelled all joined in a glorious chorus “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria! Ave, Ave, Ave Maria!”
I had stumbled upon the great annual Mass for the World Day of the Sick, and all the volunteers who help take people to Lourdes, all the young people who spend time working their helping in the hospitals and hospices, and great numbers of people in their care, were all there, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, all carrying glowing candles, all singing…
It was a powerful and moving sight, and the Mass was glorious. In his sermon, Cardinal Vincent Nichols recalled what it was like to be a child and frightened of the dark. He remembered calling out to his mother, and with her presence came immediate reassurance, and a sense of complete safety and consolation.
And so we go to Mary, our mother, who at Cana spoke to the Lord about those who needed wine, and who at the foot of the Cross was given to us, and we are in her care…
When the Cathedral is packed with vast crowds, people spill into all the side chapels, and/or sit on the floor, as well as standing at the back and down the side aisles. I found a place in St Andrew’s Chapel, from where I could hear, although not see, the Mass, and was able to join in the responses and the singing.
The young volunteers, “Redcaps” of the Westminster diocese who help at Lourdes were wearing their red tabards, and carried great banners depicting the Holy Trinity. There were other banners too, from the different organisations that take people to Lourdes and care for them while they are there. For the distribution of Holy Communion, priests came to the different parts of the Cathedral, each accompanied by a young tabard-wearing volunteer carrying a processional candle.
It was all an unexpected gift. My reason for going to the Cathedral on that day was because of a much-loved relative who is sick and needing care. And I came away with a message of love and hope – and a prayer-card for her, and the assurance that she, and all the sick, are loved and important and are at the very heart of the Church.
I did tackle the necessary work of correcting the copies of OREMUS, helped by a kind volunteer at the Welcome Desk. And while working there, I realised how much the Cathedral means to the many people who drift in there, who aren’t quite sure what this great Byzantine-style building is, or what is taking place. The Welcome Desk team respond quietly and helpfully, there are red-robed guides (the Guild of St John Southworth) to direct people as required, and the beautiful liturgy and great atmosphere of prayer do the rest.
Thank God for the Church’s great ministry to the sick, thank God for Lourdes, thank God for all that this means. And thank God for a great Cathedral, a witness to Christ in the modern city.