It was George Bernard Shaw who said that Britain and America were “two nations divided by a common language”. He often spoke nonsense, but this particular statement is definitely true.
Often and often I have found that Americans visiting London are expecting a country and culture that simply aren’t there. It’s partly because some Americans – even now, in this second decade of the 21st century – have images of London dating back to the Second World War, with additions from the 1980s (the Reagan/Thatcher era and all that) with a dash of Sherlock Holmes and the 1890s. And of course it just isn’t like that. London is searing tower blocks shimmering in summer heat or glittering with lights on a winter evening. It is Indian and Italian restaurants, it is pizza and kebabs and takeaways. It is coffee shops galore, and pubs that are closing at an alarming rate. It is many different languages from Urdu to Polish in the streets. It is mosques and ladies in top-to-toe black robes with only the eyes uncovered. It is a great mix of people and cultures.
What about Catholic London? It’s all here, and well worth discovering: Westminster Cathedral and Brompton Oratory, Farm Street the Jesuit Church as featured in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and little-known churches like St Mary’s on Clapham Common (my mother was there at Mass in WWII when an air-raid began – a cable from a barrage-balloon clipped the spire and lopped off its top). St Etheldreda’s in Ely Place is the pre-Reformation London chapel of the Bishops of Ely – after a strange history it was bought by Fr William Lockhart in the late 19th century and restored to Catholic use. St Mary’s at West Croydon is a lone 19th century building amid vast towering office slabs. St Elizabeth’s in Richmond-on-Thames dates back to the 1790s – some three decades before Catholic Emancipation. St James’ in nearby Twickenham has links with the exiled Portugese Royal Family.
London Catholic congregations tend to be multi-racial, not only in the city centre but also in the parishes. In addition to the Sunday Masses where everyone worships together, there are of course special celebrations for ethnic groups: St George’s Cathedral in Southwark (the diocese covering the Southern banks of the Thames and stretching down to the Kent coast) serves large South American and Carribean communites. The Polish community has its own churches in Ealing, Balham, and Islington – these are usually packed, and with people sometimes standing outside.
London has a great number of Catholic schools: these are publicly-funded and extremely popular. Many are over-subscribed. Priests sigh and talk of parents who hurriedly want their child baptised because they have just discovered that there is a good Catholic school nearby. “Oh, yes, Father…we are Catholic. Well…er…we don’t always get to Mass…”. Many – probably most – children at Britain’s Catholic schools do not go to Mass faithfully each Sunday. Parents like Catholic schools because they have nice uniforms and a sense of community, with links to the local church and attractive traditions for Christmas and First Communion and the school’s patron saint.
The Faith first came to London in Roman times – that same Roman Empire in which the great drama of Christ’s life, death and Resurrection took place, and where the Apostles received the commission to go and teach it everywhere. Then, as pagan Angles and Saxons swept in across what we now call East Anglia, the Faith had to be taught anew…and Pope Gregory the Great sent St Augustine and his team of Benedictines as missionaries.
Today, London is again mission territory. When I take part in Nightfever at St Patrick’s in Soho, inviting people to come in and light a candle, or help to run a project encouraging children across London to learn the “Our Father”, I’m a tiny part of the New Evangelisation. Most important of all, when I am at Mass at any one of London’s Catholic churches, I am part of the Church of all the ages: of London’s past and its future as I kneel there in 2017.