“I find your presence here very offensive”. Pushing her way through the crowd, the assertive young woman accosted me. She didn’t like what I was doing: inviting people into the church to light a candle.
Her problem was essentially the acceptance of diversity. As she tried to explain, she felt that only people who shared her particular opinions were allowed in that London park that day. She assumed that I didn’t share her opinions and so felt she had a right to tell me to leave.
I didn’t, of course. Nor did I engage in much of a discussion. The church – unusually old by the standards of London Catholic churches – was there long before the young people celebrating their “trans rights” march, and will be there, God willing, through many more such events. As a church built in the 18th century, when the area was a semi-rural slum on the edge of land that had housed pre-Reformation leprosy hospital, it has seen a good deal of history.
The large crowd in the park was overwhelming young, noisy, prosperous, and healthy. Vast quantities of food and drink were being consumed. Screams and shrieks echoed as slogans were shouted out or when a banner or poster was raised up. Spirits were high, with that sense of excitement and heady thrill that comes from enthusiastic certainty of being united in belief and doing something at once extremely important and very enjoyable.
It was a warm night. Clothing, or lack of it, reflected this. Many of Britain’s young are very overweight and the crowd reflected that as well. There was also some assertive dressing-up with young men draped in frills and floral wreaths and tattooed girls carrying slogans announcing their preferred sexual activities.
The church glowed nearby, its doors open with the candlelit interior beckoning a welcome, the Blessed Sacrament on the altar. Music, despite its gentleness, somehow drifted out and above the tumult in the square, which is why I think my complainant was annoyed. We were holding the first celebration of Night Fever since being allowed to hold such events with the easing of the Government-imposed lockdown. The theme of Night Fever is simple: people come in to pray, and teams go out with lanterns inviting passers-by to join in.
On this night, as usual, lots did. But a lot didn’t, and there were odd and poignant encounters as the invitation was issued. One small group got as far as the church porch before handing their candles back and saying they didn’t want to enter after all. A more frequent response was simply “I’m not religious” or “I don’t like the Church”. There were also responses which revealed a deep lack of self-worth and confusion “You don’t want me” or “I know you all hate me.”
And that last response is also a sad reminder that, however much we are trying to teach an authentic message about human love, sexual union, and the meaning it all, what young people hear is too often simply “The Church hates gays”. It’s a slogan that is easy to promote and hard to dispel.
And it is not helped by campaigners who seize on the sadness to urge that the Church abandon truth and push a wholly different agenda and message. Nor is it helped by simply and directly asserting the Church’s teaching on homosexuality: there is a time and place for doing that, but it’s not the first option in a conversation even if the angry wounded person would like it to be in order to retaliate with affirmations of how much hurt the assertion as caused.
That there is a brokenness among large numbers of our young is only too evident at rallies of this sort. It’s not something that can be healed quickly or easily. It can really only be tackled one lonely, unhappy soul at a time, with much prayer and kindness. “They don’t know that they are loved, and lovable” one priest said of the young generally, sadly, reflecting on the subject. He recalled the comment made by one youngster “I’m a contraceptive mistake – I shouldn’t be here.” Many lack the natural confidence of knowing that they have a right to be alive: somehow they need to be helped to know that, as Pope Benedict XVI put it “Each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”.
Night Fever concludes with Benediction, and before the teams go home there is usually a general debriefing, in which topics for prayer are raised and some stories shared. This happens in the crypt as the church is being made ready for the next day’s Masses. For some of the team there is time for a quick pizza before catching a late Tube or bus.
The park was still crammed and noisy as I made my way to the Tube station. For the first time in my life I had a sudden sense of what it might have been like to be a Christian in first-century Rome, in a dying culture.
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