London, England. Wikimedia Commons

Close to Those who Are Far Away

A day in the suburbs of London with Fr. Jose "Pepe" Claveria to see how in this ultra secularized society faith can once again be credible (and attractive) even for “pagans.”
Luca Fiore

Zoe says in no uncertain terms, “They think you’re nuts when you say you’re active in a parish, that you believe in God and you’re trying to educate your children in a Christian way.” She is a young mother, seated in the parish office at St. Edmund Campion in Maidenhead, a suburb of one hundred thousand souls in the countryside outside London, near Windsor. The priest, a Spaniard who is a member of the Fraternity of Saint Charles Borromeo, is José Clavería, but everyone calls him “Father Pepe.” Zoe’s mother is Catholic, but Zoe married a non-religious man in the Anglican Church. As a girl she had a negative experience of the Church, but today she has drawn closer again, partly because of her children, who attend the Catholic school across the street from Fr. Pepe’s parish. “The children come home and have to do their religion homework and are starting to ask questions that I don’t know how to answer. So I thought I should know something more.”

In ultra-secularized England, as we could say about all of the West today, there is a thirst for meaning that is directly proportional to the distrust of the Church. “Anyone who tries to preach the faith amid people... can really feel like a clown,” as Ratzinger wrote in 1968, in the passage from Introduction to Christianity cited by Julián Carrón at CL’s Beginning Day (see Traces 9/2015). The clown in question is the one depicted in Kierkegaard’s famous story: the circus outside a village caught fire and the director sent the clown, in costume and ready for the performance, to run to the village for help. The inhabitants, however, think this to be a publicity stunt and simply laugh and applaud. Fr. Pepe has no intention of putting on a clown’s nose and playing the part; he knows he may fail to find the way to make himself understood, as “they think you’re nuts.” Yet, he does not give up his attempt to bring people what he holds dearest.

A Cup of Tea
A day in the life of the Maidenhead parish priest begins at 8:00 in the elementary school courtyard. He drives the dark gray Volkswagen past the clusters of little red brick houses. The English autumn colors glisten in the light rain. London is close enough for people to work there, but far away enough for life here to feel on a human scale. The children scurry along in their gray uniforms while parents push strollers, those in a hurry waving hellos, others stopping to chat. Fr. Pepe knows almost half of them. Since his arrival in 2013 he has visited over two hundred parishioners’ homes. In this period, too, he is getting around quite a bit: “The next free evening I have is in a month.” At 9:30 he celebrates daily Mass, attended by a few mothers and some retirees who meet afterwards for a cup of tea in the parish hall. Some stay on for a game of bridge, but tomorrow there is an excursion along the Thames. At lunch, Fr. Pepe is invited to the home of Daniela, one of the school mothers, along with her two-year old daughter Pippa, who has Down Syndrome and has spent all her young life in and out of hospitals. “These months have been very hard for them and we have seen a lot of each other in this period.” Daniela seems peaceful, even as she delicately adjusts the small tube positioned in her daughter’s nose.

As chaplain for the diocesan program for New Evangelization, Fr. Pepe spends the afternoon organizing the activities entrusted to him by the Bishop of Portsmouth. In the evening Fr. Pepe will meet with a couple of friends from London who will introduce him to a priest who is going through a period of crisis.

There is so much work, but what can really open the breach among the people of Maidenhead? What wins them over? A good answer comes from 23-year-old Sam, the mother of a 2-year-old boy. She has a blue butterfly tattoo on her right wrist. She is the babysitter spoken about on the Beginning Day: “I asked to become a member of the parish because some of my clients are members. I’d never seen such openness and warmth and I wanted this for myself and my son. I want him to have someone he can turn to during difficult times, as happened for me, someone he can talk to about himself, someone to whom he can ask his questions.” Sam is not baptized. She had her child out of wedlock. She has never been part of a Christian community. And yet, for Fr. Pepe that young woman is marked by her simplicity.

Another story recounted at the Beginning Day comes from this parish. An unmarried couple asked for Baptism for their child conceived in vitro. Fr. Pepe was struck by the woman’s tears when, rather than hearing, “You are living in sin,” she was told, “God has never lost sight of you.” He recounts another episode, from a Sunday Mass. In his homily he said that the human heart is not moved by rules and ethical regulations, but by an attraction. “After Mass two people came up to me and asked if I had really refused Baptism for moral reasons. They hadn’t understood a word I said! We are so used to reducing everything to ethics that it seems strange when someone doesn’t, so after a minute they stopped listening, thinking that they already understood everything. It is difficult to break through this crust, but I keep trying, never justifying immorality, but emphasizing the exceptional fact of Christ. Without this, of course our witness looks ridiculous.”

Does it Work or Not?
Fr. Pepe observes that it is no coincidence that empiricism was born in England. “The English are this way. They ask, ‘Does it work or not?’” Many become Catholic simply for this reason. They say, “There is a lot I don’t know. I don’t understand everything, but staying with all of you I feel better.” And it seems to be “working” for a little School of Community group of “pagans,” as the Spanish priest jokingly calls them. They have been meeting on Wednesday evenings for almost a year to read the books of Fr. Giussani. There is Rob, co-owner of an imported foods business, who has never had any religious education. He married a woman from the Dominican Republic, and one day Fr. Pepe visited his home and invited him to the School of Community. “I began coming because I wanted to understand more about this Jesus. Am I Catholic? I think I’m becoming Catholic...” There is Andrea, a Slovakian, baptized as a child but raised without an education in the faith. She married a Mexican and, she too began asking herself certain questions because of her children’s school. Then there is Robert, whose wife is Catholic, and who accepted Fr.Pepe’s invitation after attending an Alpha Course, a course in “Christian literacy” for non-believers. “I have the impression that manyCatholics going to Church do not find what we non Catholics are finding by coming here.” Pete, a store manager, grew closer to the faith after the death of his grandmother, who, when he was young, had insisted that he receive a Catholic education (he was baptized Anglican). “I began to wonder why she cared so much about it. I wanted to rediscover what was so important to her.” Petra, who has always been a Catholic, says that until now she had never realized how Christ could truly be important to her life. Similarly, Anna, not technically a “pagan,” says it is surprising to see that everyone has the same questions. Someone says, “It’s better than going to an therapist, and what’s more, it’s free.” And another: “Here I’ve found the answer to that emptiness I was trying to fill with homeopathy and psychological techniques.”

Awestruck by Beauty
Anna has two children: Maggie, 12, and Martha, 15. The eldest has begun meeting with the Student Youth group that gathers with Fr. Pepe once a month. There are 35 young people, many from London, 5 or 6 from Maidenhead. Martha is enthusiastic. When she returned from the summer vacation she told her mother, “If I were an adult I would join CL. What are you waiting for?” For Anna, it all began when Fr. Pepe asked her to host the group of “pagans” in her home. She accepted, yet during the meeting stayed in the kitchen, pricking up her ears to hear what they were talking about. “I was awestruck by the beauty of an evening of singing organized in the parish. It was an atmosphere that I’d never experienced. It made me really curious.” For her, raised in an English Catholic family, faith had always been a private matter. She started attending School of Community. The friendship grew and when she unexpectedly found herself without work, she started lending a hand at the parish. “I never would’ve thought that the one unpaid job I’d ever had would be the one that gave me the greatest professional satisfaction.” In these days, for example, she is helping Fr. Pepe organize a trip to Calais, the port on the French coast of the Channel from where thousands of illegal immigrants are trying to reach Great Britain.Anna doesn’t recognize herself anymore. “What’s happening contemporaneously to me and my daughter is incredible.”

Asked how it is possible not to end up like Kierkegaard’s clown, Fr. Pepe responds, “I try to take an interest in the people I meet, to understand their lives and their problems. I go to their homes. If you don’t know who you’re dealing with, it’s impossible to enter into a relationship with them on a deep level. I too have to engage just as I am, without hiding my vulnerability and my questions. If I need help, I ask for it. I think that the place where an incisive testimony can happen is in the context of a shared life.”

Visible and Desirable
Thus, the first factor is a real involvement in the life of people, but this is not the only one. “People are won over by visible things. By now, the parish is in pretty bad condition in terms of the furnishings and the beauty of the common spaces. I proposed a project to make them a bit more beautiful, but a number of people opposed it. So, I began by spiffing up my own office, cleaning, repainting and hanging nice pictures on the walls. Now when people come in they say, ‘It’s beautiful!’ When they see, they are won over.” Visibility. When a beautiful thing begins to be seen, it begins to be desirable. Something like this happened when one of the “old guard” parishioners who had been observing the actions of the new parish priest entered the Church on a Saturday morning and saw 35 teens between the ages of 13 and 17 praying the Psalms together. The man went to Fr. Pepe and confessed, “I’ve never seen anything like it in 40 years. Maybe you are right.”

Pete, one of the Wednesday evening “pagans,” says that by now their weekly appointment has become his regular evening off.A big fellow whose physique du rôle resembles more that of a hooligan than of a sacristan, often turns down invitations for a Wednesday evening at the pub with his colleagues. “Sorry, this evening I have a meeting at the parish.” His colleagues look at him with amazement and respect.

Another striking story is that of the homeless Algerian man Fr. Pepe hosted for a month in his home. “When I heard the Pope’s words encouraging us to offer hospitality, I tried to understand how it could be possible. I looked around and asked parishioners if they would be willing to host someone. The invitation went unanswered. Then I heard about this man who’d been found sleeping under a tree. He stayed with me; he slept in my house. During the day he helped in the parish. I even had him cook for the School of Community. The parishioners saw that it was possible. They loosened up. Now, after me, a family will host him. Who knows, maybe this is a beginning that will lead to the birth of Caritas in the parish.” Fr. Pepe has no fear of these “bad times,” which from a certain point of view, he says, is simpler. Those far away are so far away that they are returning. “Certainly, today very sad things happen as the result of deep secularization. And yet paradoxically, people have fewer prejudices because by now they know nothing about Christianity. And those who come to the Church begin to flourish. It’s very beautiful, above all for me, because in them I see Christ truly at work. Even if they are attempts, very feeble beginnings that could end up in nothing, they aren’t nothing; they’re something. I’m called to look at that something and follow it.” Follow it? Why? “I follow what an Other is doing in them. God gives them to me and their testimony is an opportunity for my conversion.It’s an opportunity for me.”