We have been in England for one month now, in Portsmouth, where the Bishop has assigned us as the pastor and vice pastor of a parish in Woodley, a city with a population of 35,000 about 40 miles from London. In these first days, we haven’t been focusing our attention on what we could potentially do, but what God had already been doing.
The day we arrived we celebrated the 4pm Mass in the chapel of the church dedicated to Mary. We immediately felt at home: even if the words sound different (sometimes, while we celebrate the Mass in English, some of the parishioners smile because of our accent…), the gestures of the Mass and, most of all, the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist don’t change. He awaits us even here.
The second thing we have been concentrating on is the house. We divided the areas of the house, designating some zones for studying, others for prayer, still others for eating and relaxing. We went to IKEA (even there we felt a bit at home!) and we bought what was strictly necessary, a few additional book shelves and wardrobes for our clothes. Then we established the rule: in the morning, we say the morning prayer together, we have an hour of silence for our personal meditation and we conclude with afternoon prayer. Monday is the day of the house: after the 9:30 Mass, Raffaele and I go and visit something beautiful in the surrounding area. In the afternoon, we have the meeting of the house, in which we share the most significant things that happened during the week and look together at what awaits in the following week.
We have started to meet people. One person in particular struck me: a mother with a family who is very involved in the parish: keeping the sacristy in order, cleaning the common spaces of the parish, updating the bulletin boards…and all of this without being paid. One morning, as she was preparing the tea for a reunion with the administrators, I asked her, “Where does this generosity come from?”. She paused a minute, set the teacups on the table and began to tell me. “I am happy to do all of this for you guys, because, for me, being Catholic is the most important thing, more important than my kids, my husband and work. I’m proud to be Catholic”. Then I asked her how she became Catholic. “My family is Anglican. My mother, before giving birth to me, wasn’t able to find a hospital that had an open space. She began to search all over the city, like Mary when she was about to give birth to Jesus…”. We began to laugh. I imagine the scenes in Bethlehem set in this modern city. “The only hospital that she could find was a Catholic hospital. I am the only one in my family who was born there”. She stopped for a minute, then began again: “The years continued to pass and I felt like something was missing. Like there was a hole in me. The desire for something that I did not have continued to grow. One day, I ended up in a Catholic church and from that moment on I have never left. I asked to be Baptized when I was 33 years old and today the Catholic church is my life”. Something was still missing in the story: “Do you know why I come to Mass every day? Because I am a sinner. I need the Mass, I couldn’t live without it. I am intrigued by the way you both celebrate the Mass: you can tell that the protagonist of the Mass is Jesus, not you.” I explained that it is for this reason that we wanted to put the crucifix at the center of the alter, between the priests and the faithful, so that we can look upon it together. And I thought back to the words of St. Benedict, that are accompanying us in this new beginning: “Do not put anything before the work of God”.