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What Really Happens at the Soho Masses?

Last night, I was up in London, attending once more one of the bi-monthly Masses in Soho which have a particular focus on the pastoral needs of the community of LGBT Catholics, their families and friends. Once again, I was struck by the remarkable value of these Masses, how strongly they are contributing to the spirit and ideas behind the Year of Faith for our community – and how much we have grown as a parish in the five years since we left behind our earlier base at St Anne’s Dean St, and made our home in a Catholic parish, as part of the pastoral program of the Archdiocese of Westminster.

There is a great deal of misinformation about these Masses out in some corners of the blogosphere, much of it sadly promoted by people who have not actually attended, or joined in serious conversation with the congregation. I, on the 0ther hand, have been attending regularly for a little more than eight years – and if not quite for every Mass, twice a month, then pretty close to it, and have nearly always stayed for conversation afterwards.  A rough calculation suggests that this approximates to something approaching 200 Masses that I have attended personally.

So –  what really happens at these Soho Masses? Sadly for those who like to spread or consume salacious gossip about these Masses, I can reveal, as one who was there these 200 times – much the same as happens at any other Catholic Mass, with one very notable difference: we do it so much better than most.

For instance, let me simply describe “what happened” at Mass yesterday, with a comparison with where we were when I first started attending eight years ago.

First, some raw numbers. By my count (not just a guess, but a rough head count) the total attendance was just shy of 130 people, on a cold and dark November evening, for a Mass which was not any particular special occasion. This was perhaps a little  more than the usual number  of somewhere between 100 and 120. For a congregation that comes together only for two Masses a month, it’s probably fair to put the  average total monthly attendance at about 220 – 230. We know that many of the congregation do not attend every time: some have regular commitments in their home parishes, some travel great distances, others have other reasons. The best estimate from earlier research is that “typical” attendance by the “average” member  of the community is of the order of every second Mass, representing a total nominally “regular” congregation estimated to be of the order of something like 400 – 45o people attending one average once a month.

That congregation is by no means an exclusively “gay” one. Looking at tonight’s congregation, which was fairly typical of those we have seen in recent years, we included substantial diversity, of age, sexuality, gender and ethnicity – including some heterosexual young married couples and older singles, gay men, lesbians, transgender and many others whose sexuality and gender identity are simply unknown to me – which is precisely as it should be.   Also present in the congregation, I spotted four  priests in active ministry of different kinds elsewhere, who had chosen to attend for the personal benefits they experience. As always, some of the congregation had traveled substantial distances to get there: one woman had traveled from Somerset, some others that I knew of had come from Reading, Basingstoke, Haslemere, and from Kent and Essex in addition to a full range of London boroughs.

So, the congregation was substantial, suitably diverse, and highly committed – but the Mass itself is not where it began. Long before the opening hymn, extensive work had gone into planning the Mass, by our liturgist and organist between them, selecting hymns and bidding prayers, and typing and printing convenient Mass sheets and our regular information – packed monthly newsletter.

My own involvement yesterday began well before Mass, with a committee meeting of the Soho Masses Pastoral Council, reviewing recent progress and planning ahead. It would be inappropriate to disclose too much detail of those discussions, but I can reveal that part of it included feedback on a recent Young Adults Group weekend retreat. One of the men who had attended reported that for him, the main value of getting away in a group was just to have the opportunity to discuss the Catholic faith with others of a similar age group. How many regular parishes are able to say they offer such opportunities for their own young adults? And this, the second year in a row that our young adults have arranged such a retreat, was fully booked, with an attendance of about two dozen people. Looking ahead, two developments for next year included confirmation that we will be beginning at least one (possibly more) men’s faith – sharing group, and perhaps initiating adult catechesis, in the form of an RCIA program and / or faith refresher program for those existing Catholics who simply want to know more about the faith.

Meanwhile, simultaneously with the committee meeting, another group of about a dozen people were rehearsing in the basement for our Advent carol service next month. Add in the people who prepared and distributed the hymn books and Mass sheets in welcome, read the lessons and bidding prayers, the cantor, the eucharistic ministers, those who took the collection, and the catering team for refreshments after Mass, and that’s well over thirty people (a quarter of the congregation) who were present not simply as bums on seats (“pew warmers”), but who were participating actively and directly, either in today’s Mass, or in preparation for the Advent carol service. Again I ask – how many more conventional parishes can claim that degree of active participation in the work of setting up a and conducting a Sunday Mass?

What of the Mass itself? One notable feature, familiar to all the regulars and obvious to any newcomers, was the sheer strength of the congregational singing, and participation in the liturgical prayers and responses. The homily, delivered by our celebrant Monsignor Seamus O’Boyle who is both our parish priest and vicar – general for the diocese of Westminster, was as we have come to expect from all our celebrants – thoughtful, intelligent, delivered with clarity and at times a light touch of humour, but on an absolutely orthodox, appropriate Catholic theme for the readings of this November day, on the last things that await us all: death and judgement. The bidding prayers that followed were similarly on completely conventional, appropriate themes for the season and current events: prayers that we should be ready for that day of judgement, for peace in the world , that we may be renewed by the Holy Spirit, for interfaith week, for prisoners and those who work with them, for those who have died,  and for the victims of violence (in particular, the victims of transphobic violence – the only reference in this Mass to the LGBT community specifically, and that because tomorrow is Transgender Day of Remembrance, for those trans people who have been murdered in hate crimes).

After Mass, many of us went downstairs for refreshments – tea or coffee, and biscuits. I did not count numbers, but my guess would be about 40 people – again a substantial proportion of the evening’s congregation. When I left well after seven, an hour and a quarter after the end of Mass, a good number of people were still there, with conversations going strong. I have never seen such a high turnout for tea after Mass in any of the other parishes where I have worshipped, nor have I found people so deep in conversation, for so long after Mass has ended.

But what were they talking about? To believe the rumour mill, you might expect that these notorious homos were looking for sexual pickups, making trysts and the like. I cannot state categorically that this does not happen (just as in any other human gathering, there may be people meeting and making connections that may turn sexual) – but I can state emphatically that in the 200 odd Masses that I have attended, I have never encountered any such sexual conversations or assignations. Instead, the kind of conversations that I have been aware of, are pretty similar to those I have heard after Mass, in all the parishes I have ever been part of.

These are examples of the conversations I remember  personally participating in, or hearing others discuss:

  • Talk about family (in my case, my granddaughter).
  • Talk about our countries of origin – with two others who, like myself, are not British.
  • Talk about travel plans for the month ahead.
  • Talk about work (and for one Religion Education teacher, it’s looming end, as he prepares to  cease his work at school, to start a new life in a Benedictine monastery).
  • Talk about religious books, at our impressive and extensive bookstall – specifically, a book I particularly wanted but was not there tonight, on reflections on the lectionary readings for the coming liturgical year.
  • Talk about the year of faith, available resource materials, and what local parishes are doing
  • Talk about the evening’s homily
  • And continued discussion of some of the business dealt with earlier in the SMPC meeting, especially about plans for faith sharing groups, and possible adult catechesis.

We have then, a vigorous and thriving, personally supportive congregation with a strong sense of community, and an ever expanding range of opportunities to explore and strengthen our Catholic faith, in the context of the Mass – and outside it. Those described above, and the degree of participation, could be the envy of many more conventional parishes of ten times the monthly attendance of our own 220- 230.

Looking back

When I first starting attending eight years ago, typical attendance was about 40, and overwhelmingly white, older gay men. By the time we moved into our new home in Warwick Street, in a Catholic parish and under the auspices of the Diocese of Westminster, attendance had increased to about 60, with just the beginning of some greater diversity. The activities, however, were still largely restricted to Mass twice a month, and conversation afterwards. It is clear from the above description of yesterday’s service, that we have grown and developed over the past five and a half years, as part of a Catholic parish – in numbers, but even more importantly, in depth of involvement, and in exploration of Catholic faith.
But it’s not just our congregation that has benefited. Our presence has invigorated the parish, which without a significant resident population, was low in numbers before we joined them. Three Sunday Masses a week (thirteen, on average, a month) were previously poorly attended, but numbers have been increasing steadily, as some of our community have made this parish their regular Sunday base, in addition to the special Masses on the first and third Sundays of the month. Even so, our attendance of something like 220 – 230 a month at just two Masses represents about half the total monthly attendance from all thirteen Masses: or as much as all the other Masses put together. The indications and expectation for the year ahead, are that our congregation will continue to boost the overall numbers of the parish, as even more of us begin to attend for the second and fourth Sundays, in addition to the first and third, as at present.
Nor is the value of these Masses restricted to enriching and deepening the faith lives of our own congregation, or to the invigorating new life it has breathed into the parish. Over the years I have participated, I have noted a number of people who began attending after long years of absence from the Church, with no participation at all in its sacramental life. By returning to the faith by means of Mass in an explicitly welcoming atmosphere, they have found a measure of reconciliation with an institution that had seemed to them threatening and hostile. Some of these no longer attend – because they now prefer to practice their faith in their own local parishes. Others, like myself and a fair proportion of the most regular participants, do both.
In my own case, I no longer simply attend a local parish, I participate fully in parish life. I serve on the team of readers, I help to gather hymn and Mass books after Mass, join in the tea and discussions after Mass, and participate where I can in social and other functions. For the current activities around the year of faith, I am leading one small group working through the “Radiating Christ” booklet, and have been joining another weekly group, watching and discussing a DVD series on Catholicism. Over the past few weeks, I have had full and frank discussions with both of the priests who serve the parish, in which I described my journey in faith, and also the ways in which I try to promote ministry to LGBT Catholics.  From my perspective, I find it deeply satisfying to be able to participate so fully in parish life in a spirit of full openness and honesty, with no attempt to “pass” as straight – and to note the acceptance and support I have experienced in doing so, from clergy, sisters at the convent, and laity alike. But I could never have found the confidence to be this open and honest in my own parish, without the support of the Soho Masses and its congregation to help me to grow.
“Speak the truth in love”, and “The truth will set you free”, we are told in Scripture – and reminded by Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger at the CDF, in the “Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”.  For helping us to grow in truth and honesty, we should be deeply grateful to the Soho Masses. I know I am.
If you agree with me, please write to Archbishop Vincent Nichols, to show your appreciation – and to balance the nonsense and lies he is constantly receiving from our opponents, most of whom have never actually attended one of our Masses, to see for themselves what really happens at them.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols
Archbishop’s House
Ambrosden Avenue
London SW 1P 1QJ
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A Tribute to the (London) Soho Masses Congregation

After Mass one Sunday evening last month, one of those celebrated twice a month at the Church of the Assumption and St Gregory in London’s Soho with a particular focus on the pastoral needs of LGBT (i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Catholics, their families and friends, I was talking to one particular member of the congregation. She is not in fact any of LGBT herself, but conventionally heterosexual and a mother, who had travelled into the West End from Kent, as she does as often as she can for our Masses – usually, but inaccurately, described as Soho “Gay Masses”. She was telling me how much she enjoys the experience. “It’s the community”, she said.

Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and Saint Gregory, exterior

And so it is. I have previously heard exactly the same sentiment from another heterosexual mother,  married to her husband for over 40 years, who was also present at Sunday’s Mass.  She travels up for our Mass once a month only – all the way from Somerset, a very substantial journey. Later, I came to reflect on the achievement of these Masses, which have a particular focus on the needs of LGBT Catholics, their friends and families – but which take place in the context of a regular parish. When a visiting priest from my former parish in Johannesburg attended last October to see for himself how we operated, I was curious to know just what he thought. “But it’s just a Mass”, was his response.

Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and Saint Gregory, interior

Again, so it it – but what a Mass! Far from the hotbed of iniquity imagined by our critics, here’s a run-down of what actually happened on Sunday night, and some other recent activity: a record that puts many conventional parishes to shame.

  • Well in advance of the Mass, our liturgist had prepared and printed Mass sheets, bidding prayers, and our regular, extensive newsletter.
  • Members of the organising team began to appear at the church from about 4 pm onward – a full hour ahead of the scheduled start.
  • Two people inserted the Mass sheets/ newsletters into hymn books, offering  one to each Mass-goer in welcome, on arrival.
  • The celebrant for the Mass was Monsignor Seamus O’Boyle, parish priest and also the Vicar – general for the diocese.
  • Assisting Msgr O’Boyle on the altar was a sacristan / server
  • Music was provided by a highly skilled organist (one of a team of four), assisted by a superb cantor to lead the vigorous and enthusiastic congregational singing.
  • Readings and bidding prayers were shared between four readers.
  • Four more were Eucharistic ministers.
  • A further four people took the offertory collection, and a retiring collection for the registered Catholic charity, CAPS (Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support).
  • Notices at the end of Mass included some matters concerning our planned pilgrimage to Rome, due to take place next April.
  • Out of about 100 worshippers, possibly 50 moved downstairs for coffee and biscuits provided by the catering team, and to browse through the extensive information tables and collection of religious themed books on our magnificent bookstall (with subject matter ranging across Scripture, spirituality and prayer, Christology, Vatican II, reflections on the liturgical year, and many more – and simply to chat among friends, or to discuss recent activities and future plans. When I left shortly after 7 pm, over an hour after the end of the service, conversation was still going strong.

I make that something like 20% of the congregation who had contributed directly to the planning and conduct of the Mass, and 50% who gathered for refreshments and discussion. Talk about community! How many conventional parishes can claim that degree of  active involvement?

The “recent activities” under discussion will have included a successful Marian Day of reflection last Saturday, arranged by one of our team, led by a notable theologian and attended by eighteen members of the congregation, a weekend retreat the previous week for members of our Young Adults Group – the second retreat set up, planned and organized by the young adults themselves. Our young adults group have become a prominent, vigorous part of the congregation, as ministers of the eucharist, readers and on the Pastoral Council, as well as conducting their own regular social and religious activities – such as this, the second retreat they have arranged.

In addition to the young adults, we also have a women’s group and a transgender group meeting monthly before Mass for discussion and mutual support, and we will soon be starting a regular men’s faith-sharing group. Coming up for the Christmas season will be a Carol service, and for next year, there will be repeats of the successful “Next Steps” workshop on extending ministry to LGBT Catholics. Also on the horizon, is serious discussion on launching an RCIA program (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), to welcome people wanting to join the Catholic Church.

Last July, we had a large group participating alongside other Christians in the London gay pride parade – promoting to the wider LGBT community the idea that they too, could be welcome in Church.

In addition to the deep involvement in our own parish community, I should also note the investment in travel time and money it represents, and that for many of us, this is in addition to participation in local parishes.  I had travelled up from Haslemere in the south of Surrey – some 40 miles. Others that I know of had come similar or even greater distances – from Basingstoke, Salisbury, Somerset, Tunbridge Wells and Brighton and elsewhere in Sussex.

Many of our people also participate in local parish activities, as liturgists, musicians, special ministers – or passive pew sitters – and in affairs of the diocesan and even national church. Possibly also under discussion may have been the recent “Call to Action” gathering at Heythrop College, which some of us attended. Out of about 4oo  total attendance,  from right across the country, I spotted about ten of our community. (The whole of Arundel & Brighton diocese did not have many more than that).

Not all of us are active in local parishes: some have felt so rejected by the Church that they have not participated in any Catholic sacramental life for years. But our experience has been that many of the people who come to us for the first time after years outside the Church, become reconciled to the faith and move on to attendance, and then deeper involvement, in local parishes as well.

In this year of faith, Catholics around the world are reflecting on the twin themes of evangelization, and on the unfilled promises of Vatican II – one of which was much greater lay participation, in sharing the burdens of ministry. In the Soho Masses congregation, we have strong examples of both: extensive lay participation in planning and conducting our liturgies, and by our continually expanding pastoral programme, active ministry / evangelization to the broader community of LGBT Catholics.

Contrary to the apparent belief of the critics of the Soho Masses, the “face of Jesus” is not one of rigid enforcement of doctrinal rules and the loyalty to a religious hierarchy, but one of love and service to the community. (Jose Pagola, in “Jesus, an Historical Approximation“, describes Jesus’ mission above all as that of preaching the immanence of the reign of God).

When I first joined the congregation in the days at St Anne’s, the group was notable for comprising mostly older white men (at 52, I was probably at about or under the median age). No longer. We are now notably younger, and although there’s some way to go, we are also notably more diverse in gender and ethnicity. We have grown in numbers, but more important is that we grown immensely in community and active life in the faith. Summarizing the points above, this includes, in addition to the Masses themselves the following characteristics which any Catholic parish would hope to support:

  • Growth in spirituality (retreats and days of reflection)
  • Special interest support and faith – sharing groups
  • A planned pilgrimage
  • Community outreach activities and regular charitable giving (in our case, especially to CAFOD, CAPS and some other causes)
  • Informal catechesis through our extensive bookstall / information tables
  • A possible start to formal catechesis and RCIA
And above all, a most remarkable, powerful community spirit and fellowship. Yet all of this astonishing achievement is produced by a group meeting for just two Masses a month. Although some people undoubtedly contribute more than others, this is no longer something arranged by just a small group, or even by the formal pastoral council. This is a collaborative venture, strengthened and invigorated I am convinced, by the Holy Spirit working through us all, in which many gifts contribute for the greater good – of our community, and of the church as a whole.
Soho Masses community – I salute and thank you.
(Originally published October 25th. Also see the follow – up post “What really happens at the Soho Masses?”, written after Mass this past Sunday, November 18th).

“Occupy the Church”: Austria’s Catholic Rebellion Gathers Strength.

Two recent reports from Austria show clearly that the Catholic rebellion is gathering strength: survey research shows that two thirds of the country’s priests support calls for urgent reform, and that lay Catholics have announced plans to ignore Church rules that restrict the celebration of Mass to ordained priests. Instead, they will conduct worship and communion themselves where priests are not available. Meanwhile, in Australia, a separate story from Melbourne illustrates how on a much smaller scale, Catholics elsewhere are also willing to defy episcopal control.

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