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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).
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