Background: Bristol is the refuge city of choice for quite a few refugees and immigrants from Africa because the city has a policy of welcoming the world to Bristol.
Our parish is about 65% black and 10% Indian (the music is outrageous!), many of them illegal or refugees pending resolution, during which time they are prevented from working or receiving welfare. Literally made destitute by decree. Our priest, the remarkable Fr Richard Mackay, has run up a thumping overdraft paying for lawyers, investigators and travel costs to tribunals, on which trips he usually accompanies them. He rescues people from vile detention centres. The diocese has hung a sword of Damocles over his head: stop it, or else.
Dear Bishop Declan, Your Grace,
I am a parishioner at St Nicholas Tolentino. When I first came to Bristol 15 months ago from New Zealand, my first priority was to find a parish where I felt at home, which would mean with the same priorities and spirituality as my beloved and dearly missed St Patrick’s Cathedral at home.
One of the elements important to me can be referenced by this line from St Pat’s published priorities:
- supporting inner city out-reach to those in need or who are marginalised. We support and encourage Catholic social service agencies as well as the initiatives provided by other Churches in the downtown area.
They mean it, and they do it. Street people recognise the Cathedral as a home, and often wander in during Mass and at other times for a snooze on one of the back pews (they’re usually remarkably polite and considerate, even the mentally unwell). They are known by name and welcomed, grieved and prayed for when lost to death or institutionalisation.
Often at night Hindus can be found praying on the church steps. They say they recognise St Pats as a holy place, a shrine. It’s so lovely to come to Mass and see marigolds and daubs of colour on the steps.
It’s a hard act to follow. St Nick’s is alone in Bristol, at least that I could find, in practising that standard of Christ’s teaching. I don’t condemn – it is a high standard, difficult and, for the devoted clergy, demanding at all hours of the day and night. The St Pat’s presbytery is across the square, twenty yards away. People know they can knock on that door at any hour and it will open. It’s not a life for everyone.
What I do find hard to understand is that St Nick’s, far from being held up as a shining example by the diocese, is being brought to heel like a disobedient dog. The diocese’s website appears to show no wish to own and praise the enormous amount of time and money invested by Fr Richard and his team in helping the poor and marginalised, finding and sometimes funding lawyers, personally going to detention centres, police stations and courts to be a champion for the friendless.
I searched the site for anything that looked like a concern for the struggling and sometimes oppressed migrant communities of the city. The Justice and Peace Committee? Sorry. Advocating for justice in Brazil? ‘Investigating the possibility’ of working on human trafficking. ‘Re-examining racial justice issues.’ It hardly paints a picture of a church championing the kind of people Our Lord spent most of his time with.
The Annual Report, what does that say? Unsurprisingly, the first half of the narrative is about buildings. I have a fair idea what our magnificent new Holy Father, God protect his shadow, would have to say. A poor church for the poor? Clifton Diocese?
My point is: what a waste of riches. How about turning all this around in one simple stroke? Recognise that Fr Richard and St Nick’s are actually carrying Christ’s cross on behalf of the Diocese.Honour them as heroes, which they are. Feature their work in Diocesan reports. Appoint St Nick’s as the Diocesan Migrant Outreach Centre. It already is, de facto. Fund the Borderland Trust. So many of the stories are heartbreaking, but thanks to Fr Richard and his team, many fewer than might be. (I love this country and adore this wonderful city, but have been deeply shocked by some of the actions of the Home Office. But nowhere is perfect.)
What I suggest is the simple recognition of fact after all – the oppressed of this fair city already know where they can go and be sure to receive time and help. The buzz is on the street. To the Catholic Church. But not the Cathedral. The one at Lawford’s Gate.
I am sure you find some of Fr Richard’s viewpoints unacceptable, even unruly. But with good management, supporting his work need not necessarily provide him with a platform for all his views. He is a clever man, and not one to bite the hand that feeds his flock.
The Holy Father is looking for a new face for the Church. Clifton Diocese has one, ready-made. All you have to do is be proud of it. And fund it. You can certainly afford to.
Indeed, the question in these new times is – can you afford not to? I don’t imagine for a second that the Holy Father will be content to exhort and encourage. He knows what he’s up against, and is an untiring activist. Sooner or later there will be reviews. People may even ask for them – there’s a great deal of discontent out here among the laity. We have been scandalised for decades. We’re not happy. You have been doing good work with your review of Vatican II, but they are just words and words are never enough.
Remember what St Francis said. “Preach the Gospel by every means possible. Even use words, if you have to.”
This is exactly what Fr Richard and St Nick’s are doing, and we have an apparently endless stream of catechumens to show for it.
Enough. You get the point.
Respectfully, may God bless and forgive us all,
cc: Fr Richard McKay
Thank you for your letter in support of Father Mackay at St Nicholas of Tolentino. I will certainly take note of your comments.
With my best wishes
Rt Rev Declan Lang
Bishop of Clifton