Building a civilisation of love
THE TOWER DOMINA I ES, bold and angular and impossibly high. It is blisteringly hot. I will burn my face at this angle straining for a glimpse of the cross. Pure 1960s, pure modernism and no concessions. But outward appearances can deceive.
This is a modern church in form but not in spirit. St Margaret Mary's, complete with high altar and communion rails, opened just 12 months before the Vatican II document on the liturgy; a modern building with an old fashioned heart. The task of re-ordering has fallen finally to the youthful Fr Gerry Proctor, parish priest. Within the confines of an angular structure of brick, stone and tile he is creating a cool and restful church. It is pointless to 'prettify' this type of interior the structure works because it is simple and modern. Clean lines and cool colours predominate.
The ceiling has been painted white and a new lighting system has been installed. Shallow marble steps lead up to the wide expanse of the sanctuary which is deliberately free of clutter and embellishment: "The sanctuary is the church," says Fr Proctor. "It speaks for itself". Fibreglass figures of the Sacred Heart and a 'floating' St Margaret Mary will be removed and placed on the outside wall. "I don't think they are particularly devotional," says Fr Proctor with true diplomacy. In their stead, a crucifix will be commissioned for the sanctuary.
Steven Foster, from Ware, the artist responsible for St Joseph's Chapel at the Metropolitan Cathedral, is working on an etched glass screen which will be placed at the rear of the church to extend the welcome area. "Wood is his usual medium and this will be his first commission in glass. The late Archbishop Worlock recommended him". The screen will display a baptism theme and the font, in keeping with traditional rather than modern practice, will be placed at the centre of this space reinforcing the link between community and church.
The re-ordering has extended to the large 1930s presbytery: "We have opened up the house. Downstairs we have given the accommodation over to the parish the kitchen is open, the dining room is used as a conference room, sitting rooms have become meeting rooms." The clergy have moved upstairs converting former bedrooms into living accommodation. It is such a sensible and practical solution on all levels: "People can't imagine how isolated a priest can feel rattling round a house designed for five or six people. Now the house is constantly used".
Fr Proctor spent six years in South America: "I was in Ecuador for four years as a parish priest and then two years in Bolivia as a prison chaplain". He speaks with great love and compassion for the people and their country: "The scope for priestly involvement is limitless; it was a wonderful experience. As Catholics, the people believed they could make a difference. Faith was everything. Paul VI spoke of 'Building the civilisation of love': these people truly did that. It was a privilege to be there".
Was it hard to return to Western ideas and values? He nods: "I was spoiled in Latin America. There was no end to the need people had of someone like a priest whom they could trust and relate to.
"You served the people as best you could. They were magnificent."
That spirit and faith has crossed the ocean to Liverpool. "This parish worked, with others, to free a prisoner, Aldo Choque, in Bolivia who had been given a life sentence. He was just a young boy. We started the campaign and the word spread across the North. Aldo visited us last year to say thank you. He would not be free today were it not for the work of thousands of people on Merseyside". The Parish also sponsors the Diocese of Jeremie in Haiti: "Poverty is endemic in Latin America and it is getting worse. We have a duty to help."
Parish is too limiting a term to describe the work and influence of St Margaret Mary's. This is the largest parish in the diocese run by secular priests with the largest primary school in the north west of England. Weekend congregations total 1,200.
"This is a good place to learn to be a priest," says Fr Proctor. He introduces me to Mark Moran, the parish's first deacon. He's enjoying the spirit and vitality here. Does he feel he's been thrown in at the deep end? They all laugh. "You're joking, he's more popular than me, the parishioners applaud his sermons."
Fr Proctor is, in his own words, a "Child of Vatican II': "It was under way whilst I was still at school. The Vatican Council had ecumenical observers and I took my cue from that". They have established strong ecumenical links with other religious communities in the area and run a shared programme of reflection and study looking at baptism, ministry and the euchatist. "All families are jointly prepared for baptism with a mixed team of Catholic and Anglican tutors. We are hoping to extend this to the marriage preparation course."
How does the parish reach out to young people? "In Latin America the youth ran everything; they were so conunitted. Here in the West, young people don't think the Church is for them. This is not a Church that readily speaks to young people these are Thatcher's children and materialism has coloured their ideals. We need to deepen people's sense of the Church. The Church should build a sense of community; we're not achieving that."
Traditionalists might blanch at the truly ecumenical spirit which pervades this parish but they are missing the point. Fr Proctor has re-introduced Latin Benediction once a month; for nine weeks prior to the feast of the Sacred Heart, a parish novena is said and they have reinstigated the June procession. Loyal to the tenets of Vatican II they are still listening to their people; a forward-looking parish that does not decry the past. St Margaret Mary's is a lesson in community.