By John O'Keeffe
SITUATED above a supermarket, the church hall, which is the liturgical centre of parish life of St. Augustine's, Tunbridge Wells, is not one of the most inviting introductions to the parish.
Inside, however, tasteful and subdued furnishings supply the churchlike atmosphere which most of us prefer not to do without. A large selection of books, pamphlets and Catholic newspapers at the back of the hail indicates that the clergy are interested in keeping their people abreast of those still bewildering conciliar changes in the Church.
St. Augustine's is. in fact, no ordinary parish. Founded originally by the Jesuits in the 1820s, it recently pulled down the old church and presbytery and sold the site to a supermarket chain. It maintains a dozen subsidised flats for the elderly, has a parish magazine "The Augustinian". edited by a Fleet Street journalist parishioner, provides a Mass with a folk choir every other week, and a Latin Mass each Sunday.
Its most outstanding feature is the systematic seriousness with which it takes that phenomenon which elsewhere has virtually disappeared from Catholic life — Friday abstinence, combined with a concern for the world's poor. It does this through the parish Family Fast Scheme.
It is the parish's own contribution to the fight against world poverty, and is intended to be seen as at least as important as the weekly offertory commitment. Each family taking part is given a pack of 52 numbered envelopes.
By sacrificing something each Friday, such as dessert of ice cream or tinned fruit, the family can put the money saved into an envelope. This goes in the collection plate at Sunday Mass, along with the offertory promise envelope.
The emphasis on sacrifice — with an actual fast in the home to save money, rather than the giving of extra cashis central to the scheme. In just over two years and four months this systematised giving at St. Augustine's has produced, from 18,513 sacrifices, £3,785 11s. 8d. towards helping the underdeveloped countries.
After consultation with the parish council it was decided to direct efforts to areas of development and not starvation, no matter how dramatic the latter. Projects are selected each month, usually under the guidance of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development. This ensures renewal of interest and focus of effort, and helps contributors to feel that, however small, their efforts will survive in some tangible way.
Apart from the penitential aspect vital to Christian life, the Family Fast Day is designed to educate people on the enormity of the problem of the Third World.
Among the projects that have been helped by St. Augustine's and surrounding
parishes, are resettlement of famine-stricken families in Uganda; help towards providing a tractor in India; a Land Rover for child welfare work in Lesotho; domestic and nutritional instruction in Colombia; and well-digging at a Catholic mission in South India.
Deprivation and suffering on the doorstep are not overlooked. Once a month each year the fast scheme has benefited such charities as the Simon Community, Shelter, ex-Service Mental Welfare, and the Servite Homes.
Once a year St. Augustine's re-dedicates itself, as a parish, to the scheme. This year the rededication took place on Sunday. January 10; there was no Latin Mass, so that hymns and songs could drive home a message usually honoured more in the breach than the observance by the brotherhood of Man.
At the first Mass, involvement of the ordinary Catholic in the pew was underlined when a woman parishioner spoke from the pulpit about the scheme. The entrance hymn, backed with a folk choir, was the catchy, "When I needed a Neighbour Were You There?"
At the second Mass Fr. William Howell, the parish priest. preached on the scheme. He stressed the disparity between the everyday life of his ordinary parishioner and that Of those in underdeveloped countries. He recalled that on average, every man, woman and child in this country spends £53 a year on drink and tobacco.
He contrasted the thousands of millions this country spends on education, welfare and defence with the mere £150m. given annually to poor countries. Someone had to call a halt to the continual appetite for luxuries, and this should be done by Christians.
It is one of the scandals of British Catholicism in the Seventies that parishes such as St. Augustine's, which try to take Pope Paul's teachings on the Third World seriously, should be the exception rather than the rule.