| Letter to the parishioners of the Sacred Heart Parish, Wimbledon,
from the Provincial of the British Province of Jesuits,
Father Dermot Preston SJ
17th November 2012
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
This has been a difficult letter to write as it is contains news that I do not wish to deliver and (on the other side) news that many of you will not want to receive.
After much thought and reflection, as Provincial of the Society of Jesus in Britain, I have decided that in a year’s time the Jesuits will hand over the running and administration of the Sacred Heart Parish in Wimbledon to the Archdiocese of Southwark. I know that this will be very sad news for those of you who are present parishioners, many of whom have become friends, colleagues and co-workers of the many Jesuits who have ministered in the parish over the years. It will be sad news for you, but it will also be sad news for many Jesuits across the country.
The presence of Jesuits in Wimbledon dates back over 130 years to the time when there were no resident clergy in the area. Priests would cycle over from the Jesuit Novitiate in Roehampton to minister to the people in the locale – at first through masses celebrated in a local hall but subsequently, through the generosity of Edith Arendrup, a permanent pastoral presence was achieved through the purchase of land and the building of the Sacred Heart Church on Edge Hill.
The development of the Wimbledon mission took place when the British Jesuits were expanding their works and apostolates across the world. The needs were many, but the resources (thanks be to God) were forthcoming and that allowed this expansive dynamic to gain traction – in the Caribbean, Southern Africa and in other parts of the globe as well as major city and rural areas across England, Scotland and Wales. Schools, parishes and retreat centres began at the service of a growing Catholic population in Victorian society.
However, these times have changed; and although the Church is now growing strongly in parts of the globe which were formally seen as ‘mission territories’, the resources now available to the British Province in 2012 are a fraction of what were available in years gone by. I will share one fact with you that hopefully will illustrate this: in the early 1960s the British Province numbered almost 1000 Jesuits; whereas today, scattered across the globe, there are fewer than 200 British Jesuits.
Some might find this scenario as depressing, but I personally don’t find it so: it is the challenge of our time which is demanding that we become imaginative and resourceful as Jesuits at the service of the Holy Spirit. As St Paul said in one of the readings at Mass last week: “I have learnt how to manage on whatever I have; I know how to be poor and I know how to be rich” (Philippians 4.11-12). Thus our responsibility in times of scarcity, when assets are few, is to use our initiative to utilise whatever resources are to hand and to trust the Spirit to provide what might be needed for the next step on the pilgrim road.
From the early days of the Jesuits, it is the flexibility of response for this mission which Ignatius so prized: a man did not join the Jesuits to do a particular thing, but he did so to offer himself to God through the Society of Jesus to be used where the needs were greatest, doing whatever task might be required at that time – whether that be hacking his way through the dense forests of north America, protecting the Amerindians from the slave-traders in Paraguay, teaching schoolchildren in a college in Prague or training to be an astronomer in the Court of the Chinese Emperor. Jesuit spirituality is one of availability for mission and so (to be true to our charism in a changing world) we should be open to constant metamorphosis in our mission and practice. St Ignatius would approve of the observation of Blessed John Henry Newman: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Sometimes institutions need to be established to allow growth to flourish; and this happened in the last 200 years of our ministry in Britain. The Church, Britain and the modern world are radically different to what they were even 50 years ago; but the Spirit of God is still as alive, active and available as it ever was: our task is to detect that Spirit (perhaps now to be found in rather unexpected places) and respond accordingly.
As Provincial, I have been given the responsibility to try to ensure that as individuals and as a Province community, we remain faithful to the spirit of the Order; I am asked also to make practical decisions for our life and work that will enhance our faithfulness to our charism. I have a responsibility, therefore, before the Holy Spirit, to husband the men in the Province and deploy them wisely, in keeping with where I see the greater needs in our changing world.
To regain a degree of flexibility for response to the new challenges, the British Jesuits will need to hand over a number of our present commitments to other ministers, and I feel that it is right now to start the process of handing-over our Wimbledon parish to the Archdiocese. In many ways Sacred Heart is our strongest and most mature parish – well-resourced and stable, with a talented and capable community of parishioners who have proved themselves willing and able to take on apostolic tasks with both an enthusiasm and a giftedness which has been the envy of many other parishes in Britain. It is such a parish which we can hand over to others with pride, as it has shown that our ministry can and has succeeded. Although we will be taking a step back from the parish, we will still have Jesuits stationed in Wimbledon; some will be connected with Jesuit Missions or Wimbledon College and Donhead, whereas others will continue to be resident in our houses and engaged in study and teaching in Heythrop College and other ministries in London.
I have spoken to Archbishop Peter, and although he is sad to see the Jesuits withdrawing from the running of the Parish, he understands that our charism is calling us to re-position our ministries in Great Britain and is committed to finding priests from the Archdiocese who will develop the potential in Sacred Heart. He has been grateful for our work thus far in the Archdiocese; he is glad that we will still have a presence in Wimbledon and will continue to act as a resource both for the parishioners and the incoming diocesan priests.
Over 130 years Wimbledon Parish has developed from being an embryonic mission on the fringes of an expanding London, to being a large and flourishing pastoral community, a community which has taken seriously many of the spiritual characteristics we have hoped to inculcate in our ministries – perhaps, in particular, in the ways you have become a community of prayer with a strong and engaged laity in co-ministry within the apostolic activities in south west London. It is one of the best parishes that we are responsible for – but that also means that we have a confidence that you have a life which, although related to us, is capable of being independent from us. Families are like that.
As I said at the beginning of this letter, we will be handing over the parish to the Archdiocese towards the end of 2013 as this will allow an un-rushed year for various discussions and deliberations to take place. The Archbishop does not want to hurry to appoint a new Parish Priest until he has taken soundings from his own advisors and with parishioners here in Sacred Heart. The Diocese and the Society of Jesus will also have to come to some practical arrangements which such a handover will inevitably entail.
As you come to terms with the decision which has been made, it will be a time of change and turbulence for the Jesuits in your midst as well as yourselves as parishioners. Although the Jesuits in Wimbledon appreciate the design that I have with regards the wider canvas of the Province mission, the particular decision to leave Sacred Heart has not been taken by them. They have known that I have been reviewing all our works, but they only knew that I had finally made the decision about the parish (which will be one of a number of decisions across the British Province ministries) in recent weeks. I am sure that you will continue to support Fr Keith and the church team in these coming weeks and months, as I’m sure you will be supportive of the priests that will follow.
Although I am writing to you this Sunday, I will be coming to visit the parish next Sunday and will be at each of the Masses over that weekend. I will then be at a Parish meeting scheduled for the evening of Tuesday 27th November, where I will try to answer any questions you might have about the wider discernment that led up to this decision and perhaps try to consider with you possible directions and options for the parish in the coming months.
Let us pray for each other and let us ask for the continued inspiration of the Spirit of God in our lives and work.
Dermot Preston SJ
Society of Jesus