If you’ve experienced ups and downs during the pandemic, you are not alone. So has Archbishop John Wilson, leader of the sprawling English archdiocese of Southwark.
What’s got him through? He credits prayer and chocolate ice cream.
“Like many people, I’ve had good days and bad days during the pandemic,” he told CNA in an interview. “I’ve missed seeing family and friends in person, and being out and about in the archdiocese in our parishes and schools.”
“I’ve not had as much contact with the clergy as I would have liked, even though I’ve kept in touch with them each week during the lockdowns. My ministry has been far more tied to the desk than I would want. This lacks the balance of personal interaction.”
“What’s helped me most is trying to keep my inner life alive, trying my best to pray and spend time with the Lord. When this has been difficult, I’ve focused even more on the three staples of my spiritual life: the Jesus Prayer, the rosary, and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I have a string rosary beside my bed. If I wake up in the night, I use it to pray.”
“I am blessed with my family and friends who help keep me sane. Chocolate ice cream also helps!”
The 52-year-old archbishop has had a meteoric ascent in the Catholic Church in England and Wales. He was born in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, in 1968 and ordained to the priesthood in 1995 for the Diocese of Leeds.
At the relatively youthful age of 47, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Westminster archdiocese. Roughly three and a half years later, he was named archbishop of the neighboring Archdiocese of Southwark.
In this new role, he oversees the pastoral care of some 85,000 parishioners in 175 parishes in the London boroughs south of the River Thames and the county of Kent. The archdiocese is so large that a previous archbishop applied unsuccessfully to Rome to split it in two to make it more manageable.
When Wilson was installed as archbishop at St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, on July 25, 2019, he could never have imagined that less than a year later a virus would paralyze the archdiocese.
Along with other bishops in England, he was obliged to suspend public worship in March 2020 as the coronavirus swept the country.
But he was one of a number of bishops who spoke out forcefully in favor of reopening churches as the first wave of infections began to recede. He wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson highlighting a “growing frustration” among Catholics.
“When I wrote to the Prime Minister in May 2020 our churches were still closed,” he recalled. “There was no access, even for personal prayer. As the regulations began to be relaxed, allowing non-essential shops to open, I felt it important that churches too should be opened, as a matter of equity.”
“I believed that with supervision and hygiene regimes in place, our churches could be just as COVID-secure as supermarkets and other shops. I know this was the view held by the other bishops too.”
He continued: “Sacred space matters for Catholics. We can and should pray anywhere and everywhere. But our faith is powerfully sacramental. It centers on Christ’s Eucharistic presence from which we draw the strength to live in holiness and serve others.”
“Even while the public celebration of the Mass was not permitted, I felt that opening our churches and allowing people to pray before the Lord, in the tabernacle and the monstrance, was an important step forward.”
“A parishioner wrote to me to say the first day she was able to enter the church again for adoration, she sat and wept with joy before the Lord.”
Wilson expressed gratitude that the authorities have permitted public worship to continue during the country’s third lockdown, which began on Jan. 5.
“I thank those within Parliament who spoke in favor of this, acknowledging the important place that religious belief, and the charitable service that flows from it, continue to play in the lives of many people and our society as a whole,” he commented.
Wilson thinks it is too early to tell if the pandemic will leave the Church in Southwark stronger or weaker.
“I think the Church in our archdiocese will definitely be different because of the pandemic. For many Catholics, not being able to attend Mass, or pray in church, or participate in any parish activities, has awakened and heightened the importance of their Catholic faith and practice,” he said.
“It’s true that sometimes we only realize the value of what we have when it’s taken away. Hopefully, we will all be strengthened to cherish what matters most about the life of faith, both individually and together.”
“For some Catholics, the pandemic will have challenged their sense of Catholic identity and belonging. Absence does indeed often make the heart grow fonder; but it depends on what was there beforehand, on what really touched our hearts and motivated our discipleship.”
“Sadly, some may not return to practicing their faith as they did before the pandemic. My encouragement, and my hope, is for everyone to please return. We must do everything we can, now and in the future, to reach out to people in our parishes and local communities.”
Wilson believes that lockdowns have helped the Church to refine its approach to online prayer, worship, catechesis, and fellowship.
“While there is no substitute for being present in person at the celebration of the Mass, the use of technology in the service of evangelization and spirituality offers all kinds of possibilities,” he said. “We need to harness the best of this and carry it forward.”
But he added that there was no denying the severe economic impact of the virus.
“Our parishes rely on the generosity of their parishioners. We will need to see how parish income is affected by any economic downturn,” he said.
“There are also likely to be more people in need post-pandemic. We will need to continue to support those facing increased poverty and hardship.”
He mentioned especially those who have suffered bereavement but were unable to mark the loss as they wished due to coronavirus restrictions, as well as people who have struggled with their mental health, relationships, or addictions.
“There will also be people who have encountered the Catholic faith, via the internet during the pandemic, perhaps for the first time, who want to know more. The need for pastoral care, and the opportunities for evangelization, will be there for the Church to meet,” he said.
“In reviewing the post-coronavirus landscape of our archdiocese and our parishes, we will look with eyes of faith, through a missionary, evangelizing lens, to see what possibilities arise to renew our proclamation of the Gospel in word and service.”
“Whatever the consequences of the pandemic, our commitment to Christ remains undimmed. The search for meaning is alive in the world today. We need to be open to how the Lord calls us, in new circumstances, to be salt to the earth and light to the world.”
Asked to name the biggest challenge he faced, Wilson replied: “The biggest challenge facing me is the same one facing the Church Universal: the challenge of announcing Christ and proposing the truth He reveals about who He is and who we are.”
“The fundamental call to each of us is the call to holiness of life, to enter into personal friendship with Christ, in and through His Church, so that we can renew the face of the earth. This begins with each of us and our own discipleship.”
He continued: “There are many other challenges in the archdiocese: to evangelize; to promote vocations to marriage, priesthood and religious life; to put faith in action in the service of justice and charity; to promote the dignity of the human person and the apostolate of the family; to sustain the life of our parishes and schools.”
“All of this, however, depends on the way we each live for Christ, with all our faults and failings, trusting that He is with us until the end of the age. This is the great challenge: to accept, each day, the invitation to an ever-deepening faith in Christ and conformity to His love.”
Since his elevation to Southwark, Wilson has spoken several times about his admiration for a Frenchman called Jacques Fesch.
Fesch, the rakish son of a rich banker, killed a police officer during an attempted robbery. In prison, he experienced a spectacular return to his childhood Catholic faith.
“I came across Jacques Fesch a few years ago when someone gave me a copy of his letters from prison. I found his conversion story remarkable, a modern-day Saul turned St. Paul,” Wilson explained.
“I served in prison chaplaincy in Leeds for a few years and would often share the story of Jacques. He is evidence that no one is beyond faith or mercy.”
Fesch was beheaded by a guillotine in 1957 at the age of 27. His beatification cause opened in 1993 and he now bears the title “Servant of God.” Yet his cause remains controversial because of his grave crime.
“If he were beatified, I think he would be an inspiration to very many people,” Wilson said. “He did some terrible things; but his life bears testimony to the triumph of grace and the truth that God always works for the good with those who love Him.”
“I think Jacques’ life speaks to anyone searching, anyone dissatisfied, anyone who wants to flee responsibility, anyone who has made serious mistakes, anyone with regrets, anyone who wants to believe in Christ; he encourages me to trust that no one is beyond God’s forgiveness.”