Back in the 1980s, I was involved with a group that produced a booklet looking at the future of the Church in Britain. We were assured — and repeated, without really thinking about it very deeply — that the downward trend of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and ordinations to the priesthood meant that there would be very little left of the Church by the early years of the 21st century. In fact, as I recall, we said that the Church would have virtually disappeared.
How wrong we were. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain, greeted by the queen and vast crowds as he made a triumphant journey through Scotland’s capital city before celebrating a Mass with thousands and thousands of the faithful in Glasgow. He went through the streets of London in the Popemobile, hailed by cheering crowds. Some 80,000 people — mostly young — gathered to meet him at Hyde Park, prayed, sang hymns, listened to him — interrupting his speech with cheers and applause — and then knelt with him in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. The next day, in a great open-air Mass just outside Birmingham, he declared a great Englishman, John Henry Cardinal Newman, to be among the Blessed. A massed choir and orchestra led a congregation of thousands in glorious music; the traditional chant of the Mass, along with Cardinal Newman’s hymns and music from the great heritage of the centuries.
Standing there on a damp hillside, I wondered at it all. For years, we have sensed that things have not been going well — congregations declining, few men being ordained as priests. But we could not — or would not — see other trends: There have been new movements that sometimes emerged in unexpected places and gathered people together in faith, in prayer, in witness, and in action for those in need; there was the immense influence of the great Pope John Paul II; there have been young people going to World Youth Days and experiencing prayer and worship with crowds from around the globe; there has been a steady growth in numbers pouring into Lourdes on pilgrimages. And there are general trends in Catholic life that bring their own new mood: The days of idiotic and distasteful liturgical innovation are slipping away, leaving much that is drab and uninspiring, but also new beauty and opportunities for dignity and authentic discovery of sacramental truth — what Benedict has described as a “Eucharistic springtime.” Young people have discovered the joy of praying before the Blessed Sacrament, and this has brought its own enrichment of our Catholic parish and community life.
The statistics still do not look very exciting. While numbers of men entering the seminary are up, and baptisms have ceased to be in freefall, there is still a big loss of numbers between First Communions and confirmations. And numbers for Catholic marriages are poor: Young people from nominally Catholic families often marry in civil ceremonies — in hotels or stately homes, or something similar — and then reconnect with the Church only when they want to send a child to a Catholic school. Things are unsatisfactory.
But the predictions in the 1980s were wrong: We haven’t disappeared. The muddle of people that make up the Catholic Church in Britain — semi-lapsed Catholics, devout ones, new Polish immigrants, third and fourth-generation West Indian and African and Asian immigrant families, converts from other Christian denominations, nominal Catholics, occasional Massgoers, the confused, the sincere, those proud of an Irish or Italian heritage, those proud of a link that goes back to recusant times . . . this mix of people is a living part of the universal Church, and it has a future.
What next? We have long known that the teaching of the Catholic Faith in our Catholic schools has left a great deal to be desired. More than one generation of children has been betrayed — and this is something that badly needs to be rectified. In the next few years, we will start to see this happening. Among those who have been attending events and conferences and pilgrimages — led by groups such as the Faith Movement, Youth 2000, or the Charismatic Renewal — are some who have become teachers and active in parish catechetics. Catholic schools have long been popular and over-subscribed: In an era of educational chaos and poor standards, many are beacons of light and hope because at least they are centered on spiritual values, great traditions, and a sense of belonging to something glorious and timeless in the Church. Many are taking a fresh approach in teaching of the Catholic Faith, from a fresh generation which seeks to offer it anew.
The patterns of religious belief in Britain are, of course, changing — the biggest growth in recent years has been in Islam, and that is a trend that will continue. The Anglican Church looks set to trundle along in decline — although it would be foolish to assume a hasty ending to all Anglican life. There are strong Evangelical parishes, a great tradition of cathedral music, and a residual sense of loyalty to the Church of England as an institution, all of which combine to ensure a degree of survival for a while yet.
What, then, of the Catholic Church in Britain? Those who seek to gloat over its demise will want to hope that the papal visit was just a blip in an otherwise uninterrupted downward spiral — but the facts don’t quite fit that analysis. There were all sorts of muddles and difficulties over applications for papal events, and as a result numbers attending had been expected to be far smaller. But people triumphed over bureaucracy and got themselves tickets and places on coaches. Others simply turned up to greet the pope as he went triumphantly through Edinburgh or London; the vast crowds on the streets took the mass media by surprise.
To those of us who live in the London suburbs, almost more moving were the numbers who gathered in Wimbledon, outside the nunciature, to cheer the papal motorcade as it arrived on the first evening: We prayed and sang, we carried candles and torches and banners, and we grew and grew in number, as people from parishes across London arrived — friends greeting one another, children jumping joyfully about, police good-naturedly keeping us all behind barriers as excitement grew.
These people are the Catholics that I can read best, from the London suburbia that has long been my home. They love the Faith, and they know that it has survived in Britain because people made sacrifices. They don’t feel alienated from everyday life or modern culture: They are proud of the fact that Catholic schools are admired and that the pope is a world figure and that the Church produces great people like Mother Teresa of Calcutta. They sing hymns old and new; they are comfortable with devotions such as the Rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet; they turned out in vast numbers to venerate the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. More than half of them belong to the generation that, back in the 1980s, we were told would disappear from the Church leaving only a void — but they haven’t disappeared. There is a future, and hope.