Chesterton’s Secret People

Chesterton’s Secret People

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The English Catholics

It was a rainy spring morning in Wallingford, a charming grey stone market town in Oxfordshire, bordering the meandering Thames. I slipped out of a friend’s house on foot, headed for morning Mass. The wet streets were practically empty, save for a few early Sunday shoppers.

Finding the church was a little tricky, as its location in an un-charming,  new-brick edifice around the corner from a street ATM was more than discrete; a  tiny sign was the only indication of its presence. Inside, however,  were pews filled with Catholics, standing room only.  I looked around me in wonder – the place was filled with people from every continent and walk of life. From my cramped seat in the back, I listened carefully. The priest was an Irishman, and his homily was forceful and direct.

From my cramped seat in the back, I listened carefully. The priest was an Irishman, and his homily was forceful and direct.

In the last 15 years, I have attended Masses all over England, and what has struck me most about English Catholics in the pews is how similar they are to Catholics in the United States today.  In the suburbs, you find the churches filled with older people, there out of long habit and young families, trying to pass on the Faith. There are almost no single young people. In the big city churches, a grand mix of types of all races and nationalities – singles, couples, old and young, plus a sprinkling of tourists. And in the solemn Latin Masses, the pews are filled with a creative minority of intellectuals, artists, entrepreneurs and young families with lots of children.

So who are they, G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Secret People,’ the Catholics of England?

Today’s Catholics represent a small minority – 9.6 percent of the population in England and Wales, about 5 million people. These derive from five distinct groups: Lancastrians, Irish, recusant families, converts and immigrants.  To varying degrees, these groups have inter-married and mixed, of course, but it helps to understand their provenance.

Lancaster, in the north of England, stubbornly persisted in the Faith for nearly four hundred years, despite the persecutions of the Crown and later oppression and discrimination. Its capital is Liverpool – home of the Beatles, but more importantly the center of immigration for Irish fleeing the famine of the 1840s. Thousands died of cholera and other diseases; in the crypt of the Cathedral are buried ten priests who died heroically, struggling to save the lives of the sick poor refugees. In Liverpool, and in many other northern cities, the Irish set up urban parishes in ‘ghetto’ patterns which will be familiar to ethnic European diaspora Catholics the world over. Today, Liverpool is 46 percent Catholic.

ANCIENT CATHOLICS: The tomb of the Black Prince in Canterbury cathedral

RECUSANT NOBILITY: The Duke of Norfolk, who during World War II, saved Newman’s Oratory School from Nazi bombings.

The recusant families of England are famous for both their wealth and intransigent adherence to the Faith through the centuries of brutal repression. Many of the high aristocracy trace their lineage back to the Norman French who invaded the island in 1066, though recusants can also be found among ordinary people and the country squires in remote villages in the North unreached by the Crown. For hundreds of years, these families paid astronomic sums to the Crown in order to be allowed to practice their religion. Their unofficial leader has always been the Duke of Norfolk, a hereditary dukedom based in the diocese of Arundel. The Duke has stepped in at various critical points, for example in the depths of World War II Nazi bombing of Birmingham, to quietly arrange to move John Henry Newman’s Oratory School to safety on 600 bucolic acres in Berkshire. (When the next Monarch is crowned, it will be the Duke who will be in charge of the coronation, a responsibility traditionally entrusted to him, regardless of his religion.)

Catholicism attracted famous converts in the 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly intellectuals who found themselves kneeling alongside the Irish servant class in the pews of the Church. Today, converts still find their fascinating way to Holy Mother Church, often through the Latin Masses that were permitted by special indult from Pope Paul VI in 1971. This was in response to a letter penned by Evelyn Waugh and signed by a host of English luminaries, including the redoubtable Anglican Dame Agatha Christie. (Legend has it that Paul VI was a fan of detective fiction; hence the indult.)

Catholics tell me that a slice of English society is still vocally anti-Catholic, though not in the same ways as years ago.

Today, the pews are also filled with Catholic immigrants, from Eastern Europe – Poles are the largest group – and the Middle East, Southeast Asia and indeed everywhere. These people are in England to work, and they have brought their Faith with them. Most are oblivious of the historic persecution and oppression that existed in England.

FAMILY TRIBUTE: Hundreds of years later, England’s Catholics recover an altar from the ruins of a robber baron’s mansion.

Catholics tell me that a slice of English society is still vocally anti-Catholic, though not in the same ways as years ago. Whereas before the Church was Public Enemy Number One for the No-Popery crowd, nowadays they have been replaced by the equally-intolerant Fashionable Atheistic crowd, according to James Bogle, a London barrister and head of the Catholic Union, a lay organization dating back to the 19th century. Both were/are fringe elements in society.

MAN FOR ALL SEASONS: St. Thomas More’s earthly remains.

There are subtler forms of anti-Catholicism, however, as anyone who objects to ‘political correctness’ knows — a subject familiar to generations of English Catholics in the pervasive Protestant interpretation of the nation’s history. (This is also true in England’s former colonies.) For centuries, the English have been taught that the Crown’s unprovoked and brutal attack on the Church was justified by the supposed ‘superstition’ and ‘corruption’ of the ‘rich abbeys.’ Only in recent years have less-biased scholars begun to unearth the true story, about how the wealth and property of the abbeys passed into the hands of the petty nobles willing to do Henry’s dirty work, and how those same families generations later turned the peasantry off their lands in the hated “Enclosure Acts.”

The poor, with no place else to go, wound up on the streets of the industrial cities, whose appalling conditions Dickens recorded and the Methodist Wesley brothers decried. It was these same urban poor whom the Labour movements mobilized, spurred on by the theories of the German Karl Marx, writing in the British library.

There is a new, and perhaps more devastating threat than rack or rope ever was – indifferentism, and its cousin, secularism. Both essentially derive from 19th and 20th century materialistic philosophies, though the individual lapsed Catholic may not know or care about this.

But this was many years ago, and today the Catholic Church in England represents every class, and every conceivable background. On the surface, all is well. But Bogle points to a new, and perhaps more devastating threat than rack or rope ever was – indifferentism, and its cousin, secularism. Both essentially derive from 19th and 20th century materialistic philosophies, though the individual lapsed Catholic may not know or care about this.

Essentially, it boils down to unbelief. For university graduates, the story may read: ‘since there is no scientific proof that God exists, and history is replete with painful proof that religion breeds intolerance and sectarian violence, why bother?’ For those less ideologically-inclined, ‘if the Church is not helping me materially or spiritually, why bother?’

Watered-down catechism has resulted in a situation where many English Catholics would be hard-pressed to explain what the difference actually is between Catholicism and Anglicanism – or any other religion, for that matter.

Attempts to address this by making the Church more ‘relevant’ since the 1960s have ended in abject failure, for the most part. Watered-down catechism has resulted in a situation where many English Catholics would be hard-pressed to explain what the difference actually is between Catholicism and Anglicanism – or any other religion, for that matter. This is especially true in the parishes, which have been dominated by an Irish hierarchy with strong modernist tendencies since Vatican II, says Bogle.

The English have been more strongly represented in the various Catholic orders since the Reformation. Brave Jesuits were hunted, drawn and quartered by a Crown wielded by a Monarch whom Protestant historians taught us all to regard as ‘Good Queen Bess.’ (One young priest’s ‘quarters’ were hung from the church steeples of the four towns he frequented, including his birthplace, Preston – a warning against others who might decide to ‘Pope.’)

Elsewhere, Passionists dreamed of bringing Our Lady’s Dowry back into the fold, and were spat upon in English cities when Catholicism became legal again in 1823. Benedictines labored to rebuild their abbey schools – once the glory of England – and now teach the children of wealthy Catholics at co-ed ‘posh’ schools such as Ampleforth and Downside Abbeys. The Oratorians at London, Oxford and Birmingham – and very recently, York – fill their urban churches with several Masses a day where the faithful come for frequent Confession, reverent liturgies, Latin Chant and demanding homilies.

There are two major Catholic publications in England – The Tablet, a venerable-but-fusty old maid much concerned with ‘social relevance’ and the Catholic Herald, a livelier mix of news and opinion whose webmasters are kept busy policing a red-hot readers’ commentary column. Overall, however, Catholics rejoice that Archbishop Antonio Mennini’s appointment as nuncio to Great Britain has been having an effect on a most critical area – the appointment of orthodox bishops. Ancient pilgrimage sites are also being revived, drawing Catholics and other Christians to walk in the steps of their forefathers, before such popular expressions of faith were banned by the Crown — and later suppressed by modernizing elements in the Church.

Whatever they are, the English are never boring. A case in point was the much-ballyhooed visit of Benedict XVI in 2010, where the British press feverishly prophesied massive anti-Pope rallies – apparently unconscious of the historic irony they were courting.  The freedom-loving British, they confidently predicted, would not tolerate Ratzinger the Rottweiler, the Pope who dared to uphold the Church’s hated teachings.

In the event, the massive anti-Pope crowds never materialized. A few London crazies with multi-colored hair and complicated sex lives waved banners for the cameras. 

In the event, the massive anti-Pope crowds never materialized. A few London crazies with multi-colored hair and complicated sex lives waved banners for the cameras.  But the TV crews soon packed up and headed off to the real story – the crowds that lined the streets ten-deep to wave excitedly, greeting the papal motorcade joyfully in London, and in every city and small village it passed.

Somewhat more controversially, the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham was set up by Pope Benedict XVI to allow Anglicans to enter into full communion of the Catholic Church while retaining much of their spiritual, liturgical and pastoral tradition. English leaders of the Anglican Ordinariate include the Duke of Norfolk, the Countess of Oxford and Asquith, the Duchess of Somerset, Lord Nicholas Windsor, Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth and the Squire de Lisle, whose ancestor Ambrose de Lisle was a 19th-century Catholic convert who advocated the corporate reunion of the Anglican Church with Rome.

“It could be quite distressing for Anglicans who had made a difficult journey in order to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church to be asked, for example, why they did not become ‘proper Catholics…'”

The Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, Monsignor Keith Newton, recently told thousands of Mass-goers in the Catholic Westminster Cathedral that many Catholics are unaware of – or misunderstand – the Ordinariate. He said it could be quite distressing for Anglicans who had made a difficult journey in order to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church to be asked, for example, why they did not become “proper Catholics”.

“Our priests are just like any other Catholic priests; you can attend Mass with an Ordinariate congregation with an Ordinariate liturgy and fulfill your obligation, just as you would by going to Mass in any Catholic church anywhere in the world”, he said, speaking of the great joy of Ordinariate members and of how its clergy were serving in the wider church as chaplains in prisons, hospitals and schools or as diocesan parish clergy. He quoted Pope Benedict’s description of the Ordinariate as a “prophetic gesture” to promote Christian unity.

Indeed, on the subject of Christian unity, the Apostolic Exarchate for Ukranians serves the 15,000 Ukrainian Greek Catholics in Great Britain and the Lebanese Maronite Catholic Church, as well as the Eritrean, Chaldean, Syriac, Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara, and Melkite Rites – all in communion with Rome – are also present in England today.

As always, history is never far away from English Christians, however. A thousand years ago, another pope released St. Edward the Confessor from a vow — if the king built a monastery dedicated to the first bishop of Rome. Thus, St. Peter’s Abbey was rebuilt in Westminster.

Legend has it that as the abbey neared completion, St. Peter appeared to some Thames fishermen, asking to be ferried to the site. As they neared the structure, the entire building was suddenly filled with light. The Saint told them that he had consecrated the church and that they would be rewarded with a great catch of salmon. Then he instructed them never to work on Sunday, and disappeared.

Pope Benedict XVI gently stressed our common history during his visit to Westminster Abbey, I thank the Lord for this opportunity to join you … in this magnificent abbey church dedicated to St. Peter, whose architecture and history speak so eloquently of our common heritage of faith. Here we cannot help but be reminded of how greatly the Christian faith shaped the unity and culture of Europe and the heart and spirit of the English people. Here, too, we are forcibly reminded that what we share, in Christ, is greater than what continues to divide us. …I thank the Lord for allowing me, as the successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome, to make this pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor.”

by Beverly De Soto Stevens

Editor, Regina Magazine

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