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What happened to alienate British people from their faith?

What we can learn from the Church in Mexico

By on Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Mexicans crowd around a relic and wax effigy of Blessed John Paul II at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Catholicism flourishes in this country  CNS photo/Keith Dannemiller

Mexicans crowd around a relic and wax effigy of Blessed John Paul II at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Catholicism flourishes in this country CNS photo/Keith Dannemiller

As I prepare to leave Mexico, here are a few observations about the local church that I take with me.

The average Mexican parish has about twelve Masses per weekend, let us say three on a Saturday evening, and nine on a Sunday. These may be every hour on the hour until 1pm or even 2pm (Mexicans like a late lunch), followed by two or three evening Masses, some as late at 10pm. Many priests are saying five Masses on a Sunday.

The congregations at these Masses are a cross section of society, old and young, rich and poor. There are no groups that seem over-represented, and no “missing generations”.

Daily Masses attract large congregations.

Whenever you see a priest hearing confessions, there is a queue of people waiting, a very long queue, again of people of all ages. And whenever Mass is being said, another priest is hearing confessions.

At the end of Mass there is usually a prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Whenever you go into a Church, you will see someone praying.

The liturgy is rather basic, and reminds me of Italy. The Masses are all low, in every sense – no incense, no nice vestments (the Reds burned them all, I suppose) – and the sort of hymns that people sing without books. The Allleluia I have heard is sung to the tune of Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God, which is a melody that no one under the age of forty in the UK will know. Incidentally, as in certain other countries, a lot of the congragation leave as the closing hymn begins.

The clergy do not wear clerical dress, which was banned by the country’s anti-clerical governments of the past.

So what is the secret of the success of the Mexican Church? For if you take the measure of people in the pew, it is a huge success… This must have its roots in history: this is a church of martyrs, but there again, so is the church in the British Isles. True, our martyrs date back a few hundred years, but they are not forgotten, nor should the anti-Catholicism of our own governments be forgotten either, which is still not entriely eradicated.

My answer to this question – why Catholicism flourishes in Mexico in a way it does not in England – is that the answer is partly religious, and partly cultural and sociological. English people are not interested, by and large, in religion, because they are not interested, by and large, in any social activity, and religion is a social activity. In the UK in general, membership of every sort of grouping, from poliical parties to youth groups, seems to be on the wane. Moreover, religion per se now seems alien to the British psyche, whereas in a country like Mexico (or Italy or Poland for that matter) religion seems a natural activity. Why is that? What happened to alienate British people from their faith?

Another question that arises is the old question of “broken Britain” – how can you communicate the faith to people when the channels of communication themselves are broken? And here is a funny thing: Britain is a highly organised and successful country in many ways, whereas Mexico is not. Mexico has had many woes, and continues to experience these woes. Yet something in Mexico works in a way that it does not in England. Of course I am not a sociologist, though I am interested in cultural questions: but what I would like to know is this – is there any way back for us in England to a more integrated, happier society, one in which religion would not be marginalised but would once more become mainstream?

  • Hughes196

    Thank you Father Lucie-Smith for your sympathetic coverage of faith and culture in Mexico, my native land. One so rarely see any positive reporting on this country these days. It is very refreshing to see a different and understanding and truthful view. God bless.

  • James H

    Off the top of my head?

    The welfare state and the NHS. If all your worries are taken care of by the State, your faith tends to lie in its institutions, rather than in God. It’s shortsighted, and couldn’t happen anywhere other than here, but it did the job, unfortunately.

    It can’t continue, obviously. Eventually, the NHS will fold, welfare will be cut to the bone, and then, we’ll rediscover the faith.

  • Joel Pinheiro

    I’ve been to Mexico, too, and it is indeed a very Catholic country. Much more Catholic, for instance, than Brazil, where I live, and where you don’t see public displays of piety outside traditional feast day celebrations, few people ever go to Confession (though everyone, even if they go to Mass once a year, communicates), the liturgy is in way worse state than in Mexico (at least in my experience of many churches here and some there). Perhaps the Spanish spirit had some kind of determination and single-purpose that the Portuguese lack. 

    Having said that, Brazil is also a very religious and spiritual country. Traditional Catholic devotions are alive and well, as are large Pentecostal churches, a number of African religions with their traditional devotions (throwing a rose on the sea on New Year’s Day for the goddess of the sea), astrology, tarot, and, notably, Spiritism (arrived here from France, and as far as I know has died there long ago).Like Mexico and unlike England, Brazil has many things that “do not work”.Could it be that poverty and a general precariousness of life conduces to more religiosity and more happiness for a great number of people?

  • Charles Martel

    Britain is suffering because even the Catholics have given up the ghost. My sisters are both ‘Eucharistic Ministers’, but neither has the slightest idea of the Catholic Faith. They and my brother think it’s OK for abortion to be legal and call me ‘extreme’ for saying otherwise. If the Catholic Church remains true to herself, we can be the leaven in this society, but the way things are going, it is becoming nothing but the (vaguely) spiritual arm of an apostate nation.

  • Peter

    “is there any way back for us in England to a more integrated, happier
    society, one in which religion would not be marginalised but would once
    more become mainstream?”

    Up to the arrival of the welfare state there was real poverty and destitution in Britain.  The Churches, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant, were shining beacons of charity towards the poor and destitute who had no-one else to rely on.  Consequently they became an integral part of British society contributing to its stability.  The Churches united society because through them the fortunate gave and the less than fortunate received.

    Now the State takes the burden of looking after the vulnerable, and the Christian Churches have lost their primary social role.  This means that in practical terms they have become marginalised from a society which traditionally relied on them. 

    The only way forward is for them to regain their role as a shining beacon for the poor, this time the poor and starving of the third world.  They already do it but to a limited degree.  They need to be much more active at parish level to tackle to tragedy of child mortality due to malnutrition.  This way they will gain the respect of the local community which will build up to an appreciation nationwide of their good work and continued relevance.

  • Anonymous

    To a greater or lesser extent I think you could refer to Western Europe rather than the United Kingdom.  I certainly found a more mixed congregation in England than here where I live in France where as a retired person my wife and I find ourselves to be amongst the youngest in the congregation.  Roughly I would say the church here in France, the home of the Curé d’Ars, is in a rather worse state than the Church in England or Scotland.  I suspect therefore that @21fe5c0cc27bda885a89448c4f99f086:disqus is right: the NHS and the welfare state.  Youth unemployment has been far worse in France than the UK and the church probably missed a great opportunity to engage with people and help them in confidence building.  The church seems to have reached that stage where it has turned inwards.

  • Jpepe

    In Mexico, the state takes care of the vulnerable and provide health services and education. The public universities, which are the majority, promotes a socialist and anticlerical ideology.  The Church has been persecuted for many years and has not many hospitals or universities. The Church do not have complete freedom of speech, and monasteries and convents are forbidden. Clergy have limited civil rights. Yes, the Church provides for the poor and the needy but this activities are relatively small for the size of the country. In addition, I will invite you to travel to Mexico and disregard the images provided by Hollywood, you will see that in many many parts of the country the living standard is similar to the UK. 

  • ms Catholic state

    It is a terrible fate that has befallen Britain, that it has lost the Faith.  But it is a wonderful opportunity for us Catholics to bring the Faith once more.  If only we had a plan as well as prayers.

  • Anonymous

    The welfare state and the NHS are what have caused the ‘collapse’ of the faith in the UK? Surely you jest. Care for the poor and weak together with affordable – and in the UK, free – health care for all are rooted solidly in Catholic social teaching. Your comments are completely without foundation.

  • Anonymous

    Probably due in large part to the two world wars… old Europe was destroyed and along with it the faith… people are now afraid to believe strongly in anything fearing it will lead to more conflict. Europe is no longer the center of the world, so it has become harder to believe in the ideals of the time when it was. 

  • Anonymous

    Could it be that the two world wars revealed to more people the absence of divine intervention?

  • Ryan

     It is all quite simple – Our Lady of Guadalupe gave mexico the Miracle of the Tilma and  after 500 years the image still shines – the tilma and Her image are a miracle –  period. It is why the Church in Mexico thrives – period  The English have old men who talk about Jesus (sort of) and choose not to believe in miracles and  the supernatural. Mexico thrives becuase they find Christ through Mary. If England does not venerate the miracles of Our Lady then it will be finished. 

  • Jeff Johnson

    Woe for England.

  • Anonymous

    So no clerical dress, no fussy vestments, no fancy liturgy, no incense, no Latin, and popular hymns that people all know and yet the churches are full? Somehow they have been able to keep the churches full with a translation of the Mass in easily understood Spanish, without complicated Latin phrasing.

    Where did they go right?

    Meanwhile the clergy who: love clerical dress; adore fancy lace vestments; fill the church with incense; use Latin whenever they can; impose liturgical music that most people cannot bear to hear; prefer altar boys to altar girls; and think that when we pray the more complicated sub-clauses the better; are (with a few famous exceptions) emptying their churches week by week.

    Who’da thunkit?

  • Burrpark

    SUBJECT:  One Minute each night @9PM:disqus  join many others through out the world and say
    2 Chronicles  7:14″If my people, which are called by my name shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will FORGIVE THEIR SIN and WILL HEAL THEIR LAND.Many people in USA are saying this prayer each night to ask GOD TO HEAL THEIR NATION.*********************************************ONE MINUTE***********************************************

  • Juan Oskar

    Two quick observations. [ l.]  I think the clergy in Europe in the last 50 years have been LAZY and have worried more about ‘health care’ than ‘SOUL care’.   [2.]  I live near Mexico in a place called Phoenix, Arizona U.S.A. and the immigrants are very religious but that’s only the first generation.  Once the kids  and grand kids go to college and/or start making good money it’s over.  My answer?  I’ve got a bunch but I’m just a Catholic grunt working out his salvation in fear and trembling.  Peace amigos……….JO

  • Defender of the faith

    I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you look all the way back to HenryVIII.  It was down hill ever since that guy broke from the Church.

  • Chris

    Well, anglo cultures tend to be more individualistic, while latin cultures tend to be more collectivist.

  • Anonymous

    England is Mary’s Dowry, and for that reason, I think the Catholic faith in England will recover.  Mary will not forget her dowry.

  • Mathildamiller

    Was a pilgrimage for the last 10 years passing through, driving through and going around the country and it feels barren. There are mosque being built and more and a lot of non-resident works there taking care of the elderly. Children are not numerous. Churches looks deserted. Nice to visit but I feel lifeless if I had to reside there. Something is missing I cannot figure out.

  • Mansvale

    What Fr. Lucie-Smith failed to mention is that Mexico has been blessed by the visit of The Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe for which the Mexican people have continually responded. The British people on the other hand were not graced by a visit from her yet. Plus, affluence weakens faith, and leads to humanism; and it is in pain and suffering that people turn to God.

  • Anonymous

    On the contrary James is correct! First of all socialism is not required by Catholic social teaching, after all Jesus said love one another, not let your government love for you.  It is precisely in the fact that the English have reduce the commandment of love to the fulfillment of materialistic needs that this trend toward radical individualism finds its origin.  

    Remember their are two main principles of the Church’s social teaching, solidarity and subsidiarity.  Solidarity requires that we have a preferential option for the poor, BUT subsidiarity reminds us that love is properly an act of an individual moral actor and thus charity must be practiced at the lowest possible level.   Top down social welfare encourages peoples to place their trust in institutions created by man and divorced from rationales rather than in men created by God and motivated by Love.     

  • Wulfrano Ruiz Sainz

    Your appreciation of events is very shallow and narrow-minded.  England was doomed for perdition since the beast Henry VIII and his reptilian daughter Elizabeth I introduced the ridiculous Anglican Religion.  Today, the Church herself is no longer catholic.  This, today, is a double blow to true religion in England and to the british mind which is quite realistic and practical. 

  • ms Catholic state

    Two world wars reveal to me the rejection of God and the arrogance of man.  Had man not abandoned God…..these evil wars would never have happened especially the second one.

    Funny how the most atheistic and secular of all centuries also happen to be the most brutal in Western history.

  • ms Catholic state

    Thanks Burrpark…..will pass it on!

  • abb

    What about Our Lady of Walshingham? Also, in Ireland (not in the UK but only across the water) Our Lady of Knock?

  • Magdalen

    with reference to burrpark comment (below) I have had a strong feeling to pray to face of Jesus for all nations this is wonderful
    Trust in Jesus, Trust in prayer and all will be put right.

  • Magdalen

    With reference to Mansvale comment that our Blessed Lady has not appeared in this country, please discover Little Walshingham in Norfolk, our Blessed Lady appeared here and it is a major christian pilgrims town, with holy well, holy churches, holy place, thousands go on pilgrimage all year round it is a wonderful and very blessed gem

  • Brian1234

     firstparepidemos, you don’t understand Catholic teaching. It is NOT the GOVERNMENT’S job to “care for the poor and weak” it is OUR job as Catholics. Big difference. Another reason for the decline in faith is that true Catholism is not being passed on. You CANNOT be Catholic then pick and choose what you want to believe… either believe all of it as Christ taught or you are simply NOT Catholic…there is no middle ground.

  • Brian

     Charles, I suggest you purchase a Catechism for your siblings and tell them to read it. You CANNOT be pro-abortion and Catholic. Call it what it is….they support the slaughter of innocent children.

  • Anonymous

    Brian1234 In response to your allegation that I do not understand Catholic social teaching: “Concern for its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food, clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment and social asistance.” (CCC 2288) This is a very straight forward assertion that society (not simpy individuals) has a duty to provide the things mentioned. There is no contradiction of your statement that individuals also have a moral responsibility to care for the poor and weak.

    I am confused by your assertion that “true Catholcism is not being passed on.” To say that there is “true” Catholicism implies that there is “false” Catholicism. Something is either Catholic, or not. Are you, perhaps a follower of the rebellious SSPX? Also, please stop with insinuations that I am not a good Catholic; you have neither ability nor the divine authority to judge the condition of my soul.
    RDPaul, I didn’t say, or imply, that Socialism is required by the Church. SociaIism is no more required than Capitalism. I completely agree with you that the best way to handle things is at the lowest possible level; it is, as you indicate, more Christ-like.  However, James attacked the NHS, and many aspects of health care cannot be handled by family, friends or the local community. I would also include education in that group, although some parents do a stellar job of home schooling.

  • Anonymous

    Mr Martel, I am shocked that your sisters hold the position of extraordinary minister of Communion whilst believing abortion is acceptable (I know you wrote “be legal”, but am presuming that they are pro-choice). Perhaps you may bring this contradiction to their attention; if there is no joy, then I, very regrettably, suggest that you enlighten your parish priest; but please be charitable enough to inform your sisters before you do so. May God bless and guide you in this situation.

  • Conservotop

    Mexico City has less than 1% go to mass on Sundays The rest of the Country Less than 5% excluding State of Jalisco with 40% per Archbishop of Acapulco who retired Dec 2010

  • Conservotop

    Mexico has More Billionaires than USA

  • nraph

    Its hard not to make the link between a growth in afluence and a decrease in faith. The more materially and financially prosperous a country becomes the more faithless it seems to become. Whereas countries with problems seem to flourish.

  • Adrian Johnson

    Our Lady gave us a plan at Fatima, but the priests and bishops mostly don’t believe in it.  Only individuals who take the trouble to read and educate themselves will know about this plan.  

    Why is the English Catholic Church appear moribund? We hear nothing from the pulpits saying that pre-marital sex is sin, or that there is sin, or that there is a Hell as well as a Heaven.  I see many people going to communion, but almost no-one going to Confession.  The general attitude is, “no sin, no problem, don’t be judgemental. . .” Priests do not preach or teach about the necessity of cultivating one’s interior life, the true life of prayer which is oxygen to the soul and the basis of relationship to God.  

    I have some hope that the new Ordinariate will revive vibrant Catholicism, if only because most of the liberal Catholic hierarchy in the UK don’t like it (–or this pope, for that matter). 

    I gave the catechism to my (nearly grown) grandchildren, (who supposedly attended Catholic schools) and have told them that they can’t be real Catholics unless they at least attend Sunday Mass. I practice what I preach, but they are uninterested; two of them live with their girlfriends, with their parents’ approval.  (my step-son is a practicing if liberal Catholic, his wife is an agnostic.  *sigh* ).  In Mexico the persecution was simply anti-Catholic; in the English Reformation, The Anglican Church imposed an alternative protestant theology to Catholicism, and the people were for generations confused by government propaganda about the right relationship between the citizen, the church, and the state.  Anti-Catholicism is just below the surface here in England (and Scotland), and the pedophile priest problem has merely deepened and justified the prejudice.  I see some good Catholics in England, but I notice they are the ones with a genuine devotion to Our Lady.   America has a few outstanding, outspoken bishops who teach the truth even when it is unfashionable and countercultural; England lacks this calibre of bishop, and of course the clergy with few exceptions follow their lead–.  Holiness begins at the top and trickles down; it rarely flows from the grass-roots up.  As the Cure of Ars once said, “When the priest is holy, the people are good; When the priest is good, the people are mediocre; when the priest is mediocre, the people are bad.”  

  • Adrian Johnson

    Our Lady appeared at Walsingham (“England’s Nazareth”) in 1061, and gave us a place of pilgrimage so that we could experience her motherly care in the context of the quiet life of the Holy Family at Nazareth. 
     Our Lady of Mt Carmel also appeared in Aylesford, Kent, in 1251 and gave England and the world the brown scapular, the garment of her love and protection.  America has the Tilma; England has the scapular !  –But we have forgotten, even though at Fatima Our Lady reminded us that through the Rosary and the Brown scapular, she would save the world, if we would only heed her requests.  But the majority of our bishops and priests are embarassed at “devotions”, so we aren’t taught to value them.  

  • Adrian Johnson

    As in, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” ? 
    Today we have, “Trendy are the affluent materialists, for theirs are the electronic toys of consumerism.” 

  • Adrian Johnson

    St John Bosco and St Dominic Savo both received prophecies that England would eventually return to the faith.  
    In the approved apparation of Our Lady of All Nations at Amsterdam, Our Lady said that England would return to the faith “Late, and only after much suffering.” 

  • Sagwaaus

    It is one thing to have freedom of choice without consequences and England has always sought to put Catholicism in a dark place. They dare you to be Catholic. So England now can not hold on to any Christian belief because they have for too long denied the Church of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church

  • Adrian Johnson

    I think most of these billionaires are Drug Lords. 
    Most of the Billionaires in the USA became rich honestly.  

  • Anonymous

    It is interesting that many think the faith of Mexicans in Mexico is strong.  Why might that not be true?  Because when they come to the United States legally or illegally they, for example, take the Lord’s name in vain.  Many wear rosaries around their necks but do not attend Mass.  Most, if not all, keep to themselves (i.e., stay separated from their American brothers and sisters).  Many, many use and distribute illegal drugs.  Many drive drunk, fight, murder, steal and etc.  Is that the “Faith” they learned in Mexico?  Because if it is, they are not Catholic.  They are “Catholic”.  And how do I know this stuff?  I work and live with them.  They are members of my community.  

  • Adrian Johnson

    Our Lady said at Fatima that wars were the punishment for sin.  Look back before both world wars at the corruption in the countries affected by them.  

  • An interested Canadian

    In response to the all the comments about both the clergy’s and government’s roles, check out this excellent article: Paul A. Rahe: ‘American Catholicism’s Pact With the Devil’ on 

  • E.T.

    I have met many Mexicans, mostly on the west coast, that still appear to  have a strong Catholic faith. The following generations seem to lose their faith as they become more Americanized. Part of the American way of life is to shy away from traditions, including Catholicism. Its sad.

  • James H

    I didn’t ‘attack the NHS’ – I simply pointed out that it was a state institution, doing the church’s job. Nobody’s suggesting that medical care should be carried out by the family! For most of history, the church was the only organisation that built free hospitals.

    We can’t point a finger at the church, either, by the way. The state simply took over the running of what had been charitable institutions. That was fine as long as the state had its moral sense screwed on the right way round, quite another today.

    To strike a paranoid note, maybe the state took over free schools, hospitals and welfare because they didn’t trust the church? Anti-Catholic sentiment was still running strong when it happened.

  • Anonymous

     “Plus, affluence weakens faith, and leads to humanism; and it is in pain and suffering that people turn to God.”

    Atheism is the bed of roses for the healthy and the wealthy, but the bed of nails for the sick and the poor.

  • Clare D

    But Mexico also has public health care provided by the federal government.

  • Clare D

    The government isn’t separate to the people – they are representatives of the people, chosen by the people, from among the people. Doing something together as a society is not the same as getting someone else to do it for us. Like it or not, socialist ideals are often the best way to love one another. Socialism should not be a dirty word.

  • Carlos

    sounds kinda racist…