The excitement around the new Syro-Malabar diocese is not the first time British Catholics have looked forward to change
The creation of Britain’s first Syro-Malabar eparchy. The spread of Oratories inspired by the charism of St Philip Neri. The revival of failing parishes by priests of the Old Rite.
The foundation of a community of nuns who uphold the Magisterium by fighting abortion. The flourishing of a new school of evangelisation, bursting with energy but so steeped in tradition that it celebrates its feast day of the Annunciation with an eastwards-facing liturgy…
These signs of new life described by Stephen Bullivant in his article made me think, for some reason, of the National Pastoral Congress in Liverpool in 1980 – an official gathering of 2,000 delegates from all the dioceses of England and Wales.
Both the clergy and the lay parish activists at the NPC would have been baffled – utterly baffled – if they could have known what the Catholic Herald would be reporting 36 years later. Nothing in Dr Bullivant’s article follows the script they had prepared.
The delegates of 1980 declared that “we are the Easter People” (or, at least the excitable ones did; I don’t recall the phrase being used by my late father, who was one of the more sceptical participants). A majority of them wanted changes to the Church’s teaching on sexuality – which may explain why the experiment was never repeated. Cardinal Basil Hume and the architect of the congress, Archbishop Derek Worlock of Liverpool, dared not antagonise the newly elected Pope John Paul II by identifying the English Church with dissident theological voices.
In other important respects, however, the NPC set the tone for years to come. The Bishops’ Conference had no problem with the soft-left political agenda of the congress (which included much genuflection to the trade unions in the name of Catholic social teaching). Likewise, they were happy with the implication that the liturgy must become ever more “inclusive”.
No one seriously imagined that there would be a rediscovery of pre-conciliar tradition. I remember a rally of traditionalists Catholics shown on television soon after Liverpool. “Look at their angry, bitter faces,” said my middle-of-the-road father. “They’re not the future of the Church.” He was right – but neither, in the long run, was the National Pastoral Congress. The Easter People were not very good at resurrection. Since 1980, Mass attendance has fallen by more than a third, despite the unexpected bonus of the large-scale immigration of Catholics.
Traditionalists lay much of the blame at the door of the bishops and their favoured lay activists, whose secular sloganising banished the numinous from Catholic spirituality. But how much of the decline would have happened even if the Church had remained more faithful to tradition?
We don’t know the answer, but we need to acknowledge that most institutional religion struggles in modern society, irrespective of its practices. Likewise, the fervent beliefs and devotions described by Dr Bullivant don’t yet add up to a nationwide Catholic revival.
But then my mind goes back to the “angry, bitter faces” described by my father. I saw them myself. These were the countenances of people who felt, and genuinely were, powerless. When they asked for a Latin Mass, they were given the choice of getting with the programme or joining the Lefebvrists.
They would have been just as surprised as the Easter People by the piecemeal refreshing of sacred tradition – and perhaps almost as disconcerted. Conservative Catholics don’t look like that any more. Doctrinal orthodoxy is represented by fresh faces of many colours; its champions are natural leaders to whom the institutional Church will soon be forced to turn unless it wants to disappear altogether. In short, an English Catholic revival may not be inevitable – but it no longer seems impossible.