A historic event took place at Westminster Cathedral last weekend. The national newspapers didn’t notice it. Television news bulletins didn’t feature it. Even Catholic news websites barely mentioned it. But last Saturday Cardinal Vincent Nichols consecrated England and Wales to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and crowned a statue of Our Lady of Fatima that will travel to cathedrals across the country in the coming months.

This act last took place on July 16, 1948, when Cardinal Bernard Griffin said the words of consecration in the abbey grounds in Walsingham. Using a modified version of his predecessor’s prayer, Cardinal Nichols renewed the consecration for the third millennium.

Some ask whether such acts are suited to the 21st century. They wonder if consecrating a nation to the Immaculate Heart (or Christ the King, in the recent case of Poland) is a relic of the pre-conciliar age, unsuited to our pluralist world. They also question whether these practices are in tune with the reforming spirit of the current pontificate.

They needn’t worry: they are wholly in line with Pope Francis’s priorities. He is a deeply Marian pope who will visit Fatima in May to mark the 100th anniversary of the apparitions. The scenes in Westminster Cathedral last Saturday would have delighted him: a packed congregation waving white handkerchiefs as the statue was carried through the cathedral. For Francis has a great appreciation for popular piety. In his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he praised its role in spreading the Christian faith. “Underlying popular piety, as a fruit of the inculturated Gospel, is an active evangelising power which we must not underestimate,” he wrote, adding tenderly: “I think of the steadfast faith of those mothers tending their sick children who, though perhaps barely familiar with the articles of the Creed, cling to a rosary; or of all the hope poured into a candle lighted in a humble home with a prayer for help from Mary, or in the gaze of tender love directed to Christ crucified.”

Britain is supposedly one of the most secular nations on earth. But events in the past decade have revealed a vast spiritual hunger that belies that claim. In 2009, the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux drew the young and the old, Catholics and non-Catholics, together in intense prayer.

A year later, an estimated 80,000 people knelt in Hyde Park during Eucharistic Adoration led by Benedict XVI. Last year the relics of St Anthony of Padua, St Claude de la Colombière and St Margaret Mary Alacoque all attracted significant crowds.

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