The Year of Faith starts this Autumn. Britain certainly needs it. There is immense pressure to pretend that religious belief is something that should be regarded as a sort of quiet private hobby, not the core on which sound values and a whole civilisation flourishes.
When the Holy Father visited Britain in 2010, he won all hearts. The Prime Minister spoke warmly and with apparent sincerity, thanking him for reminding us of important things, and noting that he had spoken to the whole nation and not just to Catholics. At Westminster, the Pope addressed – in a speech that resonated deeply with his many listeners – the richness of Britain’s Parliamentary democratic tradition, the noble pursuit of great and good things. He highlighted the stand taken by St Thomas More for conscience, and the noble achievement of William Wilberforce in finally abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire.
The essential message to us was that in order for a nation to flourish, let alone to achieve anything truly great, it is essential for its people to be rooted in a profound knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, to be able to seek virtue and live by it.
The ghastly fact is that by marginalising Christianity as is the current fashion – readers of this blog will have seen the news reports of the recent court ruling that prayers before a borough Council meeting are apparently illegal – will have all sorts of grim consequences that too many people have not yet thought about properly. In fact, you can already hear some of the ideas that are being presented: more police surveillance, harsher penalties for juvenile crime, more and more detailed plans to protest property and outwit thieves. There is a sort of bleak despair when people talk about the future: things like rising crime, a lack of common values or a sense of common purpose in our community life, a loss of neighbourliness, an obsession with acquiring material goods, are assumed to be part of an inexorable trend which cannot be stopped.
There are Catholics who are keen to evangelise, and there are things that can be done. Our Catholic schools are immensely popular: they could be, and many are, places of prayer and of good Christian formation where children learn about the Faith and understand themselves to be part of the Church. But we need – badly – more good Catholic teachers. And we badly need more priests: numbers entering seminaries for training are slowly rising, but the need is great and the next years will prove difficult as many of our clergy grow older.
The announcement of a Year of Faith has come at a good time.