This summer, I’ve been attending a couple of big Catholic youth conferences here in Britain. The first was the Summer Session organised by the FAITH Movement. This was the 40th anniversary of this highly successful movement, and this year’s Summer Session was packed out, with over 200 young people from across Britain, including a number of young men training for the priesthood. FAITH has produced a good number of priests over the past forty years, and there are also many families who owe their origins to the Movement, as young people have met and married and their children now attend events and conferences. A few days later I was at the Evangelium conference, a newer venture and again with a large attendance, some 140 people including a group from Ireland.
These events are highly orthodox in their liturgy, their teaching, and their commitment to the Church. There is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Confession, Morning and Evening Prayer and of course daily Mass. At Evangelium there was a big emphasis on Gregorian Chant, and in addition to the main Mass – sung, with chant and hymns, in solemn manner – some priests celebrated Extraordinary Form Masses early in the day.
What struck me about both these conferences was that a major topic of conversation, at the talkative mealtimes and during the afternoons of socialising in the sunshine, was the coming era of possible persecution of the Church. Of course everyone agreed that “persecution” is absolutely the wrong word – no one expects gruesome dungeons or executions. But using the language of the Church – language that not so long ago we were using about Eastern Europe – young Catholics in Britain seem to assume that in the not too distant future there will be massive Government pressure on Catholic parishes, schools, and organisations and it will be necessary to be highly courageous in standing up for Catholic moral teachings. The pressure will focus initially on the issue of homosexual activity: the Church’s clear teaching that it is not possible for two people of the same sex to marry is going to bring anger and wrath on us and we must be prepared for this.
It is hard to fault this line of thinking: the plans for same-sex marriage in Britain mean that we should be prepared for some attempts to pile pressure on churches to perform such ceremonies and for Catholic schools to teach that same-sex marriage is normal and acceptable. As to the first, it may be possible to avoid some problems by simply de-registering our churches so that legal marriages are no longer performed there: as in France and elsewhere, Catholic couples would go first to a register office for a legal ceremony and then later to church for the real wedding and Nuptial Mass. Thus if a same-sex couple try to sue a priest for refusing to “marry” them, there will be no case to answer: this may mean that they still attyempt to sue on the grounds that no church should deny them a religious service, but their case will be weaker. But the schools face bigger problems. The Church can never, under any circumstances, teach that same-sex marriage is possible or right. In teaching about the seven Sacraments of the Church, Catholic schools can only teach what the Church teaches. We are not answerable to the Prime Minister for our teaching on the Eucharist, on Ordination, on the forgiveness of sins, on matrimony, or on anything else relating to our Faith. It simply isn’t the business of the Government to tell the Church what to teach. But we will need to be robust in asserting this.
Persecution? The word is too strong – but young people like strong words. The general message to me from younger Catholics on this subject was “Bring it on!” We need, however, to learn from recent history – and indeed from the more distant past. In Eastern Europe in the decades following the Second World War the Communist governments were horribly effective in detaching people from the practice of the Catholic Faith. In Hungary, in the Czech Republic, in Eastern Germany, Mass attendance is low. Poland was exceptional – magnificent leadership from Cardinals Wyzinski and Woytila, and of course the latter’s unprecedented and electrifying role as Pope, meant that something hugely exceptional occurred. Elsewhere, things were – and are – not good.
Of course in the long term “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, but what about the sort of bureaucratic pressure and systematic belligerence that brings, not the shedding of blood, but bleak conformity? What about the lethal mixture of pressure on the Church combined with consumerism and materialism? Under Communism, people’s living standards were low, and families concentrated on trying to survive and cope in miserable circumstances: faith at least provided some inspiration, but even this failed to get large numbers into church as the years progressed. In Britain, we are very prosperous – obesity is a major health problem, household items and toys once regarded as luxuries are now standard – this combined with a barrage of anti-Christian propaganda and legal pressure to conform to secularist values could be lethal.
In Britain, Catholics – young and old – are proud of the heroism of the martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries. Saints like John Fisher and Thomas More, Edmund Campion and Margaret Clitheroe, and the long lists of heroic priests who ministered in secret and met their deaths with courage, are revered and honoured. But it is all wrong to romanticise – this effectively belittles their valour and faith – and it is certainly naive to wish for persecution or to enthuse that “it’ll do us all good!” and “it will be tough but exciting!” Real heroes do not deliberately seek martyrdom, and certainly not on behalf of others – talking gleefully about it while enjoying a good lunch and relishing an imaginary future is a holiday activity, but it not the stuff of which real heroism is made.
A great deal will depend upon our Bishops – we are going to need vigorous and courageous leadership in the years ahead. We need men who can call a Government’s bluff, who are not afraid to speak out clearly and appeal to people’s common sense and humour, who know that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by sticking firmly to the Church’s teaching and offering it to a world that is always hungry for truth. We will all – lay faithful and clergy – need to be outward-looking and committed to evangelisation, to remember Blessed John Paul’s words about not being afraid.
Indeed, as so often happens, God sent the right message to his Church at the right time: at the turn of the new Millenium, we were led forward by a Pope who knew all about the troubles of the recent past. He had lived in a country where “persecution” was the right word for the pressures on the Church. Young Father – now Blessed – Jerzy Popieluszko died at the hands of brutal police thugs as part of the Church’s struggle for freedom in Poland, joining the ranks of many heroes. John Paul’s “Do not be afraid!” was based on realism: it speaks to us today. Benedict XVI – also a man who knows what it is to live under tyranny – is rallying us. His message this summer to the Knights of Columbus spoke to Britain too: he spoke of the “unprecedented gravity of these new threats to the church’s liberty and public moral witness” and we must all be firm in standing up for the Church and for freedom.