Long ago, as a child I remember being fascinated to read a prayer for HM the Queen in a prayer-book. We didn’t use this prayer in our parish though we did (and do) pray for the Queen and for our country from time to time. But what fascinated me about this particular prayer was that it had an extra clause, to be used in time of war. The extra bit said “and vanquish her enemies” and it was in brackets, with an asterisk alongside and a footnote “in time of war”.
I remember thinking how exciting it would be to have to use that phrase, but also being puzzled because I knew that war could mean a nuclear war – complete destruction of everything (yes, it is a grim thing to ponder: those of us who grew up during the Cold War knew that nuclear annihilation was possible, and as a teenager I remember discussing it gruesomely at school…). The prayer seemed to belong to an earlier era – although it nominally referred to Queen Elizabeth II, it somehow had the sense of feel of belonging to the time of her father and grandfather, both of whom ruled Britain in time of war, with enemies clearly defined and threatening the nation.
Well, now we are at war, and indeed we have been at war several times in my adult life – the Falklands War, the various Gulf Wars, and now this. It is not a nuclear war, and yet it is not anything like the two world wars that my parents and grandparents knew. And no one is praying about vanquishing the Queen’s enemies. Instead, things seem messier and sadder and more complicated than the composer of that prayer could imagine.
As I write this, Britain and America have ordered bomber pilots to fly over the territory occupied by fanatical Islamic terrorist groups, and drop bombs in the hope of destroying a terrorist headquarters or at least of disrupting their regime and activities. It seems a rather long shot – even if it is possible to pinpoint where some of these cruel thugs are gathered, and to bomb it, this will not end the saga : it is in the very nature of this horrible group that it doesn’t have a settled government structure or clearly defined territory and it can flourish for a long time in its desert lands, recruiting more young people, bombarding the West with fanatical propaganda, mocking formal national boundaries and offering an apparently thrilling message to a generation hungry for something to which they can dedicate their lives.
The real issue is this: we in the West, and especially in Britain, now have a small but noticeable number of fanatical Moslems in our midst, youngsters who have been born and brought up among us, neighbours and everyday people, the sons and daughters of families living in modest prosperity in our towns and suburbs. These young men and women boast of how much they hate us, bragging on the internet about how much we should fear them, and demonstrating this by showing how they torture and kill people.
And these young people, hurrying off to join fanatical Islamic terrorist groups in the Middle East, seem to want to be the Queen’s enemies, and they tell us so with enthusiasm. They talk about how we must be crushed and how their own brand of Islam must and will triumph.
As a nation, Britain seems confused in its ability to respond. We are sending aeroplanes to bomb what we hope are some of the places where these young people are based in the Middle East. We must hope that perhaps that will eventually bring peace.
But that doesn’t really resolve our problem: so many British-born young people seeking to destroy the Britain in which they grew up and which gave them security and prosperity, homes and schools and medical care, and all the many comfortable things that modern Western life offers.
This is the issue for Catholics: we are living in a Western culture which now seems hollowed-out and empty of real meaning, such that a fanatical, cruel and vicious form of Islam can appeal to a generation born here even though they have benefited from western education, western comforts, and the rule of law.<p></p> When our Church calls us to offer a New Evangelisation, to help Europe rediscover its soul, to offer real hope to mankind, this call should stir our hearts. We are living in a culture which aborts its own children, which seems to have no faith in its future. We are living in a culture which seems to have only a vague folk-memory of God. We are living in a culture which, for all its comforts, seems capable of making a cruel and vicious form of fanatical adherence to Islam a real and attractive alternative.
Responding to fanatical Islamic terrorism is the task of responsible governments: our rulers need our prayers as they face these grim responsibilities. But fostering new hope and faith and love in our world is the task of every Christian. The New Evangelisation is urgently needed. It is not just among Moslems that everyday western life seems empty and trite: our youth suicides, our high crime rate, the reality of drunken young people shrieking and vomiting in shopping malls on summer evenings…all these too point to the need for Christ and the Gospel. It’s all a lot more complicated than just praying that the enemies of our country are vanquished…although the West does indeed have enemies, and they must not be allowed to triumph.