A long history

It’s been a longish gap… some while back, when the EWTN team reorganised the website, I was busy with a great many other projects….and somewhere along the line I lost contact with my “Catholic journalist in London” blog. Not EWTN’s fault…in fact part of the time I was in Rome, working on a new EWTN feature about Pope Emeritus Benedict.  But now I’m back…and back with the blog!

And back walking around London, with the Catholic History walks that have proved popular with a good many Londoners – and with many American visitors. They have also featured on EWTN.

As I write this, London is grey with January rain and the occasional dusting of snow. So I am not sure who is going to be heroic enough to join me on the next Walks – Jan 24th starting at St Martin-in-the-Fields (Trafalgar Square), Jan 31st in Chelsea, starting at the Church of Our Most Holy Redeemer and St Thomas More, and Feb 7th starting on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. All start at 2pm. Our slogan is “We’ll be walking whatever the weather” so if you are reading this and want to join us, dress warmly and wear suitable shoes/boots. More info from www.catholichistorywalks.com – that will tell you about the relevant nearest Tube stations and so on.

When beloved Pope Benedict XVI came to Britain in 2010 – one of the highlights of his pontificate, and a glorious week in British history – he said that Britain had a “Catholic heart”. He understands Britain, and especially England, rather well: he not only speaks beautiful English, but is widely read in our language, especially of course being deeply familiar with the works of John henry Newman  and CS Lewis. When he spoke in the Great Hall of the Houses of Parliament – the hall where St Thomas More was tried, where our Coronation banquets are held, where Sir Winston Churchill lay in state – his quiet dignity and courtesy, combined with the depth and resonance of his words about faith and reason, freedom and the fullness of what that means, touched hearts across the country. There was a naturalness about the way he spoke, without polemics and without forced heartiness – it was the kind of dignity that we see, and love, in our Queen and had something of her quiet sense of authority, and recognition in real humility of what it means to hold a great office and fulfils its duties with faith and dedication.

I have discovered that many Americans think of Britain as a rather old-fashioned country where people are formal, with very correct manners and a stiff code of social behaviour. This simply doesn’t have any reality today, as many an American visitor will confirm. On summer nights, our towns are full of drunken young people, shouting and – alas – vomiting and fighting. We have a staggeringly hugh rate of divorce and broken families and many of our schools struggle to cope with children who are angry and unruly. There are many social tensions connected with the rapid social changes that have taken place over the last half century including the arrival of large numbers of immigrants from a variety of cultures and countries.

In many ways, America is more formal than Britain, and with a great sense of seriousness about itself. Certainly America has a far higher rate of church attendance, and a greater sense in which churches and church-related events are part of the culture of towns and communities.

What we do have in Britain is a sense of a long history, and one which has seen the emergence of a strong tradition of constitutional government and the rule of law. Our children today are not taught this history and there is a tragedy in that. But there is – at least at present – a sense of it in our common culture. It is something we must cherish. That’s what Benedict XVI understood when he was a pilgrim among us: that this sense of legitimate pride in something of value is a sense that must be fostered and turned to the purposes of God.

Not an easy task. It’s a cliche to say that each of us must do something to help but…well…cliches exist because they express common truths.

In giving lectures in schools, community groups, colleges, and so on about our history – and the great unbroken ribbon of of Christianity that runs all the way through that history – I’m trying to do my bit.

One of the things that it is important to understand is that history isn’t just about rulers and governments, but about people and culture.  This is something that the great St John Paul understood very well – as his biographer, George Weigel, put it, John Paul taught us that “culture is what drives history over the long haul”.  Britain’s culture is marked by Christianity – the feasts and seasons of the Church have given us our annual calendar, the saints have given their names to our churches and to many of our towns and villages as well as to generations of our children. You simply cannot understand Britain unless you have a grasp of the basics of the Christian faith and the adventures of the Church’s long story. Our Parliament, for example, is at a place named Westminster – the Minster to the west of London. What is a minster? Who built it? When I explain that a minster is an abbey – there is a city in Germany named Munster, same word – and that Westminster was built by our last Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, people open their eyes. It’s as if a light had been switched on. “Like York Minster?” they sometimes ask. Yes, York Minster – famous for being struck by lightning in the 1980s – and also all those places that have “minster” in their name, like Upminster at the end of the District Line on the Tube, or Leominster in Herefordshire where my publisher is based…

Churches and monasteries, saints, builders, poets, historians, people…that’s how history is written in every age. As 2017 opens, new chapters are being written – and I don’t just mean Brexit and the next events in Parliament, or even things like controversies in the Church. History is also forged by things like Mother Teresa setting out to trudge the streets of Calcutta, or St John Paul inventing World Youth Day…

In London, there is a sense of history in all sorts of odd places. Walking along by the Thames in the rain may seem an eccentric way of fostering a sense of history as His story, the human participation in the world God created…but it’s part of learning about it, nonetheless.