The recent analysis of the 2011 Census results appears to indicate that before the end of this decade Christianity – once the faith of the great majority of British people – will become the faith of a significant minority. If most English people no longer identify themselves as Christians it will surely be one of the most momentous changes in our history since missionaries sent by Pope Gregory arrived on the coast of Kent in the year 597 AD. However, I want to suggest today that this may not be an entirely negative development as it dispels any ambiguity and requires of Christians a greater clarity in both teaching and witness. As Catholics we speak of this as nothing less than a “new evangelisation”, a new proclamation of the Gospel in our time. It is “new” not because there is a new faith or a new Gospel but because we face a new and changed situation. It was surely with this in mind that Pope Benedict called for the “Year of Faith” as an invitation in the Pope Emeritus’s words to “rediscover the joy of believing and enthusiasm in communicating the faith” (PF n.7) and “to profess the faith in fullness and with a renewed conviction” (PF n.9). This is surely what is now needed and it is what this Northern Catholic Conference sets out to address.
In the first of the Scripture readings the prophet Elijah is confronted amid drought and famine with the death of a widow’s son and prays: “Lord, my God may the soul … I beg you, come into him again” (I Kings 17: 21). The Church comes not to bring condemnation, as the widow at Zarepath feared, but to offer this same word of life to a post-Christian Britain wherever there is “no breath of life” left in us. “Now I know … the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth itself” said the woman (I Kings17: 24). I suspect most people in our country have never consciously rejected Christianity but have somehow lost the Christian memory to the extent we might speak of a “national amnesia”, a forgetfulness of our past and our identity. The great Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter may remain our national holidays but the saving truths they proclaim are often dimly if at all perceived. I think of a group of youngsters on a street corner who asked me, “Are you a vicar?” and they volunteered the information that not one of them had ever been inside a church in their lives. I was not met with any hostility but rather with incomprehension. I suspect this may represent a wider situation in our society.
In the most recent debates in Parliament on the identity of marriage you may have been struck by a similar incomprehension of the Christian foundations of our society. After fourteen centuries of Christian England it is a sad situation but one which also offers the opportunity to rediscover, in Pope Benedict’s words, the joy of believing the fullness of the faith. The faith which is not a human ideology, as St. Paul told the Galatians (Gal. 1: 11) but a Divine call. It is the encounter with Jesus Christ which offers not only to the young man being carried out to his burial but to every person, to a once Christian people the invitation: “I tell you arise” (Luke 7: 11-17).
I know many voices may urge us to leave well alone, not to disturb what appears dead in our society. Should we not be realistic and concede that the defence of human life, the identity of marriage and the integrity of the family is all but lost? Should we best remain silent so as not to weaken the Church’s increasingly, precarious standing in society? We might, indeed, be tempted to speak only of those concerns which accord with the social consensus around us. Pope Francis, however, shows us a different approach by his startlingly, direct way of speaking and the clear witness of his actions. In the North of England we certainly understand plain speaking! The contemporary world, Pope Francis has shown us, is often more ready to listen and take notice than we as Christians are ready to speak or give witness. Amid the twilight of a Christian England this witness will shine out more clearly.
In the witness this moment in history demands of us we should not expect to find safety in numbers. Catholics in this country have known quite a lot about being a minority. The lack of social supports can serve to bring us back anew to the true source of our life. Generations before us never doubted by what the Church’s mission lives or dies: “It is the Mass,” they said “which matters!” This conference comes to its conclusion where our life and mission begins anew every week at Mass, in the Eucharist. Pope Benedict observed that every great reform, every renewal of the Church’s life and mission is “in some way been linked to the rediscovery of belief in the Lord’s Eucharistic presence amongst his people” (SC n.6). It is Christ Himself, truly present in the Eucharist, who calls us amid all that is dying, like that young man at Nain, to rise and walk again. St Ignatius of Antioch said at the dawn of 2nd Christian Century what applies equally to 21st Century Britain: in the Eucharist, he declared, we have “the medicine, the antidote for death and the food that makes us live forever in Jesus Christ” (cf. p.97 “Compendium of the Catechism). May we come to recognise this more clearly. Amen.
(Photo by Simon Caldwell)