The revival no one expected
Britain’s Syro-Malabar Catholics, soon to grace the city of Preston with a long-deserved cathedral, seem to be having something of a breakout moment. In June, the ordination of a deacon in Southwark diocese attracted headlines in Catholic publications across the world: Joice James Pallickamyalil is the ancient Kerala-rooted Church’s very first married deacon. (He is also, I feel loyalty-bound to note, a product of the St Mary’s University formation programme.) And last month a new Eparchy for Great Britain – a kind of diocese sans frontière – was announced. It is only the fourth to be established outside India.
All this from a British Syro-Malabar community of perhaps 40,000 (around one per cent of the global total) who, until very recently, the clear majority of their fellow Catholics never even knew existed. If so, then they’ve been missing out on one of this country’s most remarkable Catholic success stories.
Every second Saturday of the month, almost 3,000 souls converge on a convention centre in West Bromwich for a day including the rosary, Mass, Adoration and catechesis in two languages. Celtic matches notwithstanding, that is surely the largest regular gathering of Catholics in the whole of Britain. An event held at Nottingham arena last July, organised by the same group – Sehion UK: google ’em – attracted well over 5,000 people.
That’s an impressive number, however one interprets it. One explanation would be that the gathering represents one in every eight British Syro-Malabar Catholics. (Remember how big the crowd was the last time that 12.5 per cent of all our Irish-extraction Catholics came together to worship their Lord? No, nor do I.) The other, and much more likely, explanation is that this charismatic ministry is attracting significant numbers of others, too.
Frankly, I’m not surprised. I met a huge group of young Anglo-Indians at this year’s March for Life, all members of yet another vibrant movement: Jesus Youth. They were just the kind of people you can imagine having a serious leavening effect on the wider culture. And really, who better to re-evangelise sceptical Britons than the true heirs of Doubting Thomas?
But here’s the best part: they are by no means alone. At the risk of tempting fate, I believe that we’re seeing the first fruits of a true resurgence, perhaps even a resurrection (with all that that implies), of British Catholicism. Genuine – and pleasingly diverse – signs of hope are breaking out all over Our Lady’s Dowry.
Down in Devon, for example, the School of the Annunciation at Buckfast is one of several new (or re-newed) educational establishments taking the Faith very seriously indeed. Meanwhile, in the Orkneys, the thriving Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer were approved as an institute of diocesan right by Bishop Hugh Gilbert earlier this year, having been reconciled with Rome in 2008 (a move which, if recent reports come to fruition, may well have paved the way for a much larger homecoming of the SSPX).
Speaking of religious life in the north, note inter alia: Glasgow’s Sisters of the Gospel of Life (established 2000), the Canons of St Ambrose and St Charles in Carlisle (established 2014), two new Oratories in York and Manchester (with another on the way in Bournemouth), and three historic parishes given serious new life by two traditionalist groups: the Institute of Christ the King (Preston, New Brighton) and the FSSP (Warrington).
New cathedrals, new centres of learning, new religious orders? Sounds like a time of renewal to me.
A new sense of purpose and mission, and indeed of vocation (in all senses, including – critically – the more traditional one), has been tangible for some time among the “creative minority” of Mass-going young adults.
Certainly, I won’t be alone in having been deluged these past few weeks with tired-but-happy tales of World Youth Day adventures. Whatever gripes some folks might have about the event itself, there’s no doubting that it changes lives. Travelling in close-knit peer groups along with seminarians, priests, religious Sisters, even the odd prelate or two – Portsmouth’s and Brentwood’s own Successors of the Apostles particularly impressed, I’m told – to pray in the presence of Our Lord along with Pope Francis and a million or two others from all over the world makes a serious impact. Indeed, how could it not?
WYD is an extreme case, of course. But the same sorts of processes occur through many much smaller groups and initiatives, often building up over months or years rather than squeezed into a week-long “peak experience”. They are all the more lasting for that. These groups include university chaplaincies and CathSocs; movements and initiatives such as Faith, Evangelium, Juventutem, Youth 2000; regular events like Bright Lights, Flame, New Dawn, Celebrate, Invocation; new discipleship programmes such as The Ascent… and so on (and on, and on).
Directly or indirectly, these have contributed to two crucial outcomes. The first is the modest but promising rallying of vocations, both male and female, in recent years. The second is a steady stream of committed Catholic couples, not simply aware of but genuinely excited by, the Church’s full vision of marriage and family life. I mean the kind of couple who, for example, would purposely get engaged in front of the relics of Ss Louis and Zélie Martin. You know the sort. (Well I do, at least; in fact, I’m off to their wedding on Saturday.)
It seems perverse, I know, to be talking of renewal and resurrection at a time of parish closures and dismal statistics. And true enough, 40,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics might seem scant comfort compared to the four million cradle Catholics who never attend church. But though this may sound like madness, yet there is method in’t.
Periods of renewal always begin in the midst of crisis. The very recognition that something must be done, and urgently, is often what inspires and energises. It is, after all, no use waiting for the end of a decline before beginning to address it. For what would be left to address, and who would be left to do the addressing?
We shouldn’t be naïve: the statistics on, say, Mass attendance will, barring genuine miracles, continue to worsen for some years to come. At present, nearly two fifths of weekly-or-more Mass-goers are over 65. As time goes on, they will assuredly not be replaced in anything like the same numbers by the next generation (i.e. the Baby Boomers: the least practising, least identifying generation Britain has ever seen.)
Moreover, following the Brexit vote, our pews are unlikely to keep being topped up – as thus far they have been – by a steady stream of new Britons from more religious parts of Europe or the rest of the world (such as Kerala).
Yet, as Chesterton once pointed out, being Catholic liberates us from restricting our horizons to the present. For the most part, today’s pastoral troubles are the fruit of things, all manner of them, that occurred decades ago. Judging from what’s occurring now then, decades from now, a new dawn may indeed have well and truly broken.
Maybe this is just absurdly wishful thinking. But then again, maybe it isn’t. And if not, then I will publicly say “I told you so” at World Youth Day 2066, while standing next to Pope Francis IV (or perhaps Pius XV), in Preston.
by Stephen Bullivant