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Paul Burnell | author
Feb 08, 2011
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Pope Benedict’s fruitful UK visit

The furor over the Pope’s pastoral visit died down the moment he arrived . . .

Paul Burnell

Paul Burnell

If you’ve ever spent more than a few days in the United Kingdom, you’ve likely noticed that it’s a decidedly secular culture. Pope Benedict XVI wanted to make a dent in that secularism with his four-day visit to England and Scotland last September.

The trip, which drew media criticism when it was first announced, turned out to be a hit from the time the Pope’s airplane touched down. The Holy Father “challenged the whole country to sit up and think,” British Prime Minister David Cameron concluded. Many of those who started “thinking” were Anglicans. Last month, three Anglican bishops entered the Catholic Church and were subsequently ordained to the priesthood. These bishops were among thousands who have responded to protocols the Vatican put in place last fall for Anglicans who have asked to join the Church.

The exodus to the Catholic Church began years ago, but was predicted by England’s Cardinal Basil Hume in 1992 when the Church of England voted to ordain women ministers. The cardinal got himself into an ecumenical bother by saying the resulting defection of Anglicans, including clergy, could be the “conversion” of England. The Episcopal spin doctors tried to imply that His Eminence had “misspoke” and, as one bishop put it, “Basil went over the top, but we managed to rein him in.”

But Cardinal Hume’s words were never really fulfilled. A wave of clerics and lay people took the path to Rome, but there was little sign of the conversion of England. In the bishops’ subsequent ad limina visits following the decision to allow female Anglican ministers, Pope John Paul II told English bishops to “be generous” when receiving convert vicars. The most high-profile conversion was the late Graham Leonard, Bishop of London, who was warmly received. However, it was an open secret that some Catholic dioceses were seen as no-go areas by would-be convert clerics. And liberal parishes were none too appealing to some would-be lay converts.

Two decades later, however, Cardinal Hume is looking more like a prophet. In the intervening period, the lines have got clearer. Britain has become increasingly secular. Catholic adoption agencies here have had to close if they don’t want to place children with gay couples. There is an increasing hostility in the media by commentators who have gleefully seized on the abuse crisis.

Even official agencies are havens of liberal intolerance of any Christians. In my hometown, an elderly evangelical couple was arrested for “hate crimes” just for placing literature stating basic Christian teaching on homosexuality in a public library. Anti-Catholicism is alive and well in the U.K.

Ironically, this latent persecution seems to be having the opposite reaction. The JPII/B16 generations are coming to the fore. The Church has its highest number of seminarians in a decade. True, the Catholic Church in the U.K. has a crisis of emptying pews (apart from growing numbers of Polish, Nigerian and Filipino Catholics), of aging priests, and the specter of closed churches. But there are glimmers of hope. When even the timid English bishops talk of retaining our Catholic identity, one wonders if a sea change is on the way.

The impact of Pope Benedict’s visit cannot be underestimated. Prior to the visit, there was open hostility, but even the U.K.’s notorious tabloids were won over by the Holy Father. More to the point, he strengthened and emboldened his own flock. The Pope’s visit ended in people (not just Catholics) lining the streets, and lay Catholics here are feeling less inhibited about their faith.

Listening to a newly consecrated bishop preach recently, I was struck by the sheer joy on the shepherd’s face as he peppered his homily with references to the Holy Father’s visit. Some bishops have referred to a “Benedict bounce” with more people coming to Mass and an increase in questions about the faith. Personally, I think “Benedict bounce” is far too robust a term to be associated with the holy, gentle, humble, intellectual genius that is Pope Benedict XVI.

No sooner had Shepherd One left London than parishioners at Anglican parishes in Kent were making first steps to take advantage of the Pope’s promise to allow the parishes to retain much of their own liturgy. Unlike in the 1990s, Anglicans may have found a more accommodating home which almost bypasses the less-than-enthusiastic members of the U.K. hierarchy.

Indeed, it’s tempting to see a heavenly sign of encouragement in England. Late last year, the Vatican approved the heroic virtues of Passionist Fr. Ignatius Spencer. The significance of this is that Fr. Spencer was probably the highest profile convert to the Church in 19th century England, pre-dating Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman. The ancestor of Princess Diana and Winston Churchill, Fr. Spencer came from one of the U.K.’s leading aristocratic families, which created quite a scandal at the time.

It seems possible that the Lord is signaling that an England where the established Church, beset by doctrinal divisions and the very contradictions Newman pointed out, is leaving the door open for the long term return to Rome.

Paul Burnell is a Catholic journalist based in Manchester, U.K. He has written for The National Catholic Register and Catholic World Report.

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