Bishop Davies knows that we can talk to young people about their immortal souls. Bishop Conry says it can’t be done. Which one should we trust?

Pilgrims in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at the Madrid World Youth Day (Photo: PA)

Well, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, who as I have noted before in this column looks like being the real Episcopal McCoy, has now been duly blooded by being somewhat ineffectually done over by the Tablet (both in print and online).

The Tablet, of course, isn’t what it was in the days when it could rely on its chief attack dog, the late Peter Hebblethwaite, to give a good old-fashioned Rottweiler savaging to those he perceived as being enemies of the post-conciliar enlightenment. Being attacked by the poor old pill these days is a bit like the response elicited, in 1978, by an attack on Labour economic policies by Sir Geoffrey Howe, which you will remember was swatted away by the then Chancellor, Denis Healey, with the legendary quip that an attack from the quietly spoken Sir Geoffrey was “like being savaged by a dead sheep”.

It is still worthwhile, however, to inquire exactly what it was that Bishop Davies had actually said, that attracted the Pill’s watery ire. You can read his whole (I think inspiring) address here; but the offending remarks appear to have been a frank appraisal of how completely secular values set us apart from the society in which we as English Catholics are living today. He has already, in his introductory remarks, spoken of the centrality of the Mass – to a Youth 2000 congregation which he would have known was already firmly attuned to his message:

Our coming to Him and His coming to us is for real, so that every Sunday becomes in this way Easter, Christmas, Christ’s Mass for us. In Blessed John Paul’s striking phrase, “as it was there, so it is here”. For the bread and wine we will place on this altar after the words of consecration are spoken, His words “This is my Body, This is my Blood,” are no longer bread or wine but Christ our Lord Himself given for us. And once we know and recognise this we would never fail to find our way here at the beginning of every new week of our lives.

The words which particularly attracted the distaste of the Tabletistas appear to have been these:

What I want to say to you today echoes what Pope Benedict said at World Youth Day in Cologne, “do not be deterred from taking part in Sunday Mass, and help others to discover it too … Let us pledge ourselves to do this – it is worth the effort!” (Marienfeld August 21 2005). For never since the days of persecution have so many obstacles been put in front of a generation to prevent you finding your way to Him. And it isn’t so much Sunday working, Sunday shopping, social lives which block out Saturday nights and Sunday mornings but losing sight of Jesus Himself which eclipses Sunday, not knowing where He is found which leaves it empty. It isn’t the incidentals of music or style which draws or deters you from finding your way to Him. Those things may help or hinder us but they’re not why we’re ever here. We are here because we know in the words of St. John Vianney that “He is here, the One who loves us so much He is here.” May we find our way to Him where we know He will always be found.

Interesting, is it not, that a counter-secular vision deriving so powerfully from a sacramental perception of reality should have made the Tabletistas so uncomfortable? I am reliant on Protect the Pope for an account of Bishop Kieran Conry’s criticism of Bishop Davies’s analysis, since it occurs in an interview in the print edition of the Tablet – a publication which I won’t have in the house (in case my wife, grandchildren or the servants are corrupted by it). The Tablet had obviously solicited Bishop Conry’s remarks (“go on, Kieran, have a go at him, give us some quotes”):

Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton disagreed that society was hostile to people practising their faith. “It’s easy to think that we are privileged to have the biggest challenge ever,” he explained. “A Catholic historian editing Jesuit correspondence from the 18th century said that a recurring theme was that this was the most difficult period the Church has had to live through,” he said. “I think that our society is indifferent and uninformed, rather than hostile.”
The bishop also questioned whether older Catholics could be blamed for failing to pass on the faith. “We have had many generations that learned their ‘faith’ in terms of catechism content, but can we say that they ever really understood and therefore were in a position to pass on their ‘faith’?” he said. “Moreover, the present generation is more critical and independent, more confident in many ways than we were at that age, and less socially conditioned – obedience is not a word you hear used a lot. It was when I was young.”

The fact is, of course, that the “generations that learned their ‘faith’ in terms of catechism content” nearly though not quite came to an abrupt end 30 years ago, precisely because of the likes of Bishop Conry. This, don’t forget, is the prelate who once proposed a liturgy designed to appeal to young people, suggestions for which included distributing tips on high-energy light bulbs, handing out Fairtrade chocolate and, in a list of things to be sorry for in the penitential rite, leaving water in your kettle. This is the prelate who told this newspaper: “You can’t talk to young people about salvation. What’s salvation? What does salvation mean? My eternal soul? You can only talk to young people in young people’s language, really. And if you’re going to talk to them about salvation, the first thing they will understand is saving the planet. You’re talking about being saved and they will say: ‘What about saving the planet?’” When asked by Andrew M Brown of this newspaper (you can still read the whole interview on Fr Z’s website, with his priceless “fisk”, here) whether it was a good idea to go to sacramental confession, Bishop Conry proceeded to deliver himself of the following priceless utterance:

No, because my own experience when we had Confession every day at St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham was that regular penitents came back with exactly the same words week after week. So there you would say, actually, there is no conversion taking place.

This, it will easily be perceived, is precisely where you end up if you begin with the idea that the real problem posed by the modern world is indifference rather than a vision of life which is so utterly incompatible with the Church’s sacramental vision of human existence that it requires a quantum leap, the leap of faith, to arrive at the place that God wants us to be – a place where there is indeed forgiveness for sin and the fullness of redemption.

This is what Bishop Davies has understood. That the gulf between the sacramental vision and the secular is so wide, so hard to cross, that it is indeed right to speak to the young of the obstacles which have been put in front of their generation to prevent them “finding [their] way to Him”. The “days of persecution” were at least about the nature of faith: if you really believed, in this country, that (in Bishop Davies’s words), “the bread and wine we will place on this altar after the words of consecration are spoken, His words ‘This is my Body, This is my Blood,’ are no longer bread or wine but Christ our Lord Himself given for us”, then you were more likely to be persecuted: if you denied this, you were more likely to be a persecutor. But you knew at least that faith was a reality. The “indifference” of which Bishop Conry speaks so lightly – an indifference which can, he thinks, be dispelled by inspirational talk of “saving the planet” and not leaving water in your kettle – is in fact a deadly, faith-dispelling virus. But those who think like Bishop Davies know that this virus can be cured, by the great spiritual antibiotic of the sacraments. I think of that extraordinary spectacle, at the closing Mass of the World Youth Day in Madrid, of over a million (some said as many as two million) young people kneeling in the mud, in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. No more, surely, need be said: quod erat, it seems to me, demonstrandum.

Bishop Davies understands very well that it is indeed possible to talk to young people about “My immortal soul”, and to meet with a ready response. Bishop Conry says it can’t be done. Which one should we trust?