The day Britain turned to Mary

Participants brave the cold for the Rosary on the Coast at Portsmouth (Clare Short)

If the sun had shone for the Rosary on the Coast, we’d have said we had God’s blessing. But it rained instead, so we said God was challenging us to persevere. I joined a crowd of about 50 in Brighton. We huddled together in the bandstand above the beach and sang lustily: “Ave, ave, ave Maria!” It was freezing. It was exhilarating. I wish we could do it every Sunday.

The world’s first border rosary was held in Poland last year, and was denounced by the media as excessively Christian and nationalist – even though the two are in strict contradiction. Yes, this lay-inspired event was partly about Britain, and you’ll have to forgive us for loving our faith and our country. The occasion showed that both defy stereotypes. Catholicism cuts across a diverse British Isles: groups gathered to say the rosary from Jersey to Shetland, Aberystwyth to Lowestoft. There was a lot of chat on the bandstand about the presence of two nuns from Bromley (that counts as exotic on the Sussex coast) and the priest, the sublime Fr Ray Blake of St Mary Magdalen, cut a dash from a different era in his black cloak and hat.

The rosary was led in English, Italian and Polish, which we all agreed was a marvellous affirmation of how multicultural the faith is, until the Polish lady took the microphone and recited the Gloria in her native tongue. I never knew so many “z”s could appear in the same word. Lesson one is bring back Latin. It’s the American Express of religious languages: accepted everywhere.

Lesson two: listen to the experiences of the laity. The national event was skilfully promoted by two cousins, Brian Timmons and John Patrick Mallon, whose social media company, Sancta Familia, has done a superb job of raising the profile of Catholicism in Scotland. Their focus is on good liturgy and traditional devotions. Catholicism is about performance in the best sense of the word: not camp nonsense with bells and smells, but an outward expression of faith that’s done with great reverence.

For those who sometimes find it hard to be quietly alone with their thoughts, this sort of thing is invaluable, and the appeal of the rosary is how practical it is. Five simple mysteries to think on; 10 prayers apiece; all represented by beads, so you don’t lose count. Easy to keep in your pocket, too.

I never board an aeroplane without the rosary, and the sound of me whizzing through the beads, desperately praying that an engine doesn’t give out, terrifies the other passengers. This is why I also go to Confession before every flight: to get right with God. That way, if we go down, my soul goes up. Again, you see how useful Catholicism is?

When I converted, about 10 years ago, I was surprised to find that the rosary was in decline – just as it was odd to me that so few people knelt for Communion, received on the tongue or even bothered to genuflect. Dan Hitchens recently wrote in these pages that in 1952, “Wembley Stadium was filled with 83,000 Catholics praying the rosary.”

Rosary crusades were huge in the US, too: 500,000 turned out for one in San Francisco in 1961, and prayer sessions were endorsed by Hollywood stars including Bing Crosby.

Times have changed and fashions come and go, but the Church will only get as much out of the laity as it’s willing to ask. Explain the rosary, encourage the rosary and there’s absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t return. That tens of thousands braved foul weather to say it rather proves the point.

There’s a lot of silly worry at the moment about a “culture war” coming to Europe, as if Poland or Ireland or even Britain had hitherto been liberal and secular, and the religious are conspiring to sneak in some alien fanaticism. In fact, it was the last 50 years of religious decline into silence that was the anomaly: the return of the rosary, or at least its potential comeback, speaks to an eternal, universal need to converse with God that has never left these isles.

The secularists – who want to drive God from schools, hospitals or the streets – are wrestling with human nature. And what is the enemy as far as they are concerned? A congregation praying on a windswept golf course? It’s a constant source of amazement what the anti-God squad are frightened of, like the elephant scared of a mouse.

After 45 minutes, we stopped, took a photo and split in a dozen directions to get hot cocoa or catch the end of Columbo. Everyone left smiling. Let’s hope that Mary will intercede to ensure a happy, just future for Britain.

Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and a Catholic Herald contributing editor

This article first appeared in the May 4th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here