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Britain: A Sunday snapshot

An academic reveals the make-up of British Catholicism

“The Dark Age formula.” The phrase, coined by the theologian Fr Aidan Nichols, refers to the right mixture of identities for converting a nation. Seventh-century England came to the Faith thanks to Anglo-Saxons working together with missionaries sent from Rome. To bring modern England back to Catholicism, Fr Nichols suggested in 2008, we need again “both the long, instinctive familiarity of the native, along with the more detached and objective critical gaze of the newcomer.”

In that relationship between native and newcomer, last month’s remarks from the Polish bishops may prove a turning point. Addressing the millions of Polish Catholics abroad, the bishops – who have an official pastoral presence in 25 countries – urged their flock to integrate with the rest of the Church.

In 2007, the bishops encouraged Polish Catholics in France, Germany, England and elsewhere to seek out Polish Catholic communities. But now that Poles abroad have put down roots, the letter said, it is time to give a “witness of faith” to the local population. Apart from anything else, there aren’t enough Polish priests to serve the diaspora.

British Catholicism is notable for its diversity: Polish, Filipino, Romanian, Indian, Nigerian, Malaysian, American, Lithuanian. Anyone who has wandered off the beaten track in search of a Mass will know that Catholic communities can live parallel devotional lives. Seeing the unselfconscious piety of a Polish-language Mass, or a church packed with Indian Catholics on a Tuesday evening reciting the litany to Anthony of Padua, reminds you of the diversity within the one Church.

There is a glimpse of the Catholic future in new figures revealed by Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University, in a post at CatholicHerald.co.uk. It is difficult to make a statistical picture of British Catholicism, and the 2016 European Social Survey, which Professor Bullivant has drawn on, has too small a sample size to draw certain conclusions: it interviewed 5,042 UK residents, including 552 Catholics. But its findings are nevertheless worth examining.

About eight in 10 UK-based Catholics were born here. Almost one in 10 were born in Poland; one in 20 are Irish-born. At the lower (less statistically reliable) end, the Philippines represents three per cent and Romania one per cent.

Because the survey also asks about weekly religious observance, it gives us a clue to who is at Sunday Mass. Again, eight in ten are UK-born and one in ten are Polish-born. But Filipino Catholics, who represent just one per cent of the overall Catholic population, make up six per cent of Sunday Mass-goers. It’s a similar story with Indian and Malaysian-born Catholics: in proportional terms, they are more likely than UK- or Irish-born Catholics to be in the pews.

We need to avoid hasty conclusions: further research – ideally more localised and detailed – could present a different picture. But it’s not too early to speculate about why these differences between migrant groups show up.

Dr Maria Power of Liverpool University says the high figures for some groups may be due to the provision of ethnic chaplaincies. There might also be a class element. “Without resorting to massive generalisation,” Dr Power says, “elite migrants have readymade support networks available through professional avenues, while others may be attending Mass in order to retain a link to their culture and national community, much in the way many Irish migrants did in the 1960s.”

Dr Power says the figures give her hope. “An institution needs new members and fresh ideas to move forward,” she says. Already the Divine Mercy devotion, which was brought to England from Poland in the 1940s, has become a major part of British Catholic life.

Divine Mercy Sunday, which has only been marked since 2001, illustrates the Church’s unity as well as its diversity. As Alana Harris of King’s College London notes, the devotion has caught on in Filipino communities, and also has an appeal to Catholics from the African subcontinent. Such expressions of popular piety can tell us a lot about the shape of contemporary British Catholicism.

The parish, says Dr Harris, can be an ideal place for migrants who have been “socialised into a strong religious identity, with distinctive extra-liturgical traditions and the desire to access and maintain their mother tongue”.

A parish might be able to offer “ready structures and heightened opportunities to nurture a diasporic identity while also integrating into a new home and bonding with Catholics from diverse backgrounds.”

Since the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850, the Church has been defined by immigration – from Ireland in the 19th century, and from Poland, Italy and Ireland after World War II. The Church’s future may depend on how Polish and other communities manage the balance between old and new identities.