News Analysis

This year England will be rededicated to Our Lady. We’ll need it

It is never easy to predict what is to come even over a few days, never mind a year. Who would have thought, for instance, this time last year, that Boris Johnson would have won a general election by a near landslide?

For the first time in nearly four years, the one thing that now looks certain for 2020 is that the UK will leave the European Union one way or another. It is also inevitable that the New Year will bring the departure of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, and the election of his successor.

Beyond that, it is hard to forecast at this point what 2020 will bring politically. But what already has been established is that a new legal framework governing abortion will be introduced into Northern Ireland in March.

It is open to consultation but at present the plan is to offer abortions on demand up to 14 weeks. The province’s bishops have said the law is unjust, and called for the protection of conscience rights and the exclusion of “abortion services” from Catholic schools.

The rest of the UK will meanwhile have to come to terms with compulsory Relationships and Sex Education. Although the government says it will allow leeway for schools to decide what is “age-appropriate” and in line with the school’s ethos, the education secretary who introduced the changes, Damian Hinds, said he would “strongly encourage schools to discuss with children in class that there are all sorts of different, strong and loving families, including families with same-sex parents, while they are at primary school.”

Certainly, it would be reasonable to fear that new ideologies of sex and gender will advance over the year to come, costing some Christians their livelihoods along the way.

Irrespective of such a hostile cultural context, the Catholic Church in England and Wales is continuing to focus its efforts on evangelisation. Collectively the bishops are offering two major initiatives to further this work – the Year of the Word, to which 2020 has been dedicated, and the rededication of England as the Dowry of Mary (pictured: Our Lady of Walsingham).

The rededication will be offered by every Catholic church in the country on March 29 with a dedicated service to take place in every cathedral on that date.

The Year of the Word, which opened on December 1 under the title “The God Who Speaks”, will consist of a range of parish, diocesan and national initiatives to help Catholics become more conversant with Scripture.

The year was chosen because it falls upon the 10th anniversary of the publication of Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini, the 2010 post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

The Archdiocese of Liverpool will host its own evangelising initiative in the form of Synod 2020, which in the early part of the year will focus on how the faithful pray together and how they can build up the Church.

There may be cause for joy among English Catholics with the very likely progress of more candidates for sainthood from the “Second Spring” era following the canonisation of St John Henry Newman in October.

Mother Elizabeth Prout, the Victorian foundress of the Passionist Sisters, is likely to be declared Venerable following a decision by Vatican historians and theologians in 2019 that she lived a life of “heroic virtue”.

The same committee of theologians will meet early in 2020 to consider making an identical ruling on the Cause of Fr Ignatius Spencer, the 19th-century Passionist priest to whom Princes William and Harry are related. It could even be the case that Fr Ignatius and Mother Elizabeth could be declared Venerable in the same papal decree, which would be fitting given that they are buried almost side by side in a church in St Helens, Lancashire.

November 8 will be the day when Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, will celebrate his 75th birthday. It is also the date on which, having reached the mandatory retirement age, he must submit his resignation to Pope Francis. It is anyone’s guess whether the Pope will ask him to stay on or will begin the search for a successor.

Other notable anniversaries in 2020 will include the first anniversary of Newman’s canonisation, which falls on October 13. September 16 brings the 10th anniversary of the historic and tremendously successful visit to Britain of Benedict XVI, and September 19 is the 10th anniversary of his beatification of John Henry Newman in Cofton Park, Birmingham.

The overall trends suggest that 2020 will be a year of mixed blessings, perhaps of a growth in the holiness of the Church at the same time as it declines numerically in the face of challenges from a hostile secularising culture.

Catholics are not alone in having to confront such problems. While some may drift from the faith as a result of the new mores being imposed upon society, other Christians may recognise the Catholic Church as their true home.

My personal prediction for 2020 is that the conversion of Gavin Ashenden, a former Chaplain to the Queen, will not be the last example of Anglicans and other Christians being drawn into the Catholic Church.