Secularist ideologies are plunging new generations of people into “an abject state of ignorance” not seen for centuries, the Bishop of Shrewsbury has said.
Womanhood in particular is being increasingly coarsened, said Bishop Mark Davies, and there is a growing “dislocation in the life of home and family”.
He encouraged the Catholic Church to commit itself to the “springtime of the new evangelisation” with the same fidelity and fervour as the Victorian Catholics who sought to re-establish the faith in the British Isles in the so-called Second Spring.
All three candidates for sainthood “awaken in our hearts the fullness of the Church’s faith and the courage of a new evangelisation”, he said at the Mass for Mother Elizabeth at the Church of St Anne and Blessed Dominic in St Helens, Lancashire.
But Bishop Davies recalled that the Shrewsbury-born co-foundress of the Passionist Sisters began her educational mission in Angel Meadow, the worst of Manchester’s slums, “in the grip of a cholera epidemic”.
He said that the concern of Elizabeth – also known as Mother Mary Joseph – was specifically for young women destined to become, not merely factory workers, but the mothers of the next generation.
“She saw in them the Christian women who would be able to bring that feminine dignity and genius, of which St John Paul II eloquently spoke, into a coarsened and dislocated social life. It was significant that Elizabeth Prout’s first inspiration was to promote devotion to the Holy Family of Nazareth.”
He continued: “Today, we see clear parallels in western societies marked by a not dissimilar coarsening of life, of womanhood and a dislocation in the life of home and family – the bitter inheritance, not of industrial development, but of secularist ideologies.
“In her own time Mother Mary Joseph recognised at the root of these maladies, an abject state of ignorance which she fearlessly set out to address, an ignorance once again evident in the highly-educated societies of the West, where opinion surveys routinely disclose that many no longer even know the significance of Easter or Christmas.
“We are encountering the same religious illiteracy which Elizabeth Prout found in the dark slums of Angel Meadow, an ignorance which leaves a vacuum and exposes new generations to destructive ideologies of every kind.”
Bishop Davies said it was significant that Elizabeth’s Cause for Beatification was progressing at “a moment of family and social crisis”.
“As Mother Mary Joseph once laboured in the Second Spring of the Church’s life, so she will serve as a witness in the springtime of the New Evangelisation,” he said.
“Today, we have gathered to pray that she will soon be recognised among the Blessed of every time and place and become an inspiration in the vital task of handing on the faith and the inheritance of Christian values, amid the adverse conditions which today impact family and community.
“May our prayers hasten the day which will allow Mother Mary Joseph’s mission to continue and grow on a still greater scale, a mission which certainly did not cease when finally laid to rest in St Helens on that distant January day in 1864.”
The Manchester slums in which Mother Elizabeth began her work were famously described as “Hell on earth,” by Friedrich Engels, the political philosopher, when he visited the city with Karl Marx in 1844 before they sat down together to formulate the theory of Communism.
Densely populated and ridden with disease and crime, conditions were appalling and in Angel Meadow families were crowded into single rooms of tenement blocks, with one journalist describing it as the “lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester” … “the home of prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps and in the very worst sties of filth and darkness … the unhappy wretches, the low Irish”.
Mother Elizabeth nevertheless succeeded in opening schools for the children of the poor, hostels for the homeless and the abandoned and she visited the sick and trained women in essential skills so they could earn their own livings, a practice which was considered revolutionary.
By 1857, she had attracted 20 women to share her work, living together in “extreme poverty” in a community centred on the Eucharist, and who expanded their work across the poorest parts of the industrial north west of England.
In 1863, the year before Elizabeth died at 43 from tuberculosis she had contracted during her work with the poor, her community was formally established as the Sisters of the Cross and Passion, a female branch of the Passionists, and became its first Superior General of the new congregation.
Last year, Pope Francis declared both Mother Elizabeth and Fr Spencer, her friend and co-worker, to be Venerable after concluding that they lived lives of heroic virtue.
Two miracles are now being sought in each case – one for beatification and the other to recognise them as saints.
Blessed Dominic, who received St John Henry Newman into the Catholic faith, was beatified in October 1963 by Pope St Paul VI and the Church continues to search for the second miracle required for his canonisation.
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