by Joanna Bogle
Tales of woe about events in Catholic schools and colleges are often heard nowadays stories of liturgies with dancing and banal music, silly activities purporting to help children celebrate aspects of the Faith, hopelessly vague or downright heretical teaching in First Communion classes, sex education that infringes not only on Church teachings but on children’s basic rights to modesty and privacy.
Much of the complaining has been useful and necessary publicity has sometimes helped to ensure that particular practices have been stopped, banality removed from the sanctuary, educational projects reviewed. At the very least, the opportunity to express concern and even outrage has provided scope for otherwise suffocated views.
But I have begun to notice a trend that isn’t helpful at all, and that needs to be questioned. We have somehow gotten used to the expressions of horror so much so that there can be a degree of gleeful gloating over the latest liturgical outrage, and even disappointment when it fails to live up to expectations: “You mean the cardinal waved his arms?” “The priest wore that hideous chasuble?” Oh dear, the video clip doesn’t look dreadful enough what a pity, we wanted to get angrier.
And, even sadder, there is sometimes a desire to assume things are terrible when they are not and/or to pass on information that isn’t accurate, in the interests of continuing to ensure gloom.
I first discovered this with the crowds that gathered for the funeral of Pope John Paul II back in 2005. Following the news day by day, it became clear that thousands and then literally millions of young people were flocking to Rome. They were standing in St. Peter’s Square, praying and lighting candles. They were waiting patiently hour after hour to view the Holy Father’s body. They were attending Mass at makeshift altars at the roadside with great reverence. They were going to confession. They were singing hymns and saying the Rosary. It was all extraordinary and a powerful witness to the great reality of faith that existed among a generation that had long been thought to be far removed from the Church.
I was of course expecting some cynicism from atheist colleagues and friends. “Oh, they’re mostly Polish he’s a national hero to the Poles” was one reaction, which lasted for a day or two until TV interviews revealed them to be Italian, British, French, American, Irish....
Then it was “Oh, it’s just hysteria. Like people gathering for a rock star”. Some truth in that, perhaps except that these young people really were praying, really going to Mass, really saying the Rosary. Some gathered in groups to sing hymns together with a guitar. No one screamed or sobbed or shrieked or engaged in mass hysteria.
But what really astonished me was that some very traditionalist Catholics were keen much more keen than the atheists and secularists to denounce it all. “I heard”, one such lady told me lugubriously, with much emphatic nodding and lowered voice, “that after all those young people left the square, it was found to be littered with contraceptives. That’s what they were up to, you see”.
We got much the same sort of comments about World Youth Day. “Look how terrible it is”, proclaimed one dispatch to me, “Young people all sleeping together out of doors, with rock music. Well, I just know that there was a lot of wrongdoing going on”. Really? Sure about that?
My niece, who was at World Youth Day, shook her head when I put it to her, and laughed. “For goodness’ sake! People were praying, singing, talking. We went to the big tent-chapel where there was adoration of the Blessed Sacrament through the night it was awesome. On the way back to our own spot, we talked to people from lots of different countries. We had some warm drinks. We prayed together. That’s what it was like.”
Sex? People seizing the opportunity to, er, engage in inappropriate activity?
“Huh? Are you serious? Look there was this vast crowd, it was as public as you could possibly be. Even if people wanted to do something like that can you imagine doing it in the middle of a big crowd of Catholics, with priests and nuns looking on? And with people nearby praying the Rosary or swapping cheery talk about their homes and families?”
She did shed some light, however, on the contraceptives story. “Yes, there were people from Planned Parenthood who tried to push contraceptives at some of us on the way to the Papal Mass. It was gross we just brushed them away. No one was interested.”
There is a lot an awful lot of bad news in the Church in Europe and in the West generally. We are all hideously aware of low marriage rates, high divorce rates, ghastly statistics for sexually transmitted diseases. We all know about young people who cease practicing the Faith in their early teens priests joke ruefully about Confirmation being “the sacrament of departure”.
But sometimes we aren’t prepared for the good news when it comes.
Here in London, figures for men entering training for the priesthood have been quietly rising for the past few years. A visit to a diocesan seminary recently was heartening we were greeted by an impressive team of young men who showed us round with joy and enthusiasm, and led us to the chapel to pray for more vocations in an afternoon of Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, which is a regular feature of life there.
Worldwide, of course, figures for membership of the Catholic Church are steadily rising we are now one-fifth of the world’s population and the trend continues upwards. It is true that the growth is in Africa and in Asia, not in my corner of the world, which is northwest Europe. But it’s still important to get the wider picture.
Here at home in Britain, a report published in 1980 with which I was actually involved predicted that if downward trends for baptisms, confirmation, etc. continued, there would be none at all in the year 2000. We hadn’t got our demography correct statistics don’t work quite like that. We’re still getting baptisms, confirmations and, incidentally, conversions, and not just from the Anglican church but from all sorts of starting-points including, just occasionally, Islam. And Mass attendance has risen just recently. (“The Poles” I was told again “Lot of them coming over to Britain to work”).
I have been accused of being a “Pollyanna Catholic” and am not uncomfortable with the appellation. After all, if you remember the story of the orphaned and impoverished Pollyanna, she ultimately won through precisely because she always found something to be glad about. Her father had taught her the “glad game”, the decision to find something for which to be joyful and grateful whatever the circumstances. There is much to be glad about in the Church always, of course God’s great love for us, the salvation won for us by Christ, His presence in the Eucharist, the forgiveness of sins through the Sacrament of Penance, oh and much more.
But there is also sometimes good news at a more mundane level: World Youth Day in Australia was a huge success, new religious orders are flourishing, young Catholics in Britain flock in good numbers to the Youth 2000 annual gathering at Walsingham (adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, confession, the Rosary) and to the FAITH Movement’s Summer Session (daily Mass, confession, the Rosary, talks on the Catholic faith).
When we launched the Association of Catholic Women twenty-one years ago, it was seen as a sort of counter-attack to the feminists. Now it’s a thriving group in its own right, which runs big annual religious education projects for schools across Britain, a quarterly magazine, study days in London, and more. When a group of Catholic organizations met to plan a Festival of Catholic Culture we thought it would be a one-off event but ten years later it’s still thriving, and we don’t have enough room for all the groups that want to take part.
In my lifetime I’ve seen an atheistic Communist regime across Eastern Europe collapse in the wake of the arrival of a Polish pope, and the official Communist “peace priests” movement of the 1950s disappear with it. I’ve seen the foundation of the first new religious order in Scotland since the 19th century (the Sisters of the Gospel of Life they’re small, but they’re there).
I’ve seen the arrival of several new Catholic publishing ventures and the launch of an immensely successful international Catholic TV network. I’ve certainly seen declining church attendance but I’ve also seen figures reversed under the dedication and prayerful service of good priests. The numbers for weekday Mass at my own local suburban parish would now not disgrace a Sunday.
Not all trends in ecumenism are horrible many of us have experienced good and useful work with fellow Christians campaigning on various issues or raising funds for good causes. Not all liturgy is banal, and the trend today is strongly in the direction of beauty, awe, reverence and dignity and we’re seeing more and more processions and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, at least in London. (Last summer I was walking through Soho behind the Blessed Sacrament with a large crowd of young people; this year it was through the streets around Westminster Cathedral, with a vast throng singing glorious hymns).
At the Sydney World Youth Day, thousands and thousands of young people gathered as the successor of Saint Peter celebrated Mass. There was beauty, awe, a profound sense of prayer, and great reverence. “When the host was raised at the elevation”, Cardinal Pell told me, “the silence was so profound you could hear the birds singing.”
Sursum corda! Lift up your hearts!
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on radio and television. She is a founding member of the Association for Catholic Women, WFF’s “sister organization” in England. Joanna’s niece, Lucy Nash, gave her account of the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne in Voices, Pentecost 2007: www.wf-f.org/07-2-WYD.html.
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