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Mission Impossible

Can foreign priests save the Catholic Church in England?

31 December 2011

12:00 PM

31 December 2011

12:00 PM

At the height of empire, Britain used to send missionaries out to Africa and Asia to instruct the natives in personal hygiene, instil good table manners and preach the gospel. The occasional unlucky one found himself in a cannibal’s pot for his trouble; but mostly they won out, establishing themselves as the kindly, civilising arm of imperialism, founding schools and clinics, and converting the heathen. Back home, the public was jolly proud of them. British missionaries were both an expression and a source of Britain’s muscular national self-assurance.

So what are we to think of ourselves today, now that we are on the receiving end of missionary attention? For, all over the country, from the hamlets of rural Somerset to the urban centres of the north-east, Catholic priests from abroad, many of them from former colonial territories in Africa and the subcontinent, are hard at work keeping the flickering flame of faith alive by preaching the gospel to the English. Why are they here? Is there some master plan devised by Pope Benedict to re-conquer the spiritual wastelands? Or, just as the NHS plunders the developing world for doctors and nurses, are Catholic bishops doing something similarly borderline-exploitative to recruit priests to attend to our spiritual health?

According to the statistics, we are indeed the heathens now. Quite how godless we have become depends upon which survey you read and what question is asked. According to most recent polls, we are not so irreligious as the Estonians, Swedes or Czechs, but we do hover just above them, close to the bottom of the international league table of religiosity, in company with the Belgians and the Dutch. While Christianity is alive, expanding, ardent even, in the developing world; it is pale, sickly and unsteady on its pins in Europe. Our own national census provides a picture of a country where more than two in three identify themselves as Christian; but the findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey acknowledge that much of this self-identification is purely nominal, not underpinned by observance or even belief.

Our public culture has been progressively de-Christianised at the hands of earnest multiculturalists and political and social elites that increasingly regard a Richard Dawkins-style atheism as the natural default position for the new millennium. The result is that young people leave school with only the haziest notion of the religious traditions and moral teachings that bound previous generations within a common cultural framework.

Just after the riots in August, I met Father Darline of the Missionaries of St Francis de Sales. He is from Tamil Nadu, one of the most urbanised and economically dynamic states in India, the local base for many international electronics and telecommunications companies and home to no fewer than 37 universities. Fr Darline himself holds an MSc in psychology and is working towards a doctorate while he is here. Since 2008, he has been undertaking missionary work in England, first in villages around Yeovil and more recently in the Wiltshire market town of Devizes.

I wonder what he made of the savagery on display in the streets of Tottenham. Would he express the same mixture of puzzlement and dismay that David Livingstone had felt when, sent out by the London Missionary Society, he first encountered the thieving Chiboque tribe beyond the Zambezi? ‘I was very struck by what seemed to be a vacuum of ethical values,’ Fr Darline says. ‘It was as if they had no system by which to judge what they should do, or not do. You would see someone presented with the opportunity to loot a shop and it was like watching a cat on a wall — will it jump this way, or that? In many cases it seemed there had been an absence of any ethical dimension in upbringing or education.’

Of the various characterisations of the rioters that we have been offered over the past two months — ranging from ‘just common criminals’ to ‘victims of deprivation’ — Fr Darline’s picture of them as moral imbeciles, whose anomie stems from neglect on the part of parents and teachers, is surely the most convincing. The fuzzy ethics that secular society has substituted for Christian moral precepts simply do not equip many young people to resist the temptation to nick a plasma TV.

The marginalisation of Christian moral teaching within education and the secular tone of almost all public discourse comes as a shock to this Indian priest. ‘India is a very religious society. There are many different religions and a religious way of seeing how the world permeates the culture, so I do find England very different,’ he explains. He says that the churches should speak out more and have a stronger voice in the national conversation. ‘I see secularism as a challenge,’ he says. ‘I feel I should do something.’

But unlike David Livingstone, today’s missionaries cannot sit down with tribal chiefs and simply settle the issue; they have to work from the bottom up. Fr Darline tells me about an initiative by his local church to reach out to a generation of teenagers who had never been exposed to religion in their lives. A good deal of thought went into how to engage them. But all to no avail. On the appointed day, the kids failed to show up.

Consequently, most of this missionary’s time is spent preaching to the converted: celebrating Mass in outlying villages, helping to keep open churches that might otherwise have to be amalgamated for want of clergy. By now, I am keen to discover precisely why Father Darline is here — for there is indeed a papal master plan. Last summer Pope Benedict XVI announced a new Pontifical Council charged with restoring faith to European countries where there has been ‘an eclipse of the sense of God’. Do priests like Father Darline represent the vanguard of what’s called the ‘New Evangelisation’?

I try an indirect approach, asking whether there isn’t enough to do at home. ‘It isn’t that there are too many priests in India or not enough for us to do there. In Tamil Nadu a parish priest will often have three or four Mass centres to look after. And though Catholics account for only a small percentage of the population, the Church provides a huge proportion of healthcare, operating hospitals and clinics; it is involved in social work and, of course, runs a lot of schools. There’s plenty to do,’ he says, ‘but there is a feeling of gratitude towards the West because the faith was brought to us by European missionaries, and a feeling that we should reciprocate.’


That explains his own motivation, but it doesn’t account for why the Catholic bishops have asked him, and many others like him, to come to work in England. For an answer to that, I consulted Father Christopher Jamison, the star of the surprise-hit BBC television series The Monastery. Perhaps hoping he can bring some of that ratings magic to the supply of new priests, the Catholic Church has put him in charge of ordinations in England and Wales.

With one breath Fr Jamison acknowledges that there is a priest shortage at the moment and that foreign priests are being drafted in to help. But with the next breath he points to facts that pose a radical challenge to the standard secularisation narrative that depicts a slow and steady decline in religion over time. ‘In which decade would you guess ordinations were at their highest?’ Father Jamison asks with a discernible teasing edge in his voice. Ignoring the hint, I plump for the 1950s, on the grounds that the next decade saw the contraceptive pill, the sexual revolution and the Rolling Stones, and it would surely all be downhill after that. But as is so often the case with the Catholic Church, the truth turns out to be counterintuitive. The decade when average annual ordinations peaked was, amazingly
, the 1980s, supposedly the decade of selfish individualism; while the individual year that set the record for the number of new priests was the year of New Labour’s political triumph, 1997. Numbers have dropped since 2002, but are still higher than they were through much of the 20th century.

That said, England has always relied upon migrant clergy. Through two and a half centuries of oppression and persecution following the Reformation, England was officially designated ‘mission territory’ by Rome. In a sense it has never stopped being so. The church where Father Darline now works was built back in the 1860s by a French missionary from his own order. Since then waves of priests have come over from Ireland, and more recently from Poland.

English Catholics, it seems, are strong on family values and church attendance, but perennially inadequate at vocations. The presence of clergy from India in the shires should, therefore, not be seen as a sign of desperation in the face of secular decline, so much as an example of shrewd resource allocation by a multinational outfit in response to reasonably steady demand in the English market.

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