Paul Johnson

A message of hope from a teeming church in Kensington

A message of hope from a teeming church in Kensington

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We are living through, or so it is universally assumed, the last days of a great pope. John Paul II rescued the Catholic Church from the self-destructive course on which it was drifting into oblivion, and put it firmly back on its traditional verities. He is a man of long and painful experience, acquired in dealing with the twin evils of Nazism and communism; a wise, bold and strong man, but also a priest of deep and rational compassion, a pontiff for all seasons of turbulence and trial. The aim of his philosophy is to inculcate in us what he calls ‘a just use for freedom’, and his thoughts on this point are set out in a little book, just published.* It is characteristic of his humanity that, in a world clamouring thoughtlessly for more and more freedom, he asks, ‘Yes, but will you use it justly?’

Easy to believe that Christendom, the entity coterminous with the Europe of history, is slipping away too, and being replaced by the new ‘Europe’ of Brussels — secular, materialist, libertine rather than free, profligate and corrupt, cowardly and selfish, the continent of hollow men and sterile women. It is a weak continent too, having turned its back on God, and placed the pursuit of pleasure and ‘security’ before risk and adventure, romance, poetry and service, before the faith of the pilgrim, the star of hope and the warm heart of charity. It is a Europe of interminable dole queues and bitter, hopeless middle-aged zombies who know they will never work again.

It is also a Europe of empty cradles and shrinking classrooms. The biggest demographic catastrophe in the whole of its history is beginning to be felt. Everywhere the birth rate is below the replacement level, and the gaps are being filled by immigrant Muslims, sullen and hostile now, waiting their day. Germany’s population will fall nearly 20 per cent by mid-century, Italy’s by 10 per cent, Poland’s by 12 per cent, to give only three examples. A generation ago, Europe was still opening new universities. Soon it will be shutting them.

The plight of Europe is such that, whenever I have the chance to talk to young people now, at any age from 12 to 20, I always urge them to make their future in America, particularly if they are clever and energetic, qualities essential for a vigorous life over there. America has everything Europe lacks. It has the world’s most dynamic economy, making impressive gains in productivity while expanding the number of jobs at the rate of a quarter of a million a month. It is growing in numbers, attracting the world’s best immigrants, and with a healthy birth rate of its own. Population is just topping 300 million and will be 425 million by mid-century. It has a democratic spirit at all levels of society so that people really feel they create and participate in government. In science and philosophy, in painting, sculpture, music and literature, it makes Europe seem provincial. It has nearly 4,000 universities, including all the world’s best. Most of all, it has a belief in its own future, a confidence that the world can be made, and will be made, a better place, not only materially but spiritually. It is the nearest we have in the world to The Good Society, and my only regret is that I did not make my home there 30 or 40 years ago, when I was still young enough to weather the change. Instead I have to make the best of enjoying the bits of England that are left, morsels of culture, dignity and civilisation not yet gnawed or gobbled up by the rodents of New Labour, the yobs and celebs, the hobbledehoys of mass entertainment and the picklocks and con men who dominate that combined brothel and mortuary, the Palace of Westminster and all its sinister and unsavoury purlieus.

Yet all is not lost here either, at any rate on this side of that useful ditch, sanctified by God and history, the English Channel. To anyone who needs a lifting of the spirit, I advise attendance, on Sunday at ten o’clock, at the family mass celebrated at the Church of Our Lady of Victories, in Kensington High Street. It is not for the squeamish or the lovers of ecclesiastical decorum and liturgical order. If you want that you must go to Brompton Oratory. No: this is a church for the people, a mass to demonstrate the sheer fecundity of the human race under the blessing of an almighty providence, a swarming, teeming, jostling kermesse of Sunday churchgoing at its most elemental, spontaneous and joyful. The big church is packed — it must be the most crowded by far of any place of worship in London — and two thirds of the congregation are children. Indeed many of them are babes in arms, or toddlers who constantly escape and go on expeditions up the aisle, or on to the high altar, and have to be recaptured by their mothers or fathers. From time to time there is a wailing from an indignant infant, but on the whole the children are well behaved.

Some of the older ones are altar boys and girls, solemn in their surplices, that curious garment dating from late Roman times. Others are in the choir. Teenagers read the lessons in clear, distinct voices, with attention to the pronunciation of consonants and correctness of vowel sounds which puts the present-day BBC to shame. But that is so all can hear and understand. There are no classes in this church. No races or nations either. The children and their parents come from all over the world, but they mingle together freely and lovingly. And God is there too, ubiquitously, on the benches and in the sacristy, on the altar and in the pulpit, perching on the processional banners or on the ledges of the clerestory windows, high up among the beams of the roof — an almost palpable and visible presence in this grand congregation of His friends and worshippers. Who said that God is dead? He is manifestly alive and vibrant in leafy Kensington, together with His teeming army of children and youth and their hardworking progenitors.

What joy it would bring to the Pope’s old and anxious heart to be present in this splendid church! I say splendid, but its splendour lies not in architecture and decoration, in stone and paint, plaster and gilt and gleaming metal, but in the rapt and shining faces of the young as they kneel and pray, in the goodness and healthy pride of their parents, and in the piety and zeal of the priests.

The last time I saw the Pope was in Rome, when I had the privilege of presenting to him a copy of my History of Christianity in its Polish translation, and saw his eyes light up when he recognised the language. That was an occasion when his big audience chamber was crowded with young people of all nationalities, and he moved among them with the confidence of a pastor who sees even in the tiniest infant wriggling in his mother’s arms the future knight of Christian truth and witness to the grand old faith. However frail he is, he would be at home in this noisy and unceremonious, this crowded and vibrant church in Kensington, where in the middle of a society which has abandoned its faith to embrace a putrefying hedonism there is a rich and luxuriant oasis of all-powerful conviction and simple goodness. Here is still to be seen the ancient Christendom, surviving into the 21st century, glad to be alive and in the friendship of its Maker, and ready to face all the furies of a world where Satan rides high and his legions are in formidable array.

*Memory and Identity: Personal Reflections, by John Paul II, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99.