tisdag 21 oktober 2014

Winning Catholics back to the church

The principal motivation for the suggested relaxation of rules made at the recent Synod of Bishops was that it would arrest the decline in numbers by making the church more welcoming to homosexuals and people living in irregular relationships.

In my experience at parishes in the south of England, declines in attendance during the 1970s and 1980s happened suddenly when new parish priests took over. It happened within a matter of weeks of their arrival. In each case the mass exodus was precipitated by the introduction of the vernacular liturgy. At first, people would move to adjacent parishes where Latin and Gregorian chant was still in use, but as these in turn were hit, there were fewer and fewer places to flee to. The situation eventually arose where for many people, attendance at a Mass where the liturgy was not dreadful could mean a ninety minute journey in each direction on sparse public transport.

The experience of a family I know is perhaps typical. Dino, now in his 70s, is one of a large family whose father came from Italy in the 1920s. Whilst working as an architect 40 years ago, he married Bridget, a work colleague. She had come from Ireland to England to work in the late 1960s, and was also one of a large family. Both families were staunchly and traditionally Catholic - like so many, Bridget had aunt who was a nun.

They lived, and still live, in a parish in a prosperous part of North London and have three children - a son and two daughters, now in their thirties. The oldest boy used to attend Mass regularly but reluctantly. He didn't like the liturgy and found the sermons patronising. The time came, in his mid-teens, when he announced that he would never go to Mass again. The older of the daughters kept the faith and has paid the price in being unable for many years to find a suitable partner - she married recently, later than she would have wanted. The younger daughter, who is in fact my God-daughter, has a live-in boyfriend, pleasant enough; hers is a typical example of an "irregular relationship". I attended her confirmation about twenty years ago, an eminently forgettable event with banal music. Clearly the church has had nothing to offer her. Dino and Marie continue to attend Mass on Sunday but complain about their local parish and travel to the Brompton Oratory whenever possible, which is over an hour away and turns Mass-going into a full day out.

By contrast, I have been relatively fortunate with my own parishes. St Mary Magdalen's, Brighton suffered a near-collapse when a new priest arrived in 1990. It continued in the doldrums until Fr Blake arrived in 2001. Within a couple of years he had turned things round by adopting a traditional style of liturgy, encouraging regular confession and promoting a good work - a parish soup run. Similar stories can be told wherever this has happened. The Oratorians turned round the moribund former Jesuit parish of St Aloysius within a couple of years. The small parish of Littlehampton in Sussex has been pulled round after thirty years of neglect.

It seems that it is perfectly possible to kindle the flames of faith out of the dying embers of a parish, simply by being Catholic and holding to tradition - a dignified liturgy, getting parishioners into the habit of confession and running a good work of some kind in response to local need. It does not need a re-writing of doctrine, redefining as acceptable that which have up to now been recognised as sins.

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