söndag 31 december 2017

A golden age of Catholicism

The period of 150 years from the end of the Napoleonic wars can, in retrospect, be seen as a golden age of Catholicism. An unbroken succession of first rate popes, from Pius IX to Pius XII, built on, and consolidated, the work of each and all of his predecessors.

Missionaries spread the faith round the world. Irish immigration brought a wave of Catholicism to America and Great Britain. In Britain, it was boosted by the aftermath of the Oxford Movement, with the conversion of Newman, Manning, Vaughan and many others from the English upper classes. Then came the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850, with the re-establishment of Catholic dioceses. This was followed by a vigorous period of church building, many by notable architects such as A W Pugin and Joseph Aloysius Hansom. Religious orders such as the Benedictines, Sacred Heart Sisters, and Oratorians, set up new communities all over the world. There were six seminaries in England alone, training a steady and ample flow of priests.

A flourishing Catholic intellectual culture developed, with such renowned lay figures as Belloc, Chesterton, Sheed and Ward, the Meynells, J R R Tolkien. Notable Jesuits included Gerald Manley Hopkins, Frederick Copleston, Martin D’Arcy, and Cyril Martindale in Britain. Bishop Fulton Sheen was a famous and popular broadcaster in the USA. Another famous clergyman was Chesterton’s fictitious Fr Brown (modelled on a Roman Catholic friend, Fr John O’Connor, a parish priest). The Catholic church attracted famous converts: in addition to Chesterton, were, amongst many others, Compton Mackenzie, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Hollis, Alec Guinness - it is a large and diverse list.

The period also saw a renewal of Catholic liturgy, grounded in the painstaking restoration of Gregorian Chant by the Solemnes monks from the 1870s onwards, and the publication of the Vatican edition of the Liber Usualis and other chant books. There was new Catholic music too, by composers such as Bruckner, Elgar, Dupre and the organist Olivier Messaien.

The Catholic church did not attract just famous people. In his autobiography, “Goodbye to all that”, Robert Graves describes how the Catholic chaplains would remain with the men at the front in the trenches so that they could be available to hear the confessions of the dying soldiers. As a consequence, Graves explains, many of the men claimed to be Catholics when they were not, so that they could have a chaplain assigned to them. Naturally, this had its effect and drew converts into the Catholic church.

In the 1950s, the Catholic church seemed to have a bright future ahead. The model priest was, perhaps, someone like the one portrayed by Bing Crosby in “Going my way” and “The Bells of St Mary’s”, which came out in 1944 and 1945.

In retrospect, the end came suddenly. It was soon after the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958. The Second Vatican Council ushered in a series of liturgical reforms which left the Catholic church unrecognisable. Religious vocations dwindled to a trickle. Mass attendances slumped. A series of scandals revealed that that there had been ugly things going on beneath the surface. 

From 1978 onwards with the election of Pope John Paul II, it looked as if the changes had gone as far as they were going and that we would see the swing of a pendulum. Since 2013, however, the momentum for further change has gathered once more. Although the unexpected can happen, and the Holy Spirit moves in surprising ways, it is unlikely that the decline will be reversed within the lifetime of most people alive today, if ever. The strongest shoots of Christian growth today are to be seen in Moscow, of all places. Who would have predicted such a thing?

One wonders what the orthodox Catholic intellectuals of 100 years ago would have made of what is happening and how they would have responded to this confusing state of affairs?

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