An academic reveals the make-up of British Catholicism

“The Dark Age formula.” The phrase, coined by the theologian Fr Aidan Nichols, refers to the right mixture of identities for converting a nation. Seventh-century England came to the Faith thanks to Anglo-Saxons working together with missionaries sent from Rome. To bring modern England back to Catholicism, Fr Nichols suggested in 2008, we need again “both the long, instinctive familiarity of the native, along with the more detached and objective critical gaze of the newcomer.”

In that relationship between native and newcomer, last month’s remarks from the Polish bishops may prove a turning point. Addressing the millions of Polish Catholics abroad, the bishops – who have an official pastoral presence in 25 countries – urged their flock to integrate with the rest of the Church.

In 2007, the bishops encouraged Polish Catholics in France, Germany, England and elsewhere to seek out Polish Catholic communities. But now that Poles abroad have put down roots, the letter said, it is time to give a “witness of faith” to the local population. Apart from anything else, there aren’t enough Polish priests to serve the diaspora.

British Catholicism is notable for its diversity: Polish, Filipino, Romanian, Indian, Nigerian, Malaysian, American, Lithuanian. Anyone who has wandered off the beaten track in search of a Mass will know that Catholic communities can live parallel devotional lives. Seeing the unselfconscious piety of a Polish-language Mass, or a church packed with Indian Catholics on a Tuesday evening reciting the litany to Anthony of Padua, reminds you of the diversity within the one Church.

There is a glimpse of the Catholic future in new figures revealed by Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University, in a post at CatholicHerald.co.uk. It is difficult to make a statistical picture of British Catholicism, and the 2016 European Social Survey, which Professor Bullivant has drawn on, has too small a sample size to draw certain conclusions: it interviewed 5,042 UK residents, including 552 Catholics. But its findings are nevertheless worth examining.

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