The Pope’s visit to the U.K. in September may be the catalyst for a revitalized British faith.
The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain, September 16-19, marked a very special moment, and one which may still have wider repercussions for the rest of the world. Its high point was the beatification of John Henry Newman (1801-90) at Cofton Park in Birmingham. This was the first papal visit to Britain since John Paul II arrived back in 1982. The country has changed much since then and it is clear that Pope Benedict’s reception was much more tenuous than that of his predecessor. Prior to his arrival, more than 100,000 Brits asked for “certificates of de-baptism,” the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins called for Benedict’s arrest for his “crimes against humanity,” and the media was eager to pounce on any misstep. Yet this papal visit raised a couple of very important questions. Where is the Church in Britain going? What does the Holy Father now pray to happen in that formerly Catholic-rich country?
Before the Reformation, England was a very Catholic country, with devotion to Our Lady being particularly marked, to such an extent that the country was known as Our Lady’s “dowry” or special portion. There has also been a long (and loving) link between the papacy and Britain. The historian Bede (d. 735) reports that upon seeing some Anglo-Saxon boys being maltreated in a Roman slave market, Pope Gregory the Great (pope from 590-604) exclaimed: “Non Angli, sed angeli”—“Not Anglos, but angels”—and promptly sent St. Augustine of Canterbury and forty other missionaries to evangelize Britain. Just a bit later, England supplied Rome with its first annual Peter’s Pence, and popes helped restore and anoint English kings from the eighth century onwards. Henry VIII’s revolution changed all that and the ancient faith, including devotion to Our Lady and loyalty to the papacy, was overthrown through a mixture of brutality, propaganda and adverse historical circumstances.
This defection of England from the Catholic faith was perhaps the most significant event of the Reformation in that without it, the revolt against the Church might well have been confined to mainland Europe and perhaps not beyond. The historian Warren H. Carroll points out that if Henry had remained faithful, allied to Catherine of Aragon (the daughter of Isabel and Ferdinand), he could have worked with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to restore Christendom. This failure was all the more tragic, given that the United States ultimately became a Protestant country because of England’s rejection of Catholicism. If Spain, France and England could have worked together in North and South America, a new vibrant “Catholic” hemisphere could have been created in the West. Perhaps much of the rivalry and dissension between the various European countries might have been avoided, and Christendom saved. Is it not possible to argue that if this had happened, many of the evils besetting the modern world may never have occurred?
But it was not to be, and so very gradually and painfully, over the following centuries, Catholicism had to attempt to regain its former place in Britain, particularly in the period following Cardinal Newman’s conversion on October 9, 1845. Newman preached his famous “Second Spring” sermon in 1852, and it was in the years immediately following this that some remarkable prophesies were made regarding Catholicism in England. These came from two individuals who would go on to become canonized saints.
The first of these was St. John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, who was visited in France by the first bishop of Birmingham, William Ullathorne, in May 1854. Ullathorne left this description of what happened as he was explaining to the Curé the need for prayers for tyrannized English Catholics: “Suddenly he interrupted me by opening those eyes—cast into shadow by their depth, when listening or reflecting—and streaming their full light upon me in a manner I can never forget, he said, in a voice as firm and full of confidence as though he were making an act of faith. …‘I believe that the Church in England will recover her ancient splendor.’”
Similarly, one day toward the end of 1856, St. Dominic Savio heard that Don Bosco was planning a visit to Rome to see Pope Pius IX. Savio confided to Bosco that he wished he could speak with the Holy Father as well, as he had something very important to tell him. Don Bosco agreed to try to pass on Dominic’s message, which was as follows: “Tell the Holy Father that in the midst of all the trials that await him, he should not lessen his special care for England. God is preparing a great triumph for the Church in that country.” Don Bosco asked Dominic what made him say that, and he agreed to tell him, but asked that he keep it secret and tell no one but the Pope. Don Bosco said he would do that and then Dominic explained what had happened: “I was making my thanksgiving after Holy Communion one day [when] I seemed to be in a wide plain. There was a great deal of mist, and people were groping about as though they had lost their way. I heard a voice say: ‘This is England.’ While I watched I saw another figure coming towards me. He wore robes just like those I have seen in the picture of the Pope, in our class room and in the refectory. He was holding a huge, flaming torch in his hand, and wherever he passed the mist disappeared. Soon it was as clear as mid-day. Then I heard the voice again. It said: ‘This torch is the Catholic faith which is to illumine England.’” When Pius IX heard this story from Don Bosco he was greatly moved, and said to him: “What you have told me confirms me in my resolution to work with even greater energy for England, to which I already devote so much of my time and my prayers.”
So despite the presently critical situation of the Church in Britain, there is hope that there will be a return to the ancient faith. Both of those prophecies were made nearly 150 years ago, so obviously God’s plan for Britain is a long-term one.
Given the special relationship between the United States and Britain, a future revival of the faith in Britain could also have profound implications for the English-speaking world. Britain once had an empire, and was the world super-power, just as the United States now holds that position; Britain’s colonial legacy is the Commonwealth, which still has fifty-four member countries around the world. Britain, despite its present deplorable spiritual and cultural state, is still very influential, with many countries continuing to look to her for inspiration and new ideas. Just as the United States and Britain worked together to defeat Nazism in World War II, so in the future there is the possibility of a new common fight against the culture of death, as the influence of the Church steadily grows in the new evangelization, which has been so much encouraged by recent popes. Such a resurgence of the Church in such influential countries would be bound to have world-wide repercussions.
There is a real battle going on at the moment for the soul of Britain, a battle which the Church and those on the side of truth are losing, so the visit of Pope Benedict is undoubtedly an important spiritual moment that should be seized and not frittered away. Pope Benedict’s courage and the prophecies of St. John Vianney and St. Dominic mean that the Catholic future of the United Kingdom is a lot brighter than might seem to be the case. There are very good reasons for celebrating Pope Benedict’s visit, particularly since St. Dominic Savio’s vision clearly indicates that the papacy will be very bound up with the future re-evangelization of Britain, and by implication, the world. Joseph Ratzinger took the name of Benedict, patron of Europe and founder of monastic life, so as to re-evangelize Europe, and that is no doubt underway. So, what did our Holy Father want to teach the world by visiting the land of Thomas More, Edmund Campion, Margaret Ward and Cardinal John Henry Newman? Never tire of living and proclaiming the faith, never waver in discipleship, and do pray for this country, these people, that they may be both Angli et angeli!