Why cannot there be another consultation to energise the Catholic faithful?
Pope John Paul II sat behind his desk to receive his two VIP English visitors – the Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume. Worlock solemnly laid in front of the Pope the publication he had brought with him, opened at what he thought was the key page. “This,” he said proudly, “is the faith of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.” It was the report of the National Pastoral Congress, which had taken place in Liverpool earlier in 1980, and of the bishops’ considered response, a document known as The Easter People.
The Pope glanced down, took in the gist of the text, and then purposively pushed the document away. Worlock’s published account of the meeting ignored that gesture, but he revealed it in his private papers. At that moment, he knew he and Hume were in trouble. That NPC was the last occasion on which the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales conducted a full and frank consultation with the clergy and laity, from the grassroots up, no holds barred.
In the minds of Hume and Worlock, the congress represented the moment when the teaching of the Second Vatican Council was received into the national Catholic bloodstream. The result was a mature and visionary strategy, giving English and Welsh Catholicism the clear sense of purpose it had lacked since the deaths of Cardinals Newman and Manning at the end of the Victorian era.
It didn’t last. One of the purposes of the congress was to focus on how to implement Vatican II in the cultural context of England and Wales, and in so doing, to heal the wounds that had been opened by the Humanae Vitae crisis of 1968. Worlock and Hume attended an international synod in Rome two years later, where some of the family and pastoral issues that had surfaced during the NPC were to be addressed.
They returned utterly despondent and almost empty-handed. Mgr George Leonard, Hume’s right-hand man, told me: “We’ve had the door slammed on our fingers.” Worlock and Hume agreed to meet a deputation of priests who had strongly supported the congress and hoped for great things from the synod.
The message was bleak. The official minute of the discussion records: “The Cardinal … considered that conservatism was succeeding in many parts of the world and was also rising in Rome. We had to remember that Western Europe was now a minority in the Church and places like Africa and South America were very conservative. Our local Church has to find its way in the present circumstances and it is not always clear how it should proceed.
“The Cardinal was sure that it would not help to have public calls on our bishops to act by themselves. There were some conservatives in this country who were already attacking what had already been done by himself and Archbishop Worlock …”
In other words, the English and Welsh Church would be lucky to hang on to what it had gained, and, if it pushed any further, even that could be taken away. The forces of theological reaction, widely seen as trying to halt the reforms of Vatican II, were growing in strength under John Paul II. If English Catholics drew too much attention to themselves as centre-left moderate progressives, the Vatican would surely rein them in. Ultra-conservative bishops would replace the mild-mannered, tolerant ones the English preferred. Doctrinal obedience would be imposed.
So The Easter People was dead; it has since taken on an almost samizdat status. I recently re-read both it and the Liverpool report online. They are startlingly contemporary. Pope Francis could have written them. This is the strategy that English and Welsh Catholicism had worked out for itself, after intense consultation at every level of the community, and under the leadership of the bishops.
This history raises serious questions. In the quite different climate following the arrival of Pope Francis, why can’t we pick up where we left off? Why cannot there be another consultation, as thorough as the one prior to Liverpool 1980, to energise the Catholic faithful as they were energised then? Why cannot the laity help once more to frame the Church’s priorities, to get to know their bishops and be known in return, to enlighten and enliven each other for the benefit of the whole? Why, almost 40 years after this almost new dawn, is the Church in England and Wales still sitting in semi-darkness, incoherent, paralysed and dysfunctional?