Forcing Poles to integrate will only encourage them to abandon the faith, says William Oddie. Instead we should try to follow their example Ibegin with a story from my own experience: for, since this article will be about faith and how to engender it — or at least about how not to wreck it — that is probably the only basis on which to proceed.
In 1991, six months after my wife and I had been received into the Church, we visited Moscow. It was at an intensely interesting historical juncture, a few weeks after the attempted coup against Gorbachev and in the last days of the Soviet Union. I had gone, at the behest of the Sunday Telegraph, to track down those behind a new Russian edition, recently published by one of the Soviet State publishing houses, of works by G K Chesterton: not the fiction, as might have been expected, but his great apologetic classics Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, together with St Francis and St Thomas Aquinas — truly, a sign of the times: these editions were set up directly from sarnizdat translations which had been circulating secretly among Christian dissidents since the 1980s.
On Sunday we went to Mass at the Church of St Louis, which under the protection of the French Embassy had operated, in the shadow of the Lubyanka, during the darkest days of the Stalinist terror. We had expected the Mass to be in Russian: in fact it was in Polish, and the church was packed to the doors with Polish expatriates. I had never been part of a liturgy celebrated with such power and such absolute conviction, not only by the priest (who preached a sermon incomprehensible to me with real passion) but by the people: the hackneyed and often meaningless phrase "the People of God" has never seemed more convincing; I have never heard such congregational singing, before or since.
The Poles really believe their religion. So it can only, surely, be good news for the English Church that in some dioceses churches are being inundated by large numbers of Poles: surely some of this passionate belief will rub off on us? Might this not be the shot in the arm the often lacklustre Church in this country so sorely needs? The trouble is that lack of conviction has its own potency, its own deadening and almost irresistible power to discourage and dismay, rather like J K Rowling's dementors, whose kiss sucks out and annihilates the souls of their victims. The danger is that unless the Poles build on their existing network of Polish language pastoral care, the new Polish immigrants will become integrated into the secularised mentality of English Catholicism and will, many of them, simply lose their faith like many Englishmen before them: and if they do not, their children will.
Damian Thompson summed up the problem in the Daily Telegraph. "There are," he reported, "about half a million more Roman Catholics in this country than there were five years ago... The influx of Poles and other east Europeans into Britain has come as a shock to the Catholic hierarchy of England and Wales, which had resigned itself to ever-shrinking Mass attendance. The question is: will these new worshippers help to revive the Church, just as they have revived struggling service industries?" His answer is predictable: "Alas," he continues, the omens are not good."
It might be objected that this happened precisely because some in authority did everything they could to block the inspiration of Pope John Paul: certainly, they consistently ignored everything he ever said.
Whatever the cause, the effect was a disaster. "No wonder," Thompson rightly continues, "the Poles are not impressed by their new spiritual home. They have petitioned the bishops to provide them with more Masses in their own language. The answer, as often as not, has been no: you must 'integrate' ."
But not quite yet: there is a current problem that has to be dealt with first. As Jonathan Petre reported in the Telegraph, "Fr John Boyle, the parish priest at St Simon of England in Ashford, Kent, said scores of young Poles queued at his church when he invited a Polish priest to hear confessions. 'Confession is very difficult when it's not in their language,' he said. 'It is their intimate secrets. It needs to be in their language... They are used to a clear Catholic way of living in Poland. If they're not in regular contact with the Church they drift away and get in all sorts of problems...'" He said there was a need for more Polish priests here. "Polish people can find themselves lonely because of the lack of Catholic Church culture."
So Polish priests are, for the time being, being used to cope with the new influx, even where the local bishop's reluctance is being made very clear. As Jonathan Petre reported: "Canon Nicholas France, the Dean of Jersey, said the number of Poles on the island peaked at 6,000 in the summer, and the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Rev Crispian Hollis, had arranged to send a Polish priest next month. 'There are always people who say that they should integrate,' [Canon France] said. 'Our approach is that they should integrate but we want to respect cultural and spiritual differences.' Bishop Hollis, however, is not very keen on these differences, and 'cautioned against perpetuating a separate Polish community... 'The Vatican tends to talk about preserving national identity, which isn't appropriate in the modem world,' he said."
Why, precisely, the existence of a Polish identity within the English Church should cause tension now, when it has never done so over the last 60 years, he did not explain. Other dioceses, notably Birmingham (one of the dioceses where the Pope's writ often runs) have been more encouraging to the preservation of a Polish national identity. At a Polish Mass in Birmingham, according to the Independent Catholic News website: "Mgr Tadeusz Kukla, Vicar Delegate for Poles in England and Wales, thanked Archbishop Vincent Nichols for the respect for Polish culture and traditions that had been shown in the Archdiocese of Birmingham since the post-war years. Mgr Kukla said: "This tragic generation of Poles, who were forced to settle in Britain after the communist regime was imposed on Poland, desperately wanted to uphold their culture and traditions, including religious traditions and spirituality. Throughout all these years all your illustrious predecessors helped and encouraged the existence of Polish ministry interwoven into the rich tapestry of the diocesan pastoral care. This understanding and support of the Polish Catholic communities helped the first generation of Poles to uphold their faith. Although the second and third generations of Poles who have been born here are fully integrated into British society. contributing to its wellbeing in a variety of ways, they still cherish and greatly value their roots".
What does that mean? I strongly suspect it means that though they are fully integrated into our secular culture, they still, wherever they can, go to Mass in Polish. Why should that be? Is it because they have detected that something has gone badly wrong with the dominant culture of the English Church, and that they need to keep it at arm's length? But why would that be? It is here that we can learn something from the Poles that might be of some help in regenerating our often sadly despiritualised English Catholicism.
What the Poles have always understood (and their history has made it inescapable that they should) is that secular culture is something from which their faith has set them apart: their Christian calling, in the words of the late pope, is that they should be "signs of contra diction". First under the Nazis, then under the Communists, this was selfevident. What Pope John Paul knew was that the same principle is fundamentally true even under the comparatively benign conditions of western democracy: for it is materialism (whether dialectical or not) that is the great enemy of faith.
A modernist Catholicism that has simply embraced the values of the current secular altruism is not merely ineffective: it has actually joined the enemy: it will destroy real faith wherever it can be hunted out and subjected to the dementor's kiss. It will do this because it has entirely forgotten that though, in Newman's words, we must accept "the reality and importance of the secular", since "the world is framed by God himself', nevertheless, "this well-ordered... world. with all its blessings of sense and knowledge, may lead us to neglect those interests which will endure when itself has passed away... The sciences of good government, acquiring wealth, of preventing and relieving want, and the like, are especially dangerous; for fixing, as they do, our exertions on this world as an end, they go far to persuade us that they have no other end." Or, in the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews (13:14) "here have we no abiding city, but we seek one that is to come-.
These are sentiments by no means agreeable to those who determine the priorities of the English Catholic Church today, for whom the values of this world rather than the next are the only ones that have any definite reality. In this, they have simply absorbed the general immanentist ethos of the liberal Protestantism of the late 20th century. summed up thus by the Oxford theologian Alister McGrath: "Convinced that nobody (well, nobody who really mattered, that is) could believe in a transcendent God any more, revisionist theologians launched a makeover of their faith. Ideas such as eternal life, Resurrection, `a God out there' and any sense of the mysterious were unceremoniously junked as decrepit embarrassments."
That. fundamentally, is why the Poles should be allowed (indeed, encouraged) to maintain their own traditions and their own priests: they have understood that for them this may be a matter of eternal life or death. I just wish there were a few Polish priests surplus to their new requirements: they would have a lot to teach the rest of us.
William Oddie is former editor of The Catholic Herald. This is an edited version of an article which appeared in Faith magazine wwwfaith .org.uk