By David Twiston Davies
If you want to measure the effect of the 400,000 Poles who have arrived here since Poland joined the EU in 2004, consider what was missing from our lives five years ago. We did not have the legend of the Polish plumber, who takes on work at a price which makes the natives turn up their noses. The Polish delicatessen, which is bringing a new experience to British palates, was almost completely unknown; Polish speech was an unfamiliar sound on the streets; and the Polish joke, vigorous and usually smut-free, was not an increasingly familiar part of conversation.
The Polish arrivals have given a new confidence to the British public by refusing to pretend that the past is irrelevant, by sharing its scepticism about the ambitions of the EU and multiculturalism; the latter being a concept that could have extinguished their sense of nation, if they had embraced it, during the 135 years Poland was excluded from the map of Europe. These new Poles may not speak a word of English as they jump off the bus. But they are ready for anything and determined to work hard. Unlike the newcomers from other Eastern European countries they have an existing social structure in Polish parishes, which provide them with spiritual sustenance and familiar surroundings, with information about jobs on noticeboards.
For those of us conscious of being part of a Church that is facing a serious crisis because of the tiny number of our young men seeking ordination to the priesthood. the arrival of this new wave of Catholic immigrants, the largest single addition since the Irish in the 19th century, seems the answer to a desperate prayer.
But unlike the priests from the Third World who are filling an increasingly vital role in parish life here by serving as curates while they study before going home again, the Polish clergy come with a clear mission to fulfil. There have been about 100 parishes for their countrymen in England and Wales, as well as others in Scotland, which have been here since Polish army chaplains arrived with their flocks after the Second World War. These parishes were willing to share churches with native Catholics but wary about integrating too closely for fear of compromising their Polishness. This was not just due to obduracy. Such communities stuck closely together because of their lack of English. But, at first, they also expected to be called up to confront the Soviet menace, which had taken over their homeland and was threatening to do the same to western Europe. Our hierarchies accepted their rebuffs. and left them to develop their own way, taking root around the country, with their own churches. social clubs and newspa Pers.
It is to these parishes that the young Polish priests, the fruit of Poland's bulging seminaries, owe their first loyalty when they come here. But the situation is changing. That exclusive Polishness has gradually been watered down as children and grandchildren of the 150.000 who arrived after the war have married into the indigenous population. Today's newcomers are determined to learn English as an aid to getting on as fast as they can.
Our Government's decision to jettison its multicultural policies will also be a major factor. In a speech last week John Reid, the Home Secretary, referred to the need for new schools to provide a Catholic education for Polish children. But such aid will come at a price. There will be no chance of these schools providing lessons in Polish history and culture, as the ambassador for Poland has suggested; it will be up to voluntary schools to provide them as extras on Saturday mornings.
Although there are thought to be little more than a couple of dozen Polish priests fluent enough at present to celebrate Mass in English, co-operation between British and Polish clergy is growing at local level. Both groups are treading cautiously since cultural differences can only be overcome with tact; Poles do not receive Communion in both kinds in Poland; and Christmas Eve is more important for them than Christmas Day. The English can be put off by Polish bluntness, and increasing co-operation between presbyteries and pulpits (still used more in Poland than here) may lead to further friction.
Even at episcopal level there can be strains. Hard-pressed bishops can be understandably exasperated when important work needs to be done and there are priests in their diocese who are subject to superiors elsewhere. They would not be human if they were not occasionally tempted to mutter "over my dead body" at the prospect of a newcomer who doggedly clings to his way of doing things, taking over duties which should be performed by a member of his own clergy.
Yet if the present decline in numbers of local clergy continues to accelerate it is inevitable that others will step in; a priest from Poland is certainly one possible solution to the festering row over the fine church at Chideock in Dorset, which currently has an endowment but no priest. We must face the possibility that in a couple of generations we could find ourselves with cardinal archbishops who have Polish, not Irish, names.
Nevertheless one would like to think that the arrival of the Polish cavalry might bring new confidence to our current hierarchy, whose lukewarm response to proposals for wider use of the Tridentine Rite has been that an expected papal initiative is not necessary here. Cardinal MurphyO'Connor may be right about Westminster, but this is unlikely to be the case elsewhere. Perhaps detailed plans are already in hand to bring into effect the Pope's call in his exhortation, Sacramenturn Caritatis, for not only seminarians to be trained to understand and celebrate the Mass in Latin, but for Latin to be taught to congregations which may have forgotten or never known it so that they recite the more common prayers and sing Gregorian chant. Are pastoral letters being drafted as I write?
David Twiston Davies is the Chief Obituary Writer ofThe Daily Telegraph