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Immigrants Swell Britain’s Catholic Faithful
BY JOANNA BOGLEREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
HULL, England — The number of
practicing Catholics in Britain now exceeds the number of practicing Anglicans
for the first time since the Reformation.
Catholic parishes, especially in the
major cities, report a major upturn in the number of people attending Mass.
But the figures do not reflect a
sudden revival of faith among British people; they are due to a sudden influx
of people from traditionally Catholic countries, especially Poland, which is
transforming British life.
When Poland joined the European
Union, it meant that Polish people could travel and seek work in any member
country — and thousands immediately looked to Britain. They arrive by train and
by bus, often with incomplete papers, no proper job papers, and knowing little
English. Many have settled and found work — although others are sleeping on the
street, and have difficulties making new lives.
Poland is not the only country
sending this new wave of immigrants to Britain — many new immigrants from
Africa are also Catholic. They are joining the waves of immigrants who started
to arrive in the 1960s and ’70s, initially from the Caribbean and later from
the predominantly Islamic countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Britain now has
very large Muslim communities in all major cities, and the Islamic birthrate is
high, with Islam the predominant religion in many districts.
But the new “Catholic wave” of
immigrants is making a specific and dramatic impact on a British Catholic
community which had been predominantly English and Irish.
In the diocese of Middlesborough, in
the north of England, plans for the closure and merger of some parishes will
have to be put on hold, as the numbers for Mass attendance have soared.
“Let me give the example of St.
Wilfred’s Church in Hull” said Father William Massie, who works in the West
Hull parishes. “It was rebuilt in 1966 after wartime bombing, but almost
immediately — with social changes and people moving out of the city center to
the suburbs and so on — numbers went right down, and 12 years ago I would say
Mass for, at most, about 60 people. Now, I say a morning Mass for a combined
English/Polish congregation of about 200, and the evening Polish Mass attracts
some 250 more.”
But there can be tensions. Poles
need their own priests in order to go to confession, and they are often shocked
at the attitudes found among British Catholics.
Poles go to confession once a month. And they are conscientious about not going
to Communion if they haven’t been to confession for some while,” said Father
Massie. “They are very devout, they are faithful, and it’s impressive. I work
with a Polish priest, who will regularly hear confessions for 1½ hours, and
travels to other towns to take his turn at hearing confessions for the Polish
“Contrast this with British
parishes, where confession either hardly happens at all or there is what is
known as ‘Rite 2.5,’ which is an evening with prayers, where people are
encouraged to line up and whisper just a general expression of sorrow, or
perhaps mention one sin, to a priest standing by the altar, who then gives an
abbreviated form of absolution,” he added.
“Polish people have started to
notice that things are done differently here,” Father Massie said. “Do we want
the Poles to start to imitate slack British approaches?”
parishes were established during and immediately after the Second World War to
cater to the needs of Polish ex-servicemen and refugees, but they now find they
are suddenly thriving with hundreds of new parishioners as new arrivals
gravitate to them. “We have five Masses every Sunday, and they are all full,
very full,” said Father Wladyslaw Wyszowadzki of Christ the King Polish parish
in Balham, South London. “The young people come — they mostly find work and are
very happy. Their children tend to learn English very quickly. Some settle into
Catholic schools, which have been glad to receive them. There are now Polish
children in the Catholic parish schools across South London — the Holy Ghost
primary school here in Balham, St. Anselm’s in Tooting, and the schools in
Brixton, Streatham and Wimbledon.”
But Father Stephen Langridge, parish
priest of Holy Ghost Church in Balham — the local English parish — added an
important fact that the immigrant Catholics may not be aware of: “Many Polish
people do not know that Catholic schools in Britain are free — there are no
fees to pay,” he said. “They don’t understand this, so they send their children
to the state schools, which is a pity. The Catholic community must reach out
and be welcoming.”
There can be problems where Poles
form their own communities, having little or no link with British parish life,
while at a different level other young Polish people are simply confused during
their first weeks and months, and may initially go to an Anglican church
thinking — because of its stained glass and grandeur — that it is a Catholic
Other new immigrants arrive to find
only confusion — they are exploited by bogus job offers or by poor working
conditions, and cannot find anywhere to stay. London’s Cardinal Hume Centre,
founded to care for young homeless people, is having to cope with this new
And the new situation is presenting
a challenge to a Church which for many years has been facing a shortage of
vocations to the priesthood, and declining numbers of young people attending
Mass and taking an active part in Catholic life.
“We’ve had young Polish men, working
on building sites or similar jobs, who have seen the religious situation in
Britain and reassessed their own faith and what it means to them; some have
come to think about a vocation to the priesthood or religious life as a
result,” said Father Stephen Langridge, who is also vocation director for the
Diocese of Southwark. But will these young people offer their services to the
British Catholic community or minister to their own compatriots, either in
Britain or in Poland?
Joanna Bogle writes from