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.
“Most 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 community there.
“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?”
Polish 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 one.
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 clientele.
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