The caravan of God
Vatican II put the People of God before the hierarchy as the controlling image for the pilgrim Church. The formation of an active laity in England and Wales is here charted by the Archbishop of Liverpool, who has had such influence on so many lay Catholics.
It will seem a source of irony to some that my earliest attempt to join a Catholic organisation — like my first approach for acceptance as a candidate for the priesthood — was rejected. I had sought in 1940 to join a section of the Young Christian Workers which had been newly established in the seminary of my priestly formation. I was told firmly by the section’s membership that my background and experience were unsuitable.
I had been enthused by a visit to the college by the late Fr Vincent Rochford, a Westminster priest then working as a curate in London’s East End. Not merely had he opened before us something of the vision of Josef Cardijn, the Flemish priestfounder of the Jocist movement (Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne), he had also opened his clerical waistcoat (or lifted his high necked jersey?) to reveal a secret red shirt. Here was commitment. I felt that I should respond. Evidently the decision of others was that this should not be achieved by my joining the movement. A restricted interpretation of “the mission of like to like” ruled me out.
For the ensuing years of my seminary course I had to content myself with the dynamic but terrifying lectures in sociology to which we were subjected by a Maltese Dominican, Fr Paolo Zammit OP, a refugee from Mussolini and the Angelicum in Rome. They were sufficiently dynamic to have remained with me when 20 years later I was engaged, as a peritus, or expert, in drafting sections of Vatican II’s document on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes. They were rendered terrifying not because of their content but by the fact that their machine-gun-burst delivery was punctuated by the Dominican’s periodic descent from his rostrum to demand intelligent audience participation from amongst his students.
My first appointment as a priest was to London W8, where at that time there did not seem to be an obvious demand for the Young Christian Workers in Kensington High Street. Once the flying-bombs had ceased, I gave expression to my zeal by trying to persuade returned evacuees to become Boy Scouts. I must admit that my newly-acquired khaki uniform shirt, surmounted by a Roman collar, compared unfavourably with Fr Rochford’s red shirt.
Thanks to my kindly Liverpool-born parist priest, I was able to sport on a Saturday afternoon the pink and white stripes of the Rosslyn Park club for whom I played rugby football. But it scarcely identified me with the pink radicals of that period, and it was for one season only. The summons which then took me to Archbishop’s House, Westminster, held out little prospect of my living and working alongside the poor: perhaps I should add “in those days” and even “relatively speaking”.
To be fair, most of my subsequent interest in the Church’s social teaching — though doubtless related to the rudiments forced upon me by Fr Zammit — came from the Archbishop who ordained me and whose secretary I became. In the case of Cardinal Bernard Griffin there were undoubtedly some who felt that his back ground and experience rendered him in their eyes unsuited to Westminster. It was he who talked to me about “the dignity of human labour” and the stresses, strains and joys of a Catholic working-class home.
Historians will in future years show how much the Church in England owes to Bernard Griffin’s knowledge of social justice during the bloodless political and social revolution which followed the Second World War. Churchill had declined to meet him, as “he will want to talk to me about Catholic schools, and education is `Rab’s’ thing” (referring to R. A. Butler). Attlee, Bevin, Bevan and the rest recognised the working knowledge and integrity of the religious leader with whom they must deal in their widespread nationalisationof social services and in their implementation of the Beveridge Report. It was an invaluable introduction to public and political life for a young priest — better even than a red shirt.
Even more to the point where what we called “the apostolate” was concerned, my Archbishop introduced me to Patrick Keegan, just four years older than I and already hailed as the founder of the Young Christian Workers in Britain. He had been the leader of the YCW section started by Fr Rimmer in Wigan before the war. As a Catholic organisation it had seemed exactly right for Lancashire working-class youth. It appealed both to their concern for social justice and their inherited spirit of collaboration with their priests. Hitherto this had been expressed in the “churchy” concerns of guilds, heavily dependent upon clerical inspiration and approbation. Now the call was to give witness to Gospel values in the world of work.
When I met him for the first time, Pat was newly released from the Royal Air Force. I suspect that his admirer, Bishop David Mathew, had a hand in speeding up the process. I went to the re-launch rally in Westminster Cathedral Hall with my Archbishop, and still recall the enthusiasm with which his words were greeted when he hailed the newly-returned members of the YCW with the Pauline words, “You are my joy and my crown”.
This represented a considerable advance in terminology where the laity were con cerned. Some 20 years earlier Pope Pius XI had referred to the lay members of Catholic organisations as “the auxiliaries of the clergy”. With the subsequent establishment of Catholic Action as the official apostolic movement in the Church, the designation had moved up one notch: before going to defend our freedom in the war, the lay apostles had achieved recognition by Pius XII as “the auxiliaries of the hierarchy”.
Possibly because, as a community, we had for so long been treated as an element foreign to the mainstream of life in our own country, we Catholics in England — at that stage it seemed important to resist the “Roman” in our designation — were immensely conscious of our patriotism during the war and our integration subsequently in the life of the nation. We paraded our VCs, MPs, judges and trade union leaders with more than ordinary pride. Let no one push us into the corner now. It also had a profound effect on the shape and purpose of our Catholic organisations.
Out of the catacombs
No longer was the priority to safeguard our minority rights and our reasonable freedom of worship. Now the emphasis was on the formation of our lay people to be effective witnesses to their faith within their professional and working lives. It was not just the wisdom needed to determine whether to make the sign of the cross publicly when saying grace before meals in a restaurant. Now the challenge was — to use the word we shared with the Communist Party — to penetrate society with our Catholic faith and teaching. Already it was plain that Belloc’s prophecy that “we shall outbreed them” was suspect. Now we must be good citizens, good professional men and women, knowledgeable about our faith and seeking to share it with others. Frank Sheed spoke of his faith flowing down his arm and out of his pen: a welcome variation from the shedding of the life-blood of the martyrs.
We heard nothing at that time about a pluralist society and precious little about ecumenism. That can be understood, remembering the situation from which Catholics in these islands were extracting themselves: a prison, where almost everything except religious faith has been removed from the prisoner, is one of the more difficult places in which to promote the sharing involved in Christian unity. In the post-war years, when the Catholic community emerged from the catacombs of the past, the focus was upon the need for formation — doctrinal, social, spiritual and professional. This coloured the aims and methods of the Catholic lay organisations.
Whilst the YCW persevered in training its members for Christian social justice, on the shop-floor, in the office and in the family, guilds were developed for almost every profession where Catholics existed in adequate numbers: doctors, pharmacists, journalists, university graduates and students, teachers, printers, even magistrates (until the Lord Chancellor’s office indicated that this was pushing denomina tionalism too far). We proudly counted the number of Catholics in local government. When I arrived in Liverpool in 1976 it was to find ex-YCW members in the mayoralty of Liverpool, St Helens and Wigan. But by then the numbers game had ceased to hold its relevance.
Looking back, there are two significant moments I would wish to remember. In the 1950 Holy Year it was suggested that there should be held in Rome an international congress for lay representatives from each country. At that time, to be given the somewhat expensive privilege of representing our Church at a gathering overseas depended to a great extent upon the capacity of the chosen individual to pay his (or, more commonly, her) way. Cardinal Griffin was seriously ill at the time but those bishops who were guiding me gave me the go-ahead to approach all the lay organisations and secure their election of three or four delegates who might represent us.
Such democracy was unheard of, and frankly disapproved of by members of the old guard who felt challenged and displaced. The meeting was held and no less than 20 delegates were chosen for the congress in Rome the following year. But who was to pay? There was much personal sacrifice and generosity, but in the end there was still a gap. Rashly I undertook to secure the money: there was no national funding at that stage. We approached the critical date. I had exhausted all sources, when without warning a cheque arrived through the post from an unknown benefactor for the precise amount wanted and for “use at your absolute discretion”.
I obtained a smiling nod from my Archbishop’s sickbed, and the delegation set out for Rome. The journey was overland and there was no hotel accommodation save in Rome. There a permanent committee (COPECIAL) was established which paved the way for the Holy See’s Laity Council today. Pat Keegan was appointed to its number by Pope Pius XII. More important, the delegation regathered on their return to London and set up what soon became the National Council for the Lay Apostolate.
My second selective and significant reminiscence is from 1964. We had reached the third session of the Second Vatican Council. Already it was evident that the whole perception of the Church was changing. The constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, was at hand. Patrick Keegan and I were serving together in the Commission for the Lay Apostolate: he as a lay auditor, and I as a peritus. Together we had been drawn into the joint commission which twelve months later was to produce the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes. Josef Cardijn, a hearing-aid in each ear, still in his old woollen cardigan, had been made a cardinal. I was working in subcommittee on family life with a Polish bishop called Wojtyla. And Portsmouth for me lay 12 months away.
Now the focus was on membership of the Church, clerical or lay, with equality of dignity but an hierarchical structure, with different vocations but all called by bapt ism into the life and mission of the Church. We began to hear less about the lay apostolate: it was enough to be a lay person, a member of Christ’s faithful neople. All this was some 25 years before Pope John Paul II’s Christifideles Laici; but already we were speaking of “Gospelinspired lay people”, the phrase canonised by Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi ten years after the Council’s completion.
The lay auditors, for the most part drawn from international Catholic organisations in different parts of the world, met to choose one of their number to speak in their name in the first main debate on the future decree on the lay apostolate. The lot fell on Patrick, and it was with an immense sense of responsibility that he prepared himself for his task. On 13 October 1964 he was called to the speaker’s podium in St Peter’s to address the bishops gathered in council, the first layman to have done such a thing for more than a thousand years. Patrick, the millworker’s son from Wigan, was the leader of the first team of laymen which I had helped to form in the early 1950s and whose chaplain I had been. It was an overwhelming moment for me.
His message was plain and acclaimed with enthusiasm by the “venerabiles patres” whom he addressed. His theme was what we used to call irreverently “the old one-two”: a plea for understanding priests “who bring Christ to us through the sacraments and the gospels”. Those work ing in the lay movements, he said, needed the priest to equip them spiritually to consecrate the world. There was much more about the need for a regular exchange between the bishops and the laity: “it is for us as lay people to bring to our pastors our experience of the needs of the world in which we live, and to seek from them guidance in our endeavours to respond to those needs”. It is hard for us today to realise the pioneering character of such words at that time.
A few nights later, at the Columbus Hotel in Rome, a few of us (mostly bishops from the English-speaking world who had known Pat over the years) gathered with him to celebrate the achievement of the movement he had led and which had been recognised in this way. As we went into the meal, we received a message from London to the effect that another member of our team, Maurice Foley, by then a Member of Parliament, had been given his first ministerial post in the Wilson government. Everything seemed to be happening. The celebration which followed was genuine and uninhibited.
Towards midnight Archbishop Guilford Young of Hobart, Tasmania, rose to his feet and in that forceful rasping voice took off on the subject of the Caravan of God. It was more eloquent than all the descriptions given to the Church in chapter one of Lumen Gentium. He described in detail the terrain through which God’s caravan had passed, would pass in the future: urban dwellings, dusty desert, inner-city squalor, sparse mission-land, ecclesiastical grandeur. At times it was an uncertain road, but always the cry was “Forward”. The turning of the wheels spelt out revolution, but have no fear, the axle was firm, unbreakable.
“Gillie” Young had little description of those inside the caravan, which seemed to take on the character of the Ark of the Covenant. Sometimes the unseen driver cracked the whip, sometimes he pulled on the reins to slow things down. Some of the people — the People of God — raced ahead trying to increase the speed. Others held on at the back, digging in their heels almost as a brake. And on either side vast numbers held on somehow, like mad, intent only on staying with the caravan. But always the cry was “Forward, Forward . . .”. The oratory was worthy of Cardijn himself.
This was one of the memories I shared with Patrick Keegan as I sat by his bedside two months ago, days only before his holy death. Pope John Paul had sent him a message of comfort and affection, and I asked Pat for a message in reply. “Tell them all to keep a sense of the Church”, he said, “and of the relationships which are supportive, apostolic and true.” Then he added: “Tell them I am madly in love with my Beloved, and raring to go.”
The Tablet, 19 October 1990