A blueprint for the conversion of England
Christendom Awake by Fr Aidan Nichols,O.P. (T&T Clark, £14.95, ISBN: 0 567 08673 9)
Reviewed by Eric Hester
Just occasionally a book appears that makes one sing with joy and urge everyone else to read it. This is such a book. Some books are described as "seminal". This book is seminal in the literal sense that it will sow seeds that ought to grow. The book's subtitle - "On re-energising the Church in culture " - gives its exciting intention. One of the greatest Catholic minds of our generation applies itself to working out what we ought to do to convert England from its present apathetic state. But Fr Nichols wears his formidable learning very lightly and most of the book is easy but profound reading.
Fr Nichols argues for a renaissance of doctrine in the teaching and preaching of the Faith necessary to show that Revelation is the greatest truth ever known. He wants what he calls a "re-enchanting" of the liturgy so that by language, gesture, image and music it brings before us the beauty of the Kingdom. He wants, too, a recovery of metaphysics, so as to demonstrate how the bits and pieces of ideas in common currency are no substitute for a coherent philosophy of the created world. Fr Nichols is especially good on the need to renew Christian political thinking which, he rightly shows, is not just about "favouring the poor" but must deal with the wider question of combining order and spontaneity within a spacious civil life under God. As he puts it graphically, we don't opt for the poor so that they can have 1.5 colour TVs to watch soap operas.
The chapter on the revivification of the family is particularly fine, Fr Nichols showing the great importance of the home and family life and indicating the great enemies it now has. He writes of the need to resacrilise art and architecture so that they can again bring us echoes of the divine order as well as of the meanings men make within it. He wants a recovering of the Catholic reading of the scriptures and, above all, of the Gospels on the understanding that we shall find there what Liturgy and doctrine tells us about Christ.
There are also stimulating chapters on feminism and Religious life on both of which Fr Nichols finds the need for a great deal of rethinking. Though a number of these chapters were originally separate articles or talks, there is an essential unity about the book. St Paul warns us that:" If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle?" To be honest, in recent years, the Catholic Church in England has given an uncertain sound. We have been apologetic in the wrong sense of that word and we have watched as our country has become more and more pagan and our own Catholic congregations have shrunk. Fr Nichols's trumpet gives a very certain sound but it is not a strident trumpet and the tune he plays is melodic; nor does he try to hit you on the head with the trumpet.
He does, though, make us all clear about our responsibilities. On leadership in the Church he says:" Naturally, in a desacrilised civilisation, civil society tends to drag down the Church to its own level - hence the confusion which reigns in many Church leaderships in matters not only external, on the interface with the state, but internal as well." On Religious life he writes:" One of the strangest features of the decline in Religious life in many areas of the Western Church - at least to those who are strangers to the study of social pathology - is the tendency of its representatives to deny that anything is wrong at all."
This book is very clear that our mission should be not just the conversion of individuals but the conversion of England, of the English nation. It is a very important book and, if you read only one book on religious matters this year, I urge you to make this that book. Give a copy as a Christmas present to your priest and to your bishop. Every Catholic school needs at least one copy in its school library and discussion about the book could be stimulating in-service training for a school. Ask your public library to obtain a copy. This book has already stimulated so much interest that there is a web-site devoted to it: http://christendom-awake.org/
Fr Nichols has been described as "England's foremost Catholic theologian " by John Saward who himself might have a claim to that title. From Fr Nichols's prolific pen we have had such classics as The Panther and the Hind. He is a most distinguished convert who is currently Prior of the Dominican community at Blackfriars in Cambridge. The book carries an endorsement from Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna. The publication of Christendom Awake might prove to be a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church in England. Let us hope and pray that it does. We could do no better than use an old prayer quoted by Fr Nichols:
O, Merciful God, let the glorious intercession of thy saints assist us; particularly the most blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Thy only -begotten Son, and The holy apostles Peter and Paul, to whose patronage we humbly recommend this country. Be mindful of our fathers Eleutherius, Celestine and Gregory, bishops of the holy city; of Augustine, Columba and Aidan, who delivered to us inviolate the faith of the holy Roman Church. Remember our holy martyrs, who shed their blood for Christ; especially our first martyr, St Alban, and Thy most glorious Bishop St Thomas of Canterbury. Remember all those holy monks and hermits, all those holy virgins and widows who once made this an Island of Saints, illustrious by their glorious merits and virtues. Let not their memory perish from before Thee, O Lord, but let their supplication enter daily into Thy sight; and do thou, who didst so often spare Thy sinful people for the sake of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, now, also, moved by the prayers of our fathers reigning with Thee, have mercy on us, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance; and suffer not those souls to perish, which Thy Son hath Redeemed with His most Precious Blood.
Fr Nichols's comment on this prayer is typical of the style of the whole book and is a fitting note on which to end: "One might think that prayer contains too many instances of the words "holy" and "glorious", but a little more holy glory would not come amiss in a Church which too readily lets itself be seen as a public corporation to be administered rather than a bridge between this spot of earth, on the one hand, and on the other, heaven with all its celestial powers."
This article first appeared in the Catholic Times of 9 Jan 2000
Version: 14th February 2008