Flickers of Faith in a Post-Christian Land
The guide at St. Mungo’s Cathedral in Glasgow, a centerpiece of Catholic Scotland, looked startled.
He was a tall young man, an American Protestant with a newly minted PhD in medieval history. We were standing by the grave of St Mungo in the cathedral crypt, and I was pointing to the ceiling.
“That’s the high altar directly above us, right?” I asked.
“Now how did you know that?” he countered, looking amused.
“Because this was built by Catholics,” I said simply. “Therefore it would have to have relics to sanctify the ground.”
“Yes, well there were all kinds of bishops buried all around here until it was all cleaned out at the Reformation,” he said, looking entertained.
“Do you know why Catholics – and Orthodox, and Coptics, and in fact all of the old Christian faiths – put saints’ relics under altars?” I asked him.
“Uh, to stimulate traffic and bring pilgrims – and their money?” he smiled waggishly.
“No,” I insisted seriously, “Do you know how the whole relic thing began? I mean, in ancient Rome?”
He looked confused.
“It was during the persecutions,” I explained. “The Christians who were martyred in the arenas – you know, fed to the lions? — their remains were given to their friends and family.”
He looked skeptical.
“It was the Romans’ policy. You know, like Pilate giving the body of Christ to Joseph of Arimathea?”
“The Christians who were martyred in the arenas – you know, fed to the lions? — their remains were given to their friends and family.”
The Biblical allusion worked. He nodded cautiously.
“Right. So, the remains were brought back to Christians’ homes, and buried in secret. Then, an altar was erected because it was then considered to be hallowed ground,” I explained. ”The early Christians reasoned that if anyone was in heaven, it would have been these people, who had died for Christ. Their bones sanctified the ground. These became the core of Christian house churches – many of which still exist today.”
He nodded again, fascinated by the story.
“And where would these be?” he asked.
“In Rome,” I said.
“And so the reason a thousand years of Scottish Catholic bishops wanted to be buried next to St Mungo,” I continued. “was because they wanted their bodies to be in hallowed ground, as they waited for the Resurrection. That would be before John Knox, a Catholic priest in the 1500s, decided otherwise.”
“Right,” he said, without irony.
“Did they dig up St. Mungo, too?” I asked, indicating the massive slab on the ancient cathedral floor.
“Uh, no,” he said, nonplussed. “We think he’s still in there.”
“Then,” I replied, “this is still hallowed ground.”
To his utter amazement, I made the sign of the cross. Then I silently begged St. Mungo to intercede for this young man, before we continued our tour of the Cathedral.
“The reason a thousand years of Scottish Catholic bishops wanted to be buried next to St Mungo,” I continued. “was because they wanted their bodies to be in hallowed ground, as they waited for the Resurrection. That would be before John Knox, a Catholic priest in the 1500s, decided otherwise.”
Scotland is a sparsely-populated, cold, wet country at the edge of Europe. Its politics have always been intimately intertwined with its powerful southern neighbor, England. Whatever the merits of the current debate on Scottish independence, most acknowledge that the financial ties between Edinburgh and London are the country’s lifeblood.
Today, Scotland has a tiny, super-wealthy class of financiers, lawyers and aristocrats, an educated middle class and a large under-class of Scots struggling with addictions and living on UK welfare benefits and petty crime. Its industrial base – once the envy of the world – is gone.
In matters of religion, however, Scotland has a fascinating story. It may surprise some, but for a thousand years Scotland was a deeply devout Catholic country, converted by Irish monks in the 500s.
But the 1500’s Scottish Revolution — the traditional term ‘Reformation’ does not do that conflagration justice — touched off a tidal wave of rebellion throughout Christendom. Over the ensuing centuries, the ‘ripple effect’ extended around the world.
First, to America with Scottish emigrants and from there to the Far East as Scottish Presbyterians worked assiduously to spread their version of the Faith – Bible-based, puritan and fiercely anti-Catholic. (The ‘Scottish Rite’ of the Masonic cult is a case in point.)
Regardless of where it took root, Presbyterianism stressed hard work and thrift. It also taught ‘pre-destination’—that God had chosen His favorites from the beginning of time. (How to spot the ‘elect’? Stern adherence to Calvinist ideas, and worldly success.)
Presbyterianism was an ideology perfect for the industrial revolution, and it spawned success stories from Andrew Carnegie in the 19th century to the economic ‘miracle’ of Presbyterian South Korea in the 20th century.
In recent decades, it has morphed into the world-wide ‘mega-church’ phenomenon. What some disparagingly term ‘Christianity-lite’, this new version is short on doctrine and long on socializing, perfect for millions of Christians set adrift from their ancient Faith.
In recent decades, Presbyterianism has morphed into the world-wide ‘mega-church’ phenomenon. What some disparagingly term ‘Christianity-lite’, this new version is short on doctrine and long on socializing, perfect for millions of Christians set adrift from their ancient Faith.
But what of the country which threw off this incandescent wave of reformed Christianity?
Ironically, back at Ground Zero for the English-speaking Protestant Revolution, Scotland today is virtually without religion, and some say, without hope.
Fifteen hundred years of Christianity preserves an outward aspect of civilization, but Scots say their country is deeply troubled. Presbyterianism has been replaced by fashionable atheism, especially among the elite. Among the working classes, families are simply failing to form.
Addictions to alcohol and drugs are widespread. Among all classes, contraception and abortion are the norm. The number of children under 16 is projected to rise by only 3% — mostly due to immigration — while the number of people over 65 is projected to increase by a whopping 63%.
‘Church of Scotland’ churches are converted to community centers in the villages, or discotheques in the cities. Most Scots, it seems, have reverted to paganism, and are choosing to slowly self-destruct.
But what of Scottish Catholics – the vast majority of whom trace their ancestry to Irish fleeing the Famine of the 1840s?
Demographics and anecdotal reporting by Scottish clergy tell a dismal story – decades of poor catechism mean that only the oldest Catholics still attend Mass, and bishops are preparing to close parishes. The recent scandal of a predatory homosexual Cardinal being banned from his see by Pope Benedict in his last days in Rome has only added to the hopelessness.
So, are we witnessing the end of Christianity in Scotland?
Actually, no. In fact, the most fascinating story is emerging, in the most unlikely of places. For, largely ignored and unacknowledged, the truth is that Scotland is witnessing the flickers of a Catholic renaissance. In scattered monasteries, parishes and universities, young people especially are groping their way through the darkness, back to the Church.
In a land which drove Catholics from its shores half a millennia ago, there is still Christian hope.
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Largely ignored and unacknowledged, the truth is that Scotland is witnessing the flickers of a Catholic renaissance. In scattered monasteries, parishes and universities, young people especially are groping their way through the darkness, back to the Church.