“Humanly speaking, it is impossible.”
These are the opening words of an essay by Hilaire Belloc, well-known Catholic pundit of the first half of the 20th century, on the conversion of England. I could write an article entitled “The Restoration of the Church and the Conversion of Any One Country in the World” with the same words. I could also continue in Belloc’s vein: “I do not say impossible in a thousand years, after I know not what transformations and catastrophes, when our civilisation shall have broken down, as every civilisation does in its turn, and when men shall have been taught reality by chastisement. But humanly speaking, it is impossible.”
So what should one do, looking at the state of the Church and formerly Christian nations? Give up?
There is an application from Parkinson’s law that deserves quoting here, albeit I use it somewhat out of context: “The vigour of an institution is in inverse proportion to the magnificence of its buildings”. In other words, the more shiny, oiled and elaborate the bandwagon and the more smoothly it runs along, the more likely are its wheels to fall off. And vice versa.
This applies, in a strange way, to the Church. Let me quote from Warren Carrol, The Building of Christendom: “The battered church of the iron age of the tenth century seems to our constricted vision to have been peculiarly unsuitable for the work of evangelisation. How could the church of Pope John XII [the adulterous teenage son of a robber baron who died violently at 27-Ed.] and the traitorous, murderous bishops of Germany like Frederick of Mainz possibly convert anyone, to say nothing of whole peoples? But all things are possible to God, and the fountains of His grace to His Church are ever-flowing. When the first Christian millennium ended and the second began in the year 1000, no less than six great nations, two at least of prime historical significance for the future, had been brought into Christianity and were on the way to full conversion: Poland, Russia, Hungary, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Their rulers were brought to Christianity not by force, not even by direct pressure, but by persuasion and attraction. It was as though even the half-barbarians on the fringes of iron age Christendom saw in its faith something higher and more beautiful than the generally ugly aspect it was then displaying to the world.”
It is more than once in her history that the Church has shown this human impossibility, doing her great works of conversion when she seemed least ready for it. At the beginning of the 16th century the Church was in a state of advanced decay, like a rotten fruit ready to fall off the tree. The Reformation shook the branch, and for a long time it seemed all the Church could do merely to hold on to some of her traditional lands in the heart of Europe. Yet in that century all of South and Central America were converted to the Faith, a feat that has no equal in Church history.
We need to remember that God uses His instruments for his great works when it is patent that they accomplish His designs, not through their own vigour and ability, but through His grace. All He requires is the wholehearted goodwill of just a few men.
We live in a time when ideology as a driving force in society is almost dead. People are now without purpose and are learning what it is to live their lives without God, in directionless activity that serves only to underscore the emptiness and futility of their existence. They are ripe for conversion.
That God, and more precisely the Mother of God, will bring it about in their good time, I have no doubt whatever.