Page 10, 16th February 2007

16th February 2007
Page 10
Page 10, 16th February 2007 — Britain's new Catholics are facing shameful hardship

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Locations: London, Cambridge


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Britain's new Catholics are facing shameful hardship

The report on new immigrants commissioned by the bishops will shock them, says Francis Davis

The survey of the social and pastoral needs of Catholic migrants in London, which my colleagues and I have just completed, is probably one of the largest surveys of its kind conducted in Europe. It presents a stark, heart-wrenching and challenging insight into the reality of our capital, the nature of the Church today and, conceivably, the lives of thousands of others on farms and in factories from Kent to Kircaldy and Hertfordshire and Essex to the Highlands.

In the course of our research, one priest told us of being called to a South London hospital in the early hours of the morning to find one of his regular parishioners beaten, broken and bleeding. This young man, a migrant, had borrowed money in his home country to travel to London.

He had been promised a job in a restaurant with food and accommodation. Upon arrival, he had discovered that his bed was the floor of the restaurant at closing time, his food came from the leftovers in the kitchen, and his days consisted of 18 hours of cleaning and fetching. After he lost some money in a card game, he missed payments on the loan which had got him to Britain. As the money had been borrowed informally, the retribution of the lenders had been fast and fierce.

In some communities the fear of "employment agencies" and "lenders" such as these was so intense that some did not feel able to fill in our questionnaires, though they still shared their stories in conversation. Nevertheless, over the last nine months our team has met Mass-going Catholics in London from 77 different nationalities. These included those who are succeeding in the City, those struggling in work and those who have found themselves homeless. Our brief, given to us by the bishops of Westminster, Brentwood and Southwark, was to explore the social and pastoral needs of Catholic migrants and tease out their hopes and expectations of the Church.

Both north and south of the River Thames, we have discovered a diverse Church. Ethnic chaplaincies for national communities from around the world welcome Africans and Filipinos, Latin Americans and South Asians.

Some mainstream parishes have had their liturgy and life transformed by the new demography of London Christianity. Polish churches burst at the seams as young women and men kneel out in the street when the pews are full.

We have also found a Church struggling to keep up with the pace of change and the impact of the new needs that it is uncovering. Whether your diocesan bishop is Archbishop McDonald, Bishop McMahon or Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, the story is the same: parish and chaplaincy clergy are facing a new maelstrom, ministering in some cases to congregations where threequarters of worshippers are undocumented, illegally in the country, or have expired work permits. These "irregulars", who number in their thousands, are among the most devout of Catholics seeking solace in a Church that they trust more than any other British institution or association. In fact, the poorer they are, and the more vulnerable their lives, the more they turn to their bishops and their Church in search of hope and solidarity.

The Treasury's economic projections are predicated on 180,000 new migrants coming to our shores every year. We have found that members of London's Catholic migrant community are among the poorest of the capital's citizens. Thirty per cent of the East Europeans and Asians we met were being paid less than £5 an hour. For Latin Americans and Africans, this was worse still, with 40 per cent of those surveyed receiving under £5. Migrant women were even worse off. Many respondents said that they knew they were being paid less than their British colleagues (who sometimes treated them badly).

With these illegal levels of pay go illegal expectations of the hours that these migrants should endure. Half of those surveyed reported that they were working more than 40 hours per week and 10 per cent more than 56 hours per week.

Many have three jobs, have to send money home to families reliant on their earnings, and work in environments where health and safety considerations are a rare commodity. For those under 18, the loss of a job, even if they are European citizens, does not give them access to social benefits or other welfare help. It leaves them homeless and, according to both homeless young Poles and Catholic voluntary agencies, exposed to harsh policing that some have described as "a new racism".

One Polish woman observed that in Britain "each day is followed by another similar day, and there is no free time for anything. It's only work, work, work. That's what most of the people do. After 10 hours at work you return home shattered and just want to go to bed."

But, for many, home provides no relief either. We met Marcos, who described how, after long days of working, he returned to his dwelling near the Elephant and Castle to share a kitchen and a bathroom with nine others. Some we met were sharing a bathroom with more than 15 others while others were sleeping in beds "in shifts" in order to make rental costs affordable. But if this is the growing reality of the Church in London by what means do these newest of its members find hope?

Some, of course, do become established in Britain. Most of those we spoke to had every intention of staying for the long term. Others, though, look to the Church as the place where they can learn skills of integration, might find a path to language skills, could get help with job-seeking and accommodation. These practical needs are more often than not combined with a strong attachment to the Mass. Even more strongly, they are coupled with a fear that the Church will give them only "rhetorical solidarity": words of spiritual support but no deeds.

Our report now sits on the desks Of London's bishops, who have been heard to praise the memory of the late Cardinal Henry Manning. That famous champion of the Irish migrant poor condemned "the sin of exacting the most rent while doing the least repairs" and defended the rights of labour over capital. Soon the report will have found its way to the presbyteries of every London parish priest, not least those struggling with the new world in which the Church in the capital finds itself.

The migrants ask: "Will our bishops mobilise funds, people, charities, government and their voices in the service of those who turn to them in their hour of need?" Over the coming weeks, the bishops will have the chance to reflect and respond. It has taken episcopal confidence and courage to commission research and to support its publication. It will, no doubt, need the same confidence and courage to take some of the actions for which the neediest members of London's Catholic community have now called.

Francis Davis is the director of the Centre for Faith in Society at the Von Hugel Institute, St Edmund's College, Cambridge. The Ground of Justice report is available free of charge from

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