In his Pastoral Letter for Trinity Sunday, Cardinal Heenan makes the point that a falling off of Mass attendance does not of itself imply a decline in true religion. It may well be, the Cardinal argues, that those who no longer go regularly to church formerly professed a religion that was not "real".
The point raises profound theological and historical issues, and reminds us once more that "religion" was not a word used by Our Lord Himself. It is, if quite properly, an anthropomorphic description of the outward manifestation of that inner Faith by which, and by which alone, we will finally be judged. Such faith makes itself known, primarily to God Himself, not in external forms but by that long Love that makes or mars what St John of the Cross refers to as the evening of our loves, or the moment between empty action and contemplative reality.
The present time, moreover, is a peculiarly testing one for "real", as opposed to counterfeit religion. For it is infinitely more difficult to live one's faith at all times in the absence of endless rules and regulations, than to maintain a perfunctory compliance with such rules merely in order to "fulfil the obligation." And yet the latter was often, in days gone by, the yardstick for whether or not a person "practised" his religion.
Now we are thrown on to our own devices, as were the early Christians who knew nothing of sins that were "mortal" or only "venial". Yet their faith was terrifyingly real; their devotion almost fanatically intense; their loyalty heroically virtuous. It was only later that an element crept in, namely lukewarmness, that is denounced so vehemently as being unpleasing to God in the Book of the Apocalypse.
It may sound regressive to call for a return to the "Garden of the Soul" type of religious observance. But this is a testing time for English Catholics who may well wish to remind themselves of how Bishop Challoner managed to pass through his own testing time in the arid days of the eighteenth century when it might have seemed that not only religion but even the faith itself had died for ever in this land.
The faith in England has had many such stringent times of supreme test. St Thomas a Becket may have been an obstinate and in some ways undiplomatic man. But his struggle for the Church must be seen against the conditions of the twelfth and not the twentieth century. Whatever faults he may have had as a man with quasipolitical aspirations, his particular crown of martyrdom is unique in the annals of our island history. His religion was as real as his faith when the supreme test presented itself.
Cardinal Heenan's words should give us furiously to/think, particularly on Trinity Sunday. For it is a feast that did not spread to the universal Church until the fourteenth century. And the place from which it spread, the place where it first came into use, was the Canterbury of none other than Thomas a Becket.
We do not always have time to think of the implications of passing, as we are now, through a painful period of transition. The objective of renewal was not meant to jettison the time honoured traditions on which the Church has developed. Cardinal Newman taught us how doctrine develops without the sacrifice of eternal truths.
The English Courts of Law do the same thing: they constantly restate and redefine, as exigencies demand, the basic legal and equitable verities on which the whole system of justice is based. But some people won't go to court, because they have never had any real confidence in justice. Others turn away from going to church because they have lost any real confidence in religion.
Have they, in fact, lost confidence in themselves? Have they given up their relentless search for God even if, like the Hound of Heaven, it means fleeing Him down the labyrinthine ways? Thomas a Kempis, if he says it once, says it a thousand times: the test of faith is not our response to religion when all is cosy and favourable.
It must be a response that is a true "imitation of Christ" who was truly God and truly man, yet offered Himself naked on the Cross to his heavenly Father, so that he had not a shred of anything physical nor a single further drop of blood to offer, that we may all come to know and serve Him. But He did not expect us to understand until He had sent His own Spirit of Truth to make all things plain.
On this Sunday, it is to the Triune God of the eternal Trinity that we ask for a plenitude of "real" religion; a true revival of faith in a world of unbelief, including the unbelief of those of us who may still attend church regularly but are ever in danger of a pharisaic view of the statistics that seem to show that "religion" is on the wane.