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An Immigrant Surge in London's Dioceses

Interview With Auxiliary Bishop Hopes of Westminster

LONDON, APRIL 17, 2007 (Zenit) - The recent flux of immigrants into Britain's Catholic community is not only a great challenge, but also a great opportunity for the Church, says an auxiliary bishop of Westminster.

Bishop Alan Hopes, who is responsible for ethnic chaplaincies in the archdiocese, made this comment to us in connection with the release of the Von Hugel Institute's report on the needs of immigrants in London's Catholic community.

The report, entitled "The Ground of Justice," was co-commissioned by the three dioceses in London.

In this interview, Bishop Hopes comments on the effects immigration has had on the Church in London, and throughout the United Kingdom, and how its pastors are struggling with the new challenges presented by the new ethnic communities.

Q: Your responsibilities include coordinating foreign language chaplaincies in London's Archdiocese of Westminster. Have you been surprised by the scale of Catholic immigration recently, especially from Poland and other new European Union member countries?

Bishop Hopes: The U.K.'s government estimated that 15,000 Poles would come here after their country's accession to the European Union in May 2004, but we have had at least 10 times that number in London and South East England alone. So, everyone has been surprised, and now migration is becoming a core part of everyday life.

Last year, 220,000 new migrants came to the U.K., and the government expects 180,000 more each year. We live in a new "global village," and it is one for which the Catholic Church is particularly well-suited.

Q: Why do you say that the Catholic Church in England is particularly well-suited to accept immigrants into its community, and is there any reluctance in some quarters?

Bishop Hopes: Almost alone among English Christian denominations, the Catholic community has been very successful at welcoming people of all social backgrounds within the country and from a huge range of national origins too. This is one of our greatest strengths.

We have excellent roots in the country, but a strong historical memory of former migrations that added energy to our life. These two strands of our experience give me new hope today.

Although we are a united Catholic Church, and a united episcopal conference, bishops have pastoral responsibility for very different geographical areas. My judgment is that there is a broad welcome for immigration, and the form it takes arises from reflection on the needs of particular places which can be so very different, geographically and socially, even within our island.

For my part, I am greatly encouraged that the three Catholic dioceses in London -- Westminster, Southwark and Brentwood -- are now striving to collaborate more closely to support the invaluable work of our ethnic chaplaincies.

Both before and since the research of the Von Hugel team, which our three dioceses jointly commissioned, we have been working very hard to respond to the guidance provided by the Holy See on these issues in its document "Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi" -- "The Love of Christ Toward Migrants."

Q: The Von Hugel Institute's report suggests that in some places the Church has been overwhelmed by the scale of the influx. Would you agree?

Bishop Hopes: What they mean is that some individual priests have been overwhelmed by the numbers and the sheer scale of the need they have had to respond to. This is true, and we know this. This is why the bishops of the three London dioceses commissioned the report, so that we could find new ways to support priests.

We know that we need to find new lay helpers, to coordinate what we already do in a fresh way, and, in time, to find ways in which other bodies can pull their weight as well to support both these overburdened priests and the migrants themselves.

Having said that, the report is clear about the good work that is going on. Indeed, only last week one of its authors told all the ethnic chaplains that the experience of being among them for a year, watching their dedication, had inspired the research team and made them even more proud to be Catholics themselves.

So, there is much hope and much that, in due course, we will be able to do together -- grounded, as it will be, in our existing commitment and enthusiasm.

Q: The report states that the recent influx could be the Church's "greatest threat" or its "greatest opportunity." What are these threats, and how can they be made into opportunities?

Bishop Hopes: I know the research team would prefer simply "opportunity" and "challenge." Immigration is a wonderful opportunity because of the vitality of the faith that migrants bring. The report shows just how devout many of them are and how much they love the Church.

The challenge is, without doubt, a pastoral challenge to make sure that these mostly younger people can have access to the sacraments, Catholic schools and proper pay and living conditions -- in a society which, generally perhaps, regards the Church as old and declining and sometimes out of touch with the young.

It is also a challenge to find fresh ways to support families which have been divided between the U.K. and their countries of origin. The report observes that our ethnic chaplains feel this especially.

But it is important to stress that the needs uncovered by the report are a challenge to all those concerned for the common good -- not just bishops. When pay at work can be as low as Ł2 [$3.87] an hour, a society needs to look into its own heart and ask what is going wrong.

Q: The influx of Catholic immigrants is centered upon London, which is already a global and cosmopolitan city. Do you think its effects will be felt farther afield across the country?

Bishop Hopes: It is already doing so. The other day Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, president of the Scottish bishops' conference, said he would be reflecting on the needs of the large Polish community in Glasgow.

In Crewe, in northwest England, Poles are the fastest growing ethnic minority; in Southampton, on England's southern coast, they represent nearly 15% of the city population, and even in rural areas big changes are taking place as farms and market gardens draw in European migrants to do many jobs that local people no longer want to do. I know there is a very similar picture in Ireland as well; in Dublin, Polish is now said to be the second most-spoken language.

The Von Hugel Institute is now carrying out research in other dioceses across England because bishops have recognized the needs that arise among the people in their care. Immigration is something that concerns us all, and it is here to stay.

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