Pope Visit: British Catholics Anxious But No Longer Outsiders

It is almost impossible to conceive the change in the position of Roman Catholicism in England over the past 50 years. In the 1960s, when I was serving as an altar boy at mass, to be a Catholic was to be an outsider, a group outside the mainstream of British life, separate, slightly alien. As if to emphasise the distinctness, our parish church was weirdly out of keeping with the rest of our suburban town: an enormous, garish, red-brick Italianate structure complete with campanile and a large statue of Christ on the roof. On feast days we processed around the grounds behind a plaster Virgin Mary, praying fervently for the conversion of England as we went. My Anglican father was one of those we described as our separated brethren. There were no British Catholic role models, so when John F Kennedy – young, personable, dynamic and Catholic – became president of the United States, we were ecstatic. He was one of our own. Ironically, at the very moment we were celebrating, Kennedy himself was assuring American Protestant clergy that he would not take his political orders from the Vatican. How different today. This week's Tablet newspaper has a list of 100 influential Catholics, ranging from the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell to the BBC's Mark Thompson and Mark Damazer; from Delia Smith and Danny Boyle to David Lodge, Peter Ackroyd and Hilary Mantel; from Chris Patten and Iain Duncan Smith to Mark Serwotka and Jack Dromey; not to mention Frank Skinner, Peter Kay, Adrian Chiles, Susan Boyle and Ant and Dec. nNot necessarily religious role models or holy folk, but certainly diverse. Not so long ago, when Duncan Smith and Charles Kennedy led their parties and Tony Blair was prime minister, all three were Catholics, or on the way to converting, an event which passed without comment or censure in a way that would have been unthinkable even 30 years ago. Catholics, less than 10% of the population, are at the heart of every establishment. And yet, as the pope prepares to f