McGuire, Stryker, Woodward, Kenneth L., Brownell, Ginanne, Newsweek International
Clandestine closets and hidden passageways are the stuff of legend in English castles and country homes. But the two "priest holes" at Ingatestone Hall, the Petre family's 470-year-old manor house outside London, are special. They vividly recall the days when Roman Catholics were forced undercover during the English Reformation. One hideout, just 25 inches wide and built into a stairway, was big enough to conceal a priest. The other, much smaller and built into a bookcase, was probably a surreptitious tabernacle in which miniaturized chalices and other priestly instruments could be hidden. On Sundays and feast days, scores of Recusant (meaning hidden) Catholics would arrive from the nearby village for secret masses.
Priest hideaways evoke a terrible chapter in Catholic life in 16th- and 17th-century England. Hundreds of Englishmen and -women on the wrong side of a religious divide were executed by the crown, murdered or tortured to death. The Petre family was itself swept up in the recrimination of the time. The fourth Lord Petre died in the Tower of London, having been accused of complicity in the fictitious but widely believed "Popish Plot" to assassinate King Charles II in 1678.
But there is no need for Catholics to worship in the shadows these days. Catholic history may be hidden, but not Catholics. At Ingatestone, they walk casually past the hall on their way to mass at St. John the Evangelist and St. Erconwald Catholic Church. "We feel lucky because Catholicism is a belief so firmly rooted in the history of this area," said Anne Holmes as she put out tarts and breads to sell in the church parking lot after the Palm Sunday service. "We're not so frightened to say we're Catholic anymore."
It is a historic change. When Hugo Young, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper, was the student of Benedictine monks in the 1950s, the "formative message" from his teachers was that he was "an outsider," he says. No longer. In a country where entire centuries were shaped by wars and rivalries between Catholics who followed the pope and Anglicans who followed the crown, Catholics have reassumed their natural place of importance. In the past decade in particular, many prominent Britons, including close relatives of the queen, converted to Catholicism. Catholics head two of Britain's three main political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Tony Blair is an Anglican, but he attends mass with his Catholic wife and their four Catholic children. At great newspapers and distinguished universities that once shunned "papists," Catholics hold positions of power. The queen herself, the titular head of the Church of England, was so taken with Catholic Cardinal Basil Hume, who died in 1999, that she called him "my cardinal." "Catholics have become full partners in grown-up British life, and not just members of some sect," says Charles Moore, a Catholic convert who is the editor of the Daily Telegraph, the country's biggest non-tabloid daily newspaper.
In purely religious terms, Catholicism has begun to outshine the established national church, the Church of England. Even though Anglican Britons outnumber Catholics four to one, there are many more Catholics in church on any given Sunday. A wave of Anglican conversions during the 1990s suggests that Catholicism is benefiting in Britain from the very same doctrinal uniformity that has caused it problems in other parts of the world. Some critics of the modernized Church of England argue that its "broad church" approach to religion has left many of its adherents yearning for tradition.
If Anglicanism is "the Catholic Church in England," as T. S. Eliot wrote, then many converts seem to prefer the original. John Patten is one of them. He was a cabinet minister in the Thatcher and Major governments. "Sadly," says Lord Patten, "the Anglican Church has lost a following because it has manifested the inability to give clear guidance on spiritual issues. …