... Piety is here taken as both negative and primitive, but in Catholic cultures it has an earthy wisdom to it, as Lady Antonia Fraser, the historian and biographer of several of the key Reformation figures, explained to me: "I put my mind back to what I loved about the Catholic Church as a 14-year-old convert, and in fact it's what I still love about it more than 60 years later: it was the religious use of the seasons, the acknowledgement and celebration of the seasons of the year via the feasts of the Church including the penitential seasons. So I still date my letters with such things as ‘22 November, Feast of St Cecilia', which of course celebrates music, to say nothing of Candlemas, just past, which was originally the feast of the lambs, transformed by the Church. So in a Catholic England we would still have all this holy roistering."
But perhaps conjuring up a picture of a still-Catholic England doesn't only have to be a labour of imagination or the result of a trip to out-of-the-way places such as Walsingham. Last year a reliquary containing the bones of the 19th-century Catholic saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, came to these shores. Public veneration of relics, while still commonplace in Catholic Europe, hasn't been seen on any scale in Britain for 500 years. Yet more than 300,000 people queued up to stand in front of the elaborate wooden box (some of Thérèse's bones are on view in Lisieux, but the reliquary was sealed) and many were visibly moved by the experience.
That visceral dimension to Catholic culture was also on display at the National Gallery in London at the start of the year in The Sacred Made Real, an exhibition of extreme Spanish religious art. It is hard to imagine it even being staged 20 years ago, but numbers attending the show exceeded all expectations. A British taste for the trappings of Catholicism that has lain dormant for five centuries may just be reawakening.
The same point, of course, was made in 1997 following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, when public grief was unrestrained. In its aftermath, the hard shoulders of British highways now boast plenty of the sort of roadside monuments to those killed in car accidents that have long been a feature of Italian autostradas and Spanish mountain passes. Like Walsingham, they could be seen as prompts to reconsider one of the great "what ifs" of our history.
The Anglophile world truly cries out for the orthodox and catholic Faith.