In the 1970s, there was a general air of defeat in this country: what was our national identity, if indeed we still had one, and would we have to simply settle for “managed decline”, as the phrase had it? Great Britain had ceased to feel so great. Then along came Margaret Thatcher.

In a sense, the Church has suffered a similar crisis: once triumphal and magnificently self-assured, it seems to have lost its grip on its core mission, to save souls, and become apologetic, mired in scandals and over-zealous in its ecumenical outreach. If you feel a sense of hopelessness, like the two travellers to Emmaus, you should read Heroism and Genius by William Slattery (Ignatius Press, 300pp, £15).

The author, ordained by Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Basilica in 1991, has not lost his passion for the Church and for what it means to be a priest. His thesis, spelt out in his subtitle, “How Catholic Priests Helped Build – and Can Help Rebuild – Western Civilisation”, describes the extraordinary story of how the Church grew from its early unpromising origins into a great civilising force, one that flourished so brilliantly in Western Europe in the 12th century.

Fr Slattery provides the detailed background to what Lord Clark implied in his television series, Civilisation: that Benedictine monks taught new agricultural methods to their local settlements and communities; how theologians and scholars founded the great European universities; how the art and architecture of laymen of genius was inspired by the beauty and truth of faith; how saints and martyrs such as Augustine of Canterbury, Boniface in Saxony, Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs, St Ansgar in Denmark and Sweden, transformed the brutish lives of pagan peoples in their preaching of the Gospels and how parish priests brought the sacramental life to an ignorant peasantry.

But Slattery’s book is not a fond, nostalgic reflection on past glory. It is a trumpet call to Catholics of today, to develop their historical understanding and imagination in order to recognise their vocation to convert the world we now live in.

Change comes about, the author reminds us, when men (and women) of courage and faith determine to alter the status quo and repudiate the defeatism of managed institutional decline. By understanding the past, priests today have to resist the dictatorship of relativism, the increasing secularisation of society, and become, as John Paul II might have put it, “Who you are”.

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