I wasn’t sure what to expect at Proclaim ’15 last weekend in Birmingham. Having been recently to the HTB Leadership Conference and having attended evangelical Catholic conferences like the St John Bosco conference in Steubenville, Ohio, I wondered how it would compare. Of course, they cannot truly be compared. Proclaim ’15 is the first time (in my lifetime anyway) that there has been a national gathering of the Catholic Church in England and Wales on evangelisation. The Church in our country is small, with so many interconnections I found I couldn’t walk five steps without bumping into another old friend – and so there was something kind of cosy, nostalgic and familiar at being together. I was reminded of coming back home for the first time after being away at university; after experiencing all kind of exhilarating novelties, here are the old, recognisable furniture, the same comforting family ways, the people you love.
But, in some ways, this is the point of Proclaim ’15 and the entire Church’s evangelical awakening. The Church is there not to be comforting or familiar – it is there to face out towards others and proclaim the good news about Jesus to them. There is so much stacked up against English Catholics evangelising: for the centuries since the Reformation we have hidden our religion and been second-class citizens in our society; this is even more deeply ingrained in those Irish immigrants who have in turn significantly influenced our Catholic culture in these lands. In the face of a fierce secularisation, there is an overwhelming lack of confidence and fear-filled desire to “keep my faith to myself”. Unlike the US, even catechesis over the last few decades has been desperately minimal: there are few resources to employ staff to organise systematic programmes of faith formation. Catechesis is always volunteer-led, often by extremely generous catechists who will have received little serious formation.
And now, Catholics in this country are being asked to evangelise!
To me, the gap between our theory and our practice seems a wide chasm. Cardinal Nichols gave excellent, much-appreciated theological teaching on evangelisation. (You can read it in full here.) Over the last decades, we have had some truly remarkable teaching on evangelisation (think of Evangelii Nuntiandi, Redemptoris Missio, and now Evangelii Gaudium). It is only with this last encyclical that the Church has collectively realised we cannot simply nod along anymore… We have to do it.
Indeed, I think our greatest struggle is knowing what this means in practice.
All the workshop leaders were asked to be as practical as possible at Proclaim. There were some good moments and helpful hints, but it struck me: we have too little collective experience of evangelisation bearing fruit in the Church in the UK to give advice to each other. It felt a little (with all respect to the workshop-givers, some of whom are my friends) like toddlers teaching babies how to walk. We are at the very beginnings of this new model of the Church existing to evangelise, and there are very few living examples in the UK of parishes that have made this a reality. In fact, there is only ONE example I can think of, and that is St Patrick’s Soho. It was strange to me that they did not give a workshop. They are one of the only parishes that could speak of doing evangelisation that has borne fruit in a sustained way for over a decade.
This being so, with only small amounts of sustained living experience to draw from, some of the practical advice (and remember I only attended three of the workshops) seemed fairly basic (“Write a vision statement”, “Audit your parish’s resources”, “Work with what and who you have”) and therefore a bit disappointing. Much of what we were told, it seemed to me, is what you need for a structured, functioning parish… But what about making disciples?
The D-word was not mentioned nearly enough! This would have been the one big thing I would have changed about the day: a clear, working definition of evangelisation. Cardinal Nichols after lunch gave some good teaching and Nicky Gumbel spoke more than anyone else of a person encountering Christ (“Once you see a person encounter Jesus you want to see it again and again”, he said). But in some ways, I felt evangelisation could mean whatever you want it to mean.
I was fascinated to go to the workshop on parish evangelisation teams, as this is an area I am working on in my own diocese. Yet, it was as though Forming Intentional Disciples had never been written! Teams should be formed of “committed Catholics”, we were told, (and anyone who’s read FID knows the difference between a ‘committed Catholic’ and a ‘disciple’), and as the hour wore on, I had an increasingly sense that, for these extremely good and well-intentioned people, evangelisation meant people joining our parishes, rather than coming to know Jesus. In fact, I can’t remember Jesus being mentioned once!
A highlight came at the end of the final workshop I attended. A middle-aged woman got up to give her testimony, and she seemed to me the epitome of the countless women throughout our parishes who make the tea after Mass, run the Children’s Liturgy, and arrange the flowers. In other words, a hidden hero. She spoke simply about how she had been involved in her parish in these types of ways for many, many years. Then, one day, she had an experience of God that was to change her life. All of a sudden, her faith became alive, real and personal. She searched in vain for someone in her parish with whom she could share this, and found no one. Eventually, she shared her experience with a friend who told her she had been praying for her. The two of them began to pray regularly together. Before long, fruits were being seen in their parish. More people joined them in prayer. They started a Bible study and a Life in the Spirit seminar. As she spoke, I could see the ripples spreading from her conversion out through the parish.
This wasn’t a group of well-meaning people sitting down and asking, “How can we make our parish more welcoming?” This was a woman who had a life-changing encounter with God and allowed him to work through her.
The gap between our thinking on evangelisation and our practice in evangelisation needs to decrease. The gap is large enough that there is a danger of people doing whatever seems right to them, and calling it evangelisation. To close the gap, we need to see authentic expressions of Catholic evangelisation as a personal encounter with God. And for these, I think we mostly need to look outside the UK.
I sincerely hope a national evangelisation event becomes a regular feature on the landscape of our Church in England and Wales. And I hope the organisers would think seriously about inviting people who could give us some practical teaching of those with proven fruits in the field – perhaps Sherry Weddell or Fr James Mallon, to name just two.