CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
‘We should not be concerned with numbers at church, we have to preach the Gospel to save the world’.
Thus Bishop Kieran Conry (Arundel and Brighton) set the scene at a conference held recently in Crawley. Organised by the Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis, Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, for the Southwark Province it was one of five being held throughout England and Wales, set with the task of examining the reasons why so many Catholics no longer practice their faith and looking at ways of helping them back to the Church.
Around 190 people attended the conference, from the four dioceses of Southwark, Arundel and Brighton, Portsmouth and Plymouth.
Following Morning Prayer, Bishop Kieran then set the scene for the day. He felt there were parallels between the reasons why he changed from being a keen cinema goer, to hardly going at all and the situation of so many non-Church goers. He moved area, lost his routine and his circumstances changed – so he just stopped going. He shared that the Church is going through a period of change. In one parish he visited recently there used to be five priests and now there was one. The old model is gone. It is like a bereavement, we experience denial, then anger then dislocation. We can't stay still and look back, the only way is forward. There never was a golden age in the Church, she has been in crisis since the cock crowed thrice. Bishop Conry encouraged the delegates to get back to our founding story.
Much of the day consisted of six workshops which aimed to provide practical pointers about how to reach out to non churchgoing Catholics. They covered: ‘What is the basic Gospel message?’; ‘Making the most of our encounters with non-churchgoing Catholics’; ‘How to welcome people and provide the appropriate space in a small group meeting?’; ‘How to signpost people to the Sacrament of Reconciliation?’; ‘Building bridges with non churchgoers through a shared involved in social action’; ‘Using RCIA as a tool to support non churchgoers to return to parish life’.
Each workshop leader provided a note of the main points raised. A brief review of this feed-back indicated that there were many reasons why people turned their back on the Church, but also many idea of ways in which we could change.
One important issue is of how friendly we are seen to be. A moving testimonial was given by a Catholic who returned after 30 years. Her words bore out the importance of welcome and friendliness in our congregations. She praised the way in which both her parish priest and fellow parishioners offered these to her.
The conference concluded with the Mass of the day, presided over by Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark diocese.
In his homily, the Archbishop referred to the first reading (Deuteronomy 26: 16-19) in which Moses reminded the people of the covenant God had made with them. “He will be your God and you will be his very own people… if you keep his commandments.” We know from the history of the Old Testament that they waxed and waned in their fidelity to the commandments, especially when the interpretation of those commandments became increasingly legalistic. In the Gospel reading we heard Jesus saying there was much more to faithfulness to God than “ticking the boxes”. Archbishop Peter reminded us that a loving personal relationship which springs from the heart, and which reflects the unconditional love of the Trinity is what God asks of us. It was that love which led Jesus to give his life for us and we are called to live out that love as his disciples. Too often the Church is perceived as only saying “no”, rather than as a community of love. We are called to reveal that love in the way we live our lives. Archbishop Peter had over the years asked many people at the Rite of Election what had attracted them to the Church. In ninety-nine out of a hundred cases they had been drawn to the Church because they had met good Catholics, seeing something in their lives, although they could not quite pin the ‘something’ down.
The Archbishop recommended that each day we should recognise our dependence on God through our prayer; asking God to open ours ears to hear his word, to open our eyes to see the needs around us and respond in a loving way. In the end we should do what we can and leave the rest to God for he is in charge.
The Archbishop concluded by inviting God to bless all the participants and sent them ‘forth to be living Good News in the world that those who have become estranged from God’s holy people may find a warm welcome and a way back to the practice of their faith’. Each person then came forward to be signed with the sign of the cross by one of the bishops, with the words ‘Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord’ and to be given a copy of Blessed John Henry Newman’s poem ‘Radiating Christ’.
Thus ended an inspiring day. The sharing and day feedback will assist the Bishops’ Conference Home Mission Desk to write, with partners, a resource for every parish about ministry and outreach to non churchgoing Catholics. The resource will be made available in 2013.
© A&B NEWS Story Pauline Groves, pictures David White