Damian Feeney speaks at Coventry Cathedral about the road to missionary discipleship
Thank you for your welcome, and for gathering here today in such numbers. I hope we will leave this place feeling excited, daunted, and more reliant on God and one another than ever. It was my birthday on Monday last, the feast of St Augustine, and I was delighted to receive a card from Bishop Jonathan – thank you, Father. On the front was a picture of rowing galley slaves, chained to their oars, with the bloke at the front playing the timpani, and the words ‘Happy Birthday, and Good News from the Boss.’ I opened the card, and it simply said ‘…he’s not going waterskiing today.’
We all like good news. Heaven knows, we get little enough of it when we actually watch the news. We expect bad news, and are pleasantly surprised when the news is good. The Greek word εὐαγγέλιον means ‘The Good News.’ Not just any old good news: the Good News. εὐαγγέλιον, by the way, is the word from which the words ‘evangelism,’ ‘evangelisation’ and ‘evangelize’ come—words about the sharing of good news—and yet words which we have been known to shrink from. More about that anon, because I have some other good news to share with you this afternoon, wonderful news, and it is this: for many years we’ve been fretting about where the ministry of the church will come from, who can we send, and who will go for us; I bring you news that will gladden the heart—the news that we have solved the greater part of this question.
Of course, we need more priests. Priests of orthodox faith, compassion and pastoral skill, and well as zeal for the gospel and a desire to lead the church into growth. But ministers we have aplenty—I am looking at about 400 of them right now—and there are many more who can’t be here today.
Today we are focusing on what the church must do, who the church must be, if she is to flourish in this present age and be able to hand the Good News on to succeeding generations. And I am reminded, as ever, that the call to conversion within the church is not a new thing. Throughout history there have been individuals and movements who have called the church back to her first vocation—the call to speak the Good News, to teach the Good News, to live the Good News. We as a body exist because of the light of Christ. Like the candle light spreading throughout a darkened church at the Easter Vigil, this light is only any good if it is shared, if it is passed on, with the same joy and generosity with which it was given to us. It is said that St John Vianney, the Cure d’Ars, was prone to kneeling in the potato fields of his parish to pray for its conversion. He said:
‘My God, grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer all my life whatsoever it may please Thee to lay upon me; yes, even for a hundred years am I prepared to endure the sharpest pains, only let my people be converted. My God, convert my parish.’
A church congregation, an ecclesial community which fully lives out its faith in Jesus Christ, enjoying the pilgrim’s journey of faith in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, is an awe-inspiring thing, a life changing thing. You will have heard a good deal about this from Bishop Philip this morning. What I’m going to focus on this afternoon is the business of how we respond as individuals to the call of God in our lives, and how we see ourselves. Communities are made up of individual souls, and whilst we may think of ourselves collectively, especially on a day when we all come together like this, the business of the mission of the church begins and ends with the conversion of individual souls—yours and mine, the wonderful, sinful, frail and flawed works in progress who are the people of God.
In the words of my late father, ‘God is alive and well, and working on a far less ambitious project.’ That’s funny, but it’s not true, because God is steadfast. God doesn’t give up on his people when the going gets tough. He may get frustrated if that’s the only time we call upon him, but he will never give up on us. The baptism of a child, faithful confirmation candidates, penitent hearts in the confessional, candidates for holy orders, couples longing for God to be at the heart of their union, the unction of healing grace, the viaticum for the journey from this life to the next and, above all, that which we experienced this morning: the sacrament of the bread of life and the cup of salvation, feeding us and uniting us with the sacrifice of the Son on Golgotha. Grace, all is grace—signs that God has not, and will not, give up on his people.
You and I are called by God through these and other moments into an ever closer relationship with him. The most penetrating and terrifying question I as an individual can ask myself is ‘How are things between me and God?’ I remember asking two parishioners this question a number of years ago. ‘How are things between you and God?’ I got two very different reactions from these marvellous people. I was expecting the brush-off ‘oh, fine…just fine…’ What I got was quite different. The first one paused, frowned, and said, ‘Can I get back to you?’ The second said ‘I knew you were going to be tricky when I first clapped eyes on you!’ The first, two days later, came back to me and said ‘I think they are generally all right, although they could always be better. And, by the way, I’ve been coming to church for half a century, and it’s the first time anyone has asked me the question.’
So I ask you the question—how are things between you and God? Is God present in your life? What is the evidence for that? What happens when God seems absent? Brothers and sisters, may these questions burn in your hearts, and in mine, and may we seek the answers to them, and seek counsel and advice if we are less than satisfied with the answers. One of the signs of a healthy church is seeking forgiveness and counsel, whether in the forms of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or some form of spiritual companionship. A healthy soul seeks to answer these questions, and to act upon the answers. And these things, these gifts, are not, can never be, the preserve of the clergy. They are the birthright of the baptized people of God. Start to ask yourself the question, in the morning, when waking, at night before retiring. How are things between me and God? And how do I grow, make progress, on the pilgrim’s journey of faith?
We are called, each and every one of us, to the vocation of missionary discipleship. What does that mean? It means that the call you received at you baptism is a call to take part in the mission of the church, that specific part of God’s plan of salvation which has been entrusted to us under our bishops. And all the people who are here today, and all the people who are not here today, every single baptized person, is called to take part in this, the most extraordinary story in the history of all existence.
Where does that leave you and me? Very helpfully, Pope Benedict XVI mapped out, some ten years ago, five particular steps on the journey towards becoming missionary disciples. Put simply, these can be described as: encounter, conversion, discipleship, communion, and mission. These steps don’t happen in a straight line, and are all intimately related to each other. Different people go through these stages in different ways, and there’s no hard and fast rules here – just characteristics of what happens when the grace of God is alive and active in your life. Let’s look at each of them in turn:
First, the encounter with Jesus. Where and how do we meet Jesus? We meet him if we are actively looking for him, but we are doing so in response to the call of Jesus to ‘Follow me.’ We can meet Jesus in worship, in scripture, in one another, in acts of charity and goodness, in a witnessing community. But the encounter itself won’t be enough – it needs to be nurtured, fostered, encouraged through hearing stories, through hearing the Good News spoken to us. If that doesn’t happen, Christian discipleship can’t happen. We need constantly to return to the core message which Pope Francis suggests in his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium:
‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.’
Pope Benedict is clear that this element—the spoken proclamation—must happen over and over again, throughout the journey of faith. It should be part of everything—our liturgy and worship, for sure, but in other things too. How do you, as part of a community which bears the name of Jesus, exhibit and reveal his presence?
The second stage—conversion—hearkens back to the prayer of St John Vianney which I mentioned at the start of this talk. I think this is a very misunderstood term indeed, often because we hear of great and colourful ‘conversion stories’ from other parts of the church which can make us feel somehow deficient. We tend to think that unless a conversion story has a narrative of abject sin and squalor, followed by flashes of light, deep voices, three verses of the Hallelujah Chorus and several nuns appearing out of cakes, then somehow it hasn’t happened for us, and we are left feeling a bit high and dry. It may have happened a bit like that for St Paul (although as far as the nuns are concerned, early texts are unclear) but it doesn’t happen like that for everyone. It didn’t happen like that for me. There is another style, if you like—the steady, constant, daily conversion as we are changed over a lifetime into the person God wants us to be.
This is the response of people who have heard the Good News proclaimed, simply, effectively, of people in the whom the Holy Spirit has acted, and who make a decision that they want Jesus as their friend. Conversion means that we change how we live, how we think. Conversion means accepting the Cross of Christ, and the intention to die to sin in order to gain eternal life. This finds its greatest expression in the Sacrament of Baptism, and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation as, conscious of our sin, we seek the aid which can only come from Christ Jesus, and him crucified, through the ministry of one who is privileged to share the priestly ministry of Christ – you know, one of those priests God ordained because he couldn’t trust them to be lay people.
A third stage—that of discipleship—seems not to sit comfortably with some. I can’t for a moment think why. As the only person in my class at school who got a ‘U’ at ‘O’ Level for Latin, and the only person who is still using it, I can tell you that the word ‘disciple’ comes from the Latin ‘discipulus,’ or ‘discipuli’; it means ‘student.’ Jesus is the teacher, and we are the students. As students learn, they change and mature. We become people who follow, whose lives are shaped and guided by the master. We delve deeper and deeper into the mystery of the person of Jesus, his example and teaching. We look for opportunities to learn more and still more, knowing that there will never be an end to this wonderful journey. We absorb Jesus with every celebration of the Eucharist, with every prayer, with every encounter with scripture. These things reinforce encounter and conversion, and help us to persevere in the midst of the challenges the world, the flesh and the devil may throw at us. Are you, then, a disciple of Jesus—or merely an admirer? It is said that the difference is shown in the reaction to the sight of Jesus, carrying his cross to the place of his death. An admirer says ‘What a wonderful man. What a brave man. He’s very special. I could never do that.’ A disciple sees the master carrying the cross, and takes his own cross, and follows the Saviour to Calvary.
The fourth stage—that of communion—doesn’t refer to the act of receiving the Blessed Sacrament at the Eucharist. Rather it refers to the fact that Christian life, the life of the disciple, is always lived in the company of other disciples. We are in families, in parishes, in communities and movements of some kind, ecclesial bodies such as the Society, and the See of Ebbsfleet. Each individual contributes to the whole, and the Christian life is lived in solidarity with one another, and thus with the whole church catholic. A community so formed continues to be a fruitful place for the activity of the indwelling Spirit, who animates, guides, and lead God’s people into all truth.
The fifth and final step is the step of mission. For our purposes today, the high point of the journey, but one which too often is missed out, neglected, avoided by otherwise faithful people. As faith in Jesus, reinforced through encounter, conversion, discipleship and communion, is ever deepened, we experience the need to share what we have been given with others. There comes a point when we can’t help ourselves. We are called, but then we are sent. We have come to understand our lives as directed and shaped by God. We become people who speak of Jesus to others, and make real the words, promises and love of Jesus for other people. We see the need to serve the poorest as a direct consequence of the gifts we have received. In short, we are called to help to build the Kingdom of God. This isn’t, by the way, the advanced class only. Please don’t look around you to see who I might be referring to. I’m talking to you. The whole point of the laborious description of these stages is to demonstrate that if we are disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to be missionary. It is the only consequence of being a student of Jesus. It is the fulfilment of the whole. Without it there’s no fulfilment at all. This call to be missionary disciples isn’t just for a few. Nor is it just for the 400 or so who are here, God love you. This isn’t just for your PCC’s, or for those who hold the bishop’s licence. It isn’t just for the See of Ebbsfleet. It isn’t just for traditional catholics, or just for the Church of England. It certainly isn’t just for clergy, thank the Lord.
This is the common calling of 2.2 billion people worldwide: to be those who study Jesus, who want to love like Jesus, who want to grow in Jesus, and who simply can’t help but share what they have found, because it’s the biggest and best present there is. It’s time for each and everyone of us to unwrap it, and share what we find in the box.
Becoming a missionary disciple means seeking and being found by Jesus. It is about being prepared to be changed by holiness. It is about constant immersion in grace. It is about the intentional with Jesus in scripture, and in study. It is about living in community, learning our catholicity at a local level. And it is about sharing with others, joyfully, that Good News, the Good News of the Kingdom—and the invitation to others to be part of it.
This address was given by Fr Damian Feeney to the Ebbsfleet Lay Congress at Coventry Cathedral, 2 September 2017. Fr Damian is parish priest of Holy Trinity Church, Ettingshall.