The Bishop of Burnley on reclaiming Catholic evangelism: Part 2

Catholic evangelism is first and foremost sacramental. But if we agree on that premise, it then has a profound impact on our approaches to evangelism and our understanding of what it is to be converted. I want to draw out three features of a Catholic or Sacramental evangelism, and to illustrate each one with a story of a church that is doing something right. In this I am attempting to define what is distinctive about Catholic evangelism, not define or describe evangelism in general; and I’m going to talk more about principle than practice, though I will touch on practice in the next edition.

Catholic evangelism is rooted in a positive and compelling vision of human life and human flourishing. About two years ago a parish in north London realised that the local advice services had undergone huge cuts in Local Authority funding. A community law centre had folded and the Citizens’ Advice Bureau was under threat. The area the church served had enormous social issues, especially around debt and housing, and increasingly people had nowhere to go to find help and advice. Moreover, with many local residents speaking English as a second language and many suffering poor literacy, many people had problems even filling in basic forms. The parish decided it was being called to do something. So they wrote round to all the local solicitors’ firms to see if they could find a partner in setting up a free legal drop-in. Amazingly, one wrote back to say that they had been exploring this for ages, but, whilst many of their solicitors were keen to help, they had been unable to find premises or volunteers to open the building and book people in. Within a few weeks the drop-in was running for the first time and 25 people arrived: many in dire straits, some on the verge of homelessness, many deeply moved to find the church offering exactly what they needed.

That is one ordinary and entirely unexceptional example of a Catholic parish doing what Catholic parishes have always done. From the very first days of the movement Catholic parishes have been deeply rooted in their communities, and have sought to meet local need. From the Devonport Sisters of Mercy nursing cholera victims in the slums of Plymouth to Fr Jellicoe inventing the housing association as he rebuilt Somers Town, and to Fr Lowder tending to victims of appalling poverty in the Docks of London – integral to Catholic life has been serving the poor, standing up for justice and serving all who are in need. Why? Because we are a people of the Eucharist.

In the Eucharist we see the dignity and transcendent preciousness of every human life as we encounter the God who has hallowed human life by taking its form to himself. In the Eucharist we see perfect human society as rich and poor, young and old, black and white share on the same terms in the same feast and are drawn into divine relationship with God and each other. So at the very heart of the Sacramental world view is a positive vision of what it means to be human. That is what lies behind our social action, our community ministry, and our desire to take a stand for the dignity of human life. Because what we see at the Altar we are compelled to work for in our daily lives. We take a stand for the preciousness of every human life, born or unborn. We work for a society that reflects the heavenly banquet that we see foreshadowed at the Eucharistic feast: a society where all have a place and all have enough.

So as Eucharistic Christians we have a strong and positive vision of what it is to be human. I often think that that is what makes our tradition distinctive. Recently the Bishops were discussing what was presented as major paper on discipleship and leadership: a paper intended as the theological engine behind the huge changes that are being planned to theological education. I read the paper and I felt depressed, so I read it again and felt even more depressed. And then I realised what was lacking. I couldn’t find any humanity in it.

The paper started with God and told us how big he was, how nice he was, how powerful and amazing. It then moved on to us and said that, since God was so big and amazing we had to be tremendously grateful and so become disciples and do lots of things for him and work very hard and do as he told us, even if that meant getting ordained. And I thought: how miserable. I don’t want to do that. It is a vision of human life that is almost Stalinist in its narrowness. Replace God with the state, replace the disciples with the worker, and there really isn’t a great deal of difference. It could be lifted straight out of George Orwell. It lacked any attractive or compelling vision of what it means to be human, as does too much contemporary theology.

Compare that with the opening of the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s seminal document on the New Evangelisation. He writes, ‘To evangelise means to teach the art of living. The greatest poverty of human life is the inability of joy.’ The purpose of human life is joy: we are a people made for joy, and God’s plans for us are wholly good. He wants nothing other than our flourishing. This is what we see in the Eucharist – the joyful gathering of a people made for joy. This is why the Assumption is so essential a dogma, for in it we see the very consummation of joy: human life lifted up to God by God, humanity drawn into the very being of God to delight in him for ever.

It is that vision of human flourishing under God that lies at the heart of Catholic evangelism. With it comes a responsibility to take a stand against anything that undermines the joy that is our vocation and our goal: be that sin, or poverty, or injustice, or conflict, or ill-health, or anxiety, or abuse. With it comes a responsibility to campaign for the right ordering of society in order to build a world that reflects God’s Kingdom in love, and joy, and peace. The result is a thoroughly grounded and locally based approach to evangelism. Catholic evangelism is not really about extra activities or bolt-ons to existing church life. It is much more about the sharing of lives, about common journeys, about the often mundane, day to day task of being alongside people in order to open them up to another dimension of their humanity. We long to see people become Christians not in order to chalk up another convert, or even especially to pluck a soul from Hell. Our desire is to help people to discover the potential of human life: to become truly and thoroughly alive. We have a vision of human flourishing, and we long for others to share it. That is why we are compelled to share the story of Jesus.

Catholic evangelism places an emphasis on the community over the individual. One of the finest pieces of evangelism I experienced in the Sheffield Mission [see last month] was in New Bentley, a tough and socially deprived former mining community on the edge of Doncaster where church life is hard. It’s what Bishop Lindsay Urwin would call ‘Tarmac for the Lord’. For a small and ageing congregation it took amazing courage for them to do anything at all to take part in a large regional mission, but what they took on was spectacular. On the Saturday evening they removed every pew from the church, and they turned a fairly traditional building into a vast banqueting hall. Tables were covered in cloths and flowers, and eighty people sat down for a waiter-served three course meal.

During the course of the evening there were various levels of input. A local incumbent gave two short and very upbeat and amusing addresses. Two members of the visiting mission team gave powerful testimonies. But the high spot of the evening was an unscripted and spontaneous evangelistic address from the incumbent, who surprised even himself with the passion and fervour with which he spoke. And the message was a simple one: ‘You are invited. You are invited to meet with Jesus tomorrow morning at the altar. That is where you are wanted, that is where you belong, that is where I am inviting you.’

It was a superb evening, and it was no surprise that when I presided in that church the next morning the congregation was three times that of a normal Sunday. The directness and fearlessness of the evangelism left the evangelical visitors and team members stunned and inspired. For me that evening had all the hallmarks of Catholic evangelism. It was profoundly Eucharistic. But because it was Eucharistic there was a massive emphasis on togetherness, on hospitality, and on community.

A Protestant evangelism emphasises individual conversion and the private relationship between God and the redeemed Christian. I am on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s task group on intentional evangelism and, as with all meetings, the most fascinating part of that conversation is what goes unsaid, what is presumed. The agenda is about technique and strategy, not about principle. We have never discussed what evangelism is or what it means to be converted. But of course running through every discussion there is the presumption of consensus on this. The real agenda of the group is to encourage friendship evangelism. It aims to equip Christians to share their faith with those in their networks by being confident disciples and being ready to give reason for the faith that is within them. The strapline of the task group is ‘Use words’: lying behind it is the view that evangelism is all about individuals being brought by the witness of others to the point where they make a personal decision about the Lordship of Christ, and change their lives accordingly.

That aspect of evangelism is essential, and Catholic parishes badly need more laypeople who can speak coherently about their faith. But it does not go far enough. A Catholic evangelism is Eucharistic. In the Mass, we come to God not just as individuals but as his gathered body, and that is of course deeply scriptural. Jesus very rarely ‘proclaimed the Gospel’ in the sense that a modern evangelist would understand. Rather, he called people to belong to each other. Around the table at the Last Supper; from the cross when he addressed Our Lady and St John; by the Sea of Galilee when he repaired the relationships that had become fractured in Gethsemane: he gathered a family around him. And he gave the family the means by which they would know him and live as one. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. So when as Catholics we evangelise, we aren’t just calling people to individual conversion. We are also inviting them to belong to a community of faith. And in a lonely and fractured world where families live miles apart from each other and where life is fast and transient, that is incredibly precious. At St Michael’s in Camden Town the strapline outside the church was ‘Making a family out of strangers’. We simply invited people to belong. The tendency to emphasise personal believing over mutual belonging is post-Reformation, and it tells only part of the story. Many struggle with personal faith and find it to be a battle. In the case of young children or some people with learning difficulties, it can be hard to define exactly what a personal, intellectual faith means. But all can understand what it means to belong.

Integral to Catholic evangelism is the task of building up community. In practice, that means seeking to build a culture of invitation in our churches and providing occasions such as that at New Bentley to which we can invite people. It should mean being powerfully aware of the experience of the newcomer when planning and conceiving worship, and so focussing strongly on the ministry of welcome. It means ensuring that all events, social or otherwise, are planned for the benefit of the outsider rather than the in-crowd of the already converted. It should mean ensuring that our buildings are unlocked and opened for the communities they seek to serve: all day, every day. A locked building is a powerful reflection on the community that gathers there. An open building signals welcome and hospitality.

Catholic evangelism emphasises conversion as process rather than event. The parish of Horden stands out amongst the many parishes that seek to serve what remains of the Durham coalfield. Why? Because people still go to church there. Durham ranks along with Sheffield as the dioceses with the lowest churchgoing rates in the country, and the parishes located in former mining areas seem to have taken a massive hammering in the past few decades. But Horden stands out a mile because it is a parish firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition which retains a large, healthy congregation. There are a number of reasons for this, but one is I suspect the focus that has been paid to the discipline of pilgrimage over many decades. For years pilgrims have flocked in large numbers from Horden to Walsingham. Groups from the parish have attended the youth pilgrimage, and pilgrimages have been made to many other places: including Lourdes, Fatima, and Rome. The people there know all about pilgrimage and the spiritual renewal and sheer fun it can bring. It is in the deepest sense a pilgrim parish. I strongly believe that this consistent mphasis over many decades is a reason behind its continuing strength.

Pilgrimage teaches us something vital about the Christian life, which is that our conversion is an ongoing process and not an event. In Mark 8 Jesus seems to bungle a miracle. He is seeking to heal a blind man, but the first time it doesn’t quite go right. The man can see people but they look like trees. So Jesus has another go and this time he can see clearly. The passage is a deliberate echo of that which precedes it, where Jesus puts the great question ‘Who do you say I am?’ to the disciples at Caesarea Philippi. There also the disciples need two attempts at answering the question before they get it right. The message is that coming to the full light of faith takes time. In fact, it takes a lifetime: for we come to the fullness of faith in stages.