The Scriptures given for this weekend’s Masses offer us three vineyards which fail to bear fruit. In the Gospel parable, the fault is not with the vineyard but the faithless servants who tend it and don’t want to yield up the harvest – reminiscent of the thorns which choke the good seed in the parable of the sower. The psalm considers a vineyard plundered by the forest boar and the beasts of the field, just as the birds of the air carry away the seed scattered and sown. But Isaiah’s vineyard is harder to diagnose. The vinedresser does everything right, and yet the harvest yields only sour grapes. Is this a problem of shallow roots, or is something else amiss?
I am reminded of another Gospel story of fruitlessness. The disciples had been fishing all night and caught nothing. Jesus appears on the shore and instructs them to ‘let down their nets on the other side’ – and they immediately net a massive haul of fish. So what is the difference between the two sides of the boat? It seems to me that the fruitless side represents catechesis – the successful side is evangelisation!
Earlier this week, the Church celebrated the 1600th anniversary of the death of St Jerome, the great scholar who translated the whole Bible into Latin in the age when Greek was ceasing to be the common language of the Church. We have much to be grateful for in the conversion, life and work of this great Doctor of the Church. However, one choice which Jerome made has had a profound impact on the mission of the Church – and that was his translation of Matthew 28:19-20a, where Jesus commissions the church to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’.
Greek scholars recognise that the active verb in the Great Commission is ‘to make disciples’ – the Greek word is mathēteusate (μαθητεύσατε) which is the source of our English ‘mathematics’. There is no one verb in English which can translate this exactly, but ‘apprentice’ (as a verb, “Apprentice that young student to me…”) might come closest. Latin also has no single word equivalent to the Greek, and St Jerome made the fateful choice to use the Latin word docete, meaning ‘teach’. This legacy was reflected a millennium later in the Douai-Rheims translation:
Going therefore, teach ye all nations: baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.
Teaching all nations is already a challenge, but one with a clear solution – disseminating information. If all the Lord requires His Church to do is to give information about Jesus to the world, we can smile and say we have done that in abundance. But still it seems we have ‘fished all night and caught nothing’. Our Catholic Schools are not a production line for faithful Catholics!
Making disciples of all peoples requires a much greater personal investment, coaching all the people of the world in the art of being a follower of the Master. During the 2010s, the Catholic Church has been blessed with significant insights into the work of making disciples. Sherry Weddell took what was already known among Evangelical Christians and demonstrated that the same dynamics were true among Catholics: future disciples begin at a trusting relationship with a representative of the Church, reach a crisis point of having to decide whether they wish to entrust their lives to Jesus, and then actively seek to understand what it means to follow Him.
Fr James Mallon has showed how a parish can become a vibrant disciple-making institution by having a ‘game plan’ which uses Alpha or a similar course as the engine to bring future disciples to that key decision point, and small ‘connect’ groups as a place to form new disciples and discern their gifts in the service of the Church. A healthy parish is an invitational parish, which invites those who are not already members to come aboard! ‘Making disciples’ is a process which embraces many stages of growth. It begins with primary evangelisation – the proclamation of Jesus to those who do not yet know that He is the Risen Lord. (This includes many self-identifying Catholics for whom he is merely a role model or teacher of morality.) It continues with catechesis, which truly begins when a person is actively seeking to be a follower of the Master. It finds its perfection when the disciple is ready to ask “What are my gifts? How can I use them in God’s service? What is my life’s vocation?”
A few years before Weddell & Mallon published their books, the Church in Lancaster was asking the right questions. Bishop Patrick O’Donohue famously produced a series of reports under the title Fit for Mission? with his reflections on Catholic Schools and on the Church at large winning accolades from the Vatican. I’ve just been reading the key documents produced and it is clear that Bishop O’Donohue was a man deeply in love with Our Lord and frustrated at the lack of fruitfulness in his diocese. He was asking the right questions, and it seems to me that the answers he found identified the ‘what’ but not the ‘how’.
In 2007, the bishop produced the first document, the Guide, to begin a process of managing decline in his diocese. Most Catholic dioceses in England & Wales have had to address falling numbers of clergy, and it’s natural for a bishop to ask not only ‘how do we thin out the service we provide’ but ‘how do we effectively deliver the mission of the Church’. O’Donohue began by considering why our Catholic faith makes us distinctively different from the world around us:
I am strongly of the belief that the difference lies in two realities basic to our Christian lives: first and foremost, it lies in our relationship with Jesus Christ, particularly in our celebration of the Eucharist and our proclamation of the Gospel; secondly, in the way our relationship with Jesus changes our relationships with others. If our Christian life is not about becoming, through grace, more and more like Jesus in our attitudes and behaviour what is the point of it?Guide, page 4.
The bishop challenges the people of his diocese to reflect on whether they still believe in the power of prayer and in the promises of Christ?
To my mind it seems the only reason why people ultimately leave the practise of their faith is because they don’t have a strong enough belief that Jesus gives His Body and Blood to them in the Eucharist! This lack of faith underscores the vital importance of sound Eucharistic catechesis adapted to the different stages of people’s faith formation.Guide, page 6.
The bishop goes on to present a strong vision of people ‘gathered and sent’, echoing the observation from Vatican II that:
It was through their intense, personal friendship with the Lord, and each other, that these twelve ordinary men became Apostles, who ‘handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did’.Dei Verbum 7
But there’s a problem! Bishop O’Donohue echoes Pope Benedict XVI’s diagnosis that the root cause of all the problems in our society as ‘forgetfulness of God’. He asks:
Why are we embarrassed to talk about God’s love for us and our love for God? What are the things that hold us back from evangelising our families, parishes, schools, and wider communities?Guide, page 12.
Here, we need to ask a key question. Have the people of Lancaster Diocese experienced the love of God, and come to love God in return, in such a way that they have something to talk about? If they haven’t, they cannot be the witnesses the Bishop seeks – and the problem is less one of forgetfulness of God, more that there was nothing to remember in the first place.
The following year, at the end of August 2008, the bishop produced his reflection on the consultation process: Fit for Mission? – Church. It is a document of great teaching. It sets out the vision of Vatican II and defends the idea that the Council was an authentic development of Catholic teaching, not a rupture with the past. It calls for an obedient implementation of the Church’s liturgical norms – the Ordinary Form in English with fluency in Latin chants for some of the main Mass texts. It sets out a vision of a people called to live a life nourished by the sacraments – and it champions the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a core text to be at the heart of the Church’s work of teaching. On page 7, the bishop uses the example of the Apostles who had ‘worked hard all night long but have caught nothing’ – and it is here I fear the bishop has fallen into St Jerome’s trap, seeing a renewed teaching of the Catholic faith as the answer. Of course we need authentic, accurate and accessible catechesis – but the vineyard will yield sour grapes if the teaching is offered to people who are not yet open to Christ.
A clear symptom of the problem is seen in the Parish Review Final Document, not authored by the bishop but collating the way the 108 parishes of the diocese have received what is asked of them. How many parish priests understand what ‘evangelisation’ is? Numerous parishes say that they will undertake ‘evangelisation’ as part of their mission strategy, and it is clear several of them have pasted in a boilerplate text where parishes likely to become regional hubs of activity aspire to be ‘a focal point for adult formation, mission and evangelisation, maintaining deanery contact with the parishes, coordinating special Masses and other events and generally promoting
cross-parish cooperation’. There are in fact only two out of the 108 parishes which declare how they propose to implement evangelisation: Whitehaven is working on a parish census in advance of its parish mission, while Carlisle will use Landings for connecting with lapsed Catholics. Another parish, Ingol, proposes Landings as part of its sacramental programme, while Poulton proposes to use Alpha or Cafe material for the ongoing formation of its Catholics!
Teaching alone is not enough to bring souls through the threshold of true conversion, which is openness to change. Nor is the work of evaneglisation something which can easily be done with a large congregation gathered in a parish church or classroom. The missing ingredient, the ‘letting down the nets on the other side’, is the need for individuals who already love Jesus to have personal conversations which require not-yet-committed Catholics to take an honest look at where Jesus is in their lives. This can happen at rallies and retreats but is more likely to take place in ongoing relationships with intentional disciples. In his document on schools, Bishop O’Donohue does signal awareness of what is needed…
Catechesis is a moment or stage in the process of evangelisation. First, evangelisation evokes a questioning curiosity to know more concerning the deep truths about God and humanity, in order to lead others to make the ‘yes’ of faith, and then catechesis aims – as Pope John Paul II puts it – at enabling people to move from curiosity to communion with Jesus Christ. … To put people in communion with the Person of Christ must mean more than instruction in information or historical facts – though this ‘grammar’ of our faith must not be ignored – but needs to involve experience, encounter, and transformation. Hence, the importance of good liturgy and the sacraments in the life of the school and college.Schools, page 24.
Yes, a good liturgy can be an occasion which evokes this questioning curiosity; but our lived experience surely tells us that this is rarely the case for those who have sat through many liturgies and not experienced conversion. The bishop asks the right questions:
How many of our young people have a living relationship with Jesus?
How many have the first idea of how to pray?
How many have really experienced His living and healing presence?Schools, page 61.
The clearest sign that the bishop views our problem as a teaching problem is in his broad strategy for schools:
Our schools and colleges must be places where the ‘light of truth’ is cherished and spread. I would like to suggest two ways of doing this:
1. Promote respect for the authority of the doctrinal and moral truth safeguarded by the Pope and the Bishops.
2. Create an exciting and engaging environment that enables pupils to experience the light of truth, using the full range of multi‐media and communication technologies.Schools, page 10.
I fear that regarding the fundamental problem of our contemporary church as a teaching problem (or as a liturgy problem) will cause us to find ourself in Isaiah’s vineyard. We can invest huge efforts into presenting Catholic teaching in excellent ways (and celebrating beautiful liturgies with great care). These things will always bear some fruit. But unless we ‘let down the nets on the other side’ we will still be short of fish, and the only way to do this is to deploy intentional disciples to hold one-to-one conversations in trusting relationships. From a starting point of few available disciples, any such initiative will get off to a slow start. But since it’s the only thing that can work to rescue the vineyard, let us begin with haste!