Never confuse a fruit with a seed!
A seed is something which will grow into a beautiful new plant… but the fruit is the attractive surrounding that makes the seed palatable. You probably wouldn’t want to eat a seed on its own… and it would be very bad for the seed if you could digest it before it could find a place in the soil. So the seed is wrapped it in a beautiful sugary sweet colourful attractive wrapper… who could resist such a gift?
Our Lord said that “by their fruits we shall know them” so let’s look at the fruits we see in the Catholic Church around us today in England. Alas, the fruits are not that good! What does a normal parish look like?
It’s normal that around 5 out of 6 of the people who say they’re Catholics don’t go to Mass – and that includes the teachers in our Catholic schools.
It’s normal that almost everyone who presents a baby for baptism stands up in church and makes a promise that they will “raise the child Catholic” but have no intention of keeping the child connected with the parish community.
It’s normal that a parish priest has a vision for maintenance, keeping the familiar parish structures going as best they can with dwindling resources.
Our parishes are good at losing old people slowly and young people quickly. That’s a quick picture of a normal parish… so is it any surprise if we look around us at the state of the Church and feel a little depressed? Perhaps it even feels like we are sheep without a shepherd! You are here today because you have been formed for leadership in the church and in charismatic renewal. Now I know a few of you have some great stories of co-operation but often enough it seems that priests just don’t want to know about the Gifts of the Spirit or what you would like to offer to your parish. And if you weren’t already feeling powerless enough, then there is this reading from Hebrews 13:17 – “obey your leaders”! Oh no! Do we have to?
Sometimes it’s good to look at what underlies the Bible passage. I had a dim recollection that in Latin obaudio means “to listen” as much as it means “to do what you’re told”. But the Bible was written in Greek… so what is this word that has been translated for us as “obey”? In the Greek it’s “peithesthe” so I looked that up in a Bible reference book. It turns out the same word has a number of meanings… persuade… make friends with… seek to influence… very different from “obey” or “do what you’re told”. Now certainly another Greek word later in the sentence does means “submit to what your leaders asked of you” but these are two hugely different sentences: “obey and submit” or “persuade and submit”! “Persuade and submit” suggests you could be in a dialogue with the leader of your parish trying to convince him that there is a better way but being willing to accept his leadership while the conversation is ongoing.
Brothers and sisters: you may have read from the Scriptures that “without a vision the people perish”. But it’s worse than that… without a vision the people form… a parish! Now, in my years working as a priest among priests, I’ve realised that what priests do is this: they imitate what they’ve seen generations of priests do before them. It’s part of our human condition that few of us pick up a textbook and apply it; most of us look for heroes and role models. Even when a priest has spent five or six years in seminary, probably at the back of their minds is a model of their own parish priest, or some priest they’ve admired as they’ve grown up or who has drawn them into the priesthood. Sometimes that’s a priest with the heart of a pastor caring for people’s wounds but not wanting to challenge them; sometimes it’s a priest with a hunger to work for social justice projects; or perhaps, especially with some of our younger priests, they reflect on a priest who gave them a strong sense of identity, because he was willing to goes against the tide of public opinion, or insisted on using a bit of Latin – even a lot of Latin! – when he celebrated Mass in public.
Sometimes it feels like our parish priests are shepherds without a shepherd. Where has the wider leadership of the Church offered them any concrete vision beyond: “Don’t lose too many people, keep sending a third of your collection for the running costs of the diocese, and don’t rock the boat?”
I wonder how many priests have a vision what their parish could be if they were open to all the gifts God was offering? At the start of the sermon I talked about what is “normal” in our parishes, in the sense of our common experience. I’d now like to talk about what could be normal – using the word normal in another sense, that of setting a norm or standard that we should aspire to.
It’s not uncommon that I read a book that makes me laugh out loud, especially if it’s by Terry Pratchett… but it’s rare that I read a book that makes me whoop for joy. About six years ago I read Sherry Weddell‘s book Forming Intentional Disciples. That book is a masterclass of how we encourage people to become followers of Christ and active members of the church… but that’s not what I’m going to focus on today. I want to share another thing that Sherry wrote, which made my heart sing for joy. In her youth she spent time with a group of other young enthusiastic Catholics and together they agreed on this description of what a normal parish looks. When I read this, for the first time since I became a Catholic in 1990, I rejoiced. At last, here was someone else who “got it”! I wasn’t the only person in the world who believed a parish should be like this! Sherry and her group agreed on seven “norms” for a Catholic parish. I’m going to put them up on the screen, and some of you can read them out…
1. It is normal for lay Catholics to have a living, growing love relationship with God.
2. It is normal for lay Catholics to be excited Christian activists.
3. It is normal for lay Catholics to be knowledgeable about their faith, the Scriptures, the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church, and the history of the Church.
4. It is normal for lay Catholics to know what their charisms of service are and to be using them effectively in fulfilment of their vocation or call in life.
5. It is normal for lay Catholics to know that they have a vocation/mission in life (primarily in the secular world) given to them by God. It is normal for lay Catholics to be actively engaged in discerning and living this vocation.
6. It is normal for lay Catholics to have the fellowship of other committed lay Catholics available to them, to encourage, nurture, and discern as they attempt to follow Jesus.
7. It is normal for the local parish to function consciously as a house of formation for lay Catholics, which enables and empowers lay Catholics to do #1-6 above.
Now, my dear leaders of the church, how do you feel about a church like this? Is this a church you’d want to join? Is this a parish you’d like to be part of? I think it is… but how do we bridge the gap between the reality of the parish where you live and worship at the moment, and what church could be?
You are leaders. Some people lead with authority – but others lead with influence. You have a prophetic role to speak hope and vision into the lives of your parish priests. You can plant seeds of hope in the heart of your parish priest. But for him to accept the seed, it must be presented in a fruit he will find attractive. So, my dear brothers and sisters take compassion on our priests, and set yourself to teach them at length. But here’s the thing: don’t confuse the fruit with the seed.
If you want to plant a seed in the heart of your parish priest, this will take time. You must prepare the ground and then offer him a fruit that he will find attractive. We know lots of priests get suspicious about the trappings of charismatic renewal: for some, it is too loud or in-your-face, or unlike anything they’ve experienced in their own personal reality. Others don’t know how to handle prophetic and healing gifts as parish leaders. Some might dismiss it as too Protestant, despite the writings of all the popes since St Paul VI welcoming it as “a chance for the church”. Now, we can try and persuade our priests of the merits of charismatic renewal … or we can do something smarter. We can offer fruit that will interest them!
What sort of fruit will attract a priest? Well, someone who offers help with a project that the parish needs will gain a priest’s respect and trust. This will take time – so like Jesus, we have to set out to teach “at length”. I know at least two different parishes where people who are very involved in renewal won the trust of the priest by volunteering to clean the toilets or hoover the church. If you’re serious about your commitment to the parish, you will come with the heart of a servant. Today’s lesson from Hebrews does talk about good works. Now good works aren’t the heart of what we do but they are the fruit of a person committed to Christ, and they are a vital tool in gaining the trust of your parish priest.
Now comes the hard part. Once your priest trusts you, you must stir up curiosity in his heart, but without leaving him feeling judged or inadequate. A good way to do this is to share stories of parishes that are thriving… but letting him set the pace. Where do you find such stories? Let’s see what happens when you Google “successful Catholic parishes”…
Oh, look! 28,200,000 results – in less than half a second!
Now the trick is to drop what you learn into conversation and let the priest set the pace. “Have you heard about the Catholic Church which more than doubled its congregation in three years? What about the one which raised its level of engagement from 7% to 40%? Did you hear about many other churches that deliberately look for the gifts that are present in their members and then deploy them in the most appropriate ministries? These churches are going from strength to strength… so we don’t have to settle for being a declining church! We are called to be a church that bears fruit, in season and out of season… but when the shepherds have lost hope, you need to be the shepherds to the shepherds, and teach them at length until their passion is renewed and restored.
So remember: never confuse the fruit with the seed. Offer your parish priest the fruits that will make him trust you and listen to what you have to say. He will receive the seed of a “normal” church when he finds it surrounded with the fruit that he will find attractive. I know it can be tough being the only charismatic in your parish or just seeing the church declining around us; but dare to dream that it can be different, and dare to dream that you can do something about it. I can’t say it better than the Letter to the Hebrews (13:16):
Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have;
God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind.
So share what you have received. But share it smart! Share it slowly! And you will renew the face of the Church.