Thank you for your response of 15 March 2021, in which you addressed my concerns that many vaccines in the UK, including those for the current covid-19 crisis, are sometimes produced and usually tested in human cells derived from aborted foetuses.
You rightly quote from the 2017 document of the Pontifical Academy for Life (which if I may compare Vatican documents to Parliamentary ones, is a kind of Select Committee report for Catholics); this states
… we believe that all clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience and that the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion.
Taken alone, this statement might appear to be an unproblematic invitation to Catholics to simply accept any vaccine offered. However, this statement must be read alongside the more formal 2008 document Dignitas Personae, which has a weight comparable to a manifesto committment made by a winning party. Here paragraph 35 sets out clearly that Catholics who accept a tainted vaccine for the sake of the common good must lobby Government and industry until an untainted alternative can be provided.
I am grateful that you have indicated a willingness to “explore the issue” with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care. Since my first letter to you, it has come to my attention that the US-based Charlotte Lozier Institute is collating research on whether foetal cell-lines are used in the development, mass production and testing of numerous covid-19 vaccines, with results tabulated online. There are now a number of vaccines available – though not yet cleared through UK safety testing – which make no use whatsoever of foetal cell-lines.
The UK is a pioneer in the field of diversity, requiring by law reasonable adjustments to accommodate disability and respecting a wide range of sexual preferences in orientation and identity. It would be entirely in keeping with our committment to diversity to recognise that adherents of certain religions are duty bound to avoid abortion-tainted vaccines whenever possible, and for the NHS to respond by ensuring that at least of one these untainted vaccines is put forward for regulatory approval and then made available for use at a small number of regional centres to which conscientious objectors could travel.
I received my first dose of the problematic AstraZeneca vaccine in March and will therefore receive the second dose as scheduled in June, but I would avail of any ethical alternative provided should booster shots become necessary in due course.
Thank you for taking my concerns seriously, and I hope this further information will be of use as you explore the issues further with colleagues at DHSC.
This week I was sent an article by Revd Dr Leon Pereira OP, a Dominican priest who was formerly a medical doctor. A version of his text can be read online, but I have uploaded the PDF I was sent as the final page’s table is clearer:
In these days of fake news and misinformation, it is important to authenticate sources; Fr Leon can be seen preaching on the same topic in this video from 14 April 2021 which was posted on Facebook alongside a copy of the corresponding text.
Fr Leon sets out clearly that there are two courses of action which are not forbidden to Catholics (and therefore to anyone who wishes to behave ethically), given that many of the available vaccines use cells derived from aborted human embryos in their development, even if not in their production.
One course is to refuse compromised vaccines, but to take personal responsibility for minimising contact with other people, insofar as this is required to continue to prevent the spread of a deadly virus.
The other course is to accept such a vaccine, but to do so under protest. He rightly points out that the most authoritative document produced by the Vatican (Dignitas Personae 34 & 35) states that:
in cases where (1) there are no other choices, (2) where the danger is real, and (3) the safety of children is threatened, then (4) on a temporary basis, such vaccines may be used (5) but pressure must be put on governments, pharmaceutical companies, researchers etc to find an ethically acceptable alternative! Furthermore (6) no one can be compelled to receive vaccination; they have the right to refuse, although they should take precautions to reduce their role in the transmission of the disease during an epidemic.
Dignitas Personae does not restrict the ethical permission to children alone; it states “for example” a parent may choose a vaccine developed using illicit material. It logically follows that there are other cases where we may choose to act for the protection of innocent third parties.
Fr Leon argues that there is ‘no moral difference’ between vaccines grown (for commercial mass production) in cells derived from aborted foetuses and those mass-produced by other methods once the vaccine has been developed using foetal cell-lines. I would disagree, since ‘degree of co-operation’ is relevant in ethical analysis. If illicit cells are used to create a recipe but no such cells are used in production, there is a real difference. The moral problem becomes one of knowledge obtained unethically rather than use of a physical product. If the use of foetal cell-lines were banned in the future, the knowledge would still exist and could be used. There is also an ethical difference between producing vaccines in cell-lines which are immortalised (in principle, no further abortion is needed to replenish the cell-line) and those which are not (the cell-line will eventually die out and will need to be replaced, requiring either a future abortion or use of modified adult stem cells from a consenting donor).
The final page of Fr Leon’s article summarises a more detailed table developed by the Charlotte Lozier Institute showing sourced research on which vaccines use foetal cells for their development, mass production and testing. This is a very helpful document and shows that some vaccines now exist which raise no pro-life objections at all – but these are not the vaccines being made available in the UK through the NHS.
Of course, the sanctity of the unborn human is not the only ethical issue which must be taken into consideration. The German CureVac virus is greenlisted from a pro-life standpoint but uses HeLa cells for quality tasting – cells used for research without permission after being taken from Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman dying from cervical cancer. This raises another kind of ethical question. A third thorny issue is raised by the use of animals in medical research, but here Pope Francis (Laudato Si 130) repeats the teaching in the Catechism that humans may use animals for research “if it remains within reasonable limits [and] contributes to caring for or saving human lives”.
For the record, I received my first dose of the ChAdOX1 AstraZeneca vaccine on 29 March 2021. I did so only after enquiring whether ethical vaccines were available and writing a letter to my MP urging the UK to seek and provide alternatives which are not derived from foetal cell lines. It is in the spirit of my ongoing duty to campaign and seek such alternatives that I publicise Fr Leon’s article and make known the existence of vaccines which have no association with abortion.
In the homily posted above, Fr Leon asks a stark question. Would Jesus or Mary take a vaccine knowing it had been sourced from the killing of a human child in the womb? Before you leap to a particular conclusion on that question, remember that idolatry is a moral crime as heinous as murder. You might well ask whether Jesus or Mary would use a Roman coin bearing the head of an emperor and an inscription proclaiming him to be a god? In fact the Pharisees did ask Jesus precisely that question, and received a surprising answer!
Brothers and sisters, I have good news for you. There are people in our churches today who passionately in love with Jesus, even though a few years ago they didn’t know Him at all.
How did this happen? Was it a pure miracle? Is it an accident? Or did it come from steps that are predictable and can be reproduced?
God’s grace is always a factor, and one that cannot be predicted. Jesus himself told the parable of the sower, explaining how some seed falls on good ground and bears fruit. Other seed struggles and fails to bear fruit for numerous reasons. Our job is to sow the seed.
But it’s also been said that we should pray as if everything depends on God, and then work as if everything depends upon us. There are lessons we can learn from people who’ve gone from no faith at all, to becoming passionate followers of Jesus. You might call these people “intentional disciples” because they’ve made a personal decision not only to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, but to truly make him the Lord of their lives.
In the USA, evangelical Christians fund full-time evangelists to work on university campuses. These evangelists set out to build relationships with students and invite them to Christian study groups. Don Everts and Doug Schaupp are two such ministers, Everts working in Colorado and Schaupp in California. From the start of the 1990s – around the time that Youth 2000 was born, in fact – they sensed a cultural shift: postmodern young people were no longer willing to accept claims about Jesus and Christianity made by authority figures; they now required authentic witnesses. A person like themselves, testifying to how Jesus had changed their life, would have much greater influence than Bible scholars or church leaders.
After working with more than 2000 young people making the journey into Christian faith, Everts and Schaupp noticed a very predictable pattern of conversion, one that played out time and time again in different ways in different lives. They wrote up what they found in this book, entitled “I once was lost.” They found that the common factors could be summed up as five steps or “thresholds”. From time to time they would review new conversion stories to see if any of them fail to fit this pattern, but so far Everts and Schaupp have found that the thresholds continue to be a reliable description of the path of conversion.
But is this true in a Catholic context? Yes! A laywoman and convert to Catholicism, Sherry Anne Weddell, works for the Siena Institute in Colorado, alongside Dominican priests. Sherry noticed how these same steps were present in the stories of the Catholic converts she was working with, and published what she found in her bookForming Intentional Disciples. I first read this book about 8 years ago, and when I did I shouted for joy as I turned the pages! At last, I felt someone understood my experience of being a convert to the Catholic faith! I’d been on lots of Youth 2000 retreats with their clear message that we called to follow Jesus, who was present in the Blessed Sacrament – but my experience of parish life, both as a layman and a priest, was that very few Catholics understood this. Rather, most of the Catholics I met were either concerned for helping people in poverty, with the Church as a convenient agency for organising the work, or concerned for keeping their local parish going as a place to meet in a building they loved. Neither group of Catholics seemed very keen on recruiting new members of the Catholic Church. Now this book provided the answer – most of these Catholics were on the journey of conversion, but they had not yet become disciples.
In her book, Sherry Weddell draws on the work of Everts and Schaupp, and discusses the same five thresholds of discipleship in a Catholic context. In other work and conferences, she notes that the journey of conversion doesn’t end with becoming a disciple, but continues as each member finds their role within the church. Today I’d like to summarise this teaching by introducing you to seven stages of spiritual growth in the journey of making disciples.
These apply both to a church-going Catholic becoming more intentional in their commitment, and a person making the journey from another religion to Catholicism. It is useful for anyone who wishes to make disciples to have a working knowledge of the thresholds – and more importantly, what is most likely to nudge a person hovering at one threshold towards the next. Based on interviews with hundreds of priests, Weddell estimates that only around 5% of Catholics in a typical parish have become intentional disciples.
The first step requires a person to establish a relationship of trust with Christ, the Church, a Christian believer or something identifiably Christian. Without trust, there can be no conversation. In the present conditions of the pandemic, there are few opportunities to meet new people so we should be mindful of the relationships already present in our lives. If you’re a Catholic, you probably know a lot of other Catholics who have ceased attending Mass, and some who go but don’t engage more deeply. Catholics who no longer attend Mass may have lost trust in the church for some particular reason – but they may trust you as an individual person.
In order to build trust, you need to do something very simple: become a brilliant friend. That’s not something you need religious instruction for – it’s a natural human skill. I can’t teach you how to do that – it comes out of your unique gifts as a person.
The second step requires us to stir up curiosity in the mind of the person who trusts us.When I first became a Christian, I heard advice that I should simple live out my Christian values and wait for people to ask me why I lived that way. After 10 years of doing this with no-one asking, I decided this wasn’t going to work as a strategy for drawing others to Christ and the Church. No, we have to be willing to find suitable moments to speak about Jesus! But we mustn’t become a bore. We must be equally willing to take an interest in the other person’s religious viewpoint. So listen first, then speak.
Once a trusting relationship has been established, you can share the story of your own faith as a natural part of that relationship. No-one can dispute your own lived experience, because on this you are the world’s foremost expert!
We can find natural ways to speak of how faith is part of our lives. For instance, someone at work on Monday morning says, “What did you do over the weekend?” – if you went to church, say so, as if it were the most natural thing in the world! We should expect that our conversation partner has, at best, only a polite interest in our religious faith, so we must be careful not to overstay our welcome. We can just mention one thing about Jesus or some aspect of the Christian faith. If our friends want to know more, they will ask!
We must be realistic about what we can achieve in a one-off conversation. Sometimes we will sow a seed of the Gospel, and never know it, but we will rarely reap an instant result. Most successful faith-sharing takes place in ongoing relationships. And from this point onwards I will speak of the person we are evangelising as a friend – if we have successfully built trust, we will surely treat that person as a friend regardless of the final destination of their religious journey.
Everts & Schaupp describe campus events which they run aimed at the merely curious – not overtly religious events, rather using music, drama and other art forms to communicate Christian values and with a short slot to present something about Jesus in a way which dispels stereotypes and shows something of how radical Jesus is, to casual listeners. In a typical Catholic parish, many regular attenders have yet to pass Threshold Two, perhaps even Threshold One. Therefore, we must keep re-telling the Great Story of Jesus, which can awaken the desire to be a disciple, and we must emphasise that Jesus is someone with whom we can have a relationship today. This means we need to be ready to speak openly about our inner life of prayer and sense of relationship with God.
I’ve met dozens of young parents wanting their children baptised. I always ask them to tell me the story of their relationship with God, but often the answer they give is about the church – how they got baptised and made their first communion. They often don’t think of God as a person they can relate to – only as a label for “church stuff” For many of our churchgoers, their “relationship with the church”, or even their “relationship with a deceased relative” IS what they think of as their relationship with God. They can be helped by hearing testimonies from people who do have a relationship with God, and being encouraged to pray the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”
So here are three practical things you can do:
Share your prayer life.
Use stories – this is what Jesus did. Answer people’s questions with one of his stories or something from your own life.
If someone’s already a member of a religious group, ask how they came to be a member. Very often, when I meet a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness, it’s a story of meeting someone who cared for them, not a spiritual or intellectual conversion. And in fact the same is true for new Catholics – in my experience 80% of RCIA attendance is because someone met a nice Catholic.
The third step is in red for a reason. It’s the most challenging of the whole process. It’s the threshold of Openness to the Possibility of Change.
The message of Jesus is challenging. When we take it seriously, it demands change in our way of life. A person may have to withdraw from a casual sexual relationship, or dodgy business dealings, to follow Christ with integrity. Even the most upstanding convert will need to exchange weekend leisure for regular worship. Many potential Christians waver for a long time at this threshold, and may be tipped over it by a major life-event. A friend on the threshold of openness might become very argumentative at this point. They are taking the challenge of Jesus seriously, and they know something life-changing is being asked of them. Naturally, their ego will put up resistance. Our task is not to argue back but to listen and to acknowledge their pain.
We might find that our friends engage in conversations about God – often asking the big questions about why a good God can allow evil in the world, or whether science has disproved God. (Spoiler: science has NOT disproved God – and I’m telling you this as a priest with a PhD in astrophysics – but that’s a whole other talk I could give you!) Someone who actively disagrees with you is willing to engage with you, and that’s good. Even if your friend is coming from a very different point of view, it’s important to be open, listen to what they say, and then you can have your own say.
An intense spiritual engagement, such as a Youth 2000 retreat or a parish mission, can stir up a new openness to God, nudging many participants through Threshold Three. But after the event, avoid the trap of channelling the new enthusiasm into ‘filling ministries’. Yes, you want new, keen volunteers to make your parish or prayer group work! But don’t rush the process. First offer the newly enthused members an ongoing opportunity to grow and be formed as disciples, and then the volunteering will come naturally.
So how do we hold and nudge our friends through this scary threshold of openness?
Speak honestly about your own struggles. Don’t sugar-coat following Jesus to make it seem easier than it is.
Help your friend explore the question “Where is God in this?” either in their struggles, or the story you are sharing.
Pray. This is a season for an intense spiritual battle. Double down on your prayers for your friend. If they are open, ask “Can I pray with you?”
This might also be a good time to invite your friend to come and experience Eucharistic Adoration. Explain that we believe Jesus is present, and just trust that He will connect with your friend when they come.
The fourth threshold is marked by a more active kind of seeking. Your friend has faced the crisis of knowing that God’s message demands change in their life, and has realised that hiding is not an option. So your friend now reaches out to God and is asking: “Are you the One to whom I can entrust myself?” Everts & Schaupp note that at this stage, a seeker will be asking questions specifically about Jesus – what did he teach, what examples did he give – rather than generically about God.
Only now will your friend be ready for true catechesis, and for exposure to different forms of prayer. This is no longer the time for attention-getting parables. Now is the time to give straight answers to their questions and suggest different ways of prayer they can try – guided Bible reading, the rosary and other devotions.
Balanced catechesis will show how a personal relationship with Jesus exists as part of a wider community – we come to Jesus through membership of a parish, where we receive the sacraments, and trusting that Christian teaching is clarified through the formal structures of the Catholic Church, which we call the Magisterium. In our liberal democratic culture, seekers may find it especially difficult to understand ideas such as the Church’s claim to have access to absolute truth, Catholic teaching on personal sin, and the idea of surrendering to Jesus as Lord. Young adults may find it easier to recognise the presence of sin in systemic problems in the way the world works – such as the way we fail to respect the Earth’s ecosystem – rather than personal failings.
At the fifth threshold, your friend has received enough satisfactory answers to their questions that they are ready to become a committed member of the Church, consciously follow Jesus and accept any major life-changes that this will require.When your friend has spent some time asking questions which show they are truly engaging with the big issues around following Jesus, it may be the right time to pop the question: “What about becoming a Christian? What about joining the Catholic Church?” – or if the person is already Catholic, “What about coming to confession and reconnecting?” If the response is “No”, a natural follow up is “Why not?”, and then deal with the blockages people present. Acknowledge your friend’s fear of “what would happen if I said yes to God”?
Everts & Schaupp suggest that intensive mentoring two or three times a week are important for supporting the new disciple during the ‘honeymoon’ of the first three months of their declared commitment to Christ – during which time the mentor ensures that the new disciple finds a place in a small group attached to their chosen worshipping community. In a Catholic context, a new person baptised at the Easter vigil then enters a few weeks of what is called mystagogia – reflecting on what just happened – but of course the convert’s inner journey could be months ahead of the Church’s liturgical cycle, and the true conversion of heart, that decision to follow Jesus, might need mentoring well before the liturgically ceremony which welcomes this publicly.
Our Christian growth doesn’t end by becoming a disciple. Rather, any member of the church should look at the gifts and talents they have been given by God and ask “How can I use these to serve God in the church and in the world?” We can call these works “ministry”. There are many useful tools to help you reflect on your gifts and how to use them in God’s service, including the Clifton Strengthsfinder and the Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted material.
If you are free to discern a long-term or permanent commitment, you may also be asking the question, what is my vocation? Should I be a priest or a member of a religious community? Should I devote a few years of my life to full-time missionary work? The answer to these questions also flows naturally from an understanding of the gifts with which God has entrusted you.
Whether or not we choose to become full-time missionaries, Pope Francis has reminded us that all of us who are baptised are by that very fact called to be missionary disciples.
Encouraging someone to take Jesus seriously, and therefore to become a Catholic, usually requires a relationship sustained over years. Can you share a meaningful message about Jesus if you only have 2 minutes for a conversation? Can you make a concrete invitation to say a prayer, or connect with a church, at the end of what you say? Do you expect to be able to nudge someone closer to Jesus?
It’s all too easy to blunder into enter this kind of conversation with judgement and expectation. “Why don’t you go to Mass? Why aren’t you pro-life? Don’t you believe Mary is appearing at such-and-such a place?” But in fact we have something much simpler to share. “You are loved. God created you to have a relationship with you. We human beings don’t love perfectly, but Jesus came to show us perfect love and to re-connect us with God.” And it’s that deliberate, personal re-connection with God which is crucial!
In Western cultures, we might find that 15% of the baptised Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday – but some of those are going only once a month. In Ireland, until the 1990s, there was strong peer pressure to be seen to be going to Mass, but now the Catholic Church has become a toxic brand for many people.
And then, how do we reach people who call themselves Catholics but who don’t engage with the Church? Many young people stop attending Mass in their teens or when they leave home for university. This isn’t so much a deliberate rejection of Catholicism as a failure to be drawn by it. A 2012 Canadian study of young Christians who stay (Hemmorhaging Faith 2012) indicates that young people who remain active in church have experienced God’s presence and seen prayers answered; they live in Christian communities where they feel able to wrestle with real spiritual questions including the Gospel story; and they have personal experience of adult communities living out Christian faith in authentic ways.
We recognise there are three distinct religious journeys in Catholic lives which don’t always match up: progress through the sacraments of initiation, active involvemehttps://cco.ca/nt in the church community, and the interior journey through the thresholds of discipleship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognises that there is the “first conversion” (1427) by which we become disciples and then the ongoing or “second” conversion (1428) which takes place once we are disciples and find our apostolate (the “missionary discipleship” which Pope Francis speaks about). The Church recognises (Catechesi Tradendae 19) that when we set out to catechise people we have to face the reality that many have not yet been evangelised. So we need to know how to evangelise – and not make the mistake of trying to catechise people who still need to hear the basic Gospel.
As individuals, we can seek to have conversations about faith with the people who trust us. There are useful booklets and study tools which can help you from a Canadian mission group, Catholic Christian Outreach or CCO – you can find them online. And as members of parishes, we can ask how our parishes can help bring faith to people with no faith. This is why I’ve drawn the thresholds of discipleship as a circle; as individuals, we make the journey from trust the intentional discipleship and ministry – and perhaps even vocation – but a PARISH becomes a pump where those who are already intentional disciples work to build bridges of trust with new potential members and the cycle continues.
A parish can become a vibrant disciple-making institution, but it needs to be intentional. Does your parish have a plan? An effective plan is to run a regular outreach course as the engine to bring future disciples to that key decision point of choosing to follow Jesus. Suitable courses include Discovering Christ, Alpha, and Sycamore. These courses provide a safe place for people to ask questions about God and Jesus: they are a safe starting place for outsiders who aren’t familiar with church language. For those who already ‘belong’ to church they can be an opportunity to take a fresh look at what we believe. Graduates of these basic courses can then join longer lasting small ‘connect’ groups where they can grow as followers of Jesus and discern how to use 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!
One cycle of Alpha or Discovering Christ is probably not enough to move a participant from Trust to Intentional Discipleship. But sustained work with a person can achieve this in around two years. When people reach the stage of Openness, supporting them with prayer is crucial; and we must recognise they are vulnerable to falling back, or hiding within a community which doesn’t seem to affirm their growth. Growing as far as Openness can be scary in a community which is mostly still at Trust! Who would want to become a disciple in a parish where you can’t see many disciples among the church goers?
Now that you are aware of the thresholds of discipleship, it may make more sense that there are also many people worshipping in our churches who are committed to something other than following Jesus. Many people will belong to a parish and be passionate about their community, and keeping the church building they worship in well repaired; they will raise money to fix the roof not to spread the gospel. Why? They are stuck at the threshold of trust or curiosity, believing in the community but not believing in the Lord in a personal way.
We will meet people in church who are passionate about serving poor, not because they love the Lord but because they love the people. Of course Jesus did tell us that the second great commandment is to love our neighbour; through his saying about the sheep and the goats it is clear that the way we treat our neighbours has an impact on our salvation. Saint James says that if we don’t love the neighbour we can see that there is a big question mark about whether our faith is real at all. All of us who are called to be disciples are obliged to love the neighbours whose needs we come across in our daily living. Some of us will also choose, as voluntary projects, to go out and seek those in need of help and give further help; but not everyone has the personal calling of being a devoted charity worker.
In parishes you may even meet those who say “we must do something for the young people”. Of course everyone in the parish notices when young people aren’t coming, or when they drop out at a certain age, particularly after confirmation. Many parishioners will be concerned to increase visible numbers. Now it’s not wrong to think about numbers. I have a number in mind: 100% – That’s the number of people I would like to invite to become followers of Jesus. We know we won’t achieve a 100% success rate; Jesus said so clearly. What’s crucial is that when you find yourself in that conversation about doing something for the young people, point out that if you make young people into disciples they will become passionate followers of Jesus who will want to come to mass and get involved in other church activities. Some will become enthusiastic servants of the poor out of their relationship with Jesus, and others will become young evangelists spreading the gospel to their peers, causing the church to grow. Disciples also give of their money generously! But only disciples will do all of these things.
We can build buildings, grow congregations and carry out works of mercy without making disciples. But if you have limited resources, and a question of where to place your energies – I’d like to tell you this in the 12 years that I was a parish priest responsible for local church communities, I never once asked anyone to organise a fundraiser. When people freely volunteered to raise funds, I never blocked that, but I never asked anyone to focus their priority there either. What I did ask people to do was to focus on making disciples using courses like Alpha and Discovering Christ team because what happens when you make disciples? Disciples give generously and volunteer, and that’s when the church grows. When I took on my most recent parish it was in £50,000 of debt. Before I left, its bank balance was in credit and we had been able to install a computer projection system in the church. How? Not because I raised money for this purpose, but because I focused on making disciples. Seek first the kingdom of God and what you need will be given to you. That was advice from the master. I’ll let you into a secret: follow his advice and it works!
‘Making disciples’ is a process which embraces many stages of growth. It begins with primary evangelisation – proclaiming Jesus to those who do not yet know that He is the Risen Lord. 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?”
Jesus blessed children and taught adults. Unfortunately we often do things the other way round. We try to teach Catholic answers to children who aren’t ready to ask the right questions, just because they are the right age for First Communion or Confirmation. But when adults come seeking a baptism for their baby, or a wedding ceremony, parishes often offer them what they want with a simple blessing. Why? Because there aren’t individual parishioners or outreach groups with the time to engage these adults in personal conversations about faith.
The parish priest can’t do it all on his own! In my last parish I had about 50 requests for baptism, another 70 for First Communion, and about 10 for marriage each year. There simply isn’t time or headspace for one priest to have 130 ongoing conversations with parents this year and start 130 new ones in each subsequent year. But it shouldn’t all be on the parish priest – as Pope Francis reminded us, we are ALL missionary disciples, and a healthy parish should have many adults who could encourage faith in these families – especially parishioners who are relatives or neighbours of the applicants! I mean, parishioners like you! Your parish priest might be put off by your enthusiasm, and worry that you take your faith too seriously – but I encourage you not to compromise in your zeal.
As I said earlier, About eight years ago I read Sherry Weddell‘s book Forming Intentional Disciples, and for the first time in my life, I no longer felt alone as a Catholic disciple in a parish. I want to share something 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 like. Sherry and her group agreed on seven “norms” for a Catholic parish.
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 gifts 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 all of these Normal things.
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!
Now, my dear brothers and sisters, 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?
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!
Only 5% of the regular Massgoers are deeply committed missionary disciples. But… if these disciples could be formed, inspired and given the right tools, they could double their number in mere months!
Here’s the thing. Whether a person attends Mass or not, you cannot know how far that person has travelled on the journey of discipleship unless you ask. If you only take one thing away from this talk, take this question:
“Tell me the story of where God is in your life!” (or, for someone who has shared a messy life situation, “Where is God in this for you?”)
Ask this question whenever you get the chance – and then shut up and listen! Remember, for many people, “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. It’s easy for someone sitting in a congregation or prayer group to ignore information which has been “broadcast” to the whole audience. A one-to-one conversation forces the listener to engage – and often that engagement is enough to get the person thinking afresh about who God really is.
Never accept a “label” without enquiring what it means. Even people who initially call themselves atheist or agnostic might admit to praying or being open to the possibility of some version of God! Try answering their questions with more questions – most people are only two “whys” from being forced to think about why they stand where they stand.
If you get the chance to ask a second open question, try this:
“If you could ask God one question which he would answer for you right now, what would it be?”
Such “threshold conversations” can be very revealing about where a person is at, and can themselves provoke the kind of reflection that helps a person pass through towards the next threshold. The more a person experiences positive conversations about faith, the more open they will be to talking about faith. And the more conversations YOU can have with people about faith, the more effective you will be at making disciples.
We need hope. Do we expect that people will become committed disciples? Do we write off good news stories from across the pond as “American cheerfulness” or the fruit of “North American resources”? One US parish which worked hard on promoting discipleship now has 40% of its Massgoers in ministry, estimates 25% are now Intentional Disciples, and its level of financial giving has gone through the roof. There is no reason to believe this cannot happen here, too – we only need to believe and act as if this can happen!
I’ve made an assumption that because you’re in the audience for this talk, you’re probably a disciple already, and keen to make more disciples for Christ. But perhaps there are some among you who are not. Maybe today is the first time you’ve asked yourself whether you’ve made a personal commitment to be a follower of Jesus, not just a member of the Catholic Church. If so, today is a happy day, because you can make a commitment to Jesus at any time! If you are not yet baptised or confirmed, you can seal your commitment by receiving these sacraments. If you have turned away from Jesus through sin, you can come to confession. But whether or not you need any of these sacraments, you can make a commitment to Jesus right now, today.
I am going to show some words used by Pope Benedict XVI at a World Youth Day, words we can use as a personal re-committment or to make a commitment to Jesus for the first time. I’ll give you a moment to read these words to decide if you want to declare them today. After each line I will pause so if you wish, you can repeat the line out loud, or in the silence of your heart. Let us pray.
Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me.
Brothers and sisters, you are missionary disciples. May God bless you as you go forth to win many followers for Christ.
Dear (MP Name), I am a constituent resident at (give your address, as the MP must known you are a constituent to deal with your message.)
The rush to produce and deploy vaccines on a global scale has brought a new focus on the ways in which vaccines are manufactured and tested using products derived from aborted human foetuses. This applies not only to covid-19 vaccines but other vaccines which have been in routine use for children and adults, for many years.
I am sure you will recognise that this is distasteful to many, and a moral red line for some, even though it has been a scientific ‘necessity’ to achieve the ends of life-saving vaccinations for much of the last 50 years. Should the Government move to introduce any kind of vaccine ‘passport’ scheme, this will place conscientious objectors to such vaccines in a very difficult position.
Let me make my own stance clear: when I am called to receive a vaccine, I will accept it as the socially responsible thing to do, but with a heavy heart; I will seek to receive an mRNA vaccine (not developed, only tested, in embryo cell lines) rather than the other options if I have any freedom to do so; and I am raising my voice in protest at the limited options available by the act of writing this letter.
Due to my own religious and moral views, I would very much prefer that abortion were outlawed; but I recognise that this is not an achievable goal in the UK in the foreseeable future. Based on scientific evidence, I recognise that there are strong advantages to the pharmaceutical industry in comparing new products against well-established standards derived from embryo cell lines; moving away from these standards is not technically impossible but requires the force of funding and legislation to overcome inertia.
As my Parliamentary representative, I would therefore ask you to work towards two goals, which would at least move towards minimising the issues for conscientious objectors and maximising the uptake of future vaccines. These goals are:
(1) Requiring prioritised Government funding to develop ethical cell lines which can be used for developing and testing vaccine products;
(2) As soon as these ethical cell lines are sufficiently developed, requiring by legislation that these cells, rather than embryo-derived cells, be used for quality control checks on any vaccine made available in the UK.
I attach a short paper setting out the rationale for each of these steps.
As your constituent, I assure you of my prayers for your work and well-being in these strange times.
Cell lines are used to develop and test vaccines because they are human cells detached from a living human body which can be grown at scale in a laboratory. Some vaccines rely on modifying a mild virus to resemble part of the dangerous virus; these mild viruses must be grown in human, not animal, cells for maximum effectiveness. Other vaccines – the innovative mRNA vaccines – can be synthesised chemically, but still need to be tested for safety and quality by their effect on human cells.
Some of the available cell-lines are ‘immortalized’ – they have been manipulated so that they will keep reproducing indefinitely (the successful strains represent ‘happy accidents’ since our ability to manipulate is currently based on limited knowledge). These strains include the HEK293 cells used to test vaccines and to grow the anticovid AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine – and the PER.C6 strain for the Johnson & Johnson one shot vaccine recently authorised in the USA. Insofar as the abortions which gave rise to these cell lines are irreversible historic events, these cells can be used without ‘encouraging’ future abortions.
Vaccines for other serious diseases are gown in cell lines which are not immortalised. The British MRC-5 line, the American WI-38 line and Chinese Walvax-2 line are regularly used, but these cells, like all non-cancerous cells in the human body, can only reproduce themselves a limited number of times. In the UK, the MRC-5 and WI-38 lines are used to produce the rubella component of the MMR vaccine, and vaccines against chickenpox and shingles. These cell lines will eventually lose their capacity to reproduce, and will need to be replaced – but by what? By procuring cells from a fresh abortion?
We now have the ability to take cells from consenting adult donors and regress them to a near-embryonic stage – such cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells. These are less ideal candidates for growing vaccines because (at our current ability to manipulate them) they will not retain their pluripotent status forever; they also impede scientists’ ability to match ‘like with like’ in reviewing historical data against current research. Nevertheless, if there were sufficient reason to do so (positive funding, and legislation restricting the use of embryonic cell lines), ways could be found to use these totally ethical cell lines to produce and test vaccines at scale.
The UK Parliament has always recognised that there is a grave issue of conscience around abortion. Free votes are permitted to MPs; there is a (limited) right of conscientious objection by medical practitioners who do not wish to perform terminations. We should therefore recognise that similar grave issues of conscience apply to those who wish to take a vaccine for the common good but do not wish to be tainted in any way by co-operating with a historic abortion, still less consuming a limited resource which may one day require replenishment by a future abortion. This should be sufficient reason to implement goal 1 now (fund research to enable ethical adult-derived cells to become useful for growing and testing vaccines) and goal 2 as soon as technically feasible (where the Government requires quality control testing, this must be done using ethical cells).
As a priest with a science background, several people have asked me about covid-19 and vaccinations. I stress that as an astrophysicist, I am not a specialist in viruses and vaccines – but as someone with wide experience in general science communication, I have a good working knowledge of genetics and cell biology, professional training in experimental statistics, and the experience to read scientific papers outside my field and recognise legitimate claims. A lot of the ‘concerned scientists’ who are championed by antivaxers have no more subject-specific expertese than I… so with these caveats in mind, let’s look at the issues.
Is Covid-19 really a serious threat?
Perhaps you are sympathetic to conspiracy theories that covid-19 doesn’t exist at all. If that’s your starting point, I’m not sure where we can find common ground; you will find a weak reason to discredit any piece of evidence I try to bring to the table and decide it must be a strong reason, because otherwise you’d be wrong and I would be right. As a professional scientist, I am confident that if there were a global conspiracy to pretend a virus exists, there would be whistleblowers a-plenty. Science can only work by publishing evidence and cross-checking results. Science is also international, and planet Earth doesn’t have a good track record of its nations working together for a common cause – so it’s unlikely that Asian and American and European and African and Australasian scientists could all be bribed or threatened into presenting a false united front. So I’m going to start by saying that covid-19 exists – but what is it?
A virus is a piece of genetic code in a chemical capsule which protects the genes long enough to travel from one person to another, and then infiltrate the cells in the next person’s body. The genetic code instructs those cells in the new victim’s body to make fresh copies of the genetic code and package it in similar capsules. A coronavirus is a kind of virus where the ‘capsule’ is shaped like a ball covered with spikes; and these spikes help the virus infiltrate the cells in our body – specifically, our lungs when we breathe it in.
A virus which can get itself copied and spread, and not kill its host before it does so, will thrive. The victim’s immune system will attack the virus to repel the invasion – and it’s our own immune response that causes ‘flu-like symptoms’ when we receive either a virus, or a vaccine which trains our immune system to recognise part of the virus.
When viruses get duplicated, sometimes copying errors are made in the genetic code. And, more rarely but often enough, two viruses get into the same cell at the same time, and their code can be stitched together to make a new pattern. Most of these changes (mutations) make the viruses less successful, or even incapable of spreading successfully – but occassionally the random mutation happens to be one which is more spreadable – and therefore, the new pattern spreads! This is why we are now talking about ‘new variants’ of covid-19. When the variation affects the shape of the capsule or the spikes on it, it makes it less likely that your body’s immune system, trained to recognise the original shape (by illness or a vaccine) will recognise this new shape as a known invader for rapid disposal.
There are a wide range of possible outcomes if you catch covid-19. You might not develop symptoms at all, but still have enough infection that you are breathing out thousands of virus particles with every breath. You might have a mild flu-like episode. You might have serious breathing difficulties and need to be on an oxygen supply or a more invasive ventilator (tube placed down your airway). When you recover (whether or not you had severe breathing difficulties), you might suffer long-term lethargy (‘long covid’). Or you might not recover – you could die.
One person from my wider circle of friends died last summer. Two of my friends – a hospital doctor and a priest – are suffering long-term consequences of covid. Another doctor-friend was off work for more than a month before recovering eventually. I also know a number of families who suffered only very mild bouts. As far as I know, I haven’t caught covid yet.
It’s been said that human life itself is a sexually-transmitted terminal condition – we’re all born, and we’re all going to die of something (unless we live to see the Second Coming of Christ!) In Western democracies, part of the social contract is that the state will make reasonable efforts to stop you dying of avoidable causes – an ambulance will come, and a skilled team of doctors will do their best to help you recover from the brink of death when you suffer an accident, illness or other medical incident (and in some countries, give you a handsome bill for their trouble when they discharge you). But the resources available are not infinite – money is not poured into researching very rare diseases which won’t recoup costs for drug companies, and hospitals will politely suggest that an expensive life-support machine be switched off when there’s no medical reason to expect that a patient will recover, once brain-stem death has been diagnosed.
In Britain, our current social policies are built around not stretching our National Health Service beyond capacity. We don’t want to be in a position where we say ‘This covid patient wasn’t given a fighting chance to pull through because no ventilator was available.’ (Note that to be ‘available’ there needs to be trained ventilator staff as well as a physical machine!) Already, the need to respond to covid emergencies and disinfect ambulances has led to increased response times with likely fatal consequences. Measuring the impact of covid is tricky. How do we take account of people with other medical conditions whose treatment is stopped or delayed becuse the NHS is focussing on covid? How many people who die within 28 days of getting a positive covid test (an easy statistic to measure) actually died ‘because’ of covid? If you catch covid and have another health condition too, which of them is responsible for your demise? Scientists are not blind to these problems, and so the preferred way to measure the impact of covid is to look at the age profile of people who died in 2020 (the study linked goes up to 20 Nov 2020), and compare it to what the age profile would have been expected to be based on data from previous years. This method shows that in England and Wales, because of covid and despite the restrictions of the spring and autumn lockdowns and other measures, 53,937 people died who would otherwise have been alive by 20 Nov.
Now, how many of those 53,937 people would have died soon after 20 Nov 2020 anyway – and how many would have gone on enjoy many more years of life? It’s impossible to predict what would have happened to individuals, but a careful study from Glasgow suggests that a healthy 80 year-old who dies from covid would, on average, otherwise have lived to be 90. A person in their 50s who dies from covid is most likely to lose about 30 years of life. It’s sad but unsurprising to see high death tolls in nursing homes, where residents are near the end of their lives anyway; those who would have died soon from other causes are most vulnerable to covid. But when those lives are of soneone’s cherished grandparents, it would be a brave or foolish person who claimed that these deaths don’t matter! For the population as a whole, covid-19 shortens the life of a woman by 0.9 years and the life of a man by 1.2 years – but these averages are summing up what happens to the many who don’t catch covid and the portion who do, plus taking into account the impact on society of all the consequences of coronavirus.
What about me? I’m a 47 year old, obese, white male. The qcovid calculator (which matches my chances to what happened to people in the first UK lockdown profiled by age, weight, race and other factors) suggests that in the next 90 days, I have a 1 in 1309chance of being admitted to hospital due to covid-19 and a 1 in 17857 chance of dying because of covid-19. Now this probability conflates the chance that I catch the disease and the chance of getting serious consequences if I do. My chance of catching it in the first place is lower than someone who has to work in a healthcare environment or public place. What about my parents? Men are more vulnerable than women, and my Dad has a roughly 1 in 400 chance of dying due to covid in the next 90 days… but what happens when 90 days become 900? This brings the odds to 1 in 40. Without vaccinations, even if we stay in lockdown, 39 people with Dads like mine won’t lose their Dad to covid before the end of 2023. One will.
The human body has a wonderful and adaptable immune system. White blood cells are constantly vigilant for biological material which doesn’t seem to be part of your own body, and after successfully repelling an invader, they retain a ‘memory’ causing them to respond more quickly to future invasions by the same enemy. Traditional vaccines train the body to recognise an invader by providing a ‘training dose’ which might be only part of the full invading organism, or a weakened version of the whole virus.
Some of these vaccines use a new technology – they are mRNA vaccines. RNA is a chemical similar to DNA which carries genetic code – but while DNA is normally found in matching pairs of strands locked away in a cell’s nucleus, RNA is usually found as a single strand floating in the cell’s body. The ‘m’ stands for ‘messenger’ because RNA’s usual role is to instruct mechanisms in the cell to create new structures (proteins) or to duplicate genetic code. An mRNA vaccine instructs your own cells to make a charcteristic part of the invader you want to repel – in this case, your own body cells produce the same ‘spike’ protein that covid uses to infect your lungs. You can think of the cell nucleus as a ‘reference library’ which contains recipe books which can’t be removed (the DNA); when your cell needs to do something, it consults the recipe book, makes a ‘photocopy’ of the instructions using RNA, and then destroys the copy when no longer needed. The mRNA vaccine is slipping its own recipe into the pile of recipes which are routinely received from the cell nucleus and then destroyed.
Actually this new technology isn’t so new – it’s been trialled in animals since 1990. But a paper published in Nature in 2018 notes that it was only in the 2010s that we learned how to deliver mRNA into cells at the scale needed to work effectively as a vaccine. The problem is, there are several clean-up chemicals in our cells which make sure old mRNA isn’t left hanging around. The half-life (time for 50% to decay) of mRNA in the human body is about 7 hours. Now the special mRNA designed for the covid vaccine is a self-amplifying mRNA which means it includes a code telling cells to replicate it … so there’s a race between how quickly the cell can multiply it and how long it takes the cell’s natural clean-up mechanisms to degrade the mRNA until it doesn’t work any more. Making a strand of mRNA long enough to carry both the self-replicating instructions and the vaccine component means it’s quite a large and vulnerable molecule. Eventually the body’s clean-up mechanism will win, but I can’t tell you exactly how long that takes, because the vaccine company doesn’t seem to have published that data. The bottom line is that mRNA is a fairly new technology but it’s not one never tried before in humans – on the contrary, clinical trials of mRNA vaccines have taken place in humans, such as this 2018 flu vaccine trial.
Is there any danger that the genetic codes in these mRNA vaccines will somehow get embedded into our own genetic code? The short answer is ‘No’. The more accurate answer is ‘not enough to worry about’. The mRNA is only accessing our cell bodies, not penetrating the nucleus where our cells store their own DNA. And yet scientists almost never say ‘never’. Viruses do the same thing as mRNA vaccines – put their own genetic code into our cells to hijack them. And very rarely – so rarely that we have to look for evidence over thousands of years – a virus can get itself permanently written into our human DNA (see here and here). The chances of this happening from the covid vaccine are no greater than the chances of it happening from a covid infection. If the RNA code did somehow get written into our own DNA, first it would only affect the cell where it happened (though if that happened to be an egg or sperm cell that got fertilised, it would be in every cell in the new child’s body). Next, it would probably corrupt the DNA and make it unreadable. If it somehow got spliced into a sensible place, it would only have an effect when the genetic code in that part of the cell was activated. (Every cell in your body contains instructions on how to be muscle, skin, liver and brain. Since most cells spend their time not being all but one of the things they could be, a lot of code in them goes unprocessed.) As far as I can see there is no special risk of taking an experimental mRNA vaccine – certainly no greater than the risk that catching a cold could somehow rewrite your DNA!
There is, of course, one important ethical difference. If you catch a virus, despite your best efforts to practice good hygiene, you are not morally responsible for the consequences which you suffer. If a pharmaceutical company, physician and patient agree that the patient should receive an mRNA vaccine, then they all share moral responsibility for injecting that genetic code into the consenting individual. The odds of a runaway gene getting into the human genome through you are tiny – but not zero. Yet we accept much greater odds every time we get behind the wheel of a car – we are entering into a pact with other drivers, pedestrians, and parents of wayward children, that together we will not create a scenario where my driving has tragic consequences. Alas, we cannot always anticpate the unexpected, and if a large part falls off a car in front of me or a small child breaks away from her reins and dashes into the road, I may find myself unwillingly responsible for a crash or worse. Do we base our decision on which risks we will take on the size of the risk (which is logical) or the ‘smell’ of the risk, which feels worse when we have no experience to draw on?
Covid vaccines have now been developed by a number of different countries. They have been fast-tracked for approval, and there are some inevitable consequences. Can we tell you, based on evidence, what cumulative effects these vaccines will have after 5 years? No, because we haven’t had 5 years to run tests. Can we tell you what side-effects will appear at the one-in-a-million level? Not yet, though that data will be gathered as millions are vaccinated and marginal adverse effects are noticed. Have some things been done in parallel because of the the urgency which would otherwise have been done step-by-step? Yes. Is there an ethical requirement to give an effective vaccine to the “control” group of unvaccinated volunteers? Yes, when the evidence for safety and effectiveness passes certain thresholds. There will still be “natural control” groups of people unvaccinated for various reasons. Have the regulators “cut corners”? Not in the essential steps of what they have to test.
Is the risk of taking a vaccine greater than the risk from catching covid? Unless there are known reasons why a vaccine may be dangerous to an individual (e.g. a history of anaphylactic shock) the answer is no. The Oxford AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTec vaccines report that serious side effects occur in 1 in 100,000 cases. Moderna reports 1 in 1,000,000 but acknowledges the posibility of the vaccine causing temporary facial paralysis, more serious than the side effects reported for the other vaccines.
Let’s consider what would happen if I did or didn’t take the vaccine during the current lockdown conditions (obviously my risk of catching covid goes up when there’s no lockdown). The qcovid tool was calibrated during the first lockdown so is broadly applicable in the current lockdown. Let’s ask what would happen if I did or didn’t take a 95% effective vaccine. Or rather, let’s ask would would happen in roughly the next year (4 x 90 days) if a million people like me did or didn’t…
If a million people like me choose not to take the vaccine: 3,040 will need to go to hospital. 240 will die.
If a million people like me DO take a 95% effective vaccine: 152 will be in hospital because of covid. 10 might suffer serious side effects to the vaccine. 12 will die. (And that’s if lockdown measures stay as tight as they are. Looser measures will mean more hospitalisations and more deaths… on the other hand, if the vaccines turn out to make people significantly less able to spread the virus then the nunber of severe reactions and deaths will go down.)
So thanks to a vaccine, among the million people like me, 228 people will be saved from death; another 2,888 won’t need a hospital bed, but 10 will have a nasty experience of side effects.
Should we vaccinate children against covid? That’s an interesting question, and there’s a parallel with chickenpox. In the USA, all children are routinely vaccinated against varicella (the virus which cauhses chickenpox and shingles). In the UK, it’s NHS policy that only clinically vulnerable children, and elderly people, receive this vaccine. Chickenpox tends to be a mild disease in children, and provides a ‘natural booster’ for their parents. The parents’ immune systems get a reminder of what chickenpox looks like through contact with these children. This reminder helps to suppress dormant varicella which could otherwise emerge as shingles.
Based on US statistics for the first year of covid circulating, 12,329 children have been hospitalised with covid and 297 have died. Divergence in reporting between different States make this a little inaccurate, but as a ballpark figure, with 74 million children living in the USA, this means that in each million children, in the course of a year with partial lockdowns, 166 will go to hospital and perhaps 4 will die. Those 4 children probably represent children with underlying conditions who could have been singled out for vaccination (a similar study in the UK showed only 4 children died due to covid in the first peak and all had underlying conditions). So in a future where adults are vaccinated, and children are pretty safe from dying with covid, should children not be vaccinated in order to keep covid circulating at a level where the older vaccinated population gets a natural ‘boost’? There are too many uncertainties at present about the effects of vaccines on whether people can carry and transmit covid before their immune system clears it out, but at some stage we may face the question: if the whole of the older population is vaccinated, at what age should we start vaccinating? This will be about balancing the natural resilience of children and the need to keep the vaccinated population naturally boosted – if it turns out covid works the same way as chickenpox.
Finally, some ask whether it’s possible that taking a vaccine could actually make you have a worse reaction if you do catch covid. This is a genuine risk with some vaccines – it’s known as enhancement. This scientific paper from 2016 notes:
One concern of vaccination in humans is vaccine-mediated enhancement of disease, a process in which the disease following infection is more severe in vaccinated individuals than in unvaccinated individuals. Although this was observed in only a small subset of vaccine studies that were carried out for SARS-CoV and has not yet been observed in any of the published MERS-CoV vaccine studies, it is an important concern.
This in turn cites a paper which reviews the ‘small subset’; that report notes there is a indeed a significant history of coronavirus vaccines causing strong reactions… for vaccines developed for certain viruses which infect cats. So far as research has been carried out into coronaviruses which affect human respiration, “In the vast majority of studies, immunogenicity has been elicited without any negative impact on health after challenge with the virulent pathogen.” Or in plain English, the risk of a covid-19 vaccine provoking a strong reaction when the vaccinated person catches covid is tiny, but not zero. Remember that before vaccines are licensed for use, clinical trials have to prove that the vaccine is effective in ensuring that most people who would otherwise have had a serious reaction will instead experience mild or immeasurable symptoms; if signifcant numbers of people were going to have a severe reaction, it would have been noticed at that stage.
Embryonic Cell Lines
A particularly troubling matter for Catholics, and indeed all who respect the sanctity of human life, is the use of ‘cell lines’ derived from aborted foetuses in antiviral research. The most prominent cell line is HEK293, though other cell lines do exist. It’s worth telling the story of HEK293 to give it a context.
Frank Graham was studying cancer in 1973. Cancer is the general name given to any condition when cells in a creature (human or otherwise) stop doing what they are ‘supposed’ to do and start reproducing wildly. Several things can trigger cancer, including radiation, pollution and genetic defects. But certain kinds of virus can also trigger cancer, and Frank was studying a kind called adenovirus. He was working in the Netherlands, where elective abortion had become less restricted since 1966, and he chose to harvest cells from the kidneys of freshly aborted foetuses. His 293rd experiment – he started by treating 40 batches of cells at a time – succeeded in producing a line of cancer cells that could reproduce themselves indefinitely, leading to the serial number HEK 293 – Human Embryonic Kidney cell test 293. It turned out that part of the adenovirus had incorporated itself into the nucleus of the original HEK 293 cell, and also triggered duplications of existing chromosome material. (So this is a rare example of the DNA in a cell actually being modified – but of course this cell was only found because researchers were actively looking for it. If this had happened in a living human body, the cell would have become a tumour, the human would have died, and there would have been no long term consequences for the human race.)
Because HEK293 cells have a modified genetic code, they are not-very-useful for studying how normal human cells behave, but very useful for vaccine research. Adenoviruses tend to produce only mild illnesses in humans, so they are often tweaked to ‘look like’ more dangerous viruses and used as the basis of vaccines that way. But there’s always a risk that tweaking viruses can create some new strain that ‘goes wild’ so the research companies use a ‘safe’ version of adenovirus. Remember, there’s a little bit of the genetic code for adenovirus in every HEK293 cell. They realised that if they knock out that same part of the genetic code from their test virus and then grow it in a HEK293 cell, it would work because the missing instructions are already ‘in there’. But the tweaked adenovirus can’t grow in normal human cells so if it breaks free it can’t go anywhere!
There is no reason to believe that any abortions were coerced specifically to provide Frank Graham with research material; there were enough freely chosen abortions taking place. Graham himself is on record as saying he assumed it was an abortion performed to save a mother’s life because that was the only kind allowed in 1973, but in fact Dutch physicians had been allowed to interpret the existing law to permit abortion on much wider “mother’s wellbeing” grounds since 1967. The serial number 293 doesn’t indicate the number of abortions, but the number of dishes of cells trialled by the time of that experiment; even so, it is likely that material from several foetuses would have been needed to provide so many starting cultures. It has been suggested that the extraction of kidney material would have been carried out on a still-living foetus, causing it great pain; I have been unable to find documentation of Graham’s specific method. It is noteworthy that in 1972, the Peel report of the UK Parliament ruled that foetuses up to 20 weeks’ gestation were non-viable and therefore could be experimented on outside the womb; by 2019, there were conflicting theories on whether foetuses would begin to feel pain around 12, 20 or 24 weeks’ gestation.
Another commonly used human cell line, WI 38, comes from the 38th aborted foetus at the Wistar Institute. These cells have not become cancerous, and are therefore expected to lose their ability to reproduce after going through about 50 cycles of growth, but have become the common growth medium for rubella vaccine. An added controversy is that the mother of the 38th aborted foetus did not give her consent for the cells to be taken. More recently, a team of Chinese scientists created a new cell line (Walvax-2), and in 2015 openly documented the process. Nine candidate foetuses were identified, and aborted using the ‘water bag’ method, allowing their lung cells to be harvested. It is not made clear whether the ‘water bag’ meant the foetus was still alive at the point of harvesting.
When a vaccine is grown in one of these cell cultures, and then administered to a human patient, is it correct to say that ‘aborted tissue’ or ‘DNA from an aborted foetus’ or indeed ‘cancerous tissue’ (in the case of HEK293) is being injected? The process of cell division means that material from the original HEK293 cell has been shared out among the millions of cells produced by its immortal reproduction. The original DNA has been duplicated and reduplicated, but is still a near-perfect copy of what was in the aborted child.
There are roughly 1014 atoms in a human cell. 247 is a number of similar magnitude, indicating that by the time 47 divisions of the HEK293 cells have taken place, there will be, on average, one atom left from the original foetal cell in each daughter cell. There may be a profound ‘yuk factor’ in the notion that actual matter, even an atom, from the original foetus could still be present; but the moral significance remains even if the DNA is merely a copy. It is the heritage of today’s HEK293 cells, and the intentions behind their use (not where the actual molecules in them originate), which gives this material moral gravity.
Human cell lines currently used in the USA are noted by the reputable journal, Science with regard to covid-19 vaccines and vaccines against other viruses; the newly-approved one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses the PER.C6 cell line developed from retinal cells of an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. Like HEK293, these cells have been immortalised so that they can be used indefinitely, without needing a fresh fetal source.
The UK Government acknowledges that vaccines in use in Britain make use of:
… human cell line … MRC5; these cells derive from the lung of a 14-week-old male fetus from a pregnancy that was terminated for medical reasons in 1966. This cell line is used to grow viruses for vaccines against rubella, chickenpox and hepatitis A. Other fetal cell lines, collected in the 1970s and 1980s, have been used for other vaccines, including influenza and some of the new COVID-19 vaccines. No fetal material is present in the final vaccine.
There is also the related question of whether aborted or cancerous DNA can have an adverse influence on those vaccinated. When HEK293 or other cell lines are used to grow ‘safe’ viruses to use as vaccines, the product is purified. It is the grown virus, not the HEK293 cells, which are being injected as the vaccine – and a process of purification takes place so that only the desired product ends up in the final vaccine. No purification process is perfect, however so it is acknowledged (and in the papers cited here) that there will be tiny fragments of DNA from the cell line cells still present. These are not complete codes, as in the case of the mRNA vaccine, so there is even less danger of them entering a genome and doing something meaningful – and as one of the pages cited points out, if it were easy for this to happen, scientists would have perfected genetic engineering a long time ago! We do now have tools which allow us to edit genomes (CRISPR-Cas9 technology) but the very fact we need a tool shows that the risk of natural editing taking place is small.
Vaccines which use a weak virus to imitate covid (or any other disease) are grown in cell line cells, so every dose of vaccine has been harvested from cells descended from the tissue of an aborted foetus. The dose no longer contains, except as trace fragments, any part of those cells. The new mRNA vaccines are not grown in this way, but may depend on knowledge from previous research using cell lines – and each batch off the production line is tested using cell-line cells. So there is a difference in degree of connection – some vaccine are grown in cell lines but others can be mass-produced by synthesizing RNA another way. Another ethical distinction can be made between vaccines reliant on HEK293 or PER.C6, which are capable of reproducing indefinitely, and those using other strains such as WI-38 and MRC-5 which will one day reach their reproduction limit; in the latter case, does use imply tacit recognition that one day a new abortion will be needed to replace the cell line?
Of course, it is possible that an ethical alternative may be found. Scientists have considered methods of taking cell samples from embryos without causing injury (though since this is of no direct benefit to the infant, there is a still a question of consent) – and in 2006 we learned how to take tissue from adult donors and regress it so it behaves like embyonic tissue (we call this induced pluripotency). You can now go to a medical supply shop and search for these iP Stem Cells! But the use of these adult-derived cells has not become standard; they have been used to research viruses including Zika and H1N1 flu, but the cell lines are unstable and tend to revert to their specialised parent cells after some generations.
The Ethics of Co-Operation
On certain matters, the Catholic Church offers a simple and clear moral teaching – some actions are wrong in all circumstances, period. One such action (technically, an “intrinsic evil”) is the destruction of an innocent human being, at any moment from conception to natural death.
On other matters, the Church does not dictate what her members can and cannot do, but sets out the values they should weigh in reaching their own conclusions. In 2003, an American pro-life activist asked the Vatican for guidance on whether she should permit her children to receive mandatory vaccinations which had been prepared using foetal cells. The reply came in 2005, and it first summarised the known vaccines at the time which used WI-38 or MRC-5 (there were no HEK293 vaccines mentioned), then set out general principles for co-operation.
Do you approve the immoral act?
Did you do something to enable it?
Did you fail to do something to oppose it?
Is your connection in space or time remote from the evil action?
The conclusion was that those who manufacture or market vaccines from embryonic cell lines are doing something ‘illicit’ but that when there was a proportionate reason to use such a vaccine to avoid grave illness, and no ethical alternative was available, a Catholic could accept such a vaccine for their children in good conscience, but under protest. A note from the Vatican in December 2020 affirmed that this conclusion also applied to covid vaccines – no-one should be obliged to receive them, but given the lethal potential of covid, non-vaccinated objectors had a grave responsibility to avoid spreading the virus, and Catholics could receive tainted vaccines in good conscience.
Some Catholics will question whether a there is a sufficiently grave reason to take the vaccine. There are four immediate reasons:
To protect one’s own health – but this is self-serving and could readily be sacrificed for ethical reasons.
To protect one’s dependents from the consequences of yourself being incapacitated or killed.
To reduce pressure on local intensive care services – if you avoidably take up the last ventilator bed, you may prevent another life from being saved.
To reduce the spread of the virus – but it’s not yet clear how effective vaccines are at doing this.
While the relationship of vaccines and virus transmission is yet to be determined, it’s clear that a person with no dependents nevertheless benefits society by taking a vaccine in order to reduce pressure on intensive care beds – beds which save lives. It seems to me that this is a sufficiently grave reason to receive a vaccine, under protest – but a Catholic with no dependents wishing to make a conscientious stand might equally decline intensive care treatment should they fall seriously ill with covid at a time of peak pressure on the local health service.
Some pro-life activists question whether it can ever be ethical to make use of a tainted vaccine. Surely, if the Vatican says that even even “passive material cooperation should generally be avoided” then there must be something wrong about such co-operation. But to undertake a wrong action is sin, and a Christian should never deliberately choose to sin. So can it ever be ethical to compromise? To this I would reply that there is a long tradition in the church which recognises that Our Lord offered ‘counsels of perfection’. Some choose to take vows of poverty, chastity and religious obedience – but the failure to do so is not a sin. So there is a grey area between ‘choosing what is most perfect’ and ‘choosing what is actually sinful’. Even Our Lord himself directed St Peter to pay tax to the Romans – allowing a coin with an idolatrous image of the emperor to be used to satisfy a public obligation. We know Our Lord did not sin, and yet he could tolerate this. So in the realms of remote co-operation, where a vaccine is needed for the common good, it is not automatically sinful for a Catholic to choose such a vaccine; but an individual Catholic whose conscience is clear that there is not a sufficient reason to accept the vaccine can, and should, refuse. Healthcare providers act disingenuously when they only point out that the Vatican has ‘permitted’ use of such vaccines; the teaching of the Church also endorses recourse to one’s conscience to weigh whether or not to actually accept the vaccine.
Sherry Weddell famously introduced the Catholic world to the ‘thresholds of discipleship’ in her seminal work, Forming Intentional Disciples. But Sherry makes no secret of the fact that the thresholds were not her own invention, but the discovery of two evangelical Christians, Don Everts and Doug Schaupp. I have now had the opportunity to read their book, I Once Was Lost, and reflect on what further insights they bring to the great task of making disciples. Page numbers cited like this refer to the 2008 paperback edition. The publishers also offer relevant online resources.
Both Everts and Schaupp are university campus ministers in the USA, Everts working in Colorado and Schaupp in California.12 From the start of the 1990s they sensed a cultural shift: postmodern youth were no longer willing to accept claims about Jesus and Christianity made by authority figures; they now required authentic witnesses.15 After working with more than 2000 young people making the journey into Christian faith, they noticed a very predictable pattern of conversion, represented by the thresholds; despite taking time to debate possible counterexamples, Everts and Schaupp find that the thresholds continue to be a reliable description of the path of conversion. At the end of the book114 they offer a suggestion by Shannon Lamb that the pathway to a marriage could be used as analogy to committment to Christ, and I use that framework here. They also note that there are five stages in the growth of the grain used by Jesus in the parable of the sower: seed, stalk, head, full grain, ripe.21 Yet Jesus also spoke of the growth of grain as mysterious and unpredictable!18-19
We can only share the Gospel effectively in a relationship of trust – and the sad reality is that not everyone will come to trust us. We can work on being more open by learning not to defend our own viewpoint, become condescending or argue back; we must beware the temptaton to avoid other people or become so tender that we bruise easily.34-35
The book concludes by returning to the beginning: an evangelist must have a servant heart and must lovingly care for the people they come into relationship with. Only in a trusting relationship, earned by loving service, does it become possible to discern where an individual might be along the journey to Christ.133-134
Flirting with Jesus (Curiosity)
Non-Christians pass through different levels of curiosity. First comes awareness – they realise these is such a thing as Christians. Second comes engagement – a willingness to spend time with the Christians they trust, hearing what they have to say. The highest level is exchange – entering into dialogue and being willing to share their own opinons.52-53 We may note that evangelistic courses such as Alpha create the space precisely where people can share their own opinions.
There was a time when it was said, “Just behave kindly to people, and eventually they will ask you to give an account of what motivates you – then you can witness.” This no longer seems to work in the postmodern generation – Christians can easily get stuck in the box of being “kind people” whose kindness needs no further explanation. To get unstuck, we may need to be provocative. Use parables and seek to break out of conventional “either/or” scenarios. You may need to think out loud: “I wonder how many people around here think of spiritual things? I wonder how many people here pray?”56-60
Surviving the First Row (Openness to Change)
It is possible to create an event designed to promote openness. Think of the participants not as seekers but as skeptics or cynics. Such an event should not have overt worship music or prayer, but the arts may be used to communicate encounter with God; topical movies and stories can also be used. There should be clear leadership which presents something about who the real Jesus is, but this event shouldn’t have an altar call – the participants won’t be ready for it.79-80
Dating with a Purpose (Seeking)
A Seeker, in threshold language, is a person who is specifically asking questions about Jesus. This goes beyond general questions about God – a Seeker has heard the Christian claim that Jesus is our Teacher, God incarnate, and wishes to investigate this further. A true Seeker asks these questions with urgency, willing to pay the price which comes with a hard answer.86-88 Seekers can be appropriately exposed to the practices of believers: worship, Bible Study, prayer, church socials and service projects.85 But in service projects, there needs to be an explicit presentation of the Gospel; we cannot expect participants will join the dots for themselve and link the teaching of Jesus to the volunteers’ motivation.101
A possible format for a Seeker Group is a GIG: Group Investigating God.Consider offering a scripure passage (Gospels seem to work best) on a printed sheet where the investigator can highlight, circle, etc. Take 5 inutes to work on the sheet on your own, and then share what you highlighted.93 It is good to set out clear rules and expectations in a Seeker Group, such as:
You must grow!
Be curious; ask questions.
Listen to others.
Seekers are likely to ask the question about why God allows suffering. The best response is generally not abstract philosophy but a personal testimony of how you have experienced God’s presence the midst of your own suffering. You may also find citing C. S. Lewis useful.91
An event aimed at true Seekers can appropriately include an Altar Call. But discernment is needed with each person who responds by coming forward. Who has actually committed their life to Jesus, and thereby crossed the fifth threshold? Who is simply declaring that they are interested in Jesus and want to know more, signalling that they are at the fourth?85
The Wedding (Intentional Discipleship)
Will you follow Jesus? No groom would get away with pledging to love his wife four days a week and trying to be there for her in hard times – he has to go all-in. There can be an urgency about challenging a Seeker to cross the line and make a committment before their questioning heart cools down. The challenge must be clear – not dressed up in obscuring church language, but not over-simmplified either. The challenge is not to “say a sinner’s prayer”. The challenge is to become a follower of Jesus, to seek His will and live by His commandments.112
Like the third threshold, this one can be surrounded by intense spiritual warfare. Potential converts may be gripped by a ‘fear of change’ which requires specific ministry.111
Surviving the Honeymoon
Following the key moment of making a personal commitment to Christ, there’s often a honeymoon period of around three weeks, followed by a deep spiritual attack. It is good for a discipler to intensively mentor a new Christian with 2-3 contacts a week for the first 6-8 weeks or so. The discipler should make it clear that such intensity is useful (in case it feels heavy) but does not set the pattern for the long term relationship (lest the new Christian expect enduring regular contact).126-129
In the early days after committing to Christ, the new convert will have many emotions to process and may wonder if they made an authentic decision. After these days, the discipler will need to help the new Christian form a good habit of regular prayer, Bible reading, witnessing when appropriate, serving others and taking their place in a worshipping community. Towards the end of the honeymoon, the discipler should ensure that the new Christian has a stable relationship with believers who will support their onward journey in that fellowship.
Catholics may note some similarity with the Mystagogia period from initiation at the Easter Vigil to the time around Pentecost seven weeks later. Insofar as there is a real change in the new Catholic’s life – access to the sacraments – and the cessation of a discipleship group (the RCIA fellowship) then attention to the new member is important. But we must also recognise that the sacraments of initiation celebrate publicly a decision to be a disciple of Christ which may have been made interiorly some months earlier – not fitting neatly with the date of Easter. It is equally important to offer spiritual mentorship at the time of personal conversion to Christ.
Today we face three principles which sit uneasily together.
First, Jesus is Lord. We must obey Jesus. Christians have been killed for refusing to trample on images of Jesus, or for insisting that the Pope is his vicar on earth. Jesus made it clear in his teachings that we must stand up for him before men, if he is to stand up for us before God-the-Father.
Second, God’s general instruction, and Christ’s example, is that we must obey civil authorities. This is not absolute – we should resist orders which are evil, such as being a perpetrator of genocide, using weapons of mass destruction, or being complicit in abortion. Yet Jesus paid his taxes ‘so as not to give offence’ while accepting the assertion that, as son of God, he was exempt.
Third, civil society recognises that there is a ‘human right’ to freedom of religious worship. The Catholic Church does not ground this right in the truthfulness of other religions – for insofar as they contradict what God has revealed through the Catholic Church, other religions and other expressions of Christianity are ‘not true’. Yet the Church does recognise that part of our human dignity is a ‘right to be wrong’ about religious matters and to come to the truth of the Catholic faith in one’s own time, without coercion. This requires a civic level playing field for religions to operate.
On 3 November, our bishops, together with other religious leaders, wrote to the Prime Minister. They pointed out that with proper stewarding, there is no strong evidence that public acts of worship present any significant danger. They noted that public worship is good for our sense of hope in the future, for good mental health, and for keeping people connected with one another. By doing this, our bishops have been promoting religion in general, and the right to public worship. Pope Francis has also been promoting ‘religion in general’ in his dialogue with Islam, but drew back from doing so in Fratelli Tutti.
The following day, 4 November, the UK Government did not exempt churches from the current lockdown and the bishops promptly reminded us that we must obey the Government when it commands churches in England to close.
What we ask for and what we want are not always the same thing. By asking for the churches to remain open, the bishops have said, “Hey! Public worship is important!” If schools are important enough to be allowed to stay open, why not churches? But imagine what would have happened if we had got our wish. Then a terrible responsibility would have fallen on our bishops: to exercise the freedom to open, or to support the effort to minimise social interaction to restrict the spread of covid-19, and close anyway?
Western governments are not attacking religious worship because they oppose worship. The blunt truth is that to keep the viral reproductive ratio below 1, only a handful of public activities can be permitted. This does require a value-judgment about borderline activities. Schooling can be done online, but has severe consequences for working parents and in households which lack internet connectivity. Is ‘keeping schools open’ more important than keeping churches open? Theoretically, the command to love God before loving fellow man means that public worship should be the highest priority. But the practical consequences of worshipping at home are less disruptive than the consequences of home-schooling.
There is another issue we must be wary of, when the Church asserts its independence above any earthly authority. That independence has often been abused where it has been granted. Historically, many men applied to enter the ‘clerical state’ for reasons more to do with avoiding capital punishment than for pursuing a religious vocation. Jesus did not seek equality with God something to be grasped, but humbled himself. It is a very dangerous sign when the Church seeks exemption from civil law without, in the same breath, voluntarily providing an equivalent mechanism for accountability. Who will hold our bishops accountable for implementing best practice in Safeguarding?
Pope Pius XI founded today’s feast in 1925, as a sign that Christ is King, even if earthly governments no longer acknowledged this. But let us remember what kind of King we worship:
Did he use his authority to leap off the Temple and prove that angels would catch him? No. He said that he shouldn’t put his Father to the test.
Did he assert his right not to pay taxes to any worldly emperor? No. He said that although, as God’s son, he was exempt, he would pay the tax to avoid giving offence.
Did he use his power to strike down those who came to arrest him? No, he healed the ear of a servant after his leading disciple, Peter, cut it off!
Did he use his divinity to cheat death by rising off the Cross? No, he used it to trick Death so that death itself would die, embracing death so that he could rise again on the third day.
This is our King, the King of contradictions.
“I’m going to look after the sheep myself!” says God, in the first reading.
We sang in the psalm that because the Good Shepherd is looking after us, “there is nothing we shall want”.
But in the Gospel, Jesus has given the work of looking after one another to us. Part of that mutual care is in acting responsibly in the face of a virus, and recognising that fallible human nature needs strong accountability mechanics in areas such as Safeguarding,
In our second reading, Jesus has a plan to take control of everything – angels and demons, life and death – and what will he do when everything submits to him? Give it all to His Father.
We can argue for freedom of worship where it is practical. We must worship God in due obedience. But we can adapt what we do, for the common good, without denying the centrality of God – for we honour Christ the King only by ruling as humbly as he did.
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’.
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!
The text which follows is the extended version of an interview I recently offered LRT Radio in Lithuania, in preparation for supporting Lithuania’s International Evangelisation School. The edited version, in translation, can be heard on the radio site.
Our guest today is Fr Gareth Leyshon, a Catholic priest from the UK. Fr Gareth has been a parish priest for 12 years, but now works full-time with the Sion Community for Evangelism. Fr Gareth, could you tell us something about yourself and the community you belong to?
It’s great to be with you today! You could say I am on my 4th career at the moment! I was given my first computer in 1982. I learned to program when I was still at school. In the 1980s there were lots of “learn to program” magazines. I earned some money writing articles for them. But I was more interested in astronomy, so at school I specialised in maths and physics. I went to Oxford University for three years, and then went home to Wales for my PhD. I spent four years studying dust falling into black holes in distant galaxies – that was my 2nd career.
During the 1990s, I went on many Catholic retreats for young adults. The “Youth 2000” movement invited young people to spend time praying the rosary, adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and listening to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Towards the end of my degree, I went to one of these retreats and asked God what I should do next. Nothing clear came to me in the prayer time, but I drove a friend home from the retreat. In the car, we talked about our futures. I remember saying: “I don’t know what I’m going to do next but when I become a priest…” I stopped talking, I was so surprised at those words coming out of my mouth! So in 1999, I handed in my PhD thesis in July and started seminary in September.
Every Catholic priest either belongs to a religious community or works under the authority of a local bishop. I applied to the Archbishop of Cardiff, who is responsible for South-East Wales, and one county in England across the border. I was ordained priest in 2007 and my 3rd career was in parish ministry. I spent 6 years in one parish in the Welsh Valleys, which used to be a centre for coal mining and iron making, but had become a university town. Then I served in several parishes in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales. But I sensed God was asking me for something more – which is why I asked my bishop for permission to join the Sion Community for Evangelism.
I learned about Sion Community in the 1990s, when I met two of its founder members who had become teachers in Wales. When they started a family, they had to leave full-time mission work. Then in 2006, I spent three months training with Sion Community. Although priests spend six years in seminary, I didn’t feel well equipped to share the Catholic message with people who weren’t believers. How do we help people with no faith discover that God is real? How can we show Catholics who no longer attend church that God is inviting them to meet him there? What can we say to Catholics who do go to Mass, to help them discover that Jesus is alive and wants to speak to their hearts? Why don’t many Catholics want to invite other people to come to church and know Jesus? My bishop gave me permission to attend a three-month course with Sion Community to find out.
As a newly ordained priest, I had no free time to keep up my links with Sion Community. But in 2016, my bishop made some changes to my duties which gave me enough space to become a part-time, or ‘Associate’ member of the community. That meant that I could help out with parish missions – going to another parish for a week to preach at daily services and assist with confessions. It also meant I could attend the two community gatherings each year, spending time with other Catholics – mostly laity, not clergy – people who were passionate about sharing the message of Jesus. During those years of part-time membership, I experienced an overwhelming joy every time I assisted with a mission or attended a community gathering. This led me to ask my bishop for permission to leave my parish and be a full-time missionary – so I began my 4th career, as a Sion Community Missionary, in January last year.
Before coronavirus, the full time missionary work took me to parishes in Scotland, Ireland and Wales for weeks of preaching. I also helped our school mission team to work in several schools in England. With school pupils, we use music, drama, videos and, for the younger children, puppet shows, to share the message that God loves us and Jesus wants to teach us how to love other people. Right now, we cannot visit schools or parishes. We are learning how to make video resources and connect with young people, safely, through social media.
Are you a Catholic believer from your childhood? Which love did come first – science or faith?
I became a Catholic when I was 16 years old. Wales in the 1970s was a Christian culture. Most children were sent to some kind of church – Anglican, Methodist, Baptist or Catholic. Even the Government-run schools had Christian prayers every morning. Both my parents grew up as members of the Anglican Church, but stopped worshipping when they were teenagers. Dad isn’t sure that there is a God – he would call himself agnostic. Mum believes there is Someone but doesn’t let it affect her life. I was baptised as an Anglican at 9 months – my grandfather was an active member of that church, and made sure that happened. When I was old enough to go to children’s church, my parents sent me to a local evangelical group called the Salvation Army.
My love for science came long before I took an interest in God. As a child, I loved reading books, and would go every week to the children’s library in town to borrow something new to read. At the age of 7, I discovered the science section. As soon as I had read a book about space, I wanted to know more – within a few months, I had read every astronomy book they had! Then my parents bought me a telescope so I could study the planets and stars at night.
Faith only came to me when I was 11 years old. I learned about Bible stories from Sunday School with the Salvation Army – and at weekday school. But I never asked myself if I thought they were real. I knew how to say the right words when it was my turn to pray, but I never asked if I was really ‘talking to someone’. Then, in February 1985, my grandmother died. It was the first time I’d lost a grandparent when I was old enough for that to hurt. I said the first serious prayer of my life: “God, if you are there, look after my grandmother – and show me you are real.”
What happened next is difficult to put into words. Over the next few weeks, I had a definite sense that Someone was there when I prayed. I would pray for lost things to be found, and they would be found quickly. I read about the different religions in the world. Who was this Someone I was connecting with?
Later that same year, I started Secondary School, and was given a Bible to read. You might have heard of the Gideon Society, who leave Bibles in hotel rooms around the world? In Wales in the 1990s, they tried to give every child a copy of the New Testament and Psalms. The gift came with a request to read the Bible every day, and it came with a 2-year reading plan. So in 2 years I had read the whole of the New Testament. It seemed to me that the Someone I was connecting with by praying was the same Jesus I met in the pages of the Bible. There was no other religion in the world whose founder had passed through death and returned alive!
Much of what the Bible asked me to do, I was already doing. I tried my best to be kind, help other people, and forgive quickly. But there was one thing Jesus asked me to do that I wasn’t already doing: to eat his flesh, and drink his blood. I was still going to church on Sundays, but the Salvation Army didn’t offer Holy Communion. So I read about the other kinds of church, and I discovered that the Catholic Church had believed for 2000 years that when a priest blessed bread and wine, it really becomes Jesus’ Body and Blood. I also read about places like Lourdes and Fatima. If the Mother of Jesus was appearing and asking people to pray the rosary, the Catholic Church must be doing a good thing! So at the age of about 14, I decided that I wanted to be a Catholic. But it took two more years for me to find the courage to tell my parents and start going to Mass! I became a Catholic at the Easter Vigil in 1990, at the age of 16.
So I fell in love first with science, then with Jesus, then with the Catholic Church. Science was my first loved, and it shaped my decisions for university. I applied to the famous Oxford University and was accepted to read Physics. There, I fell in love with a girl for the first time in my life – but it didn’t work out. I started thinking about priesthood before I left Oxford, but the chaplains there said I was too new as a Catholic to be ready to make that decision. Instead, I worked in another English University, Nottingham, as a chaplain’s assistant for a year. Then Cardiff University offered me a funded place to research Black Holes!
Gravity is the most powerful physical force in the universe. A star shines because it’s a nuclear reactor, but when it runs out of suitable fuel to burn, gravity takes over. It’s the heat from the nuclear reactions which keeps the heart of a star bubbling up at a particular size. When a star reaches the end of its life, its heart collapses and its outer shell is blown off into space. You’ve probably seen beautiful pictures of space clouds from the Hubble Space Telescope? Many of those are the outer shells of exploded stars. But gravity can crush the heart of the star into something so tiny that, with all the matter piled up in one place, nothing – not even light – can travel fast enough to overcome the gravity. That’s what we call a Black Hole.
We think that many, if not all, galaxies have a black hole at their centre. A galaxy is a collection of hundreds of millions of stars bound together by gravity. The stars swirl around each other, often forming spiral patterns – but if they travel too close to the heart of the galaxy, they will be torn apart by the Black Hole and add to its power. The more stuff that falls into the black hole, the stronger it gets. But like water flowing down your plughole, stuff can’t fall straight into the Black Hole – if too much of it tries to go in at once, it creates a ring with the inner edge falling in first. My PhD work was to study these rings, and see if light from the hot gas there behaved in the ways that scientists predicted. My conclusion was that it did – but the evidence was not strong because the signals were so hard to measure.
Half-way through my PhD I had to start thinking about my next career move. Did I wish to become a teacher? Did I want to continue scientific research? But that was when I drove home from a youth retreat and found myself declaring that I wanted to be a priest!
Can faith and science fundamentally match together? How do you personally reconcile the fact that you are PhD in astrophysics and a priest?
Any scientist is a truth-seeker. How does the Universe work? What does the evidence say? We build on our knowledge of things which are certain, to explore ideas which are uncertain. Scientists have good imaginations. We produce thousands of ideas! But we must test our ideas against the real world, and nature is always right! A professional scientist needs lots of humility; the scientist must always recognise truth, even when it means letting go of his or her own ideas.
My journey into faith was also a search for truth. What do the different religions in the world say? Which one matches my experience of prayer? Which one makes predictions which I can test out in my life?
I had several data points to work with. First, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead – and hundreds of martyrs died in the first Christian century for insisting that it was true. Second, the places that the Virgin Mary had appeared, asking people to go to Mass and pray the rosary. Third, the things Jesus said about people who follow him. Would we experience answered prayer? Would we experience the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit? When I was a very new believer, God seemed to give positive answers to my simple prayers for lost things. I don’t get instant answers to prayers now, but I understand that is part of growing up with God. There comes a point where God says: “Do you love the things I can give you, or will you love Me even without them?” So I would say that my choices to believe in God and to become a Catholic were very ‘scientific’ decisions.
Why does the Universe exist? There are three ways of answering that question. One is to say it had no beginning and has ‘always’ existed so it doesn’t need a reason. Another is to say that ‘God made it’ – but any small child will then ask, ‘Who made God?’. The third is to come up with a scientific reason why a universe can start existing – and because the universe contains everything that exists, that’s a problem of creating something from nothing. For the last 100 years, science has studied ways of creating ‘something from nothing’, which happens as part of what we call quantum mechanics. At the level of individual atoms, the universe is fuzzy, and for a very short moment of time, particles can come into existence and then disappear again. This is called the ‘Casimir Effect’ and although it sounds strange, it can be measured in a laboratory. We have demonstrated that mathematical truth is powerful enough to make things start existing. It’s not such a large leap after that to imagine that mathematical truth can make something exist which doesn’t disappear in a fraction of a second, too! So as a scientist, I would say that it is Truth which makes the Universe exists – but as a believer, I would say that Truth is another name for God.
Now, did God have to nudge the Universe as it grew and developed to produce what we see today? Did God have to set the laws of physics just right so stars would have time to shine for millions of years? Did God nudge the origins of life on earth or the development of human beings? I don’t know. I believe that God CAN intervene and work miracles. But the history of science tells me of many examples where we first said “That step in the history of a star or a species is so unlikely that only God could make it happen” – and then we discovered something we didn’t know before which gives an explanation with no need for God’s help! So I will never rush to say “God is the answer!” when faced with a difficult science problem.
There are some Christians who find it difficult to accept all that science tells us. If you believe every word in the Bible is literally true, then you quickly run into problems with science. When you add up the ages of everyone in the Old Testament, our world seems to be about 6,000 years old; the scientific evidence says 4,600,000,000. Archaeologists say human beings have been around for 300,000 years and in Europe for 40,000 years. Of course God COULD have created the world 6,000 years ago making it look like it had been around for millions of years already; without a time machine to go back and check, there’s no way to tell the difference! But as Catholics, we are not required to take every word in the Bible literally. We can read the Book of Nature as well as the Book of Scripture – God speaks through both. Even St John Paul II said that they theory of evolution was ‘more than a hypothesis’, recognising that it was the best scientific explanation for the origin of human life. But that doesn’t stop me believing that God adds a spiritual essence, a soul, to each new human being, and that soul continues to live after the body dies.
I no longer work in scientific research; my ministry as a priest requires my full attention to other duties. But I still identify myself as a ‘scientist’ and I rejoice that there are priests who do work as full-time scientists, some of them running the Vatican Observatory!
How do you talk about God to a modern person? What is actually more important – to know God by intellect or to have a living experience with Him?
Let’s start with the word ‘God’. I’ve learned, in my ministry as a priest, that this word, this name, means different things to different people. Often I am approached by a young adult who went to Catholic School, and now wants to have a baby baptised. I ask, “Tell me the story of where God is in your life?” Usually the person will say: “I got baptised, made my first communion, went to a Catholic School, maybe got confirmed” – and I say, “I’m glad the Church was such a big part of your life. But where was God?”
Now one of two things will happen. Half the time, the young adult tells me about church again. For these young people, the word “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. The other half will say: “God is always there. When I am sad, he makes me happy. When I need help, I pray.” That’s better, because at least they know God is a Someone. But they haven’t realised that Jesus came to help us know God as our Father; they don’t know that God asks us to connect with Him at Mass because he loves us. I once spoke to a young Polish woman and asked: “When you were confirmed, didn’t they tell you that God was a Father who loves you?” Her eyes opened wide – and for the first time, she heard it and believed. I’m sure they don’t forget to tell children that message in Poland – but it was only on that day that she was ready to hear it.
In the same way, as a child I learned many stories from the Bible, but I didn’t ask whether I believed they were true until my grandmother died. Then, suddenly, it mattered to know the answer! Now, when I work with children preparing for First Communion, I always say: “You’ve learned lots of stories from the Bible. But do you believe Jesus rose from the dead? Do you think he really came to help us know God Our Father?” Until it becomes real – until it becomes personal – our faith isn’t a living thing. So absolutely, it is important to not just know God in our minds but connect with him in our hearts.
In philosophy, there are many so-called ‘proofs’ that God exists. They use logic to show that there must be a First Cause, an Unmoved Mover, a Ground of all Being. It makes sense that to avoid an infinite chain of cause and effect, something or someone must be at the beginning. For some people, this kind of logic is enough to come to know that God exists. But this kind of God, a powerful Truth that summons all things into existence, can feel quite cold. Jesus came to show us that God is not an impersonal, mathematical, force but a loving person who longs to know us as his children.
In my time as a Catholic, I’ve met many people who have had a deep emotional experience of becoming aware of God’s love – a personal love for them alone. I’ve never had that kind of experience; my journey is an intellectual one of knowing that Jesus speaks truth and so I am certain that God is present as a loving Father. I might never experience that love emotionally until I die and reach heaven – but the knowledge that it is true is enough to commit my life to the work of a priest and of a missionary.
Jesus said “Go and make disciples of all nations.” My calling is to invite people to listen to Jesus and follow him, trusting that this will give them a beautiful life not only in this world but for eternity. Not everyone accepts the message – but Jesus gave us the Parable of the Sower to warn us that many of our seeds will fall on ground which is not ready. To any modern person willing to listen, I will say: Seek the Lord and you will find him – but be warned, this is a life changing experience. So God says “seek with all your heart”. If you are ready for your life to be transformed, dare to do what I did. Say: God if you’re there, show me!
How do we reach Catholics on the periphery? Many young people raised in Catholic households have never found the Church and her message attractive; when they leave home they cease to worship, but this is not so much a deliberate rejection of Catholicism as a failure to be drawn by it. In Canada, Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) has been working for 31 years to engage with these dormant Catholics, and founder André Regnier recently gave a seminar in London.
CCO began as, and is still primarily, a movement of University students. Its missionaries seek to reach into University and connect with Catholics who have not yet embraced their spiritual heritage. CCO missionaries take this role on as a long-term calling, not a gap year. The Canadian bishops have asked CCO to help equip parishes over the last decade, so the work has moved beyond the campus – but the focus is always on the periphery.
The Discovery Course from CCO is a simple evangelisation tool which can be studied by a small group of participants in someone’s living room or even in a one-to-one context over coffee. It can fill the gap in contexts which are too small to make viable the running of Alpha or a similar course.
A structural flaw in the way we do church is that we don’t have middle managers. There is no level between the parish priest and the 20+ key people in the parish who are leading catechetical groups and other activities. But we need middle-managers with a heart for reaching individuals and who accompany the leaders to coach them on how to deal with individual participants.
André is not only a campus minister. As a father, he has raised a family of missionary disciples. The whole family co-authored a book about how that happened! See Brick by Brick by the Regnier Family.
How to Have a Conversation
Can you share a meaningful message about Jesus if you only have 2 minutes for a conversation? As Catholics we suffer an embarrassment of riches in our theological heritage – but Evangelium Gaudium (35) calls us to be good at proclaiming the essentials. Can you make a concrete invitation to say a prayer or connect with a church at the end of what you say? Do you expect to provoke a conversion experience through this encounter?
It’s all too easy to enter a conversation with judgement and expectation (Why don’t you go to Mass? Why aren’t you pro-life? Don’t you believe Mary is appearing at such-and-such a place?) – when we have something much simpler to share. “You are loved. God created you to have a relationship with you. We human beings don’t love perfectly, but Jesus came to show us perfect love and to re-connect us with God.” CCO distributes a little booklet called The Ultimate Relationshipwhich can be helpful for these kinds of conversations.
In our evangelistic conversations, we must be intentional about what we want to achieve, and respectful of where the other person is at. Start by building rapport – look for a common point of interest. Survey the situation – get to know the person, or the place, you are going to work with. “What” questions are good open questions – not demanding an emotional response, nor triggering an ‘agree or fight’ response. (Jesus often taught using questions!) You can often ‘zoom in’ using a follow-up question. Or you can present images of Christ being close to, or further from, a person and say “Where do you think you are at?”
Beware of programmes! If a participant is wrestling with a basic issue like the divinity of Christ, there’s no use in moving on to a deeper subject just because the programme says it’s time to do it or because it’s what I learned in last week’s leadership training. Respectful listening requires attentiveness to the other person. André’s book Clear and Simple offers further insights on having a conversation which leads to conversion.
Our call, as Catholics, truly is to invite all people to experience a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This is not an alien, Protestant, idea – but one which numerous official Catholic documents on evangelisation reiterate. Pope Benedict XVI, preaching to the thousands gathered for World Youth Day 2011, invited young people to respond to Jesus by saying a prayer like this:
Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me.
Not all religious experiences are conversion experiences. A religious experience is about the presence of God or someone/something holy. Sometimes, but not always, this provokes a conversion – a sorrow for sin, a desire for confession, a new fervour for following Jesus.
A healthy relationship is rooted in consent. But in practice we present the Catholic faith as a duty. Like a marriage, a personal committment to the Catholic faith should be a free act of will to enter into a relationship.
In Western cultures, we might find that 15% of the baptised Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday – but some of those are going only once a month. Only 5% of those regular Massgoers are deeply committed missionary disciples. But… if these disciples could be formed, inspired and given the right tools, they could double their number in mere months!