The Call of Our Lady of Prayer

In 1947, in the course of a week from Monday 8th to Sunday 14th December, Our Lady appeared to four children in the small town of L’Île-Bouchard, not far from the city of Tours in France.

In 2001, Archbishop Vingt-Trois of Tours issued an official decree recognising that pilgrims had encountered the grace of God at L’Île-Bouchard and encouraging further devotion there. This is not an explicit finding that the claimed apparition is true; but establishing that there are fruits of prayer without distorted devotions is a key step on the way to full Church recognition. For me, that was a good enough reason to visit the shrine last week.

What happened at L’Île-Bouchard? December 1947 was a time of crisis in France. It was only two years after the Nazi surrender, French Communists had become powerful, and the nation was in the grip of a general strike. On 8 December – the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception – several important events occurred. A state funeral took place for the noted Catholic General Leclerc; the mystic Venerable Marthe Robin commented to a worried priest that “the Virgin Mary is going to save France by the prayers of little children”; and the sisters who ran the school in L’Île-Bouchard had completed a secret novena with a prayer of consecration to the Virgin Mary.

Monday 8 December

6 Ile Bouchard (13)Jacqueline Aubry (12), her sister Jeanette (7) and their cousin Nicole Robin (10) were in the habit of visiting the local church, St Gilles, during the school lunch break. Although their parents were not practising Catholics, Jacqueline had learned the habit of prayer from an elderly neighbour, Mademoiselle Grandin. On this day, during their lunchtime prayers, the girls unexpectedly saw a silent image of the Virgin Mary with an angel kneeling beside her. Written below the image, in French, was the prayer which also appears on the Miraculous Medal: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” The children went out to alert others – when their friend Laura Croizon (8) came in, she too saw the vision, but Laura’s elder sister (13) did not.

When they went back to school that afternoon, their claims of a vision received a cool reception from the teaching sisters. Jacqueline misinterpreted one teacher’s sarcastic comment as permission to return to the church, and so she rounded up the other three girls to return to St Gilles. The beautiful lady was already there in the same place, and this time she spoke: “Tell the little children to pray for France, for her need is great.” When asked her identity, she replied, “but of course, I am your Heavenly Mama.” The children asked the identity of the angel; for the only time in the whole series of apparitions, the angel spoke, saying “I am the angel Gabriel.”

The Virgin then bent down towards them, held out her right hand, and said “Give me your hands to kiss.” The girls were unused to such manners, and when Jacqueline offered her open palm, the Virgin turned it over before planting a kiss on her fingers. Nicole reached up, on tip-toes, to receive her kiss; Jacqueline then had to bodily lift up Laura and Jeanette, who were too short to reach the height of the apparition.

Finally, the lady asked the children to come back the same day at 5 pm and the following day at 1 pm – but since circumstances stopped the other children from being able to come, only Jacqueline was present at 5 pm, when Benediction was scheduled. Alone among the many worshippers in the church, she saw the Virgin in the same place – but the lady disappeared for the duration of Benediction itself.

Tuesday 9 December

The four children were all able to return to the church for 1 pm the following day. They received a vision which was similar, but different in detail. The Virgin’s hair no longer cascaded down her chest but was pulled back and hidden under the veil; the angel now knelt on the right, and the inscription on the rocks was different. This time, it was the title Our Lady had identified herself with at Lourdes – “I am the Immaculate Conception.” There was also a word written in gold letters across the Virgin’s chest, but partially obscured by her hands: “MA—–CAT”.

This time the Virgin, who had a rosary over her right arm, stretched out the hand holding the golden crucifix of her rosary, inviting the children to kiss the image of Jesus. As when invited to receive the Virgin’s kiss, Jacqueline and Nicole stretched up to do so and then Jacqueline lifted up the younger two. They then imitated the Virgin in making a very slow sign of the cross, lasting all of two minutes. The Virgin instructed them: “Pray for France, which in these days is in great danger.” Then she asked them to tell the parish priest to come at 2 o’clock, bringing “the children and a crowd to pray”.

The parish priest did not agree to this request, and so the children were in class at 2 pm, but were able to return to the church for 5 pm. This time the Virgin asked the girls to sing the Hail Mary, and then through them asked the crowd present to approach and recite ten Hail Marys. Finally, she asked the children to come each day at 1 o’clock and blessed the crowd with another slow sign of the cross. It was on this day that the French communists called off their general strike.

Wednesday 10 December

Today, when the Virgin appeared, she first asked the girls to sing the Hail Mary, after which they spontaneously prayed ten more Haily Marys and a Glory Be. Then the Virgin beckoned them forwards, sweetly and softly saying “Kiss my hand.” This the children did, Jacqueline lifting up the two little ones as before.

Jacqueline’s mother was present, and although she could not see the Virgin, through the children’s action she was aware that the Virgin was present. Madame Aubry implored her daughter: “Ask the Blessed Virgin to perform a miracle so that everyone will believe!” Jacqueline did ask but the lady replied: “I have not come here to perform miracles but to tell you to pray for France; but tomorrow you will see clearly and you won’t wear glasses anymore.” (Jacqueline not only wore thick glasses but had a chronic eye condition such that her eyes wept pus regularly.)

Thursday 11 December

On Thursday morning, Jacqueline awoke to find that her eyes had indeed been cured and she had no need of her daily lotion of hot water to remove the nightly crust. Not only that, she was no longer cross-eyed!

Again, today’s apparition began with the girls being asked sing the Hail Mary. The lady then asked them whether they prayed for sinners; since they were often led to pray this way by their parish priest, they affirmed that they did. Jacqueline asked whether the lady would cure many sick people; the Virgin did not give a direct answer but said “There will be happiness in families” and asked for another sung Hail Mary.

Friday 12 December

Today’s apparition took on a novel appearance: the Virgin was crowned by shining rays, each a foot long. Two narrow ones in the centre were intense blue; five broader ones fanned out on each side consecutively red, yellow, green, pink and brownish-red. The outer rays curved inwards, forming a shell shape. Today the virgin also held her hands lower so the word written in gold across her chest was clearly visible: MAGNIFICAT.

(The December 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe would not have been part of the calendar in France at that time, but it is noteworthy that the colourfulness of the image revealed today echoes the beauty of the tilma of St Juan Diego.)

On this day, the Virgin Mary asked three times that the girls should sing the Hail Mary; then again she asked that they should kiss her hand. Once again, the girls affirmed that they did indeed pray for sinners. The Virgin responded: “Good! Above all, pray a lot for sinners,” and led the girls in a decade of the rosary.

In response to two requests for healings, first for a girl present the lady said: “If I don’t heal her here I will heal her elsewhere” (which indeed happened soon afterwards), then “I have not come here to perform miracles, but that you should pray for France.”

Saturday 13 December

By Saturday, crowds had started flocking to the church, and about 500 people were present. In the course of the apparition, Our Lady asked for four decades of the rosary. As onlookers who had fallen away from the habit of prayer began to respond, it seemed to the seers that Our Lady grew more joyful. Finally, she declared that the following day would be her last visit.

Sunday 14 December

On this final day, a crowd of about two thousand people had come and were crammed into every corner of the church. The children offered to the Virgin the flowers and messages they have been given by the people of the parish. In answer to one question about how we should console Our Lord for the suffering caused to him by sinners, the Virgin simply said: “Pray and make sacrifices.” After some decades of the rosary, she led the girls to make the Miraculous Medal invocation: “Pray for us who have recourse to you.” The Virgin then asked for the crowd to sing the Magnificat, and when that was done she asked for a third and then a fourth decade of the rosary, again prompting the same invocations. Finally, asking the girls once again whether they prayed for sinners, she invited the children (and all present) to extend their arms in the form of the Cross as they prayed the fifth decade of the rosary.

Before the Virgin Mary took her leave for the last time, she once again blessed the crowd with a very slow sign of the Cross, which the girls followed. As this took place, a ray of sunlight entered the church and illuminated the corner where the girls’ eyes were fixed. Many in the wintry church felt strangely warmed at that moment, and later it was confirmed that it was not physically possible for the winter sunlight to have followed that path in the natural course of things.

Affirming these Apparitions

Apart from Jacqueline’s persistent cure and the physically impossible ray of sunlight, two other features give credence to this account. In the natural order of things, it would not have been possible for the frail Jacqueline to lift the two young children as she did; and indeed she tried and failed when tested outside the context of an apparition. Also, on the later days, the priest and sisters in the parish took care to separate the children as soon as the apparitions were over, and yet their accounts tallied in detail, notably on the Friday when Our Lady wore her unprecedented resplendent crown.

There is nothing new in these messages, and this is part of their beauty. Mary echoes the call to pray for “us sinners” which she issued to St Catherine Labouré, and re-affirms her identity as the “Immaculate Conception” as she did to St Bernadette in Lourdes. If you visit the church of St Gilles today, you will find it hung with banners each containing one of Our Lady’s simple phrases – here on the right, “Do you pray for sinners?”

At that time of need in France, she asked simple children to pray for France. Each of us can pray for our own nation and its needs. She asked for prayers to be both spoken and sung – in the latter case, the Hail Mary and the Magnificat. (As I am travelling through France this month, I have noticed it is common practice for the last Hail Mary of each decade to be sung when the rosary is prayed in common.)

As an evangelist, Mary begins her encounter by building a bridge of trust – she honours the simple children by kissing their hands. Next, she leads them to Jesus, offering the crucifix for them to venerate. By this time, the girls are discovering that it is costly to be a seer among sceptical adults, but they persevere. They gain the confidence to ask questions, and Our Lady catechises them – in the face of the mystery of human suffering, they are promised only that “there will be happiness in families”. Ultimately the Mother of God is able to call the children – and those who will follow them – to the response she is looking for: acts of love for the Immaculate Conception by invoking her prayers for sinners.

L’Île-Bouchard Today

Pilgrims are welcome to visit L’Île-Bouchard today, and indeed throughout 2017 the parish is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the apparitions. The parish is served by priests of the Emmanuel Community, and Mass is celebrated daily at 11.15 (there may be additional Masses at some times of year). Across the road from the church is a small information bureau where a video plays an hour-long interview with Jacqueline Aubry; this is currently only in French, although they hope to have an English version in 2018.

Jacqueline died of Alzheimer’s disease last year; her younger sister Jeanette died in 2001. Neither married. Both Laura and Nicole did marry; Laura died of diabetic complications on Christmas Eve 1999. At the time of writing, Nicole is still alive and living in Maine et Loire.

6 Ile Bouchard (5)


No Preferential Option for the Poor? Shame on You!

In the last week or so, two global news stories have forced us to think about the values we hold.

A Google employee wrote a memo suggesting that women might have different innate skills to men, and so it might be wrong to aspire to have equal numbers of women and men coding. He was fired.

Right wing extremists rioted in the USA, and one person in the crowd of counter-demonstrators was killed, but President Trump only called for “restraint on all sides” without clearly condemning extreme right wing views. Many politicians condemned this omission.

I get most of my news from the BBC. Now, is the BBC being neutral about these stories and merely commenting that many politicians are talking about these matters – or is there an editorial stance which assumes that the “balanced” position is to assume absolute equality for women and condemnation of neo-Nazi views? Of course, if you click the two links above, you will find the BBC offering views both for and against in each case – but the very decision to give these stories a high place in the headlines is itself a judgment that these are important questions, and therefore there is strong reason for viewers and listeners to think that the Google engineer and President Trump made the wrong call.

As a Catholic, I don’t believe in equality. With our bishops, I do believe in a “preferential option for the poor” which seeks to give an explicit advantage to those who are oppressed. I also believe that when it comes to women in the workplace, society should ensure that those who wish to work full time are able to do so, and those who wish to be homemakers are supported economically. This was the stance of St John Paul II (see paragraph 4 of his Letter to Women) and has been reaffirmed by Pope Francis (see also paragraph 173 of Amoris Letitia).

So, gentle reader, do you believe that 50% of the technical employees at Google should be women?

If you do, that position has consequences.

If you believe in full employment, it follows that you believe no mother should stay at home to look after her children, and social policies should seek to continue recruiting women until no stay-at-home mothers are left.

Or perhaps you believe that men should play an equal part in the life of the home. In that case, will you promote policies which encourage fathers to spend more time at home, have flexible working, and be affirmed as homemakers?

I believe that women are, on average, different to men – and there is legitimate debate among psychologists about what that difference looks like. I don’t find it surprising that many women feel called to be homemakers. I applaud efforts to get more women coding and to coach them to have every advantage when entering fair contests for technical jobs. I think Google’s target should be much higher than the 20% of women currently in technical roles, but nowhere near 50%. If an I.T. company has 30-40% of women in technical roles, I would judge it to be doing rather well. If it also has more than 15% of its male employees exercising flexitime and parental leave for family reasons, I will be delighted. But when we state aspirations for women in the workplace, we should also state aspirations for how many women we expect to spend part of their working lives as part-time or full-time homemakers. Nor should these policies push any individual woman in one direction or the other – in an ideal liberal economy, it should be equally viable to make either choice.

As for President Trump, in the far-right extremists I do not see an oppressed minority who require a “preferential option” but a once-privileged group angry about losing ground. Might it be possible that one day, white men will become an oppressed minority in the USA? Nothing is unthinkable, and should that day come, I will stand up for them. But it is an act of hostility to single out an enemy by name, and I will not do that to any enemy until I have personally tried and failed to build a bridge of trust.

Even the Catholic Bishops of the USA have stopped short of naming particular groups. The official statement by Cardinal DiNardo says “On behalf of the bishops of the United States, I join leaders from around the nation in condemning the violence and hatred that have now led to one death and multiple injuries in Charlottesville, Virginia… The bishops stand with all who are oppressed by evil ideology.”

Ultimately, we are called to “love others as ourselves” and to go even further “laying down our lives in the service of others”. I abhor what far-right groups stand for because they always represent groups of people who seek to put themselves first, and that stands in blatant contradiction to the Gospel. For that reason, I say to these far-right groups – but also to any group which seeks their own advantage without securing at least the equal rights of others – shame on you.

The Gift of Life

This week, Pope Francis has declared that the Catholic Church will recognise a new kind of saint – one who ‘offers their life for others’ (oblatio vitae). There is no surprise in learning that this is a true pattern of holiness! Our Lord himself said that ‘greater love has no-one than the one who lays down their life for a friend’. What is surprising is that until now, the prayers the church uses to honour saints have not recognised this.

Open an official Catholic prayer book – the Missal used for Mass, or the Liturgy of the Hours which priests and religious order members use for their daily prayers – and you will find many ‘Commons’ for honouring different categories of saint.
Among the martyrs there are special prayers for those killed for defending their virginity. Among the ‘confessors’ (or ‘holy men and women’) there are subcategories for those who worked for education or in service of the poor. There are ‘virgins’, ‘pastors’ (ordained to at least the rank of priest) and ‘apostles’ (a closed category, though last year St Mary Magdalen’s feast day was upgraded to recognise her as ‘apostle to the apostles’.)

Statue of Maximilian KolbeYet no existing category quite fits in the case of a holy person who makes a deliberate choice to lay down their life for another. This problem came to the fore in the case of St Maximilian Mary Kolbe, founder of Franciscan friaries and a prolific evangelist through his expert use of the printing press. At the end of a life already remarkable for its holiness, Kolbe was a prisoner in Auschwitz, and stepped forward to offer his life in place of a Jewish man, a father of children, who was chosen to be executed. Kolbe proved difficult to starve, and eventually died by lethal injection; the man he offered his life for lived to be liberated at the end of the war.

When Blessed Kolbe was proposed for canonisation, Pope John Paul II faced intense lobbying from Germany and Poland to declare him a martyr. But was he a martyr? Had he been killed specifically because of anyone’s hatred of Christian faith? There was no evidence that the camp guards had targeted his beliefs – they had simply accepted his offer to lay down his life for someone else. John Paul II commissioned two officials to consider the matter, whose opinion was that Kolbe was not a martyr – but ultimately the Pope overruled them and canonised St Maximilian while wearing red vestments.

Gianna Molla holding two babiesA similar question can be asked in the case of the ‘martyr of life’ St Gianna Beretta Molla. An Italian physician, she was diagnosed with a serious condition while pregnant. She faced a choice between one kind of surgery almost certain to save her, but with a high chance of triggering a miscarriage; or another kind which was safe for the baby but less sure to resolve her condition. She chose the latter, gave birth safely, but died of complications soon after. She, too, would seem to fit this category of laying down one’s life for another.

It will be interesting to see what steps follow the announcement of this new category. Are such saints to be celebrated using red vestments, or using white? Will there be new Commons to add to the Missal and Divine Office? Will existing saints like Maximilian Kollbe and Gianna Molla be assigned to the new category?

Overall, this does seem like a necessary addition to the way the church classifies her saints and honours them in prayer. Perhaps once this is tidied up, some other missing categories can be filled out – men honoured specifically for their virginal purity, and women who, though not ordained pastors, are recognised as Doctors of the Church. Meanwhile, Holy Saints offering the Gift of Life – pray for us!

50 Years of Renewal in the Holy Spirit

On the eve of Pentecost, a small group of pilgrims from across Wales kept vigil with Pope Francis. We weren’t on our own – we were with 40,000 other Catholics from around the world, who had heeded the Pope’s invitation to come to Rome especially for Pentecost. But why?

Charisms in the Life of the Church

At the first Pentecost, Our Lady, St Peter and the other Apostles experienced a powerful outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit. They were filled with a new courage, enabling them to go into the public square and speak about Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that Peter and Paul laid hands on new disciples who responded by prophesying and praying in unlearned tongues. The new enthusiasm that these gifts brought caused some new Christians to be quite unruly in prayer meetings – St Paul dealt with this at length in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

For the first three hundred years of the Catholic Church, these gifts, together with various healing gifts, seem to have been quite common, but over the centuries they became rarer and were eventually seen as the hallmarks of truly exceptional saints, the likes of Catherine of Siena or Pio of Pietrelcina. At the close of the 19th century, however, an Italian nun, Blessed Elena Guerra, felt called to ask Pope Leo XIII to seek a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Pope Leo not only used the Veni Creator at the opening of the new century, but wrote a number of encyclical letters on the Holy Spirit, and promoted the use of a novena of prayers on the nine days before Pentecost.

In the first decade of the 20th century, remarkable things occurred. On New Year’s Day 1901 – the very day on which Pope Leo had invoked the Holy Spirit over the worldwide church – a woman named Agnes Ozman asked her congregation to lay hands on her so she could become a missionary. There, in a tiny Protestant church in Topeka, Kansas, she was covered in the glory of the Holy Spirit, and found herself unable to speak or write English, only Chinese (which she had never learned), for three days! A world-famous revival took place in Wales in 1904, where several preachers found their words had unusual power to call people to church and turn away from sin – crime rates plummeted across our nation. Two years later, under the preaching of a minister trained in Topeka, the Azusa Street Mission in California experienced an outpouring similar to what we see described in the New Testament, and from that seed grew the networks of what we now call Pentecostal churches.

Another Pope, St John XXIII, called the world to pray anew for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in preparation for the Second Vatican Council. The Council closed in December 1965. Just over a year later, some Catholic students made a retreat in Pittsburgh, USA – and 50 years later, two of those students came to Rome to recall what happened next.

The Golden Jubilee Celebrations

David Mangan and Patti Gallagher Mansfield stand at a pulpitDavid Mangan and Patti Gallagher Mansfield were among a group of students making a retreat based on the Acts of the Apostles in February 1967. They were the most enthusiastic members when the leader proposed an act of renewing their confirmation; others were less keen. That evening, when they separately stepped into the chapel, they experienced the power of God’s presence so strongly that they were compelled to fall prostrate; soon, half the students on the retreat came to the chapel, and experienced the same powerful presence. Many prayed in tongues for the first time.

A third speaker on Friday night, Vinson Synon, represented worldwide Pentecostal churches, and spoke of his own journey of conversion from doubting that Catholics were really Christian through to being forced to accept that they had received the very same gifts known in Pentecostal churches for the past 60 years.

David, Patti and their fellow-students were not founders of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal; they were not personally responsible for spreading it to all the places where it quickly flourished. But they stood on a platform in Rome 50 years later as the first fruits of this vast current of grace poured out on Catholics around the world – and 40,000 Catholics from 128 nations rejoiced with them as representatives of what God had done.

The following afternoon, the participants gathered again at Circus Maximus – a location chosen personally by Pope Francis because so many early Christians had given their lives there as witnesses to Christ. This time, leaders from around the world spoke of how the Holy Spirit continued to change lives today – including a testimony from England’s Damian Stayne about the many healings experienced through the ministry of the Cor et Lumen Christi Community. Papal Preacher fra Raniero Cantalamessa reminded all present that Pentecost was a reversal of Babel – there, humanity rejoiced in its own creative power, but as Christians we acknowledge with gratitude the gifts that come from God. Pope Francis himself spoke of the importance of a “reconciled diversity” – the Spirit brings many gifts and we are to recognise, and rejoice, that other individuals and communities are also gifted by God for the work of the church.

The seeds of this great gathering were planted when, just a year after his election as Pope, Francis spoke to a gathering of Italian charismatics in the national stadium and said “I expect all of you, charismatics from around the world, to celebrate your great jubilee with the pope at Pentecost 2017 in St Peter’s Square!” And indeed, not only did the Pope come to the gathering at Circus Maximus, but 40,000 charismatic pilgrims went to St Peter’s for the Wednesday Audience and Mass on Pentecost Sunday.

What else should a Pentecost Jubilee event contain? We cannot require the Holy Spirit to work to our schedules, so inevitably there was a heavy focus on recognising what God has already done. The Friday evening vigil was largely recalling the history of how the Catholic Renewal began – with the pioneers now entering their 70s, this is perhaps the last major occasion where they will be able to testify in person. Saturday was an acknowledgement of our unity-in-diversity, including strong participation from non-Catholic leaders. The organisers commissioned a song contest and an art exhibition – and also offered a workshop on how to propose early pioneers of Renewal as candidates for beatification and sainthood! Many of the other workshops were filmed and can be viewed online.

The TransCambrian Pilgrims

Our small pilgrimage from Wales attended the larger events, but there was not room for all of us to attend the smaller venues, such as the first Mass at St Mary Major or the Ecumenical Congress on Friday morning. Apart from the scheduled events, we took the opportunity to visit venues that connected us with the experience of the early generations of Christian believers, to whom the power of the first Pentecost was still a living reality. On Friday morning we visited the Catacombs of St Priscilla – perhaps not the most famous catacombs in Rome, but the ones most accessible to the one member of our group who relied on a wheelchair.

We chose not to depart Rome hurriedly after Mass with Pope Francis on Pentecost Sunday; rather, on Monday morning we recalled how the first Christians met in house-churches by visiting the remains of such a church under the Basilica of Saints John and Paul (the martyrs named next to Cosmas and Damian in the First Eucharistic Prayer). Finally, we had our own experience of celebrating Mass in a small space, at the Chapel of St John in Oil – this marks the place where tradition has it that the Romans attempted to martyr St John the Apostle in boiling oil, but God miraculously preserved him. We took lunch at the Rosminian House at Porta Latina, mindful that Rosminian missionaries renewed the Catholic Church in South Wales at the end of the 19th Century, and continue to serve several Cardiff parishes today.

There are many ironies about this pilgrimage. Pope Francis invited us to join him at St Peter’s – but then sent us to Circus Maximus for the main events. We recalled St Peter’s sermon which was understood by all on the Day of Pentecost – but relied on FM radios for simultaneous translation at the two main events. We celebrated the Holy Spirit’s charisms of healing – but ensured that the pilgrimage would be accessible for anyone using a wheelchair. We were called to celebrate our “unity in diversity” – but worldwide Catholic Charismatics are still working on merging their two representative bodies, ICCRS and the Catholic Fraternity, into one. Pentecost is the third great feast of the Christian year, but unlike Easter and Christmas has no “tide” of its own. Yet the season for living out Pentecost exists! It is called “Ordinary Time” – but one where Christians are called to use extraordinary charisms for the building up of the Church. And these gifts are not meant to be brought together in Rome, but spread to the ends of the earth. Veni Sancti Spiritus! Come, Holy Spirit, come! Dewch, Ysbryd Glân, dewch!

Deaneries for Growth and Mission!

For the foreseeable future, the Catholic Church in England and Wales faces a double decline: in the number of priests available and in the number of active lay members. By global standards, we enjoy a high number of priests for every Catholic: according to current data (May 2017) we have 1.18 priests for every thousand Catholics, which ranks us 24th out of the 157 territories tabulated.

This doesn’t seem so bad, but we have a structural problem. The 1960s and 70s were marked by a surge in the number of men coming forward for the priesthood and a period of urban expansion in many British cities. (On the same statistical table we have 1.82 priests per parish, ranking us 88th in the world, but the statistics hide the ratio of “able” to “non-working” priests) The same period was also marked by the post-Vatican-II relaxations which allowed Sunday Mass on a Saturday evening, and only an hour’s fast before communion, making Sunday evening Masses viable.

We now find ourselves in a position where we have built an unsustainable network of small parishes with many Sunday* Masses. As the number of priests falls back to a more typical historical level, we cannot sustain all of these Masses (nor indeed the current pattern of daily Masses). Each scheduled Sunday Mass in a given location has its own “regulars”, not all of whom will transfer to another Mass if that slot is removed or merged. When a Mass venue is closed, even more regulars are likely to be lost. Many Catholics have a strong emotional attachment to the building they see as their “family church” and only a weak attachment to “the mission of the church” as a whole, so closing a building can have devastating consequences.

As the number of worshipping Catholics falls, coupled with demographic trends that mean more women are in employment, elderly people work to a greater age, and grandparents face increasing pressure to assist with child care, the volunteer force of lay people able to sustain parish activity is also being squeezed. Since each parish seeks to maintain a basic minimum level of service for the sacraments – baptism of infants, first communion, confirmation, adult instruction, care of the sick and housebound – the dwindling pool of volunteers will face increasing pressure to deliver these services at the expense of other tasks which are intrinsically important but more likely to be viewed as “optional” – adult religious education, evangelistic activities, dialogue with members of other faiths, and work with poor and needy members of the community.

In some places, team ministry has been tried. Anecdotal evidence suggests this only works effectively when a group of priests voluntarily comes together and embraces a deep level of co-operation; most diocesan priests work in a highly individualistic way. The promise of obedience is lived out mainly when the bishop gives a priest a new assignment, not in day-to-day matters; and without spare manpower, a bishop has few strategies with which to sanction an uncooperative priest. Few parishes have the benefit of a curate, so in most parishes one priest is responsible for everything. Cover priests are not easy to find, so priests may have difficulty taking their allowed holidays of one month per year, and without resident help, many priests may also struggle to preserve a meaningful day off.

Permanent deacons can assist with the load of baptisms, weddings and funerals, but problems can occur when a new parish priest moves into a parish with a deacon and for some reason fails to establish a good working relationship with that deacon. This may be due to personality clashes, or a lack of openness on the priest’s part to the ministry of deacons.

When one priest alone is responsible for a parish, carrying all the sick calls and funerals, this inevitably limits that priest’s capacity to be strategic and to offer more to the parish than the basics. Priests may also have diocesan responsibilities which further eat into their time. The famous Revd James Mallon, whose parish in Halifax, Canada, is a beacon of good parish ministry, is on record as saying he was only able to be strategic because he had an associate pastor carrying the load of funerals and sick visiting.

Bishops face structural problems of how to manage their dioceses with dwindling resources. One approach is to spread the priests as thinly as possible, with every priest carrying a full load of Sunday Masses, usually in several different locations, sometimes responsible for two or three canonical parishes. This strains still further the ability of the priest to be strategic. The other approach is to impose radical closures of buildings and parishes; this relieves the pressure on priests but demoralises the people.

Buildings themselves also cause difficulties. The Church exists, in theory, to spread the Gospel and enable people to become effective disciples of Christ. In practice, many Catholics have a strong sense of “belonging” to an institution and will work hard to preserve cherished buildings and Mass arrangements. When mergers take place, what happens when a parish in debt is merged with one with a huge surplus? Should the assets of St Peter’s be used to pay the parish debt of St Paul’s, or does that offend a sense of natural justice? We are also not good at making hard decisions about buildings in the face of declining parish revenue, meaning a higher and higher proportion of income ends up being used to sustain property.

Is there a kind of solution we haven’t tried yet? Perhaps there is…

Imagine that a diocese were totally restructured in the following way. I will refer to the new structures as Mparishes and Mdeaneries. The M stands for “mission”, and allows us to distinguish the Mparishes of the new structure from the pre-existing parishes which would make way for them.

Any workable strategy must be based on the following principles:

1. We cannot sustain every existing Sunday Mass, which is a distinct congregation meeting at a particular place and time. Fewer priests means this is physically impossible.

2. We probably can plan for every existing church and Mass centre to retain one Sunday Mass. In a given diocese this will depend on the projected number of priests, and the current number of venues, but in many local circumstances will be doable.

3. Each venue shall have ONLY one Sunday Mass, unless the bishop recognises a genuine need for more than one. But each venue must explore all possible ways of fitting everyone into a single Sunday celebration, e.g. by using a video relay into its hall or hiring a larger building on Sundays. Gathering everyone together at ONE Mass is not only a way of using a priest’s time more efficiently, but also of unifying the local Catholic population and making the most efficient use of volunteers.

4. Each venue shall have a designated parish priest. Team ministry experiments show that other arrangements are generally unpopular and ineffective.

5. In order to ensure that missionary priorities are not lost under the burden of parish management, a significant number of diocesan priests will be appointed Deans and will not be assigned to parishes, but to the missionary development of their deaneries.

What would happen in practice when we apply these principles?

Three or four existing parishes will be gathered into one Mparish, sharing a parish priest. While there may be a short term need to allow the distinct parishes to retain their canonical identities, and independent bank accounts, the aim will be that the Mparish becomes the canonical parish in due course. There is a working presumption that activities (e.g. first communion course, social events) are to be held jointly between parishes insofar as the geography allows this. Priests should not duplicate administrative structures more than necessary. However, each worshipping assembly may need its own liturgy planning group.

Five or six Mparishes are constituted as an Mdeanery. A senior priest is appointed as dean, and key to this strategy is that the dean is NOT a parish priest of any of the parishes, but has faculties to act in all of them.

The Dean’s inalienable responsibilities are:

  • Welfare of the clergy – sharing a meal with each cleric in the deanery individually at least once a month
  • Liaison with the bishop – meeting the bishop corporately or individually once or twice each month
  • Co-ordination of weekday Mass times, at least in urban areas, to ensure the widest choice during the whole day
  • Co-ordinating clergy holidays and himself covering Sunday Masses when one of the other priests is away
  • Covering for each other priest on one weekday in turn, so each priest can have a day off free of all public duties
  • Possibly Baptism Preparation, and baptism for families not actively worshipping in any church

The Dean is also responsible for the following, unless it seems appropriate to delegate them to another priest in the deanery:

  • Chaplain to Secondary Schools and other institutions spanning several parishes in the deanery
  • Adult Religious Education and evangelistic outreach (Alpha or similar events)
  • Retreats for extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion
  • The Confirmation programme across the whole deanery
  • Arrangements for Christmas Vigil Masses and Easter Morning Masses using the biggest possible venues, even borrowed ones

By giving these duties to the Dean, the parish priests experience the same kind of relief that might come of having a curate; and it ensures that important ministries which cannot be the highest priority in individual parishes are nevertheless prioritised.

When the restructure takes place, each permanent deacon can choose to be associated with a particular Mparish priest or to be at the direct service of the Dean, allowing a workaround for personality clashes.

The Dean can choose to be “in residence” with one of the parish priests or live independently in another presbytery; this will depend on the dean’s personal relationship with the available priests.

There will be a deanery bank account, funded by fees paid by each parish for the Dean’s supply work.

New Mass times must be chosen in such a way that in case of necessity, the Mdeanery can cover all its services with two priests absent (since for half the year at least the Dean will be covering for one priest’s planned absence). This means that in a group of a Dean plus five priests there can be at most 12 Masses on Sunday itself, and 8 on Saturday evening, in such a way that the priests can do 2 each on Saturday evening and 3 each on the Sunday. Each of the five Mparishes has either one Saturday evening Mass and three on Sunday, or two Saturday evening Masses with only two on Sunday. When all priests are at work, the Dean can assist with a couple of Sunday Masses for each parish in turn, prioritising situations where a parish priest would otherwise have to develop two different sermons for a given weekend (e.g. where one Mass includes some sacrament of initiation).

The second key to this strategy is that each church building has its own internal account with the diocesan finance office. Already, in English law, a parish is “owned” by the trustees of the diocese, though canon law protects the right of each parish to manage its own assets. When a parish merger takes place, buildings from a parish in debt accrue an internal debt to the diocese; parishes with a healthy bank account have part of that balance lodged against each building. All major expenses relating to that building (insurance, major repairs, safety inspections, interest on building loans etc.) are paid directly by the diocese from that account. In return, each Mparish pays a “rent” to the diocese each year to use each of its buildings. This creates an “internal market” which can force parishes to look at whether using its existing buildings is the most affordable method; each building will have designated “amber flag” and “red flag” percentages of parish income. When the proportion reaches “amber” the parish has two years to find a cheaper way of celebrating Mass. When it reaches red, the diocese denies permission to use the building, forcing use of a cheaper, if less fitting, venue. This stick is coupled with the carrot of promoting a missionary ethos which sees the purpose of the church to make disciples, not maintain buildings.

Choosing to adopt this new structure of Mparishes and Mdeaneries offers a third option falling between the radical closure of parishes and the usual tensions of parish mergers. It seeks to avoid the cessation of worship in any given locations, though may require use of a non-traditional space for worship (overflow or hired large hall) in that location. It will force most of the diocesan priests to spread themselves even thinner than if some of their number did not become Mdeans but at the same time offers significant relief from the pressures of being priest across several parishes, with guaranteed cover for holidays, weekly days off, and support for local ministry. I offer this to the Church as a possible solution which, to my knowledge, has not been tried.

* A “Sunday Mass” in this context includes any Mass from 4 pm onward on a Saturday evening celebrated with the intent of letting worshippers fulfil their Sunday obligation.










Help! I’m a Catholic who wants to evangelise!

You are reading this page because you are a Catholic who wants to share the Good News of Jesus with other people, but you don’t know where to start.

First, congratulations! Trust your instincts. Don’t listen to the people who say “that’s a Protestant thing” or “Catholics don’t do that”. On the contrary, heed Pope Francis who reminds us that all Catholics are called to be Missionary Disciples.

There’s a broad sense in which all the good works done by the Church are ‘evangelistic’. But not all of the Church’s good works explicitly speak about Jesus. There’s a blurred line where evangelisation stops and catechesis begins, at the point where a listener knows Jesus is real and wants to learn more about him. Nevertheless, you know you aren’t called to join the SVP or be a leader in your local RCIA group. You want to evangelise – you want to introduce people to Jesus.

But, how do we evangelise as Catholics? The best place to start depends on your context. Who are you working with and for?

I’m a lone Catholic with no-one else who shares my vision.

Don’t panic! You can do a great deal on your own, because effective evangelisation generally takes place within existing relationships. There are some things you can do to hone your skills at sharing your faith in a way that doesn’t put other people off.

  • Learn to be sensitive to where other people are in their growth towards faith. Read Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples and watch the Proclaim’15 video on Sharing the Gospel Message.
  • Practice giving your testimony – and watch the video on Testimonies.
  • You can volunteer to your parish priest to “mentor” anyone who needs a confirmation sponsor or has expressed interest in the Church.
  • You could get involved as a volunteer with one of the non-parochial Catholic groups which runs faith-deepening activities – groups such as Youth 2000 or Celebrate.
  • You could also get involved with other local Christians running Alpha.
  • There are lots of other ‘lifestyle’ suggestions from the Home Mission Desk.

There are a few of us in my parish who want to evangelize, but my parish priest isn’t interested.

This isn’t unusual. Hard-pressed parish priests might worry that they don’t have time to manage another parish group, or might be struggling to sustain the parish RCIA arrangements and worry about how they would manage if you were successful in your evangelising. Nevertheless, a parish priest has no authority to stop any group of Catholics from meeting and praying on their own private property (see paragraphs 19 and 25 of Apostolicam Actuositatem).

I’ve been asked by my parish priest to start an evangelisation group.

Great! So first you need to form your group and do some general training. Then you need to identify what particular opportunities there are in your parish and get some training and do some planning around your project.

A good starting point will be to watch the Proclaim’15 videos about Vision and Strategy and Parish Teams, and how to share the Gospel message and give a Testimony.  If you are also responsible for organising intercession in support of evangelisation, use the session on Prayer (but if you’re not responsible for that, make sure someone is!)

If your team doesn’t feel very confident, you could run some more extensive training – in 5 sessions you can do Pass It On, or in 18 short or 9 long sessions you can use the Relit Evangelisation Course (that’s not cheap to buy, though).

After basic training, it’s time to decide what kind of project your group will tackle. Here, the Southwark Handbook can be invaluable. You will probably settle on one of three kinds of projects – to reach non-churchgoing Catholics, to reach people with no particular faith background, or to help those who already worship in your parish to move from being mere churchgoers to missionary disciples.

Focus on non-Churchgoing Catholics

Of all the human beings who don’t attend Mass, non-Churchgoing Catholics are the easiest target. They are members of the families of the people who do go to Mass. They are parents at the local Catholic School. They are easy to identify – but hard to shift. Dr Ann Casson’s 2014 research established that young Catholic parents consider themselves “good Catholics” if they are kind to other people and turn up in church at Christmas and Easter.

The Catholic Church’s focus on non-Churchgoing Catholics in England and Wales is branded as Crossing the Threshold and an e-manual is available, as well as a video from Proclaim’15. There are also extensive resources for use around Christmas and Easter.

You may wish to adopt one of the established packages – Keeping In Touch, Landings or Catholics Returning Home.

Focus on non-Catholics

The most challenging project for most Catholics will be the prospect of sharing the Catholic faith with people who have no prior Catholic connections. Pioneering work in this regard has been done by the Seeker Centre at Pantasaph, who have developed an Evangelisation Manual. There is also a Proclaim’15 video. You could run an Alpha, which contains only basic teaching common to all mainstream Christian traditions. If you have a town centre location, you might consider the Nightfever model, or offer some other kind of Prayer Experience.

Focus on evangelising the churchgoers

Many regular churchgoers will fail to understand the need or importance of evangelisation. You may decide that your starting point is to raise support among the congregation before you start to reach outside. There are three Proclaim’15 videos touching on particular groups you may wish to work with:

You may decide that a formal cell-group structure will work in your parish. If so, there are several models available:

Other tools for deepening the faith of a congregation include Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism resources and the video sets from Cafébut remember that education alone may not be enough – parishioners need to be confronted with the challenge of taking God seriously. Some courses (e.g. The Gift) do include a step of personal commitment but a parish mission can help more people take that step, and help to run a parish mission is available from groups like Café and the Sion Community.

I’m a parish priest, but I’m not sure what to do.

Your calling is to be an enabler of evangelisation. Found a team, and let them take the steps above. Your job is to equip the laity – they will connect with people you would never meet in your daily activities. But also have a strategy for your parish with evangelisation as an integral part. If your resources allow it, have some kind of pre-RCIA activity, such as Alpha, running all year round, and some kind of parish “Connect and Explore” fellowship which can help regular parishioners deepen their faith, and also serve as a post-RCIA opportunity. If your parish is too small to do that, you may need to consciously focus on raising the commitment level of existing worshippers, following the pattern of Divine Renovation.

In your preaching, be conscious of the need to draw your congregation on a journey from membership to discipleship. You don’t have time to read a book, so try this short summary of Forming Intentional DisciplesWhen you feel the time is right to issue a more direct challenge, run a Parish Mission.

I’ve been made responsible for promoting evangelisation across a diocese, deanery or cluster.

Great! The most important thing is to resist the temptation to put on some “big event” aimed at unchurched people or non-churchgoing Catholics. Big events only ever work when you have an enthusiastic network of churchgoers ready and willing to invite their non-churchgoing friends to come with them.

There is value in having networking events for active evangelisers to support each other. The wider the area, the lower the frequency. A city might have a monthly gathering for evangelisers – a diocese might have a convention once every year or two.

You can organise regional events to pray for intercession – you can use the Proclaim’15 Prayer Resources, the Mass for the New Evangelisation, or the Masses on pages 810-823 and 1342-1345 of the British & Australian Roman Missal.

Above all, promote evangelisation at the grassroots level – most effective evangelisation is carried out by individuals and fostered by parishes. Promote all the small-scale solutions above and encourage your evangelisers to persevere. May the Lord who has begun the good work in you, bring it to completion!

Original Sin

Yesterday, I took part in a Radio Wales discussion to be broadcast on Sunday, prompted by the recent publication of a book.

Born Bad”, by Australian historian James Boyce, traces the idea of “Original Sin” and its influence on Western history. It got me thinking…

What is Original Sin? It’s a status that we have in God’s eyes. When God looks at the human race, He sees that we are all descendants of the Original Sinner, the first human who failed to carry out His will perfectly. We belong to an imperfect race – but God takes away our status of “original sin” when we are baptised.

How do we know this? It’s another way of expressing truths in the Bible which say we died through Adam but are made alive through Christ (Romans 5:12 and I Corinthians 15:22).a red apple clasped by open hands

When I was asked to make a closing comment for the programme, I said that Original Sin was a true concept, but not one particularly relevant in the 21st Century. Why would I call it “irrelevant”? It’s because in the past we have tried to use “Original Sin” as an answer to several deep questions, an answer that may have seemed plausible then, but can’t hold in the light of what we now know.

In what follows, we need to understand that there are some questions to which the Catholic Church has an official answer (a doctrine), solemnly defined by the authority of the Pope, and other questions on which we are free to hold differing opinions.

As Catholics, we’re free to believe that the Bible story of Adam and Eve is literal, or figurative. But it is a doctrine that all humans descend from one original sinner. Now that’s not incompatible with the theory of evolution; indeed, evolution proposes that for any particular trait which we regard as making us human, we are all descendants from the original ancestor with that trait.

Why do human beings sin?

It’s a doctrine that our vulnerability to being tempted (the technical name is concupisence) came into the world because of the first human’s sin. But inheriting Original Sin isn’t enough to explain why we sin – after all, the first human sinned, and Our Lord experienced temptation, even though neither of them were marked by Original Sin!

There are many questions for modern biology and psychology about “nature versus nurture” and to what extent our good or bad behaviour is driven by the genes we inherit. But the doctrine of Original Sin doesn’t allow us to claim that we were “born bad” – at most, only that we were “born vulnerable”.

Why is there death?

The Deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom asserts that “death came into the world through the Devil’s envy”. But there’s plenty of evidence that stars exploded, plants died and animals ate other animals long before humans were around. How can we make sense of this doctrine? St Paul affirms that death comes to all humans because of sin, and we need to nuance this reference to death so it applies only to bodily death experienced by human beings, creatures with immortal souls.

Since all the biological evidence shows that human beings are part of a natural world with a cycle of life and death, we cannot plausibly assert that the first true human to evolve should have been immortal on the basis of their biology. But if we believe in a God with the power to work miracles, we could believe that God wanted to give the miraculous gift of “never dying” to the first human. We could also then hold that God in fact withheld this gift because the first human wouldn’t live in perfect obedience to God.

In the fullness of time, because of our “happy fault”, Jesus died so that we could become members of his body and be more closely united to God when we are raised after our deaths – a gift even greater than the undying bodily life which could have been given to the first human.

Is it sinful to have sex even within marriage?

Discussions about “Original Sin” often get caught up with a very old idea that there’s something inherently sinful about the way babies are made within marriage. This in itself confuses original sin (which is a status) with the question of whether it’s a sinful act to conceive a child. But in any case, the idea that marital sex is sinful was never an official doctrine of the Church. Marriage between two Christians is a sacrament, and St John Paul II pointed us towards the idea that the bed of a married couple is a holy altar on which this sacrament reaches its consummation – a sacred moment indeed.

Do unbaptised babies go to heaven?

It’s a doctrine that infants who die before being baptised don’t deserve to go to heaven. But it is only an opinion suggested by scholars that God holds these souls in a place called Limbo which isn’t quite as happy as heaven. Pope Benedict XVI asked some top theologians to look again at this teaching and in 2007, their report said that we can believe that God does admit unbaptised children to heaven, but does so as an undeserved gift.

This case gives us a good example of how carefully we must express the Church’s teaching. Pope Innocent III taught that “the punishment for original sin is the loss of the beatific vision” – in other words, every human being born into our sinful race, because they belong to a sinful race, is not automatically entitled to go to heaven. It sounds like Pope Innocent III was saying that unbaptised babies couldn’t go to heaven. But the statement also leaves room to say that even though they are not entitled to it, God admits them to heaven as an undeserved gift, an act of mercy, a grace. In this Year of Mercy, perhaps we can comfort someone who has lost a child with the idea that the Church trusts in God’s mercy towards infant souls.

The only reason we can’t give a 100% cast-iron guarantee that unbaptised babies go to heaven is that neither the Bible nor the Tradition going back to the Apostles says anything definite on the matter – we can only extrapolate from our general knowledge of God’s love and mercy. Meanwhile, it’s right and proper that we do present our babies to be baptised because God wants us to work with him in the work of redeeming the world; every time we celebrate a sacrament, we do things God’s way, and heaven rejoices.

In summary…

Yes, we were born tainted by Original Sin. No, the act by which we were conceived was not intrinsically sinful. Yes, our bodies will die.

It was never logically coherent to blame Original Sin as the sole reason why we commit actual sins, but our modern scientific knowledge is beginning to allow a much more detailed consideration of how genetics shape human behaviour.

Empirical evidence rules out the idea that death (of plants and animals) only takes place because of the first human sin, and positing that the human body is meant to be intrinsically immortal is highly implausible.

Over the centuries, particularly concerning unbaptised babies, the Catholic Church has carefully nuanced its teaching so that statements which seemed to point in one direction are now taken as pointing in another. The very concept of Original Sin is therefore reduced to a status which a person acquires at conception and loses by baptism, but which has very little practical consequence when distinguished from concupiscence.

Born Bad? No – we are made in God’s image and Genesis assures us that we are very good.

Born imperfect? Yes – but we are invited by a merciful God to walk the path of the sacraments all the way to heaven.