On this very weekend, fifteen years ago, I was in trouble.
At the time, I was a student at seminary. We were allowed to go out after Sunday lunch – but we had to be back for evening prayer at half past six.
With another student, I had driven to a meeting to plan a youth retreat. One of the young women involved had asked for a lift home. I worked out that we had time – but only just – to drop her off and get back for evening prayer. After all, she needed our help, and it was the right thing to do.
We got lost!
Eventually, we found the right road. But we arrived back at the seminary five minutes after the start of Evening Prayer. The other student and I had to make a decision – should we go into the chapel late, and hope no one noticed? Or should we say our own evening prayer separately?
We chickened out and decided not to go into chapel. So we took out our prayer books and said the official Prayer of the Church together.
Near the end of Sunday Evening Prayer, there’s a line which is taken from the Gospel of the day.* It was just as well we hadn’t gone in to chapel that evening, because we collapsed in fits of laughter when we read out loud the words: “We are useless servants – we have only done our duty!”
Laughter aside, there is a serious matter at hand here. Jesus wants us to know that God expects us to do our duty. On that day, my colleague and I were preparing for a youth festival where young people would be encouraged to know Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament. Today, we are gathered in this chapel because we want our fellow parishioners to be inspired to share God’s Good News. We want many members of our local parishes and dioceses to join us, confidently proclaiming the message of Jesus anew to those who have heard it but failed to heed its call.
We will face obstacles, even from the clergy. Yesterday, we heard a seminar from Fr James Mallon about how to promote evangelisation when your parish priest seems reluctant. Sometimes it feels like the obstacles come from a higher level, too. Just last week, a story popped up on my Facebook feed claiming that Pope Francis had rebuked a woman for encouraging two people to become Catholics. Oh dear! Can it be true, that the Pope doesn’t want us to evangelise?
The first rule of the Internet is always: check your sources! A little digging found the true report. In this case a woman who belonged to an unnamed movement had proudly presented her ‘converts’ to Pope Francis, in effect saying, “Look what I did! These people are Catholic because of me!”
The Pope was clearly concerned by her personal attitude, and perhaps also because he knew something about the lay movement she belonged to. In that particular moment, he discerned – rightly or wrongly – that these converts had been brought into the Church by the woman’s pushy personality rather than a pure attraction. Therefore, he is reported as saying, in that moment:
“Madam, evangelisation yes, proselytism no.”Pope Francis, 5 Sept 2019, Maputo, Mozambique
What is proselytism? The Catholic definition is set out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and in a joint study document with the World Council of Churches. In short we’re doing it wrong when:
- we don’t respect the existing faith of a person, or target people with a particular belief;
- we speak negatively about other religious traditions;
- we exert undue physical, emotional or moral pressure, or exploit intellectual or emotional weakness;
- we offer beneficial incentives to new converts.
Historically, over the last 200 years, Catholic Church in Great Britain has grown by attraction and immigration. For migrants, it’s simple; their faith binds them together and the church is where they can find a safe space to speak their own language and meet others of their own culture. For converts it’s more complicated: over the 12 years I’ve been in parish ministry and responsible for RCIA, I reckon that four out of five converts have been attracted by the ‘nice caring Catholics’ they’ve met; only one in five has had a spiritual or intellectual conversion to what the Catholic Church holds dear.
In that respect, many of our converts are like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses I’ve met. I often ask people to tell me the story of how their own religion has changed their life for the better. The kind of answer I hear is almost always that they met some kind people from that religious group who helped them in an hour of need. The helped person joins because they feel wanted, not because of the doctrines of the group.
This is as true for Catholics as it is for other religions. I always say to such aspiring members: “I’m glad you’ve met some nice and supportive Catholics. One day you’re going to meet some horrible Catholics. Do you know what will make you want to stay in the Church when that happens? If so, you’re ready to take the next step.” Attraction on its own is not enough to guard against the day something repulsive happens. We must use that attraction to open up conversations about Jesus, and invite people to choose to follow Him.
This weekend has focussed on our calling to preach the Gospel. The call is the same as it was when St Paul wrote to young Timothy: “Never be ashamed of witnessing to the Lord; guard and pass on the knowledge of Christ.” Some of you will have met discouragement and disappointment; but you are here this weekend which means you are seriously considering running NES2020 in your local community. Don’t expect any thanks for this. You are useless servants, only doing your duty. But persevere. Maybe no-one else in the church will thank you, but the Home Mission Office and the Lord will!
There is a middle ground between attraction and proselytism. It’s not always enough to be nice, kind, Catholics and wait for people to ask us why. We do need to speak about our prayer life and our faith. We do need to respond to subtle nudges from the Holy Spirit. We do need to remember that there are three million people in the UK who told a survey that they would go to church if someone invited them. If we build a culture of invitation, if we run our Masses and other church events as if we are always expecting to introduce a brand-new guest to our community, if we inspire our fellow parishioners to believe we are called to grow, not die, as an institution, we will see fruit. So I would like to expand upon Pope Francis’ words and leave you with this call:
“Friends, evangelisation yes, proselytism no; invitation, always!”
* Note to readers: Strictly speaking, Saturday Vespers takes a line from the Gospel of Year A, Sunday Lauds from Year B, and Sunday Vespers from Year C. But it happened to be Year C, as it is this year, so forgive me for over-simplifying for an easy read!