The Things We Haven’t Done

Homily at 3 Churches, for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

One morning, at the start of class, a schoolgirl spoke to her teacher.

Please Sir, can I ask you something? Should a person be punished for something they haven’t done?

“Of course not,” replied the teacher, “No-one should be punished for something they haven’t done.”

“That’s good!” said the girl. “Please Sir, I haven’t done my homework!”

Today’s Gospel starts with a lovely picture of Jesus serving his friends. But then St Peter asks “is this for us or for everyone?” He’s probably not expecting what happens next – Jesus paints a surprising picture of how God treats his “servants”. For those who claim to be disciples, a higher standard is expected. The wicked servant who abuses his master’s trust is dismissed – that’s an image of Hell. The lazy servant who did know what the master expected receives many strokes of the lash – that’s an image of Purgatory. More surprisingly, the one who didn’t know what the master expected, but failed to deliver, is punished. Only lightly, but still punished – by the master who represents God!

Does this mean we’re dealing with an unreasonable God who expects results and deals with us unjustly? No. But there are two things we must remember to avoid reading this parable the wrong way.

The first thing is that the servants were servants. They knew they had a Master. So they knew that something was going be expected of them. The fault of the third servant is that he didn’t try to find out what he should have been doing. This is not a parable for people who’ve never heard of Jesus. This is a parable for disciples – members of the Church who claim they want to follow Jesus and serve God Our Father!

The second important thing is that while human beings judge the outward appearance, God judges the heart. We are judged not on our results but on our choices. Let me offer an example: we know that one of the Ten Commandments requires us to keep the Lord’s Day holy. Mother Church takes that and makes an Obligation, saying we must attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, on pain of serious sin. Now, suppose you wake up on Sunday morning and have flu – or find yourself in sole care of a child who is ill in bed. You want to go to Mass. You feel bad about not being able to go to Mass. In these circumstances, is it possible for you to choose to come to Mass? No. So if that happens, please don’t come to confession because you feel bad about not coming to Mass. Confession is about saying “I made a bad choice and next time that happens I’ll make a better choice” – we call that ‘a firm purpose of amendment’. The sign you need to come to confession is that you can put into words what that better choice would have been. If your body has flu, you have no choice. If you have to care for a sick child at home, you have no choice. When you have no choice, what you have are regrets, not sins. So take your sins to confession but take your regrets straight to God in prayer.

At the end of our lives, we will meet Jesus as our judge. We will see clearly what was expected of us. I suspect that what the Bible calls the “punishment” for the servant who didn’t know what was expected will be the firey embarrassment we experience at realising we have let down our beloved Lord in the task he has chosen specially for each one of us. It’s because of this that we have the practice in the church called an “examination of conscience”. This is when we look at ourselves and ask whether we’ve been doing what our master expects. Now it’s easy to make a list of bad behaviour we should avoid – we can tick off a list of “Thou Shalt Nots” to help with that. Today’s Gospel, however, requires something more challenging: an examination of the good deeds which our Master does expect.

Now, none of us can do everything. We can’t all run a Foodbank, visit 50 housebound parishioners every week, take charge of a pack of Scouts, work overtime so a colleague can get home to the kids and spend 8 nights a week at home with our beloved husband or wife. So it’s important to spend time praying about what good deeds God expects each one of us to do. The key is in the gifts and talents God has already entrusted to us – they are given to us to make the world a better place. We will be most effective when we do those things we are called and gifted to do. This is why, following our big diocesan conference in June, our priests and lay leaders in the diocese are examining a process named “Called and Gifted” which could help us do just this. But it would be premature of me to say more before final plans are made.

At this time of year, as we look forward to the “back to school” season, those of us who are parents or grandparents might face a change in mix of caring duties and gaps in our schedule in a typical week. It’s a good time to ask where we can use of our gifts and talents in the year to come.

There is one thing that only we can do – we who worship in the Catholic Church in this place. We are ambassadors for Christ. We can’t expect anyone else promote this parish. It is our calling to invite the people we meet to ask whether they believe Jesus rose from the dead, and whether it’s possible to meet Jesus through Holy Mass. Today’s Second Reading reminds us that Abraham set out to follow God’s call. The First Reading recalls the first Passover, when the faithful Jews were saved from the angel of death. God protects his faithful people, but expects much from his servants – and it’s our business to find out what God wants us to do.

None of us can do everything, but all of us are expected to use the gifts we’ve been given to do something. The Master is calling us. If we want our entry into heaven to be pure joy and free from punishment, the first step is to pray this Dangerous Prayer – “Here I am Lord, use me as you will!” Remember, he doesn’t want to punish you – but you do have to do your homework!

Missiondom Tour 2019

Sherry Weddell made a speaking tour of England & Wales 10-20 June 2019. This is a brief digest of the teaching, which presupposes you are familiar with Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples. The book sets out a framework for understanding how believers pass through the thresholds of (1) Trust, (2) passive Curiosity, (3) Openness to change, (4) active Seeking and (5) Intentional Discipleship.

The State of the Church Today

We no longer live in a culture of “Christendom”. Even the young people born in “Catholic” families are mostly growing up with such a weak exposure to Catholicism they are effectively unchurched rather than lapsed. And in fact it’s historically rare for Catholics to have been formed by the culture (“Christendom”) rather than to have to be evangelised anew. “Generation Z” – the young people born between 1998 and 2016 – typically don’t believe in God, never pray, and don’t attend any kind of worship service. The 2015 “Talking Jesus” survey in England showed that 53% of adults don’t believe in the Resurrection of Jesus and only 21% do believe he was God in human form. On the other hand, the number of adults who call themselves atheists have dropped from 38% in 2016 to 33% in 2018 (Yougov survey 2018).

In a typical parish, we can expect 90-95% of the worshipping parishioners have not moved beyond Trust or passive Curiosity. Even highly engaged (“core”) parishioners who get involved with parish projects are often engaging out of a sense of commitment to the local community or the church institution rather than commitment to Christ. All disciples are highly engaged, but engagement does not prove discipleship. Worse, it’s very likely that someone who has been engaged for a long time but never moved beyond curiosity has become ‘stuck’ in their spiritual journey; and those who are still at early thresholds may become annoyed and vocal when their parish is challenged to grow deeper. What’s the typical mentality of a Massgoer? “We’re all going to heaven because we’re good people, but none of us are going to be ‘saints’ because it would be far too proud to aspire to that.” This shows a total misunderstanding of salvation!

So we recognise there are three distinct journeys which people can make which don’t synchronise with each other automatically: progress through the sacraments of initiation, active involvement 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 of). 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.

We have a retention problem. We know that we haemorrhage young people after baptism and first communion. Even many of those who join the church through RCIA cease practicing in the year following their baptism or reception. Why do the sacraments not bear fruit? Catechism 1131 reminds us that the sacraments bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. This teaching is expanded in Chapter 6 of Trent’s Decree on Justification and reinforced by St Thomas Aquinas (Commentary on John 6:976 & Summa Theologica III q69 a8).

A 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; live in Christian communities where they feel able to wrestle with real spiritual questions including the Gospel story; and have lived experience of adult communities living out Christian faith in authentic ways.

The Work of Proclamation

We pour great efforts into catechising children and adults. But before we can do that fruitfully, we have to foster openness and then proclaim the Gospel.

A key task of clergy (an aspect of the ministry of ‘governance’ alongside the Word and the Sacraments), is to raise up “intentional disciples” in our parishes – souls who are confident in their identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Most of the clerical work will be engaging with the “near field” of churchgoers, while giving the laity the tools they need to engage with the “far field” of those who have left church or never engaged with church in the first place.

For many of our churchgoers, their “relationship with the church”, or even their “relationship with a deceased relative” IS 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!”

How do we share the basic Gospel message? Gen Z young adults are so disconnected from our Christian heritage that even Alpha may make too many assumptions about their cultural background! But they do believe they are in charge of their own lives, at least until they meet with some disaster! (In the light of Sherry’s teaching and suggested resources, I have updated my Guide for Evangelisers.)

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!

When someone is ready, an exercise like one-on-one renewal of baptismal promises or the physical symbolic action of dropping a net can be helpful.

Disciples bear fruit – and this grows out of a living relationship with God. When members of the church become intentional disciples, they become active as worshippers and volunteers, and generous givers. Some will become lay leaders pioneering new ministries. Programmes such as the Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted allow the gifts (charisms) of disciples to be discerned and affirmed. From July 2019, the teaching element of this programme will be accessible via online videos.

You can only guide others to grow as far as the threshold you have reached yourself. People who are still at Trust do have a role in evangelisation teams – they might be the most sensitive to hospitality issues, for instance, and have a role in the welcoming team. But they are not disciplers.

“Charismatic Renewal” fits within the wider picture of what Sherry teaches about. She speaks of how to encourage people to develop a conscious relationship with God. For some souls, this may crystallise in a “baptism in the Spirit” experience but others who have clearly moved into relationship with God would not choose to use that language or identify a particular experience. Similarly, the charisms identified though Called & Gifted do include extraordinary gifts such as healing or praying in tongues, but also include lifestyle charisms (e.g. celibacy, voluntary poverty) and charisms where God has simply perfected natural gifts (e.g. music, writing, administration).

There are five specific practical steps we can take to become more effective at making disciples.

  1. In pastoral conversations, be attentive to the person’s relationship with God.

Whenever you engage in an appropriate conversation, try to tease out what the person’s understanding is of “God” – even if they’ve been to a Catholic school, that’s no guarantee. For many, “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. It’s easy for a member of a 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. Two key questions to ask are:

  • “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?”)
  • “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. Parishioners who wish to learn how to have these kinds of conversations can benefit from Ananias Training. Good listening does not seek to force the speaker into a conclusion but listens without judgment. Recent research from Barna (Reviving Evangelism, 2019) shows that the more a person experiences positive conversations about faith, the more open they will be to talking about faith.

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 questions with questions – most people are only two “whys” from being forced to think about why they stand where they stand.

  1. Encourage people to foster their relationship with God.

Ultimately, by talking about the possibility of a relationship with God, you are fostering the understanding that God is a loving person and it is possible to have a relationship with God.

You can also encourage people to be open to a relationship with God by:

  • Praying the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”
  • Trying lectio divina.
  • Trying Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (but offer a simple orientation to someone who isn’t familiar with it).
  • Seeking the presence of God in serving those in need.
  • Practicing the “Presence of God” (Brother Lawrence)
  • Talking to God in your own words.

The Siena Institute has a lectio resource for Advent 2019 available.

  1. Create a culture in your parish where it is normal to talk about Jesus.

Research shows that most people have to hear the story of who Jesus is and what He did for us many times before they realise how important this is. This can be communicated through preaching, through personal testimonies shared at the end of Mass, and through testimonies and lectio divina (with participants sharing their reflections with each other) becoming a normal part of all group activities (committees, catechetical groups, etc.) in your parish. The purpose is not only to receive the reflections shared during lectio but to embed the culture of it being normal to speak about prayer, faith and Jesus Christ.

Keep telling the story of the saving death of Jesus, alongside personal testimony of how Jesus touches lives today and draws people into relationship with himself. These don’t have to be extraordinary “Damascus Road” testimonies – rather, they should illustrate what it’s like to have an ordinary prayer life. Also remind people that He lives in the Tabernacle of every Catholic Church! And keep sharing the Great Story and personal testimonies wherever there’s an opportunity – videos on the parish website, in one-to-one conversations, at children’s and adult groups – in short, at every possible opportunity.

You can also consider running one of several courses in your parish which provide a basic introduction to the person of Jesus. In the light of Sherry’s teaching and suggested resources, I have updated my Guide for Evangelisers. Remember that one size will not fit all parishioners, and a diverse range of methods of presenting the Gospel will be best.

  1. Ensure there is intercessory prayer for the flourishing of your parish.

Intercession is not the same thing as adoration – although it can be done in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed. You will probably have a handful of parishioners who have a particular gift for intercession – when they start to pray, a topic will come clearly to mind, or they will have a clear idea on how to pray at length about a topic you propose. How will you identify these people? If you schedule a special time of prayer to pray for the needs of the parish, they will be the main people who turn up. Develop them as a group of intercessors – and importantly, when you see answers to their prayers, feed this back to encourage them. You can also use those whose life-circumstances mean that prayer is their only way to contribute (your sick and housebound) – but don’t neglect the healthy parishioners who have a special gift for praying in this way!

  1. Identify and use the charisms of every member of your parish.

Parishioners will be happy and fulfilled when they are using the gifts God has given them to further the work of the Church – though they may need reassurance that Christian humility doesn’t require us to shun tasks we get praised for! Sherry’s organisation offers a Called & Gifted programme which helps people to identify their God-given gifts (charisms), and this can be accessed in three ways:

  • An individual goes through the process on-line;
  • A parish streams the teaching videos;
  • A parish runs live talks.

When the programme is to be run at parish level, the parish will first need to train some suitable people who will conduct the one-to-one interviews with participants. These interviews include threshold conversations which help identify how far parishioners have grown along the path to discipleship.

Final Thoughts

We need hope. Do we expect that people will become committed disciples? Do we write off good news stories 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 in the UK!

You can join the international Forming Intentional Disciples Forum on Facebook which can be searched for all sorts of useful conversation threads on evangelising in different circumstances.

There is also a UK Forum, but this is much less active.

For the avoidance of doubt, the article above is not Sherry’s words but my digest of them. Fr Gareth Leyshon (CatholicPreacher)

D Day

Homily at the Sion Community D-Weekend for Pentecost Sunday, 2019.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

This week, many nations have been remembering the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. “D” stood for Decision – the Decision to send a mighty army through the beaches of France to overthrow the Nazi evil which had overtaken the heart of Europe. Most of the warriors who took part were young people – some hiding their true age so they could fight, though not yet deemed ‘adults’. Not only men died that day – women among the nursing corps also lost their lives. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – the moral case to oppose the Nazis was overwhelming.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – within a month, a million allied warriors had landed in Normandy.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, from the words of Winston Churchill to the outrageous leadership of a bagpiper!

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost around AD 33, a group of young people were waiting in an Upper Room, the same room where Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper. It’s probable that the fishermen called by Jesus – Peter, Andrew, James and John – were in their twenties or possibly even teenagers. In today’s Gospel, we heard how Jesus appeared to them on Easter Sunday, wished them peace, and commanded them to receive the Holy Spirit. St Luke tells us how, 40 days after Easter, Jesus said goodbye – he would no longer be appearing regularly to his chosen followers – but told them to wait in Jersualem until they received power from God. In our first reading, from Acts, we learn that after 9 days of continuous prayer, the promised power came in the form of a mighty wind and tongues of fire. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young disciples knew they HAD to do it – Jesus their master had given them a command.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – not only the eleven apostles chosen by Jesus, but Mary and the other women who supported them, and very soon, the hundreds who responded and became baptised.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, because God’s power brought healings and words which touched lives.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

Joshua’s army had been given its instructions. For seven days they were to march around Jericho; on the seventh day they should march seven times with the Ark of God’s Presence and then have their priests blow trumpets. No doubt the warriors and bearers of the Ark would have been young people. Joshua wasn’t so young any more, but God had chosen him because when he was a young man, sent to spy in the Promised Land, he had told Moses that although the land was full of formidable enemies, it would be easy to conquer with God’s help. Where most of the spies saw human problems, Joshua saw God’s solutions. Since then, he’d had to wait 40 years to see the children of Israel enter the Promised Land. But now it was time. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – God’s power had led them to this moment.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were twelve tribes.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: Joshua had seen God’s power part the Egyptian Sea and the Jordan River, provide manna from heaven, and speak to Moses face-to-face.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. A few of them had even experienced what the Apostles had also known following the first Pentecost – they had prayed in tongues, received words of prophecy from God. But others among them doubted. And many wondered what their mission was to be.

For Joshua and for the D-Day troops, they had clear missions ahead of them. Joshua was to capture the city of Jericho and secure the Promised Land. The warriors of D-Day were to repel the Nazi troops and restore freedom to the nations of Europe. For the young people at the first Pentecost, their mission briefing was more general – they were to invite everyone in the world to become a follower of Jesus Christ – to become a Disciple.

Now what must you do to be a Disciple? We read in the same chapter of Acts that those who said “Yes” on the Day of Pentecost did four things. They were faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to meeting together to support one another, to Holy Communion and to prayer.

If you want to know the Teaching of the Apostles, you will need to read the whole New Testament of the Bible. But I can sum it up for you briefly. Deal with your anger and live in peace with one another. Protect and cherish human life from conception to natural death. Forgive everyone, even before they ask. Never sleep with another person until you are part of a marriage blessed by God. And never, ever, say something is a rule while doing the opposite.

This teaching will stir up questions in your hearts. Part of what Jesus taught is quite acceptable to the world around us. Who can argue with helping people in need and keeping our promises? But other things will be out of step with today’s world. Some of you will be thinking “Yes! It feels right to go to Mass on Sunday, protect human life in the womb, and wait until marriage, but I don’t quite understand why.” Ask the questions! It’s OK to want to know more, and a good place to start is a book called YouCat.

Others among you will feel angry at some of these ideas. Can’t the old-fashioned Catholic Church get with the times? Well, no, we can’t. Our job is to do what we’ve done for 2000 years, to pass on the teaching of Jesus – and Jesus doesn’t change his mind. But if you’re angry, good! Talk about it with someone. Maybe it’s because following Jesus means you’ll have to disagree with some members of your family or close friends. That’s why Jesus wants to fill us with His Holy Spirit, to be brave and courageous. But if you’re like the milkshake with the film on top*, you’re not going to be an awesome milkshake…

Maybe all of this feels too much for you. You can see that other people on the D-Weekend have had a good time or enjoy the singing and praying. So I say to you: don’t feel pressured into doing anything you don’t want to do. But do ask some basic questions. Do you believe that something dramatic happened on that first Day of Pentecost? That people who knew Jesus received power to heal people and change lives for the better? That Jesus, uniquely among religious leaders, rose from the dead? And do these questions matter?

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to take the next step – God was real, and was inviting them.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were four tribes, able to keep in touch through Sion Community and through social media.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: some of the young people had spoken publicly about how God had touched their lives.

God had a purpose for each of these young people. They couldn’t go until they got the signal – and God will give that in different ways, to do different tasks, when each young person is ready. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? It was D-Day. Decision Day. Disciple Day. They would need to be brave and courageous… but like Joshua, like the Apostles, if they made the right decision, God’s Holy Spirit would be with them. I wonder what decision they are going to make?


*During the weekend, an illustration was used with three glasses of milk. Film on top (no baptism – no openness to the Holy Spirit) – no milkshake. Powder in but not stirred? (Just baptised and confirmed, not interested.) Lumpy milkshake. Powder in and stirred (stir up the gifts of the Spirit given to you) – awesome milkshake.

Photo credits: D-DayPentecostJoshua.

Fruitful Missionary Discipleship

Teaching given at the Sion Community, 26 & 27 May 2018

Parish Structures

To inspire a priest or member of a parish leadership team who is open to Alpha and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, offer a Summary of Divine Renovation.

To inspire a priest or member of a parish leadership team who is skeptical about Alpha or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, offer a Summary of Rebuilt.

Read more relevant links about parishes at The Five Pillars of Thriving Parishes and Building Missionary Parishes.

Evangelising Individuals

To inspire a layperson who’s not on a parish leadership team, or a priest who is particularly concerned with their one-to-one work evangelising parishioners, offer a Summary of Forming Intentional Disciples.

Read more, with useful links, at Help! I’m a Catholic who wants to evangelise! and Making Disciples.

Other Resources

The slides used at Sion are available as the original PowerPoint and as a PDF.

Some additional books you might read!

Video clips used are embedded below, apart from the “Blessed” First Communion resource. The “Evidence” clip is one of many brilliant films from Outside da Box; I also strongly recommend “Initiation“.

Building Missionary Parishes

The path of discipleship is one which individuals must walk from the first stirrings of curiosity about Jesus and his message, through to wholehearted committment. A parish neccessarily contains people at all stages of the journey. Indeed, a core function of a parish is to enable its members to make that journey, and to be equipped to invite other people to do so, too.

Some of the work which helps people make that journey is necessarily one-to-one work in the context of a relationship of trust. A parish needs to plan and provide for that to happen – but also needs a broader strategy about its corporate life. Elsewhere, I offer a resource page with useful links for materials which can help individuals and small groups grow through the different thresholds of discipleship. This web-page suggests what this might mean for the strategy of a parish as a whole.

PRE-DISCIPLESHIP

Not all church-goers are disciples. Indeed, based on Weddell and Kelly, a typical parish priest might safely assume that 90%-95% of his parishioners have not yet become disciples!

Those who passed through sacramental preparation as children may not yet have accepted the challenge to change; they may not be actively interested in finding out what Christ or the Church teaches.

If most parishes currently have 95% of their attendees in pre-discipleship, how should this shape the preaching and pastoral activity?

Most of the preaching should aim to do one or more of the following things:

  • Foster trust in Christ or His Church;
  • Tell the Great Story of Jesus in a way that arouses curiosity;
  • Speak openly about what the inner life of prayer is really like.

After some years of this it may be the right time to run a parish mission or similar programme which allows people to accept the Challenge to Change… but what should be done with those who accept the challenge? Weddell notes that the temptation is to train them for ministries, but in fact they will be hungry for catechesis, to understand their newly-awakened faith better.

When working with individuals, it is inadvisible to tackle moral issues which affect lifestyle until the person has accepted the challenge to be open to Christ and His message. But if the vast majority of Sunday churchgoers have not yet reached this threshold, what does this mean for preaching when moral topics arise naturally in the Lectionary? The preacher might choose to emphasise that following the Lord’s high standards is a natural thing to do for anyone who has already chosen to accept Jesus’ teaching, and remind the congregation that the Lord is always willing to forgive those who fall short and to offer grace, including through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to those who wish to set their sights higher.

Any courses or study groups put on should be grounded in relationship with Christ. Many existing catechetical resoruces focus on content rather than relationship; and it is all too easy to deliver the content as a “lesson” rather than make it a true apprenticeship in which participants are actively reflecting on the implications for their lives.

A parish serious about being open to those on the threshold of exploring the Catholic faith will create an easy and welcoming atmosphere for those who drop in to test the water. They may offer a “seeker” experience – one successful model in cities is Nightfever. The Proclaim15 Resource Index is useful to help parishes develop a vision and strategy for evangelisation, or to focus on particular sectors such as youth, families, those with no church connection, or non-churchgoing Catholics. Southwark Archdiocese has produced an excellent Handbook to help parishes review parish provision and set up a parish team.

What about the 5%-10% who are already disciples? In a typical British parish that means there will be a core of 10-50 worshippers who will benefit from catechesis and discipling. If Sunday preaching is oriented to the 90+%, there will need to be another forum for the deepening work. This could be in the form of cell groups following the Guildford modelOrpington (Milan) model or Wimbledon (Florida) modelDivine Renovation tells of how a Canadian parish priest used the Alpha Course as a starting point to challenge his parishioners to become “engaged” in the mission of the Church.

Finally, remember the importance of intercession. Who in the parish is praying – and especially for those on the thresholds of openness or of discipleship, where much spiritual warfare takes place?

REACHING THE LAPSED

Rebuilt tells the story of a parish which made its primary strategy one of being intentionally welcoming to lapsed Catholics. Programmes to reach out to non-practising Catholics are of limited value unless the host church has made some adjustments in this way. If the church hasn’t changed, what is going to dissuade the returner from lapsing again?

A “threshold conversation” of the kind outlined in Forming Intentional Disciples can help highlight people’s disappointments and misunderstandings about God.

FORMING DISCIPLES AT THE CORPORATE LEVEL

Rebuilt explains how an American parish adopted a twofold mission: reaching the lost and growing disciples. Starting with 1500 worshippers, they grew to 4000 by gearing the welcome, music and preaching to their target audience – a 40something lapsed Catholic middle-class male. (Each parish will need to identify their own target based on local demographics, though husbands are more likely to bring their wives than vice versa.) By exhorting and enabling people to “get involved” they developed a culture where parishioners naturally gave of their time, talents and treasure; so resources do not need to be directed into running fundraisers or seeking reluctant volunteers to fill gaps.

Rick Warren’s book Purpose Driven Church observed that there were five distinct tasks every church community needs to undertake in order to be the full expression of Christ’s church on earth: Worship, Ministry (by which he meant social outreach, charitable work in the local community), Mission (his term for explicitly inviting others to become followers of Jesus), Fellowship (becoming part of the community of worshippers) and a fifth purpose of consciously seeking to grow as a follower of Jesus – Warren labelled this one “Discipleship” but since living out the other four purposes are also aspects of discipleship, a better Catholic label might be “Ongoing Formation”.

In a Catholic context, Divine Renovation tells how a Canadian parish priest, appointed pastor of a newly-merged parish of 1800 worshippers, applied the ideas from Rick Warren and set out a specific expectation that members of his parish would commit to five priorities: attending Sunday worship; volunteering for at least one parish project or ministry; networking with other Catholics; developing their prayer life and/or understanding of the Catholic faith; and giving financially to the parish. As a result, volunteering and financial giving has doubled, participation in courses has tripled, and more than 40% of parishioners are actively engaged with the life of the parish. The parish priest is now developing the best ways to draw in those who approach the Church seeking sacraments – ways which deeply challenge our current culture of applying the sacrament and waiting with forlorn hope for the grace to manifest!

There are many tools available to help members of a parish discern their gifts and strengths. Andy Raine’s Motivational Gifts helps Christians understand their motivation in terms of 7 Biblical headings. A more secular approach is found in Gallup’s engagement tools, including 34 Signature Themes from the Clifton Strengths approach, where you can buy access to an online assessment (top 5 or all 34). Sherry Weddell has long been associated with the Catherine of Siena Institute’s Called and Gifted programme, which does however need a trained facilitator. Wisdom on managing volunteers in parishes is also available.

 

Making Disciples

Does your church have a Mission Statement?

If not, don’t panic – we already have one given to us in the Gospel! It’s to go out to the whole world and make disciples of all nations.

If your Church does have one, but it’s not an expression of the Gospel one tailored to your own local circumstances, then is your mission the mission of Jesus?


DISCIPLESHIP is the “in” word at the moment. It needs to be understood for what it is – a personal, deliberate and conscious decision to take Jesus as one’s own teacher. It relates to all stages of the spiritual journey from the first stirrings of curiosity in the message of Jesus, through to making a formal life-commitment to one kind of vocation or another. It is a good word to sum up the whole mission of the Christian church!

Some speak of “intentional discipleship” to emphasise the deliberateness of being a disciple – not that it is possible to be an unintentional disciple! But if the word were used carelessly, it would become equivalent to “Christian” or “church member”. Then we might start reading about “non-practicing disciples” which would be the sign that the word “disciple” had lost its intentionality – perish the thought!

Recent years have seen a spate of publications on discipleship, church growth, and discerning and using charisms. Some of the texts are by theorists offering ideas, perhaps ideas which have been tested by only one or two groups. For me, the stand-out book is Forming Intentional Disciples (hereafter FID), which is backed by the fruits of an approach tried and tested in dozens of parishes, where significant numbers of Catholics have been helped to move from church-going to true discipleship. I have made two videos promoting FID on behald of the Bishops of England and Wales, as part of the 2015 package of Proclaim15 resources.

FID concerns the growth of individual Catholics; some books look at strategic approaches which can direct a whole congregation. Rebuilt is notable as the story of one parish which experienced rapid growth in numbers attending as a result of a focussed approach on the essentials. By contrast, Divine Renovation shows how a focus on raising engagement can lift a parish from the typical 8-10% of actively involved members to 50+%.

On this webpage I will post links and summaries for resources which can assist the spiritual growth of individuals, or small groups of people at roughly the same stage of spiritual development. I will also maintain a strategic page of resources more useful to the overall growth and guidance of a parish community as a whole.

PRE-DISCIPLESHIP

FID sets out three key thresholds which people must cross before they come close to being disciples of Christ: TRUST in Christ or something Christian; PASSIVE INTEREST in the life and message of Christ; and a willingness to be CHALLENGED TO CHANGE. Although different people experience these thresholds in very different ways, FID is rooted in research in the 1990s that identified these thresholds as common factors in the stories of all the converts interviewed in the course of the research.

The Bridge of Trust

I remember a lecture at seminary (unfortunately I am unable to find the reference to the source material now) which suggested that there are three things that keep young people connected to the Catholic Church:

  • HEART: 40% remain connected because they have a quality relationship with a practising Catholic;
  • HANDS: 40% remain connected because they are involved with some kind of service project, such as a Lourdes pilgrimage;
  • HEAD: 20% remain connected because they receive good apologetics.Because there are different kinds of people, no one approach will work to build bridges with everyone. Indeed, building bridges with non-Catholics and non-practising Catholics is a task which every committed Catholic will do in a unique way for each relationship which they have in their lives. We will usually need to take a genuine interest in the person’s life as a whole before we can ask questions about their spiritual life. For clergy and pastoral workers, it may be possible to move more rapidly to such a conversation in a formal context of trust, such as marriage preparation.Other research, now a little dated, on what keeps people connected with church can be found in a summary of Northampton Diocese’s 2002 Y-Church Report and the charismatic-focussed W-Church Report on why some young people in Wales remained involved with Catholic Charismatic Renewal. When I engage members of other religious groups in conversation, such as Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, I like to ask them 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 group who helped them in their hour of need. Similarly, many aspiring Catholics who join enquirers’ groups or attend RCIA might come because they have met some “nice Catholics” and want to come alongside them. This is an excellent start, but not an adequate foundation, and needs careful attention to bring these aspirants through the next two thresholds – unlike someone exploring the Catholic Faith because of a spiritual awakening, who might be ready to proceed directly to catechesis.

    Telling the Great Story

    Once a relationship exists with people who are not yet disciples, our task is to share with them the Great Story of Jesus – who he is, what he has done, why it matters, and what it is like to have a relationship with him. This is something that may take place mainly in personal conversations, but for churchgoers who are not yet disciples, group study materials may be helpful:

    Honesty about what a personal prayer life is like – and realism about what doesn’t usually happen during prayer time – is very important, too.This is not the right time to tackle prospective converts about dubious moral choices in their life, or to offer abstract doctrines. Until a solid relationship is established between the convert and the Lord, this would be premature.

    The Challenge to Change

    A person on the threshold of being open to the challenge to change can be quite volatile. Until they surrender to Christ, they may protest loudly! We may not appreciate the fears and pressures for them – not least about entering a church building! They may want to explore issues of faith anonymously, perhaps by doing their own reading and research.FID explains the art of the “threshold conversation”, where a Christian seeking to make disciples can assess whether a person has passed through these thresholds, and nudge them towards making the next step. There is great similarity here to the crucial third step (placing trust in God) of a 12-step addiction recovery programme.

    In The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic (4SDC), Matthew Kelly observes that in a typical US parish, 7% of the people give 80% of the money and provide 80% of the volunteering hours. He notes that it is common for the majority of those 7% in any one parish to have a common factor – perhaps many of them did Cursillo, or “Christ Renews His Parish”, or some other similar programme.

    COMMITTMENT ZONE

    FID’s next two thresholds are those of ACTIVELY SEEKING to know the teaching of Christ and his Church, and CHOOSING TO FOLLOW Christ as a disciple. Together these constitute the Committment Zone.

    Actively Seeking Jesus

    It is for those who are actively seeking that CATECHESIS is most important; and this should not be the impartation of mere doctrine, but a true apprenticeship in Christian living. (An apprentice is a learner receiving coaching in how to apply what they have learned, in practice.) We must not confuse a person’s decision to SEEK with the decision to FOLLOW. Some seekers may not want to make a definitive committment to Christ. If a person is not ready to say yes to Jesus, it might be appropriate to ask what the obstacles are.In one-to-one conversations, resist the temptation to give large doses of doctrine in answer to questions. Instead, be mindful of the Lord’s own habit of answering a question with another question. Keep telling the Great Story of what God has done in Jesus Christ. It takes a number of tellings before listeners realise its significance. There are parts of the Story in particular which arouse spiritual curiosity – healings, and forgiveness. There is a danger of getting hung up on particular questions of doctrine; the real question to explore is whether the institutional Catholic Church can be trusted as the carrier of God’s tradition.

    We need to challenge people to move from openness to seeking, lest they stagnate. We might help them try out the corporal works of mercy, or various kinds of prayer. We might offer them role models and the stories of new disciples; we might tell how sacraments and church have helped our own growth. We cannot assume the current generation has any clear concept of “sin”.

    The key Vatican document here is the General Directory for Catechesis, which sets out the Catholic Vision of Catechesis. Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the following links offer a Basic Syllabus for Catechesis in the Catholic Faith – Excel version and PDF summary.

    Kelly identifies the 4 signs of a dynamic Catholic as committment to prayer, to ongoing study of their faith, generosity and a willingness to share what they have received with others. In the committment phase, we can begin to teach these good patterns of behaviour to our catechumens. Chapters 2 thru 5 of 4SDC will be useful here.

    The various Movements in the church – NeocatechumenateFocolareOpus Dei etc – become attractive to those seeking to understand their faith and to make a committment in the company of others. But such movements can become divisive when non-participant parishioners get the message that they are “second class Catholics”. The pastoral challenge is to offer formation which allows a whole parish to move forward, together.

    Choosing to Follow

    Once a person has reached the point of knowing that they wish to follow Jesus as a disciple, they may desire to express this by some kind of ceremony. For those preparing to become Catholics, this will be by a sacramental ceremony of initiation. For those who are already confirmed Catholics, more could be made of the Easter Renewal of Baptismal Committment. One resource to assist this is a book by Revd Ambrose Walsh.

    DISCIPLESHIP ZONE

    Once a person has made a conscious commitment to follow Jesus and live out his teaching, they become a disciple – in the language of FID, they have “dropped their nets” and set out on the journey.The journey requires a deepening and consolidating of the good habits already begun, so chapters 2-5 of 4SDC are still relevant.

    A person keen to serve may want to explore their own giftedness; FID grew out of a parish development programme, “Called & Gifted” which helps Catholics understand what their gifts are and how to volunteer in the most appropriate contexts.

    Some useful books here are Called and Sent again by Revd Ambrose Walsh, and Gifted and Sent by Revd Pat Collins CM.

    VOCATION ZONE

    A natural development of exploring one’s gifts is asking what they mean for a person’s overall direction in life as a whole. Should I marry or remain single? Am I called to consecrated life or holy orders? There are also less formal vocations to be discerned, such as making a serious, personal, long-term committment to one kind of apostolate or another, or giving serious consideration to the best way to spread the Gospel within one’s own situation in life.In most parishes, there will only be a handful of people of the right age and spiritual maturity to seriously ponder questions of formal vocation, so individuals asking these questions will need personal attention or assistance from regional groups.

    Christ the King Parish, Ann Arbor, provides an exceptional example of a parish structure where these things can be explored together – but this is a non-geographic parish explicitly created to minister to Catholics who are seeking a deeper presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

    Some useful resources for exploring vocation:

  • National Vocations Framework for England and Wales;
  • Discernment Groups for England and Wales;
  • The Community of Our Lady of Walsingham specialises in helping others discern their vocations to different kinds of callings.

 

Pure Gold

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B.

Gold dissolves in aqua regia!

One of my favourite childhood reads was the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. In one of the novels, some children are camping in the Lake District and they think they’ve discovered gold! One of the children, Richard, is a bit of a scientist and remembers reading that “gold dissolves in aqua regia” – a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid. So they mix up some of this powerful acid, drop in the shiny metal they’ve discovered, and it dissolves! Gold! … Or is it?

All that glitters is not gold… and not everything that dissolves in aqua regia is gold either. A mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid is so powerful that it can dissolve almost anything! It turns out that what the children have actually discovered is a copper ore, and copper is a useful metal too! If the metal they had found hadn’t dissolved in aqua regia, that would have proved it wasn’t gold. But just showing it did dissolve wasn’t proof that it was.

The name aqua regia means “royal water”, because it is a liquid capable of dissolving even precious, kingly, metals. Today we will make us of another kind of royal water, the water of baptism, in which Remmi-Rae will be adopted as a daughter of the most High God and become a princess in His royal family. Now don’t worry, this royal water is not a strong acid and no-one is going to be dissolved. But this water is even more powerful than the strongest acid, because in adults it has the power to wash away sin, and in children who have not committed wilful sin, it washes away their heritage of belonging to the sinful human race, which we call ‘original sin’ or the ‘sin of our origins’.

In today’s First Reading, we are reminded of the very first time that baptism was offered to a family who was not Jewish. St Peter had a dream in which it was made clear that the gift of Baptism was not only for the children of Israel, but for the whole world. The house of Cornelius is one of five examples of “whole households” being baptised in the Bible, which is one of the reasons we baptise not only believers but children as well. But a child can only be baptised when the parents and godparents make a promise to teach and show the child how to live the Catholic faith!

What I want to say next is especially for Remmi-Rae’s parents and godparents, but also for all of you who are parents or have taken on the responsibility of becoming a godparent or sponsor to a member of the church. Do you understand your duty to teach and show the Catholic faith?

Today’s Second Reading and Gospel speak loudly: love one another! The Greek word for Christian love is agape, which means pouring out our lives in service of one another. If we do not love one another, we are not followers of Jesus. But beware! These words can lead us straight into the aqua regis trap. If we do love one another, does that prove we are Christians? No!

Are there not good Buddhists who love one another in the world?

Are there not good Muslims, who practice the Islamic value of ummah, looking out for one another?

Are there not good atheists, humanitarians, who love one another and even the most needy in our world?

Parents, godparents, you must teach your children to love one another. You must teach them always to offer forgiveness. But there is more work to do. The question is this. Just as Richard needed a chemical test that would pick out gold alone, so you must answer this: what does your family do that you wouldn’t do if you weren’t Catholic?

Do you pray together the words Jesus asked us to pray, Our Father? Later in this Mass, we will pray these words on behalf of Remmi-Rae, who is too young to make them her own.

Do you respect the teachings of the Pope in Rome, who is the centre of unity for the Church on earth? Will you teach your children and godchildren that when the Bible alone is not clear on the complicated issues we face in today’s world, the Holy Spirit guides the Pope in giving the best answers for our time?

Do you remind your children and godchildren that they are invited guests at the royal banquet of the Eucharist which is set out for them each weekend?

Do you teach your children, by word and example. to receive spiritual strength through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Holy Communion, and when the time is right, Holy Matrimony and the Anointing of the Sick? Jesus longs to connect with each one of them through prayer, and will call each child to a unique friendship with Him. Jesus has chosen each baptised child to bear fruit: the fruit of good works, the fruit of offering prayers, and the fruit of inviting many people to be baptised! And if this seems like an awesome responsibility, it is – but God’s awesome Spirit lives within each of you who are baptised and confirmed to enable you to carry it out!

Remmi-Rae has been born into a family named King. In fifth-century France, there was a Bishop Rémy who converted and baptized King Clovis.  Today, in twenty-first century Wales, this Remmi-Rae will be baptised into God’s royal family. It would be a tragedy to remember to teach her to love others and forget to teach her she is a sister of Jesus! Parents, godparents, treat her like royalty and ensure she lives in the Palace of the King, which is her local Catholic Church! So now, parents and godparents, it is time to baptise this King in royal water! Let us stand and pray.