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.

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.
  • Take part in Ananias Training from the Catherine of Siena Institute.
  • Register as an individual to go through the Called & Gifted process – identifying your gifts will help you discern where to focus your evangelising activities.
  • If you’re comfortable in the on-line world, the Word on Fire Institute has a particular focus on evangelizing through new media.
  • 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 the Sion Community, 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 Office.
  • Join a support network on Facebook such as Home Mission, Proclaim15 or Forming Intentional Disciples UK.

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! The first step is prayer. Who are the people in the parish who will pray for the success of your outreach? With the parish priest’s permission, hold an open meeting to call together those who feel called to pray deeply for the parish – this will identify your intercessors. Work out a way they can pray regularly for the needs of the parish, and receive feedback when prayers are answered. It’s also good to harness the prayers of sick and housebound parishioners, and to have Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, but remember that intercession, although it can be done during adoration, is not the same thing as simply dedicating a Holy Hour (or Rosary) for an “intention”. It’s a prayer within which we ask God “how should I pray for intention X” and follow the guidance we receive. There’s a video resource on Prayer you can watch too.

Once you have a solid base of prayer, you need to form your group and do some general training. Then you can identify what particular opportunities there are in your parish, so you can seek appropriate 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 your team doesn’t feel very confident, you could run some more extensive training – in 5 sessions you can do Pass It On, in 7, Sharing Christ; or in 18 short or 9 long sessions you can use the Relit Evangelisation Course (that’s not cheap to buy, though).

A good motivational exercise is to host the New Evangelisation Summit – any venue with an Internet connection can stream a weekend of world-class motivational speakers to move your parish culture towards evangelising.

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. But also be aware of the particular gifts of the members of your team – what kind of work will best use the gifts available? You may want to ask the members to go through the Called & Gifted process.

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. However, don’t go to the effort of organzing high-effort events until you have an effective means of inviting people to come. This either means getting a good proportion of your Massgoers engaged and willing to pass on invitations to their family members and friends, or having a strong way of advertising the course to a wider community – through school parent networks or in the local press. You may find an invitation to “come back” is less effective than inviting people to “tell their story of why they left”.

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. But again, don’t go to the effort of organzing high-effort events until you have an effective means of inviting people to come.

Focus on evangelising the churchgoers

Many regular churchgoers will fail to understand the need or importance of evangelisation. In a typical parish, it’s likely that more than 90% of the worshippers who turn up for Mass – and even those who get deeply involved in running parish activities – see themselves as “belongers” rather than “disciples”. They have trust in the church, but may not have moved beyond pasive curiosity about the Gospel even though they are committed to their parish as an institution. You may decide that your starting point is to raise support among the congregation before you start to reach outside.

You might consider running the Called & Gifted process at parish level. This will identify the gifts latent among parishioners, but also includes conversations which will reveal where each participant is in their journey into discipleship. Harnessing parishioners’ gifts to maximum effect will generate enthusiasm within the parish, and knowing whether individuals are already disciples helps invite them appropriately to leadershop training or to an evangelistic experience to foster discipleship.

One such experience is from ChristLife, which offers an integrated series of three video-based courses: Discovering Christ, Following Christ and Sharing Christ. “Discovering” covers much of what an Alpha course would offer, but is presented by an American priest and an American layman in talking-head format; it is shorter, at 7 sessions and a day-retreat. The “Christian lifestyle” aspects of Alpha are taken up in “Following”; then “Sharing” trains parishioners to evangelise.

Smaller parishes might find the Catholic Christian Outreach resources are more accessible; these allow a handful of people to meet with a leader in someone’s living room. Or a parish might want to organise a weekend retreat following the pattern used in Boise, Idaho, for Evangelisation Retreats. If there are one or two leaders willing to go to residential event to be formed, they could attend a week-long Fundamental Retreat from the Foyers de Charité or a Cursillo Weekend. All of these events are useful in helping belongers move through the thresholds which will encourage them to become disciples.

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. A parish mission can help more people take that step, and mission events are available from providers including Café and the Sion Community.

 

Finally, note there are three Proclaim’15 videos touching on particular groups you may wish to work with in a parish:

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 or Discovering Christ, 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. You will also need a mechanism for drawing out the gifts of your parishioners, either through a formal mechanism such as Called & Gifted or informally through group leaders talent-spotting the gifts present in their group members.

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!

Great Expectations: Explore

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the First Sunday of Advent, 2016.

I’d like to begin today by inviting the children preparing for their First Holy Communion to come forward. Children, on your first communion day, what kind of clothes are you going to wear? [They will answer, clothes like wedding dresses and wedding suits.]

Do you know why we use wedding dress for First Communion? That only makes sense if we know our Catholic history.

100 years ago, 75 years ago, and perhaps 50 years ago (though things were starting to change then), almost everyone in our country agreed that a wedding marked the beginning of a new family. When a young man and a young woman liked each other, they could go dating, eat together, go dancing together – but they didn’t start living in the same house together until their wedding day. So back then, a wedding wasn’t only a special celebration in the life of a family – it marked a new beginning. From the wedding day on, a brand-new family lived together, at first just a couple, and then hopefully children would come along. The world we live in today has lots of other different ideas about marriage, but in the Catholic Church we hold on to this idea that God’s plan is that a man and a woman first make promises to each other in church, ask for God’s blessing, and then move in together and start a family.

Some of you children have been coming to church since you were babies. Some of you have only started coming in the last few weeks because you want to make your First Holy Communion. Either way, I’m really glad that you’re here with us today. Our job, in the next few months, is to prepare you not only for your First Communion Day, but for the next step of your life as members of St Philip Evans Parish. The reason you wear wedding dress on First Communion Day,  is because it’s the first day of your new life as a connected member of our Parish Family.

exploreEach family has its own rules and values. Last summer, I visited an old college friend who’s got children now, and on his fridge door was a big piece of paper, the “D**** family values”. Over the next few weeks I want to share with you our St Philip Evans Family Values, and the first one is on this banner – it says “explore”.

Some of you were at the Mission Mass at St Philip Evans School recently. What did I give some of the pupils and adults to wear? L-plates, because we are Learners, and D-plates because we are Disciples!

The prophet Isaiah imagined a time to come when people would go to the Temple to learn God’s teaching. Jesus walked among us as a Teacher – the only perfect Teacher of God’s message. He commanded his followers to go and make disciples of all nations. The words “learner” and “disciple” are connected, and that’s quite easy to see in Welsh. In fact, all of us who are followers of Jesus are entitled to display a D-plate! If we’re not “dysgwyr” [learners], we’re not Christians!

So our first St Philip Evans Family Value is to “explore” what Jesus taught us. Most of you are blessed to be in Catholic School so you can spend lots of time in the classroom thinking about Jesus and his stories. I know some of you go to Catechism Class on a Saturday afternoon once a month – how many? When you finish your First Communion Class, the rest of you could join them and do Catechism once a month and know Jesus better.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a word with the grown-ups.

These days, anyone working in a serious job is required to take part “continuing professional development” – to prove they have carried on learning and updating their knowledge and can still work effectively. If that’s important for our earthly work, how much more important is it to prepare us for heaven! So how do we do our “Continuing Faith Development”? Do you ever read the Bible or a Christian book on a regular basis? Do you ever go to a church event that includes an interesting talk or exhibition?

One important thing we need to re-learn is the value of Christian marriage. It’s easy for us to get sucked into the values of the world around which says, “Move in together, start a family, save up and have a big wedding party later.” But our vision is different. When we put God first, a wedding is about a church service which asks for God’s blessing on a new family; save the big party to mark your 10th anniversary if you can’t afford one straight away. But we also believe in second chances in the Catholic Church. Sometimes I meet parents who think that because they’ve already had children, they are not allowed to get married in church. But that’s wrong! It’s never too late to put things right in God’s eyes, and I’ve helped plenty of couples who already have children to make their vows in church. It’s also worth remembering that once you are a baptised Catholic, you must get married in a Catholic Church or with the Church’s permission, otherwise it doesn’t count as far as the Church is concerned.

I don’t want to focus only on marriage. It was one of the things important to Jesus, but there are lots of other things Jesus taught, too. After Christmas, there’ll be lots of opportunities here to explore this. If you can come weekly, the Alpha Course will start on Tuesday nights. If you can come monthly, there’s Call to Question. I’m also thinking of starting a fortnightly group after Monday morning Mass for people who find daytime easier than evenings. We can’t live well as Christians unless we know the teaching of Jesus, and a short 7-minute slot at Sunday Mass isn’t long enough to go into things deeply. We no longer live in a world where Christian values are all around us. We need to take time to listen to Jesus and think about how we do what he asks in our daily lives. Remember, that Jesus warns us that he may come back at an hour we do not expect! If he finds that we have been studying the Bible, the lives of the saints, or the teaching of the church, he will not find fault with us – as long as we are putting into practice what we have learned!

What does the word Disciple mean? LEARNER!

What do you have to be to be a good learner? A LISTENER!

What will you do after Christmas to listen to the teaching of Jesus? That’s up to you, but do something. EXPLORE!