“When will these things come to pass?”
That was the natural question on the lips of Jesus’ followers when they heard these terrible predictions, and it’s a natural question for us to ask, too.
We can predict, reasonably well, when some disasterous things will take place. In fact, the word “dis-aster” literally means “bad star” and we know that one day, our nearest star, the Sun, will go bad. In about five thousand million years, it will run out of nuclear fuel and swell up, scorching planet Earth to a cinder, or perhaps even engulfing it entirely!
Five billion years is a long way away. But don’t relax yet! Some of the latest results from mapping the 300,000 stars nearest our Sun tell us that in just one and one-third million years, a passing star will cause thousands of comets to rain down upon planet Earth and perhaps cause other disruption in our solar system.
Cosmic disasters might be too far in the future to trouble our children’s children, but by the year 2080, it’s forecast that more than a million homes in the UK might be at risk of flooding, and our coastal roads and railway lines could be badly affected too. I talked about the environment a few weeks ago so I won’t go into detail again, but we can all do our bit by reducing the amount of energy we consume.
There’s another disasterous date to put on your calendar. 2036. That’s a mathematical prediction of when the number of people worshipping in this church will fall to zero, based on changing congregation numbers since 2009. The number of First Communions would fall to zero in 2030. Zero baptisms by 2024!
Now, these numbers are crude. It’s not always the right things to fit a straight light to a graph to make predictions. But what is clear is that the numbers for our parish are falling – of baptisms, of communions, and of people attending Mass. And that’s typical of most parishes. But Jesus didn’t call the church to shrink. He called us to go out and make disciples!
We live in an uncertain time. I was hoping that Archbishop George would have named my successor by now. We are all wondering whether there will be another priest ready to lead this parish in January. But whether you have another priest straight away or not, we all have a task, the work Jesus left to all his followers – making disciples of all nations. A priest can’t do it all on his own, anyway. So who in this congregation is actively asking, “What can we do to make our congregation grow? How do we help people who might leave, to stay? How can we ask new people to join?”
I’ve got good news for you. Some Catholic Churches are growing! The Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, grew its Mass attendance from 1500 to 4000 in a few years! The Church of St Benedict in Nova Scotia raised its level of parishioner engagement from 7% to 40% in a few years! And there’s more good news! If you have succeeded in really engaging parishioners you don’t have to appeal for money or volunteers – engaged Catholics want to give, and give generously!
Avoiding disaster may need us to make some painful decisions. If the way we currently run our church is causing us to shrink or at least stay static, carrying on doing what we’re doing isn’t likely to make us grow. Maybe to be more effective we should be pooling our resources with other parishes. For now, this parish is able to pay its own way: we have cleared our debt. But we have barely enough people to fill the volunteer roles we need to keep everything running.
The Archbishop has already asked the parishes from Whitchurch thru Llanedeyrn to co-operate in what we call the Northern Arc… one natural next step is to ask whether St Philip Evans is big enough to survive and grow as an independent parish. And if the answer is “yes” right now, would it still be “yes” if most of our Indian parishioners were offered a Syro-Malabar service every weekend? Can we still run all the things an independent parish needs to run? They say turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but it’s chickens who don’t make painful changes to secure the best possible future. The day might come when difficult questions have to be asked about Mass times or even merging with other parishes.
Even so, I’m not expecting change in the next year or two. The Archbishop says it is important that this parish has a priest to welcome new residents moving into all the new housing in this area. Perhaps we’re not at the point where we need to think about a merger. Perhaps there are enough resources in this community to be able to invest in things that will make this congregation grow. So which of you are actively asking “What makes successful parishes grow? When can we learn from thriving Catholic parishes?”
Next summer, all the priests and deacons in Cardiff will attend a three-day conference with an American lay woman, Sherry Weddell, who had a brilliant idea. She studied the stories of dozens of converts who started out as non-Catholics and ended up as very active Catholics. What do they all have in common? Sherry found out, and if we understand how non-Catholics become active Catholics, we can become very effective at inviting more non-Catholics to do the same!
All across the diocese, parishes are now being asked to run 6-week-long reading groups to study Sherry’s book, which is called Forming Intentional Disciples, to try out some of the ideas, and send delegates on June 15th to a day when they can share their experiences and receive coaching from Sherry herself. That could happen here, if a few of you choose to start a study group and work on encouraging parish growth. You don’t need to wait for a new priest to organise that!
“When will these things come to pass?” the disciples asked the Lord. “No-one knows the day or hour except the Father”, Jesus replied, speaking of the end of the world. But as for when studying and investing in the future of this parish will take place – that’s up to you!