A new report by the Catholic Research Forum (an initiative of the Benedict XVI centre at St Mary’s University, Twickenham) has something to tell us about evangelisation. 7.7 per cent of the 3.8 million Catholics in the UK are ‘converts’ – I put the word in inverted commas because the report tells us that 99 per cent of them were raised in another Christian communion. In other words, a tiny number of new Catholics have truly converted to Christianity and received Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist. The Catholic Church in the UK then, is receiving people many of whom have already received a basic understanding of the Christian Faith (and baptism). My own guess is that a high proportion will be those who devoutly and prayerfully have been trying to live the Catholic life in the Church of England and who now seek its fullness in the full Communion of the Catholic Church. But the ‘pool’ of this group within the Anglican and other Christian bodies is rapidly decreasing: how then does the Catholic Church do primary evangelism? How does it proclaim the Faith of Jesus Christ as Saviour, Redeemer and Lord, to those who do not believe in God? How are they converted to Christ, and how are they nurtured and taught into the Faith so that they persevere in Christian living for the rest of their lives?
We still behave as if the principal way of passing on the Faith were within the family, from parents to children, and the chief means of knowing the faith was within the context of the Catholic school. No doubt this remained true for Catholics well into the 20th century. I doubt whether it is still the case. Where other Christian denominations are successful in bringing unbelievers to faith in Jesus Christ, it is through friendship evangelism. In the 1980’s I asked a random group of (Anglican) faithful how they had become Church members. Only one of the group of 20 people had been brought up in the Faith by their parents: the other 19 had been influenced by a friend in their teens or early adulthood.
Time and again one has seen the personal witness of belief and Christian living of a friend has initiated the process of conversion. It is rarely the clergy who have this influence; nearly always it is a lay friend. And it is this lay friend who accompanies on the journey to conversion – and beyond! For the seeker, as for the convert – and for the new Catholic – this journey can be very lonely. How do they find their way into the average Catholic parish?The size of congregations at Mass make personal contact difficult, as does the ratio of laity to their priest. Although large congregations (of the Catholic size) are rare among Anglicans there are some – and it is worth considering how they nurture and encourage those who are new to the Faith. It is not the Sunday congregation gathered for worship which does this, but the small (home) group. Led by a lay person, the group is small enough (15 – 39 people) for everyone to matter. There is time for teaching, as there never is at Sunday Mass; time too, for those questions and for the sharing of the experience of other Christians to be heard; above all, for the new person to become quickly part of group where they are respected, noticed and cared about: where they find someone they know to sit with in the Sunday congregation of 500!
Is it fair to say that the policy of the Catholic Church in the UK seems to be largely centred on provision of Masses and the other sacraments, against the background of the falling numbers of priests? This policy has resulted in the closure of churches and the amalgamation of parishes. The bishops rightly want to protect their priests from burn-out caused by an impossible work-load. The (very) faithful will get into their cars to drive five miles to Mass, where once they walked down the road. But the seeker will not. And the new Catholic, missing the closeness of his or her RCIA group, will feel isolated and lonely with only Saturday Mass as the weekly contact (or lack of it) with the family he understood he was joining.
There are problems with lay leadership of groups, whether they be home groups or small parishes where there is no resident priest. Quite simply, lay leaders have not been accountable to the Bishop as the clergy are, for their teaching and life-style. There is a fear that their very closeness to the world will blunt their witness to Catholic truth, which will lead their groups inevitably to secular liberalism. But it was not so in the early Church where the laity were often most stubborn in their orthodoxy, nor is it so in the Evangelical churches today. What is needed it clergy who can teach and inspire their lay leaders. The Catholic Church spends many years and much money forming its clergy. One of the prime aims of this formation is to enable them to communicate the Gospel to others. They are not there simply to provide Masses so that they faithful can fulfil their obligation! It’s a two way process: the Catholic laity have to grasp their responsibility as primary evangelists, as friends of those who are on the Way, for they are the way in which other people will see Jesus, come to know hom and enter into his Church. The clergy have to encourage, teach and resource the Catholic laity for their task. And to do it with enthusiasm, confidence and joy.