Bishop David spoke at the recent Mission Conference. Here is the full text of his talk.
We are called to be a missionary diocese. And so I want to share some thoughts about how I see things developing. And let me say, I do see things moving in the right direction. So within that context, let’s begin with a few challenging ideas which are holding us back.
There are many around our diocese who share with me their thoughts about mission.
For example many believe mission is everything they do in their parish community.
Others will say they are unclear about what exactly mission is.
Others suggest, even though they do not seem clear about what mission is, they do not feel prepared or trained to do mission.
Recently I was in another diocese and heard of someone who was quite aggressive to some Catholics, because they were involved in street evangelisation at Christmas time. Her problem? We Catholics keep our faith private; we just don’t do that sort of thing.
Then there are those who align mission with building a successful parish community. The trouble is, their understanding of success does not seem to align with what the Church suggests mission is about.
Now this is not an exhaustive list of views about mission. It’s enough though. And my hunch is that we need to be clear about what we are talking about before we continue to develop a diocesan strategy for mission.
Where do we start?
It is significant, the new Directory for Catechesis is published by the Pontifical Council for Evangelisation. A cursory view of the contents takes us immediately to the heart of the matter. The first chapter begins with a section entitled, Jesus Christ, revealer and revelation of the Father. This has two sub-sections, Revelation in God’s providential plan and Jesus proclaims the Gospel of salvation. This then is where mission starts and ends. With Jesus and His sharing with us, God’s plan of salvation.
To my mind, most of the fruits of the recent diocesan synodal conversations somewhat missed the mark. They were concerned with the Church as structure and institution, and seemed to think if we made some dramatic changes to all this, things would be better. I realise this is not all that was said, but enough was shared which made me realise, the focus is not on Jesus.
Now please don’t underestimate the number of problems we are facing within our diocese in these times. We have a number of important decisions to make, about our deployment of clergy, about the falling numbers of people attending Sunday Mass, about our properties, about what we can afford to do in the years ahead. But none of this begins to address the fundamental and most important problem we have, our understanding of what the Church is for?
The new Directory for Catechesis says something which was first proclaimed by St Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi. ‘There is no true evangelisation if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.’ (DC 37, EN 22) How is this done? The Directory does not provide an exhaustive list, but suggests these are some noteworthy forms,
– the first proclamation
– the various types of catechesis
– the homily and preaching
– prayerful reading, including in the form of lectio divina
– popular piety
– the biblical apostolate
– the teaching of theology
– educational instruction in religion
The Directory deals next with evangelisation in the contemporary world, suggesting that the world we are living in today means there is a new stage of evangelisation. And there is a bold statement that should not be overlooked, ‘the Holy Spirit is the soul of the evangelising Church.’ (DC 39)
At this point, we are now in a position to look at the diocese and to see if we are becoming a missionary diocese. We can also look at how the vision of mission is evolving a year after our last conference. And I want to say, in what I will share with you now, there are as many questions as there are clear statements of missionary endeavour.
Those ideas about mission I mentioned at the beginning are still very much around. It may be possible for us to address them through clear, patient and persistent teaching. But notice what the first form of evangelisation is, according to the new Directory for Catechesis, the first proclamation, the first proclamation of Jesus. Part of the challenge to my mind, is how we may appropriately encourage those who were baptised in infancy, have been part of their parish life for decades, might even be the parish priest, to ask themselves about their relationship with Jesus. Do I have a personal relationship with Jesus? And then there is the question about the meaning of discipleship. What is a parish community all about? I was at All Saints, Bletchley earlier this week to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation. Opposite the church is a petrol station (unless I was experiencing a mirage). I found myself wondering what those gathered together for the celebration thought about things. Did they think the church was the same as the place where we go to fill up with fuel?
In this regard, I think we should start with those we have ready access to. I am thinking of the communities in our parishes and our schools. We need teams of disciples who have been evangelised themselves, to establish Alpha and other similar programmes which proclaim the name of Jesus. And then we need Life in the Spirit seminars. If the Holy Spirit is the soul of the evangelising Church, we cannot proclaim Christ to others unless we are immersed into the life of the Spirit.
And next we need to reach out to others. Just recently, we had an example of what this might look like. The mission to Houghton Regis was the first step for me, in fulfilling what I heard from the Nuncio when he told me that Pope Francis had named me as the Bishop of Northampton. He mentioned the many new housing developments which are growing throughout our diocese. I mentioned my recent visit to Bletchley. They have an interesting problem there, which is replicated in three more parish communities across Milton Keynes. Every week, new people are coming to church, having moved into the area from London. And the problem? There soon won’t be enough room for them. This is not a problem I come across around many other parts of the diocese.
Our general parish model is to sit in our churches and hope people will come to us. And very few are going to come that way. Many more are going to come through a personal invitation. Maybe not to Sunday Mass in the first instance, but to some events at where they can feel comfortable and hear the proclamation of Jesus. This will need an enormous amount of investment in lay formation. In this regard, I find myself much encouraged with what Mission Northampton is doing under the direction of Maria. We have around 35 trained missionary disciples who now have some experience after the Houghton Regis Mission. Could they form the nucleus of a developing and growing team who could undertake similar missions around the Luton Pastoral Area? And what about a plan to do something similar in other Pastoral Areas? It takes time, but every journey begins with a single step. Mission Northampton have begun and I just want to encourage them to continue the challenging work of growing more missionary disciples who, through the Holy Spirit, catch the fire of desire for mission.
The devil’s Greek name is diabolos, the one who divides and separates. We need to be aware of the enemy’s desire to create divisions within our diocesan community. And we need to stand firm against this diabolical activity in our midst. The Directory for Catechesis mentions popular piety as one of the forms for promoting a true evangelisation. It is difficult to see exactly what this terms means in our own context. But I will gently make a few suggestions. We need to build communities of missionary discipleship around the diocese. These should be able to access oases of refreshment, renewal and nourishment. Some time ago, we had a praise and worship meeting in the Cathedral Centre. During the time of prayer, a sudden realisation dawned upon me – this was the fulfilment of a vision I had before arriving in the diocese, sitting in my room at Oscott College and praying about what it would be like to be the Bishop of Northampton. Enough has happened since then to convince me, the enemy of Jesus and our enemy is desperate to tear down these initiatives. The priest who was leading the praise and worship that evening in the Cathedral Centre has sadly stepped aside from ministry at the moment. On the 18th March 2023 we launch our new CDSC, chaired by Yoofi Clarke, and within the structures of CHARIS, Pope Francis’ inspired body to look after the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. I am hoping there will be regular praise and worship coming to new life around the diocese. I also hope there will be communities of contemplative prayer and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. There needs to be more focused and insistent prayer directed towards the growth of missionary discipleship in our diocese.
One of the objectives of Mission Northampton is to explore the possibility of new ecclesial communities or movements moving into the diocese. I would see these as essential to the support and development of what we are doing. And this has some interesting aspects for us to consider. At the moment, we are looking at our parishes, their properties and resources to see where the future lies. I cannot deny, this is a challenging exercise and is quite demanding for many reasons. When a church is closed, a whole story of endeavour to build it, sacramental memory and community cohesion is lost. Mostly, this can be very challenging to the community involved. There are various examples of what this journey can look like. One church building was closed and the community were keen to continue with their priest at another nearby church. Some will sadly have been lost along the way. Another church gathering place has been lost to a community and the community has probably divided between two neighbouring parish churches. A church has been closed, but the parish priest generously moved the Mass to his other church and hopefully the community has found a new home, either there, or in another parish in the town. The most recent event of this nature concerned a chapel of ease. The community were resistant to its closure. After an evening of discussion, it was agreed the church should remain open for a further twelve months and then we would assess the situation again then. They have certainly woken up to the situation and are hopefully reaching out to those who may have stopped coming to church a few years ago. I understand that Mission Northampton may be getting involved with this community to help them develop a mission strategy. Nothing would please me more, than to see a full church there in twelve months time. But for that community to come alive to mission, there needs to be something more than a community energy just to keep the building open. There has to be an individual acceptance of Jesus in faith, which alone will bring life in all its fullness.
But the truth is, we are going to have some properties surplus to our perceived needs in the days to come. Some of these may need to be sold to support the life of the parish with necessary funds. Maybe some of these are able to become centres for new ecclesial movements and communities. Maybe we even need to pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire some within our diocese to consider the call to form a new community, which can form mission hubs for evangelisation.
Yes indeed, lots of questions to ponder. And all the hard work taking place within our parish and school communities should not be underestimated. Some of you will be familiar with my vehicle analogies. The sat nav is a definite asset in my car. We need to know about the direction we are traveling. Then have you ever noticed the size difference between a front windscreen and a rearview mirror? We need to look back at our story from time to time, where we have come from. But it is more important to look forwards, to where we are going. And here is another one. What is it like to strive to become a missionary diocese without a clear programme to bring others to a personal conviction of faith in Christ? It’s like trying to drive with your handbrake on. We should all be grateful for the many social needs outreach projects, for the real dedication and commitment to the life of the Church across our diocese. But we also need to appreciate how limited all this is, when we are not filled with this truth, ‘There is no true evangelisation if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.’