Faith Matters

Choosing the missionary option

The Church needs to focus on mission instead of maintenance and relearn what Jesus did, says Fr Stephen Langridge

Pope Francis, pictured greeting faithful upon his arrival at Loreto cathedral in Italy earlier this year, has repeatedly spoken of how the Church needs to get closer to people

A friend of mine who is an Anglican vicar once commented that as a Catholic priest I was only interested in my own flock, whereas he was responsible for everyone in his parish.

As an assessment of my ministry it had a surprising ring of truth about it.

I was in a growing parish and I ran it to cater to the needs of those who came to church.

And yet it didn't seem quite right. How could a Roman Catholic priest be indifferent to the needs of those beyond his congregation?

Some years later I was appointed full-time vocations director.

In that role I visited many parishes and was shocked to see the decline in Mass attendance.

I mentioned it to my bishop who told me, somewhat curtly, that wasn't his experience.

It was clearly not a subject to be brought up again.

"Eppur si muove" - "and yet it moves" - as Galileo is supposed to have said when forced to recant his belief that the Earth moves round the sun.

Accept it or not, my experience was that congregations were also moving - right out of the church.

The years I spent as vocations director gave me the opportunity to reassess my parish ministry up until that point.

I began to see the tension between maintenance and mission, which was the very thing my Anglican friend had put his finger on.

My ministry had been focused on maintenance, on feeding my sheep, but it had lacked any real missionary impulse. I began to see the inherent danger in such an approach.

If we cater only to those who come to church we end up creating consumers and not disciples.

Someone once said that consumers have preferences while disciples have stories.

Many priests exhaust themselves, or live in fear, trying to cater to the preferences of their parishioners.

It is an impossible task, and one which must surely contribute to priestly burn-out.

A disciple is not focused on church or parish politics but on Christ.

Because of that, they have a story to tell. Disciples go out to share with others how God has changed their lives.

In the language of Pope Francis, it is the tension between being a parish community which is self-referential and one that is learning to become a community of missionary disciples, ready to go out and to embrace the truth that evangelisation is the deepest identity of the church and that we exist to evangelise.

I once gave a talk on evangelisation to a group of priests. At the end, one of them suggested what I meant to say was that we need better catechesis.

He missed the point. Jesus speaks of the need to catch fish and to pasture the sheep.

If we cater only to those who come to church we end up creating consumers and not disciples

Both must be done but, as a friend of mine wrote, fish don't eat grass and sheep don't eat worms.

Before we can catechise (feed the sheep) we need to evangelise (catch fish).

To evangelise is to proclaim the kerygma in such a way that God reaches into people's hearts and evokes a response which leads to discipleship.

In the past both the intellectual and social culture supported faith and church attendance.

That is no longer the case today and because we haven't come to terms with how that needs to influence our pastoral approach we are seeing a rapid decline in church attendance.

I once knew a fellow who had been brought up to be an atheist.

His father would make sure that Christmas and Easter were memorably unpleasant days by making him swim in the freezing sea.

I gave him a copy of the catechism of the Catholic Church and a week later he asked to be baptised.

The sheer logic and coherence of the catechism had been enough to convert him. But his story is exceptional.

The cultural background within which we exist as a Church has changed dramatically and it is not clear that we have caught up with that yet.

Most millennials are not going to be persuaded that an argument is true.

They have privatised truth: what may be true for you is not necessarily true for me.

We need a new model that breaks free of a maintenance mindset. Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium: "I dream of a 'missionary option', that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church's customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today's world rather than for her self-preservation."

Many priests exhaust themselves, or live in fear, trying to cater to the preferences of their parishioners. It is an impossible task, and one which must surely contribute to priestly burn-out

So how do you evangelise a generation for whom the very foundation of human discourse seems to have been taken away?

The answer is going to sound very wet to some people but it is actually very biblical. We must relearn what Jesus did, meeting people where they are and showing them love.

Sherry Weddell speaks of the thresholds of conversion. The first is trust.

You can only win someone's trust if you accept them for who they are whatever their circumstances may be.

It is only when we have established trust that somebody may begin to be interested in what we believe.

If we live our belief with integrity they may develop an openness to faith and if we live it with joy they may experience a desire that prepares the heart for the gift of conversion.

The pagan writes of the early centuries of the Church that they were often impressed by the way Christian loved and cared for each other and those in need.

The Church herself made a distinction between the proclamation (kerygma) of the apostles and their teaching (didache).

For many years we have excelled at teaching but have taken the proclamation for granted.

That worked in the past when most people went to church because they believed. That's not the case anymore.

Even among those attending Mass there is a great confusion about the teaching of the Church.

As one person put it recently: "I didn't know that Jesus is God, I always thought that he is the son of God."

These days the primary reason for going to church is belonging.

That simple reality should have a profound affect on how we approach the experience people will have when they come to our churches on a Sunday.

To move from maintenance to mission requires the awakening of a new awareness among lay people of their dignity as Christians called to intimacy with God: not slaves but friends.

Pope John Paul II wrote: "The new evangelisation is not a matter of merely passing on doctrine but rather of a personal and profound meeting with the Saviour."

And Benedict XVI said that being a Christian is an encounter with "a person which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction".

The idea that baptised Catholics are loved and able to be channels of God's supernatural healing, mercy, forgiveness, providence and justice or that they have an essential and unique role to play in the Church's mission - these are foreign concepts to many Catholics, including many priests.

Pope Francis calls us to recover our identity, and go forth from our churches taking the light of God's love even to the dark edges of our civilisation. He urges us to become missionary disciples.

Fr Stephen Langridge is parish priest of St Elizabeth of Portugal Parish in Richmond, Surrey. He will be speaking at a Clergy Conference for the priests and deacons of the Diocese of Down and Connor from May 19-21

Fr Stephen Langridge

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