Fit for Mission? A Guide to the Guide

William Peck FAITH Magazine July-Aug 2007

Having just moved into the Diocese of Lancaster I wanted to attend this Holy Week’s Chrism Mass, presided over by Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue. The Bishop’s homily contained an exhortation for renewal, during which he made reference to his review document Fit for Mission? A Guide, which had been distributed throughout the Diocese during Lent 2007. As a consequence I participated in a number of meetings organised by our Parish Priest to discuss and respond to the document and was struck by the Bishop’s realistic and refreshing analysis of current trends within the Catholic Church in England. I believe that all who love the Catholic Church in England and Wales can benefit from this analysis; hence this article.

This is not a review. I do not presume to reviewteaching from my Bishop. Instead I will share portions of it that seem to me to deserve particular attention beyond the confines of Lancaster Diocese alone. This also allows the document to speak for itself.

The Document is refreshing, not because of any gushing positivity, but rather its ‘face-the-facts’ attitude. Bishop Patrick asks “When Jesus comes will He find faith in our diocese?… in just three years the Catholic Church in the UK lost at least 100,000 regular Mass goers!”(p.5) Later he provides a list of statistics illustrating ‘The shape of the Church to come’. These include the following:

• “... in approximately 5 years time there will be around 75 active and available priests ready to serve our present 108 Parishes, Mass centres, prisons, and hospitals. We estimate that by 2020 there may be between 50-60 under the age of 75 active in the diocese.
• Many parishes have a Mass attendance of less than one-third and some with less than one-quarter of the number attending in the mid-twentieth century.
• Many baptised Catholics lead lives almost ‘entirely divorced from Christianity’ (General Directory for Catechesis 25). And it is an inescapable fact that 85\% of children attending our primary and secondary schools come from non-practising families.” (p.22)
There may well be other documents from our Bishops in England and Wales that have described so succinctly and starkly the Sitz im Lebenthat we face here at home, but if so I have missed them. How about this for reading the signs of the times:

“It has been predicted from a study of the pattern of church attendance over the past 100 years that if trends continue there will be virtually no Christian institutional presence in Britain by the year 2050 (David Hay, the Biology of the Human Spirit). In 1994 Mass attendance in the diocese was 38,000, falling to 23,900 by 2006. We must wake up to the fact that the forces of dissolution are at work again in this country, resulting in a ‘silent apostasy’ (Ecclesia in Europa, 9) as many Catholics walk away from the Church.” (p.7)
The Bishop follows this with what appears to be a spiritual call to arms, in a manner rather reminiscent of St Paul in Romans, who also had the job of leading a little flock in a powerful, increasingly secularised, State.

“Once before in history a ruling elite imposed dissolution on the Catholic Church, this time widespread social and cultural forces of dissolution are being disseminated by some in the political establishment, the media, and education, seen in their one-sided promotion of secular humanism against religion.” (p.7)
In the Guide itself the last three paragraphs quoted are used to frame a marginal illustration of the sun, (or more precisely half the sun’s disk) balanced on the horizon, causing an empty Golgotha Cross to cast a long shadow. Apart from the welcome return to the hallowed practice of illuminating ecclesial texts, (the Guide is full of such) there is an ambiguity here that is of interest. Does this show the rising sun on Easter morning with the Cross relieved of its salvific burden? Or does it show the setting sun of Good Friday, the Temple Veil lying tattered and torn in the Sanctuary. Perhaps Bishop Patrick’s choice of scripture to introduce this section “Strengthening what remains!” will help the reader decide: “ Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death. Rev 3:2”(p.7)

From the extracts selected so far one may be forgiven for wondering whether the Guide falls into the trap of limiting itself to an analysis in which the chief ills and remedies of our situation are to be found in purely structural considerations. This is not so. From the very beginning Bishop Patrick adopts a Christocentric approach in which the choices and responsibilities of the individual figure prominently. The overall plan of the Guide is worth noting here. It is:

1. How do I change and become the person God wants me to be?

2. How do we change our parishes so that we become the people God calls us to be?

3. How do we change our Diocese including our buildings and structures, so that we become the communion that God calls us to be?

The starting point for the Guide is most welcome; a movement from the Self outwards to God and others. We are asked to consider whether or not we still believe in the power of prayer, the implication being that perhaps we do not. And the Guide goes further. Prayer is linked immediately with a challenge to live morally. St Paul’s idea that we must Do the Truthis not mentioned explicitly, but I am sure he approves of this intimate linking of Prayer with the Good Life:

“We live in a culture that honours and seeks power above all else! It taps into our natural and good desire for pleasure, recognition, and personal fulfilment. Hence the attractiveness of the power of money, sex, celebrity, violence, the power of social position and influence. In the face of such power it is easy to slip into a way of thinking and making decisions ‘as if Christ did not really exist!’ (Ecclesia in Europa, 26) But as Christians we can only have one true source of power, that is the power of prayer. Jesus calls us to renounce the misuse of money, sex, celebrity, violence, social position, and influence, so we can depend totally on the Father through the Holy Spirit” (p.5)
At the heart of the problem Bishop Patrick uncontroversially identifies our materialistic society. But uniquely, for this document’s genre I think, he identifies aspects of its influence within the Church in England and Wales. He uses a phrase that I recall the present Pope using 20 years ago during his visit to Cambridge University. Cardinal Ratzinger gave a lecture entitled ‘The Existential Void at the Heart of Consumer Capitalism’. The Guide uses the same idea:

“We live in a culture that uses promises to excite our desire for things, keep us distracted, and leave us dissatisfied, so that we want more! We are beings orientated to Promise – our future fulfilment in the vision of God. The drama of salvation is the unfolding of God’s promises to Israel and each one of us. Our very experience is transformed by God’s promises. Excesses of consumer capitalism exploit our orientation to the future. How many of us Christians live lives dedicated to attaining these material promises, forgetting the spiritual promises of Christ? As a result, the spirit of rage and discontent has even invaded our Church, upsetting the peace and unity that are the signs of true Christian love. No level of the church has remained untouched by this vexatiousspirit, and it is poisoning our communion!” (p.5-6)
Strong words indeed. The resolve required in today’s secularised environment, outside and inside the Church, is characterised as a need for what the Guide terms “Hard Talk!”.

“I want to invite you all to join me in considering a number of disputed questions that we urgently need to answer for the well being and vitality of our local church. The longer we continue to repress these questions, the more we will lose our strength and our ability to proclaim the Gospel. Have we accepted the widespread attitude that religion is a private matter? Are we embarrassed to live differently because of the standards and values of our faith? Are we embarrassed to talk about our faith to others, even members of our own families? Are we embarrassed to talk about God’s love for us and our love for God?” (p.12)
The Shema (used in prayer on the Jewish sabbath and in Night Prayer of the Church for the Sunday vigil) commands that we talk about the things of Faith and ‘teach them diligently to your children... when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise’. Bishop Patrick goes on to describe another ten ‘Hard Talk’ questions to be considered by parishioners by this summer. I am going to quote from just two, chosen because they are so seldom expressed with such clarity in the English Church today.

“Have we remained obedient to the truth safeguarded by the teaching office of the Church? Loyalty and obedience to the Pope was a particular charism of the English Church, that saw us through the penal times, exemplified by our Lancashire and Cumbrian martyrs. I am sure that ‘obedience to the truth’ is vital for the well being and harmony of our diocese. At all levels of the church, have we remained faithful to the Petrine office? Do we actively study and disseminate the teachings of the Church? Do we promote the Church’s teaching on life issues, such as birth control, IVF, and euthanasia? Do we base our catechesis on the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Do we actively engage with the Church’s social teaching, commonly known as the ‘best kept secret’?” (p.13)

“Are we acquiescing to the killing of the unborn child in our country? Since the Abortion Act of 1967, over 5 million children have been killed in the womb. Even to raise the question of the morality of this gravest of injustices is enough to incur the anger and condemnation of powerful sections of our society. As a consequence, have we become too passive and silent to effectively protest this injustice that cries to heaven? Do we support politicians and others who want to reform the abortion laws of this country, irrespective of our party allegiance? As long as our country allows the killing of the unborn child, we will continue to witness the collapse of moral life, particularly among families.” (p.15)

Blessed Mother Teresa’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech contained the same penetrating yet prophetic conclusions concerning what we today term the Gospel of Life. What makes Bishop Patrick’s comments particularly incisive is his preparedness to state the truth that the challenges we Catholics face in England today arise, at least in part, from the damage that exists within our Church. Consequently there lies here a profound reason for hope, because the manner in which each one of us lives out our vocation within the Body of Christ is something we can address immediately, in both senses of that word. I will therefore conclude with the Bishop’s diagnosis of what afflicts the Catholic communion, because it contains an implicit call for each one of us to reflect upon and purify our behaviourand disposition towards the Church.

“I think we have allowed ourselves at times to be divided by an adversarial attitude! How can we who truly love the Church founded by Christ be divided into factionstraditional and liberal, conservative and progressive, loyal and dissenting! We are not Parliament! We are the People of God, the Body of Christ – the Catholic Church sharing unity in diversity!
I am convinced that this fragmented state of affairs has arisen among us because we have forgotten or lack faith in the promises of Christ! Instead of Christ being at the centre of our lives, we are all in danger of putting ego in His place!” (p.6)

Bravo! Encore.

Faith Magazine