Book Review: The Faith Movement and Vocations
Unsplash/ Kimberley Farmer
Book Review: The Faith Movement and Vocations

Book Review: The Faith Movement and Vocations

The Impact of the Faith Movement on Priestly Vocations: Within the context of New Ecclesial Movements by Dr Julie Mersey, [independently published], 351pp, £9.99.

Review by Matthew O’Gorman

One in five seminarians in formation for the dioceses of England, Wales and Scotland in 2014 — 20% — attended a Faith Summer or Winter Conference while in formation. This is an impressive statistic and a result of Dr Julie Mersey’s research. It also might be the reason why — though not a member of the movement herself — she describes herself as an ‘interested observer.’ An interest which leads her to ask ‘Is the theology of the Faith Movement responsible for a large number of vocations to the priesthood, and if so, why?’ After reviewing source material (Section One), her book gives a summary of Faith Movement theology (Section Two), a summary of the results of her research — both quantitive and qualitative — (Section Three) and an assessment of whether it is accurate to refer to The Faith Movement as a ‘new movement’ (Section Four).   

The summary of Faith theology in Section Two is digestible for the uninitiated, but its brevity raises more questions than it answers for the theologically well-versed. Having obtained permission and access to primary sources — including correspondence between Agnes and Edward Holloway — Dr Mersey summarizes the former’s experience of theological insight and the latter’s promotion of it. Her tone is balanced yet deferential in acknowledging their common motive as helping the Church flourish within modern, secular culture.

The new movements

Before examining what Faith does, readers need to know what it is, which explains the consideration of the post-conciliar ‘new movements’ in the Church at the end of Section One. Since a whole section is dedicated to this later on its inclusion at this point is unexpected. However, the content is helpful, citing authors — such as Whitehead and Faggioli — so that the reader is exposed to the theological debate regarding the ‘new movements’ within the Church after the Second Vatican Council and helped to appreciate how controversial they were. Out of the substantial commentary on the topic it is the words of Saint Pope John Paul II which resonate as balanced and insightful: ‘friendship in Christ is the origin of [the new] movements.’ This is the unifying and definitive principle of the new movements which Dr Mersey’s research reveals as definitive of Faith’s theology and apostolate: she does this with reference to the Christocentric theology of Agnes and Edward [Christ as the ‘master-key’ to the meaning of the Universe] and also the palpable sense of fraternity ‘in Christ’ among clergy and laity who attended its Symposia and Conferences respectively.

Why did they go to the Faith Movement?

This latter phenomenon — the lived experience of Faith Movement conferences (qualitative research) is the most enlightening — and lengthy — part of the book. It follows quickly upon an analysis of the results of quantitative research in the form of a questionnaire distributed at the 2012 Summer and Winter Conferences and data acquired from the National Office for Vocations (CBCEW) as well as from individual Vocations Directors from dioceses in Scotland. The combined data reveals the aforementioned remarkable statistic about seminarians attending Faith conferences which begs the question: why did they choose to attend?

After summarizing her methodology we are given anonymized accounts of the interviews conducted with seminarians, priests and laity. Their answers are grouped together under the heading of the questions each of them were asked and — although challenging to remember who’s who at times — it is possible to observe interesting trends. There is concern to advance Agnes and Edward Holloway’s theological ideas among many of the clergy; however, ‘none of the seminarians mentioned [Agnes or Edward]’. Nor did they have ‘an in-depth understanding of the Faith Movement’s Law of Control and Direction.’ So why did they choose to attend? Many of them answered that Faith’s theological approach ‘helped to make sense of the modern secular world.’ This same answer is more implicit than explicit within the interviews with lay attendees with one saying the Conference experience made them ‘feel less weird’ about their faith and realise that ‘Catholics are normal and can have fun.’ Interestingly, this answer is also given by seminarians and priests in describing their attraction to the priesthood: they encountered other priests who ‘as human beings [were] convincing.’

Science apologetics which inspire confidence

What is apparent is that familiarity with — and confidence in articulating — the ideas of Agnes and Edward Holloway was found more within an older generation of clerics and less in the young (seminarians and laity alike). However, although the ideas could not be explained by the latter, they felt the ‘answers’ they received on Faith conferences were attractive. Attraction is a recurring theme and seminarians reported how the ‘constant example of good Faith Movement priests … encouraged vocations.’ What is drawn out by the research, however, is that the clergy — more than any other group — expressed appreciation of the ideas of Agnes and Edward Holloway and some believed — unlike any of the seminarians or lay people interviewed — to be the defining characteristic of the movement. It is they who - inspired by these ideas - communicated a ‘science apologetics which inspired confidence in Catholicism in a secular world.’ This is something which was acknowledged and appreciated by all respondents: seminarians, clergy and laity.

Friendship in Christ

The thread which runs throughout Dr Mersey’s work is that which Saint Pope John Paul II referred to as definitive of the new movements: ‘friendship in Christ’. This is a recurring theme in the experience of Faith Movement events within every group of respondents. Dr Mersey refers to this as ‘Christocentricty and witness’ and its place within the ecosystem of a Faith Conference is the life of prayer and the sacraments. To live within an environment of Catholic culture in which one encounters ‘young’ clergy who are unafraid to live ‘orthodox Catholicism’ is what inspired and attracted so many young men to imitate their example.

In summary, Dr Mersey’s research is a helpful snapshot for those within the movement to understand people’s experience of what Faith provides. It is also enlightening for those unacquainted with its charism and work. Her research reveals that those who were inspired to become priests were inspired by other priests, specifically those who attended Faith conferences. It falls short of answering ‘yes’ to the question of whether the thought of Agnes and Edward Holloway are responsible for this. However, since the priests who inspired others to respond to God’s call were enthusiastic advocates of Faith Movement theology, it could be argued that it is indeed Agnes and Edward Holloway’s apostolate which has helped these men to listen to the voice of the Lord.

Fr Matthew O’Gorman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Southwark. He is currently Parish Priest of Corpus Christi, Brixton Hill.