Given to priests of the Society of the Holy Cross
on Wednesday, 18 November 2015
at St Alban’s Holborn.
I am delighted to have received the invitation of the SSC Mission Committee to speak today on a document of great significance for the wider Catholic Church. For many in the Church of England it is a bit of a surprise when a Catholic source speaks with such authority on the subject of Mission; I am reminded of the reaction felt by many to Paul VI on the publication of Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), in which we read
The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. 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. The history of the Church, from the discourse of Peter on the morning of Pentecost onwards, has been intermingled and identified with the history of this proclamation.
It seems that Evangelii Gaudium has had a similar reaction in the Church of England, typified by Nicky Gumbel’s address to the Proclaim 15 Conference in Birmingham. Christian Today reported:
Gumbel, of Holy Trinity Brompton, the heart of Anglican church growth in the diocese of London and the nation, told a gathering of nearly 900 Catholic bishops, priests and laity: "I love the Catholic Church - she is leading the way in evangelization." He spelled out his Alpha recipe for success, but said key to his current thinking was the 2013 encyclical of Pope Francis on evangelisation and the joy of the gospel, Evangelii Gaudium. Everyone, not just Catholics, should read the encyclical and put it into practice. He said he was reading and re-reading it. "If every Christian in England put Evangelii Gaudium into practice the nation would be transformed," Gumbel said, adding that the Church would also be revitalised and transformed.
I don’t offer that quotation to provoke mirth. I offer it to demonstrate that this document has touched people who would not normally engage with material from such a source. The win for us, I suspect, would be for Nicky Gumbel to come and address the Society of the Holy Cross, and say: "I love the Society of the Holy Cross - she is leading the way in evangelisation." Keep your eyes on the prize.
Why is this document so important? Some of it is, perhaps, allied to the public persona of the present Pope. But there is more. This is a very wide-ranging exhortation, reminding us of the holistic nature of Christian Mission, which encompasses the whole work of God, and thus the whole work of the church. It also exhorts us to a view of mission as being that which we carry out in joy – joy because it is the Lord’s will, joy because we are able to say that this is what the Lord requires of us. You will appreciate that this is quite different from being happy all the time – joy being that recognition that we are where God has placed us, doing God’s work, in God’s time. And then, of course, there are the soundbites, which helped to form the popular image of this Pope in the early days of his pontificate - - his preference, for example, ‘for a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets’, and, most famously of all (24)
An evangelising community gets involved by word and deed in other people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice.
This exhortation takes into account a number of both helpful and conflicting factors in the exercise of proclaiming the gospel. It reminds us that engagement in mission is at once both a contextual and a moral enterprise. We can't proclaim the gospel effectively if we do not take into account the context in which we proclaim. Likewise, we can't proclaim the gospel if we ignore the many moral dilemmas in which people find themselves, not least the appalling inequalities which exist in our society. In truth, it is so comprehensive that to cover everything will be to cover nothing – so, after an all too brief overview of the subject matter, I will focus on four key areas for particular attention, based on our own contexts as Catholic Anglican priests within a variety of parochial and extra-parochial contexts. These are:
i) The context of sacramentality.
ii) Verbal proclamation in a sacramental economy.
iii) Catechesis and accompaniment, and
iv) Personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
So, first to overview. Each chapter in turn brings layer upon layer of fresh consideration. We are called, first of all, to be open to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit which enables us to respond to the call of mission in the first place. The rhetoric of renewal is understandably and inevitably strong. The frail earthenware vessels incorporated into the Body of Christ and thence to the tasks of mission are those who are constantly in need of forgiveness and grace, always looking for fresh starts. Such a call is then placed against the unpromising backdrop of the nature of so much western society, with a withering critique of consumerism and the greed which lies at the heart of so many human endeavours in so many parts of the world.
The Third section recalls the Church to the core and communal task of proclamation. The exhortation reminds us of the fact that this is the task of the whole church, and not just a chrismated few. We are reminded, as Paul VI wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi, of the importance of preaching and spiritual reading in the task of proclamation, as well as the importance of having somewhere to guide those with questions and who wish to explore the essentials of the Christian faith as well as the treasure store of the tradition. The tasks of accompaniment and catechesis are regarded as essential. Later on I will return to this area and propose that in order to enflesh it, training and assistance is needed. The rhetoric of proclamation being the business of the whole people of God has been current for some time now; many of our parishes have knots of people, completely committed to the task; but that task is still, for many, a challenging and a disturbing enterprise.
Inevitably Pope Francis returns, in section four, to questions relating to context, and to the social implications and dimensions of evangelisation. Questions of social justice are part and parcel with the task of proclamation, and are indispensable parts of the over arching mission which is the theme of the exhortation. The exhortation specifically looks to questions of common good, peace, the inclusion of the poor, and income distribution, on both a national and a global canvas. It is simply not possible to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ while being content with widening inequality and increasing poverty.
The final section – entitled ‘Spirit-filled Evangelisers’ – stresses the nature of the evangelistic encounter, and the absolute necessity of a personal encounter and relationship with Christ and, indeed, with his mother, the proto-evangelist and Word-Bearer. This brings about the potential for a certain discomfort which I will speak of later on.
The context of sacramentality
As we will discover later on, this a surprisingly sketchy area in the Exhortation, but that is not a total surprise. In so many papal documents and encyclicals such an economy is ingrained within the culture from which the text springs, and this is no different. An Anglican author of a document such as this would have to be at great pains to stress the importance of sacramental economy because without it, the rest really falls down.
Recently, in the Inaugural Sheffield Lecture, Bishop Philip North rightly reminded us that for too long, Catholic Christians in the Church of England have sought to express views on Mission which have stood or fallen on how like protestant-evangelical views they are. We have forgotten on a number of levels that there is a distinctive, attractive and wholly engaging Catholic theology of mission out there. It shares some overarching features with prevailing evangelical thinking but it starts and ends in quite a different place. Its instinct and impulse is to make Jesus known, to lead people to him, to participate in the divine nature which is the source of mission – but at its heart, and to accomplish these things, it is sacramental. I was going to say that it begins and ends with the Mass, but that is only part of the story. Rather, it begins with initiation, through Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, and ends at the foot of the Cross – but the Mass is both the place where mission and invitation leads, and where encounters with God are found and explored. One of the great gifts God has given to his church through Anglo-Catholicism is the capacity to speak of such things in everyday language without losing that sense of mystery which is essential. Such a gift comes from a proximity to the means of grace, and the constancy of returning to the altar again and again. How essential all this is is encapsulated by Bishop North:
In the contemporary church there are many highly influential voices who would argue that the Eucharist is too complicated, too excluding, too bound up in tradition to have relevance or power in a post-Christian world. If a church is serious about growth, they would argue, the worship needs to be accessible, inclusive and thus non-Eucharistic. It is hard to imagine a more profound misunderstanding either of the Eucharist or the ministry of evangelism… we are failing people unless we invite them along the road that leads to the altar. To deny people the Eucharist, to argue that a couple of clapping songs and a badge making workshop represent the fullness of the Christian life, is patronizing and insulting. Our task is to bring people to Jesus in the Eucharist.
That is a profound truth, wonderfully expressed, and yet there is still more. Because Jesus in the Eucharist does something else as well. He empowers people, heals them, nourishes them, and sustains them in the other direction of the apostolic task – that of being sent out, that we might gather in. The Mass is both destiny and starting point in the journeying of mission.
The focus, then, of our activity in mission is the Mass. Our ecclesial lives need to be lived out in such a way that we are able to enter into the Eucharistic mystery at a deeper and ever deeper level. This does not preclude explorations of the Holy Word of God; rather, it provides an overarching and enriching context in which such exploration can take place: it is such a good habit for a worshipping community to internalise the readings, put them in to soak, as it were, in the days leading up to the Sunday celebration. Then the proclamation can do its work in the readings and homily: word and sacrament together, prepared for in this fashion, is potent indeed.
Verbal proclamation in a sacramental economy.
This leads neatly on to our second heading, concerning the business of verbal proclamation. The exhortation identifies a relationship in verbal proclamation which is frequently lost in our life together. We rightly exalt the charism and the event of preaching, citing it as a ‘converting ordinance’. Pope Francis, however, makes the connection between the preaching of the pulpit and the preaching of everyday lives and conversations. This, in effect, is where any authentic proclamation of the word begins for those outside the church and ignorant of the gospel. Preaching is everyone’s task – through personal dialogue, listening and conversation. And such dialogue is invariably prior to any more formal preaching the listener may hear.
One broader observation here – which is pertinent in other areas of mission as well – is the fact that there is, deep down, a ‘consumer culture’ which affects the way many church going people view their relationship to the worshipping community. For some, Church is something to be consumed, like any other commodity, such as gym membership; there is little sense with such people that they see themselves as part of the body, still less able or willing to engage in the kind of conversation which might persuade people to want to belong, or believe. Not merely individuals, but whole communities, need to be converted from this view, seeing themselves not merely as receivers and consumers, but as givers and contributors, as part of the privilege and responsibility of our common baptism.
Wherever the word is preached, a new synthesis with the particular culture is formed. As para. 129 states,
This is always a slow process and at times we can be overly fearful. But if we allow doubts and fears to dampen our courage, instead of being creative we will remain comfortable and make no progress whatsoever. In this case we will not take an active part in historical processes, but merely become onlookers as the church gradually stagnates.
The exhortation spends much time on the importance of preaching, and rightly so, because there is no opportunity for grace-filled evangelisation quite like it. Pope Francis extends this section to include some personal reflections upon the business of sermon preparation for clergy, and whilst this may seem basic, it is more common place than we might imagine for preaching preparation to ignore these most basic principles. A prayer for the guidance of the Holy Spirit before such preparation, and the cultivation of the disposition of servanthood towards the scriptural passages under scrutiny, with an awareness of linguistic complexity and sufficient theological insight to draw out the main point of the text for the use of the congregation. This is a highly nuanced and differentiated process in and of itself, but it is vital if we are to feed our people with the solid food of the gospel, and not merely our own superficial commentaries. We should always remember that preaching at the Mass has a particular importance and vitality, and, according to Pope Francis, such a homily has special importance due to its Eucharistic context; it ‘surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people which lead up to sacramental communion’. It is the dialogue which informs the reception of the Sacrament, and this in itself places a grave responsibility on the preacher. Furthermore, the exhortation draws a fine distinction between the homily as entertainment, and the type of preaching which animates and gives life to the celebration. At times, it is a thin dividing line! Above all, our preaching should be measured so that it is the Lord himself who takes centre stage, and not we ourselves.
Catechesis and accompaniment
It is well known, and widely accepted, that for churches to grow, some type of place for exploration, distinct from, but leading into, our worshipping life, is necessary to help people discover the joys of belonging and believing. The exhortation defines the importance of catechesis still further, speaking of the significance of the first announcement or kerygma, which, the Pope reminds us, is a process in which the Holy Trinity is intimately and completely involved:
The fire of the Spirit is given in the form of tongues, and leads us to believe in Jesus Christ who, by his death and resurrection, reveals and communicates to us the Father’s infinite mercy. On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over; “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.”
This ‘first’ or, if you prefer, ‘core’ proclamation is the statement we might return to again and again as we seek to share the gospel, and try to articulate just why Jesus Christ transforms our lives. We return to it again and again as a place of fresh discovery, as we go deeper and deeper into the life of Christ. And, to facilitate this, we are reminded of the importance of ‘joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which itself will convey the vitality and importance of the message itself.
A further stage of this process is articulated in the form of mystagogic – or ‘post-initiation’ catechesis. This is a further intentional process which involves catechesis for the whole worshipping community, when once again time is set aside to explore the fullness of faith in more depth than might otherwise be possible during the Mass. Anglicans are familiar with this differentiation, with the difference between ‘Basics’ courses and more in-depth formational courses such as the Pilgrim Course. One of the most exciting recent, if still embryonic projects – an initiative of Pusey House and the See of Ebbsfleet – is entitled Trinitas, which, we hope and pray, will provide a wonderful resource for the in depth exploration of the Catholic Faith. This is still at the developmental stage, but watch this space.
The place of catechesis is as significant as, and complementary to, that initial conversation which ends in invitation. As ever, the importance of balance in our intentional outreach is important, There is little point in inviting people if there is nothing to invite them to; conversely, there is no point in running any kind of catechesis if no-one has been invited. An ideal for a worshipping community is one where there are many different and differentiated points of entry, determined by factors such as age, language, and experience of the faith. All of that needs to be carefully planned and resourced, and it of course dependent upon the existence of a body of people who are equipped to lead and guide the processes. This itself presupposes a prior stage in which appropriate leadership is discerned and trained – a task not always easy in some parishes. (The Bishop of Ebbsfleet will not be surprised at this point to hear me recommend to you Sacred Fire, a work on Catechesis by Roland Rolheiser).
Catechesis is one thing – but the importance of finding those in the community who are able, at some level, to act as accompaniers for those undergoing the early stages of catechesis and exploration is stressed in Paragraph 171. These people are able to bring people to a place where, in the fullness of time, they are able to make mature decisions about the faith. Patience, prudence, an abandonment to the Holy Spirit, and above all people who are good listeners – this can lead through the early stages of involvement in the life of the church and can itself assist in the preparation for full sacramental expression, particularly with regard to the sacrament of reconciliation. All of this forms part of our response to Our Lord’s mandate to
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
The importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ
This fourth and final area is one which will be variously comfortable and uncomfortable for us, I suspect. Speaking frankly, I wonder to what extent our identity as Anglican Catholics is formed by our perception of what we believe ourselves not to be. Where a characteristic of discipleship is something which is worn as a badge of courage by other Christians - specifically, evangelicalism within the Church of England and elsewhere – the notion of a personal relationship with Jesus (couched in that specific language) can feel uncomfortable. And yet the Catholic Faith is shot through with examples of those so clearly in a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. Very early on, in para.3, Pope Francis invites us to a
Renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.
For the Catholic Christian that relationship reaches its high point in the Mass – for how more intimately and personally can we know the Lord Jesus than by eating his body, drinking his blood, as he commanded? To have Jesus dwelling within us in this way - personally, yet within the context of the ecclesial community - is simply astonishing, and as Brother Angelo once said at a Caister Conference, ‘to speak of it is an impertinence.’ It is, I suggest, internalised in more senses than the merely physical, and as such the intimacy is so great that we are perhaps disposed not to want to share or talk about it. More worryingly, in her book Forming Intentional Disciples, the American author Sherry Weddell states that the prevailing attitude to this personal relationship with Jesus among America Catholics is one of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, and that the notion of such a relationship is profoundly challenging to the majority, precisely because it is not talked about. It is a vicious circle, as the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ syndrome becomes more and more fixed by our behavioural and neurological habits as we fear ‘being different’ from our peers.
It is clear from the fifth section of the exhortation that Pope Francis wishes to encourage precisely the opposite of what Weddel describes. Without such a personal, renewed daily relationship with Jesus, there can be no evangelisation.
A true Missionary, who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him in the midst of the missionary enterprise. Unless we see him present at the heart of our missionary commitment, our enthusiasm soon wanes and we are no longer sure of what it is we are handing on; we lack vigour and passion. A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody.
I think that connection may be made here between our effectiveness as those who evangelise, and our observance of that vital part of our rule, the annual retreat and the monthly Day of Recollection. Our rule is a challenging one, and one which requires deep commitment (and I speak as a fool here) but it is precisely what is needed to sustain us as we keep the edge sharp, so to speak.
What of our role as priests of the Society, in a particular context as Anglicans, in the times and places in which we find ourselves? In truth, such a vision of a community committed to evangelisation is either challenging or exciting, depending on your point of view. We are called to exercise such gifts as we have received among the communities to which we are sent – and we need to be conscious, and perhaps a little brave, when it comes to our many shortcomings. We don’t simply accept that we are bad at certain things – rather, we work at them, so that what we can offer is the best it can be. The encouragement and formation of those who are effective evangelists is one strand of this, but the truth is that we need to be training all our people in the business of story telling, faith sharing and invitation. This isn’t about delegation, however – I suspect our people will do it if they see us doing it too – and, conversely, they will shy away from it if we obviously don’t. This type of engagement is essential if we are to bear missional fruit. We should remember that all of us, no matter how long in the tooth, are still in the process of being converted, and catechised – and that all of us need encouragement, accompaniment and grace. Above all – and this is the good news – Mission and evangelisation are part of the divine nature, and part of what we are privileged to share with the Triune God – but, in the end, it is the presence and activity of God which is made known by the church, and which, in the end, is the only converting ordinance. I offer you that because it’s how I get to sleep at night!
 EG 24
 North, P The Lord’s Song in a strange land, pub. New Directions, November 2015
 EG 129
 EG 39
 Matthew 28.19-20 NRSV
 EG 3
 EG 266