The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are each rich with the narrative of the life and works of Christ. Together they make up what are known as the “synoptic gospels,” and over the course of a three year cycle the Church nourishes us with these narratives in the readings at Mass. In them we hear described in detail, and from various perspectives, the events of the life of Christ. Alongside these texts we often find ourselves diverted by a reading from the gospel according to Saint John. This gospel not only reinforces the narratives presented by the other three gospels, but also offers a mystical tone that demands a special effort in reading. Little in the text of the gospel according to Saint John is coincidental. Whereas the Matthew, Mark, and Luke provide a storyline for us to follow, John also uses specific words and ideas, in the context of retelling that narrative, to proclaim the great truths of our faith and in particular those regarding the person of Christ.
What would you give to convert one soul to Christ? This weekend a young married couple I know are attending a retreat during which they will find out where they are to be sent for two weeks of missionary work somewhere here in the United States. They will go with just the clothes they have on—no food or money—and they will rely on the generosity (please God) of parishioners and others for their wellbeing as they go about the task of evangelization; of taking the good news of the Gospel to others.
What would you give to convert one soul to Christ? Yesterday I baptized a beautiful newly born baby girl. Her young parents are in the process of moving from the area to become teachers in a Catholic school on the other side of the country; one which has a vibrant life of faith, with the reverent celebration of the sacraments and good formation in the virtues for the students. They have not yet bought their first home, and yet in a few days they will nevertheless pack up their belongings and their daughter and head to their new lives; setting out to build a home and a family in which Christ is truly the head of the household, and to teach young people about the joy of knowing the Lord and living by his precepts.
By laudable custom, each time we enter a church building we take holy water from a place by the door and with it trace upon our bodies the sign of the life-giving cross. Two things are significant about this outwardly simple gesture. First, we do it to remind ourselves of the saving power of that cross; of the effects of the sacrifice of Christ on that cross which, through baptism—our own ritual cleansing with water—we have now inherited. Secondly, we make this act of reverence as we come into the church from the world. We move to the sacred from the profane, literally turning our backs on the world and orienting ourselves toward the dwelling-place of the Lord our God.
There is a contemporary trend to view ‘tradition’ as an ugly word. In society, where many civil and political institutions are portrayed as backward and where the thought of being ‘establishment’ is deemed detrimental to popularity or success. And in the Church, where the ambient public culture has made inroads so as to polarize everything as either new or old, good or bad, exciting or dull, creating a seismic shift in the perceptions and expectations of many of our fellow citizens.
In fact, tradition properly understood is an essential element of the Christian life.. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that because Almighty God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, ‘Christ must be proclaimed to all nations and individuals, so that this revelation may reach to the ends of the earth’ (CCC 74). The transmission of divine revelation, the gospel of Christ, is thus constitutive of the Church’s mission, proclaimed as it is in the words of the profession of faith, and the actions of our lives. Our ‘I believe’ is the starting point of the Church’s proclamation of the gospel to the world, which is why it is those words that we first confess as we are fused to the life of Christ in the sacramental action of the font. Our personal but not individual proclamation of the apostolic faith is not an inconsequential or private act of devotion, but is supremely ecclesial, interrelated to the life and mission of the entire Church.
Before I was enlightened by the friendship and devotion of the Jesuits I have spent time with here in the US (and the election of a Jesuit pope!) I would console myself with a recollection of the great martyrs of that venerable missionary order. The Copley crypt chapel at Georgetown depicts, in worthy modern glass, the various implements of their death, as a reminder of the society’s illustrious beginnings and those who shed their blood for the faith bearing the motto Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam. Amongst these is Saint Paul Miki S.J., and his companions, who met their death on 5 January 1597 in Nagasaki, Japan, and whose feast we celebrate today.
This homily was given to the Blessed John Henry Newman community in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter in Orange Country, California.
Our annual celebration of the epiphany of the Lord has two characteristics that we can identify as fundamental to the Christian life, not least as those who rejoice in celebrating the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of our Anglican heritage (AC III). First, the solemnity of the epiphany is a highly liturgical feast. As we journey with the magi to the stable, and there bend the knee in adoration of the King of kings and Lord of lords, we come also to this awesome and admirable sacrifice – the Church’s offering of bread and wine in the wonderful exchange of the Eucharist – and we worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, with gold of obedience and incense of lowliness. We come to offer ourselves – our whole being – to be a living sacrifice to the one who, as a babe in a manger, comes to save us from ourselves. What is proposed for us by the magi, is fulfilled today in the Church’s worship of Christ in the Eucharist.
Chapter Two of Sherry Weddell’s book is entitled, We don’t know what normal is. Here she underlines the dramatic – but often unspoken – truth that a personal encounter with Jesus Christ is not the reserve of Protestant Evangelical language, but an authentic part of the Christian life as understood by the Church throughout the ages.
The writings of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI are littered with quotations about this ‘friendship’ with the Lord Jesus, but it is nothing new. Pope Saint Pius X, as noted by Pope Benedict, ‘teaches all of us that a deeply personal relationship with Christ that we cultivate and grow day by day must always be at the foundation of our work to spread the faith, wherever it may be’ (BXVI, General Audience, 18 August 2010). Saint Philip Neri spoke to the Lord openly and personally in many of his spontaneous prayers – Jesus, be a Jesus to me. This is not the mutterings of a crazed Televangelist, but a child of God who lives the promises of his baptism – his incorporation into the mystical Body of Christ – and wishes to make make disciples of all the nations (Mt. 28:19).
Over the next few posts I want to summarise some of the chapters of Sherry Weddell’s excellent and readable book, Forming Intentional Disciples (hence, FID). The book was initially recommended to me by Hannah Vaughan-Spruce (who writes at Transformed in Christ) and by Bishop Philip Egan on Twitter. Hannah was Catechetical Co-ordinator in Balham when I was there, and she now works with Bishop Egan in the Diocese of Portsmouth. It was a good recommendation and there is much to commend this timely and articulate work. I hope some of these personal reflections of mine might be helpful to others.
Although the first chapter – God has no Grandchildren – examines the state of religious life in the United States, it is far from irrelevant to the situation of the Church in Britain. The figures and statistics presented are (I would guess) vastly different from the UK where, for example, the number of defections from Catholicism to Evangelical Protestantism is much lower than the number of those who leave the Church and simply ‘give up’ any affiliation or faith practice. In the UK, there simply isn’t the same number of proselytising Protestants as in the US, and those Protestant Evangelical hubs that do exist are often ‘pockets’ of Evangelical religion in the wider mix and mess of the Anglican Communion. On top of that, secularism is far more ‘advanced’ in the UK than the US (where, across the board, Church attendance is considerably higher), and so the trend is towards defections to ‘The Land of None’, as Weddell terms anonymous, unaffiliated Christians.
This evening I was watching the live feed from Rio as Pope Francis officially opened the 28th World Youth Day on Copacabana beach, renamed by the Twitterati as #Popacabana for the duration of the week. After the Pater Noster (sung beautifully to the Solemn Anaphora Tone, for those interested in that sort of thing), and the final blessing, that great anthem of World Youth Day, Jesus Christ you are my life, struck up. Immediately my mind leapt back to those wonderful days in Madrid a few years ago, and I quickly fired-off a text to a Norwegian priest-friend who is in Rio, reminiscing and promising prayers from England for the event.
Live feed. Twitter. SMS. World Youth Day has become an amazing Catholic moment in the social media world, and we have almost missed the significance of what is going on here. As I type this, #PontifexRio, #PapaFrancisco, and #Copacabana, have all been trending worldwide on Twitter, not just from on the ground in Brazil, but from across the world, as young Catholics enter into World Youth Day like never before.
In his message for WYD this year, Pope Benedict XVI (as he was then) spoke specifically about the need for young people to engage a ‘missionary commitment’ in the area of social communications. As well as quoting his Message for the 43rd World Communications Day in 2009, he asked young WYD pilgrims, who “have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this ‘digital continent'”, and to “[l]earn how to use these media wisely”. It seems to have worked.
In the coming weeks, with my move to DC imminent, I will be stepping down from my current role as Communications Officer for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. I began this job almost two years ago now, with no prior experience and no expertise; simply with an enthusiasm for the project and a passion for evangelisation, especially through new means, such as social media. And I certainly don’t claim to be anything like an expert now. I have had no formal training. I learned to write press releases from the gentle criticisms sent me by friendly journalists, and I have tried to present our work and mission in a positive light, sometimes in the face of negative or unthinking rebuke, even from Catholic sources. I don’t think we’ve done a bad job, and the Ordinariate is still in most of the Church press most weeks, and in the national press on a regular basis too.
At some level, though, it isn’t the press work that I think has been the greatest success, nor the primary focus of our work, because I do not believe that this is where the Church should be focussing her energies in the field of communications. Too often we are on the back-foot; responding to criticisms or situations, or buffeting the wires with information of limited interest to the public. Too often we are responsive, rather than pro-active; often failing to make real use of the opportunities presented to us to speak explicitly and articulately about the central precepts of the faith. Too often we have become experts in media work at the cost of becoming weak practitioners in the task of evangelisation.
This is seen particularly in two places. First, in social and new media we find large numbers of Catholic journalists, organisations, active lay faithful, and priests (and one English bishop, so far) making use of Twitter and Facebook. This is a seriously positive step forward, essential for raising awareness of the life of the Church, and also for reaching beyond our own flocks and friends. It is a tool of communication and of evangelisation. The problem comes, though, when an imbalance – usually communication over evangelisation – creeps in, either be poor individual judgement or a lack of prudence (i.e. engaging in polemical arguments or point-scoring against others), or – and this is perhaps more easily solved – because an organisation or individual adopts a ‘mediacentric’ view (i.e. seeking to promote news to journalists, rather than Christ to the world). If we fail to make use of the ‘digital continent’ as – in Pope Benedict’s words – ‘portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelisation’, then we are simply wasting our time out there, and engaging in what Pope Francis might call a ‘self-referential’ exercise, that does little to truly promote the gospel.
Secondly, it is a cause of some real concern that there is growing number of ‘professional Catholic’ journalists and commentators – lay and clerical. These are people who make use of their Catholic ‘credentials’ as a means of giving a particular view or outlook on a story – often in a secular sphere – but who do not make use of their chosen outlet (and increased portfolio) for pure, raw evangelisation. Be it Catholic newspapers or Twitter feeds, the church of the New Evangelisation has little time for those who simply wish to comment on the life of the Church, without themselves engaging actively in the central reason for the incarnation: bringing the light of Christ to the darkness of the world. Anyone who seeks to work for the Church – in whatever capacity – needs to speak regularly and clearly about the transformative love of Christ in their lives and the life of the Church, if they are to avoid painting a picture of a mere institution rather than the Mystical Body of Christ.
My call, then, is for a renewal in Catholic communications, for them to really become exactly that. It is a call to move away from ‘Catholics doing media’, and towards Catholics communicating the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, more explicitly and more comprehensively than ever before. We need a renewal that will see evangelisation, and the person of Jesus Christ, put at the centre of all that we do and say, so that every interview given, every press release issued, every message tweeted, will speak of Jesus Christ, and will explicitly seek to draw others to him.
If that means a story isn’t published, or our comment isn’t sought – fine. A content-light article or a painfully balanced piece isn’t going to bring the world to Christ. What might, is our own courageous witness to the joy and delight that comes from knowing the Lord Jesus in his holy Church, and that can’t be hidden under a bushel for the sake of journalistic credibility, press protocol, or an impressive scoop.