I recently attended a two-day conference in Steubenville, Ohio. Forty bishops were present, though I was the only one from across the pond. Some high-profile speakers gave addresses, including Fr James Mallon, author of Divine Renovation, the theologian George Weigel and Curtis Martin, founder of FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students).
The conference was organised by the St Paul’s Evangelization Society (SPES), which is dedicated to assisting bishops turn their dioceses (in Fr Mallon’s words) from maintenance to mission. I was delighted to accept their invitation.
The conference was an excellent preparation for the Extraordinary Month of Mission Pope Francis has called for this October. This is to be a month of prayer and action in which the whole Church renews its commitment to share the Gospel. The Pope has invited individuals, schools, parishes, dioceses and communities to participate in new initiatives.
This month marks the centenary of Pope Benedict XV’s apostolic letter Maximum Illud which launched the Church on a new missionary trajectory for modern times. This text inspired a renewed outward-looking focus on mission, not only overseas but also at home. This line of thought culminated in the Second Vatican Council. It has been complemented since by Paul VI in Evangelium Nuntiandi (1975), John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio (1990) and Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (2013).
At SPES, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit remarked that evangelisation is not just one thing in a list that the Church has to do. No, it’s everything. As Pope Paul VI memorably put it, the Church exists to evangelise. In the years immediately after Vatican II, the Church understandably became absorbed with itself, with internal change and reform. But in Evangelii Nuntiandi, Paul VI reminded everyone to look outwards again. The Council was called to undertake ecclesial reform not as an end in itself but so that the Church of today would be “ever better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel to the people of [today]”. Evangelisation is in fact “the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelise, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace”.
In the Diocese of Portsmouth, our total population is just over three million, of whom almost half say they are “nones”, people of no religion. Catholics number 235,000, of whom 13 per cent practice. I ask our clergy and parishioners: how are we reaching out to the millions around us who are spiritually adrift, without a religious community to belong to? And what are we doing to reach out to those Catholics, almost nine out of every 10, who do not practise their faith?
Outreach to the non-practising is the topic of our annual diocesan pastoral council taking place this month. While Christianity is evaporating, our society is slowly but surely reverting to paganism. What are we doing to save souls? How can we proclaim afresh the Gospel? How can we preserve and develop Britain’s Christian patrimony?
The Holy Father has approved four themes for the Extraordinary Month: the witness of missionary saints and martyrs; support for the poor (principally through the papal charity Missio); a renewed formation in Scripture; and a “personal encounter with Jesus Christ, living in his Church”.
This last point about a personal encounter with Christ permeated the SPES conference. I was reminded of the author Sherry Weddell’s point that “God has no grand-children”. The Catholic faith today is not handed on automatically through the culture of our families, schools and parishes. What is key is a personal and transforming encounter with Jesus Christ Himself, as borne out by the many youngsters who speak of a life-changing experience in Eucharistic Adoration. In my view, it is the task of families, schools and parishes to create the arenas in which people can encounter Christ. As the mission statement of our diocese puts it: “Bringing people closer to Jesus Christ through His Church.”
The SPES conference was held on the beautiful campus of Franciscan University. There, as here, the trees are now tinged with the orange and brown of autumn. For our Church to become truly missionary, we know we will have to let things fall away and die. But we must focus on the new life of the “Second Spring” that Blessed John Henry Newman spoke of. That his canonisation takes place during this Extraordinary Month is surely providential. In his prayer “God has created me to do Him some definite service …”, let us make our own his resolution: “I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place.”
In this way, we will make our own personal contribution to the Extraordinary Month of Mission.
The Rt Rev Philip Egan is the Bishop of Portsmouth