I have just been reading Evangelising the Baptised by Fr Jonathan Cotton (www.goodnewsbooks.net), subtitled, “The first six steps for Catholics towards a New Evangelisation.” To summarise them, they involve recognising that God loves me; that I am a sinner; that Jesus is my Saviour; that I need conversion; that the Holy Spirit is intrinsic to this conversion process; and that, following conversion, I become an active member of the Church community.
We are all familiar with the phrase “the New Evangelisation” – so much so that it can be in danger of sounding rather well-worn. Fr Cotton, a parish priest in the Nottingham diocese, has fully committed himself to doing what he can to bring it about at a local level. I ask him what he means when he states in his book that Catholics need to be evangelised before being catechised. He explains that it is not an either/or but that “to catechise without evangelising can become an interesting intellectual exercise without necessarily touching the heart, just as to evangelise without catechising can result in a rather shallow faith”.
The point about evangelisation, he says, is “to introduce someone personally to Jesus Christ as the centre of their lives, inviting a heartfelt commitment to him. Out of this experience of God they are then better able to share their faith – not just as an intellectual exercise but as a profound personal commitment.”
I suggest that Catholics often don’t know their faith and that catechesis is also urgent. Fr Cotton repeats that both are essential, adding that “in the Catholic schools there is a well worked-out catechesis – but without an accompanying evangelisation process as well, it remains just another exam to pass, without affecting the students’ lives.”
I ask him about typical parish life in this country: is it about “maintenance” or “mission”? Referring to Pope Paul VI’s document Evangelii Nuntiandi, and to its follow-up Redemptoris Missio of Pope John Paul II – where he coined the phrase the “new evangelisation” – Fr Cotton reflects that in the average parish “my guess is that we are in steady decline, wondering where all the teens and 20s have gone, suspecting closure, clustering or amalgamation of parishes, wondering how many more jobs the priest can take on.” He adds: “In many ways each priest is left to his own devices; if he doesn’t initiate or at least support formation for mission, then nothing will happen.”
Noting the phrase in his book, “to live a converted life”, I ask him to describe it within the context of parish life. Fr Cotton is clear: “It means my daily life revolves around my relationship with Jesus Christ, looking for opportunities to grow in that relationship, to be Christ to others and when the opportunity arises, to invite friendship with him and belonging to his Church.” He asks rhetorically, “Why wouldn’t I want to share my greatest friend and Saviour with others?”
He develops this idea, suggesting that it would include daily reflecting on Biblical passages; belonging to a faith-sharing group; weekday Mass when possible; frequent Confession; weekly prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Alongside this “one would contribute one’s own gifts and talents to parish life, such as serving the most needy in the community; developing a Church of the poor and for the poor.”
Noting that for many years Fr Cotton was himself a member of an evangelical Catholic community, I ask him how the experienced changed him. He tells me that it has given him a greater appreciation of “living a balanced and structured lifestyle”, adding that “I realise it is not healthy to be living on my own as a priest. So I have two priest support groups that I belong to – one for personal development and the other more spiritually based.” He also goes on a regular basis to someone outside the parish “for supervision concerning my ministry, as well as regular spiritual direction.” He believes the community experience has given him greater patience “with the foibles of others because everyone, in their own way, has a contribution to make.” He admits that, “the hardest part about conversion is admitting I need conversion!”
How would Catholic evangelisation differ from that of other Christian churches? Fr Cotton refers me back to his description of a converted life within a Catholic parish, adding: “As Catholics we have the teaching Church to guide us. We have the whole Sacramental life to sustain us and the lives of the saints to inspire us. The power of regular prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and particularly during evangelical events is unique to Catholics and most fruitful.”
And what is his favourite Gospel passage? He has, not surprisingly, many favourite passages but singles out Luke 4:16-30: “Jesus proclaiming his manifesto and then being rejected. I feel a sense of solidarity with Jesus when at times people seem to nod politely to what I propose and then carry on as usual – or so it seems.” He adds with wry humour: “They haven’t yet attempted to throw me over a cliff!”
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