Comment Opinion & Features

How to renew a diocese

Seek2019: the gathering of US college students is inspiring an English diocese (CNS)

Over the years, I have worked in several dioceses and contexts. I’ve often heard brother priests say things like: “We don’t know where we’re going. We need vision, a plan. Are we here just to maintain a dying structure?”

The Church is Christ’s Body. It belongs to Him. His Holy Spirit leads us. Yet in His name, the bishop as shepherd has to set the priorities. For a diocese to flourish, the bishop has a responsibility, through prayer and consultation, to establish the direction of travel. As Fr Illo says, “flourish” here does not mean success, but fruitfulness. For a diocese to be transformed into an evangelising one, the bishop, clergy and faithful all need to become holy missionary disciples who joyfully place everything at the Lord’s service.

Since becoming Bishop of Portsmouth in 2012, I have sought to rally everyone to the new evangelisation. Last year I summed up what this means in a vision statement, “Bringing People Closer to Jesus Christ, through His Church”, about where I believe God wants to take us and where to direct our energies and resources.

A diocese has many moving parts. We have 95 parishes, 110 priests and 76 schools. Three million people live within our area, of whom 235,000 (circa 7 per cent) are Catholics. Some 34,000 of them attend Mass (13 per cent). In the last 25 years, Anglo-Irish parishioners have given way to Filipinos, Keralans, Nigerians and Poles.

In 2015, we established a social research unit to study this. It undertook a novel computer-mapping project called the Diocesan Dashboard. The Dashboard maps every parish down to street level, combining local government data with an enhanced level of internal parish data. It gives our diocesan services, parishes and schools a unique tool for pastoral planning.

In the vision statement, I say that every member of the Church must grow in holiness. This is the key. We need to broaden the tent, to welcome all. I outline four priorities: proclaiming the Gospel to those around us religiously adrift; converting Catholics, with outreach to the non-practising; total dependence on prayer under the Holy Spirit; and becoming outward-looking servants. There are three specific areas to focus on: youth, vocations and prioritising resources.

Currently, all our diocesan agencies are drawing up five-year plans to put this vision into place, each in their own way.

Since 2014, Sherry Weddell, author of Forming Intentional Disciples, has been working closely with us. Her Called and Gifted programme has been run in many of our parishes. It helps individuals identify the charisms that God has given them for mission and service. As a result, more volunteers are coming forward, and more vocations.

In June 2017, Fr James Mallon, author of Divine Renovation, led a convocation of all our clergy. He inspired a new excitement about evangelisation among the priests, with an emphasis on kerygmatic preaching (proclaiming the core teachings of the Gospel). Several parishes have subsequently established leadership teams and adopted new approaches to the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist). To overcome parochialism, Evangelisation Strategy Teams are superseding pastoral councils.

A third inspiration has been Curtis Martin, founder of FOCUS and author of Making Missionary Disciples. In Southampton, we have four FOCUS missionaries working among university students, with impressive results. In January, I took the Bishop’s Council and other senior leaders to Seek2019, a five-day event for college students hosted by FOCUS in Indianapolis.

Martin’s philosophy of “Win-Build-Send” speaks directly to our restructured diocesan curia with its three vicariates of vocation, formation and evangelisation. It’s the same three essential tasks of the Church that Fr Illo takes from St Prosper of Aquitaine and Benedict XVI.

Bringing people closer to Jesus Christ through His Church is our Christian vocation. It is about ourselves being evangelised as much as evangelising others. The task is urgent, since many today are living – and dying – without a personal relationship with God. They need missionaries who are humble, holy and orthodox, creative and full of courage.

The Rt Rev Philip Egan is the Bishop of Portsmouth