Practising Catholics have a huge missionary responsibility. My own diocese – that of Portsmouth – has vast numbers of inactive Catholics waiting to be welcomed into a more active Eucharistic discipleship of the Lord. There are also vast numbers of people beyond the Church, many without a religious home, some spiritually and morally adrift, needing rescue and to whom the Good News of Christ must be offered.
The diocese covers an area in which 3.1 million people live. Of these, about 250,000 (8 per cent) are baptised Catholics, with 35,000 (14 per cent) of these practising. Since becoming bishop, I have been stressing the need to pray and work for the new evangelisation, trusting that the Holy Spirit will deepen faith, helping Christians engage in missionary outreach.
The diocese has areas of real deprivation and poverty. There are immigrants and foreign nationals from Eastern Europe and overseas, as well as university and college students away from home. This is a pastoral situation that is urgent. It impels action. We need to engage with those who have not yet met the Lord Jesus in Person or taken to heart the salvation and eternal life He offers.
Britain is a pluralist, secular society. Christian values and the Christian patrimony are increasingly ring-fenced. Secularism, of this wrong sort, is dangerous. It makes the fabric of society exceedingly superficial and flimsy. Faced with the threats of terrorism and fanaticism, the state will inevitably resort to ever greater controls on religious freedom. This is why, in my view, Catholics have a crucial “anthropological rescue mission”.
More than ever we need today to be confident and clear in witnessing to the Person of Jesus Christ and the truths of the Catholic faith, in order to help people find the way to authentic humanism and happiness.
This is why I am excited by a new project beginning this autumn at Sacred Heart parish in Bournemouth.
Sacred Heart is a magnificent church in early French Gothic style in the middle of the town centre. Begun in 1875, it was enlarged and dedicated in 1900, as the seaside resort became ever more popular.
In its first century, the parish was under the care of the Jesuits, but since 1969 it has been served by diocesan clergy. Fr Bruce Barnes, its last but one parish priest, undertook a splendid restoration project, which was completed in 2013.
The parish has changed over the years. Many people have now moved out of the town centre. Former residents have been replaced by university and language school students. Sacred Heart has become a church for shoppers and what the French call a paroisse d’élection. It is also now a “community of communities”, with Mass in Polish, a Mass in Portuguese and a large Filipino community.
The present pastor, Fr John Lavers, has been developing some innovative missionary projects with teams of laity (see sac-heart.org). They have been trying to make Catholicism more visible in the town centre, taking it onto the streets. At Christmas, they sang carols and distributed prayer cards. The parish regularly hosts Nightfever. There is now even Sacred Heart TV with Mass online.
But this September, as Fr John leaves for another ministry elsewhere in the diocese, Sacred Heart will begin a new phase of life as home to an Oratory in Formation. Initially, this will comprise three priests, living in the tradition of St Philip Neri. The hope is that the new Oratory will enhance greatly the Church’s mission in Bournemouth, making it a centre of excellence for liturgy, formation and pastoral care.
Our schools and parishes can never be ends in themselves. They are chaplaincies that exist to serve the needs of those around. Sacred Heart will have a stable community of priests to serve and direct the faithful of the parish in their missionary apostolate to not-yet-practising Catholics, and to those of good will, the “unchurched” and anyone willing to hear the Gospel.
An important ministry for the Oratory in Formation will be to work within the ecumenical and multi-religious context of the town, the university and the language schools. The very fact that the church will be open throughout the day for Eucharistic Adoration, Mass, Confessions and other prayers and liturgies will be a great service to the young and passers-by.
At the same time, the Fathers will develop one-to-one care and support, as well as talks, spiritual direction, social gatherings and all that is needed for chaplaincy to students.
Another important apostolate, one that St Philip much promoted, is ministry to the poor and needy. There are growing numbers of homeless in Bournemouth and already parishioners generously help manage a food bank.
Portsmouth diocese is organised into 23 pastoral areas, small clusters of parishes that share resources, clergy and faithful, in order to deepen communion by engaging in mission. The Bournemouth pastoral area includes several schools, a large hospital as well as many hotels and visitor attractions, care homes and civic institutions.
The Oratory in Formation at Sacred Heart will help serve the needs of this vibrant area. At the same time, it will be a refuge, able to offer support, care and hospitality to neighbouring clergy.
Sacred Heart is already one of the flagship parishes of our diocese. Its parishioners are vigorously engaged in service. As this new venture begins, do say a prayer for them. Say one, too, for the fine priests who will constitute the Oratory in Formation as they leave their present parishes to begin this new and exciting mission at the seaside.