As we await the Papal Exhortation following the recent Synod on "The New Evangelisation for the Transmission of the Christian Faith" Dr Dudley Plunkett encourages a humble realism concerning the state of British "outreach". He is senior academic tutor at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham.
A troubling question is why, when there has been so much airing of views about the new evangelisation leading up to Pope Benedict's Porta Fidei and the Synod, we have seen so little actual fruit. There are plentiful speculative articles, the Catholic media continually feature the subject, and there are informative events and discussions being planned by dioceses, parishes and other groups as part of the Year of Faith. But how many Catholics are reaching out to those who have fallen away or who have never seriously thought about who Jesus is? Pope Paul asserted that "the Church exists to evangelise", not to analyse and discuss evangelisation! This is an extremely pressing question because the argument that Catholics need to prepare for evangelisation is only valid if those who undertake such preparation go on to proclaim, support and defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ in practice.
It must of course be acknowledged that one can find many instances of active evangelising in the Church, where organisations, communities and parishes reach out to non-believers using a wide variety of methods. There are Catholic media that effectively announce the Gospel. There are priests and lay people who speak, write and minister in ways that call people to attend to God's Word. The problem is that these instances are far too infrequent, particularly in the European heartland of the Church, and certainly in England.
Those who doubt this judgement can look at the localities in which they live and say whether the Catholic Church is as active in its local missionary activity as evangelical Christians, or indeed pressure groups outside the Christian fold. Those who claim that it is not necessary to call people into the Church can stop to consider what the Church has to offer, which they themselves have received but are not proposing to others, that is to say the promise of a kingdom that is already being built in this world but which will eventuate in eternal salvation.
When the teachings of the Church are attacked and their advocates described publicly as bigots, who is there to come forward to restate and defend the universal principles that underlie Catholic doctrine on abortion, homosexual and extramarital sex, euthanasia and so forth? Those who say that they do not have the time to spare for these activities can ask themselves who then should be engaging in it and, if they do not, then who is going to ensure the survival of the Church when it is being pilloried, if not indeed persecuted on all sides. The neglect of Jesus's instruction to his disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations is a great scandal in the Church.
These remarks are not intended to be accusatory so much as to help uncover the roots and dynamics of the issue. How can we explain the inactivity, even the lethargy, which appears to have become so characteristic of the Catholic community in our European societies? Some answers can no doubt be given to these questions. Catholics in a country like Britain have been a minority since the Reformation, and a persecuted minority at that. This has meant that they have learnt to hide their identity through fear of exposure, attack or ridicule. Further, there is the undoubted fact that few Catholics are sufficiently informed, catechised or confident to be the ones that will step forward to proclaim, teach or defend the faith. It is also true that there is little in the way of a support system for Catholics who do wish to evangelise beyond informal contacts with family, friends and work colleagues, and even here there is an unfulfilled need for preparatory formation. And, not least, there is evidence of a lack of unity, of spiritual energy, indeed of faith, without which any evangelising efforts must surely fail.
This is precisely what Pope Benedict in Porta Fidei is alluding to when he asks for efforts to strengthen faith and the work of proclaiming the Gospel. He insists upon the dual need for formation in and sharing of faith: "Today too, there is a need for stronger ecclesial commitment to new evangelisation in order to rediscover the joy of believing and the enthusiasm for communicating the faith" (PF, 7).
He affirms that this is a role for all believers: "Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us" (PF, 6). Why are we falling so far short, and what could change this? Again, these are the questions that the Synod raised for itself, and many of the bishops' interventions during synodal sessions referred to the efforts being made in their dioceses to support evangelisation. But these were the bishops with the greatest interest in the topic, which was why they were in Rome.
More generally, there is a need for Church leaders to wake up to the serious failure of the Catholic Church to carry out its God-given mission to non-believers. How many bishops are urging their flock to spread the Gospel as Jesus did? How many are offering encouragement, approval and support so that this actually happens? The Synod is proposing structures to support the new evangelisation, and yet the hierarchy of England and Wales recently dismantled its Catholic Agency for the Support of Evangelisation (Case). It is at this level that the primary responsibility lies. The Synod also asked for officially sponsored programmes of spiritual and catechetical formation, and these are indeed urgently needed so that priests, seminarians and lay people can build up the knowledge, confidence, faith and skills to become Catholic apologists and evangelisers presenting Catholic doctrine with clear reasons and without compromise.
Local church groups and parishes similarly need to identify new resources of people, materials and opportunities for evangelisation. For example, apart from parish bidding prayers, what serious attempts are made to galvanise prayer for the outreach work of the Church? Do parishes follow the Pope's monthly prayer intentions that regularly include a missionary dimension? When do people have the opportunity to hear the testimonies of those who have come into the Church through the ministry of others, through spiritual journeys or actual programmes of teaching that they encountered? Are parishioners urged to invite others to services, pilgrimages, groups and talks as part of their everyday Christian lives so as not to miss what may be heaven-sent opportunities?
Any Catholic who stops to think for a moment can see that outside the Church there is no Saviour, no Eucharist, no guarantee of truth, no promise of the restoration of justice, and indeed, no reliable basis for joy, hope or meaning to life. A positive message has been missing in evangelising, and that has meant that fear and embarrassment paralyse believers when they should rather be charged with enthusiasm in the service of the Gospel and with confidence to "preach the Word in season and out of season" (2 Tim 4:2).
The first step forward must be to learn from those who are already successfully engaging in evangelising. There are good models of different kinds. One example is the Alpha course developed within the Church of England, but which has been widely adopted in the Catholic Church, especially in France. Other models can be found in the approaches used by chaplains in hospitals, universities and prisons, where contact with unbelievers is part of the normal day's work, and where a real response can be made based on knowledge of the state of people's religious views and needs.
The courageous work of pro-life groups in vigils at abortion clinics, of street pastors working with clubbers at night-time in city centres, of those offering prayer ministry for healing in shopping centres, of street evangelisers such as the St Patrick's group in Soho - all these examples need to be better known, and imitated. Then there's the output of media groups working through radio, TV, internet sites, blogs and video teaching programmes, such as Catholic Evangelisation Services; these too, while offering an independent type of Christian teaching, provide an important stimulus to on-the-ground evangelising.
There is a further dimension to this work which has been evoked at the Synod, and that is the wider cultural engagement demanded of the Church in countries with a strongly secular environment. Christian faith discerns the moral collapse that occurs in a world without God, and thus without supernatural hope and love. Nevertheless, stirrings or "preambles" of faith, to which the Synod Propositions refer (see page 21), can provide a basis for the dialogue that the Synod advocates with secular humanists, scientists, and people of other religions. The example is cited of the Courtyard of the Gentiles project of the Pontifical Council for Culture, in which searching encounters are organised between believers and non-believers. Evangelisation must not be reduced to a head-count. Evangelising on the wider scale is a vital part of the Church's missionary effort using all the resources of Catholic theology, apologetics, art, ethical campaigns and creative communications to help build the new "civilisation of love" called for by Pope John Paul II.
What is most needed for an effective new evangelisation is a great deepening of faith and courage. This will require prayer, leadership and commitment throughout the Church, testing the resolve of the Synod Fathers and the particular churches, especially in Europe. We must no longer be content to allow inward-looking discussion and programmatic statements to take the place of bringing the Gospel to the world. St Paul tells us, reassuringly, that "all who call upon the Lord will be saved". But he goes on to ask how people can call on the Lord without belief; how they can have belief without having heard of the Lord; and how they can hear of him if no one preaches about him, or if a preacher is not sent (cf Rom 10:14-15). Indeed, this is the whole problem and its solution in a nutshell, and it should be enough to prick our consciences.