Fr Paul Watson describes
how he and his parish set out to reclaim the lapsed
DURING the seven years 1983-89 the attendance at Mass in the Archdiocese of Birmingham reduced from 130,000 by over 7,500 people. During the years from 1989 to 1995 there has been an average annual loss of 3,000 people attending Mass in the diocese, and while I haven't gone through the directories of the other dioceses I imagine they would show a similar trend. There is a kind of haemorrhage occurring and so the need to proclaim the Gospel. We talk about people being hungry and yet it seems as though even the ones who apparently are in our churches, are going away. Is it because they are not being fed? It is hard to say what the reason is, but it shows that there is a desperate situation.
A few years ago my colleague Jim Killeen came to visit me and I recognised in him someone who had a real fervour for evangelising, and proclaiming the Gospel. In the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi Paul VI speaks movingly about how many in the Church have lost their fervour for proclaiming the Gospel. He asked why we should allow the world to do all the evangelising, with pomography and values of relativism being thrust upon us. He suggested we should have the courage to offer the people with joy and fervour the one thing that they need, the Good News of Jesus Christ.
So we began to develop a plan — a census to identify the Catholics in the parish, training of evangelisers, and then going out to the lapsed and alienated who had been identified through the census.
The first stage was to undertake a census. Over a period of about six months 10,000 households were visited. There were a number of volunteers from within the parish. We tried to involve unemployed people and get the work experience centre to support us. This happened for a while but eventually the Government was not prepared to fund it any longer. In fact we found that the most important people were people in the parish who were willing to help. The plan was that Jim would train them to know how to approach people on the doorstep — with a very simple questionnaire, and a polite request as to whether they would be willing to cooperate with the census that we were doing. Everything we have done has been underpinned with prayer and a calling upon the Holy Spirit. The volunteers going out to do a census go out in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Understandably people are very nervous about knocking on doors. There are fears fears of rejection, fears of the little notice that says no salesmen or travellers. However, going out in the power of prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit transforms all that. We started with a dozen people doing the census work which later reduced to perhaps half a dozen of more committed people. Even doing the census work became an opportunity for people on the doorstep to speak about their faith with people who had perhaps never had such a visit.
When asked whether there was a Christian presence in the home about 95 per cent were willing to respond. Less than five per cent said "go away, we're not interested". Ten per cent of the people visited responded strongly, already beginning to feel that their faith was being touched and moved in some way.
The people who were doing the visits became excited, and like the disciples in the Gospel when Jesus had sent them out in twos, they came back rejoicing. And because of this it became possible for them to go on to the next stage, to be trained as the evangelisers, the people who actually go and visit those people again and share their faith with them and encourage them to share in spreading the Gospel. We spent 12 months training them, and eventually on Pentecost Sunday we had a little commissioning ceremony during the Mass when 12 people were acknowledged as being willing to go out and visit others and try to share their faith.
During the 12 months they went through a programme of training. There was a weekly course that brought them the basic message of the Gospel and knowledge of the scriptures, so that they learned how to nourish their own spiritual lives by the Word of God. They also learned to understand, simply but clearly, what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is; what it is that he came to do; and the salvation that we have received. Our goal was to enable them to look at the cross and know that it was our salvation, and to be able to proclaim that.
As it was important to involve the parish as a whole I wrote a letter to the parishioners explaining what we were doing and inviting them to participate. We wanted them to allow two evangelisers to come and visit them, in order to practice on them. It became an actual evangelising experience for our own active parishioners, and many of them enjoyed talking about their life of faith. It was a great experience for the evangelisers because they were going into a very friendly environment, people who wanted to be part of this parish activity and were ready to co-operate. They were encouraged, they learned how to proceed in an evening meeting with a family, and again they came back rejoicing. Always as part of the visit the family and the evangelisers prayed together, and they spoke about the things of Jesus, the things of the life that he has brought us.
While these visits were going on the census work was also continuing. We were beginning to build up a picture of what the Christian presence was in the area, those who were active, and those who were lapsed. There was also an ecumenical dimension. The work was carried out in conjunction with the local Anglican parish, and sometimes the evangelisers comprised one Anglican and one Catholic. This touched and impressed many of the people we went to see. People were amazed that an Anglican and Catholic could come and visit together and share their faith. We need to witness together about the many things that we hold in common. The Anglican church was able to follow up Anglicans while we concentrated on the Catholics. The third stage was the one the evangelisers felt rather more fearful about: the visitation of the lapsed and the alienated, people whom we had identified as having had a Catholic background but who had left the Church for whatever reason. There were certain things that we felt were key as far as visiting those people was concerned. Jim often spoke about never doing cold visiting, so we wrote another letter. This was addressed to those people we had identified as being alienated from the Church. and the letter said: "You remember a census being carried out in your neighbourhood during last September and your household was identified as having a Christian presence. As a result of this census I am taking this opportunity now of writing to you to tell you of my friendly concern and interest in you and in members of your household who may be Christians. May I ask if you would be willing to welcome two members of our parish who will be calling to visit your home during the next few weeks?"
Twenty per cent of the people either wrote to me or phoned me declining the visit. But in fact, out of those, some asked for a priest to visit them, because there was a problem they wanted to talk about. So even that wasn't a total rejection, but it did tend to sort out those who would have been likely to reject us if we had gone in cold. The letter was the key; 80 per cent were receptive.
On the next visit, there were certain key elements that were important. We took a copy of the letter: "Do you remember the letter that you received? We have come from Our Lady's" and immediately there was a positive response — "Oh yes, I remember the letter." The immediate question after that, and this is where to take courage in the power of the Holy Spirit, was: "May we come in?" And almost all said yes.
Evangelising visits need to be focused, need to have a goal, a purpose, so that we don't just go in and vaguely chat and hope that we might get somewhere. We go through a series of steps, of friendly conversation, sharing about our lives, finding out a little bit about their family, and then moving on to asking about their Church background, which starts to stimulate their memories. "Did you grow up here?" "Were you baptised in this parish?" "Oh no, we came from so and so." "Oh yes, well..." and so on.
They begin talking, and when the right moment occurs, we ask them about what their personal faith means to them. We have to pray and ask the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us, so that we can begin to witness to them about the Gospel. "Do you know, that God loves you and has created you to know him?" "Do you know that Jesus Christ died on the cross for you?" "Did you know that he wants to give you his Holy Spirit to be dwelling in you?" This was the goal of these visits, to speak the Gospel to them and to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring it to life within them.
Many times when Jim and other visitors went into the people's houses there were tears in their eyes, tears sometimes because a healing process had started, healing of their hurts possibly caused by the way the Church had treated them, healing of perhaps their own rejection and their own sin, whatever it might be, but many times you could visibly see God was touching them. And then the final thing was to ask them "May we pray for you?" and then by asking if they have a favourite prayer, a prayer they know, to encourage them to pray with us. Then we would say that prayer, it may be the Our Father, the Hail Mary, or a prayer that they have remembered. Then we would go on and pray freely and spontaneously for them, for their families, for the things they have mentioned, the problems they are experiencing in their lives, to bring the presence of God's love and the power of his spirit into their lives.
No-one ever refused, no matter how long they had been away, and that was amazing. It was bringing to life again the seed that was in them from their baptism.'This can happen easily if we are willing to speak the truth very simply and to be willing to pray, and to be bold, like daring to say "May I come in?", daring to say "Can we pray for you?" and to ask them questions but always with politeness and love, not trying to challenge them or pressurise them. And before we leave, we say: "Would you mind if, when we are back in the area again, perhaps in a month or two, we were to come back again?" "Oh yes, please do" was often the response.
We also had a little pack Jim designed with all kinds of leaflets and information sheets, the parish newsletter, a prayer in time of sickness, scripture readings and so on. We would always try and leave something with the family, some memento that we had been there, something to remind them of what had happened, which was always very much appreciated.
We categorised the responses of the people we visited into "cold", "cool", "warm" and "hot"; cold was rejection, cool was courteous and polite where they took the literature, warm was very receptive to the Gospel and hot where they returned to Church and the sacraments. Out of 51 households visited, eight returned to the Church and the sacraments; eight, that is 21 per cent, came back simply as a result of those visits. In the warm category, 18 of the households were people who haven't yet come back but are likely to do so if we continue with further visits as they enjoyed talking about their faith. Sometimes during the visit there was an opportunity to say "would you like this moment to re-commit yourself to your faith and to Christ?", and some people are willing to do that. In the cool category there were 15, which is 31 per cent, and the cold, rejection, were only three. If I had asked you to draw up statistics of how many you thought would fall into each category I imagine you would have them in the opposite order. We expect that we are going to be rejected but the reality is that we are not.
This report covers just three months, and 51 households. In fact the same pattern has occurred in the other section of the parish that we visited. This is a testimony to what God wants to happen if we are willing to go and proclaim and to be loving and friendly.
This article is an edited version of a speech entitled The Challenge: Spreading the Faith. The full text, with the other addresses, is available from Family Publications, 77 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6LF, price £5.95 Editorial Comment — p7