ON PAGE four of this issue, we publish an edited version of an address given by Father Paul Watson, who in his parish in Stoke on Trent pioneered a method of evangelism aimed specifically at lapsed Catholics. The success of his operation inspired other parishes; now, what is essentially the same method is to be employed on a wide scale in the Westminster diocese.
Those involved — and it is an essential part of this way of proceeding that it involves, as far as possible, whole parishes — have been warned that the number who return may not, at first, be massive: and yet as Mgr Henry Turner, coordinator of Westminster's central area mission points out, "if each parish attracts just five people, then that is 1,000 people in a whole diocese-. If even one soul is brought back into the regular sacramental life of the Church, it will all, of course, be well worth while: but the clear possibility exists that many more than 1,000 lapsed Catholics will return home during the Westminster mission. Fr Watson visited 51 households, 8 of which had returned after 3 months, and 18 of which were likely to do so with further visiting. A household may be anything from a single person to a whole family: thus the potential results from the Westminster mission are considerable.
Catholics everywhere should pray for the success of this operation: and they should, if possible, be prepared to emulate it. As those who read Fr Watson's article will begin to realise, this cannot be achieved without going through a process of personal renewal of faith and of intellectual preparation for the task. But in this Jubilee year, that is perhaps a process we should all in any case undergo. As Fr Watson himself says (in a passage we did not have space to publish in the main body of his address), speaking of the encyclical Tertio Millenio Adveniente, "What struck me very forcibly ... is that we need to be a Church willing to repent ... The Pope believes that this kind of repentance is going to bring about a tremendous new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We need to hear that and take it to heart personally, each one of us taking on sin as Jesus did... and being willing to unite ourselves with Jesus on the cross. That is how the Gospel will be spread, it's how it began: the Holy Spirit was poured out because Jesus took on our sins."
THAT IS THE BEGINNING: if we are to bring others to faith, we must recover and deepen our own. For, if we do that, we will surely come to see that it is our lack of faith that has, for many, led to an unwarranted lack of confidence in the Church's future. There has been, as we have said before in these columns, a great danger in recent years that Catholics in these islands could — if we become mesmerised by figures of Church attendance — begin to assume that we are in a process of irreversible decline.
As we reported two weeks ago, even as the numbers of Catholics rise, the proportion of the Catholic population which attends Mass continues to fall. And yet, these are not the only figures we should remember. For the last two Easters, record numbers of converts have been received into full communion with the One, Holy, Catholic and Roman Church. We must be doing something right: and one thing we are doing right, surely, is that more and more we are recovering doctrinal coherence after several decades during which it seemed to many outside the Church (as well as to some within it) that Catholics had no more certainty than anyone else what were the core beliefs on which our faith was built. The fact that we are now in a different situation will surely help to build confidence that we can not only slow down and then reverse the numbers of Catholics who lapse but also continue to attract growing numbers of those who have no previous knowledge of the Catholic church.
IN THE END, we have to recover for ourselves and then pass on to others the precious knowledge that it is on Christ and on His Church and on them alone — that we can rely for salvation.
We live in a world in which such knowledge is hard come by. We are surrounded by perhaps the most insistently secular culture that has ever existed. More and more, we have had to become accustomed to the fact that thinking in a consistently Christian way is not something that can be achieved by falling back on the inherited moral and intellectual capital of a Christian civilisation.
English, Welsh and Scottish Catholics have, for four centuries, been used to being a minority in a Protestant culture. But now we are a minority in a culture which regards belief in the very existence of God as being at best an optional extra for those who are that way inclined, and at worst a folly indicating mental or emotional deficiencies in the believer.
What many Catholics find difficult to realise is that these are precisely the conditions in which we can most powerfully recover our vocation to bring about the conversion of the world to Christ. We are called, says the Pope, to be Signs of Contradiction. We have to know with real intellectual clarity that if the Church is right, the world is wrong. We have to be prepared not only to be unpopular (heaven knows, we have had to get used to that) but joyfully to embrace our unpopularity — where it comes from real obedience to the faith we have received — as the cross we have to bear. For though the faith in its essentials never changes, what seem to many the final and secure assumptions of the modern age will mutate or wither as they always have. Because the Church thinks in centuries and not in decades, and because its knowledge comes from God, it will be perceived to be right in the end.
That is the certainty we need to carry with us into the new millennium; and it is the knowledge we are called to share, each in his or her own way, with those among whom our earthly course is set.