How can lapsed Catholics be brought back into the life of the Church? Paul Watson describes a remarkable parish mission which may have found some answers DURING THE 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 J995 there has been an average annual loss of 3,000 people attending Mass in the diocese, and whilst I have not gone through the directories of other dioceses. I imagine they would show a similar trend.
It is hard to say what the reason is. but it shows that there is a desperate situation.
A few years ago Jim Killeen, a colleague of mine, came to visit me. He suggested that 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 Catholic in the parish, the 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 the census. Over a period of about six months. 10,000 households were visited. There were a number of volunteers from within the parish. 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. Understandingly people are very nervous about knocking on doors. There are fears — fears of rejection. fears of the little notice that says no to salesmen or travellers. However, going out in the power of the Holy Spirit transforms all that. When asked whether there was a Christian presence in the home. about 95 per cent were willing to respond.
The people who were doing the visits became excited and, like the disciples in the Gospel, they came back rejoicing. Because of this, it became possible for them to go on to the next stage. For 12 months they went through a programme of training. There was a weekly course that brought them the basic message of the Gospel 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 He came to do; and the salvation we have received.
As it was important to involve the parish as a whole. I wrote a letter to the parishioners explaining what we were doing and with an invitation for 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 evangelisation experience for our own active parishioners, and many of them enjoyed talking about their life of faith.
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.
The third stage was the one the evangelists 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 okay as far as visiting those people was concerned. We wrote another letter addressed to those people we had identified as being alienated from the Church.
Twenty per cent of the people either wrote to me or phoned me declining the visit. But of those some asked for a priest to visit them, because there was a problem they wanted to talk about. So even that was not 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 immediate question after that, and this is where it is like 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. 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 ask 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 such and such" and so on.
When the right moment occurs, we ask them what their own 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. 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 the visitors went into people' s houses there were tears, sometimes because a healing process had started. healiag of the hurts possibly caused by the way the Church had treated them, healing of perhaps their own rejecfion 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. to encourage them to pray with us. We would say that prayer and go on to pny freely and spontaneously for then. No-one ever refused, no matter how long they had been away. It was bringingto life again the seed that was in them from their baptism.We would always try to leave something with the family, some reminder, which was always vety much appreciated.
We categorized the responses of the people we visited. Out of 51 households visited, eight returned to the Church and the sacraments, and 18 of the households were peceale wha have not yet come back but a-e likely to do so if we (tont:hitt with further visits as they enioyed talking about their faith. Fifteen householis were courteous and polia rather than very receptive and only three rejected cur apiroach.
Fr Pete. Waton is parish priest of Our Lady of the Angels, Soke-cn-Trent. This is an abbnviatei version of a talk origitally jublished by Family ptblicatons