No, not a lot
Stuart Wilson At your word
My few days’ holiday in Ireland earlier this year were great. I stayed with friends who had been parishioners when I was a parish priest. At the end of one meal I was asked “So do you miss your old parish?” Of course I miss the parish – I used to love the hectic preparations for Christmas and Holy Week. I even miss the callers at the door who drove you mad but still left you glad that they bothered to ring the bell.
Yet too much apple pie, or maybe something stronger, made me reply without hesitation. “No”. It was an honest answer. I truly don’t miss the parish. Why not?
Towards the end of 2002, Cardinal Cormac MurphyO’Connor asked me to direct a new programme of spiritual renewal for Westminster called “At Your Word, Lord”. It was a step into the dark but we are now in touch with 230 parishes.
It has been fascinating for me to work with a team that isn’t solely clerical, or traditional. Two lay women and two lay men ensure that the religious professionals (a sister and yours truly) never have the final word. I am also secretly relieved that, even as director, I am not the oldest member of the team though it’s a salutary lesson to learn that three of my colleagues are half my age.
Team meetings – we soon discovered – are a challenge. Even among a team with the same common objective, there is no common language.
Recently, I suggested that one of the qualities needed for New Evangelisation was “ardour”. Only Sister and one other person knew the word and my defence, that it was a perfectly good word for the writers of Victorian ballads, cut no ice at all. “Ardour” was rejected. The Lord works in mysterious ways and I am now well aware that the way we talk of and present the Gospel has to appeal to a new generation – ardour or no ardour.
The programme costs money and this has led to it being given various sobriquets. One priest couldn’t resist telling me that among his friends it was known as “At our expense, Lord.” Point taken.
RENEW International which inspired the programme is based in America and relies, inevitably, on the swish and efficient presentation that they have come to expect Stateside. In good faith we have tried to follow their example with varying degrees of success.
I was likened to Comical Ali – the PR man of Saddam Hussein’s ill-fated Gulf War campaign – for persistence in the line of duty. I don’t think I have ever “talked-up” the programme for renewal (honest) but I do talk a lot about it.
Last week in Cork, I kissed the Blarney Stone and a clerical colleague wasted no time in creating a photo caption that read “Fr Stuart kisses the Blarney Stone – no difference noted so far.” It is good to see the effect that the programme is having on the lives of young Catholics. The organiser of a recent Westminster youth trip to Taize, told me that nearly half that group came because of getting more involved through the programme.
London is not always a welcoming city. One young graduate said: “Everybody told me how welcoming the parish was, but as far as I could see, the only sign of welcome was a smile from my neighbours at Mass. Since I joined “At Your Word, Lord”, I have discovered that smiles can also have voices.” A man in another parish started out opposing the renewal but he joined a faith-sharing group and it changed his life. For the first time, he was able to talk about his religion and about what his faith meant to him. Now he has emerged as a leader. This is heartening; we had always hoped that new lay leaders would emerge.
The programme, despite the cynics, is drawing people back to the Church. One of our team is in a parish where a young woman has returned to her faith through the prayer and friendship of her group. In another parish I heard about a school mum who had organised a faithsharing group with other mums. Three of these mothers are now at Mass on Sunday.
Promoting a programme of pastoral and spiritual renewal requires just that – promotion.
In the end, the success of “At Your Word, Lord” will not be measured in words but in the number of lives that are changed. We are getting there.
Sarah Johnson is on holiday