Dwight Longenecker ponders the conundrum; and explains why he hopes
for great things from a new agency to be launched by the bishops next year
ast week I travelled to Vienna, the city of coffeehouses and choirboys. palaces and parks, dancing horses and dirndls, Mozart and marzipan. The city was hosting the International Congress for the New Evangelisation. Timed to coincide with Ascension Day and the build-up to Pentecost, the congress was an innovative combination of thought, prayer and action to encourage the new evangelisation across Europe.
The congress was not just another academic talking shop. It's true that each morning St Stephen's Cathedral was packed with international delegates to hear theologians, sociologists, politicians, academics and cardinals debate the problems of proclaiming the gospel in the twenty first century. But the conference was combined with a mission to the city of Vienna, The academic sessions were interspersed with worship, and every afternoon and evening the city was buzzing with a whole range of creative activities to promote the gospel.
Churches were open for prayer. confession and meditation while teams outside encouraged tourists and shoppers to "spend five minutes with God." Special marquees were erected as mini-chapels in shopping districts. Inside the Blessed Sacrament was exposed for adore
lion while outside teams of missioners distributed literature and engaged
passers by in conversation. There were concerts of classical, jazz and pop music—all with a Christian message included. There were art exhibits, plays, films and debates between cardinals and academics in the coffeehouses.
There were radio shows, youth missions, parish missions, feasts for the homeless and dialogue with Muslims. Martin Wiesauer, one of the organisers explained that the organising committee were convinced that when it comes to evangelisation, theory and practice must go together. "Everybody has two legs," he said. "You need both working together to be able to run."
The congress and mission in Vienna was the first of four. They are the brainchild of four European cardinals: Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, Godfried Danneels of Malines-Brussels, Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, and Jose da Cruz Policarpo, patriarch of Lisbon. Next year Paris will host the event. In 2005 Lisbon welcomes the congress followed by Brussels in 2006. Jean Luc Moens — a member of the Emmanuel Community — said that the idea for the congress and city mission first arose from one of their community members during the Jubilee year. Cardinal Lustiger picked up the idea and Cardinal
Vienna as the city to pioneer the effort. The Emmanuel Community joined forces with Vienna's Catholic Action group to undertake the huge task of welcoming nearly 5000 people to participate in the combined congress and city mission.
As I took part in the worship, mission, seminars and workshops I was able to meet representatives from the large number of new communities, organisations and movements who are active in a whole range of creative ways in the New Evangelisation. In Europe the new communities and movements are rejuvenating the church at evety level. The congress in Vienna was a showcase for their work and vision.
What was most striking however, was the absence of the English. I went to Vienna because I am interested in the New Evangelisation. and have just completed a new series of booklets for the Catholic Truth Society to be used in evangelisation. The priest in charge of our bishops' new agency for supporting evangelisation was also there. Apart from us there were three Americans who work in England and are members of a new movement. In total we met only five other English Catholics. Furthermore, when meeting with representatives of the various new movements we heard time and again that "it is difficult to get into England."
So why is it, that while European Catholicism seems to be waking up, the Catholic Church in England and Wales is still so hard to stir? Why are the new movements meeting with success and encouragement in Europe but not in England? Is it because the bishops are control freaks who don't really like lay movements? Is it the English distrust of enthusiasm (especially religious enthusiasm)? Or is it that persistent English disease— chronic Euro-phobia?
I don't think any of these issues are the real problem. Instead it is simply a case that England's time has not yet come. English Catholics don't realise that a new evangelisation is either desirable or necessary. Put simply; the problem is that English Catholics don't think there is a problem. Parish life totters on much as it has done. Our Catholic schools are full. The crisis in priestly vocations hasn't really begun to bite. Sure, Mass numbers aren't what they used to be, but people are busy on the weekends. Things don't seem that bad. Catholics in England haven't yet seen a need for a new evangelisation.
On the continent however, the crisis in the Catholic Church is several steps further on. Catholic influence in national culture has dwindled markedly. Secularism is rampant. Mass numbers are disastrously low. Vocations to the priesthood are almost non existent. In some parts of Europe the Catholic Church would be closing up shop if it weren't for the new movements and communities, This is where the Catholic Church in England is headed, but we don't seem to be there yet. Most of us can't see that we're heading for the rocks, so we don't see the need for new movements, new communities and the new evangelisation.
If this analysis is correct, and the church in England is some
years behind the rapid disintegration of European Catholicism, then we are well on course to address the problem as it develops. Not everyone is wearing blinkers. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor knows where we are headed. He has spoken forthrightly about the fact that England is no longer a Christian country. Some bishops are aware that a time bomb is ticking and that the English church will very soon be in the parlous state of our continental cousins.
The Catholic Bishops have taken some innovative steps. This summer the Catholic Missionary Society that was founded by Cardinal Vaughan will finish its ministry so that a new organisation with a wider remit can be formed. Mgr. Keith Barltrop, a former rector of Allen Hall, has been brought in to spearhead the project. CASE (the Catholic Agency for the Support of Evangelisation) will be launched at Easter 2004. The aim of the agency is to support a whole range of Catholic initiatives in evangelisation.
One of the particular aims is to encourage and provide a reference point for the various new communities and movements. The committee is chaired by Declan Lang, the Bishop of Clifton. With representatives from CAFOD and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, it aims to encourage evangelisation within the Church and the world through direct proclamation as well as the renewal of Christian culture and active promotion of Christian peace and justice.
Perhaps with this new agency in place the English Church will make a better showing at the future Congresses for the New Evangelisation. Who knows, after Paris in 2004, Lisbon in 2005 and Brussels in 2006 the time might be perfect in 2007 for the International Catholic Evangelisation Roadshow to visit London.