Once a Catholic, sometimes a Catholic02 June 2016 | by Diana Klein | Comments: 0 A recent report suggests that while the Church is relatively successful at keeping those born and raised Catholic, it has a poor record of making converts
Hundreds of people in England and Wales become Catholic each year; and yet, very few of these “converts” are people raised with no religion, or who come from a non-Christian religion. This is one of the findings of a new report, “Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales”, in which Dr Stephen Bullivant, of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, has highlighted the failures of all the Christian Churches both to hold on to the faithful and to evangelise to bring in converts.
The report found that 3.8 million English and Welsh adults identify as Catholic, although an estimated 6.2m say they were brought up Catholic. In terms of converts to Catholicism, it says that only 7.7 per cent of current Catholics were not brought up Catholics. Moreover, for every one Catholic convert, 10 Catholics no longer regard themselves as Catholic – and, of those who regard themselves as Catholic, two in every five say that they rarely or never attend Mass.
Finding converts and keeping them in the community of the faithful has been a problem from the earliest days of the Church. Jesus called on his Apostles to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded …” (Matthew 28:19-20). According to the Acts of the Apostles, this is precisely what they did, beginning on Pentecost Day itself after Peter’s address to the crowds (Acts 2:37-41).
At that time, all that was required for baptism was a simple profession of faith in Jesus Christ; it took place immediately after conversion. But when the Church became a victim of persecution and hostility, some abandoned their faith by publicly denying Christ. The way the early Church dealt with this problem was to introduce a period of preparation (called the catechumenate) for candidates, lasting two to three years, to show that they were serious in their desire to become Christians. Those who wanted to join the Church had to find a sponsor from within the community who would ascertain that the candidate was determined to change their way of life; the sponsor also had to make sure there would be little chance of apostasy after baptism.
The early Christians were convinced that Jesus was Good News for them and might be Good News for others. They were ordinary people who were willing to meet in small groups, to share their lives, the stories of Jesus and their own faith stories with other people. They understood that they were called by Jesus and that they were to go and make disciples of all nations. This “making of disciples” remains at the heart of our purpose, the very task that gives us our identity today.
So, why is the Church in England and Wales attracting so few converts today – and why are the vast majority of all those becoming Catholics not people with no faith, or from a non-Christian background, but people who have been baptised and brought up in a different Christian tradition?
Are we not telling the secular world about the Catholic Church? Or, is it down to a lack of (or poor) evangelisation? The Department of Evangelisation and Catechesis of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales helps Catholics know and share their faith. Their website includes materials to help parishes reach out to non-churchgoing Catholics or those who might only come to Mass at Christmas or Easter, and supplies helpful information about programmes for Catholics who might want to return to active participation in the life of the Church.
It is probably too early to assess the success of Proclaim ’15, the evangelisation event of a generation, which was launched by the bishops in July 2015 in response to Pope Francis’ encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium. It has produced films, audio and practical new expressions of parish mission in support of evangelisation activities that parishes might consider.
In the years before the arrival of the internet and social media, the Catholic Enquiry Office used to run advertisements in national and local newspapers. One, I remember, asked “Do you want to become a Catholic?”; another had the strapline, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic”, encouraging lapsed Catholics to return to the Church. Other adverts offered information to non-Catholics who were having their baby baptised in the Church or who were getting married to a Catholic. There used to be thousands of enquiries as a result of these adverts each year.
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (the RCIA), introduced in the years after the Vatican Council, is probably the most effective form of evangelisation I know of. It has brought us back to our roots of being Church. It embraces the belong-believe-behave approach to evangelisation by leading people to a personal encounter with Jesus so that they can make the decision to follow him. It creates a warm, welcoming, non-threatening, non-pressurised and non-judgmental environment. Its success is fairly clear after nearly 30 years of it being the exemplar and rule for all Christian initiation.
Paragraph 5 of the RCIA sets the tone for the entire document: “The rite of initiation is suited to the spiritual journey of adults, which varies according to the many forms of God’s grace, the free cooperation of the individuals, the action of the Church, and the circumstances of time and place.”
This makes certain assumptions. Firstly, God was there with the enquirer before we were. Secondly, clergy and catechists need to respect what we know about how adults grow and learn. That means that the faith-vision of the reflection on a person’s human experience is the entry point to discovering one’s experience of God. As Karl Rahner said, “The revelation of God to man is man.”
This is what the RCIA is like when it works well. You can see lives change and transform; they come alive in their experience of God’s family, the Church. Sadly, though, there are still clergy and catechists who march people through a catechetical programme. We regularly see the fall-off of so-called “converts” who have not actually been converted. They might have learned the “book” but they did not learn to integrate their unique life into the life of the community, their story into the larger story of Jesus and his people.
There are also catechists who are people of good will but who are simply mistaken or ill-informed; and they can sometimes put enquirers off the idea of becoming Catholic. I heard of a catechist who sternly told a candidate that unless she accepted the Church’s teaching that dogs do not go to heaven, she could not become a Catholic. (It’s interesting to note that Pope Francis has left the door open on this important question!) That same catechist told her RCIA group that divorced people cannot receive Holy Communion – and nor can they become Catholic.
More and more people are convinced that small groups like the RCIA are at the heart of evangelisation, where people can reflect together in a personal way. Maybe there is a case for parishes to have small faith-sharing groups for everyone in the parish, including post-RCIA groups. They would support new Catholics and old ones alike. These groups could be led by people who have experienced conversion and transformation through their experience of the RCIA.
Through their involvement with these groups, I suspect they would grow and deepen in their relationship with Christ, thereby keeping the momentum going.
Diana Klein edits Parish Practice and Schools Practice for The Tablet.