by Michael Pender
Recently Bishop Patrick Dunn has made presentations around the Auckland diocese telling of some of the challenges he perceives our Church to be facing. One theme he developed was to do with the numbers of people in our congregations. He explained that if one looks at census returns then it seems that Catholic numbers are holding up rather than declining as is happening for some other denominations. However, it appears that we in the Auckland diocese are being misled simply because the number of Catholic immigrants gives the impression that our churches are just as full as they have ever been.
Bishop Dunn went on to explain that the phenomenon of people leaving the Church occurs right across the western world; he even used the phrase “collapse of Christendom”. In the United States the decline has been such that the largest denomination is now former Catholic! Pope Benedict spoke on many occasions about decline of belief in Europe. In 2001, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, when he was the Archbishop of the London diocese of Westminster, commented about the diminishing influence of Christian belief in Britain.
In recent issues of NZ Catholic, the bishop’s remarks have been well reported; they have also drawn responses from letter writers.
Why have people departed from the pews? There is probably no simple answer as many factors are likely to have contributed: marriage problems, the scandal of sexual abuse, the way in which a very large organisation can sometimes seem to be cold and unwelcoming, personality clashes, the seeming irrelevance of religious belief in a materialistic consumer society . . . . But are these issues sufficient cause?
We are blessed with a magnificent life vision. How can it be that some of our fellow Catholics have not been enlivened by this joyful message and so drift away? Evangelisation has been a theme of recent popes. St John Paul II promoted the so-called New Evangelisation with the idea that there would be renewal of Christian commitment to mark the beginning of the new millennium.
Perhaps, given the above information, we need to start with the evangelisation of our own people; that is, in the first instance any evangelistic endeavour should focus on our own community.
Recent popes have emphasised that the key to effective evangelisation is the experience of a personal relationship with Jesus.
I heard talk about a personal relationship with Jesus from non-Catholic evangelical student friends when I was at university but not, until very recently, from Catholic sources. Yet, (according to Popes Benedict and Francis) this idea goes back to at least Bernard of Clairvaux, a French Cistercian who lived in the first half of the 12th century. How surprised my student friends would have been to know that this idea has such a good Catholic pedigree!
“Sometimes even Catholics have lost or never had the chance to experience Christ personally; not Christ as a mere ‘paradigm’ or ‘value’, but as the living Lord, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’” (St John Paul II, 1993).
“For Bernard, in fact, true knowledge of God consisted in a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. And, dear brothers and sisters, this is true for every Christian: faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, it is having an experience of his closeness, his friendship and his love. It is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love him and to follow him more and more. May this happen to each one of us!” (Pope Benedict XVI, 2009).
So the question for us is how do we come to this experience, this personal relationship? Pope Francis has a strong statement about the need for the experience in paragraph 264 of his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel): “The primary reason for evangelising is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts. We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence.”
Thus Francis concurs with his predecessors about the need for this personal experience of Jesus, but he goes further and gives clear instructions about how to obtain it if we lack it.
Of the words from the three most recent popes, these from Francis convey the greatest sense of the need for immediate action — if we don’t feel this urgent desire to share (that is evangelise) we need to pray earnestly for the gift.
An important part of the message inthis exhortation from Francis is that the initiative must come from us; we need to ask, and all we have to do is ask (Francis says ask daily). What he is suggestingwith vigour is that we take to heart the words from Luke’s Gospel (11:9): “. . .ask and you shall receive, knock and the door will be opened . . .”.
Over to you.
Michael Pender, a parishioner at St Michael’s in Remuera, teaches Civil Engineering at the University of Auckland.