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The practice of faith within the community of the Catholic Church may not be among those priorities
– Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales

A few days ago, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) released a document entitled ‘The Day Of The Lord’, which focussed on the communal practice of the faith in the post-pandemic era. The document thanked those who have worked hard during the pandemic to keep the practice of faith alive online even as we were unable to celebrate in common within our Churches. The Bishops noted –

“Churches up and down the land have realised the vision of Pope Francis that they be like village-wells where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey; and centres of ‘constant missionary outreach.’ We thank all who have developed diverse new patterns of outreach – of prayer, catechesis, study and spiritual solidarity; all who have made participation in the Mass possible through the internet.”

The Bishops then added this –

“What will be the pace of our emerging from this pandemic remains as yet unclear. What is clear is the challenge we face of bringing our communities and the practice of the faith to a still greater expression and strength.”

They went on to discuss a three-fold pattern to the challenge they had just identified, discussing each of three groups of people in turn. These were –

– “the fearful and weary, anxious about coming into the enclosed spaces of our churches; those who have simply lost the habit of coming to church”
– “those who will have reassessed their pattern of life and priorities. The practice of faith within the community of the Catholic Church may not be among those priorities”
– “those who have come into contact with the Catholic Church through our presence on the internet” 

Each of these three groups require particular and specific responses from the Church. The first and the third groups are perhaps the easiest to address – and the steps necessary are those we are already familiar with; contact, presence and proximity, coupled with gentle invitations. You might describe this as a “come and see” approach, I suppose. But note that ‘Church’ in this sense means all of us – not only the priests; we all have a real and active part to play in this moment, if it is to bear good fruit.

I suspect the real difficulties will lie mainly in those who fall within that second group – those for whom the communal practice of faith now has a reduced (or perhaps non-existent) meaning.

How do you encourage people to return to the practice of a faith which now has far less meaning for them?

The Bishops note that “we are endowed with veritable treasures” which are at our disposal – they mention here schools and outreach work. But whilst these will be viable options for some, they will be of no real use for many others. For those people, something else is needed. It seems to me that seeing this issue simply as one of outreach, as a purely physical endeavour, is likely to fail. Clever marketing is not enough – this is the Church, not a national company looking to expand it’s horizons and reach.

I wonder, too, if this particular group is the same one which, historically, has been largely ignored by the Church. Whilst there are always great efforts in parishes and dioceses to meet the needs of younger people (and certainly, this is both necessary and good), another group always seems to be forgotten – the adult population for whom the practice of their faith has always been there since childhood. Perhaps we have taken their practice of the faith for granted, assuming it will always be there for them. We can see more clearly now, that this is simply not the case.

These people also need the on-going support of the Church – but that support is often lacking. This is the group for whom the idealism of youth has long since evaporated, to be replaced by the realism of trying to balance the practice of the faith with life lived in the real world, with all it’s difficulties. These are the people for whom questions over marriage, divorce, sexuality, family issues, illness, bereavement and various other issues can present great challenges to the practice of their faith – and they are the ones who are least likely to ask for help or support even though they may need it most.

Looking at the bulletins of various parishes both now and in the past, I see much that is offered for the younger population – but very little, if anything, for the older population which is designed to meet their spiritual needs in the support of the practice of faith. Social activities are not enough – we are very good at these and at the money-making ventures, but much less so at on-going support to those who are struggling with the practice of their faith in the real world. We seem to have focussed on the physical Church – the buildings and their upkeep – and on the social aspect of our faith. Both are part of the overall picture but there is much more besides. In it’s essence, the Church is about living the faith and continuing to live the faith – and this means supporting all within the Church to do this.

Unfortunately, I believe that in this area, the Church has – broadly – failed.

And so our noticing that now, in the age of pandemic, there is a large group of people who simply see the Church as being largely irrelevant in their lives, should not really come as much of a surprise. The question is – what do we do about it? How do we help such souls to find a validity and a priority for the practice of their faith? How do we show such souls that they have a need of the Church – and that the Church has a very real need of them?

And it is the answer to this question – if not the very question itself – which is absent in the Bishops’ document.

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