Our Journey Together – A Synodal Church by Fr. John Egan S.C.A.

Like the majority of people in Ireland, I was brought up a Catholic. But as I now see it, it was a Catholicism very much centred on religious behaviour rather than having anything to do with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Growing in up rural Ireland, there was a certain social pressure, where to be accepted in social spheres one had to be seen to be faithful to what was called, one’s religious obligations. Nearly everyone in this land was baptized as an infant. Every young boy or girl would have received Holy Communion and Confirmation and the majority of people went to Mass every Sunday without fail. Going to confession was also something that everyone availed of at certain times of the year. Unfortunately, our personal examination of conscience often ended with a repetition of the same few things we said every time, rather than a deep look at how our relationship was with God or opportunity to open up to his healing love and forgiveness. It could be said that many people belonged to the Catholic Church, but in reality, very few were actually practicing their faith.

We have learnt that ‘evangelization’ is that proclamation of the Gospel (the Good News), which awakens minds, opens hearts and demands thorough conversion, leading the person to that basic choice of faith and dedication to Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Church (as we know) exists for this very task – which is to evangelize: to bring a person to understand that they are loved by their Creator and to share the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. This in turn, is followed by further evangelization which we call evangelization and catechisation – the maturing and nurturing of the faith. Therefore, the initial evangelization is that proclamation of the Gospel which awakens minds, opens hearts, and demands thorough conversion and thorough dedication to Jesus Christ. An important point to be made here is that without this initial evangelization, catechisation cannot succeed.

We know that after infant baptism our children grow up and are offered catechesis and the sacraments etc. One could argue that the majority of those baptized have never arrived at a point of making a genuine act of faith or commitment to Jesus Christ. In truth, we have received the Holy Spirit in the sacraments of initiation, but that same baptismal gift needs to be awakened in us and thus in order for our baptismal graces to be released, ‘a renewal of commitment to Christ’ needs to be made. Unfortionatly the gift of faith we receive through baptism is not properly nourished and thus there is little room for spiritual growth.

Our Catholic schools offer us the various religious education programs, yet at large, there is I believe a deprivation of that initial proclamation and thus, the opportunity to have an authentic spiritual experience of God and make a decision and commitment for him is not possible. What is the problem then we may ask? Has it to do with the type of catechesis being taught? Or has it to do with those who are offering the catechesis? The important point (or argument) I want to make here is that many people involved in religious education never themselves had that opportunity to have a real encounter with the living God. The result being, they are incapable of bringing others to the experience of faith. The truth is ‘we cannot give what we have not ourselves received’. Pope Francis has called us to be ‘Spirit filled evangelizers, and we know there is a real urgency today for evangelization, but this will never be possible without the action of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is imperative that those who have the responsibility of sharing the Good News to the next generation, must themselves be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Since the time of Vatican II, the Church has been striving to find effective means of evangelization and re-evangelization. One of the formal ways of evangelization today is through ‘the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults’. The Church reissued the entire early Christian catechumenate as a rite to be used in leading adults to baptism, or the sacraments of initiation. This implementation of the rite, is being utilized as a means of welcoming new people into the Catholic family. We are familiar with all the various periods of this RCIA journey: pre-catechumenate, purification and enlightenment and mystagogy, or post-baptismal period. While the RCIA process is wonderful way to bring catechumens into the Church, it is much more. I believe that we may in fact not fully realise how effective this process could be, if it was fully embraced and implemented as a means for evangelization of the Church community at large.

The catechumenate is that systematic implementation of initial proclamation. We know it is a means by which non-Christians are prepared for baptism, but also for all of us unconverted Catholics who need to be brought to conversion and complete dedication to Jesus Christ. We must recognise and emphasise that such a model was used as a primary method of evangelization for the first several centuries of the Church. So, the question to ask is, “Are we taking advantage of this great treasure that we have in our Church?”

From my own experience of seeing the RCIA programme operate in parishes, I have to say that it has left me questioning the effectiveness of such a presentation. We can say that the Church has made great steps forward in the area of catechisation, but in the area of evangelization, only small steps have been taken. Who to blame? We who stand before our people and offer the catechesis are absolutely responsible. Each year we bring candidates through the RCIA programme and on Easter Saturday night, offer them the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. The question however is, “Have they really been evangelized? Have they experienced that true conversion from hearing and opening themselves up to that initial proclamation of the Good News?  The reality is that many of them will never commit to the Church and just fall away from the faith. A lot of questions need to be asked here.

There are three vital elements in evangelization: witnessing, proclamation and prayer. Pope Paul VI said that The Gospel must be proclaimed by witnessing (EN 22). Therefore, firstly there must be this living witness. From here we must argue that every catechist must carry such a witness within him or her. Unfortionatly, in my experience, this is not the case. I don’t believe that they had fully opened themselves to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, yet in order to lead such programmes, it really is imperative that first of all, they must have a thorough experience of the Holy Spirit. For without that the entire catechumenate is reduced to a presentation of knowledge, not life, not salvation and redemption.

 A comprehensive catechesis is essential, but I believe people also need to see that authentic witness of the faith, e.g. stories and testimonies of people who have had true conversions to the faith. This in turn can lead people to their own personal experience of faith. Pope Paul VI said that ‘people today are looking for witnesses. The third element necessary is prayer. It is imperative that our leaders of evangelization must be able to bring people into prayer. Prayer always seems to be something added on to the programme, yet it should be the thread that holds it all together. It is prayer that leads people to faith.

Yes, the Churches mission is evangelization and the RCIA programme is there to be used as a tool to bring non-Christians into the family of God. But with some adaptions, it can also be used in bring those who have being baptized as children, to the experience of faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. The is for us the New evangelization. “The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself’” (EN 15). The great wound of the Church today is where the majority of Catholics are not actually evangelized, and I also believe that this is why the new evangelisation has been proclaimed as the essential and primary task of the Church.

My dream for the future of the Church is to see groups of committed Christians, empowered with the Holy Spirit; being welcomed into groups or parishes, for the sole purpose of witness, proclamation and prayer. To implement the Catechumenate programme for adult believers; for the revival of faith and the rekindling of charity. Pope Francis said that we have to open our Church doors and go out to the people and I think this points to the mission for our times, i.e. to bring the Good News of the Gospel to the people – which means we have to go outside; to leave our Church structure. It’s like a new model of being Church.

We know that our task as Christians is evangelization. The Church, as Pope Francis tells us, “exists to evangelize”. Maybe to recognise that our primary goal is not to get people into the Church, but rather to evangelize them. To bring the Good News. Ultimately our work is to bring people to God. The Church part happens when it happens; if indeed it actually happens. The question is, “What is the most important: to be an official member of the Church or to be converted to Christ?

Father John Egan SCA
(Parish priest of St. Thomas More Catholic Church, Barking, London, U.K.)