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If my church closed, would local people notice?

September 26, 2014

Home Mission Sunday                   21 September 2014

Isaiah 55: 6-9              Philippians 1: 20-24, 27           Matthew 20: 1-16                 

Let’s get real. The numbers coming to mass are dropping. Young people are just falling away in droves. As our older parishioners die they are not being replaced in sufficient numbers. Now, if everyone who described themselves as ‘catholic’ were to come to church, there would not be 100 people sitting here this morning: this church would be standing-room only.

One of the things that was really surprising about the Scottish referendum this week was the astonishing number of people who turned out to vote. 85%. By way of comparison, what do you think the turnout was the last time we could have a vote here in Birmingham? It was for the elected police commissioner, just one month ago. 10%.

Why such a difference in the voting turnout? I think it’s about relevance. It’s about a feeling that an individual can take part and make a difference. In Scotland there was a crucial decision to be made, one that would affect the lives of everyone, whatever the result, and one which people had carefully thought about. The vote cut across traditional party lines, and people realised that their vote really counted. And so it was that 17 out of 20 voters made the conscious decision to get involved.

We could apply the same analysis to why people choose to practice their faith or not. We know that across the country something like 16 out of every of our Catholic brothers and sisters choose not to practice the Faith. Put bluntly, practising their faith does not have any relevance to their daily lives. If they do come to church they feel ignored, unable to make a difference. They are bored and they are not motivated to take part. To often the answer they get to their questions is, “No”. And surprise, surprise, when they don’t take part it doesn’t make any difference to them. That’s what they think, anyway.

We know differently. We remember that we were created by God and are sustained in our existence by God. Therefore we respect and worship God in the proper way. We know the crucial question that has to be made in our lives. This is our personal referendum. Do you believe in life after death? Yes or no? We have chosen to do something about effecting the outcome of that question. Sadly, 80% of Catholics don’t feel the need (and incidentally, the figures are even worse amongst Christians in the other denominations).

But sometimes, when it is really important to people, this church can be full of those people who aren’t normally here for weekly mass. You may not see those occasions as often as I do, but they do happen. At baptisms: full of people, most of whom haven’t been inside a church for many a moon. At first Holy Communions and Confirmations. And this church can be full for a funeral, and particularly if the person who died was young it will be packed in here. At those critical points in people’s lives, when people are touched emotionally, deep down, that is when people turn to the Church.

Today the bishops across England and Wales make an appeal for every parish to mark this Home Mission Sunday as an opportunity to encourage every practising Catholics to respond urgently to the call to reach out and to spread the Good News amongst other people. And the theme of this year’s Sunday is ‘Evangelisation in the heart of the family’. The bishops ask us to consider four things about the way we can do this.

First about ourselves as individuals.

‘Charity begins at home’ they say. So does evangelisation. We have to start with ourselves. As baptised Christians we evangelise best by putting into practical action what our Faith encourages us to do: being compassionate towards others who might need our help, as we heard in today’s gospel; or not drinking alcohol in Lent when you go out with workmates to the pub after work; or a teenager having the courage to come to Mass on a Sunday despite the social pressure from friends.

To do this we have to renew our own conversion constantly. As Pope Francis says,

“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ … The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk”[1]

So take some time to reflect on your relationship with Christ. Do you devote time to prayer? As St Paul says in today’s second reading, is your lifestyle “worthy of the Gospel of Christ” Do you witness daily to Christ, in big things or in small things?

Secondly, we need to reflect on our family life.

We would all agree with Pope Francis that “the family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis”[2]

Every Christian family should try to follow two models: the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and the Holy Trinity. The Holy Family had its difficulties – the shame of the unmarried mother, being homeless and refugees, losing Jesus for three days, and so on. But despite the difficulties Mary, Joseph and Jesus loved one another and each tried to follow God’s will for them. The Holy Trinity is three persons, bound together in love, and this same unity in love should be displayed at the heart of the Christian family.

Parents:           how do you pass on the faith to your children, and are you transmitting God’s values to them?

Children           What do you do to help, not obstruct, family life? What can you do to make the world a better place?

Everyone:        how can we overcome our difficulties, and show love and joy? As members of a family we evangelise best by our witness in our daily lives: coming to Mass every Sunday as a family, praying together as a family, working together as a family, like the workers in the parable, for the kingdom of God.

Thirdly, we need to reflect on the life of the family which is our parish.

As a parish we evangelise best by our witness together in our daily lives: Are we involved in parish activities to help the less fortunate, or do we leave that for others to do? Do we take part in parish social events? Do we make friends with our fellow Catholics, or do we only speak to those we know?

Above all, is the bishops ask us to ask ourselves: is this parish as welcoming as the landowner in today’s parable? Are we relevant to local people? And if the parish were to suddenly disappear, would the other people in Hall Green notice?

Fourthly, the Church asks us to reach out to those who have been baptised but who do not practice the Faith and have no meaningful relationship with their parish.[3]

Next month the international Synod called by the Pope will be discussing the pastoral challenges of the family – in other words, looking closely at the way we do things in the Church and considering ways of making the Church more relevant to ordinary people in today’s world. One of the preparatory documents for that Synod bluntly reminds us “Many children and young people today will never see their parents receive the sacraments”.

Again, we evangelise best by our witness in our daily lives. Instead of being judgemental, like the grumblers in today’s parable, we do better to try to find out why people are not participating in the community of faith, to find ways of attracting them back to the practice of the faith, and to be welcoming when they do return. Reaching out to members absent from the heart of the parish family is a key focus of this Home Mission Sunday. People do re-connect, they do come back, if invited.

So todays mission Sunday theme gives us four ways to respond to today’s Gospel – in our lives, in our families, in our parishes and by reaching out to lapsed Catholics. We have to be like the workers in the parable in today’s Gospel. We have to allow ourselves to be called by God to whatever acts of witness he wants from us. And once again, that means we must place our trust in God and be guided by the Holy Spirit.

[1] Evangelii Gaudium 3

[2] Evangelii Gaudium 66

[3] c.f. Evangelii Gaudium 15

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