Category Archives: Evangelisation

Youth Ministry after Evangelii Gaudium

115030I’ve just come back from Adelaide and the Australian Catholic Youth Ministry Convention. It was a great weekend!

This workshop looks at Pope Francis’s exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG) and ‘marries’ three key concepts from the exhortation with some key research from Dr Christian Smith of Notre Dame University Indiana which he presents in his 2014 book Young Catholic America.  This research examines key factors that are most likely to lead to practising young adult Catholics five years after they have finished high school.

Pope Francis’s three concepts are: evangelising communities, the kerygma or proclamation of the Gospel and missionary disciples.

In addition to these three concepts, I also reflect upon Francis’s reading of the signs of the times in EG, and the importance of ensuring that ‘Jesus and Justice’ go together: that a personal faith and a preferential option for the poor are inextricably linked.

I think these key points of EG and the research from Dr Smith have critical insights for the practice of youth ministry.

You can access the audio of the talk from our friends at Xt3 here.

This was the third time I have presented this talk: the previous two occasions were at the Catholic Schools Youth Ministry Australia conference and the Ignite Conference.

A huge vote of thanks to everyone who made ACYMC 2014 possible, especially the ACBC Office for Youth and the local organising committee in Adelaide.

 

 

Talk: “The Catholic Thing” @ the Australian Catholic Youth Festival

PrintHi everyone, it’s nearly two weeks since the inaugural Australian Catholic Youth Festival.  It was a great success!  Xt3 recorded workshop talks and here’s the link to one of my talks.  It’s called the Catholic Thing… but the byline is a little misleading.  The talk is really about belonging, vulnerability, shame, courage and other universal experiences, and how the Catholic “thing” speaks to those experiences.

You can check out other great talks from the festival here.

Hope you enjoy it.

The Role of Parishes in the New Evangelisation

VitalFaithCommunitiesLast month I spoke at the Colloquium “The Power of the Message: The Kerygma for the New Evangelisation” conducted by the Catholic Renewal and Evangelisation Office (Credo)  of the Archdiocese of Sydney.  My talk was entitled “Vital Faith Communities: The Optimal Context for the Kerygma”.

In the talk I argue that vital faith communities are essential to the new evangelisation.  New believers need a living faith community if their faith is to be nurtured.  Vital faith communities are also needed, however, to provide the witness to Christ that leads people to an encounter with Christ.

This talk is for people who are interested in the renewal of the Church and the role of parishes in evangelisation.

You can listen to the talk here: Vital Faith Communities.

The talk is supplied by Cradio – Australia’s Catholic radio station.

The Legacy of Benedict XVI

pbxviThere’s been all sorts of comments about Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy in the media and the social networks since he announced his decision to resign from the papacy.  Unsurprisingly, the secular media has focused upon the events that have grabbed global attention like the clerical abuse scandal, Vatileaks and the Regensburg address.  And equally unsurprisingly, the assessments of how well Benedict XVI dealt with these and similar issues have varied greatly.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to weigh Benedict’s handling of  these and other difficult matters that arose on his watch, but I also think that it is very easy to transpose a political view of leadership onto the papacy, and thus obscure the true nature of Benedict’s legacy.  For while we need the pope to be an effective leader of the global institution that is the Church, the pope’s primary role is to be a spiritual leader.  The pope is supposed to lead us  to God.

The origins of this mission lie in the very words of Jesus himself, who tells Peter that when he has turned (literally ‘converted’) he is to strengthen his fellow disciples (Luke 22:32).  This means that to understand Benedict’s legacy we need to look as much to his encyclicals and letters, to his homilies and weekly addresses, and to his apostolic visits to different countries as to his organizational management of the Church. And by that measure, BXVI seriously stacks up.

Again and again and again Benedict simply and eloquently pointed us to the heart of the Christian faith: to the encounter with Jesus Christ.  From his first encyclical:

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.  (Deus Caritas Est #1)

And this encounter with Christ is at the one and the same time an encounter with the God who is love.  From one of Benedict’s Q and A sessions with  a group of priests:

 Christianity is not a highly complicated collection of so many dogmas that it is impossible for anyone to know them all; it is not something exclusively for academicians who can study these things, but it is something simple: God exists and God is close in Jesus Christ.

And again,

Christianity is not a new philosophy or new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ… Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we really become Christians… Therefore, let us pray to the Lord to enlighten us, so that, in our world, he will grant us the encounter with his presence, and thus give us a lively faith, an open heart, and great charity for all, capable of renewing the world.

And finally,

Many people perceive Christianity as something institutional — rather than as an encounter with Christ — which explains why they don’t see it as a source of joy.

Benedict XVI is one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, a truly great intellect capable of critically engaging with both sacred and secular currents of thought.  Without denying or dismissing his theological contribution for a moment, I think that Benedict XVI’s greatest legacy is that he has been a pastor and a missionary, a spiritual father.  And there is something about the simplicity with which this formidable theologian went about this that reminded us again and again that Christianity is Christ: that everything else that makes up the Catholic faith flows from our encounter with the Risen Lord.  And Benedict did not simply speak about these things, but truly embodied them. He was and is a wonderful witness to the joy that this encounter with Christ brings.

Thank  you Holy Father.

Faith and Postmodernism in the Pub

Last night I gave a talk at the young adults event Theology at the Pub in Melbourne, which was more or less a repeat of a talk I had given in May at Guinness and God in Canberra.  The talk was called ‘Faith in a Postmodern World: Insights from Benedict XVI’.  The talk looks at modernity, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s critique of modernity’s concept of knowledge, and some of Benedict XVI’s seminal ideas about the narrative structure of faith, beauty and the encounter with the God of love.

I was trying to offer a logic for faith in a world that remains suspicious of claims to knowledge that lie beyond the scientific method.

My analysis of Lyotard owes a lot to James K. A. Smith’s clever book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church. Thanks to everyone who came out for the talks, and thanks especially to Daniel who allowed me to quote part of our email conversation about atheism in the talk.  Here’s the video of the Canberra talk (with thanks to CatholicLIFE and ACU):

What Would Thomas Merton Have Thought of Facebook? On Being Unplugged in a Digital Age

I would have really liked to have gone to the recent Catholic Media Conference which took place in Sydney last week, but a few different commitments made that impossible.  I’ve heard a few reports from friends who went, which were largely very positive.  And it got me thinking…

As a Catholic priest who blogs regularly (well, semi-regularly) I am clearly an advocate of the Church’s presence in the new(-ish) world of social media.  To say that the Church shouldn’t be a presence on the Web is to turn our back on one of the key places that people gather today.  As Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, the new means of social communication are one of the new areopagi – one of the new sectors of society – that ought to be the focus of the Church’s new evangelisation.  We don’t want to disregard the potential of a wonderful tool for the communication of the Gospel.  In fact, the Church simply cannot ignore these new means of communication, because like it or not, this is the way people today will want to communicate with us.

At the same time, we cannot afford to be naive about the various concerns and questions raised by the new media, including matters of privacy and safety and the narrowing sources of our information as we are increasingly selective about what and who we read.  I’d also like to highlight a different concern.

In a world where everyone is always online and always connected, the Church may be, in fact needs to be, a ‘place’ where people are able to experience community ‘unplugged’.  I’m reminded of a comment by Thomas Merton, who suggested that watching television was the antithesis of contemplation. The gaze that the television produces is the polar opposite of the contemplative gaze.  What would Merton have made of Facebook?  I cannot help think that he would have thought that  it was an ersatz form of the community that is produced by the contemplative gaze.  Connecting all the time with friends on Facebook is like people forced to drink chicory in deprived, post-World War Europe.  Sure it’s a drink, but it isn’t really coffee.  Facebook isn’t a substitute for embodied relationship, or what we simply used to call friendship and community before the advent of ‘friends’ whom you never see face to face.

The link between contemplation and genuine community is critical, and being online for hours on end militates against both.  And without wanting to deny the human being’s virtually endless capacity for distraction (I’m recalling Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death here) I truly believe that the ersatz form of community to be found online will ultimately prove to be as unsatisfying for people as chicory substitutes for coffee.  Which brings us to a magnificent opportunity for the Church… to be the Church.  To be a ‘place’ which provides a space for genuine contemplation and which produces genuine community.  Our necessary presence on the web can and must meet people in their ‘world’, but it needs to invite them into a different one: the world that is opened up by the Gospel, that is incarnated especially in liturgy, and which produces an alternative and distinctive way of being human.  I’m completely aware of the apparent irony of using a blog to make this argument, but it is only an apparent irony.  It actually reinforces my point that we should make extensive use of the new media in order to connect with people, but we will do that in order to direct them to the contemplative and embodied community of the Church.

In particular, this means that we need to be careful of uncritically importing the practices of the new media into our lives and into the Church’s life.  Let me offer one example: the Facebook timeline encourages us to offer a chronology of our lives online in words and pictures going right back to the moment of our birth.  I am sure there are parents who are even now diligently adding to their infant’s Facebook page, getting them ready to present to their child when they are old enough to read or even see the pictures.  The timeline concept clearly raises questions about privacy, but the deeper reality is that it is also a liturgical practice in which we tell ourselves who we are – we form our own identity – through what we post about ourselves.  The Church offers another kind of liturgy, which cannot compete with the Facebook timeline for being slick, glossy or initially attractive.  But the liturgy of the Church and the other practices of faith like contemplative prayer offer a different account of who we are: that our deepest identity is that we are the beloved of God.

This does not mean dispensing with the exciting avenues that the new media offer for proclaiming the Gospel.  It means recognising that these avenues are subordinate to the Gospel and not the other way round. The evangelical task for the Church is not to mimic the practices of the new media, but to be authentic to her own identity as the community that is formed by gazing at the face of Christ, who is the face of God.

The Divinity of Christ, the Papacy, and 1.5 million young people

Photo from S+L Media http://wydcentral.org

Like all Catholics and indeed most Christians all over the world, the 1.5 million young people who gathered with the Pope for World Youth Day in Madrid listened to the Gospel passage from Matthew 16:13-20.

The story begins with Jesus asking the disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’  The disciples tell Jesus that others are calling him John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.  If we were to ask people in 2011 in Australia, Spain, or perhaps any other country in the Western world, the actual answers would be different but the sentiment would be basically the same: popular opinion now as then considers Jesus to be a wise figure, a guru, a noble  teacher – and that’s all.

In fact, as I listen to people today the most common position is probably summed up by the title of Philip Pullman’s book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:  Jesus was a good guy, noble, nice and now very dead.  As far as Pullman and indeed many of our contemporaries are concerned, the divinity of Jesus is a fantasy dreamt up by the Church at  a much later date and a terrible distortion of what the ‘real’ Jesus was on about.

In the Gospel though Jesus is not content with popular opinion.  He wants an answer from the people who have walked with him, from those he has chosen and called to follow him.  And so he asks the disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’.  We’re told that Peter then spoke up.  I think that implies a deathly silence after Jesus asked the question.  No one was game to speak for a moment or two.  And then Peter declared, ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’

It would be a mistake to think that Peter’s profession of faith here means that he understood precisely what Son of God meant in the technical language that would be used in the 4th century to define Jesus’ divinity.  It’s anachronistic to think that Peter had access to language that the bishops at the Council of Nicaea employed to unequivocally affirm the divinity of Christ in AD 325 in the statement popularly known as the Nicene Creed.  But that’s precisely the point: the bishops at Nicaea weren’t saying something new about Jesus when they declared that Jesus is ‘the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages’.  They were expressing the consistent faith of Christians from Peter down to their own time.

What the bishops were trying to do in AD 325 was to clearly articulate the Church’s belief in Jesus’ divinity because a man named Arius had denied it, and so the Church needed to re-state what Christians had always believed.  As a consequence they came up with the statement above and the following to describe what Christians believe about Jesus:

God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

From Peter to Nicaea to our own time: to be a Christian is to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  It means that in the man Jesus of Nazareth God is completely and uniquely present.  Our faith hangs on this, because our faith is based not simply on Jesus’ teaching, but on who he is.  If Jesus is only a human being, then what he says might be interesting, it might be profound, but his teaching can be no more important than the legacy of any other teacher, leader or prophet.  But if Jesus really is divine, then his teaching is universally valid and relevant for every human being.  More than that, if Jesus really is divine then it is through him that we are able to share in the very life of God.

Many of Peter’s contemporaries found this to be a scandalous claim.  People today find it scandalous too.  It is the ‘scandal’ at the heart of the Christian faith.  But as the encounter between Peter and Jesus tells us, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God is ultimately the result of God’s revelation, of God’s self-giving communication that resounds in the hearts of those who are open to it.

What has this got to do with a gathering of 1.5 million young people in Madrid this weekend?  Simply this: that in Benedict XVI the successor of Peter is still speaking up, still declaring, in spite of many voices that ridicule and deride him for doing so, that Jesus is divine.  This is the deepest purpose of the papacy: to profess, in continuity with Peter’s declaration, that Jesus is the Son of  God… and to invite others to do the same.

For Insomniacs and Pilgrims – A WYD reflection

World Youth Day week is about to start in Madrid, and I’m confident that all those who are going WYD have already arrived in Spain.  Which makes it possible for me to share the reflection for pilgrims that I was asked to write for the WYD Journal that all Australian pilgrims received.  For those of you who aren’t attending WYD, here is a little reflection on what I think awaits our Aussie friends.  This week, why don’t we make a little pilgrimage of our own to a church we don’t normally visit, and pray for the pilgrims.

Dear pilgrim,

I’d like to think that right now you are thousands of metres up in the air, and that far below you the lights of Dili, Delhi or Dubai are winking up at you. Everyone else on the plane is asleep, and you have picked up your World Youth Day Journal and have begun to thumb through it (ok, so I know that you may actually be reading this in your bedroom before you leave, or maybe even after you have arrived home from Spain.  If that’s so, humour me a little and pretend that you are on your way to Europe, and the whole adventure still lies ahead of you).  I hope you have a lot of fun!  In fact, I’m sure you will have an amazing experience.  And you never know, it might just change your life.

No doubt that even before you left Australia, your group leader had already fed you the line: ‘you’re a pilgrim not a tourist’.  It’s one of the things group leaders say to prepare you for the worst that your journey will bring: long queues, big crowds, cold showers, school floors.  It’s more than just a line though.  You really are a pilgrim.  You have joined a countless queue of people throughout history who have made a journey to a sacred place.  So welcome to the club.  Here’s the thing though: you are currently travelling thousands of kilometres in order to visit breathtakingly beautiful and important places, but the most sacred journey a pilgrim undertakes is actually a journey of the heart.

In the past, people went on pilgrimage for lots of different reasons.  Some definitely took it all very seriously, and prayed the whole way, and no doubt got really excited when they arrived in Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, or whatever shrine or religious hotspot they were aiming for.  We know from the history books that lots of other people went on pilgrimage because it was really the only form of tourism that they had available.  They wanted to see the world, and pilgrimage was a respectable way of leaving everything at home behind in order to check out somewhere new.  Not much has changed.  There are some of you who know exactly why you are going to World Youth Day.  You are hanging out to go to Mass with a couple of million other young people and the pope.  That’s great.  But there are others who somehow also got the chance to come and it seemed like a great opportunity.  You might not be all that sure about all the religious stuff that’s going on.  My tip, whether you are a WYD groupie or a complete WYD newbie is this: pay attention to your heart.  As you experience all that this 21st century pilgrimage has to offer, listen to what the deepest part of you is telling you.

That’s because you aren’t on this plane by accident.  God got you here and whether you know it or not, God has some very definite purpose in mind for you over the days and weeks ahead.  So, as you have a fantastic time experiencing all that Spain (and whatever other countries you visit along the way) has to offer, keep listening to your heart, and keep paying attention.

In particular, listen to what your heart is telling you when you hear the stories of faith from the other young people in your group, and when you meet other pilgrims from other parts of the world.  Listen also to the witness of the stones, stained glass and art of the cathedrals and churches that you visit.  They are ‘words’ set in stone and sand and paint that can speak to you of previous generations’ faith and love.  When you take a moment on the bus to write in your journal, when you stop for a moment’s silence in a church, as you sit in a plaza (that’s Spanish for ‘square’) and have a coffee, when you are speechless at the sight of the natural wonder and beauty before you, and even when you find yourself in conflict or struggling with someone or something on the journey, stop again and listen to your heart.

And when you’re at the WYD vigil and everyone has lit their candles, and all you can see in every direction are flickers of flame held aloft by young hands from all over the world, and as you realise then and there that you belong to a universal family called the Catholic Church, listen to your heart then too.  You aren’t alone.  There are so many young people like you who are listening to their heart at that moment too.

I’m going to spoil the surprise and tell you what’s going on: In all those moments it’s someone knocking on the door of your heart that you can hear.  That’s because your destination at end of your pilgrimage is not a place, it’s a person.  The goal of this journey is a meeting, an encounter with Jesus Christ.  He is alive, risen from the dead, and that means he is the answer to the deepest questions, the deepest desires and longings of your heart.  He wants to be the source and foundation of your lives as you are planted and built up in him.  He wants you to be firm in your faith in him, because he is the sure hope, the solid ground on which you can base your lives.

Vaya con Dios, peregrino (that’s Spanish for ‘go with God, pilgrim’).  Vaya con Dios.

Why am I a Catholic? A Letter to K

A funny thing happened to me the other day. I got a letter, and I mean a letter, not an email, facebook message or sms, but a real letter with a stamp on it and everything from a twenty-year old.  I know, it floored me too.  And it included a self-addressed stamped envelope and a blank piece of paper so I could reply.  The letter went more or less like this:

Dear Fr Chris, I was wondering if you could do me a huge favour.  If possible could you please respond to the question, ‘why are you Catholic’? on the enclosed paper.  God bless, K

So I hopped onto Facebook to ask K if she would mind if I posted my answer on this blog.  No, I wasn’t oblivious to the irony of that either.  K said it was ok, so here it is:

Dear K,

Thanks for writing to me, it was great to hear from you. And thanks for letting me post my response to your question on this blog.

Why am I a Catholic?

I’m a Catholic because I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is Emmanuel: God with us.

I’m a Catholic because I believe in the God that Jesus Christ reveals to us: a God of unfathomable love, beauty and goodness.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that Jesus also reveals to us what it means to be truly human.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that the Spirit of Jesus has been given to me through baptism.  And as a consequence of the Spirit’s power at work in me, I know, as the deepest truth of my life, that I am so completely loved by God that the only Son of God was crucified for me and rose from the dead so that I might  participate in the very life of God.  This means that I experience myself as forgiven, loved even in my blackest moments.  And it means that I believe I have already begun to share in the Love that is God.

I believe all this because I have discovered an inexpressible joy that bubbles up when I least expect it, a joy that emerges when it should least be present, because it is the joy of knowing that even death has been defeated by the One who was raised from the grave.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that all of what I have described above is possible because of the mediation of the Church.  It is in and through the Church that I have met and continue to meet the risen Jesus.  I experience the saving love of Jesus in her Sacraments and in the Scriptures.  I experience the saving love of Jesus in the witness of those saints present and past, those publicly canonised and those hidden and almost unknown.  In the Church’s prayer and in her action on behalf of the weakest and most vulnerable and rejected members of the human family I meet Jesus the Lord.

I’m a Catholic because the journey is better with friends; in fact they’re indispensable.  Being Catholic means we’re in it together.  And there’s more laughs that way.

I’m a Catholic because Catholicism takes both my brain and my body seriously.  As a Catholic I neither have to leave my mind at the door of the Church nor pretend that I am an angel or merely a spirit.  The Catholic faith has real intellectual depth, and yet it is not a religion of the elite but is good news for those who can become like little children.

The Catholic faith provides the only response to the reality of human suffering that comes close to doing justice to the mystery of human misery that I see in the world. For only Christian faith says that God cared enough about our agony to join us in it. And my faith does justice to my deep sense that such suffering should not be by promising that it will end, for our destiny is a life free from suffering and pain, where every tear will be wiped away.  My Catholic faith commits me to the alleviation of suffering wherever I find it too.

I’m a Catholic because it offers a message of sanity and hope when many are peddling messages that are anti-human and destructive.  I’m a Catholic because our faith tells me that me, you and this world are all fundamentally good, but radically damaged, and that Jesus Christ is the Healer who can return you, me and this world to wholeness and harmony.

I’m a Catholic because I value the teaching office of the Church.  That’s not because I can’t think for myself, but because I trust in the wisdom that has been distilled over two thousand years and because I believe that the Lord promised to continue to guide and care for his Church.

I’m a Catholic because I know that I need to be challenged to truly love others as Jesus has loved me. The teaching of Jesus continually puts forward an ethic of radical loving that is at the same time deeply merciful and compassionate.  Being Catholic means that I am challenged not to be content with mediocrity or superficiality.  God means to make me whole, holy, truly human.  And he won’t be content until I am.

I know too that the Church’s witness to all of this is often disfigured and that her members all too often obscure rather than proclaim the truth of God’s saving love.  I know that I too don’t bear witness to Jesus as faithfully or as fully as I truly desire.  That means that I cannot say that the Church’s failures are simply ‘out there’ , because I fail to love as radically as  the Gospel calls me to too.   The Church has never been completely faithful to her mission to bear witness to Christ.  And so the Church always needs to be renewed through the power of the Spirit.  But I’m convinced that the light of Jesus still shines in and through his Body the Church.

Dear K, I’m a Catholic because the Catholic faith claims that Love is the meaning of the universe.  I find that immensely beautiful… and true.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation in Youth Ministry

Happy Feast of St Jean Marie Vianney.  St Jean Marie spent long hours in the confessional, and so I thought it might be fitting to honour his commitment to the Sacrament of Reconciliation today.  The audio file comes from a workshop that I presented at the Australian National Youth Ministry Convention in October 2010.  The topic was on the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation in youth ministry.

In the workshop I tried to place the Sacrament of Reconciliation within the context of the new evangelisation: the evangelisation of those who have been baptized, but are not committed to their faith or the Church.  I argue that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is an indispensable dimension of our ministry with young people.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is about freedom.  Why don’t you go to the sacrament today?  St Jean Marie Vianney would get a kick out of it.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation in Youth Ministry

Thanks again to XT3 for the file.

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