U.K. Catholics Home for Christmas

Interview With Bishop McMahon of Nottingham

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By Dominic Baster

LONDON, DEC. 13, 2007 (Zenit.org ).- A new campaign is being launched in England and Wales to encourage lapsed members of the Church to come home for Christmas.

"Where Are They Now?" is an initiative launched in September by the Catholic Agency to Support Evangelization (CASE) to encourage parishes to reach out to Catholics who no longer or rarely attend Mass.

The initiative aims to equip Catholics to extend an invitation to those who for various reasons have stopped attending Church. It is recognized that the reality of a significant number of baptized who rarely attend Church is a long-standing part of Catholic culture. The project aims to address this and will culminate with a national media campaign during Advent called Come Home for Christmas.

In this interview with ZENIT, Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham, chairman of the Department for Evangelization and Catechesis for the bishops of England and Wales, discusses why Catholics lapse, and how a welcoming attitude can help them rediscover the "priceless treasure" that is their faith.

Q: In your experience, what are the main reasons why Catholics lapse from the practice of their faith?

Bishop McMahon: The reasons are many and varied, but I think one of the principal causes is pressure from society as a whole, which has led to the breakdown of family life. Many more people in England and Wales live on their own as compared to previous decades; they have moved away from family for work and have become very isolated. As a result, ties with their local parish can become weak or completely break down.

Another element is the rise in secularism. There are many activities undertaken on weekends which take people away from regular Church attendance, and social pressures can result in people no longer going to Mass. I don't think there is a widespread lack of spirituality in the lives and hearts of people -- it is more the case that societal pressures have begun to dictate weekly timetables.

Q: Have the reasons changed in the last 40 years, over which time Mass attendance figures have fallen in England and Wales quite markedly?

Bishop McMahon: The reasons for lapsing have probably changed. Forty years ago people perhaps didn't go to Church because of laziness -- or a loss of understanding as to the way in which God works in our lives. This second reason might have come about because of a personal tragedy. During and after World War II, for example, some people felt that God had deserted them and that he therefore didn't exist.

Meanwhile, others made a conscious and conscientious decision in response Church teaching documents; for them, their reasons for lapsing were thought-out.

The modern-day factors which lead people to give up going to Church are less identifiable and more due to social pressures. For example, some were baptized but never really went to Mass after that, others have drifted away during teenage years; and some may have been hurt by something said to them; or feel ashamed because of a life circumstance.

Contemporary reasons for lapsing are diverse, and we've tried to show an appreciation of that in the tailor-made Web site www.comehomeforchristmas.co.uk for lapsed Catholics that we have recently created.

Q: Research has suggested that 3 million people in England and Wales would come to church if invited. What factors have led to a reticence among churchgoing Catholics to extend that invitation?

Bishop McMahon: Lack of certainty about their faith would be key. Many Catholics lack the confidence to share their faith because they feel that they don't have enough head knowledge about it. For others, they fear issuing an invitation in case they are considered old-fashioned or out of step with modern trends. Unfortunately, declaring that you are a churchgoer is not necessarily the "done thing."

There is also a fear of rejection -- that people may label you a religious fanatic if you start inviting people to Church. These fears and feelings are understandable, but we have to go beyond them and pray for the courage respectfully to invite people as opportunities arise. It is no coincidence that it says 365 times in the Scripture, "Do not be afraid."

Q: The secularization of society has meant that many people, including cradle Catholics, no longer feel a need of God. How can the Church reach out to them?

Bishop McMahon: The reason that people feel that they have no need of God is because they believe that consumerism provides for all their needs. Some feel that they don't need God because they have everything already. God as the true "giver of all good things" has no place in a consumerist society.

As a Church, we can reach out to such people by being there for them when they realize that this is not the case. When they realize that they are more than flesh and blood, this is where the Church can be the bearer of the fullness of life. Often this opportunity arises when people experience a moment of crisis. During these times people give more thought to their lives and reflect on the big questions about meaning and purpose. The Church has to be there to help provide them with answers; this is one of our main missions.

Of course, we also have work to create a parish environment that is welcoming and inviting. We need to communicate the fact that we will never reject people and that the door is open to everyone.

Essentially the Catholic Community has to understand that unless it can engage with society and help it develop a moral basis, we will not be able to present an image of Christianity which affects people in their daily lives.

An important part of the remit of our national evangelization agency is to support the Catholic community in this task. During the four years since its launch, a large number of resources have been created and events organized to help enthuse, engage and equip them for what the late Pope John Paul II called the "New Evangelization." This is a re-proclamation of the message of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church to all peoples in a way that is sensitive to their culture and unique spiritual journey.

Q: What do you say to those who blame certain Church teachings for turning them away from the Church?

Bishop McMahon: Rest assured that every Catholic, at one time or another, searches and struggles with aspects of the Gospel and the Church's teaching. You are not alone. The Gospel is radical and extremely challenging to live out. However, through our struggles and during moments of prayer, the God of truth reveals himself to us. God reveals himself to us in the struggle so that we are able to find the truth in our lives. In light of this, I'd suggest that the emphasis shouldn't be blame, but more that we all have a duty and responsibility to support one another in the various difficulties that we face.

Q: How can the Church speak in a language that a post-Christian liberal society can understand?

Bishop McMahon: The place to start is always where the person is and in their personal journey. If we reflect on the example of Jesus in the Gospels, this is precisely what he did. It is the responsibility of the Church to grapple with and understand the language of the day. In this way we can learn how to speak it, so that the Gospel can be effectively translated into a language which touches the heart of every human person. This is something that our national Catholic Enquiry Office tries to do daily through its Web site www.life4seekers.co.uk and through dealing with phone call inquiries, e-mails and letters from a wide variety of people.

Q: What do you hope the Come Home for Christmas campaign with achieve?

Bishop McMahon: I hope that it will show that the Church continues to be a place of welcome, where all people who have drifted away from the Church, for whatever reason, will find familiar surroundings. I hope that they receive the clear message that they matter, not just to themselves, but also to God and the whole Christian community.

If this initiative results in increased church attendance, all the better, but at a basic level the aim of the campaign is to bring people to a greater awareness of God's love and mercy in their lives -- and to a place where they can rediscover that these priceless treasures can be found in their fullness in Catholicism.