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Remembering the Gospel in England

Interview With Director of British Evangelization Agency

LONDON, MAY 21, 2007 (Zenit) - A new report on church attendance in the United Kingdom suggests that many Britons have no connection with organized religion, and that the majority of those who identify themselves as Christian never go to Church.

The Christian relief and development agency Tearfund released the report "Churchgoing in the U.K." in April, which revealed that more than half of those polled claim to be Christians.

Monsignor Keith Barltrop, director of the Catholic Agency to Support Evangelization (CASE) of the bishops' conference of England and Wales, tells us in this interview that the key to successful evangelization in the modern world is renewing a sense of confidence among Catholics in their faith.

Q: How did the decision by the bishops of England and Wales to establish CASE three years ago herald a change in the way the Church engages with evangelization?

Monsignor Barltrop: First of all, the decision to establish CASE heralded a recognition by the bishops that there was already a certain amount happening at grass roots level in England and Wales regarding evangelization, but it needed more official support and coordination if the challenges of 21st century Britain were to be met.

When the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, asked me to help in setting up CASE, he told me that we needed to look at such new ecclesial movements and distil the secrets of their success into the mainstream of parish life, so that evangelization would no longer be a foreign, or even an embarrassing, concept to Catholics, but something they felt happy to engage in.

The bishops were thus trying to root in English and Welsh soil the understanding that Pope John Paul II gave the universal church -- that the time has come for a new evangelization. By that he meant that secularization had made such inroads into what were once Christian societies that the Church needed a new ardor and new methods in evangelization.

Q: What are the biggest obstacles to evangelization in Europe today?

Monsignor Barltrop: The biggest obstacles are sheer ignorance or "forgetting" of the Gospel, and the fact that many people who think they know what Christianity means actually have a distorted and woefully incomplete picture.

The "forgetfulness" of Christianity -- summed up in the well-known saying that "God is missing but not missed" -- is a phenomenon with a complex origin. In the 20th century the twin disasters of Communism and Fascism led people to become profoundly disillusioned with all attempts to explain and save the world. People have now become consumers of spirituality and religion, as they are of material products, and Catholic truth itself can become one more lifestyle option among others.

This problem is compounded by the way values of Christian origin -- such as justice, equality and human rights -- have become detached from their Christian roots and are now even being turned against the Church, so that the very proclamation of the truth is seen as somehow oppressive and destructive of human freedom and happiness. In such a world it becomes difficult to avoid the impression that evangelization is about clever manipulation of the truth or, even worse, associated with that fundamentalism which the modern world both fears and is, paradoxically, responsible for.

Q: Why is it often difficult to engage Catholics with the need to support evangelization?

Monsignor Barltrop: In Britain, one of the main factors is that evangelization is associated with a certain kind of Protestantism, or with related images such as people preaching aggressively on street corners and "televangelists" looking for money.

By making known a variety of Catholic methods of evangelization, and especially by associating it with the Eucharist and Eucharistic adoration, CASE tries to get across the message that there is a Catholic way of evangelizing.

There is also the problem that evangelization is seen as the preserve of specialists, but we want Catholics to see that it is fundamentally about living and sharing their faith in everyday life, with the people they meet at home, in the office or in their neighborhood.

This means Catholics need to recover a sense of confidence in their faith, and to see it as something coherent -- nothing less than the splendor which radiates meaning to every corner of the universe. Where there has been poor catechesis, liturgical deformation or a false understanding of ecumenism or interfaith work, Catholics lose the sense that the Gospel is a marvelous treasure that all need to hear.

Q: A report released recently by Tearfund on church attendance in the United Kingdom found that, while 53% of adults still claim to be Christian, only 15% attend church at least once a month. How do you explain this discrepancy?

Monsignor Barltrop: I think that by claiming to be Christian, people are saying they want to be associated with Christian values such as kindness, fairness and compassion. Obviously that is an inadequate understanding of Christian identity, which is actually based on faith in Christ leading to a personal relationship with him which can only be real if it is rooted in active membership of his body, the Church.

However, it does constitute a reminder to the Church that there is more good will and openness to the Christian faith in our society than we might think. It is up to us to find creative ways of engaging with whatever spiritual quest such people are on, however inadequate we judge its basis to be.

Q: How can the Church re-engage people with the Gospel who may never have encountered it?

Monsignor Barltrop: Through a change of mentality where we see ourselves as having something of immense value to offer everyone in our society, and through more imaginative methods.

As an example, I have just come back from a "Christian Spirituality Fair" in one of our Anglican cathedrals, at which I joined the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in blessing animals -- and people -- and in explaining the cross of San Damiano which spoke to St. Francis. We joined Christians of other denominations in reaching out to passers-by, yet were very clear about our Catholic faith and way of life. We have to believe fully in what Pope Paul VI called "the divine power of the message the Church proclaims," and look for creative ways to bring it to non-Christians.

Q: In the three years since the launch of CASE, what have been its main achievements? Is the model of CASE in England and Wales one that could and should be used elsewhere?

Monsignor Barltrop: One of our main achievements has been setting up two Web sites, one for Catholics (www.caseresources.org.uk), and one to interest non-Catholics in the faith (www.life4seekers.co.uk) -- with a third Web site for young teenagers on the way. Through these sites we have been able to identify or create opportunities to get the good news into the public square. For example, this year on Valentine's Day we promoted St. Raphael as our "heavenly helper" in finding a suitable life partner, and this attracted a huge number of hits and interest from the secular and Catholic media.

We have held many training days in dioceses, published many resources -- both printed and online -- and have produced a Directory of Evangelization Resources for Catholics in England and Wales, listing all the groups, movements and training opportunities available. It runs to 168 pages, which is encouraging in itself.

Whether we are a model that should be used elsewhere is hard to say. Setting up an agency is a pragmatic approach which fits well with British culture since an agency implies doing something practical. Other countries may already have a lot of evangelization going on and need a more theologically based approach.

New evangelization is for the whole Church but the approach varies from culture to culture. One thing is constant, though, as Pope John Paul II wrote: "Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, they must proclaim him" ("Novo Millennio Ineunte," 40).

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