This month's talk was given by Bishop Mark Davies, Bishop of Shrewsbury, on the topic of Dignitatis Humanae - The 2nd Vatican Council document on religious freedom.
Bishop Davies' talk was, as I have already mentioned, inspiring, and I came away with a great deal of things whirring around my mind. One particular aspect came out during the short group discussion following the talk that I have been considering in more depth; it is perhaps best to phrase this as a question:
What are the challenges facing the Church in its role of
protecting and spreading the faith in the world?
This is a poorly paraphrased version of one of the questions Bishop Davies asked us to think about in our groups following his talk. I do not claim to have all (or indeed any) of the answers to this question, but it is one that the Church must be constantly asking within itself. The more we discussed this the more the idea came out that this question is becoming more and more pertinent in today's world - the challenges seem more serious than many that have come before and, most worryingly, far more widespread. In particular we noted challenges such as decreasing numbers of practicing Catholics, more casual sexual morals, increasing abortion rates and the push to legalise same-sex 'marriage'.
The challenges we noted seemed to fall into two categories: Firstly there was the problem of people loosing their identity as Christians and falling away from God and secondly there were those problems which seemed to stem from a societal loss of identity as a Christian country. The two seem to be similar in regards to an 'identity' but vastly different in scale.
We discussed various ways of approaching the challenges we had noted, and covered a range of possibilities from Prayer (always useful) to some frankly right-wing political approaches to controlling Society's religious expression (obviously not in any seriousness) and while we were able to agree on what would not be constructive, we were unable to reach anything close to a consensus on possible solutions.
As I thought more about the two problems on the drive home it occurred that there is no quick solution to either problem, but rather that they might be seen together and dealt with slowly.
The Church does not have the direct political weight it once had. This is largely down to the advent of democracy in the western world and, whilst not necessarily a bad thing, means that statements by the Archbishop of Westminster and the Bishop's Conference can simply be ignored by politicians if they so choose. I believe the Bishops should certainly continue making these statements publically but perhaps they should also use their influence over the Catholic population to exert a political pressure - how would politicians react if the Archbishops of Westminster and Canterbury made a joint statement asking Catholics and Anglicans to not vote for a party which advocates same-sex marriage (in essence to make a 'protest vote', as all three major parties support the legislation)? Of course many would ignore the Archbishops' request - but if only 10% did as they were asked, what would the effect be on the general election results? Could the politicians ignore this effect?
But I digress; the Bishops could use their influence in a far more fundamental way, by encouraging people to be active witnesses to their faith in their day-to-day lives. I am ashamed to say that there are times when I have had the opportunity to share the moral teaching of the Church, and my own strongly-held views, but have remained silent out of fear of derision. This has become incredibly widespread - Catholics are worried about displaying their faith outwardly as this can, today and in this country, lead to accusations of being against the secular norm, which can in serious cases lead to disciplinary action in one's job or even court actions. If every Christian practised and witnessed to their faith every day, in every action, then there would be a fundamental shift in society away from the secular, ultra-inclusive, direction and back towards a country built on sound morals and natural law. Such a change is not going to happen overnight, and will not come about through the action of one person; whether he is a layman, a priest or even a bishop; it must come from a concerted effort to encourage every Christian in the country to take up the vocation of their baptism in a very real way.
I read an article recently (unfortunately I cannot find it again to give the author credit) which contained a proposal that falling attendance to church was down to Catholics lacking an identity. The author posed the question 'how does one recognise a(nother) Catholic?' This is a wonderful question and can be extended to include the word 'Christian' in place of 'Catholic'. There are dozens of things which have been done in the past which have fallen out of use; for example: saying the phrase 'God rest him/her' after using a dead person's name; making the sign of the cross as a hearse passes by, or before a meal; stopping to say the Angelus at noon; the list goes on. The re-emphasis (or perhaps re-introduction) of the Friday fast by the Bishops' Conference is a good example of how this can be done, but, whilst not aiming to laud the practice over others, perhaps the laity should be encouraged to explain why they fast on Fridays to those who ask. By encouraging simple devotions and practices the article suggests that Catholicism (again 'Christianity' could be substituted to a similar end) would become more recognisable and 'main-stream', rather than being a hushed thing people do just for an hour on Sundays. This in turn would lead to people asking more in depth questions about the faith and returning to or discovering the Church (and more importantly, Christ) for the first time.
What started as a simple post about 2nd Friday has stretched into something far more. I will proof-read what I have written, but will try not to make too many changes; my apologies if I have rambled at times, but as I said, I do not intend to give answers, just observations from my current point of view.