A short conversation I had with Ben Trovato and JH Steelson on Twitter led to my rash promise to think about how I might articulate a growing conviction that there is a huge gap which Catholics in England and Wales are not filling, and that is using the public square for evangelisation. The conviction arose when I read something I have not looked at for many years: the Handbook of the Catholic Evidence Guild, published in 1922; and realised that then as now, there weren’t enough priests to take the Gospel everywhere that it needed to be taken, and that properly formed lay people were more than capable of bringing non-Catholics to the point where they would seek instruction from a priest.
I am talking about a specific mission: ordinary Catholics going out among their ordinary non-Catholic fellow citizens and proclaiming God’s Truth. I’m not talking about those who engage in the media representing the Church’s position on issues of the day; I am not addressing the continuing formation of Catholics from cradle to grave; I am not talking about social activism, from SVP-type provision of the necessities of life to those in need at one end, to the silent witness outside abortariums at the other. All of these are special and necessary missions, but do not address the issue of converting our fellow citizens.
This mission was described by an early leader of the Catholic Evidence, who also drew on a quotation from Blessed John Henry Newman, as follows:
“The work done by the Guild is based upon a series of discoveries; that the work is no degradation for the educated Catholic but a great honour and privilege, as well as a grace from God; that, cæteris paribus, the mere fact of being a Catholic gives an enormous intellectual advantage over other religionists, and that this is recognised by the crowd; that the capacity of the average Catholic for the exposition of his religion is far greater than has hitherto been supposed, when he is carefully prepared along certain lines, and well supported and led; that the crowds will take our best and be grateful for it and ask for more; that, as Catholics are compelled to give an account of the faith that is in them, it is better to take the initiative than to remain permanently on the defensive; these are some few of the discoveries already made in connection with the work, and it is clear that many others have yet to be made, for the work is still young, is highly experimental throughout and is pushing ahead rapidly.
The question then is, will the Catholic laity rise to the height of their great opportunity?
‘There is a time for silence and a time to speak; the time for speaking has come. What I desiderate in Catholics is the gift of bringing out what their religion is; it is one of those ‘better gifts’ of which the apostle bids you be 'zealous’. You must not hide your talent in a napkin, or your light under a bushel. I want a laity not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well instructed laity. I am not denying you are such already, but I mean to be severe and, as some would say, exorbitant in my demands. I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and truths of Catholicism and where lie the main inconsistencies and absurdities of the Protestant theory … You ought to be able to bring out what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it; to expose to the comprehension of others the fictions and fallacies of your opponents and to explain the charges brought against the Church to the satisfaction, not indeed of bigots, but of men of sense of whatever opinion ... He who can realise the law of moral conflicts, and the incoherence of falsehood, and the issue of perplexities, and the end of all things, and the presence of the judge, becomes, from the very necessity of the case, philosophical, long suffering, and magnanimous.’ ”
My contention is that in the twenty-first century this is still a mission for lay people: to persuade other lay people that it is time they went to a priest for instruction; that the Internet, rather than the street corner, is the place this should take place; that the work should be as organised and prepared as was that of the Catholic Evidence Guild; and that while there are lay people out there who could organise this work and prepare other lay people to carry it out, there are no structures in place to make this happen and that in consequence, many people in ignorance are being left in ignorance, and many who should be carrying out this work are not doing so.
What was the thinking behind the Guild?
“The Guild was founded at a meeting held on the 24th April, 1918, in the Westminster Cathedral Hall. For some months the question of combined action to combat the public advocacy of unbelief had been ventilated by a number of active minds. As an example of the lines upon which the discussion was conducted the following passages may be taken from an article entitled "Is Park preaching Practical?" by Mgr (then Father) Coote in the Westminster Cathedral Chronicle for April 1918 :
‘Good Catholics are so wrapt up in their religion that they seem to be oblivious of the fact that those who profess a different form of Christianity are not equally engrossed with it The religion of these consists for the most part in no definite dogmatic teaching - it is little more than a Sunday overall of Christian respectability. But that, again, is speaking of a comparative few, for there are hundreds of thousands to whom Religion means absolutely nothing, albeit there is deep down within them that innate consciousness of a Supreme Being. No doubt it is this subconscious need of religion that renders them so susceptible to giving a ready ear to any good discussion of religious matters. For the fact remains that vast numbers in the parks, and on the commons demonstrate at least their interest in such discussions.
The park is the free platform for all forms of belief as well as for undisguised disbelief. So free indeed, that the law permits Christ's Sacred Name to be mentioned in ridicule and mockery, to be put in odious comparison, or His earthly life to be counterbalanced against mortal living men.
What I feel to be the need of the times therefore is a well organised Catholic Christian Evidence Society, Guild, or Circle, for men and women, that will state and explain, not exactly and solely Catholic practice and discipline, but the principles of Christianity as set forth in Catholic Theology, Philosophy and Ethics, ready to go forth with a stream of trained speakers week after week, not out for petty controversy but to unfold the wealth of Catholic Christian principles in their hearts and on their lips.’ ”
Would anybody disagree that there is equal need today?
There was a singular difference between then and now: in 1920 Bishops saw the conversion of non-Catholics as one of their primary missions, and welcomed the support of the laity in this apostolate. As Cardinal Bourne said when conferring canonical status on the Guild:
“People may ask you - some have asked the question already: By what authority do you lay-folk stand up on the public platform to expound the truths of the Catholic faith, who sent you? By whose authority do you speak? What is your mission? What is your commission? How, in other words, do you justify your existence as members of the Catholic Evidence Guild? Well, there is only one form in which you can justify your existence canonically, and that is in the position of Catechists. That is the method which has been used all over the world in the missionary countries where the Bishops and priests have found themselves quite unable to deal with the work of gathering into the Church those who are not members of it, and so, universally, in purely missionary countries they take to themselves a certain number of men and women who have been instructed for that purpose, who, in virtue of a commission given to them by the Bishop, then go forth to instruct And we are applying m our modern conditions the old, old method of the Church The members of this Guild must never forget that their position is that of lay auxiliaries called in by the Bishop of the diocese to help him to preach the Gospel to those who without their help would be beyond the reach of his teaching. Thus the position to which the members of the Catholic Evidence Guild are called is a very noble and a very apostolic one. Every Bishop has an immense number of people in his diocese who are members of his flock, but who are not Catholics. He is bound by his pastoral charge to do what he can in order to preach the Gospel to them and to save their souls. He calls to his aid, therefore, a number of the laity, that they may aid him in this part of the work committed to his charge, which he is unable to do in any other way.
And this leads me to the Catholic Evidence Guild as existing in this diocese. In order to make the position clear, as far as the work lies in the diocese of Westminster, you will be known as the Westminster Diocesan Catechists. that is the sub-title which will justify your existence. It is a work -which must be carried on in absolute subordination to the Bishop of each diocese. You speak in virtue of his commission, and in each diocese this commission must be given solely by the Bishop of that diocese.”
All of this raises several questions which I believe warrant further discussion, always assuming that, like me, you see a need, and a lack of response to that need.
Where on the internet is the public space into which we can push ourselves to proclaim the teachings of Christ’s Church to those who have not heard it elsewhere?
How does who gather together a cadre of people able to train a greater number of people to go out into that space to evangelise those who are there?
How do we persuade a Bishop (who is the Bishop of Cyberspace?) not just to issue a nihil obstat, but to support, encourage and sponsor such a mission?
We are enjoined to make disciples of all nations. What should we do if nobody else is doing it here?