Q1. What does it mean to you to be Catholic?
Being part of a worldwide family
The majority of both practising Catholics and those on the margins considered themselves to be members of a family or an extended community. This community is both local and universal in scale:
“A worldwide loving, caring and generous community who share their lives with Jesus”
An apostolic Church
For many there is a strong sense that this communion stretches back in time to Christ himself and his Apostles. Critically it is one in which Christ remains active in the Eucharist as well as the Persona Christi of the Priest.
“We are an apostolic Church. This makes Catholics different from other denominations and we should be careful to preserve this as we change in response to new challenges”
Offering support and refuge
The Church gives meaning, structure, support and comfort. It is a way of orienting/navigating and making sense of life and of experiencing the mysteries of life. It is also a means of working out our salvation:
“A significant part of my life. An invitation to daily take part in prayer with the Lord, and reflect on my life to date in a busy and sometimes hostile world.”
“It has been with me and seen me through disappointments and heartaches, good times and bad. In a rapidly changing world it has been my constant stay”
But families are messy
As with every family there are difficulties, failings and scandal which create a sense of shadow. For many, this is often compounded by a lack of understanding of the teachings of the Church and/or guilt about not following the rules.
Diminished sense of safety and welcoming
In recent years, some have even questioned whether the Church is a safe place – for gay people for example, who fear being ostracised. Also, the abuse scandals of recent years, and how they have been dealt with by the hierarchy, add to the uneasiness about safety:
“In adulthood this positive view has been replaced with a more critical view of the Church rooted in perceptions that it is: a) old fashioned/ stuck in its ways/ intransigent and; b) has abused its position. Specific examples cited include failure to ordain women and the shame of paedophilia. One or two go so far as to say that the Church no longer is a place of safety”
Struggle & commitment
Almost all Catholics would acknowledge the failings. However, what distinguishes between those who continue in their practice and those who are now on the margins is their sense of spiritual attachment:
“I don’t agree with all the teachings of the Catholic faith. But I do feel drawn to this Church faith. Although am open minded to the spiritual side”
Q2. What are some of your experiences of the Church doing something well?
The church can be welcoming
For most there is a strong sense that the church can be welcoming of new members and good at making existing parishioners feel welcome. This openness is reflected in growing diversity of our communities.
Good at bringing people together
Historically, the church has been good at fostering a sense of community, togetherness and social connection. For most there is both the solace of prayer and the warmth and friendship from community:
“I went to St James Church in High Wycombe (now closed) and it was so friendly, such a kind and loving Community”
“…….. a happy congregation. Allowing the parishioners to organise events just to spend time together; charitable events; dinners; quizzes, dances and Church Christmas Bazaars……….. There was a good atmosphere”
Some highlighted that this came to the fore during the Coronavirus pandemic during which there was a strong sense of people looking after one another:
“Early in the COVID pandemic, it was good how parishioners arranged telephone calls for people who may feel isolated”
Celebrating the Sacraments is a strength
A great strength of the Church is the provision and celebration of the Sacraments – in particular those Sacraments which only occur once (e.g. Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination, Marriage) and the first occasions (e.g. First Confession, First Holy Communion).
The flexibility and innovation of the Church in adapting during the Coronavirus lockdowns was also praised by some:
“Being considerate of our spiritual needs by offering Live Online Mass and relaxing the rules regarding compulsory Church attendance during lockdown/ restrictions”
In addition, a number of responses highlighted the value and centrality of Confession.
Giving a moral lead
A great strength of the Church is its tradition, Catholic doctrine and its moral authority. The Church is recognised as offering a strong moral lead and using its international stature to address issues such as peace, poverty and abortion. This is the source of another strength of the Church – charity –on a local, national and international scale:
“Managing Charity works efficiently: CAFOD/ Aid to the Church in Need/ fundraising through May Day /Christmas gifts/cards for lonely and housebound”
Speaking with one voice…….
Part of what makes the Church such an effective advocate is that it continues to speak with one voice.
“The Church does well when it speaks with one voice on matters spiritual. Brings relief and comfort to the poor and needy in a practical situation”
Providing examples of holiness
More powerful than any edict, though, are the examples provided by people. There is a strong sense that the Church has always been good at providing inspiration and role models for holiness: individuals living out Christ’s teaching. Pope Francis is widely recognised and perceived as offering a great deal of encouragement as is his championing of the Synod.
“Image of service from the Pope – even my non-Catholic friends are positive about our current Pope”
“The Church stands up for what is right and the Pope is placing very strong emphasis on helping others – particularly the poorest in our world”
Whilst Pope Francis is particularly praised there were many examples cited of individual priests, religious and lay people who serve as role models for service and who have had a great impact on those around them. Volunteers were particularly praised for all they contribute.
Q3. What are some of your experiences of when things have not gone so well?
Maintaining our strong sense of community
While many believe that the Church can be welcoming, there is a growing concern amongst some that the sense of community, belonging and togetherness is now slowly eroding.
“There is a lack of focus on community, connection and belonging. Many people leave because there is no sense of belonging. This is something people crave in the modern world and other denominations do this much better”
“There is less community than there used to be and less emphasis on it. We no longer know one another as parishioners. Priests move around a lot more and don’t get to know the community well and they are less able to gather and keep the community together in the ways that they used to”
There is also a sense that we are not managing our communities well with some highlighting the lack of effective communications and coordination within the parish between priest, Parish Services Team and parishioners:
“Communication. No lead volunteer so limited effort has to be for basic tasks e.g. website updates. No overarching or annual objectives (these have been drawn up, but no volunteer)”
This can be compounded by a lack of continuity in the clergy who have each had different emphases causing confusion and in worst cases has led to upset (e.g. different interpretations on the permitted uses of church buildings under Canon Law leave some to wonder what outreach possibilities we shall have in future).
The impact of coronavirus has been to exacerbate this and to leave some isolated and feeling abandoned.
“Due to the need to isolate, it seems that more people are being pushed to the margins – unable to come to mass and participate in church events; some can participate online (but need to be acknowledged in the mass); others with no internet have less access to the parish community”
Failing in key parts of the mission
There is a sense that the Church is failing in some key aspects of its mission: teaching, pastoral care, stewardship. Many highlight that the teachings of the Church are increasingly not heard or well understood and there is a need to think through how to do this more effectively. In addition, it was felt that the importance of Our Lady was not communicated effectively to non-Catholics.
“Sometimes, Clergy has not shown the courage to proclaim the Gospel (undiluted) to the faithful (Church comers) out of the fear of losing the numbers of Church attendees. There seems to be a half-heartedness to proclaim 1 Cor. 6:9-10; thereby not warning the congregation of the danger of eternal damnation losing them forever”
“The Church needs to help people to not go astray – lots of people have lapsed because they don’t know the Church’s teaching”
Also highlighted is the reduction in pastoral care which is due to cuts in the capacity for outreach and evangelisation.
Finally, there is frustration with the relationship with the Diocese. There is a perception amongst some of highhandedness and a lack of effective listening that has made people lack confidence in parish, diocesan and Church consultations.
There is also feeling that past methods used by the Diocese to appoint contractors, to do church and school building work, without getting several quotes and written agreement have led to a waste of resources.
There is also a perception of a lack of engagement and support in key areas:
“In 20 years there were very few visits from NORES unless for specific reasons – e.g. the hiring of a new head. Certainly, it was felt that the diocese did not have a great interest in the running of the school” (from an ex-governor).
Out of step:
Many highlight that the Church is out of step with modern life in its teaching on contraception, divorce and remarriage, LGBTQ+ and the role of women in the Church. There is a widespread belief that the way the Church deals with these issues is uncaring and inconsistent. The current approach is perceived by most to represent a significant failure of imagination that is threatening the long term future of the Church itself.
“Where Jesus was loving and forgiving, understanding and insightful, the Parishes in High Wycombe and the Church in general can be anything but. The Church’s rules on contraception and divorce are harsh and uncaring. Their behaviour towards women is outmoded and disrespectful.”
“Not everyone feels welcome and included – e.g. divorced people or gay people. The ethical framework appears to be out of step with the teaching of the Church – insufficiently grounded in love and forgiveness. This is driving away many people directly and indirectly – “it almost drove me away”
Several people have mentioned that they feel as if the Church is going back to Pre-Vatican II days.
Pain of scandals and the undermining of Church credibility
There remains horror and revulsion about the child abuse scandal. This has constituted a serious breach of trust for some in both the Church and clergy. Moreover, there remain concerns for a few that the Church has not yet done everything it can/ needs to/ could do to address these problems and support victims, and more openness, transparency and communication is needed.
Q4. What are our dreams for the Church?
Welcoming & inclusive, relatable
The desire for our churches to be fuller is almost universally shared.
This will be enabled by greater inclusiveness and relatability. This does not mean condoning sin but will require much greater focus by leaders on discerning how to “work in the world” without compromising our moral beliefs. It will necessitate having a more empathetic approach and looking for solutions in a collaborative way. Many practising and lapsed Catholics hoped the Church would change its teaching regarding contraception, divorce and re-marriage.
“Keeping pace with the changes in society. Ensuring that everyone knows they are welcome in church and won’t be judged”
“Understanding the messiness of life and help to bring people back into Christ’s footsteps. When people see us differently, they will see the relevance of our Church to the world”
The Church will bring down obstacles and increase the path of love – making sacraments available where people are entitled to have them and assisting on how to be allowed to receive the Sacraments if people cannot currently receive them.
Most believe that this approach is completely consistent with Christ’s teaching. However, it requires more listening, dialogue and greater imagination on behalf of the leadership of the Church.
“Listen to the people that comprise the Church far more, reaching out to all Catholics. Make the Church truly follow Jesus’s teachings on being tolerant, forgiving, non-judgemental, accepting and loving. No one should feel estranged and unworthy.”
“G K Chesterton said, “There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something better tomorrow”. We just need to take the medicine.”
More vibrant communities with sacraments as a well-spring
A welcoming and inclusive Church is understood by many to be the cornerstone of thriving communities:
“I hope that our church in the parish will be a thriving community again where all people that will come to worship, be accepted as they are; so be an inclusive church not one that discriminates, alienates people and excludes some”
“Our churches would be more open – open the doors and welcome people in”
Specifically, many parishioners would like to see more efforts to include the divorced and remarried and the gay community.
Most people would like to see a more vibrant and active form of community that gets out into society.
At the heart of parish life will be the Sacraments and there is a strongly expressed desire for more availability of the churches and greater centrality of sacramental life– open for prayer, open for silence, open for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, open for the Sacraments during the day (e.g. Confession).
“The Sacraments are the life-blood of the Church and Catholics need to be taught about the Sacraments throughout their lives – respect for the Eucharist, how to use the Sacrament of Confession and Sacrament of the Sick”
Living the word – orthopraxy
There is a strong appetite for our communities to become places where we live out our commitment to God together. In this regard the first church offers a role model for many:
“Be a worshipping community like the first Catholic community: faithful, upright, bold, righteous, filled with the Holy Spirit”
There is also strong sense that we must become communities of practices not just communities of belief.
“The Church should focus on orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy: Right doing and right living is as important as right believing. It should focus on works as well as belief, service and care for others are key parts of Jesus’ teaching”
Critical in this regard will be finding practical ways to support one another.
“Helping each other as a community in practical ways at both the parish and Diocesan level e.g. parishioners offering advice to one another or the Catholic Church setting up a bank”
Life-long learning about faith
There is also strong appetite to get to know God better and to always be trying to deepen our relationship with Him and introduce Him to others. To do this we will need to foster a culture of ongoing education and invest in resources and new ways of speaking:
“To maybe move forward a bit with the times and talk of modern day miracles as well as the historical ones”
The importance of education for children and support for young people was consistently highlighted. In particular, there is strong appreciation of the importance of giving them the foundations for a relationship with God and the world:
“Children should be taught to pray in different ways (not just by rote) including contemplation and meditation so that they are used to listening to God”
“Greater provision for younger people who are the future of the Church. In particular, a focus on cementing links with schools and on supporting young people as they transition out of the school environment with tangible support drawing on the chaplaincy model in universities”
Taking the mission to the world – working with other denominations and faiths
A greater understanding of our faith is essential so people can engage with confidence with the world around us.
There is a strong desire for the church to be active in the world. Most share the dream that the church will be much better at getting the message of God’s love out and supporting people with the struggles of living in a modern society.
In this regard there is a strong desire for us to be a more ecumenical church, one in which we are working with and reaching out to other faiths. For most, this is the logical conclusion of a belief that we are all God’s children and that by cooperating we can have greater impact – making things better at a local, national and international level.
“One God, one Truth, a united front for all Christian Churches, standing on different ladders but all looking above for salvation and fulfilment. Amen”
More leadership roles
All of this requires more leadership and the Church needs to be imaginative in embracing the leadership potential of both women and young people, helping the latter to continue to be engaged and more developed in their faith.
There is a strong desire for more involvement for women in leading the Church. Although it may take time we should move towards growing the role of women – allowing women to preach, become permanent deacons and, ultimately become priests. This also reflects the reality on the ground that the majority of churchgoers are women.
“We were all baptised as priests, prophets and kings – women as well as men”.
I realise that some parts of this report might be quite upsetting and frustrating to deal with. There are some statements that strongly clash with our faith, but there are some excellent ones too.
Please do not hesitate to contact me and to let me know your thoughts.
With every blessing. Fr Benedetto