My dear brothers and sisters,
The Christmas celebration reminds us that Christianity lies at the foundation of our nation’s life. And yet, we are also aware that, of those 72 per cent of British people who declare themselves as “Christian,” so many are no longer actively part of a church or share a living faith. We see the Christian foundations of our society being challenged as never before, whether on questions concerning the sanctity of human life or the very identity of marriage.
Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, invites us to respond to this challenging situation by nothing less than a New Evangelisation. This may seem a surprising phrase; it evokes the “first evangelisation” which continues both at home and overseas where the Gospel is announced for the first time. What, then, is new about the New Evangelisation? It speaks to a new situation, the one we often meet today in our families, parishes and society. One Archbishop of Paris famously asked to be reminded – whenever he was in a crowded church – of the many people who were not there. At Christmas time, we cannot fail to think of many people who received the great inheritance of the Christian faith, but in whom “the light of faith has grown dim” (Pope Benedict XVI, Closing Homily Synod of Bishops, 28th October 2012).
The need to announce anew our Catholic faith in Christ does not mean that the past work of our parishes has failed. New Evangelisation recognises that, together, we face a changed situation, one which demands a new response from us all. The Second Vatican Council, meeting 50 years ago, drew attention to the fact that most people would only hear the Gospel and know the Catholic Church through the members of Christ’s faithful whom they meet. In other words, each one of you listening to my letter today! I am often reminded of this in conversations with people outside the Church who immediately tell me of the Catholics they themselves know. The New Evangelisation involves us all.
Blessed John Paul spoke of New Evangelisation as being new in its ardour, new in its methods and new in its means of expression. It is no coincidence that he spoke first of a “new ardour”, which means a renewed love for Christ and His Church. New Evangelisation begins in our hearts, because without such love there will be no new energy to bring others to know Christ. The Catechism puts this very simply:
“from the loving knowledge of Christ there springs up in the believer the desire to evangelise and catechise, that is, to reveal in the Person of Christ the entire design of God and put people in communion with him” (Compendium of the Catechism n. 80).
So, New Evangelisation is not primarily about having new plans or new strategies. New Evangelisation flows from renewed love, which in turn leads us to seek new ways of giving expression to our Catholic faith, new methods by which to communicate to our contemporaries the unchanging Gospel, the faith of the Church in all its fullness. As I look to the years ahead as your bishop I realise this is no small task. Pope Benedict describes this as:
“the urgent need to proclaim Christ anew in places where the light of faith has weakened, in places where the fire of God is more like smouldering cinders, crying out to be stirred up, so that they can become a living flame that gives light and heat to the whole house” (Closing Homily Synod of Bishops, 28th October 2012).
In the Diocese, we are setting up new commissions, and organising courses and conferences to help us meet this challenge. I realise, however, that what matters most is the influence of the lives of each one of you, and how you give witness to your Catholic faith amidst the difficult circumstances of our time. This must surely begin with prayer, much prayer. Indeed, Our Lord reminds us on this First Sunday of Advent, “stay awake, praying at all times …” (Luke 24:34).
It is why, since becoming your bishop, I have emphasised the need to put prayer first. The prayer card for the Year of Faith reminds us that the New Evangelisation begins in prayer.
At the time of year which stirs the embers of the memory of Christian faith in our country, we desire that all may come to know the light of the “Saviour who has been born to us: he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2: 11).
Wishing you the joy of Advent and a truly happy Christmas,
Bishop of Shrewsbury
Prayer for the New Evangelization
Gracious and loving God, you have, in words of Pope Benedict XVI, “touched our hearts with your word and with your Spirit, calling us to faith and to communion in the Church.”
As we receive these gifts with joy, make us active agents of the New Evangelization, handing on to others that which we have received.
Help us to take seriously the call to carry the Good News of your Son, Jesus Christ, into the world today through our words and through our actions.
Give us the grace and courage to “respond with generosity and holiness to the calls and challenges of our time.”
Inspire us with the words we need to invite and to welcome people who are searching for you.
Make us authentic witnesses of your love to every person that we meet.
We ask this through Christ, Our Lord, Amen.