The work of the Diocesan Evangelisation Team
The diocesan evangelisation team comprising; Fr Jon Bielawski, episcopal vicar for evangelisation, catechesis and schools; Michele Thompson (Plymouth and Cornwall) Terry Danes (Exeter, Torbay and Devon) and Maria Armitage (Poole and Dorset) have been working together for 12 months, since Bishop Mark announced the formation of a new evangelisation department at the “Gather” Conference in March 2015.
In the year that the programme has been running, thirty three parishes have engaged and over four hundred delegates who with growing confidence witness to their faith as a normal part of daily life. Parish teams are inspired and motivated to maximise opportunities within the parish as well as proactively reaching out to the lapsed and unchurched.
Many churches have been holding special evening events centred around exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, with teams on the street inviting passers- by inside to light a candle and say a prayer. Hundreds of people have been encouraged to enter, some for the very first time. Members of the teams are inside to talk quietly and pray with those who request it. It is an emotional but rewarding experience for so many.
Other parishes have been visiting door to door in their local area with a personal belief survey in order to encourage faith conversations. For many behind the doors, it is the first time they have had the opportunity to explore their own thoughts about the existence of God. Teams are trained to listen and not to impose. Many times during these encounters people share something of their situation. Through listening and silent prayer, team members are often able to sensitively and appropriately offer comfort through the Gospels and will offer hope by praying with them there and then.
Some parishes have been doing home visits to people that have been through RCIA but have not been at Mass for some time. They have learned that there are many reasons why people lapse. One lady simply couldn’t get a lift anymore and the team were easily able to remedy this.
Earlier this year Plymouth Cathedral parish organised a community litter picking event. They used the opportunity to encourage parishioners and non- church going local people to come together, forging relationships and to discuss what it is to have faith.
At Easter team members from Falmouth and Plymouth went into the town and on the Hoe respectively, offering palm crosses. It was a great opportunity to explain the meaning of Easter and the gospel story. And at Christmas in Falmouth team members manned the outdoor Nativity scene offering an orange or a mince pie to passers- by, encouraging them to take a closer look, light a candle and discuss the scene. There were many opportunities to pray spontaneously as the scene often evokes memories of lost loved ones
Many parishes now have facebook pages and good working websites. Others are looking to produce or revisit their welcome packs, particularly with a view to provide language translations. More than this though, every team member is extra vigilant to welcome newcomers or to make a point of speaking to someone after Mass whom they have never spoken before.
After the initial 6 week formation, teams usually meet once a month. Time is always spent before the Blessed Sacrament either at the beginning or before everyone departs. A big part of the meeting is given over to testimony of personal encounter. Those present recount how they have stepped out in some small way to give witness to their faith since the last meeting. For example a team member was asked at work why he always refuses meat on a Friday and he, with some trepidation, took courage and told his colleagues of many years that he is a Catholic Christian. Many questions ensued and he was able to explain some of our church teachings and Gospel messages. This team sharing helps members to grow in confidence as they listen without comment to each other’s experiences. It is important to note that teams also share missed opportunities as these are equally important and serve to sharpen awareness in another way.
The rest of the meeting is usually spent brainstorming new ideas, as well as looking at the liturgical calendar and parish diary in order to maximise existing parish events with the explicit intention to optimise opportunities to evangelise.
This personal/team two track approach to discipleship is vital in the work of evangelisation if we are to answer Jesus’ call to spread the Gospel and build the Kingdom of God. With daily sustained prayer disciples are able to work spontaneously wherever they are, in the home, workplace, gym, supermarket or at the school gate, witnessing to who they are as authentic Catholic Christians naturally, without fear or embarrassment. This will gradually have an effect on society as a whole.
Through working in team, disciples grow together in faith. Relationships are strengthened and a vibrancy and new energy can be felt within the parish as events are planned and the warmth of welcome and inclusivity increases.
“On a bright sunny September morning, a group from the Evangelisation Team at Our Lady of Lourdes and St Cecilia’s, gathered for the Community Expo at the Corn Exchange in Blandford Forum. The Expo is an annual event where groups and organisations showcase all the work and effort they put in to make their local community so active and vibrant. The team - formed through the ‘Intentional Discipleship Programme’ which has been running Diocese-wide over the last 12 months – aims to draw all those they meet to know the extraordinary mercy and love of Jesus.
“We felt Blandford’s Annual Community Expo would offer us a great opportunity to introduce ourselves to the wider community; as joyful, welcoming people of faith. We chose the theme of ‘Peace’ for our stand, because restoring peace to our world is such a concern for so many. Our invitation to everyone we met that morning, was to join us the following evening for a short service; to pray together for World Peace, up at our beautiful church.” explained team co-ordinator Marie Fisher.
The stand itself was carefully designed to draw the eye of the milling (no pun intended) attendees. Its focal point was a beautiful flower arrangement; made from slim, pliable branches formed into a cross and adorned with flowers and leaves. The creator of the piece was Margaret Holt, whose inspiration came from Matthew 11:28: ‘Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.’ The centre-piece attracted the attention of the local Towns Women’s Guild representative and the ensuing conversation has led to an invitation to the parishioners from Our Lady of Lourdes and St Cecilia’s, to come and speak to the Blandford TWG about their faith. However, the fruitfulness of their endeavours did not end there. At the Sunday evening ‘Prayer for Peace’ service, 43 people from the local community gathered to lift their voices to heaven - in prayer and worship. Thanks be to God!