I heard an interesting story about a Catholic man who left the Catholic Church to join a Protestant sect. As a boy, he belonged to a strongly practising Catholic family; he was an altar server into his late teens; he went regularly to Mass each Sunday. A model Catholic, you might say!  However, as he grew older and leaving home behind, perhaps at university, he began to attend an Evangelical Fellowship, and slowly he was drawn in to its life. In the end, he joined the group – much to the dismay of his devout Catholic parents. Not surprisingly, his parents asked him why he had chosen this other path, and he replied: “You never told me that I could have a personal relationship with Jesus; rather I was taken to a ‘ritual’, Sunday after Sunday, that meant nothing to me. Now I have found him”.

To be a Catholic – to remain faithful to the Church – right through to the end of our lives, following Jesus, we need to have something more in that life than the ‘every day’ prayers we say, the weekly Mass on Sunday, and our attempts to live as a good Christian should, without giving way to too many of our failings. This assumes that following Jesus includes being faithful to the Church. Today we have a modern ‘myth’ that a Catholic can be a faithful follower of Jesus, and yet not be a part of the Church. A person might call themselves a Catholic – may even try to live a decent life according to their conscience, but, without belonging to the Church – and being part of it –  they could hardly be put forward as a ‘model’ to follow. If we have the right disposition, Jesus comes to us, personally, and today, through the sacraments, just as he was the personal friend of his disciples, two thousand years ago. Of course, sometimes we may not feel that we are in touch today with Jesus, as a person of, and in, the Church, just like the young man with whom I began. We may not feel the warmth of God’s presence; we may not find support, good teaching and his presence in the liturgy. These are, I know, some of the reasons why people decide not to belong to Jesus and the Church.

Many Catholics, young and old, struggle to belong to the Church. The young face a different problem than the more mature because Britain’s young, oftentimes, have had little real and meaningful contact with the Church. They may attend at Sunday Mass – but so many do not; for many, their attendance at school, with Mass, prayers and its Catholic life, may be the only contact they have with the Church, and this may not be enough to relate to their own lives, unless they do build a relationship with Jesus and do become involved in the Community of Faith. It is good to know that both students, and staff, do find Jesus and the Church, in our Leyland schools, and some are touched deeply enough to become part of the living Church community. It is also a great joy to know that parishioners in St. Mary’s are prepared to support our ‘Youth Foundation’ and our Parish Youth Worker; the existence of the group provides for a continuity of contacts with the Community of Faith; it allows those contacts to grow and to deepen. In passing, a great ‘thank-you’ goes to those volunteers who support our Youth Worker and enable the parochial youth work to flourish.

At this point, I turn to the question of the more mature Catholic and keep in mind a conversation I had, recently, with a very experienced priest; he described a particular phenomenon – the one that concerns me, here. He explained that a particular parishioner, a parent, and probably grand-parent, a life-long Catholic had suddenly ceased to come to Church, after years of practising the Faith. This, too, bears out my own observation of some Catholic adults, and it is hard to generalise why this should be so. There are probably as many reasons as there are people, but somewhere, they must include some sense of disillusionment – including that loss of the special relationship with Jesus – that is, always providing Jesus was there in the first place. Religion may have been just a matter of ritual, and/or external conformity.  Then, of course, we must remember the multitude of people, of all ages, who have hardly ever been regularly, and in reality, part of the worshipping Community of Faith. They might well call themselves Catholics, but they do not come, regularly, to Church.  I am sure that there is, also, a host of reasons why.

My own life, as a monk, was transformed when I, too, entered into a personal relationship with Jesus: this happened when other lay people – people who knew God’s love – helped me to understand that God loves me immensely. Each and every person – including me – in his heart, is a unique masterpiece, and everyone can freely respond to His Love.  I did, by choosing again, for myself, the path I was already treading – the life of a monk.

I am writing this ‘blog’ whilst on holiday in Italy. On Saturday, last, I attended a day’s meeting entitled, ‘Charisms in Communion’ held in the City of Assisi.  Attending were other men and women in Religious Life, also laity, many of them quite young, a Cardinal, four Bishops, the two leaders of the Friars Minor (OFM’s) and the Conventual Friars (OFM Conv) and leading Cappuchins. People estimated we were about two thousand in number, altogether. The meeting was held in joyful spirit, but by far the most enjoyable moments arose out of that sense of coming together, meeting with friends, both old and new. We stopped to pray, for a moment, at the Porziuncula, the little “Church” within the basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. St. Francis considered this the ‘cradle’ of the Franciscan movement; it was here, also, that he died.

 Religious and Others Gathering for the Meeting and Prayers Before Mass 

To begin the day, Mass that morning had been celebrated in the Church of St. Clare, where there is an enclosed Poor Clare community, and within their convent they have the incorrupt body of St. Clare. Afterwards there was a press conference, to explain and publicise this venture, because it is still quite new to witness Religious and the new charisms in the Church together; both events were moving and joyful because they were witnessing to the freshness of the post Vatican 2 Church and were, very much, ‘forward looking’; I have no doubt the Holy Spirit was present throughout – almost tangibly so! On the day, at least 500 people were treated to lunch by the Franciscan organisers, with the Franciscan friars ‘waiting on’. Jesus was there, for sure, because of the joy we felt – the service given to us, by so many people, and the help we gave to others, by our presence, and response to their love. In the afternoon, we had talks in the upper Basilica, built over the tomb of St. Francis.

             Cardinal Vlk & Abbot Raymond              The Refectory Where Lunch Was Held 

All this manifests the ‘yes’ response St. Francis gave to God, in Jesus, and the ‘yes’ of the millions of people, today, who are also doing their best to follow Jesus. The whole world was changed by the ‘conversion’ of St. Francis, when he entered into a living relationship with Jesus. That relationship was marked by suffering; of that there can be no doubt for witness the marks of the stigmata he was given later on in his life, at La Verna. Even today, we, in Leyland, are influenced by that response of St. Francis, because we have Sister Veronica working among us, a Franciscan Missionary of St Joseph, much loved because of her evident love of the people, and her devotion to God and his Love.

Stained Glass Window of St. Francis and St. Clare ……. St. Francis Holding Up a ‘Tottering’ Church

Some of the Older People and Three Young Friars Present at the Afternoon Session

To conclude, I think it right to point out that there are messages here for all of us.  Our experiences – all of them taking place each and every day – here in Assisi and, most certainly, back home in Leyland, and in a time continuum, are part of a learning process. We all have something to learn and to ponder as we live and reflect on our lives. Our response to God and his love in Jesus WILL make a difference to the people we are, to those around us and to the world in which we live.