Article written for The Record newspaper on the
talks by Fr Gino Henriques on Evangelisation

What every Catholic should know about Evangelisation

A report, critique and discussion starter on the visit
of Fr Gino Henriques CSsR to Perth

by Brian Coyne*

The Report:

Gibney Hall at Trinity College played host to two enthusiastic groups of Perth Catholics last weekend to hear an expert opinion on Evangelisation.

India born Redemptorist, Fr Gino Henriques, is the Church's Director for Evangelisation for South East Asia and Oceania. For over a decade now, Fr Henriques has been enthusing crowds around the region, and internationally, with the message that it is "the responsibility of all Catholics to evangelise".

He brings considerable personal skill and training to his task. He has a Masters Degree in communications. Of the many Catholic orators this journalist has come across in almost five and a half decades, this man stands near the very top of the pile. Arriving fresh off a plane from Canada via Singapore on Friday, he went straight into an almost two hour lecture without notes and without batting an eyelid.

Next day, he was on his feet, again without notes, for almost five and a half hours delivering a series of superbly constructed talks. His delivery, diction and control at the end of the day was as fresh as it was at the beginning of the marathon the previous evening. The ultimate test though is whether his audience stayed with him.

They did. Usually in marathon lecture/workshops like this one sees many don't return after the luncheon or afternoon tea break. The audience this weekend stayed with Fr Henriques right through to the end.

Over 160 young people turned up for the talk on Friday night. The Saturday morning session had an audience of about 140 people from parishes and in a late afternoon head-count there were still 120 there.

So, what message did Fr Henriques have for his Perth audience?

Trying to condense a day and a half of oration into a paragraph or two is difficult. The thrust of his message though is that Evangelisation is "the basic duty of every man and woman in the Church".

He quotes effortlessly and unaided from Church documents and Scripture again and again to drive home this central theme. He quotes Vatican II as putting it in these words: "Evangelisation is the basic duty of the people of God". And he delves back to the great command given by Christ in the closing lines of St Matthew's Gospel as the source of this instruction: "Go therefore, make disciples of all the nations…" [Mt28:19]

It is a command that comes from none other than Jesus himself.

There was a significant difference in the address Fr Henriques delivered on the Friday night though to the series of talks on Saturday. On Friday night the thrust of his message was to enthuse the young people present, and those working in youth ministries. On Saturday his talks were more directed at what people can do more generally at the parish level.

The Saturday morning session was a journey through Church documents and Scripture to bring his audience to an understanding of the emphasis the Church has long placed on the role of evangelisation. The afternoon sessions, which included a workshop, were more directed at hands-on, practical discussion. Fr Henriques sought to explore what steps individuals can take in the diversity of ministries that exist in every parish to reach out both to those who have fallen away and those who have never known Christ.

One of the strong points this Director of Evangelisation emphasised is that every ministry and group in the Church has a responsibility for evangelisation alongside whatever other responsibility they exist to fulfil. He also emphasised the manner in which we all need to have respect for the charisms, talents and points of view, or emphasis, that different ministries and groups bring to efforts to make Christ known to all.

The Critique:

Having been charmed by the enormous skill that Fr Henriques has for a day and a night, I remain somewhat sceptical that the language that he was using to describe who Jesus is, and why he should be important in our lives, has much hope of penetrating in the relatively affluent, tertiary educated, socially sophisticated milieu the Church is dealing with in Australia. Fr Henriques himself pointed out that religious practise has fallen away in Australia until it is now between 13 and 15% for baptised Catholics.

Half a century ago the participation rate was around 50-55%. From my own long series of discussions both locally and internationally through the internet with Catholics who have drifted away, I do not believe the blame can be sheeted home to the allures of consumer society and nihilistic philosophies alone. Many people say to me they just find the language the Church uses to describe who Jesus and God is does not accord with their lived experience.

Jesus seems to be presented by many in the Church as some kind of Mummie's boy, goody-two-shoes and some model through which we are supposed to become complacent and conforming little vegemites. They do not feel themselves being "pulled out" of the Church by the "me too" attractions of popular culture. They feel themselves "pushed out" by a certain culture in the Church that presents Jesus, not as an answer to the travails of everyday life, but as some saccharine-sweet, model of unctious, drippingly-conformist, mummy-pleasing goodiness.

The alternative they seem to hunger for is a dirt-under-the-fingernails man with a normal dose of testosterone who was able to shove it up the Pharisees when their behaviour demanded it and who was not afraid to call a spade a spade. Jesus was only a "baby in a manger" for a very short period in his life. People in Western society, it seems to me, are sick of the "prissy" image we (the Church) seem to have cloaked Jesus in. The women who have left the Church are little different to the men in the language they are prepared to use when they are out of earshot of their priests and bishops.

I am one of the sceptics who does not believe Mel Gibson's film has done anything much to redress the general picture of who Christ is and what he means in the 21st Century to the tens of millions in the Western world who've been streaming out of the pews for decades. The Da Vinci Code is as big a best seller as Gibson's film and it will have as much influence in popular culture as anything Gibson and the Church have done. It also has a spiritual and "Catholic" theme but not one the Church likes very much.

Where I agree absolutely with Fr Henriques is in both the urgency and the importance of the evangelisation responsibility that we are charged with by none other than Jesus Christ himself. There is, I believe, a need for intelligent, open and objective discussion with all the baptised - including those who have left. We need to know why they have left. It is too convenient, and too simple, to just assume they left because they're slack or because "the Way" presented by the Church is too hard. We may have to look at our own language as well.

Discussion Starter (and action!):

Now, what can you do about all this? Archbishop Hickey has made Evangelisation a priority in this Archdiocese. Bishop Don Sproxton is Chairman of the newly established Archdiocesan Evangelisation Committee which brought Fr Henriques to Perth to get something happening at Parish level.

  • Fr Henriques' talks were recorded on video and cassette/cd. The Archdiocesan website (http://www.perthcatholic.org.au/) carries a summary of Fr Henriques' talks and some practical things you can do both in your parish and as an individual to further the work of evangelisation. It also carries information about how to get hold of the tapes/cds and other resources.

  • Following the call of Archbishop Hickey for all parishes to prepare an "Evangelisation Plan", Bishop Sproxton reported on the weekend that around 60% of the parishes in the Archdiocese have now prepared their plans. It is time for those plans to be implemented. This was not an exercise to clutter the letterboxes of our bishops or provide neat plans for Sr Francis Stibbi to file away in the Archdiocesan archives.

  • Fr Henriques urges you to get out and talk to people. No, that's not correct, he urges you to "listen" first. This is not a business of lecturing people or trying to prove how we are saved and those who have drifted away are not. Listen to the stories of why people have drifted away. Try and understand their point of view before you start forcing down their necks what you think God thinks about their behaviours or lifestyles. Our business in evangelisation is one of giving people a glimpse of heaven. It is not one of endeavouring to prove that we're already halfway in the door of heaven and they are not.

  • In the letters pages of The Record can we have some intelligent, reflective discussion on the whys and wherefores of why people have drifted away in such dramatic numbers and what might be done to redress the trend?

For further information about Fr Henriques' talks, and the Evangelisation initiative in the Archdiocese, check out the Archdiocesan website at: http://www.perthcatholic.org.au/. There's a pointer on the front page to Fr Henrique's talks.

*Brian Coyne is a writer and communications' consultant to a number of Church organisations. He is relief editor for the daily Catholic internet news service CathNews (www.cathnews.com) and, in a voluntary capacity, coadministrator of the CathNews internet discussion board (www.cathnews.com/discuss).

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