Wednesday 7 February 2024

The Growth of the Church

It is the privilege of each bishop, as father of his diocese, to baptise adults and receive Christians from other churches into Full Communion with the Catholic Church. As the Church has grown over the centuries, it is now rarely possible for him to do this himself, except in his cathedral. And so, whenever an adult in Oxford is ready to become a Catholic, the Fathers have to request the Archbishop’s delegation to baptise or receive the person in his name.

The permissions given by the Archdiocese are all numbered, and having received one such permission in late December, we were able to see how many had been granted in the whole year. It turned out that 5% of all such requests had been made by us.

In England, the Oratory has always specialised in the instruction of converts. The first fathers of the Birmingham and London Oratories were, famously, converts from the Church of England, under the leadership of St John Henry Newman. This history surely left some mark on our own consciousness, and has formed the way in which we approach this important aspect of our work.

St Philip used his friendliness with individuals to bring about dramatic conversions, rather than preaching to great crowds in the street. He would approach people and speak to them one to one. So in preparing our own new Catholics, we have tried to put this into practice ourselves. Catechesis has usually taken place not in an RCIA class, but in weekly one to one sessions.

For whatever reason, the grace of God is leading more people to seek the fullness of truth in the Catholic Church than we have experienced in previous years. At the end of summer 2023, we had over 20 adults seeking baptism, reception or confirmation, and we have found it impossible to see everyone by themselves for an hour each week. We started weekly classes for the first time in October, taking the group through the key points of the Creed and the Christian life together. We still make sure that there is time to check in with each person in the class. This time is then used less for sharing information that everyone needs to know, and more for answering specific questions, or taking a deeper dive into particular areas of difficulty or interest.

One unexpected but wonderful outcome of the classes has been the many friendships that have formed between those attending the classes. For the first time, our adult converts get to meet and support each other throughout the process. We are particularly blessed by the presence of many Americans who are not afraid to start a conversation with new people!

The first series of these classes has ended, and most of the participants will receive the sacraments this Saturday at 11am (come along and support them!). The next series of classes is already underway, and there are almost as many again preparing to receive the sacraments in June.

The work of the Fathers would not be possible without the warm welcome that visitors receive when they first attend Mass or Cafe Neri and the help and support of so many parishioners who act as sponsors throughout the process. Many enquiries come from those who have been brought to us by a friend, or have been sent on recommendation. Never underestimate the power of a friendly invitation.

The Catholic Church has been at the heart of the city of Oxford, since its roots in the early abbeys and friaries, from which the University developed, and through the Oxford Movement and the many conversions from the Church of England. In the Church today, our city is exceptional in our country and the world for the number of religious habits that can be seen in the streets, and the growing number of young people who practise their faith with inspiring commitment and devotion.

It is a great privilege for us to share our faith with others. But there is also a message to us in this growth of the Church. Whatever else may be happening in the world, God never ceases to call his children back to himself. And it is a great joy to be there and welcome them when they answer that call.