Tag Archives: formation


This time of year, filled with First Holy Communions and Confirmations, is full of joy. It is also a time where we risk “sacramentalising” another batch of young people or adults, perhaps without really evangelising or catechising them.

This is precisely the problem that we face in the New Evangelisation – and one which we, to some extent, inflict on ourselves.

It is a theme which occurs again and again on this blog. I am not being overdramatic when I say it breaks my heart to see us shortchanging people by bringing them to the sacraments too soon. Graces are heaped upon them, yet they don’t have the means or the maturity or the understanding to open their hearts to these graces, because they have not been through a sufficient period of formation.

This video clip from Dr Scott Hahn isn’t new, but it is worth taking just over ten minutes out of your day to watch. He speaks about the relationship between evangelising, catechising, and sacramentalising, in depth. I showed it to a group of seminarians, one of whom said it was the most inspirational thing he’d seen all year (maybe an exaggeration…) – but it is truly a good clip from Dr Hahn and a topic all of us in the Church need to wake up to, and think hard about theologically, pastorally, spiritually.

Lay People – Be Who You Are!

Photo: Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk

Photo: Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk

OK, I hope this is not going to shock you, people… I am a massive defender of lay identity, spirituality, apostolate because that is who I am – a lay person! I love the lay vocation. When I read what the Church teaches about laity (I’ve found Lumen Gentium and Christifidelis Laici particularly inspiring) I have wanted to take this into my heart and let it form who I am. (Please read these if you haven’t had a chance to – they are wonderful.)

I sometimes think though that we have forgotten this wonderful teaching. We forget that the lay vocation is one in its own right, not simple a negation of ‘not being a priest or religious’. It has its own distinct “secular character” (see CL). It has its own dignity and beauty. We are the ones who do what priests and religious cannot – carry Christ into the world, be co-redeemers with him in the temporal realm. We are the “authentic, secular dimension” to the Church “inherent in her nature and mission” (Pope Paul VI). When we are having a drink with friends and we respond to their questions about being a Catholic, or when we end up having a conversation with a taxi driver, or when (as a friend and I did recently) we ask at a restaurant what fish is on the menu as it’s Friday – then we are living in small ways our lay vocation in the secular realm. Clearly, when we exercise our vote in political debate, or contribute the Christian viewpoint, or fight against anti-Christian decisions in our workplace, our action in the secular world is more visible. But it doesn’t detract from the dignity of Christianising our workplaces, homes, friendships, with our more hidden witness.

Why do I say all this? Isn’t it obvious? Well, no… it doesn’t seem so. To me it seems that ‘to be a faithful Catholic’ is often equated with being on the reader’s rota or taking Holy Communion to the sick. Both are praiseworthy things – don’t get me wrong. But if, tomorrow, there were suddenly enough priests to take Holy Communion to all the sick – would we still go and visit them anyway? My point is that we have a tendency to beg our priests to ‘clericalise’ us. Somehow it seems easier to do the reading at Mass than speak with our next-door neighbour about God. If the focus of our Christian life becomes the reading we do at Mass, or the next Sunday we’re down to be a minister of Holy Communion, we are missing out on the beauty of our lay vocation!

Christifidelis Laici spells it out like this:

“the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world”

To be fair – I think priests sometimes love to ‘clericalise’ their laity just as much as lay people love to be clericalised. I think for decades now we’ve failed to form people for their specifically lay vocation which has left people thinking that to be holy, they must spend a lot of time around the sacristy, or hours a day praying.

Let’s pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood so that we can let lay people be lay people and priests be priests.

Teaching Life in Christ

man and woman

The last few months in the UK have led to numerous discussions – both challenging and fruitful – between Catholics and their family members, colleagues and friends. The Same Sex Couples Bill is in many ways a tragedy for Britain – revealing our collective lapse of memory concerning who the human person is and even the most basic notion of a natural law. Last Tuesday evening, many of us watched with sinking hearts a debate in which only a few voiced authentic reason. Hearing the emotional appeals of many others leads us to wonder whether, as a nation, we have forgotten how to “think”, how to do philosophy, how to use our minds to discern truth.

How do we speak about this issue with others? How, when we are enjoying a drink in the pub with a group of friends, and one person raises this subject, do we approach it?

This is exactly the question we addressed a couple of weeks ago in the parish in our parents’ programme. In the lead up to the evening, we put out an online survey asking parents ‘what are the challenging questions about the Faith that your children ask you?’ Of course, any question such as this is a hidden way of discovering the questions that the parents themselves are asking.

We have been blessed during this parents’ programme to have an average gathering of around 50-60 parents who, I am pleased to say, are not ‘usual suspects’, most of whom have not been to other adult formation in the parish. I was therefore really glad when someone on the night brought up the question of gay marriage, and how to discuss it with children, because 98% of children in our catechesis programmes (who are old enough to have heard about this debate) think that the Church is being ‘unfair’. All of them are from practising Catholic families, all of them go to good Catholic schools, all have weekly catechesis.

So, when our speaker came to offer an answer (and thanks be to God, it was none other than the can’t-help-but-always-agree-with-him apologist, Father Stephen Wang), it was like there was an enormous drumroll in the room and complete silence as we listened to his response.

Now, I am not going to do justice to it, because it was a really excellent response, and is summed up on Fr Stephen’s blog here. I have used this approach since when the topic has come up with cynical friends. It goes something like this:

Mostly, this question is broached as a question of fairness. If marriage is a ‘good thing’, which we are all agreeing it is, why shouldn’t gay couples have it open to them? The Church is discriminatory, unfair, cruel for not agreeing with this. However, the whole question needs to be turned around. The real question we should be asking is: what is marriage? At the heart of marriage has always been an understanding of sexual difference and complementarity. Saying that gay couples can get married is like saying a circle can be a square.


As I listened to the debate last week, it became strikingly clear that because we no longer accept a given reality in human nature, we can manipulate language to the reality we contrive.

All these arguments have been aired frequently and far more articulately than I have done here. My concern is catechesis: how do we teach people, and help them to accept, the reality of natural law, of human nature and dignity? In RCIA, we find that people often require a full 180 degree turn in their mindsets. They come from the mindset that demands, unreflectingly, fairness and equality at all costs. Gradually, with careful reasoning, clear teaching, and friendship, we need to help them to think more deeply. This is all part of the ‘third dimension’ of formation and the trickiest one, life in Christ. Life in Christ begins with a relationship with him, so unless that is there, we shouldn’t even begin on gay marriage. Don’t go there, whatever you do! I have seen this done in RCIA and it is not pretty. Only when someone falls in love with Him, will they have enough trust and enough grace (and hopefully sound reasoning too) to discern authentic truth in this area.

Forming young catechetical leaders

An issue that is very close to my heart is forming catechetical leaders for the next generation. I feel that we especially need young catechetical leaders who are able to catechise their peers as only they can. We need leaders who are doctrinally-formed, understand methodological principles, and yet are able to engage naturally and attractively with their generation. Catechetical formation is hard to come by for young people, who, on the whole, move around a lot and have little money. I often meet young adults who would love to work in a similar role to mine, but opportunities are few and far between.

I am organising a formation week for young catechetical leaders in the new Vocations Centre in Southwark Archdiocese during October half-term (29 Oct-2 Nov). (I was very tempted by a lovely holiday in the sun with friends, then decided this was more important… :)) The week will include doctrinal formation as well as an introduction to methodological principles, as well as a full day of teaching from Dr Caroline Farey of Maryvale Institute, one of the leading experts in catechetics in this country.

I would like to ask you for three things, dear blog-readers:

1. Please keep this initiative in your prayers. That the Lord will use it as only he knows how…

2. If you know of a young person (under 40) with a passion for catechesis and a gift of leadership, please tell them about this week. We are limited to about 10 places.

3. The cost of this week will be about £170-200 a person. Participants are generally university students or young adults with little income. Could you sponsor one of them? Please email me (h.vaughan.spruce@gmail.com) if you can help. Thank you.

Evangelium 2012

A little aside from my Stateside adventure… Have a quick peek at this:

The Evangelium Conference takes place from Friday 3rd – Sunday 5th August at the Oratory School in Reading, and there are still places left the last I heard. See here for more details.

This is a conference for young adults, to help them defend and explain the Catholic Faith to others. I have never been before, but I met some young adults in Dublin a month ago who raved about how much they enjoyed it, and this year’s line-up looks fantastic. The apostolic nuncio will be there for the first time. Why not come along for the weekend?

I will be giving a workshop on catechesis – How to be a brilliant catechist – (I am certain there will be far more experienced catechists present than me, but I will share a few ideas…) At the moment I am at Steubenville, pondering what to include in this workshop (no better place – LOTS of inspiration here 🙂 ) It would be great to see you there.

Ireland, the Eucharistic Congress, and Catechesis

For a few days last week, and over the weekend, I was at the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin (I know, I’ve been getting around a bit recently…) So much has been written and said about this Congress, so I won’t give you too many thoughts… simply that I was glad to be there, at such a fundamental moment for the Church in Ireland. I’ve heard how wounded the Church is: not only by the abuse scandals, but, it seems, by a decades-long crisis of faith, and of priesthood. Despite all of this, the Congress, along with other recent events such as the appointment of the new apostolic nuncio, are signs of hope: that despite the wounds caused by the Church upon herself, the only thing for her to do is to cling more closely to Christ, her Spouse, and willingly accept this purification.

One thing that strikes me as important: for too long, it seems, parishes, priests, bishops and lay people themselves, have underestimated the extent that people have fallen away. Being among Irish people at the closing Mass in Croke Park – beautiful as it was – made me realise how far from faith many people are. While they are indeed receiving the sacraments, they seem far away from an understanding of what they receive. Close to the means of grace, far from grace. We returned to our seats from receiving Holy Communion (in a dingy corridor, with stewards shouting at the lay extraordinary ministers while 1,000 priests sat in the arena), to find everyone around us, who had also just received Communion, chatting and laughing and even passing around sweets (…at a Eucharistic Congress!) This seems to be a country where to be Catholic has for too many decades simply been a part of being Irish, rather than involving any real assent of faith. I thought of some of our parishioners who were received into the Church at Easter, I thought of those who have just finished the precatechumenate, and even those who are contemplating beginning the precatechumenate – in terms of exhibiting ‘signs of faith’, they are far ahead of these supposedly fully-fledged Catholics.

So, in the process of renewal, priests and lay catechists need to have a full awareness of the reality of the vast majority of Catholics. It is almost as if parishes need to stop the ‘hollow ritualism’ of dispensing sacraments and start right from scratch with basic evangelisation, like a completely new mission territory…

Maybe I’m being too drastic – tell me in the comments if you think so! I am aware that England has more than its fair share of cultural Catholics. And don’t worry, I’m not all doom and gloom. I actually enjoyed the Congress. I am praying more fervently for the Church in Ireland, for the new appointments of bishops which we hope will happen before long. While I was there, I had a great desire to help. Ireland has an eye-wateringly huge need for catechetical leaders to begin the renewal of catechesis in parishes. Naturally, I felt a great longing to give some catechesis. Something on the Real Presence would have been good, for a Eucharistic Congress. Ireland – if you ever need someone to give some catechesis or train some catechists, I’m there!