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Faith renewal through small communities

It was in 2002 that I was summoned to the presence of our then-Cardinal. I had been a parish priest for four years. That was all about to change. He told me he wanted me to head up a project for parish renewal. After 30 years working in parishes, I was to begin a new phase in my ministry. Cardinal Cormac was excited by the idea. He had done a previous project in Arundel & Brighton Diocese and he knew it would be challenging but it would be valuable and important for the future of our diocese. Working so closely with the Cardinal was a new experience for me. It proved to be an exciting and exhilarating one.

What was proposed was that we would join up with an organisation called Renew International who were based in New Jersey, USA. They had great experience in doing these renewal programmes and had been at the centre of the one in the Cardinal’s previous diocese.

Cardinal Cormac knew he had a lot of preparatory work to do in the diocese if the programme was to succeed. Convincing the clergy was the first task and I think it is fair to say it wasn’t easy. Many who will read this will remember Butlins Holiday Camp at Bognor! It was certainly a new adventure and, in the best sense of the word, an ‘odd’ one. Wonderful speakers were brought together, Cardinal Danneels, Mons Tom Kleissler, to name a few, along with great daily liturgies in what at other times was the dance hall. Then there were those plenary sessions where the Cardinal told us what was in his mind and one or two told him what was on their mind! For the first time I came into contact with the pastoral skill of our Cardinal. He resolutely set out his agenda, listened to the arguments for and against, felt the frustration of some of the clergy, but in the end built up the good will of the great majority of us. We launched our programme.

It was called ‘At Your Word Lord’. The title comes from words of Peter in St Luke’s Gospel when Jesus tells his followers to launch out the nets even though they had not caught anything all night. Peter’s words became ours as we launched out into the diocese: At Your Word Lord. The launch was spectacular. We booked Wembley Arena and Cardinal Cormac celebrated Mass in the presence of over 10,000 people.

So began a programme of training for priests and people in the parishes. The Cardinal taught me and my team (Lindsey, Joe, Danny, Catherine and Sr Amadeus) so much: tenacity, humour, good planning, trust in the Holy Spirit. Above all else, he taught us never to underestimate the commitment of lay people nor treat lightly the skills they had to bring. I suppose he also taught me (as a priest) the importance of working with a team, of trusting in them and valuing them.

We did amazing things over the next three years. There were five seasons to the programme. The plan was to train potential leaders of small groups of say eight to 12 people. Supported by terrific literature the group would share on a weekly basis the Scriptures, the teaching of the Church, and their own experience. Of course, there would also be time for prayer. To all this Cardinal Cormac was deeply committed. He made countless visits around the diocese, and he established a diocesan group made up of laity and clergy with whom he met regularly.

After three years, the programme came to an end. We had been all over the diocese and involved in most of our parishes. I think we established more than 2000 small Christian communities. I know we encouraged solid teaching in the Catholic faith. Certainly, we established new leaders: men and women of a new generation who would be confident in taking on leadership as the previous generation grew tired.

I can’t forget the great final event in Westminster Cathedral where well over a thousand renewed and committed Catholics came to give thanks for all that had been achieved. It was a wonderful event.

So ended my time working closely with the Cardinal. He allowed me a break and I went to Australia, visiting many parishes talking and preaching about what had happened in Westminster. I never lost touch with the Cardinal; he treasured those whom he had worked with. What did I learn about him through my work with him? I think above all the importance of faith, prayer and trust in the Lord. He also taught me to have courage especially when the going was tough. He was keen not to judge those who did not quite understand where he was leading but rather set out to encourage them to walk with him, and to come and see.

He was a great inspiration to me. He laid new foundations for our diocese; even today I think there are over 600 small communities that still meet regularly. He became well respected by so many lay people who treasured him as a friend. He gave new inspiration to the spirit of evangelisation, which is alive in our diocese today. Thank you, Cardinal Cormac.