Are Protestants winning over young Catholics in Britain?

Posted: November 16, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Is the Catholic Church in danger of losing some of its most active, committed young members or are these young people paving the way for a new season of ecumenism?*

This week I learned of 14 young Catholics who individually plan to attend a service, conference or prayer meeting outside of their own denomination at the weekend.  This is not a one off occurence for a Churches Together initiative but something they do regularly.  Had I been specifically searching for Catholics who practise this sort of ecumenical worship in Britain the numbers would have been considerably higher.

In some cases it involves double servicing on a Sunday, perhaps attending Mass in the morning and a Protestant Church in the evening, for others it means participation in weekday prayer gatherings or teaching nights at an alternative Christian Church to their own. Ecumenism is encouraged by the Catholic Church, but in Britain are the Protestants the ones discipling the younger generations for them?

Amongst those in their teens, twenties and thirties there is an increasing eloquence when it comes to explaining Catholic Church teaching.  With the recent publication of the YouCat (Youth Catechism), the availability of Vatican documents online, and initiatives such as Catholic Voiceswho specifically train people in not only understanding but also articulating their faith to others, there has arisen a movement of parishonners who are confidently doing their own faith study. Some are proficient in Koine Greek and/or Hebrew, while others turn up at Church having prayed through the coming Sunday’s readings in advance.  Although they are pursuing personal study many are turning to the Protestant Church to get their needs met for deeper formation outside of a short 15 minute sermon in an hour long Mass.  They are getting access to internationally acclaimed preachers, discovering a sense of Community during the weekly Protestant homegroup/cell meetings and are experiencing new models of communal prayer alongside their own Sunday service with their parish priest.

The ecumenical insight of this ‘group’ is noteable: whilst keenly aware of their own roots, they are also knowledgeable about what is available to them in the Protestant world. Many could tell you about the latest Protestant prayer movements in the States (e.g. IHOP Prayer Movement), or who the leading Pentecostal evangelists are in Africa (Reinhard Bonnke) or Australia (Christine Caine) – they are reading their books, watching their preachings, getting spiritual food from it, all whilst being able to identify which elements to deliberate over or discard due to theological conflicts with their own beliefs.

These individuals who look to other Church traditions for formation and spiritual experiences to support them are spread geographically around the country, and don’t necessary know one another because there is no umbrella movement which unites them.  They might meet others in the same situation as them (being Catholic but benefitting from attendance at other Churches) at one of the many Catholic gatherings which take place throughout the year such as the Celebrate conferences, 40 Days for Life, Youth 2000 or in their University Chaplaincy, but beyond that the journey is a personal one. They are often readers, Eucharistic Ministers, youth workers, or those providing music ministry and catechisis for a parish. But is their turning to other Churches a sign that the Catholic Church is failing to meet the needs of the very people who keep it going at a grass roots level, or an indicator that there is a new move afoot of Church unity which will be characterised by greater tolerance, respect and understanding?

There was recently a Leadership Conference at the Royal Albert Hall which saw Christian leaders from all walks of life gather (around 4000 of them).  Although it was run by the Anglican HTB Church, they had a Catholic stream to the event.   Speakers such as Christopher West, of Theology of the Body fame, were flown in, as well as Catholic worship leader Matt Maher, along with ordained hierachy from France. This Protestant Church in London even has a global movement called Catholic Alpha which seeks to serve the needs of Catholic parishes worldwide in discipling their congregations in the basics of the faith.

They are not the only Protestants who are providing prayer and formation for the Catholic Church. In America the ‘One Thing’ conference taking place at the end of this year (which it is estimated will draw an attendance of around 25,000 young people) has a Catholic track supported by the Catholic University in Steubenville.  It’s founder Mike Bickle is sensitive to the needs of Catholics having grown up in the tradition himself.  Although now departed from the Church of Rome, he is said to encourage Christians from all backgrounds to read the lives of Catholic Saints such as St John of the Cross to learn from their prayer lives. So are Protestants doing a better job of providing for the needs of young Catholics than the Church herself?

Soul Survivor is an annual summer camp for young people in Britain, once again being one at which tens of thousands are in attendance. Testimonies pour in of lives changed and faith renewed as a result of the experiences of prayer, preaching and praise.  The man at the helm (Mike Pilavachi) had some of his early years formation in a charismatic Catholic prayer group in London.  Far from being anti-Catholic and trying to draw young people away from their Catholic roots, provision is being made at the camp to enable them to fully participate in the summer events programme.  For a number of years now Mass has been provided for those who require it as an alternative to the Protestant Communion service.

There are many lay movements in the Catholic Church which provide formation and prayer experiences, some of which have been alluded to in this piece, but perhaps the Catholic Church owes some gratitude to the Protestants who are giving some of their key workers the input they require to inspire and encourage them to keep going in their roles as evangelists and disciplers in the Church?

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

*Please note that this post is not based on statistical research but rather on obvservations I have made on what I see as a growing trend among Catholic young people. .
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