Bishop Philip Egan spent the 10th anniversary of his episcopal ordination flying over the Atlantic on an Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner. He was returning home after a Saint Paul Evangelization Society (SPES) conference in Washington, D.C.
Egan became the eighth bishop of Portsmouth, southern England, on Sept. 24, 2012, the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham. At 66, he may have another decade ahead of him in the diocese that covers five counties on England’s southern coast and the windswept Channel Islands near France.
He is currently finalizing a 10-year “mission plan,” in which he underlines that “the Church’s fundamental purpose is to evangelize.”
“In our diocese,” he writes, “there are already many signs of springtime, with a new energy, a new enthusiasm, a new willingness to change and collaborate, and a new desire to do things differently. So let us trust in God’s providence and resolve to do our best.”
He shook off jetlag to speak to The Pillar about the challenge of evangelization, why he wrote a “letter to everyone” — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — in his diocese, and his concerns and hopes for the global synodal process.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bishop, what is evangelization?
Evangelization is about cultivating a personal, passionate relationship with Jesus Christ within his body, the Church. The center, the source, and the summit of this is the Holy Eucharist. It’s about being a disciple and growing in discipleship. But it’s also about being a missionary disciple, reaching out to others to bring them closer to Christ.
Evangelization is two-way. It’s like breathing in and breathing out. Ad intra [internally], it’s about ourselves growing in faith, a lifelong endeavor, and ad extra [externally], it’s about reaching out to and helping others to receive the gift.
There are two goals. The proximate goal, I think, is the conversion of individuals. And the ultimate goal is a conversion of culture. It’s not really a program. It’s about a Person. And so, in a sense, it’s about everything that the Church does. The Church exists to evangelize, to spread the faith. But it’s especially linked to the study of Scripture, to catechesis, to the celebration of the sacraments, and, above all, participating in the liturgy.
Do you think that the Church today is good at evangelizing?
In some ways, yes. I would say it’s good in persons who are open to the Holy Spirit. I was talking with an evangelical Christian recently and he tends to see things as black or white, whereas I was thinking, no, Catholicism is like a big ship. It’s got many different places on it, with people at many different levels of faith. It’s also a long-haul flight. It’s not a hop to Jersey [a Channel island in Portsmouth diocese]. It’s a lifetime’s journey of discovery.
Where we’re often not good at evangelizing, and where often as Catholics we fail, is in our welcome of people. We need to welcome and be highly inclusive of everyone — so the doors are open, regardless of their status, or morals, or whatever it is — then to take them in and to lead them on a journey. We often reduce faith to moralizing. It’s another temptation: Do this or don’t do that.
I think it’s good to remember those three things: Believing, behaving, and belonging. In the past, we’d often emphasize believing, the right belief leading to right morals, and in time generating a sense of belonging, being a member of the Catholic Church. But today, I think it’s helpful to work on all three Bs at once, or in different combinations, or in varying moments. So living with a certain fluidity until a person can come to a public affirmation of their beliefs, their behavior, and their sense of belonging. The notion of accompaniment is very relevant to that.
Why is the Church better at evangelizing in some eras than others?
Faith can’t survive in a vacuum. It needs a culture to express itself in and to help sustain it. In the Middle Ages, that classical culture was theocentric. So those three Bs were easily correlated. Theology was the center of the sciences, architecture was Gothic, God was in heaven, and everyone knew their place in society.
But the modern culture that emerged in the late 17th century rejected the classical culture and its suppositions in favor of empirical science, or the new thinking of the Enlightenment and modern nation-states, and so on. Modernity was anthropocentric. And now postmodernity, which in some ways is still part of modernity, has kind of overlaid that. Whilst postmodernity is more open to myth and imagination, it still subscribes to the agnostic philosophies of modernity, and it’s now coupled to secularism and consumerism.
In the last 50 years, Britain has quietly undergone a religious revolution which is in many ways as significant as the Reformation was in its time. Most British people have now thrown off their Christian faith in favor of a pluralism of live and let live. They’ve thrown off Christian morality in favor of humanism, and their Christian church-going and convictions in favor of a certain indifference. And that’s why, I think, many people today say they are nones, people of no religion. We’re no longer living within Christendom, in other words. We are in a new apostolic age.
It was very interesting during the Queen’s funeral last week. It would have been for many, many people a throwback to an earlier era. It was very profoundly Christian in its celebration. It’ll be interesting to see whether that’s had any longer-term impact. But I do think the postmodern, secular, consumer forces are very, very strong, and the waters may well wash in again over that.
Is there a danger of talking endlessly about evangelization without actually doing it?
That is a danger, yes. The only thing I would say is that the Person evangelizing is Jesus Christ and the motive power is the Holy Spirit. God has a relationship with every single human being on Earth in a way known only to him. Even now, the Holy Spirit is at work in our hearts, wooing them towards Christ and His Church. The fatigue comes because he’s inviting us to be his mouthpiece, his hands, his feet, and to be involved in that. So that’s where the danger is: that we just end up thinking about it or talking about it without actively cooperating with the Lord in that work.
Should evangelization sometimes be a little confrontational?
I do think it must include a critique of culture, because of today’s hot-button issues around anthropology, sexual morality, the rights of women and men, medical ethics, life issues, abortion, cloning, euthanasia, assisted dying, and so on.
Clearly, different approaches are needed for different audiences. But the Church should never be timid, or fearful, or indifferent. We need to present the whole Gospel. The Gospel can’t be divided up, it’s one sacred entity. It’s ultimately about human salvation and happiness in Jesus Christ, so that’s going to include difficult teachings or challenges, as well as things that are affirmative and positive — and those are positive, of course, in their own way.
But actually, in my experience, most people already know the Catholic Church’s position on all of these difficult matters. What they don’t know, or want to know, is why we teach these things. And that’s our task: to present the truth and the arguments, attractively and persuasively, not to dodge them or ignore them. It’s exactly what we’re there for.
Have you encountered any imaginative ways of evangelizing?
The way of art, music, and beauty has a great deal to commend it. To give you an example, I’ve just returned from a conference at Catholic University of America in Washington. Outside our meeting room, on the green outside, was an amazing lifesize sculpture by the Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz called “Angels Unawares.” I believe he’s done something in the Vatican as well.
This is a three-and-a-half-ton bronze sculpture that highlights the plight of migrants and refugees. It depicts over 100 refugees tightly packed onto a 20-foot-long open boat. Some look back, but most of them are looking forward with hope toward a future new life. Parents hold tired, scared children, who clutch their pets and stuffed animals. But in the middle of their group stands the Holy Family. And in the center, there’s a pair of angel wings rising above the crowd.
It’s a very powerful and beautiful work of art. The presence of the Holy Family and the angel wings lift you to those transcendent kinds of issues. Works of art, music, and beauty have a way of speaking to many people today.
In April 2021, you wrote a “Letter to Everyone” — not just to Catholics but to all residents of your diocese. Why did you do that?
It was an invitation. It was an attempt to reach out to anyone in society affected by the COVID pandemic, who was thinking about what’s really important in life.
I was horrified by that closure of churches in the first lockdown, which would suggest that religion and spirituality are marginal. In fact, religion and spirituality are central to human happiness. So the letter was an attempt to cast the net out and invite anyone willing to come and see to enter their local church, light a candle, and say a prayer, to try out a local parish, and ultimately to find in the Christian faith, the Catholic community, everything that deep down their hearts were longing for.
The challenge with it was getting the letter out. Our communications team helped with a series of press releases. I asked the clergy to print off copies for parishioners to take away with them to distribute to family, friends, and neighbors.
I also asked everyone to pray earnestly to the Holy Spirit even if just one soul would benefit from this, the message of the letter would reach them. And although it was not a letter that was newsworthy in terms of the national secular press, we had four local radio interviews that I did. I gave three Easter messages, because it was tied with Easter, in the local newspapers across the diocese. I was also interviewed by ITV South for their evening program. Looking at the camera, I said to everyone: “Do come and try the cathedral this Holy Week and Easter.”
In the letter, you gave a personal email address. What kind of emails arrived in your inbox?
There were quite a few emails initially. Some of those were very strange. But interestingly — and this was a wonderful thing — we did have a small number of emails from Catholics who had lapsed and stopped practicing. They wanted to know how to return to practice. We also had four inquiries from people who wanted to know how to become Catholic. We directed them toward the parish in their areas. So in a way, it was an answer to prayer. It was a bold gesture, but it did connect with a few people who either returned or presumably went into the RCIA program.
Is it possible to evangelize without praying?
We can go through many of the motions, many of the activities of evangelizing, like speaking, offering catechetical explanations, bringing someone to Mass, and so on. But ultimately evangelization is fruitless without prayer and a docility to the working of the Holy Spirit. We see that docility often in the Acts of the Apostles. I think of Peter’s address to the crowds in Acts, where we’re told that 3,000 were added to their number that day, or Philip being prompted to get into the chariot of the eunuch and to preach the Gospel to him. The conversion of Saul would be another example.
Prayer is absolutely essential, and that’s why I’m always pleased in the diocese that we have religious orders, like St. Cecilia’s in Ryde. They are enclosed. They are a powerhouse of prayer.
Do you think there’s such a thing as evangelization fatigue?
I think there is. We hear such a lot these days about the need to evangelize and you think: “Oh, gosh, here we go again.” And also, the work of evangelization — you see that in the Acts of the Apostles — is itself exhausting. And sometimes it doesn’t work.
But often we don’t see the full outcome of things in this life. We only see the back of the tapestry. We don’t see what it’s like on the front. St. Paul put it very well in 1 Corinthians 3: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, God gave the increase.”
We don’t often see the fruits of our labors. But essentially evangelization is about friendships. It’s about our example and our prayer, more than our words. We need to remember too what our Lord said: Prophets are not respected in their own country. But in terms of discipleship, we are missionary disciples. It is what we’re called to do. Let’s leave it in the Lord’s hands, the fruits of our labors.
What advice would you give Catholics who feel hurt by the hostility they encounter while evangelizing?
I think they need to reflect on what’s happened and discuss it, if that would be a help. This has been the experience all down through Church history, but especially in the early Church, they suffered many setbacks. But as long as we’re trusting in the Lord and united with him, then the healing and the strength and the consolation are there. In my own life as a bishop, there are sometimes very, very difficult things that come up, but there’s also somehow a consolation of the Lord. We only have to turn to Him in prayer to find that.
Pope Francis recently reformed the Roman curia, placing a new Dicastery for Evangelization first on the list of departments. Should diocesan curias follow this example?
They could do. But I do think bureaucracies can be problematic. The real thing is to make evangelization the number one priority in the diocese, in parishes, in schools, and among clergy and laity. A centralized bureaucracy exists not to be over the effort, but only to be under it, to support it, and give direction to individuals and parishes. And we have to keep at it, persuading everyone that evangelization is what the Church is and what the diocese is all about.
But I think it’s very symbolic what Pope Francis has done and maybe we need to think of that here. We spend something like 80% of our income on buildings. There’s hardly anyone in them, relatively. Shouldn’t we be spending that money on evangelization? It is a question I raise frequently with our trustees. What is our budget here for it? What are we doing in terms of evangelizing? Whether we repair a roof, or whatever it is, has to be seen in the light of the number one priority.
Do you think that the global synodal process will help the Church to evangelize — or is it too inward-looking?
I do fear that, for many, the synod is an inward-looking exercise, however well intentioned. When the cameras are focused on Jesus and Mary, we get a fine view. But turn those cameras back onto ourselves, and what you see is a mess. And many of the submissions made in the synodal process, they can make that mess highly visible.
I suppose the positive aspect of that is that these are the obstacles that are preventing the light of Christ from shining brightly. So in that sense, the synod ought to be a big help towards evangelization, if it attempts to remove or rectify those things that are preventing people coming close to Jesus Christ and His Church.
What’s your advice to Catholics who want to evangelize but feel ill-equipped?
They are fully equipped for evangelization as long as they have faith. It’s really very simple. I mean, there are many good resources on the internet and great publications, such as our monthly liturgical aid, “Magnificat.” I think these other things can help us to a greater knowledge and conviction about our faith.
Much more basically, I think Catholics need to undertake a fitness program. Why not undertake the six holy things: spending 10 minutes every day in prayer, keeping Sunday special, including going to Mass, receiving once a month the Sacrament of Reconciliation, fasting and self-denial on Fridays, undertaking a weekly holy half-hour before the Blessed Sacrament, and maybe joining a group, perhaps in the parish, that meets regularly and includes faith sharing and a work of charity, fellowship, prayer, and formation. It is about deepening the gift that’s already been given. Everything else ought to follow on.
Is there anything else you wanted to say?
I’m very grateful to God for so many things over these past 10 years, especially for a sense of Providence and consolation in the midst of a lot of challenges. On the other hand, I think we’ve made, if I dare say — I mean, it’s the Lord’s Church — a huge amount of progress. We’re about to finalize a dramatic 10-year mission strategy, “You Will Be My Witnesses,” which is out at the moment for consultation in parishes.
Catholics, being Catholics, will focus on the structures, which are on the last two pages of a 70-page document. They’ll ignore the first 68 pages, which are about the renewal of spirituality, becoming missionary parishes, enhancing the liturgy, and then engaging works in charity, including environmental things and how we’re going to reach out to the young through our schools. They’ll gloss over a lot of that, I imagine, and will be looking about “what happens to my parish.” That’s kind of inevitable.
I think this is a comprehensive program now for us over the next 10 to 15 years. It will hopefully stabilize the Church — even though we often face numerical decline in different ways — but also direct us more joyfully in that work of mission and service.