You, dear reader, may well hold the Catholic belief that the Church is the Body of Christ, composed surely of frail and sinful members, but radiant and holy because Her Head is Christ Himself.
One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic; these are the adjectives which apply to the Roman Catholic Church.
The ecclesiology of the people behind RENEW, or RENEW 2000 - a three-year programme to be inflicted upon the Church in the Archdiocese of Westminster by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor - would appear to be somewhat different. For these, the Church is like a gnarled, knobbly, rotten old tree.
I have a little experience of the damage wreaked by RENEW. In the 1980s most dioceses in Scotland, where I lived, were subjected to ‘being renewed’ by RENEW.
"We are a pilgrim people heading up a mountain. To get from here to there we can only do it all together. Our progress, therefore, can only be at the speed of the slowest member."
This was one nugget spouted by local promoters of the scheme during a parish information evening. What of destination Heaven, you might wonder? Whatever about climbing mountains together, as Catholics we know that God made us "to know, love and serve Him in this life and to be happy with Him forever in the next."
The scattering of parishioners who had turned out to show an interest in RENEW found ourselves in the large church which seemed to have been turned into some sort of cinema hall for the ‘info evening’.
Catholic sensibilities were understandably wounded when we were confronted by a large screen erected in front of the High Altar. Sure, we were used to seeing the High Altar, the tabernacle, a crucifix as the focus in our church but no-one demurred. After all, ‘Father’ was standing there at the front of the church and ‘Sister’ (the Superior of a convent in the parish) would expose to us what RENEW was all about. Alarm bells should have rung there and then.
Use of the church for purposes other than worship would soon become de rigeur. (Soon we started having rock concerts in the church while Mass was celebrated in the parish hall.)
Why had they not used the fine parochial hall for this ‘info evening’? In fact, the proponents of RENEW or RENEW2000 cleverly know how to use the trappings of the Church, and even quasi-traditional language when it suits them, to lull people into believing that they are participating in something Catholic.
Thus, promoters of RENEW canvassing support for the scheme outside our church after Sunday Masses proclaimed "this comes from the Vatican".
While one might think this was a one-off case of ignorance (or deliberate misinformation), it is far from being unique. As with the promoters of the false ‘visions’ of Medjugorje, one can find many cases of individuals and parishes misappropriating the name of the Supreme Pontiff himself and alleging his ‘endorsement’. An example just shown to me concerns a parish in San Franciso. On its parish website it published the following:
What promoters of the scheme at St Rita’s did not point out was that as far back as December 1986 the United States bishops’ Committee on Doctrine (yes, that bastion of orthodoxy!!) issued a report on ‘The Renew Process’ in which they outlined four major areas of concern.
Back in the 1980s a whole series of articles exposing and analysing RENEW was published in Christian Order by Fr Crane, S.J. [now available on the CO website]. These were a great help in clarifying for me and some others what we instinctively felt upon our first contacts with the ‘RENEW process’. When I tried to disseminate some of this information I was branded a troublemaker, and even reported to be "mentally unstable" by the parish priest. (He didn’t say this to my face, but behind my back to another parishioner. I believe that such an unwarranted and unproven attack on a person’s character and reputation is known as calumny. May the good Lord be merciful to that since-deceased parish priest who, incidentally, also informed us that Purgatory had been "done away with", "we don’t believe in all that stuff now". )
In selling the concept of RENEW, diocesan promoters will make great play of the idea that a parish will only undergo RENEW if it signs up to it. We were told that we would have to vote for it. Perhaps in light of the misgivings of some of us, all mention of ‘vote’ soon disappeared from the propaganda only to be replaced by the assumption that that the parish would indeed be subjected to the ‘RENEW process’.
In a nearby parish where enthusiasm for the scheme was even less than elsewhere, the parish priest was forcibly ‘retired’, never to be replaced. The parish was put under the care of the ‘pastoral team’ of a nearby bigger parish. What happened next was like a re-run (or a forerunner) of that described by Michael McGrade in Death of a Catholic Parish.
The disposal of the incumbent, quasi-conservative parish priest gave the wreckers a chance to wreak their havoc. Altar rails were ripped out in the middle of the night. The Baptistry chapel was turned into a Sunday-morning coffee area and a meeting place for the Justice and Peace group. No matter that previous generations in the parish had managed to hold meetings in a room next to the sacristy or even in the presbytery. I believed that if the Baptistry were to be ‘decommissioned’, it should have been de-consecrated at least.
When I enquired where the baptismal font had been put, I was told, "On the rubbish dump". By now, the PP refused to speak to me and would literally take to his heels and run in the opposite direction if I approached him.
He mentioned to another parishioner that he thought the high altar should go next. A moveable wooden table placed down at the entrance of what had been the sanctuary, or even on the floor on the aisle of the church, would be more "appropriate". (Considering that one of his curates announced at one Mass that he was "the new Martin Luther", perhaps "appropriate" was the right word, for one had to wonder if they believed at all in the concept of altar, or the sacrifice of the Mass.) I should point out that the church in question was a modern 1960s-style church and the altar had been deliberately built so that the moment ‘the changes’ were authorised after Vatican II, the priest could quite easily slip in behind the altar to say Mass facing the people. The altar itself was simple but dignified; a large slab of marble supported on two solid marble ‘legs’.
Thus while the 1970 General Instruction on the Roman Missal stated, "Normally the main altar should be both fixed and consecrated. The table of a fixed altar should be made of natural stone; this accords with age-long practice of the Church and its own symbolic meaning", the PP was proposing to tear up this altar (no doubt to join the baptismal font on the town rubbish dump) and replace it with a moveable wooden table.
After the episodes of the disappearing altar rails, baptismal font, the church organ (again spirited away during the night to be replaced by a tinny-sounding electric organ situated no longer at the back of the church but at the front) and the complete carpeting of the church so that it resembled if not a night-club then at least a community meeting hall, some of us decided ‘enough is enough’.
We let it be known to Father that from now on we would be more vigilant. If he wanted to rip up the high altar on which had been offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass from the first day that church was blessed, he would have to get past us first.
If he came with his wreckers, day or night, to do that, he would have to get past us first. We would quite simply lay down in front of the altar and they would have to remove us first. What’s more we would alert the press and photographers would be present. (We set up a system of regular patrols past the church so that if lights were seen on during the night we could quickly alert one another and get ourselves down there pronto.)
No more was heard about ripping out the high altar.
The RENEW process is implemented on a whole-parish level particularly during the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent, each season and week within the season having a particular theme to be got across. Thus at these times the vestibule and even the church itself would be covered in posters and drawings and messages getting across whatever was the current ‘theme’.
Along with this, and a seemingly important part of the propaganda and inculturation of RENEW-style Catholicism, a giant predominating banner of the old tree which needed renewing was to dominate the sanctuary. Thus, instead of lifting their eyes to the tabernacle or the crucifix directly above and in front of them, parishioners would be confronted with the image and symbol of RENEW. The subliminal, or perhaps not so subtle message being communicated was that Christ on the Cross was no longer the focus of our attention, but this rotten old tree, which sermons and small-group meetings reinforced was the Church, ‘our community’ which ‘we’ would ‘renew’. Not for the Renewers the simple focus of Saint Paul: "I preach only Christ crucified."
From this we entered into the realms of something which, if it had not been so tragic, would have made a hilarious television sit-com.
Our very spirits were assaulted on a Sunday morning by the sight of this thing dominating the sanctuary. Our very spirits revolted against this mockery of Christ crucified and the Church which He founded, His very own Mystical Body. Thus one elderly lady simply went to the church-cleaners’ cupboard, took out a broom and with the handle managed to reach up and detach the giant banner of the gnarled and knobbly old tree.
Of course, being good Catholic sheep, the majority of parishioners simply sat or knelt there and pretended never to see a thing (though quite a few did whisper their congratulations to her after Mass!).
The priest, I believe, was simply so shocked at her audacity that he said nothing.
However, the next week the giant banner was placed even higher up on the sanctuary wall, with the result that it completely obliterated the crucifix. (But then that was OK with them for, as we shall see, the "new Martin Luther" couldn’t stand all this "Catholic paraphernalia" and wanted rid of it anyway.)
Undaunted, the elderly church cleaner this time before Mass brought out not only the broom but a set of steps!
On another occasion parishioners arrived for Mass to find that the statue of the Sacred Heart had disappeared from the church. The same doughty lady went to investigate, found that it was still in the sacristy and proceeded to carry it back into the church, no mean feat for an elderly lady struggling with a life-size plaster statue!
While she was making her way across the sanctuary under the weight of the statue to return it to its little shrine at one side of the church, ‘Father Luther’ arrived. This continued ‘disobedience’ and defiance from parishioners to the wisdom of the Renewers must have been too much for the poor bloke. He started screaming and shouting and grappling with the elderly lady, trying to prise her from the statue of her beloved Lord right there in the middle of the sanctuary!
Stunned parishioners looked on in silence, no doubt scarcely able to believe their eyes. When ‘Father’ began to push the lady in an attempt to get her and the Sacred Heart off the sanctuary she very audibly warned him to take his hands off her or she would call the police to complain of assault. ‘Father’ had met his match. Shouting and ranting, he stormed off, out through the sacristy and banged the door hard. No Mass was celebrated that morning. (So much for the pastoral care and concern of the ‘pastoral team’.)
An integral part of the RENEW or RENEW 2000 process is getting parishioners to meet during the week in small groups. These are to develop into ‘faith-sharing communities’ or as RENEW International now calls them Small Christian Communities. On their website RENEW International advertises its ‘Small Christian Community Services’ and how you can buy the books, buy the videos, participate in the various ‘workshops’ etc. etc.
In an interview a couple of years before his death, the late Cardinal Tom Winning of Glasgow spoke of the great success of the RENEW process in his archdiocese. And what was this ‘great success’? A few hundred people were now meeting in small groups all over his archdiocese! Well, that’s alright then! Or is it?
Of course, in order to have people meeting weekly in ‘Small Christian Communities’ RENEW first sets up a Parish Core Community. According to Renew’s own literature, "The Core Community exists to promote the development of small communities within the parish and to assure, in conjunction with the pastor, parish pastoral staff and the parish pastoral council, a ‘pastoral role’ for these communities."
So, you have a small inner elite whose task is to guide the whole RENEW process in a parish. They also, by the way, ‘watch over’ Father to make sure his sermons are in order, i.e. toeing the RENEW line.
But to return to the central element of RENEW, the small groups. RENEW’s training material teaches about these small Christian communities: "Gather in an informal setting (living rooms work well). Create an environment that respects the sharing of all. Make sure everyone has an opportunity to share. There are no right or wrong answers…" [my emphasis]
Well … up to a point. In actual practice people are aware of approval or disapproval, even when communicated silently, whether it be through body-language, facial expression, the atmosphere in the room. And because confidentiality is stressed, it is made clear that one should not go away and snitch on anyone outside the group.
How does this work in practice? I can say for certain of one ‘small group’ in one parish of our diocese, that people would rattle on that "The Church is wrong on contraception" and "We will eventually have women priests" and on and on ad nauseam with the usual old 1960s dissenting claptrap.
But, of course, people were not to be contradicted. Remember, "there are no right or wrong answers". When someone tried very gently to correct the falsehoods being uttered in the above case, she was told "You must stop being judgmental."
In one RENEW group in one parish of our diocese, a prominent Catholic teacher in a diocesan school announced that "We all know that natural family planning doesn’t work anyway." While this lady was happy that the bishop was to ordain her husband a permanent deacon, she announced that she herself had a vocation – to the priesthood!
Was this the criterion of ‘success’ that Archbishop Winning attributed to RENEW?
While the United States Bishops outlined ‘areas of concern’ about RENEW in 1986 (they did the study as RENEW originates from New Jersey), detailed and thorough analyses carried out on the later version RENEW 2000 show that the areas for concern remain and that we should be VERY concerned!
For example, Women For Faith and Family found that "there is a significant number of dissident, heterodox and/or Call to Action-associated names in the RENEW 2000 materials. In its present form the RENEW 2000 program may represent an unacceptable risk to the Catholic faithful…."
Call To Action is a liberal extremist group which holds an annual national conference in the United States and numerous smaller ones throughout the country. Their 1998 conference included ‘dialogue’ on abortion where pro-abortion participants could share their views - not, you understand, to ‘debate’ abortion, but rather to "increase understanding". Two lesbian life-partners lectured on the Women-Church movement. One workshop looked at "the sacred marriage" of Our Lord and Mary Magdalene. Another asked, "Can a Male Saviour Save Women?" Leaders of the gay and lesbian group Dignity USA spoke about their "quest for equality in the Church." Several workshops featured topics connected to Wicca and witchcraft; healing of auras, sacred circles, prayer to the ‘four directions’ etc.
One Catholic writer found that in the RENEW Leaders Manual 2 just such a "prayer of directions" was reprinted. The manual states (page 147): "the prayer forms of different traditions are helpful". "Oh Great Spirit of the North …. We come like the buffalo ready to receive the winds…. Oh Great Spirit of the West … we turn to you in praise of sunsets and in thanksgiving for changes. … Oh Great Spirit of the West, when it comes for us to go into the earth, do not desert us, but receive us in the arms of our loved ones."
Oh dear! Perhaps that poor deluded parish priest I mentioned earlier did not find himself confronting the merciful Sacred Heart of Jesus, but the ‘Great Spirit of the West’!
Kathleen Brown in an article entitled RENEW 2000 – A Vehicle for the Protestantisation of the Catholic Church exposed how "The ‘creeds’ used in RENEW 2000 Leaders Manuals 1, 2 and 3, find their origin outside the Catholic Church. Their authors, Sharon and Thomas Neufer Emswiler are both ordained United Methodist ministers. Their ‘creeds’ are all defective by content and omission."
After recalling my own experiences of RENEW and then looking at RENEW International’s own website, chance or Providence made me aware of an American-based website which exposes the reality behind RENEW 2000. The above-quoted article by Kathleen Brown was found on it - http://www.ourladyswarriors.org (also accessible through the Christian Order website).
It is worthwhile quoting at length just some of her summary of the many problems with RENEW 2000.
RENEW 2000 teaches that:
"All of these oppose the dogmas of the Catholic Church.
"Disobedience to Magisterial teaching is found:
My advice to any Cardinal ‘Comics’ or bishops who want to ‘renew’ their dioceses? Teach the Catechism of the Catholic Church and as well as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass promote authentic traditional Catholic devotions.
My advice to loyal Catholics in Westminster or anywhere else to be subjected to RENEW? Steer well clear of it and inform your friends and fellow parishioners what it is really all about. (See previous Christian Order articles now available on the CO website and the Our Lady’s Warriors website.)
And finally: the implementation of RENEW 2000 is expensive – for the love of God and His Holy Church don’t give them any of your money to pay for it! Westminster Catholics should immediately write to the Cardinal to advise him that the archdiocese is unworthy of support and that your financial contributions will henceforth be directed to groups like Christian Order who prefer to defend the Faith, not destroy it [c/- Archbishop’s House, Westminster, London SW1P 1QJ].