Communicating Christ: 60 years of the Catholic Enquiry Centre

Fr Neil Vaney SM

by NEIL VANEY
After the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 19th century England, the Catholic Missionary Society had quietly defended the nation’s ancient Catholic faith. But a new approach came to birth in the 1950s — not just to confront anti-Catholic prejudices head on, but also to persuade Sunday Mass-goers to share their beliefs; in short, to become evangelists.

The Church in New Zealand watched this development with interest. So, in 1959, the local bishops sent Frs Maurice Ryan and Brian Ashby to London to become familiar with this new emphasis and its methods. Back in New Zealand, the Catholic Enquiry Centre was launched at a national meeting at Holy Cross College in Dunedin on September 14, 1960, and it began operating in Wellington in February of the next year. Directors and office staff would work hand in hand with sponsors and donors throughout the land to promote the new missionary thrust, and raise finance to support the movement.

Staffing

In 1964, Brian Ashby was appointed bishop of Christchurch. Fr Ryan was to work a long stint as director until his retirement in 1988. As more and more inquiries came in, the original typists grew to include skilled computer experts and finance officers. After the reforms and new theological emphases of the Second Vatican Council (1961-65), it became necessary to include, as part of the staff, people skilled in theology and pastoral practice to answer the growing number of letters, then emails, that kept arriving. When Fr Ryan retired, the role of director passed on to Frs Paul Shannahan, SM, (1988-2006), Allan Jones, SM, (2006-16) and Neil Vaney, SM, (2017-present).

Reaching out

The missionary and pastoral dynamic of the CEC came in the form of parish visitation, promotion in different forms of the media, and response to the multitude of requests that came pouring in.

In the first ten years, Frs Ashby and Ryan (and later just Maurice Ryan) visited about 80 parishes a year. They would offer Sunday Masses, preach on the need to share the faith, and recruit willing parishioners to act as sponsors and promotors. Paul Shannahan and Allan Jones kept up this pattern of visitation, often attending sodality meetings, and Catholic gatherings such as the Eucharistic Convention.

The CEC office launched its newspaper ads in February, 1961. On the first day, there came 42 replies — nearly all from Wellington. In successive days, as Auckland and Christchurch mail arrived, the numbers jumped to 89, then 95. By 1968, it had become clear that weekly magazines were a more effective source of inquiries, and by 1971 it was the Sunday Times, Sunday News, Women’s Weekly, Listener and The Truth. In September, 1999, CEC marked its first appearance on television with a four minute slot on the Mary Lambie breakfast show.

The main response to incoming mail was the sending out of sets of booklets outlining Catholic beliefs and practices. Initially these followed the material used by the CMS in England. From 1980 onwards, however, there was a shift to locally written booklets. John Weir, SM, took over this role from 2000 onwards; the set of ten booklets, revised several times, was praised highly by a team of expert consultants in 2014.

Shifting currents in Church and society

When Paul Shannahan became director in 1988, he had just completed a three-year stint with the “Renew” process in New Zealand. He came with a new emphasis on the role of the laity and their work in sharing, praying and living the faith, especially in parish settings. As the century was drawing to a close, he was already beginning to note the smaller numbers of children in Catholic families, and the growing impact of immigrant communities in some regions. Though the CEC at this stage counted 600 promotors and 14,000 supporters on its books, he knew it would be very difficult to maintain such numbers.

When Allan Jones took over in June, 2006, he was deeply aware of the strong currents of secularism and agnosticism running through New Zealand society, so saw his task, like Jesus, as one of sowing seeds. He continued the work of advertising, visiting parishes and religious groups, and studied the emerging perspectives coming out of Pope John Paul’s promotion of the New
Evangelisation.

The appointment of Neil Vaney in 2016 as chaplain/pastoral director came against the background of the changing face of Catholic parishes in New Zealand. Many of the original promotors and sponsors of CEC were ageing and dying. Numbers of young and middle aged people in parishes were in decline, and dioceses were working to attract youth in quite different ways, as many of them no longer watched TV or read papers very much, shaping their world by phone or tablet, sharing the digital world with their friends.

Many dioceses and parishes were working hard on motivating worshippers to become more active in the sharing of their faith. The bishops were aware of the need for such efforts to be stimulated and coordinated. Working with other agencies such Catholic Communications, CEC might be able to reach out in new ways. So joining Fr Neil in his half-time role came Joe Serci as
engagement manager, bringing skills of planning and recruitment in the digital and training world. Mely Kartawidjaya, who had worked part-time on special projects, was taken on as office manager.

Though there would be loss in personal and parish contact, it was hoped that these structures would provide new ways of reaching Catholics who had wandered from their faith commitments, and the secularised and digital-focused world of many younger New Zealanders. This is the challenge that CEC is fronting as it enters into its seventh decade of trying to bring Christ and the Catholic faith to the people of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Fr Neil Vaney, SM, is pastoral director of the Catholic Enquiry Centre

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