Madeline Woods is Lay Chaplain at St Bede’s and St Joseph’s Catholic College in Bradford and took part in the recent BBC Radio 4 ‘Sunday Worship’, which came from St Joseph’s Church in Bradford, along with members of the Bradford Catholic Youth Choirs, CEO of the Blessed Christopher Wharton Catholic Academy Trust, Priest Chaplain Fr Anthony Rosso and also from Holy Family School, Keighley, Nikola, a member of The Twelve. Madeline has written about her experience of evangelisation through broadcasting on air – and also about the off-air opportunities we can take to share our faith more informally …
Two days before being on BBC Radio 4, I was in a pub. An already-rowdy work Christmas party came in, and a member of the group sat beside me at the bar. Upon being asked what I do for a living, I surprised myself by responding with the whole truth – that I am Lay Chaplain at a high school. I wonder why I told him? Maybe because I was thinking about the upcoming BBC Radio 4 broadcast where I took part as ‘Lay Chaplain at St Bede’s and St Joseph’s High School’, or because I didn’t anticipate a religious debate from someone enjoying festivities, or perhaps the Holy Spirit was at work…
He was shocked. I did not fit the mould he expected of a Chaplain, because of my youth, my gender and the fact I was sat in a pub! Thus began the following hour. He was raised Catholic himself and showed me a prayer card he keeps in the back of his ‘phone case. He told me about his upbringing and his children. He asked my advice on what to say to a colleague who was having an impossibly difficult time. My ‘letting on’ that I was Catholic made him feel at ease, and, I hope, helped him. How much of the conversation he remembers, I will never know, but I hope that some memory of a friendly encounter with a person of active faith has remained.
My hesitancy in admitting my job to strangers comes from a fear of vulnerability. To admit my job means to admit my faith, opening myself up to personal questions and having to defend myself, as well as attempting to explain what chaplaincy is (does anyone know?!). Because of this, I tend to say that I am ‘support staff in a school’ and move the conversation quickly onwards. As a Lay Chaplain I am very aware that for many of my students I am a large percentage of their experience of ‘church’. The prayers they say daily, the services they attend, the voice they hear if they have a question about faith – almost all of it comes from me. This gives me an excuse – I talk about faith all the time at work, so should I really have to talk about it in my own time too?
My fear comes from experience – honesty about my faith prompts mixed reactions. Sometimes reactions are lovely, like the one above, where others open up about their own faith or lack thereof, or lively debates ensue, providing opportunities for growth. It is the other reactions, from inside and outside the Catholic Church, which are the root of my fear. I have been made to feel that my faith is less valid than that of others (a feeling which admittedly may come from my insecurities rather than what has been said), and I have been told that I only have faith because I am ignorant and haven’t thought about it enough yet.
My involvement with BBC Radio 4 was as part of a service from St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Bradford. It was a wonderful experience, being surrounded by people with one mission: to show that the Catholic Church is a place of warmth, welcome and joy. With music from children in our schools, readings, prayers and messages from and for young people, it did just that. Whilst I was nervous, I knew that the audience was one that wanted to listen, people who wanted to hear about faith.
In my job as Lay Chaplain, I am extremely fortunate to work somewhere which actively supports faith development. Part of our mission statement is for our students to be ‘spiritually awake’. This sums up my main goal – it is my job to provide opportunities for people to ask the questions which often don’t have clear answers, to grow in faith and, hopefully, to have a positive experience of faith for those I walk alongside.
In my work it is clear, but outside, simply living as a Catholic, I am realising increasingly that it is my duty to allow myself to be vulnerable, to seize every opportunity to share my faith. I know my faith gives me a positive outlook, and I know the beauty it helps me see in the world. I owe it to myself, to those around me and to God to share it. It is only by opening myself up to this risk that I can be open to lovely experiences, such as in the conversation with the reveller in the pub.
When we talk about ‘The Church’, we sometimes forget: it’s us. It’s you and me, every one of us who says that we are a person of faith. We have the terrifying responsibility of representing the whole. When we do so, we open ourselves up to criticism, we can be forced into a defensive position. Sharing the beauty of faith in those somehow less scary situations is therefore even more important: BBC Radio 4 broadcasting a Catholic service, with children and adults sharing their experiences of what faith means to them; BBC Radio Leeds’ Sunday Morning show, where guests have a ‘Faith Catch-Up’; Inn Churches, a charity which works with churches in West Yorkshire to provide places for people to sleep…all chances to spread the Good News to ‘audiences’ of all ages and of all faiths and none.
From a casual chat in a pub, to a chance to share our faith in a national BBC broadcast, we all have opportunities, more often than we think, to share the joy and hope our Catholic Faith can bring to those who are listening.
My prayer is that we all listen to the message given to Mary, to the shepherds and to us – do not be afraid!