Bec Review: Sycamore Evangelization Programme

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There is much discussion in the Catholic Church today about the challenge of preaching the Gospel to people in the modern world. Characteristically, modern people may have a vague or distorted understanding of the fundamental tenets of the Christian Faith but do not grasp the depth of the Faith or its transformative effects on their lives. Furthermore, they may have preexisting doubts and prejudices that obscure the most important truth of Catholicism, that God is a loving Father who sent His only Son to Earth so that we might become children of God and thus inherit Eternal Life. In providing the means for healing man’s relationship with God Catholicism is therefore, fundamentally relational, and in a modern world that atomises people to the extent that loneliness is perhaps the chief source of suffering today, the Church is looking at how she can transmit her answer in evangelization. Her answer to the longing for an eternal relationship within all of us.

Alpha, the Anglican Kerygmatic course for lapsed or non-Christians, has had some success in introducing secularised people to the Gospel. The programme begins with the essential questions about life integral to the human condition; what is the meaning of life? Is their a God? How do I pray? The course then proclaims (kerygma) the person of Jesus Christ and His Gospel in a very introductory way. For Catholics Alpha can be useful as a first (alpha!) introduction to Christianity but there are some shortfalls. There is little emphasis on the rationality of belief in God, which has always been centrally important to the Church, and of course, being an ‘Ecumenical’ programme there is no mention of the Sacraments (the channels of grace instituted by Christ Himself for the salvation of our souls).

Happily, many Catholics are responding to the need to proclaim the Gospel in a fundamental way and are themselves creating Catholic Kerygmatic courses. One well known programme is the Christ Life series from the Archdiocese of Baltimore. In the UK I had heard the well-known Evangelist Fr Stephen Wang had produced a high-quality informal course that will be re-released via subscription in the summer.

The website can be found here: https://sycamore.fm/

The course is named after the sycamore tree that the curious Zacchaeus climbs to get a better view of Jesus (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus calls him from the tree and comes to his house and from their his life is transformed. Sycamore follows the same successful format as Alpha with an opening meal and then a film exploring an aspect of the Faith. This film is interspersed with discussion questions which take place in the groups of up to 10 people on each dining table. Sycamore is perhaps best for those who are curious about Catholicism to become open to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

I recently had the privilege to attend a Sycamore programme session at Newman House, the University of London Chaplaincy. Fr Stephen and his team have just finished a second series of Sycamore with some refinement, more interviews and sharper, up-to-date visuals. The session was Film 8: Prayer.

I was made very welcome by the students who were running the session and was sat at a table with participants from countries across the world. Most of these participants were Catholic students who lived at the Chaplaincy and they shared stories of how they persuaded their agnostic or atheist classmates to attend Sycamore and how this aroused some spiritual curiosity.

The film contained the right balance of reflection and discussion. Fr Stephen gave some very simple but moving catechesis on prayer which was interwoven with testimonies from various members of the public about communication with God through prayer. By no means were all these ‘talking heads’ Catholic and there was some useful raising of common objections to prayer through these testimonies which were then gently addressed. Discussion on my table was stimulating and particularly opportune for the season of Lent.

I heartily endorse Sycamore and the Evangelization work Fr Stephen Wang is doing. As a participant, one can tell the work, thought and prayer that has gone into the production of each film and the dedication of session leaders who were able to keep discussions spiritually relevant and inclusive of everyone in the group. For any parish wanting to run a Kerygmatic course to introduce people to Jesus Christ but with reservations about Alpha or deterred by the investment needed for other programmes I would very much recommend that they try Fr Stephen Wang’s domestically produced programme. The new Sycamore films will be available by subscription when they are launched this summer. It might prove to be transformative for attendees as the tax collector Zacchaeus’ encounter with Our Lord was for him!