Today we celebrate the feast day of the apostle St Andrew, known as one of those who followed Jesus to become a ‘fisher of men’. In John’s Gospel (1:40–42), we’re told that the first thing Andrew did was to find his brother, Simon Peter, and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah!’ In so doing, Andrew brought his brother to Jesus. It is in this spirit that St Andrew was chosen as the patron saint for the St Andrew’s Network, which was officially launched today.
The St Andrew’s Network is made up of Catholic volunteers who want to help and support men and women who are interested in the Catholic Church, especially those with a non-Catholic but Christian or religious background—an ordained pastor in a Christian community who is asking questions about Catholic beliefs, for instance; or someone who is studying theology in another Christian Church and is wrestling with some Catholic teaching and claims; or a convert to the Catholic Church who is looking for others who understand the journey.
Nigel Zimmermann is one of those people. He is the co-convenor of the network with Peter Holmes (who is based in Sydney, and who was trained and served as a Lutheran Minister before being received into the Catholic Church). Since 2019, Nigel has worked for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne as the principal advisor to Archbishop Peter A Comensoli. Brought up in the Baptist Church, he became an Anglican and served as an ordained Anglican minister in Australia and the United Kingdom for seven years (2003–2009) and was received into the Catholic Church in Scotland in 2009.
Nigel, also a husband and father of five, explains, ‘Having had experience as ordained ministers in other denominations and having been shaped by other Christian traditions (including Lutheran, Baptist and Anglican), we felt ourselves coming home when we entered the Catholic Church. We love sharing our faith, and the peace we found in the Catholic tradition motivates us to have open hearts and minds to others on similar journeys.
Every convert to the Catholic Church has a unique story, and each arrives with their own particular gifts or skills and life experience in their discipleship with the Lord. On our journey, we experienced friendship, confidentiality and discretion from the wisdom of others and so want to offer the same with others.
The idea for the network came about when a group of friends and colleagues drew together, having walked a similar path and shared with each other how difficult it could be to make such a journey, especially if their livelihoods and work were dependent on ministry. So with a collection of diverse and wise advisors, they started the network.
Nigel says, ‘For a number of years, a few of us had been talking about the need in Australia to find a way to support and encourage people who come to the Catholic Church from other faith traditions. Such people take big risks, including financial and employment risks. In the UK and in the US, there are established organisations that provide that kind of support, and we wanted to find something that was properly Australian.
‘And it seemed to us that St Andrew's example of giving witness and offering an invitation to someone, as a brother or a sister, provided us with a really good biblical example of how we might go about something down under. So, we have placed ourselves under St Andrew’s care.’
Essentially, the network aims to provide a listening ear, encouragement and prayer, and connection for people in the Catholic Church, wherever they are on the journey. ‘You might be journeying towards the Catholic Church, be a fellow traveller with no firm decision on your next move, or be a convert looking for some collegiality and understanding,’ says Nigel. ‘You may have particular theological questions, or be facing practical challenges as you discern your next steps. We have some experience of the kinds of journey you are taking and wish to listen respectfully.'
The network has a wide cast of supporters and helpers who are willing to offer further assistance. Among those is Professor Tracey Rowland, St John Paul II Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia, who says, ‘Different communities, including religious communities, have their own cultures, and included in this are certain sensibilities and group histories and even modes of relating. This can be daunting for people who are converting from one tradition to another. My own background is quite multicultural in a religious sense, and so I am sympathetic to those dealing with these kinds of issues. If I can make the transition easier for someone by just being able to listen and share my own experiences and knowledge of the Catholic faith, I am happy to be of some help.’
Nigel also emphasises the need to be sympathetic and gentle with those who are on this kind of exploratory journey:
The ministry is about accompaniment and welcome, not about proselytising from other traditions. If you make contact, you will find a friendly and confidential approach, with no expectations or pressures on whatever decisions you make in your faith journey.
And while the focus is on Australia, the network’s door is open to everyone. ‘The door is open to anybody, but particularly those who have come from another faith tradition who are enquiring about making a journey into the Catholic Church, or they might have already decided, but they’re looking for people they can talk to confidentially,' explains Nigel. 'And our hope is that whatever tradition you’ve come from, whether it’s a Christian one or a non-Christian tradition, we will be a source of friendship and conversation for you, in a way that is about accompanying you and listening thoughtfully.
‘The Catholic Church is a broad and welcoming paddock, and we're not interested in sheep-stealing from other traditions, but if a person themselves determines they want to find a home in the Catholic Church, we want that home to be welcoming and supportive.’
Speaking of his own experience, Peter Holmes, says, 'I am not a "convert". I have been a follower of Christ all my life, so being received into the Catholic Church is not so much a conversion as it is a completion of my faith. Coming home to the Catholic faith was not a rejection the faith of my childhood, it filled in all the gaps and finally made sense of everything.'
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