The Secret of Sycamore, A Testimony by Maria Fongen

Maria Fongen translated the Sycamore subtitles into Norwegian. She speaks here about her impressions of the films, the profound impact Sycamore has had on her, and why the Sycamore approach is so relevant today.

“My very first impression came from visiting Sycamore’s website, after Fr. Oddvar had told us this programme was something the Nordic Bishops’ Conference had recommended. I was delighted to see that Sycamore is founded on rock solid Catholic teaching, but also to see the freshness with which it is presented – the catecheses, the language, the music, the images, the interviews. My immediate reaction to Fr. Oddvar was: “This looks so exciting and consistent! Exclamation mark.” When I read the passages from Father Stephen’s booklet on The New Evangelisation, I thought: Now, this is something else. This is really what we need.

Soon after, I received the Master Subtitles to be translated into Norwegian, and started watching the films and working on the texts. I was completely carried away: They deal with faith in a low-key, informal, but nevertheless impressive way, approaching people’s sacred ground very carefully and with deep respect, allowing the participants to go through a breathtaking and transforming process of discovery, not to say re-discovery of God.

Sycamore offers a comprehensive catechesis programme, not only obeying totally to the definitions of the General Directory of Catechesis and to the Magisterium of the Church, but formulated in words and concepts that can be understood and shared with anybody in 2021, and with the capacity to transform our lives, so that we really live with Jesus Christ in our hearts and bring Him out to everybody. It offers a most convincing witness of faith, made even more convincing by Fr. Stephen’s own fascinating journey of faith, from his family origins, through the various stages that let him discover Who God is, and how God speaks to us, until he became an ordained priest.

I loved the language; so simple that everybody can understand it, yet so suggestive, brimming with imagery and striking comparisons, like when the four Gospels are compared to a time machine, or like in Film 5 where Jesus is described “not like a friend who shares photos of himself via social media and never comes to visit. He is someone who stands in the doorway, steps across the threshold, and wraps us in his embrace. This is part of the meaning of the sacraments: Jesus Christ touching and transforming our lives today.” Or, when explaining the Resurrection, Fr. Stephen uses the ancient image from the Eastern Churches, where Jesus “reaches down to the figures of Adam and Eve, takes them by the hand and lifts them out of the tomb”,  but then adds: like a lifeguard reaching down and lifting someone out of the water.” A ‘wow’-moment!  This imagery effectively opens up our inner horizons for perceiving God’s existence and active love, and prompts us to ask questions and begin to reflect, exactly as the General Directory of Catechesis instructs us to do. Jesus becomes alive and accessible for us – here, now! And Father Stephen is not afraid of challenging us to make steps of faith, leading us to trust in Jesus and to start praying. Many times, watching these films, I was moved to tears and filled with new hope.

The stories that are told in the films – Bible accounts, anecdotes from the lives of saints, moments from history and from the author’s own life – provide effective links between lived life and faith, presented in a gentle way, often with a touch of humour, even when speaking about matters as serious as the Final Judgment, where Fr. Stephen says: “We should have a healthy FOMO, a healthy “fear of missing out” on heaven.”

I also liked the questions and their potential for sharing faith. The questions are deep and thought-provoking, examining matters from many different angles, like “How would you respond if you knew someone had given up their life for you?” Then there are lighter questions that allow for an open, non-judgmental dialogue with people of all beliefs.

The music is another beautiful, striking element – inviting, with the first notes functioning as a summons, a call to something important and exciting, and then changing into a lively rhythm that suggests the setting out on a quest, with intermittent quiet parts for reflection or simply joy.

Then there is the use of art – we are shown paintings full of symbolism, ancient and modern church rooms, sculptures, architecture – and Father Stephen feeds us with lots of references to well-known films and books! But nothing of this is ever ostentatious or pretentious, just pointing humbly to God, showing the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, or illustrating Our Lady’s sorrow at the Cross, or explaining the nature and effects of the sacraments.

Finally, I think the interviews with people on the street and with Christian faithful give an extra credibility to the Sycamore programme. These persons express their faith with an honesty and a candor that show how God’s light and grace is present in people’s lives, despite our fragility as human beings. After a few films, these wonderful, extraordinary “ordinary” people feel like good, old friends, who are sharing deep insights and most enriching ideas with us. We start looking forward to know what they will answer the next time they appear on the screen. I will certainly miss them! Please give my warm thanks to all of them for their sincere contributions.

For me, translating the Sycamore films has been a wonderful and impacting experience, making me more aware of my identity as a baptized Christian, and summoning me to pursue a way of life that is true and consistent with this great gift and the mission it implies. Sycamore has made it clear to me that we can always refresh our understanding of who God is and restart our journey towards Him, with Him. The films will stay with me for a long, long time. I am sure we are many who will feel indebted to the great work Fr. Stephen, Susan and all their collaborators have done.

Finally, I want to apologize to all of you for my misprints and mistakes in the Norwegian subtitles, which I am discovering far too often as they are displayed on the screen, but I know that the core message of the films will touch you all and make you experience how close God wants to be to us.”

Testimony from Maria E. Fongen

Advisor, Catechetical Centre

Catholic Diocese of Oslo


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