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Brenden Thompson

Meet UK Program Director Brenden Thompson

September 14, 2023


Word on Fire has been blessed by the addition of a UK Program Director on its team. You may be wondering, what does that mean? What is this mission? Who is this new person? Exactly how British is he? Does he tack extra letters onto everyday words?

I was eager to get the scoop, so I had a lovely discussion with this new addition to the Word on Fire team, Brenden Thompson.

Caroline Foreman: Hello, Brenden! It’s so nice to speak with you. To start off, can you share a little about your background? What should we all know about you? (And I would appreciate as many uniquely British references, phrases, and details as you care to use.)

Brenden Thompson: My full name is Brenden Alejandro Thompson, and I’m an Irish-Venezuelan hybrid, born and raised in the East End of London, England. The greatest privilege of my life is being a husband to Laura and father to Catherine (4), Clare (2), and Josephine (7 months)—blessed am I among women! Our growing family lives in the picturesque Oxfordshire countryside, not too far from Oxford. 

I’m a cradle Catholic, but my faith really came alive at World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, in 2008. As a recalcitrant eighteen-year-old, my mother asked me whether I might like to go on a free trip to Australia, only revealing that it was a Catholic pilgrimage several weeks later. Since that profound conversion, I have spent my adult Catholic life serving the Church in Great Britain in various ways—in youth ministry, as a pastoral assistant in a vibrant London parish, as a lay chaplain in an East London secondary school (high school), and most recently, as CEO of the communications project Catholic Voices, founded during Benedict XVI’s visit to the UK in 2010 to improve the representations of Catholics in the media. 

One of my key evangelistic principles comes from the informal motto of the National Catholic Shrine in England of Our Lady of Walsingham: “Ever ancient, ever new.” So, when studying for my master’s degree in theology at Oxford University, I chose to reflect on the figure of one of its most famous alumnus, St. John Henry Newman. I wanted to explore what we might learn from his life and writings for the practice of the New Evangelization in a contemporary British context. I am constantly in awe of the rich Catholic culture and tradition in these Isles and continually try to draw on this rich past to serve the mission of the Church in the present. 

What is your new role at Word on Fire? 

My job title is UK Program (or “Programme,” for British readers) Director. This is a new venture for Word on Fire, an exciting investment in the UK Church. So a major part of my role, especially in the early stages, will be fact-finding and bridge-building. 

Bishop Barron and Word on Fire are well known among Catholics in the UK. There are already hundreds of members of the Word on Fire Institute over here and many more who benefit from Bishop Barron’s videos and writings. So this role is really about building on these foundations and discovering what Word on Fire serving beyond the US looks like. I want my work to help deepen Word on Fire’s engagement in the UK and discover how it can uniquely serve the Church and its mission in this particular context. I want to find ways for Word on Fire to serve alongside other ministries and apostolates to be a vital part of the landscape of British Catholicism.  

Can you elaborate on these goals and your broader mission? How do you plan to accomplish it? 

One of the central aspects of the mission is really to serve and equip the growing Word on Fire movement here in the UK, especially the members of the Word on Fire Institute. My hope is to engage with those who are inspired by the vision of Bishop Barron and help to catalyze them for mission. There is a real opportunity to complement the online offerings of the Word on Fire Institute with in-person connection through talks, events, and retreats. 

In many ways, I have a blueprint in Bishop Barron’s recent tour of London in February 2023, which I organized. The tour and its associated events were the beginning of Word on Fire becoming embedded in the UK Church, and I want to continue to deepen connections with UK ministries and apostolates. Connected to this will be the mission to equip and engage through the various resources of Word on Fire—through its online content, its books, and most especially through the Word on Fire Institute. 

I believe Word on Fire is uniquely placed to evangelize the culture by catalyzing Catholics in their different spheres of influence, whether it be politics, the arts, entertainment, education, or medicine. I can see the potential for events and projects in these various spheres (like an event during the tour we did in Parliament with civic and religious leaders). Such encounters give Catholics the confidence to be evangelists who bring Christ to the culture wherever Christ has called them to be. 

What do you expect to be hurdles you’ll face along the way? 

Christianity in the UK has faced significant challenges related to secularization. According to the 2021 census data, for the first time since records began, fewer than half of people in England and Wales described themselves as Christian. The proportion of people who said they were Christian was 46.2%—down from 59.3% in the last census in 2011. In contrast, the number who said they had no religion increased to 37.2% of the population, up from a quarter. So, a big hurdle is simply the challenge of being heard as a Christian in a modern Britain that has forgotten its religious roots. 

Other hurdles, connected to the first, are around resources and capacity. The need is growing while the Church and its resources are shrinking. Clergy and laity alike are trying to find creative ways to do more with less. This predicament can, at times, lead to weariness. However, I remain hopeful for what the Lord has in store for the UK Church. There are many signs of life and vitality, and my prayer is that Word on Fire can help bring an increase of hope and confidence to Catholics in the UK. 

How did you get involved with Word on Fire? 

In 2016, while I was studying at Oxford, I was in the library one day and inevitably started procrastinating on social media. I saw on my feed that Bishop Barron was literally across the road from the library I was in, filming segments for his Pivotal Players’ episode on John Henry Newman. I took the opportunity to go and say hello and expressed my profound thanks to Bishop Barron for the positive influence he had played in my life of faith, and I earnestly offered my help should they ever want to do any activities in England. Fast forward to 2019, and I bumped into the Word on Fire team in Rome at the canonization of John Henry Newman. This encounter would end up making good on my promise to help organize an event for Word on Fire in the UK, but not without a few more bumps in the road. 

We began with modest plans for a tour of Bishop Barron in London, which began as a single event but turned into a multi-event extravaganza. The tour was delayed (twice!) because of the pandemic and then a third time, literally a few days before the scheduled tour, because of the death of Her Majesty the Queen. Finally, in February 2023, we had our tour, which included an event in Parliament for civic and religious leaders, a networking lunch with Catholic ministry leaders, a visit to the cell of St. Thomas More in the Tower of London, a Word on Fire Institute members gathering, a National Evangelization Conference with 1,300 participants, and ended with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Barron at Westminster Cathedral. The tour was a highlight of my life in Catholic ministry, and my role now working for Word on Fire is a fruit of this tour. 

Generally, how would you characterize the faith life of the people of the UK? What opportunities for growth do you see?  

Here, I can only really speak of English Catholics, who, ever since the Reformation, have had to operate as a dynamic minority. There is a robustness to the faith of many English Catholics, past and present, who have had to live with varying degrees of marginalization and persecution. 

In terms of opportunities, despite the depressing census figures I spoke about earlier, London was identified as the most religious part of the country, where 48.4% of Londoners considered themselves to be Christian. It is now the case that the biggest Christian denomination in London is Catholicism (35% of the Christian population), followed by Anglicanism (33%). Therefore, I think there are opportunities to bring Catholics together, and I very much hope that our work creates trusted meeting places where Catholics can foster community online and in person to offer a united witness to the Gospel across the United Kingdom. 

Thank you very much for your time, Brenden! It’s been an absolute pleasure to get to know you and to learn about your very exciting and providential new mission with Word on Fire.