The following was first published by Our Sunday Visitor’s OSV Newsweekly. It is reprinted with permission.
As Christmas approaches, there is one thing we can be as sure of seeing as Santa Claus and incessant ads for holiday deals: full Catholic churches. As predictable as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, Catholics of all stripes return to their parish every Christmas, many visiting for the first time since the previous Easter.
The Catholics in attendance at a typical Christmas Mass run the gamut from daily Mass communicants to irregularly attending families to those who are estranged from the church but come out of familial obligation.
As practicing Catholics, what can we and our parishes do to reach out to those who are estranged from or perhaps just uninterested in the Catholic Church?
While this question has many possible answers, it will be helpful to review some basic principles that should form the foundation of any outreach to lapsed Catholics.
Each person is unique
The first principle we must recognize when inviting others into a deeper practice of their faith is that each person is unique. There is no magic formula that will bring droves of people flocking back to Mass each week. Evangelization is hard work, and it is work that is most successful when done on the personal level.
While there may be certain generalities regarding why many Catholics have left, or lessened, the practice of the faith, it would be a disservice to each one to simply stereotype “the estranged Catholic.”
Keeping this diversity in mind, what are some practical ways we can meet the needs of individuals who have lapsed in their practice of the faith?
One thing a parish can do is work to address the diverse issues lapsed Catholics have with the church. Holding “inquiry meetings” was one successful and popular outreach at my previous parish that addressed this need. Before each Christmas and Easter Mass we left small fliers on every seat in the church; these fliers invited Massgoers to an inquiry meeting where they would be able to ask any question they might have about the Catholic faith. We made it clear in the flier that no question was out-of-bounds.
Then, at the meeting, a knowledgeable layperson was on hand to answer the questions. (You might ask: Why not a priest? Our pastor felt that attendees would be more open about their questions if a fellow layperson was answering them). These meetings were free-wheeling and unpredictable. Some of the questions included, “Why do Protestants read the Bible more than Catholics?” “Why don’t we abstain from meat on Fridays?” and “Why do we have to listen to the pope?”
At one inquiry meeting, a particularly aggressive-looking man sat in the audience. After the preliminaries, the floor was turned over for questions, and this individual immediately raised his hand, asking, in a confrontational manner, “I’m a scientist, and I want to know why the church insists that we believe in a seven-day literal creation.” The moderator calmly responded, “It doesn’t.”
After some back-and-forth, the moderator was able to show, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that the church does not teach as dogma a literal seven-day creation (although it doesn’t require its members to reject that thesis either). After this exchange, the scientist was noticeably at ease and later commented that he no longer felt there was tension within himself between what he felt he must believe at church and what he believed at work. By simply directing him to the teaching of the church, our parish was able to help this person understand and live his faith more fully.
While it is important that we recognize the uniqueness of each person we are attempting to invite back to the church, it is even more vital that we focus on what exactly it is we are inviting them to.
A fallacy I’ve observed in many parishes is the assumption that being a good Catholic means being an involved parishioner — involved in committees, ministries and parish outreaches. Although there are many valuable groups in every parish, God calls each person to holiness, not busyness.
This brings us to our second principle of welcoming people back to the church: Remember that we are leading people primarily to a Person, not simply some human institution. We are each called to encounter Christ directly and let ourselves become, as St. Paul often said, “like Christ.”
In practical terms, this means that our focus should not be on someone’s involvement in the parish, but instead on their relationship with Christ. Do not confuse inviting estranged Catholics to deepen their practice of the faith with inviting them to join every committee and ministry your parish offers. Our goal for such persons is that they encounter Jesus Christ in the sacraments and through prayer. So put an emphasis on confession, eucharistic adoration, the rosary and other activities that draw them closer to our Lord.
After they have developed a deeper spiritual life, they can determine if they want to join the parish finance council or pro-life committee. And some may not be called to any parish outreach — their call may be to evangelize in their work or family. Again, if the focus is on encountering the Lord, we should not worry about where he leads people — to parish work, outside apostolic activities or simply living their faith in the midst of the world.
Our third principle: Don’t compromise the faith in order to be more appealing.
Our intuition may tell us that something will be more attractive the easier we make it. After all, who would buy a complicated TV if a simpler one were available at the same price?
However, recent history has shown that this is not the case when it comes to religion. The denominations that have lost the most members in recent years — the mainline Protestant denominations — are the ones that have worked the hardest to minimize the requirements of their religion. A church that is indistinguishable from the culture is one that is doomed to die — for who wants to get up every Sunday morning for a faith that tells you it isn’t important to get up every Sunday morning?
For years, “experts” have been telling us that the only way to attract young people is to minimize any moral or “hard” teaching of the church, yet the most popular religious figure among young people over the past 30 years is Blessed John Paul II, who over and over called them to the great and sometimes difficult adventure of the uncompromised Catholic faith.
So it is the call to a life that is transcendent that makes Catholicism attractive. People do not want to wallow in their own imperfections and weaknesses, they want to live for something — or Someone — greater than themselves. Down deep, every good-natured person wants more to be like Mother Teresa than one of the Kardashian sisters, so why don’t we call them to that?
Offer integrated activities
A final principle that parishes can remember when inviting estranged Catholics back to the fold is that an activity doesn’t have to be explicitly religious to bring people closer to Christ. Our Lord is present throughout our lives — in work, in play, in family life — and parish events can encompass all these aspects, too.
One way to attract non-practicing Catholics is to offer non-spiritual activities along with spiritual ones. For example, a parish could host job-skills training or financial advice seminars. Or it can have a softball team in the local church league. There are endless possibilities.
Obviously, the pastor will want to make sure that the organizers and speakers for these events do nothing to defame the Catholic Church. But that does not mean the event has to be explicitly “Catholic,” because all our actions, if done honestly and with proper intentions, can be offered to God for his glory.
And these activities can build community and help people be more comfortable with their local parish. In turn, the parish becomes a place to look when a spiritual crisis occurs — which is exactly where we want people to look.
After Catholics and Southern Baptists, former Catholics are the largest “denomination” in the country today. This statistic is not surprising to anyone involved in evangelization. We can no longer sit back and hope that our loved ones, fellow parishioners and co-workers who do not attend Mass regularly will magically reappear one Sunday.
Instead, we must work to invite people individually to encounter the person of Jesus Christ, offering them the full truth of Catholicism while making the parish a place they can find a true community. By doing so, we can help to reverse the trend of the past 40 years, helping “former Catholics” to again become “practicing Catholics.”
Eric Sammons is the director of evangelization for the Diocese of Venice, Fla., and his next book is “Holiness for Everyone: The Practical Spirituality of St. Josemaría Escrivá” (OSV), to be published in Spring 2012.