Successes, challenges of being an evangelizing parish

| October 24, 2012 | 0 Comments

Lay leaders hear that personal invitation, hospitality among keys to effective evangelization


For a parish to evangelize successfully in a society marked by moral relativism, skepticism and a growing number of people with no religious affiliation, it must reach out effectively to the “spiritually curious and seeking” and invite everyone into a fuller experience of the faith, said Mark Croteau, director of programs at the Cathedral of St. Paul.

“Our society has become mission territory,” he told nearly 300 parish leaders who gathered Oct. 16 at St. John the Baptist in New Brighton for the archdiocese’s annual Fall Formation Day, which focused on the topic of evangelization.

“More and more, we’re up against this post-modern horizon,” he said. “The largest growing number of people within American society now are the ‘nones’ — those that are not affiliated with any faith or don’t believe in God. . . . What we have here is a great opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity that comes at a time when the Catholic Church is focusing on the need for a “new evangelization” to re-energize the Christian faith in an increasingly secular world. In addition to the Year of Faith launched by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 11, the world Synod of Bishops is meeting on the topic at the Vatican. Archbishop John Nienstedt also released a pastoral letter earlier this month on the new evangelization.

Being ‘evangelizing parishes’

In his letter, the archbishop said he wants every parish to ask how it “can become a welcoming and evangelizing parish.” Croteau and a panel of priests, drawing on experiences from their parishes, offered insights and suggestions.

Croteau highlighted efforts under way at the Cathedral of St. Paul that illustrate five “thresholds of conversion” identified by Sherry Weddell, international co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute: trust, curiosity, openness, seeking and intentional discipleship.

Cathedral programs such as its “Faith and Reason” speakers series — a theologian at the most recent gathering spoke about physicists’ possible discovery of the Higgs boson “God particle” — can appeal to “seekers” who are curious to know more about a Catholic world view and what the church teaches on issues such as science.

Other Cathedral programs, such as its “First Saturday Series,” which features Mass, eucharistic adoration, confession and speakers on various subjects, are directed more to those seeking to deepen a relationship they already have with Christ and the Church, he said.

The five priests who comprised the panel addressed a slate of topics, including how evangelization is conducted in their parishes and what they have found to be effective.

For Father Paul La Fontaine, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, the Sacred Liturgy is the Church’s best tool for evangelization, particularly for people who might only come to church for weddings, funerals and other special occasions.

“It’s something that really speaks to visitors,” he told the lay leaders in attendance. “For many people, it is the only personal contact they have with the church and it can make a great difference.”

The importance of the liturgy highlights the need to do it well, said Father John Bauer, rector of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. Proper attention must be given to having good music, homilies and lectors so visitors will want to return on subsequent weeks. Good hospitality, he added, is essential.

Events like the annual Basilica Block Party also are an opportunity to reach out to the broader community, he said. In addition to the musical groups it hosts, the church offers tours during the event.

“It’s a way for us to invite people to come to our home,” Father Bauer said. “The first year I was at the Basilica we had a downpour and we had to stop the music for about an hour and people came to me in the rectory and said there were people in the Basilica. . . . They were praying. They were all throughout the church, sitting down or kneeling down and praying. So they knew that was a place where they could go and spend some time with God.”

Going to the people

The pastors highlighted other examples of evangelization initiatives they have undertaken:

  • St. Joseph in West St. Paul initiated “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” gatherings to build community and friendships, said Father Michael Creagan, pastor. Parish families and individuals, who may have seen one another before but never met, gather at host homes to enjoy a meal and good conversation. The church also does door-to-door evangelization, in which teams of two people visit homes and extend an invitation to learn more about the parish. The effort is supported by prayer and office volunteers who help meet any needs those visited might have.
  • Father Kevin Finnegan, pastor of Divine Mercy in Faribault, said the church is reaching out to the growing number of Latino families in the area by offering trailer park Masses during the summer, followed by food, soccer games with the kids and other activities. The experience has highlighted the importance of the church going out to where the people are and not just expecting them to come to the church, Father Finnegan said.
  • At St. Stephen in Minneapolis, door-to-door evangelization with bilingual teams has been instrumental in helping the parish rebuild itself after a difficult transition four years ago when most of the English-speaking members left.

“Evangelization is not always fruitful door to door,” said the pastor, Father Joseph Williams. “But what it does is that it changes the missionary. What you find is that you start having a group of missionaries in the heart of your church. We’re trying to form, in a sense, a kind of ‘order of missionaries’ — brothers and sisters who have some sort of missionary formation.”

At the last Easter Triduum, the parish had the ‘order of missionaries’ sit across from the ‘order of catechumens’ — 27 were baptized at the Easter Vigil, Father Williams said. “I told the people we have these brothers and sisters here, the ‘order of catechumens,’ because we have the ‘order of missionaries’ here.”

The parish, which had 175 people four years ago, had 914 people worshiping together on a recent Sunday, he said.

Molly Schorr, director of parish life at St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park, said she has already broached the idea of a door-to-door ministry with her parish’s staff. She said one of the keys to effective evangelization is offering people a personal invitation.

“The Catholic Church is one of the best kept secrets, and our parishes need to do a better job of connecting with and engaging those that come to Mass regularly and those that don’t,” she said. “Jesus didn’t sit in a church all day waiting for people to come to him; he went out to where the people were and invited them to eat and share with him.”

The Fall Formation Day was planned and sponsored by the Office of Parish Services, as an outcome of the archdiocesan Strategic Plan, said Mark Dittman, the archdiocese’s director of parish ser­vices. The plan announced in 2010 calls for lay pastoral leaders to participate in ongoing formation and for the Office of Parish Services to organize at least two annual educational opportunities.

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