“I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.“ -Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium
We know we need bold action. Our parishes are reopened, but we are not seeing everyone return to Mass in person. We were challenged with too few priests and changing demographics before the pandemic, and now we must address all of these challenges. Many of our parishes are doing great work to maintain their parish community, doing the hard work of calling parishioners and offering Mass online and in-person. But are we leaving time and energy to evangelize?
This urgency of present circumstance can distract us from truly creating a culture of missionary discipleship. In conversation with Rich Harter, Director of Mission Planning and Leadership for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, he says, “it is difficult for parishes to truly embrace missionary discipleship as a primary purpose. It requires that the pastor and leadership change perspective and the overall culture of the parish has to shift.”
The culture of invitation and hospitality must move beyond welcoming people to Mass and holding a breakfast gathering after Mass. Our call to discipleship requires that we go out into the world, the community, and express Christ’s love for everyone. Sadly, we tend to focus on people who act like those of us in the parish already. Fr. James Mallon describes this in his book Divine Renovation: Beyond the Parish: “somehow in our parishes, however, we have developed an intolerance toward people who are fresh out of the water, so to speak – who are not spiritually mature, who cannot speak the language, who do not have their life all together. If we want to live out our missionary engagement, we need to embrace all of the messiness in the lives of others.” Fr. Mallon goes on later to relate a story about an Alpha event at his parish that interrupted another regular ministry meeting. As Father explained what the Alpha group was and how the parish should welcome the visitors, the person responded, “I don’t care.” This clash of our sense of what we think we are supposed to do in comparison to what Christ is calling us to do must be recognized first and then changed in order to be truly hospitable.
When it comes to the topic of Evangelization, frankly, my experience is that the conversation centers around “how do we get more people to join the church” or “how do we get young (with many definitions of young depending on your perspective) people to join the church and come to Mass?” The goal becomes more about recruiting people to the parish, even at the expense of other parishes, rather than demonstrating the love of Christ.
About a month ago at Mass, a visiting priest from FOCUS said, “to evangelize is to show people that Christ loves them. No more than that.” Tell the Good News. This point made an impact on me and reminded me to set aside concerns about explaining the Faith or engaging in theological discussion. By my example and my hospitality, I could demonstrate the love of Christ and maybe start a relationship with the person. From there, it is up to the person and the work of the Holy Spirit to take the next step. When we do have the opportunity to invite someone to our parish community, the community must be truly welcoming. So the culture of the parish also must support and respond to every opportunity to welcome someone.
Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD, does this well. The home page welcomes everyone to connect “from anywhere.” And if you select “new here,” you are greeted with the opportunity to express interest. Within a day, a person from the parish reaches out to welcome you and invite you to an activity. It doesn’t matter where you are now or what activity you might want to explore. Welcome!
We don’t have to go out with no idea where to start. There are resources to help identify who is in our community. In a recent study for St. Mary Magdalene parish in Orlando, Chuck Salter was able to use a tool called MissionInsite to identify who the parish is serving and where there are opportunities to expand its mission. He was able to show that 26.2% of the population of the area served by the parish identified as affiliated with the Catholic Church. The parish has a vibrant community but nowhere close to the 60,000 plus people who are potential parish members. In the case of St. Mary Magdalene, there is a large community that already has familiarity with the Catholic Church and might be open to a relationship. Tools like MissionInsite can provide information about who is in the community and their primary interests and help to inform where to focus evangelization efforts.
The Catholic Church offers beauty and truth and allows the flexibility to bring people together in many different ways. Our worthy focus on bringing our parishioners together and adding parishioners to our rosters is important and necessary. And our mission is to spread the news that Christ loves us and wants us to be in a relationship with Him. Fr. Mallon uses the story of the Prodigal Son to point out the importance of the father, who welcomes his son back without reproach. He looks outward to see his son, and he goes out to meet him. What a great example for us to have in mind as we look outward from our parishes!
Terry Poplava is a multi-disciplined executive who is passionate about serving the Church through supporting her leaders and organizations. His experience includes coaching and training Catholic leaders, facilitating priority planning with dioceses and parishes, consulting with parish leaders to engage parishioners, and using technology to foster stewardship. Terry serves as chairman of the finance council for his home parish in Hartsville, SC and as cantor for his parish in Myrtle Beach.