A few years ago when I was living in Iowa, I was invited by the pastor of a parish to collaborate in an initiative he had spearheaded to invite fallen away Catholics home. The initiative, part of a five year plan, was multi-pronged and, while I was still living there, began to have some real success on the ground.
Among other things, we devised some creative ways to make use of the “captive audience” moments that every parish has access to, e.g. Christmas, Easter, Ash Wednesday, infant baptisms, weddings, funerals, first communions. These are times when Catholics who normally would never darken a church door find themselves face to face with the liturgy, the faith community and with the clergy. These are graced moments of opportunity, moments when the Church should unsheathe her best evangelizing weapons: intercessory prayer, evocative preaching, dynamic catechesis, a warm welcome and proactive outreach, clear communication of parish ministerial services and opportunities for faith community involvement, information gathering unrelated to money, follow ups, and so on.
I remember at one of the committee meetings when we were discussing these various outreach strategies, one of the women in the group made a remarkable point:
I think these are all great ideas that the Holy Spirit is inspiring. But we’d just better be sure that if we invite these people home to the Church that they find Jesus here waiting for them and a community worthy of the name “faith family.” If RCIA’s any indicator, we’d better take this seriously. After people go through RCIA’s dynamic process, its welcoming small faith community and its powerful Easter Vigil, the dust settles, they fall into step with “regular” Catholics and find themselves saying, “Where did all the Catholics go? Isn’t anyone excited about this stuff?” That stats say that after 5 years something like 60% of converts stop practicing. So if we’re not ready to challenge the regular Catholics to be a community of faith worth being part of, no point in inviting these folks home. We need to ask, “Come home to what?”
Parishes, parishes, parishes
Her point is powerful and very important, and, in the U.S., it places parishes at the epicenter of any and all successful welcome home initiatives. As Russell Shaw once said, “In Europe it’s in eccleisal Movements that people are gathered back into the Church, but in the U.S. it’s the parishes. Americans do parishes well.” And if the center of effective regathering is the parish, the center of the parish is the parish priest, who incarnates for those who are far off, in an irreplaceable way, the fatherly and ever-welcoming Christ. Through his personal holiness and prayer, his witness of love, his preaching, his beautiful celebration of the liturgy and sacraments, his effective shepherding, etc., he serves as a key to the success of renewal. As Archbishop Curtiss once put it, referring to a speech by Pope Benedict,
Benedict XVI asserted that no one in the world today knows people better than the parish priest. He knows their struggles and weaknesses, he knows their hungers and dreams, and he knows their basic goodness. No one is better able to relate people to the suffering and death of Jesus, and to the hope of resurrection, than the parish priest. No one is able to help people discover the presence of Jesus and his action in their midst than the parish priest. No one is better able to help people be reconciled with the Lord and with each other than the parish priest.
It is to priests that people will come with their doubts and confusion, with their suffering and loneliness, with their need for reassurance and encouragement, and their hope for the future. People come to priests unmasked in the sacrament of reconciliation. No one in any other profession has this possibility of knowing people in the intimacy of their inner hearts. No one is better able to bring healing and solace to troubled souls than priests because they are the conduits by which Jesus reaches out with forgiveness and love to his people.
Thank God for our parish priests, the unsung heroes of the Church who serve on the front lines. We pray for you and we love you!
Get ready, here they come!
The pastor had a brilliant idea along those lines, as the Sunday before Christmas and Easter he would say to the whole congregation,
Guess who’s coming next week? Yep, the C&E Catholics. And it’s our God-given task to make them feel welcome and connected. You’re my ambassadors. You’re Christ’s ambassadors. Help me welcome them back home and keep them home.
I never actually made it to any of the Masses where he did this, but I think it’s a brilliant idea. And though none of these things in and of themselves are a sufficient response to the “fallen away Catholic” problem, we have to start somewhere and trust God will work through our “widow’s mites.”
One of the last things I did with this parish committee was to develop a video that would be given out as a DVD to newcomers, inquirers, infrequent Mass attenders, registered parishioners who had ceased to attend. It’s thrust was to be spiritual and inviting, focused on Christ and specific to that parish community. I was asked to write the script and we worked with a professional videographer and a producer who helped pull it all together. Here’s what we came up with: