Traditionally the role of the parish has focused on activity internal to the parish. The parish focused on taking care of its regular membership and did little or nothing to outreach to inactive Catholics or the unchurched. Even today, as a priest, my only contact with many parishioners is for celebrations of the sacraments. First and foremost people come to the parish church to receive the Eucharist. When people are ill they call to be anointed. A few still come for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They come for First Communion and Confirmation. They come to the church for their wedding, baptisms, and funerals.
Beyond the sacraments and funerals, the most common thing that people come to church for is religious education for their children. People will also come seeking financial assistance for food, rent, or utilities
The celebration of the sacraments is foundational to the ministry of the church. The religious education of our children is essential in spreading the faith. The problem is that if these things are all we do as a parish, then we are not fulfilling our baptismal call to bring Christ to the world. In the above quote Jesus calls his disciples to take the gospel to allnations.
The parish is not just to be concerned with the needs of its active parishioners. We are called to bring Christ to the world and we call this evangelization. We are called to evangelize in three ways. First, we are called to evangelize our current parishioners by helping them grow in a deeper relationship with the Lord, and to understand how to apply what Jesus tells us to our daily activities. Secondly, we are called to reach out to parishioners who have fallen away from the church. The third category are those who never practiced their faith or previously belonged to another faith.
In fact, Canon law details the objectives of a parish to include the evangelization of both its active members and those who have given up the faith or practice another faith (DeSiano Creating the Evangelizing Parish, 101).
If we do a good job with the first, evangelizing our own parishioners, they will, in turn, feel the Holy Spirit burning within them, and share their faith with others.
In the past, we have only concerned ourselves with maintaining the celebration of the Sacraments and being there for our regular parishioners. It is certainly important to take care of our current parishioners. But to only maintain leads to a lack of growth; even to the decreased numbers of people coming to church. If all we do is maintain we take our faith for granted. In Creating the Evangelizing Parish, we read
Even so, it becomes clear that the more the Gospel is embedded in a culture, the more it comes to be taken for granted, as it were “part of the furniture,” just one more cultural institution (DeSiano, 78).
Fortunately we are beginning to understand the situation. When we seek only to maintain our faith, other forces become more influential until we come to a point where society changes the church rather than the Church sharing its values with the world (DeSiano, Creating, 77).
We need to change our attitudes, moving From Maintenance to Mission. We need to ask ourselves what does our parish do well and what could we do better at. We can begin by asking ourselves do we look only internally at the church, meaning we see the parish as a members only club or do we look beyond the walls of our church building? With these attitude, we can see evangelization as simply trying to increase our membership numbers rather than part of our baptismal call to bring Christ to the world. Another danger when we do see our need to evangelize our regular parishioners, we see it as "revival" and still forget to evangelize those outside our building (DeSiano, Creating, 66).
When does evangelization happen?
Evangelization happens not when the Good News is announced or presented, but when it accepted, when it has impact on a life. Evangelization, in short, demands a response and the response is an integral part of it (DeSiano, Creating, 26).
Evangelization involves an encounter (DeSiano, Creating, 43); an encounter where both the person sharing their faith and the person listening truly open their hearts and allow themselves to be transformed (DeSiano, Creating, 44). We may use the Bible, our personal experiences, and our liturgies (DeSiano, Creating, 35) as tools for evangelization but ultimately happens it requires the "encounter."
But once witness has been give, once people know that we are committed to them, that our lives have a ring of authenticity about them, that we have a message and a reason for our lives, then witness must give way to some kind of proclamation (DeSiano, Creating, 28).
Here is a list of a few of the things we need to examine to know how we are doing as a parish offered by DeSiano and Boyack in their book Creating The Evangelizing Parish.
"A test of a parish’s maturity will be not only how much is happening at or through the parish, but how much is happening over the parish grounds and in the everyday world of lay people" (75).
How welcoming are we to new people? Are they greeted at the door? Do we let them know what is going on? (84).
Does the bulletin present an accurate image of the parish? Does it welcome new members? Does it use descriptions not known to outsiders like "will meet in the Hilda Room" (84-85, 146).
Are we open to new ideas or does this statement describe the parish's attitude about new things? “Leaders will say that the parish is already busy enough without doing more. Members will think of the parish as a place that provides services for them. Pastors will feel that the people who are really interested will come to the parish, and that the parish does not need to seek them out.” ( 91).
Does the parish have a vision statement that truly tells what the parish is doing? (114).
While evangelization is an essential activity for every parish, it isn't about offering programs (DeSiano, Creating, 111). Programs can be a tool for the educational component of evangelization but remember evangelization requires an encounter that is a two-way activity.
It is not for the priest, religious, or the parish staff to do all the work of the evangelization. The priest (priest's role) and staff certainly have an important role to play but you, the people in the pews, are crucial to the spread of the gospel.
Of course, one of the first things a parish might want to do to start an evangelization effort is to form a committee and it should. The formation of an evangelization team helps establish the work as a priority for the parish (DeSiano,Creating, 125). But then it should not be the work of a few members of a team but a work of the whole parish (DeSiano, Creating, 127). Preparation time is important as the team is formed but if we wait till we are perfectly ready, we never will be. Prepare well, but don't just talk about it; do it!
One of the common responses when parishioners are encourage to share their faith with others is that we don't know how to talk about God. As children we are taught in religion class to know about our faith but many people were never taught how to talk about our faith. A good way to help people learn how to share their faith with people outside the parish is to begin with people inside the parish. Small Christian Communities (SCC) have an important part to play here. Small Christian Communities are generally groups of six to ten people who meet on a regular basis (generally weekly, biweekly, or monthly) either at the parish in a home to talk about faith. There are several programs available for discussion material. Some follow the Sunday Lectionary cycle while others are topic based. Still others can be sort of a book reading club. Anyone could be a member but generally SCC's are started by parishioners.
The materials offer a topic to share and questions to get a discussion going. In SCC we open our hearts to deepen our own relationship with Jesus. As we become comfortable sharing with the group, we are transformed and learn how to share our faith with other (cf. DeSiano,Creating, 13, 141-142).
For Further Reading
Rivers, Robert S., CSP, From Maintenance to Mission. New York: Paulist Press. 2005.
DeSiano, Frank, CSP, "American Culture and Catholic Parishes." "Priest as Evangelizer Workshop," Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association," Instructor Rev. Frank DeSiano, CSP. March 2010.
DeSiano, Frank, CSP, "The Mass: Instrument of Evangelization," The Priest, September 2009, Vol. 63 No. 9, pp. 79-86.
DeSiano, Frank, CSP and Kenneth Boyack, CSP, Creating the Evangelizing Parish. New York:Paulist Press. 1993.
"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age". Matthew 28:18-20
"A clean heart create for him, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit." Psalm 51:12
Renewal of Faith