Sunday, August 17, 2008

Evangelism – It’s Not a Dirty Word

The concept of Evangelism (spreading the faith by word of mouth) has a difficult relationship with Roman Catholicism (in the United States) Today. Historically the Catholic Church has been the most evangelistic of Christian groups, sending missionaries (led by the Jesuits) to Latin America, Africa, India, Japan and China following the examples of the Apostles. In modern times (in the United States) evangelism has become the domain of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestant Churches. Evangelism is even a “dirty word” for some Catholics.

That is not the Christian calling and Pope Benedict XVI, echoing the call of his predecessor John Paul the Great, emphasizes the need and importance of evangelization. Speaking to the Third Missionary Congress he proclaimed that “the most important service we can give our brothers and sisters is the clear and humble proclamation of Jesus Christ, who came to this world that we might have life and have it in abundance.”

Obviously this evangelization can take many forms. But, Benedict points out that the most important requirement of any Catholic is the proclamation of the Truth. Service to others is still a requirement (one only needs to read the Epistle of St. James), but it must be in conjunction with evangelization.

Before we Catholics rush out to evangelize the non-Catholic/non-Christian world, we must first look to our own house. News reports repeatedly indicate the sad truth that many Catholics consciously deny basic tenets of their own faith or suffer from a supreme ignorance of it. Sometimes they are called “Disaffected Catholics” or “Recovering Catholics”. If our own Church is filled with so many who are lost or astray, they should be our first focus for evangelization. We should reach out first to those who already have connections to the Church by dialoguing and teaching them in such a way to bring them into the Church fully and actively.

There are 1.1 billion Roman Catholics in the world, yet many are Culturally Catholic or completely lapsed. We should find strength in our Catholic Faith and proclaim it fully. Perhaps our first focus should be the re-evangelization of the many Catholics who have lapsed or fallen away, then we can take the message to the world.


Virginia Meagher said...

One parish in our Diocese is trying an experiment for the next three years. They have trained 18 families (including the children) in "witnessing to their faith" through everyday contact with others. These families will then physically go and visit families 30, 60, and 90 days after they have come to the parish for a wedding, baptism or funeral.

Basically, the pastor has decided that those families that come to the parish for these big events, but don't normally come, are the perfect families to have on going contact with and invite back into relationship with the parish community. They are hoping to increase the number of families at Sunday Mass by 10% each year.

This is also what the Gallop orgainzation promotes in their "Growing an Engaged Parish" platform. They say that there are "engaged people" - those who come, who participate in other activities/events besides Mass, who are happy to be there, and who are good stewards (all the way around) in the parish. Then there are "disengaged" people. These folks come to Mass anywhere from twice a month to weekly, but don't do anything else (except send their children through religious ed as necessary). They give some money, but don't come close to tithing and do not contribute their time and talent.

Finally, there are "actively disengaged" people. This group actually has two components. The first are PACE Catholics - Palms, Ashes, Christmas, Easter types. The second are the complainers. These are the people who claim to be Catholic, and who show up regularly or semi-regularly for Mass, but are NEVER happy with the church. They complain about the parish, they complain about the staff, they complain about the music. They complain about the pope. They complain about "those priests" or "those other Catholics."

The problem in many parishes is that this last group is where we focus so much of our energy - "Oh, you have a problem, can we try to fix it for you, or discuss it with you?" In reality, these folks will most likely never be happy. If you solve three of their problems they will come up with five more.

What works for building community, building church, building commitment, is to focus on the strengths. Focus on the people who are there, but not involved, or committed: the people who don't feel as connected as they could. This is building on our strengths - building on the people who are happy to be Catholic and who need to know more about their faith, who are hungry for their spiritual connection and growth and commitment.

Evangelism can take many forms. You can ask most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints that come up to you on the street how many "converts" they have gained from their mission work. Not one has ever been able to tell me they've gained a single convert from walking up to people on the street and asking them to consider such things.

But how we live our own faith, our own lives sets the example. St. Rose Philippine Duchesne came to the US to serve the "Indians" as Native Americans were called in the 1818 when she arrive in New Orleans. It took more than 20 years of service to others in this country, before she was finally given permission to minister to the Potawatomi Indians.

By that point in her life she was elderly and sickly. But they gave her a name: The woman who prays always. She smiled at everyone, engaged in simple crafts with the children, and let her prayer before God be her witness to God's power.

When the Religious of the Sacred Heart made the decision to not seek the canonization of any of its members because of the cost and resources involved that could be going to education or serving the poor, it was the Potawatami Indians who took up her canonization cause, telling the powers that be in the 1970s that Philippine's example to them was still important to them, still teaching them, still remembered in their stories and in their people.

That is how we evangelize. We build on our strengths. We seek God and God's path for us, and we follow it as best we can.

Sorry - I get long winded after a long, long day of moving. I'm too exhausted to edit (as Mark Twain would say - I'd write a shorter letter if I had the time).

Sorry it's so rambling. Have a good week.

CatholicSoldier said...

Excellent Points. I like that idea about reaching out to those involved with baptisms and weddings. That is a really inspired idea. You'll have to keep me appraised of how it works out.

PACE Catholics, I like it.