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The Old Evangelization: 5 Steps to Renew a Parish

Last week I wrote an article criticizing the Protestant character of some “New Evangelization” programs. I gave a few brief suggestions for true Catholic evangelization, and a number of people contacted me subsequently requesting more practical suggestions. In terms of one-on-one evangelization, I’ve written a book on the subject; here I’d like to share a few important steps for how a parish can be renewed in a fully Catholic sense.

One essential point before we begin. Today the Church is awash in “programs.” Most of these programs are well-intentioned, but there isn’t much evidence to suggest that they’re successful in leading people into a deeper commitment to Christ in the Catholic Church. I’m sure people have been impacted for the better by this or that program, but the fact remains that the Church is still hemorrhaging members and most parishes are lukewarm at best, despite being inundated with a plethora of programs.

What I suggest is far more radical than a new program. We are in our current situation because the past 50 years have given us a radical reconfiguration of how the Faith is practiced. Another program is at best a band-aid when the patient needs surgery (and some programs are like opening a new wound). It will take another radical reconfiguration in order to stem the bleeding and heal the patient. I offer the following steps—in order of importance—as a way forward.

Step 1: Focus on the Liturgy 

Most regular readers of this website need no convincing of the importance of the liturgy in the renewal of the Church. Yet for many Catholics (myself formerly among them) the connection is not so clear; they simply don’t understand the obsession some Catholics have with the liturgy, which, to outside eyes, borders on a fetish. But if a parish is to be renewed, it must begin with the liturgy, for both theological and practical reasons.

First, the theological reasons. Our Lord proclaimed, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33). As disciples of Christ, our first focus must be on the Lord and glorifying His Name. This is more important than service to others, and even more important than preaching the Gospel. For when we focus on the Lord, He will respond and bless our lives (note: “bless” does not mean “make us materially prosperous” or even “attract millions of followers”). The primary way we glorify the Lord is through the public liturgy of the Church. The paradox is that if we focus on the “vertical” (worship of God), then the “horizontal” (witness/service to others) will follow, but if we focus on the “horizontal,” then the “vertical” is usually forgotten. We’ll just become another club or community gathering.

But a focus on the liturgy is also eminently practical when it comes to evangelization. The primary point of contact for most people with the Catholic Church is the local parish, and specifically, the celebration of the Mass. The Mass is where most people “interact” with the Church. Thus, if the Mass is irreverent, with bad music, insipid architecture, and poor preaching, then it will do little to attract people to the parish.

I’ve written previously that the purpose of the Mass isn’t evangelization. In other words, we should not think of attracting people when it comes to celebrating the Mass; we should instead think only of glorifying God. But if we do this, “all these things shall be yours as well,” including attracting sincere hearts back to God.

So how does a parish “focus on the liturgy?” It places an emphasis on reverence, which includes truly sacred music and sacred architecture. It also includes practices such as receiving communion on the tongue while kneeling at the altar rail, the use of the Latin language (in the Roman Rite), and celebrating ad orientem.

A sub-step of focusing on the liturgy is to improve homilies. No more talks seeped in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Instead, preach the truths of the Catholic Faith in their fullness and without apology. Just as the Mass is the main point of contact for most people, so too is the homily the main opportunity to present the Faith to the outside world. Don’t waste it.

If a parish only wants to do one step on this list, this is the one to do.

Step 2: Offer Confession Frequently

Years ago my family belonged to a relatively typical suburban Catholic parish. After we had been there for a few years we received a new pastor. In his first week, he added Confession times before every daily Mass and extended the scheduled Saturday time by an hour. He then preached for three weeks running on the importance of the Sacrament of Confession. Before his arrival, one usually only found a handful of people lined up for the Saturday 4:00-4:30 Confession time-slot. After he had been at our parish for just a month, there were longer lines for the Confessional every day. All people needed was for someone to tell them that Confession was important.

Evangelization is about introducing people to Jesus; helping them to encounter the Lord directly. It is through the Sacraments that we have the most intimate encounter with He who made us. In Confession, we unburden our sins on Christ and receive His forgiveness and mercy. Further, through Confession we are able to experience a deeper reception of graces in other Sacraments, particularly Holy Communion. If we want a parish to be renewed, then the people must be renewed, and Confession is the place to start.

Step 3: Focus Parish Programs and Resources on the Devout

When God decided to come to earth, found His Church, and convert the world, his public ministry lasted three years, and focused mostly on twelve ordinary but (11/12) good-hearted men. Jesus Christ poured His life into the apostles and entrusted them with the conversion of the world. And in many ways, they succeeded. From the original small band of followers, Christianity spread like wildfire until it had converted the most powerful empire in the world.

Today parishes adopt the opposite approach: they have no focus in their use of resources, offering programs and classes to anyone and everyone in the hope that something will stick. Most of those resources are spent trying to educate/evangelize young people, even though their parents have no real interest in fostering a Catholic life at home. This scattershot approach is both inefficient and ineffective.

A parish should focus its limited resources on training the small percentage of adult parishioners who take their faith seriously. This might only be 3-5% of the total. Then that small band of believers can “go out” and evangelize the surrounding community, including the other members of the parish. A parish priest and his staff simply cannot reach out to everyone in a parish’s boundaries; instead, they should train the already devout, and let them do the reaching out. After all, people are converted not by programs, but by their peers.

What kinds of outreach should be offered to the devout? Programs and events that foster a deeper love of Christ and a deeper spirituality. Activities like 40-hour devotions, Holy Hours, and Rosary Guilds. Catechism classes that focus on foundational doctrine, using time-tested resources like the Baltimore Catechism. If your parish is feeling really evangelistic, go out into the streets with a Eucharistic Procession. These activities will do far more good than most modern programs that may look slick and professional but often have little solid pedagogy or theology behind them.

Step 4: Strictly Vet All Presenters

In his First Letter to Timothy, St. Paul sets out some standards for bishops in the Church, standards which should apply to all people who represent the Church in any official capacity. He writes,

Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil; moreover he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:2-7)

Today there are simply too few priests, as well as other religious, to run all aspects of the modern parish. So most parishes depend on well-intentioned, sincere, but often woefully under-catechized volunteers to present the Faith in an “official” capacity. This needs to end. Ideally, all programs and classes should be taught by a priest. Sometimes, however, that is simply not practical. In those cases, lay presenters could be used, but it would be better to have no programs at all than to have ones that propagate a faulty understanding of Catholicism (in fact, most programs should be scrapped anyway as a waste of time—see the previous Step).

Parishes should look to St. Paul’s advice when selecting presenters. In practical terms today, this means that a parish presenter should not be a recent convert (say, less than five years); should not be divorced; should publicly support all Church teachings, especially in the area of human sexuality (e.g., no support—or practice—of artificial contraception); and should lead a morally upright life. And, of course, the presenter should be knowledgeable about the truths of the Catholic Faith. He doesn’t need to have a degree in Theology, but he should be able to explain and defend the basics of the Faith, and know where to look if he needs help (Google doesn’t count).

Until parishes take seriously the responsibility of choosing those who represent the Church and present her teachings, they will continue to teach a watered-down or even faulty version of Catholicism.

Step 5: Scrap RCIA

The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) began with good intentions and a good model. The modern process of bringing converts into the Catholic Church was fashioned after the early Church. Converts would go through a formal catechumenate program, which lasted from one to three years and culminated in their reception into the Church during the Easter Vigil. Unfortunately, today’s RCIA is a bureaucratic institution that too often keeps more people away than it brings in.

I went through an RCIA program in the early 90’s. For the first few classes I often spoke up to dispute something the liberal nun presenter said. After years of studying the teachings of the Catholic Church I had come to embrace them—I didn’t want some 70’s nun publicly undermining them. However, after about a month I would just show up and keep my mouth shut. I couldn’t stop her and had learned that complaining about her would do no good. By the time Easter approached a number of people in the class (including a fellow Evangelical I had become friends with) had abandoned the program. They were no longer interested in being received into the Church. Since then I’ve found that my experience was not atypical.

RCIA has become a “catch-all” program for anyone—Catholic or non-Catholic—who might be interested in learning more about Catholicism. A typical class might include an enthusiastic Protestant convert, a husband dragged there by his wife, and a cradle Catholic wanting to learn more about the Faith. How is one class supposed to handle all these situations? It’s simply impossible. Further, I’ve known people unable to join the Church because their work or family schedule didn’t allow them to attend the Monday evening classes the local parish offered. No RCIA, no reception into the Church.

Instead of RCIA, I recommend a more simple, and more nimble, approach. If a person is interested in becoming Catholic, the priest (or a well-vetted Catholic—see Step 4 above) should meet with him one-on-one and gauge what type of instruction is needed. For some, it might just be a few months of one-on-one meetings. For others, it might take years of instruction. Once the pastor decides the person is ready, receive him into the Church; it doesn’t have to be at the Easter Vigil, although it may be. We should require a certain knowledge and acceptance before a person can enter the Church, but once they are ready, there should be no barriers.

The Lord Will Bless the “Mustard Seed” Parish

Careful readers might note an irony in these suggested steps. In an article about evangelization, all of my steps for parish renewal are “inward”-focused. But shouldn’t evangelization have an outward focus? The apparent dichotomy is resolved by understanding the primary mission of a parish: to glorify God in the liturgy and to form and equip its members to be disciples. It is then the duty and obligation of those members to go out into the world and convert it to Christ. In a sense, parish life is to be modeled on the private interactions between Christ and His apostles: He formed and equipped them, and then sent them out to convert the world (Matthew 28:19-20).

On a more practical level, I realize that my suggestions might appear unrealistic. We have a priest shortage, and most of these steps require more priests than we currently have. Following Step 1 might even require building new churches! Further, most people have no ability to influence their parish to adopt these steps. But there are three things a lay person can do. First, he can pray and fast for the renewal of his parish and for his priests. Second, he can make concrete suggestions, in a charitable and respectful manner, for these steps to be taken in his parish. And finally, he can do all he can to raise his own children to embrace religious vocations to the priesthood and the religious life (imagine if there were an army of faithful nuns again at our parishes!).

I also want to make something else clear: I don’t necessarily think that if a parish follows these steps people will be banging down the doors to enter. After all, we live in a decidedly anti-Catholic culture, and a truly Catholic parish might very well repulse people rather than attract them. But even if that’s the case, we can be content knowing that we are being faithful to the Lord, and also that those who have open, sincere hearts will be attracted to that faithfulness.

Ultimately, a parish that follows these steps will be like the mustard seed in our Lord’s parable. To the eyes of the world, it might appear insignificant and small. But “when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:32).

Eric Sammons, a former Evangelical, entered the Catholic Church in 1993 and has been involved in Catholic evangelization efforts for over two decades. He is the author of several books, including The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did

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