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A future for Catholic evangelization

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Despite Pope John Paul’s repeated call for a “New Evangelization,” many Catholics still cringe at the term. It brings to mind images of television preachers and door-to-door missionaries who exude overpowering personal charisma.

But there are kinder, gentler forms of evangelizing -- a point driven home recently by the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association, which has led parishioners in six dioceses to see that they were already evangelizing without knocking on doors or preaching on TV. When they mailed out church bulletins, took the Eucharist to the sick or organized a youth picnic, they were sharing the faith.

And in that realization, the program’s organizers hope, may lie the future of Catholic evangelizing efforts in the United States.

“Disciples in Mission” is the program designed by the Paulist association to transform ordinary Catholics into evangelizers. The effort is styled as a response to “Go and Make Disciples,” the pastoral on evangelization written by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1992.

Six dioceses -- Lexington and Covington, Ky., Nashville, Tenn., Raleigh, N.C., Ogdensburg, N.Y., and Worcester, Mass., -- launched the program this year after beginning with training in 1997. The association worked first with diocesan leaders who then trained local parish teams to organize parishes. The goal was to think about what kind of evangelization the parishes already do and to strengthen their capacity through small prayer groups that met throughout the Lenten season.

In many of the participating parishes, the experience brought about two results after its first year: A new understanding of evangelization and a stronger parish community from which to evangelize.

“I had very negative ideas about evangelization because I’m a very a private person and couldn’t see myself going out and grabbing people,” said Pat Scully, a team member from St. Paul Church in Lexington. “Since learning about it, I am much more positive about it. I feel like it’s something I want to do in the format [the Paulist association] gave me.

“I still don’t want to go knock on doors or grab people on the street, but the format of sharing our faith by example and by talking about the joy of faith [is something] I’m much more willing to do,” Scully said.

It is such individual sharing that Disciples in Mission encourages. The parish materials include prayer booklets that preview the Sunday readings and prompt small group discussion with questions. Many who participated had never been involved with this kind of faith-sharing before.

In the Raleigh diocese, diocesan coordinator Terry Jackson said he found that converts to the Catholic faith are often more eager to participate than lifelong Catholics because they’re comfortable with the idea of evangelization. He also found that small, rural parishes have a stronger sense of evangelization because Catholics are often in the minority and typically rub shoulders with people from other denominations who are evangelizers.

Mary Ann Pezzullo of the Outer Banks Catholic Parish in North Carolina had been involved in an evangelization committee in her former parish in New Jersey, but she had no idea what “sharing the faith” meant in practical terms. Pezzullo went through the training for Disciples in Mission and led the parish effort.

Of their approach, she said, “We’re evangelizing ourselves first. ... First you have to get people comfortable talking about their faith.”

Brenda Thompson, like Scully a member of St. Paul’s in Lexington, said she thought Disciples in Mission would be good for their church community because it is undergoing a change. Rather than having its own priest, the parish now shares two priests with the other two parishes in downtown Lexington. “We’re trying to do new things to bring the parish into a new era,” Scully said.

With the many parishes across the country facing similar changes because of the priest shortage, Disciples in Mission sees the formation of small faith groups as one key to building the supportive communities that will nurture evangelizing efforts.

Franciscan Sr. Christen Shukwit is the diocesan director for Disciples in Mission in Lexington. She said that in larger parishes where it is difficult to establish a feeling of community, people will find a sense of belonging in small faith-sharing groups. “I think that’s our future,” she said.

Though the ultimate goal of evangelization may be to introduce Christianity to those outside the church, an equally compelling purpose seems to be to strengthen the faith of those already connected to the church in varying degrees of commitment.

The team at St. Paul’s, for example, formed small faith groups organized around scripture study. Promotional efforts included flyers, posters, sign-up days and personal invitations, along with a six-week prayer campaign and encouragement from the pulpit.

The team anticipated what might cause people to reject the program. They guessed that some of the older people would shy away from the faith-sharing, but would like the scripture study, so they played up that part of the program. They didn’t want people to think they had to be a scripture scholar, so they emphasized that the discussions would be about how the readings apply to each person in his or her life.

Out of a parish of approximately 550 families, 130 people signed up. Throughout Lent, 17 small groups met in members’ homes. People joined groups that met at a time that was convenient for them, which meant parishioners who hadn’t been acquainted before got to know one another. Thirty-two families also used the Family Activity booklet at home. These booklets provide children’s activities for various ages and a way for families to participate as a small group. As people read the scriptures and shared their thoughts and experiences, momentum built within the parish. And the negatives were overcome. For example, even though the faith-sharing wasn’t appealing to older parishioners at first, “I think that’s what they like the best,” Scully said.

For Thompson, one of the benefits was how the parish seemed to draw together through the program. “I have a much greater sense of community than before,” she said. She sees people lingering over coffee and doughnuts after Mass and has heard comments about the number of parishioners who met new people.

Disciples in Mission has also given some people a different idea of what parish life should be. Scully said, “With so many older people, and I consider myself one of them, our background was such that you came to church and you knelt down and prayed. You didn’t speak to everybody in church. That’s the way we were trained. So it’s a matter of continuing education to get all of us more comfortable with the fact that the church is a place of community, not just worship.”

Paulist Fr. Kenneth Boyack, director of the evangelization effort, said that building community was a logical place to start for an evangelizing effort. He said that Jesus trained his own disciples by first spending time with them in a group before sending them out on their own. Drawing people together with a common vision is a first step for a parish to “reach its own evangelization potential,” he said.

As he has spoken with leaders from the six dioceses and received reports about their first year, Boyack said, “Some people are getting involved in the small groups as participants or leaders who have never really been involved in parish activities before.”

At St. Paul’s, Thompson said Disciples in Mission participants have come forward to fill parish leadership roles. One participant decided to start a Family Life Ministry for the parish.

As these first-year participants go into a second year of preparation and practice, Boyack expects that their courage and conviction will deepen so that they will go beyond the church community with their evangelization efforts. “Learning to become a truly evangelizing parish takes time,” he said.

Boyack also sees Disciples in Mission as a dynamic experience. “The Holy Spirit is bringing about a new evangelization or a new creation, so it is an evolving process,” he said.

Twelve more dioceses have signed on to the evolving program. The original materials addressed the multicultural needs of parishes by discussing the African-American and Hispanic communities in their training and providing some materials in Spanish. Boyack said he has received requests from two of the new dioceses -- Chicago and Brooklyn -- for materials in Haitian-Creole, Polish and leader’s manuals in Spanish. The association is also responding to requests for materials for teenagers.

In the fall, leaders from the dioceses of Chicago, Brooklyn, N.Y., Tyler, Texas, and Pueblo, Colo., will begin training to implement Disciples in Mission in their parishes. In the meantime, parishioners at St. Paul Church in Lexington will continue to feed the hungry through a sandwich program, greet people when they arrive for Mass and volunteer in the federal prison -- all activities they have come to see as evangelization.

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998