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Fall Ministries

Convert draws 3,000 to the faith


Eangelization -- six syllables, 14 letters and a stumbling block for most Catholics. But not for Paul Carlson, a permanent deacon of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese. Carlson, who called himself unchurched for 20 years, was by the late 1950s “a desperate man trying to find an answer.” An ad in the local paper -- “Classes in the Catholic faith; no cost, no obligation,” caught his eye.

Carlson hurried to the Paulist Center here to learn more. By then he’d thoroughly investigated the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and a number of Eastern religions. The abrupt ending of his marriage and the loss of his children and “of all I’d worked for for 25 years” contributed to his spiritual search.

But Carlson “wasn’t a pushover” for the Paulist priest who catechized him. He came to the instruction classes with grave misgivings about the Latin liturgy and Marian devotions. The son of an evangelical Lutheran clergyman, Carlson had been exposed to much anti-Catholic invective while growing up.

If his ingrained prejudices were intact, so too was his curiosity. During an interview at his home in suburban Minneapolis, Carlson told NCR that he is forever grateful to the Paulist priest who was not only sympathetic to his “hurting” condition, but who also “respected my objections and reasoning.” He was received into the church June 29, 1958, on the feast of his patron saints, Paul and Peter.

Carlson said the two most compelling reasons for his joining the Catholic church were his coming to experience the abiding presence of Christ in the Eucharist and his coming to understand Mary’s theological importance as the Mother of God.

Since his entrance, he has brought some 3,000 persons into the church. Carlson has not done this by becoming a door-to-door evangelizer, but rather by teaching catechetical classes for 42 years at the St. Lawrence Newman Center here and by conducting scripture classes in 132 parishes in the archdiocese. By 1961 Carlson was the first lay catechist in the archdiocese.

His parish classes are booked three to four years in advance. They include an introduction to the Old Testament and the New Testament, a course on the Messiah of the Old Testament and Jesus of the New Testament, on the prophets, on Paul’s travels and writings, on Catholic faith in the Bible and on the beginnings of Christianity and its literature. Each course includes from six to 12 classes.

“My long suit is scripture. I like to give people the background, the situation and the life of the characters.” Prior to development of the catechumenate program, Carlson offered 12 weeks of classes over three months. Now he gives 10 weeks of lessons followed by the catechumenate.

In 1979 Carlson was asked by Paulist Fr. Alvin Illig -- then director of the U.S. bishops’ Evangelization Committee -- to give one of two keynote addresses at the first national lay celebration of evangelization in Washington. Carlson’s theme was “Evangelizing 65 million unchurched.” Three years later Illig presented him with the Paulist National Lay Award for receiving more than 1,500 people into the church, a figure that has since doubled.

Many of those who join the church enter through interfaith marriages. Some are Christians from other churches “who seek something more stable,” Carlson said. Others enter because they have been invited to join by a priest or relative.

With the Marriage Tribunal

In his inquiry classes on the faith, Carlson has dealt with hundreds of couples in irregular marriages. In light of this, the archdiocesan Marriage Tribunal asked him to do an internship with the tribunal in 1974. Carlson has remained with the tribunal and currently works three days each week as a judge. In this capacity, he has overseen some 3,600 annulments.

The importance of lay Catholics inviting others into the church cannot be stressed enough, he said. While giving a workshop in Omaha some years ago, Carlson told how a man said that he’d joined the church only after his Catholic children had left home. Neither his Catholic wife nor his children had ever asked him to become Catholic.

While Carlson is “technically on the fringe” of campus ministry at the Newman Center, he still teaches the first four of 10 classes on the faith each semester. He is popular with students, said his wife, DeLoris, because “he’s always doing research. That appeals to them.”

“The biggest threat to evangelization” on the University of Minnesota campus -- close to where St. Lawrence is located -- are fundamentalists, Carlson said. There are groups that “merchandise religion, making it into a ‘feel good’ faith. All you have to do is say ‘I want to serve you, Lord,’ and you’re born again.” But “Catholicism is far more complex than just coming forward, wanting to be saved,” he said.

Carlson agrees with St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Harry Flynn that Catholics need to make a choice for Jesus. Flynn supported the Billy Graham crusade and the rally of the Promise Keepers in the archdiocese, Carlson said.

The deacon, who is on hand each Sunday for one Mass and who preaches at five weekend Masses once a month, counsels students who seek his advice for dealing with proselytizers. When asked, “Are you saved?” by campus crusaders, Carlson tells them to respond, “Yes, I’m working on it,” quoting his namesake, St. Paul, who preached that salvation happens in the future.

Carlson has been observing university students for 43 years and finds a greater spirituality in today’s youth than that of the past two generations. “Campus ministry is the last chance the church has to touch the lives of these people before they leave school to start their careers and families. It’s a critical moment the church can’t afford to miss.”

Carlson, 84, marked his 25th anniversary as a deacon last April. He was thoroughly surprised in 1973 when first his Paulist pastor and then the late Archbishop Leo Byrne invited him to join the initial archdiocesan formation class for deacons. Hadn’t he and his wife both come out of “disastrous first marriages”? Wasn’t she a Sunday school teacher in her Lutheran church?

“A deacon’s ministry, by its very nature, brings a marriage into the sanctuary,” Carlson said. “A deacon can be a role model. He can be the voice and face of the faith. There were no models when I started,” said the man who’s now called “the dean of deacons,” the man who has taught scripture to incoming deacons since 1978.

DeLoris shares the faith

Although DeLoris attended many classes and retreats at the seminary in the course of her husband’s training, “I felt it was a sacrilege that I couldn’t receive [Communion] with the other deacons’ wives.” At the first retreat following the men’s ordinations, Archbishop John Roach “asked me to write a letter about what the Eucharist means to me,” she said.

Her own reception into the church came three years later. Since 1979 she has taught religious education classes at St. Lawrence, chaired the liturgy committee, brought Communion to the homebound and introduced Vespers. The Carlsons meet with other deacon couples every two weeks for a Liturgy of the Hours and for mutual support.

A number of wives of deacons who’ve gone through the formation program with their husbands “have felt strongly and continue to feel that they are qualified for ordination,” Carlson said. The archdiocese has combined the education programs for the deacons, their wives and other lay ministry candidates. All receive certificates at the end of the preparation.

Carlson does not expect to see married men or women ordained in his lifetime. But “the church will have to make some choices as vocations aren’t increasing enough to keep up with the sacramental needs of the Catholic population,” he said. “Rome has to act. We have to pray that we get the right leadership to meet the challenge in the next pontificate.”

A few years ago, Carlson thought he’d come to the end. A micro infection caused his lungs to bleed. His wife, his two adopted children and their families had gathered for his sendoff. But he did not depart. “I realized then that I’ve had a very satisfying life. It’s a life I’d never have been able to project happening in my first 40 years.

“I have sufficient faith to believe God is all powerful,” Carlson said. “Like Job, I lost everything. Like Job, God restored everything to me and much more. In my declining years I can look back and say that I did what I could to further the kingdom of God.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001