Models for Parish Evangelization
Building communities that are flexible, contoured, open, creative, renewing and adaptive in their service
“The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility,
it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be ‘the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters’” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 28).
“Flexible,” “contoured,” “openness,” “creative,” “renewing,” “adaptive” — the words Pope Francis excitedly employs to describe parish evangelization — are not the first words that spring to my mind in describing the comforting parish life in which I was raised.
I grew up in the North American Catholic golden era of the 1950s and ’60s in which one parish was much like another. They may have had different languages and devotions based on cultural backgrounds — some parishes were larger, some smaller, some urban, some rural — but by and large, wherever located, parishes served as community centers where children were educated in the parish school and played in the parish CYO. Men gathered in Holy Name societies as women gathered in altar societies, and together they pulled off the annual parish festival and weekly bingo. Sunday Mass, Saturday confessions, baptisms, weddings, funerals, annual confirmations, Forty Hours devotions, Stations of the Cross, First Friday sick calls, May crownings, Midnight Mass, Holy Week and the occasional parish mission were the building blocks of the spiritual life. Move from one parish to another and you could reliably expect some version of this, no matter where you lived.
Parish “evangelization” was the process of growing Catholic families. The children of Catholic parents were baptized, raised in the Faith, eventually married and the cycle was repeated. Non-Catholic marriage partners often converted to Catholicism, adding to the number of faithful. Some adults were inspired by the witness of Catholic charity and converted. Catholicism was simply part of the warp and woof of the fabric of community life.
Old Wineskins Burst
The labels “secularism,” “relativism” and “consumerism” are identified as the culprits undermining our once successful model of parish evangelization. However, changing demographics and economic profiles undergird most of these developments. Priests unfairly feel responsible for parish decline and as a result are often besieged, overwhelmed and confused. They see themselves as failing in their mission to spread the Gospel. Presbyterates splinter into factions, often along generational lines, each blaming the other for this diminishment. The priest shortage is a severe reality that mathematically cannot be reversed in the foreseeable future.
As if these difficulties were not enough, added are 9/11, with global concerns about terrorism; a seemingly never-ending world clergy sexual abuse crisis undermining the trust afforded Church authority and the priestly vocation; the 2008 world economic meltdown and its consequences; and a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic during which, for the first time in Christendom, public Mass was not celebrated in Rome on Easter Sunday — and not for many Sundays the world over. Baptisms, weddings and funerals were postponed, the sick could not be visited and they dying went unanointed. Institutionally sponsored corporal and spiritual works were diminished by the disease at every turn. The old wineskin burst.
A Changing World
As the world turned, and rapidly, the demographics of Catholic life changed. Job markets became increasingly mobile, requiring people to live in one place, work in another and move more frequently. Nowadays, it is not unexpected that people will change jobs and careers not only once or twice but five times or more. Income disparities demand both parents work, and for longer hours, resulting in less free time for the family. In addition, neighborhoods, no longer pockets of extended families, became transient, less cohesive and struggled with absorbing racial, cultural and class differences. Family farms were purchased by agribusiness, and grown children left their hometown if not their state. In search of paying lower wages, manufacturing migrated abroad.
A spectacularly reliable, successful parish model of evangelization began to fray, a process accelerated by national ideological, political and racial polarization, until “former Catholics” became one of the largest groupings of religious identification. For every new adult Catholic coming through RCIA, four current Catholics leave.
Hispanic ministry in Florida, California and the Southwest predated European immigration and had its own rhythm. The influx of 20th- and 21st-century Latino immigrant Catholics buffered the numbers of declining Anglo-Catholics. Latinos now comprise 40-55% of all U.S. Catholics, depending on the measurement used, and their percentage is stronger in the Southwest and West where an increasing proportion of Catholics live.
Unlike European immigrant Catholics, Latino immigrants did not enjoy parishes featuring their language and cultures with their own clergy. Nor could their children afford Catholic elementary education, with less than 5% of Hispanic school-aged children attending a Catholic elementary or secondary school. Latino Catholics of all cultures shared parishes with Anglo-Catholics, attending the “Spanish Masses” pastored by Anglo clergy who learned to speak Spanish. Only 3% of priests in the United States are of Hispanic origin.
The parish could not serve as the focus of community life, faith formation and shelter from racism that parishes at the beginning of the 20th century were able to accomplish. It is not surprising that recent data suggests that no more than half of Hispanic Catholics continue to identify as Catholic. These difficulties are mirrored in the troubling experiences of African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Catholics.
Pope Francis and the Evangelizing Parish
Pope Francis remains the champion of evangelization as the reason the Church exists, the responsibility of each believer to share the Good News, and the parish as the center of Word, sacrament and service that nourishes and sends forth the people of God. His confidence is grounded in the presence of the Holy Spirit that allows — no, demands — parishes are flexible, contoured, open, creative, renewing, adaptive in their service of the Gospel.
Parish evangelization is not like tube socks, where one size fits all. It must be contoured and adapted to the place and people it serves. I began ministry in an Alaskan parish where one double-wide mobile home served as a church, parish center and rectory, and now live in a New York City parish with one of the largest church buildings in Manhattan, serving young adults from all five boroughs and both sides of the Hudson River. The intervening 30 years I spent in Midwest urban, rural, university and cathedral parishes. Each has its own contours. Each has its own adventure in being adaptive, creative and open.
Evangelization begins not with a program of catechesis, but an understanding of the people, their “joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted.” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 1). What follows is not a uniform game plan but evangelization principles a parish could tailor to its own circumstances.
An Oasis on the Journey
None of us believes as well alone as we believe together. Human beings are God’s preferred mode of expression. The Word that took flesh in Jesus the Christ lives on as the Mystical Body of Christ. It only makes sense that our journey to God is enriched when we surround ourselves with other people, each possessing different gifts of the Spirit. On the journey to God, we need the gifts of others, and they need our gifts. Grace doesn’t just build on nature, grace is revealed through nature, and God made humans social creatures, designed for relationship. Oh, some of us are more introverted or extroverted, but, as written in Genesis, “it is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18).
Parishes are inventions of human nature and represent a salvation history where God calls not individuals but a people. Parishes are not comprised of those who have arrived at a preordained spot on the journey. Parishes are comprised of people from all over the spiritual map, including those who have no idea God is continually journeying toward them. St. Paul, for example, dedicated to eliminating a nascent Christian community, had a place in the Church, he just didn’t know it yet.
If parishes are not comprised of memberships like Netflix, or a gym or country club, then what is an individual’s relationship to a parish? What is a parish? How does it function? Why does it exist? How does a parish benefit my life? I am attracted to the description the Gospel of Matthew gives of the Christian community gathered around Jesus at the Ascension: “When they saw him, they worshiped him, but they doubted” (28:17).
Now, as then, the Christian community begins with people who have experienced the risen Lord. As a result of that experience, some of us are moved to bless God, while others of us doubt — we don’t really know what we have experienced, or how much we trust it.
Nevertheless, all who have encountered the risen Lord, believers and doubters alike, are commissioned by him to share this experience.
No matter how much or how little we have, faith is not a private possession. Catholic pronouns are plural, “us, we, ours” not “I, me, mine.” This is true of worship in all its sacramental manifestations; it is true of the Scriptures entrusted to our care, and the lives we are called to live.
In a rapidly evolving world where even the future existence of the planet is at risk, the parish is a locus, pointing to God, and serving as an oasis for people journeying toward God. This journey has been happening since creation. We are part of a long procession of pilgrims. Those in the front of the procession have left behind for our nourishment a tradition of Word, sacrament and service so we can introduce the risen Lord to those who have not yet met him.
A parish draws from that deposit and lives it in a manner that translates it afresh for those who will follow us. What we share is not so much a body of knowledge as an experience of learning to trust God along the way. Pope Francis reminds us, “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey” (Lumen Fidei, No. 57).
Synodal Model of Parish Life
Serendipitously, or perhaps as a result of a divine con-spiratio, the synodal method the Holy Father has called the entire Church to engage in, and he offers useful principles in redefining the mission contours of the parish. Central to the synodal process is listening. A parish is a place where everyone learns to listen to one another, to listen to others’ faith journeys.
Listening is not as easy as it sounds. When I taught medical school, the first task was to teach students to listen to their patients. The length of time that elapses between a physician asking a question and then interrupting the patient’s answer is seven seconds. Some of us don’t wait that long.
Over-reliant on our own experience — “we have heard it all before” — we are ready with answers or rebuttals before the other person has finished talking. Even if our predictions are correct, it is important not to deny the other the experience of being listened to without fear of dismissal or judgment. Many victims of clergy sexual abuse feel denied that experience.
Americans are practical people, we count votes, believe the majority rules, and we like decisions. We don’t like games that end tied. These instincts run counter to a model of evangelization where the parish learns to listen to itself.
A careful reading of Evangelii Gaudium reveals four principles to be integrated into parish life: (1) time is greater than space, (2) unity prevails over conflict, (3) realities are more important than ideas, and (4) the whole is greater than the part (cf. Nos. 234-237). It is beyond the scope of this article to break open each principle in detail, but they need to be explored by any parish serious about synodal discernment.
Let me share one example of a parish integrating this listening process within parish leadership. The pastor envisioned the council not primarily as event planners or problem solvers, but as evangelists. To be evangelists sharing faith, they need the experience of sharing their faith with each other. Over half of the council meeting is spent sharing what was happening in their lives.
Sometimes they would respond to a spiritual reading whose purpose was to deepen faith. This is followed by a period of prayer for people in the parish. Only then does the “business” section of the meeting begin. However, in the pastor’s mind, the true “business” of the meeting is the ongoing formation of the parish council as missionary disciples.
“The only thing people want to know from a priest is what it is like to experience God,” a priest-mentor continually told me. Central to this experience is prayer — prayer in which we listen to God, speak with God and bless God. Worship is our communal form of blessing God, done in recognition of the blessings God bestows upon us.
Pope Francis writes: “Above all, the parish is a place to listen to the Word of God and celebrate the mystery of his death and resurrection. Only from here can one expect the work of evangelization to become effective and fecund, capable of bearing fruit” (Address to members of the Parish Evangelization Cell System, Nov. 18, 2019).
In the Catholic world of prayer, the Word of God precedes all else, the Eucharist cannot be celebrated without listening to the Word of God. The Liturgy of the Word is not a preamble to the Real Presence. God is truly, really present in the Scripture. The proclamation of the Word deserves careful attention and preparation by those entrusted with this ministry: music ministers, lectors and preachers. This is perhaps a pastor’s greatest responsibility. It is more than a matter of introducing increased solemnity; it is a matter of developing the same reverence for proclaiming the Word of God that we associate with the Blessed Sacrament.
Perhaps that is why all of Chapter 3 of Evangelii Gaudium is devoted to this topic. Within this section, preaching commands paragraphs 135-159, a substantial portion of the exhortation, suggesting this ministry demands a significant portion of the preacher’s week.
If the Liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist is central, “the source and summit” of parish evangelization, they must be celebrated in such a way that it is clearly directed to, and celebrated by, people in every state of their journey, particularly when they are lost, their path dark and their life littered with rocks and thorns. Pope Francis instructs: “The Church too must be a large room. Not a small and closed circle, but a community with arms wide open, welcoming to all. Let us ask ourselves this question: when someone approaches who is hurting, who has made a mistake, who has gone astray in life, is the Church, this Church, a room large enough to welcome this person and lead him or her to the joy of an encounter with Christ? Let us not forget that the Eucharist is meant to nourish those who are weary and hungry along the way. A Church of the pure and perfect is a room with no place for anyone. On the other hand, a Church with open doors, that gathers and celebrates around Christ, is a large room where everyone — everyone, the righteous and sinners — can enter” (Corpus Christi homily, June 6, 2021).
Works of Mercy
The distinguished research scholar and dean emeritus of the School of Theology at the Catholic University of America, Msgr. Kevin Irwin often tells liturgical theology students, “The liturgy can’t do everything.” We are reminded the liturgy concludes with the commission: “Go and glorify God with your lives.”
Effective parish evangelization takes place when all understand we are missionary disciples within our everyday lives, and, as we make intentional efforts to reach out to those on the peripheries, especially the poor, it is in the service of others, particularly the abandoned and poor, that we encounter God.
For those for whom the experience of community and prayer are barren, God approaches them, and they draw closer to God through the works of mercy. There are multiple stories of saints like Martin of Tours, who cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar, received a vision in the night of Christ wearing the cloak Martin shared. If it became clear to Martin of Tours that we meet the risen Lord in human beings, particularly people in need, these works of mercy can also lead others to encounter the risen Lord.
When COVID-19 closed church structures, it did not drain the life of the Church — that is, the People of God. The Spirit breathed life into the world through the actions of kindness and mercy that arose and continue to manifest themselves in this pandemic. The sacrificial love of everyone who works in health care: doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, orderlies, sanitation workers, ambulance drivers — the Spirit of the risen Lord breathes through their actions.
What were once ordinary actions became heroic: bus and subway drivers, grocery-store clerks, truck drivers, police and firefighters daily risking contagion for the sake of others. Teachers worked extra hours preparing online lessons, people visited elderly neighbors to bring them groceries, families locked down with no place to go demonstrated extra patience, kindness and a willingness to forgive.
People were not able to go to church, but that did not prevent them from breathing holiness into a world choking with the virus. For many, these works of everyday holiness led them into the company of martyrs. These martyrs of ordinary holiness are indeed the seeds of the Church, proclaiming the risen Lord Jesus remains connected to us by love, a love that connects us to each other through lives of service, mercy and kindness — the fruits of parish evangelization.
FATHER MARK DAVID JANUS, Ph.D., is a member of the Paulist Fathers, the first religious order of priests founded in the United States. He serves as president and publisher of Paulist Press, the longest continuously publishing Catholic press in the United States.
Synod on Synodality
“The Synod on Synodality is a two-year process of listening and dialogue beginning with a solemn opening in Rome on Oct. 9-10, 2021. … The synodal process will conclude in 2023.
“Pope Francis invites the entire Church to reflect on a theme that is decisive for its life and mission: ‘It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.’ This journey, which follows in the wake of the Church’s ‘renewal’ proposed by the Second Vatican Council, is both a gift and a task: by journeying together and reflecting together on the journey that has been made, the Church will be able to learn through her experience which processes can help her to live communion, to achieve participation, to open herself to mission.” — From the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, usccb.org/synod