By Brian Baker - OSV Newsweekly, 11/25/2012
There are a lot of empty pews in Catholic churches these days.
The statistics bear out what most of us already know from experience: The vast majority of Catholics in this country no longer actively participate in parish life.
According to CatholicsComeHome.org — which uses mass media to reach Church members gone astray — only 33 percent of U.S. Catholics attend Mass on a weekly basis. A 2008 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) provides even more troubling data, finding that only 23 percent of U.S. Catholics regularly attend Mass.
It’s no wonder, then, that this steady drift of Catholics away from the Church has captured the attention of Pope Benedict XVI. His call for the New Evangelization, which focuses primarily on inactive members, is proof that the Vatican clearly recognizes one thing: All those empty pews mean that the Church must reach out first to the people who used to sit in those pews.
But how do you start?
John Youngman thinks it all begins with prayer. And he’s not the only one. Parish leaders across the country are embracing the power of prayer as the keystone in their evangelization efforts.
Youngman has served for two years as chair of the evangelization team at St. Mary Magdalen Parish, just outside of Orlando. He freely admits that when he started out, he had no clue where to begin.
“I’m not the kind of guy to go and knock on people’s doors,” he says. So, at first, he was stumped.
It was only after deep prayer that he was led to his answer — which was, in fact, prayer.
That’s when Youngman developed the “Tear Drops Prayer Devotional,” a program designed for “the return of family members and friends to the Catholic faith.” It incorporates prayer, scripture reading, a homily, and testimonials into an hourlong service highlighted by music, lighting, incense, “the whole nine yards,” he says.
A central feature of the program are the prayer cards on which parishioners ask St. Monica to intercede for the conversion of family members and loved ones. St. Monica, who lived in the Roman Empire during the fourth century, faced a situation like many mothers in America today. She had a wayward son. What makes her special is that she prayed for 30 years for his conversion. He eventually returned to the Church, becoming a bishop, a founder of a religious order, and a doctor of the Church. We know him today as St. Augustine.
With St. Monica as a model, Youngman’s program uses the simple act of filling out prayer cards as the starting point for re-evangelization.
“If we can get people to take a simple step by writing the name of a loved one on a card, then we can let the Holy Spirit take over,” he said.
Joan Floegel, head sacristan at St. Mary Magdalen, has two cards in a basket that’s now packed with 3,500 cards inscribed with more than 6,000 names. It’s the basket that parishioners pray over during a “Tear Drops” service, which takes place in the parish once every three months.
“I think there’s a terrific need for this,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “I see it in my own family. I have a card for my son — who once thought of becoming a priest — and for my two grandchildren.”
Floegel said she feels powerless alone to convince them of the importance of faith. “You can’t talk to the kids, it turns them off. So, we put it in the hands of God and St. Monica. We pray that they can get to them, because we can’t.”
The pastoral associate for administration and stewardship at St. Mary Magdalen, Lois Locey said she hears this from a lot of parishioners.
“Parents put their kids through Catholic schools and now they don’t go to church. ‘Tear Drops’ is a way to get them reconnected.”
Youngman has sent copies of his “Tear Drops” program across the nation to parishes that name St. Monica as their patron saint. “Slowly, by word of mouth, people have begun to learn about what we’re doing here,” which he is coming to realize is somewhat novel.
A focused effort
But “Tear Drops” is hardly the only program that uses prayer as an integral element of evangelization. While not structured strictly as prayer services, others just as aggressively promote prayer as a key component. In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Meghan Cokeley, assistant director for the Office of Life, Family and Laity, helps parishes tap into the power of prayer.
“The conversion of hearts and souls is what evangelization is really all about. And that comes through prayer and sanctification,” she said. “So, our focus is salvation, not numbers. It doesn’t mean that you don’t reach out and do the ‘marketing’ at some point, but this is primarily a spiritual effort.”
Cokeley has worked with a number of parishes, including St. Rose of Lima, North Wales. Jane Selner is coordinator of parish ministry.
“We find that with all the Church is facing today, evangelization is a big part of our work. We use prayer as a basis for our activities,” Selner said.
St. Rose of Lima uses “ChristLife” — a lay Catholic ministry program established in the Archdiocese of Baltimore — as a vehicle for the New Evangelization. The program relies heavily on media — books, audios, DVDs — to help people in parishes reach out.
It strongly advocates prayer to bolster this work. “We ask people to pray that our efforts at evangelization are successful,” Selner told OSV.
The appeal goes to people involved in more than 40 different ministries, parishioners in the pews and others that are homebound.
Cokeley also has worked with Peggy Kravitz, chair of the evangelization committee at St. Norbert’s, Paoli, Pa. “We encourage intercessory prayer,” enlisting stay-at-home moms, homebound parishioners and older daily Mass-goers.
“These people are our ‘prayer warriors,’” Kravitz said. They are part of a “circle of prayer” that encompasses everyone from ministry heads to inactive members. The idea is for the “warriors” to pray for the success of evangelization and return of inactive Catholics.
In the Archdiocese of Seattle, one parish is putting another spin on the power of prayer.
At Holy Family, Kirkland, evangelization coordinator Pam Gunderson explains they’re using a prayer card system similar to “Tear Drops.” The difference is that this program has its roots in the old “Billy Graham Crusades,” and is one piece of the multifaceted “ChristLife” ministry.
Called “Operation Peter,” it involves putting names of loved ones on cards — and then a whole lot of prayer. It’s not just about getting people to come back to Church. It really is about “spreading the good news,” Gunderson said.
“We want to share Christ with others. And we get excited about it, just like we do when we want to share a good restaurant or a great film. But I think we’re seeing that people can’t be self-sufficient. That’s why prayer is so important.”
Youngman agrees. He remains convinced that prayer is the initial step to evangelization. After that, maybe active Catholics can take another, bolder step.
“Maybe they’ll invite a friend to come to an event at church. It’s exciting what can happen. All you have to do is ask,” he told OSV.
Brian Baker writes from New Jersey.
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