A ‘road map’ of evangelization in Texas

Bishop Joseph E. Strickland set out 18 months ago to create a clear path of evangelization and catechesis for the next three decades in the Diocese of Tyler, Texas.

“I think in order to really make a difference in how we teach and do it in a more direct and effective way, that we needed a roadmap, a plan, a vision written down,” he said.

Bishop Strickland began writing that roadmap, “A TeachingDiocese: Constitution on Teaching the Catholic Faith,” in early January. The Bishop collaborated with priests and other staff through more than a dozen drafts, issuing the final version of the document to the people of his diocese in early May.

The process involved “a lot of working through things and trying to be as clear as possible and make sure it addressed the issues that I saw,” he said.

Bishop Strickland spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about his inspiration for the document, the use of technology in evangelization and what it really means to be a teaching diocese.

The following is an excerpt of that conversation:

Our Sunday Visitor: What was your inspiration to create the constitution on teaching?

Bishop Joseph E. Strickland: It became more and more clear to me, especially in our area — it’s really the only area I’ve lived in, here in east Texas — that there are many good people who are Catholic but really don’t know what they have. They don’t know their faith in any sort of a deep way. And sometimes that lack of knowledge can cause them to drift away from the Church, or simply not engage as much as I’d hope they would.

So I guess with reflection, I began talking to the priests about needing to simply teach, teach the truth, what Christ revealed to us, and to really help people know the treasure of their Catholic faith and how it really, in the vision of the Church, is not just one among many religions, but for us it’s a whole way of being, it’s a whole way of life.

How do we do this, how do we try to really focus? And it’s not that we haven’t done that for the past 30 years, but just really looking at doing that in a more focused and effective way and facing the dilution of the family, this misunderstanding about marriage, just so many things that are vital to humanity.  . . .

One thing that became very clear was that we needed not just to tweak things or get different personnel, but we needed to take a whole different approach.  . . . We really need to refocus.

The idea for having [the St. Philip] Institute for Catechesis and Evangelization was sort of the beginning, and then the constitution grew out of realizing that for this institute to do anything meaningful, it’s going to have to have a good plan. It’s going to have to have a clear mandate.

It developed from the feeling that I had to give it a very clear expression of my vision of what we needed to tackle, what the issues are and what needs to be done in teaching Christ more effectively.  . . .

The parents are the primary teachers. People don’t really have a solid knowledge or haven’t been taught in a solid way what their faith is and who Jesus Christ is. It isn’t because they aren’t good people, but we haven’t given parents and couples before they were parents the tools that they needed. To me that’s a big part of what I hope to accomplish in this institute – to provide much more support to individuals, to families and to communities to really help us navigate the complex society we live in.

OSV: Can you tell me a little bit more about the institute? Have you begun assembling a staff?

Bishop Strickland: Yes. We have a director of the institute and someone to take the family life focus. None of them are here yet, but we are in conversation with a person who will be like a business manager or deal with the business side of things.  . . . I’m approaching the institute as a start-up business. It will be in an independent location from the chancery office, near the campus ministry office that we have here at the University of Texas at Tyler.  . . .

It will ultimately be directed by me as bishop, but with a clear focus and a director who is all about teaching catechizing and evangelizing. We have a skeleton team that will be coming on board as the summer unfolds.

OSV: In the document, you write “Christ is our savior, not technology, and therefore it is important that we always keep technology in its proper place as servant of the message.” How do you envision technology playing a role in fostering and deepening relationships with Christ?

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Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler, Texas, celebrates the anniversary of the founding of the diocese at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Tyler. Courtesy photo

Bishop Strickland: I think in the age that we live in, to ignore the tools of technology would be a mistake. There’s an iPhone sitting next to me on my desk right now. I feel that we’ve all seen a family with a couple of teenagers or a group of teenagers in a restaurant who instead of talking to each other, they’re all on their phones.

Be careful that the conduit we are using for information doesn’t become a contradiction to what that information is saying. What occurs to me is the six teenagers — it’s probably not the case — but they could be there reading a passage from the Catechism telling them to love their neighbor. So they are getting the information, but the way they are getting it is contradictory. They should be interacting with each other and those around them. And I think we have to be conscious of that.

So if we are trying to use technology to foster family catechesis, we need to be careful that it isn’t someway diminishing the family or isolating individuals in the family as they use technology.

I have an awareness of some of the challenges, but I don’t have the answers for how we exactly overcome some of the pitfalls. We need to stay conscious of that so we don’t create this marvelous electronic media world full of information about Christ and the Catholic faith that continues to isolate people from their parish, their family or being a part of the living Church community.

OSV: What does it mean when you say Tyler is a teaching diocese?

Bishop Strickland: For me, it means that we look at everything we do through a lens of teaching. To give you an example, just recently I was in the Holy Land. While I was there, one of the ministers of a large Baptist Church here in town had some ads in the newspaper about a class on non-Biblical art. And in the ad and in the class, he said ‘Well, this why Catholic’s are wrong. They, basically, they are guided by all this art that isn’t rooted in the Bible.’ And that’s not terribly unusual in our largely non-Catholic area.

Rather than getting all hot and bothered about that or protesting or whatever, there’s an opportunity to teach here. This is a teaching moment for Catholics and non-Catholics. Instead of reacting or ignoring, just look for where we can teach and help teenagers and college students and families and moms and dads wherever they are.

I think as I contemplate trying to get this off the ground, I hope and I believe that that is going to be a significant element of doing this. I think as a lifelong Catholic myself, one of the ways that we maybe aren’t the most effective, and where I hope we can be, is that we are generic. One thing for everyone. When we should be asking, “How’s this age group going to hear that? Where are they in life? Where are the teenagers, and how can this be something that they hear and latch on to? And where are the 75-year-olds?” Just a must more intentional approach to the individual is going to be important.

All of that is really what I mean by teaching diocese. Always looking at how we teach the individual in the context of their family, in the context of their parish community, in the context of the world they live in.

And constantly asking ourselves, “Where are the opportunities? How do we get the message across? How do we recognize that for any issue we hear on the news, there are some elements of what Christ and his Church have to say that can help us navigate through those issues?”

OSV: What do you think is among the most important things to teach?

Bishop Strickland: I really believe that the liturgy, how we pray and the real presence, the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ — teaching that is critical — that is the foundation, the very core of being Catholic.

Lex orandi lex credendi. The way we pray can do an awful lot with helping us to be a teaching diocese, really recognizing the sacred in the liturgy and the sacred in us as children of God.

I hope to highlight that for everybody in any season of life that they are in — to make them aware of Christ really present in the sacraments, especially in the consecrated bread and wine.

OSV: The five-year support plan you suggest for newly married couples is something that made me think, “Why don’t more dioceses do this?” Can you talk about how that idea came to be?

Bishop Strickland: The most basic seed of the idea was Pope Francis speaking about the remote and immediate and the mistagogia aspect of marriage. And what I latched onto is that he’s absolutely right. We need to be teaching people long before they are even engaged. They need to know what marriage is, know what dating is about in a Christian context. . . .

My idea with the sponsor couples is really having people who know marriage, and certainly I’ve studied marriage and led a lot of marriage preparation, and I’ve formed a lot of couples in the immediate preparation for marriage, but I’ve never been married. And you really know more about what marriage is on a day-to-day basis, just like I can tell you what being a priest is — I’ve been doing it for 32 years. You can study priesthood, but it’s not the same. The best experts are those who are living that vocation.

The five-year number is from what statistics say about — if marriages can make it past five years, they are more likely to make it for what marriage is intended for, which is a lifetime.  . . .

In this atmosphere we live in, many people get married, and they really have no earthly idea what they are doing, and it shows. They last a month sometimes.

We know the reality that some marriages fail, and it gives us a little bit of a shock, or a tone that we just need to keep these people together. And certainly that’s true, but I hope that we can develop an atmosphere not just about survival but that allows people to really flourish and have what I believe Christ intends marriage to be, which is a real fulfilment of the individual with a committed individual next to them.

I just visited with our newest seminarians — we are blessed with five entering this year — and I had lunch with them and was talking with them about priesthood, and it’s the same thing. I believe that if you find the vocation that Christ calls you to, that God created you for, that is the best path for your fulfilment, for a meaningful life. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy or always fun, but I can say in my 32 years in the priesthood that it’s what life is about, and it’s perfect for me.

That’s what I would hope, that presuming we can turn things around — certainly the Holy Spirit can do it, but, we need to be his instruments — is that we can make sure that people know what they are doing when they marry and have a good foundation.

And even the best foundation needs care, and enrichment and growth, or it can begin to erode. It needs to be alive and grow and be a journey with the married couples.

A couple might marry, but in 10 years they have a lot of experiences that push them in different directions. If they aren’t in constant communication while that happens, they can find themselves as almost total strangers.

Well how did that happen? They probably didn’t know what marriage was and didn’t nurture it along the way, and even if they had a good foundation, something happened to it over time.  . . .

OSV: You have set an aggressive goal to “engage every parishioner in an irregular marriage situation by the year 2020, and that each and every one of those situations is brought to canonical resolution by 2025.” What will that engagement look like, even to those not in the pews?

Bishop Strickland: Teaching what marriage is and really focusing on that is a gift and God’s way of forming the human community. Marriage, with all the erosion and the ways that it’s been under attack — and I would even say under neglect — in our society, is so basic to everything that the human community needs. I think we just have to continue to support people in making that a priority and helping people to realize that this is reality and it’s how the human person flourishes.

There are so many studies on children, the gender confusions and so on, and they give us data that if we follow the Gospel, we can avoid a lot of the ills of modern society. I think we have to continually going back to that.

OSV: What has been the reception to the document so far in your Diocese?

Bishop Strickland: I have to say it’s been overwhelmingly positive. There are a few questions about specifics or details, which frankly I don’t claim to have all the answers for.

I had a special presentation to the priests and went through every section of the document and gave them a synopsis of the challenges as I see them and how we can support each other.

I was kind of naive when I thought I could know this out in five to 10 pages; it grew to more than I had imagined. At almost 30 pages it’s substantial. It had to be. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, such as: “How are you going to do this? And how’s that going to work?” But just getting a roadmap on paper took more than I’d originally thought. I might not have jumped into it, but I’m glad I did.

It has been very well received. I’ve had people say “The Church needs this, not just the Diocese of Tyler.” And I think we all are pretty much in the same boat. Frankly, the Church is famous for wonderful documents that are far beyond anything I’ve written. But what we aren’t famous for is wonderful implementation.

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If we put into action 50 percent of what’s been written, oh man, we would be on fire! I face the same challenge with this that every bishop, every pope, anyone who’s written any kind of guiding document. It can’t be another great statement that gathers dust on the shelf.

It has to be chopped up and put back together and implemented, and that’s the proof in the pudding: making it happen.

I think people are excited about the possibilities.

Brittany Wilson writes from Pennsylvania.

Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared in the June 11-17, 2017 issue of OSV Newsweekly.