There are times when I get tired of people talking about fallen-away Catholics and low Sunday Mass attendance. It is not a matter of wanting to pretend that the problems do not exist or hoping that they will go away on their own. Quite the opposite, I truly believe it is time that the Church and, especially, her priests need to start moving forward.
It was with much joy last summer that I read Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s book Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost and Making Church Matter. There were many ideas in the book that I could agree with and there were some that I felt would not go over well in my diocese. This is OK though because no two Catholic parishes are the same and what works in one parish might not work in another.
Search for New Ways
I do believe it is time to try new ways of reaching out to fallen-away Catholics, but also to search for new ways to minister to those Catholics who do come to Mass each and every Sunday in order to prevent them from falling away.
I would, therefore, like to share with you some of the ideas that my parish staff and I have begun to implement in order to not only reach out to fallen away Catholics, but also to reengage those Catholics found in the pews each Sunday.
One of the first things that my pastoral associate Michael and I did was start a 10-minute pre-Mass Catechetical program that we named “Duc In Altum.” Duc In Altum means “put out into the deep” and comes from Luke 5:4. It was a favorite saying of St. John Paul II. Each Sunday, 15 minutes before the 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. Masses, one of us stands up and gives a 10-minute talk. The topics that we have taught about have included the parts of the Mass, the Seven Sacraments, Virtues and Vices, The Blessed Virgin Mary, and Stewardship.
At first, we were not sure if we were accomplishing anything, but eventually we discerned that people were not only arriving early for Mass in order to be educated in their faith, but also they were telling us how much they were learning. Michael and I could sense that in addition to the knowledge of their faith growing, their commitment to their faith and Sunday Mass was also deepening.
Parish School Closed
Our parish school closed a year and half before I was appointed pastor. I am extremely grateful to the previous pastor for making that decision. It is obvious now that operating a full-time grade school was no longer a viable option for the parish because of the increased cost and the limited number of children in our urban area.
With the closing of the school, many long-time parishioners began to fear that families with school-age children would eventually start attending Sunday Mass at the parish where their children attended school. This was a very real fear, for many families were doing just that. This created the need for our parish to reach out and connect in new ways with these families.
The first way in which we started reconnecting with these families was through starting School Covenants. Catholic families who are parishioners of Epiphany but sending their children to a Catholic school of another parish can receive financial assistance from our parish to help pay their children’s tuition. As a part of this process, each set of parents meets with a special School Covenant Committee that I have appointed.
In a short half-hour meeting we remind them of how important they, as a young family, are to our parish. So that they will be good stewards of the money donated by the parish, we ask that they commit to being involved in the life of the parish in some way. We encourage them to attend Sunday Mass at Epiphany and to either help with or attend one of our many parish fundraisers. Everyone who has participated in this process so far has walked out saying only good things about the process and that they love being a part of the Epiphany parish family.
In addition, we strive to help our families come together through our “Faith and Family” program on Tuesday nights. We encourage parents whose children are going to full-time Catholic school, parish school of religion, or nothing at all to sign their kids up for our Faith and Family program. On the first and third Tuesday of the month we host a program for boys in kindergarten through fifth grade called Blue Knights, and for girls of the same age group we host a program called Little Flowers.
Both of these national programs combine the fun of scouting (games, crafts, earning patches) with the learning of a religion class. In addition, on these nights we created a program for sixth through eighth graders that we call Young Disciples. It is our plan for these middle schoolers to go through the Ascension Press series Encounter, a Bible study with Mark Hart the Bible Geek, and Theology of the Body for Middle Schoolers.
Adults are invited to take part in an adult-education class at the same time their children are in the above-mentioned classes and, for children under five, we offer free babysitting.
On the second Tuesday of the month we encourage the children to go and have fun in the babysitting area while we offer a men’s and women’s session for adults. Our men are currently doing Crossing the Goal and our women are participating in Endow. Both of these programs create bonds between the older generation and the younger generation that help solidify our parish foundation.
Finally, on the fourth Tuesday of the month we invite adults to the Church for what we have named a Covenant Night. The parish provides a guest speaker — normally not anyone famous, just someone that Michael or I know who lives out his or her faith. The speaker shares his or her faith story, and afterwards we gather in small groups and talk about where we have seen God working in our own lives in the past month and what we are going to do to grow in our faith during the upcoming month. I truly believe that our Faith and Family program is going to be a key aspect to the growth of our parish for years to come.
Parish Retreat Days
Michael and I have also started Parish Retreat Days in Advent and Lent. We give the talks and allow for a time of Eucharistic Adoration and a time for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
In an effort to reach out to high school youth and senior citizens to the best of our ability, we found ourselves trying new things in this area as well by teaming up with others. In improving our ministry to senior citizens we teamed up with four other Christian churches to create an ecumenical organization called Lindenwood Area Senior Ministry. Members from these five churches work hard to take their seniors to doctors’ appointments, provide social opportunities for them, help them keep their homes in good condition, and much more.
In an effort to reach out to our teenagers, we are beginning to work with 15 parishes and one of our local Catholic high schools in order to create a unique multi-parish youth program that will meet on Wednesday nights. Knowing that most cluster youth programs have failed, I still have high hopes for this effort because we are trying new things. The first is that this youth program will be based at a local high school and not at one of the parishes. This is helpful because I believe teens will see this as a more age-appropriate activity and not just a continuation of their old grade school or parish school of religion reaching out to them. Finally, there will be a strong push that teens go back to their parish on Sunday and become actively involved. This will hopefully help parishes see the importance of youth ministry and thus keep the program going.
Young Adult Ministry
The last new outreach effort I would like to talk about is our young-adult ministry. Michael began this outreach very simply by hosting different socials over the summer. As the young adults began to come to these socials, Michael and I made the decision not to turn them into anything theological or service oriented. Instead, as we built up relationships with these young adults, we personally invited them to be parts of other groups in our parish.
I invited one of them to be part of the finance council and another to be part of the parish council. Both agreed. Michael invited some of the young married couples to help with marriage preparation and RCIA. We encouraged others to be liturgical ministers and participants in our Faith and Family programming. Now, each member of our young adult group is involved in our parish in some fashion or another.
I would like to conclude with one program that turned out to be a total failure. Close to our parish church building there is a famous restaurant known for its pancakes. We had worked it out with the owner to reserve a room once a month free of charge. We encouraged people to come up to the restaurant, eat, and ask Michael and me any question that was on their heart.
We imagined this to be a sort of Theology on Tap but with pancakes. We don’t know why, but no one came. I bring this up because I want to point out that even though something sounds like a good idea, it might not work, and at such times it is important not to become too disappointed. Instead, we simply need to go on and try something different.
I truly believe that now is the time to stop complaining about falling-away Catholics and those who do not attend Mass on a regular basis and start trying new ways to bring them back. Ultimately, any success we have comes from God.
But I cannot help but feel that many times recently we have not taken the blessings our Church has been given and invested them, but rather we seem to be burying those gifts by complaining. May we be among those who take the risk to spread the Gospel and, at the end of our lives, hear, “Come, good and faithful servant, share your master’s joy” (Mt 25:23).
FATHER PASTORIUS, ordained a priest in 2003 for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis, Missouri.