How to be a missionary to those in the pew next to you

Pop quiz: In the 20th century, the Catholic Church in Africa grew: 

a) 70 percent. 

b) 700 percent. 

c) 7,000 percent. 

You’ve probably guessed that the correct answer is “c.” In 1900, there were 2 million Catholics on the continent. In 2000, there were 140 million (so, more accurately, we’re talking only a 6,900 percent increase). Further, by the middle of this century, three African countries — Congo, Uganda and Nigeria — are expected to enter the top 10 most populous Catholic countries in the world. 

I gathered that information recently from an interview I read with the former head of a missionary order of priests in Africa. Much of the interview focused on challenges: the institutional pressures brought by such extraordinary growth; the lack of sufficient numbers of “formators” to ensure that African seminarians receive the training and oversight they need to be able to “give the best of themselves” as priests; the threat posed by Islam (the largest religious group on the continent, unless you don’t count the far northern countries); the allure particularly of Pentecostal “prosperity gospel” churches for young people; the West’s indifference to Africa except when it comes to talk of AIDS or wars; and the impact of the importation of the worst of Western culture and values because of globalization. 

For some reason, this interview captured my imagination. As always at this time of year, when U.S. parishes are beginning to prepare for the massive (but brief) influx of “Christmas Catholics” at Dec. 25 liturgies, I’ve been doing some reading about efforts to keep those (mostly inactive) Catholics coming back to church, even after the glow of Christmas is gone. 

One initiative you may see is the first national television ad campaign by Catholics Come Home, which until now has targeted markets in local dioceses with a message underscoring the beauty and history of the Church, and the traditions of prayer, service to the poor and education. The new campaign is scheduled to air more than 400 times from Dec. 16 through Jan. 8, potentially reaching 250 million viewers across the country. The campaign’s ambitious goal is to bring a million Catholics back to the Church this Christmas. 

At least one Catholic social scientist has expressed skepticism about the efficacy of media campaigns such as this one. 

But whether those extra people in the pews on Christmas this year will have been inspired to come by a television ad or not, the ultimate problem remains: How do we inspire them to return? 

If you’re looking for motivation, it might be worth reflecting on the African experience. Think of the numbers of people who’ve come into the Church. And the missionaries and catechists who’ve made it possible. 

Reflect on how much your faith matters to you. And this Christmas, be a missionary.