In his three years as pontiff, Pope Francis has talked often about the importance of encounter and of accompaniment. But while our dear Holy Father can be very thoughtful when it comes to the big picture, he can sometimes leave the details up for grabs.
What exactly does it mean, then, to encounter and accompany someone? I believe we see an excellent model of such behavior in this week’s Faith piece (Pages 18-19), which chronicles the ways that Catholic leaders reach out to students on college campuses. These men and women, both religious and lay, have, as their job, a main goal of connecting with and accompanying the young men and women attending their specific college or university.
In fact, Father Peter Mussett, pastor of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center serving the University of Colorado — Boulder, used Pope Francis’ very language when he said, “Evangelism is not about programs but people. We can have programs, but we need to evangelize one-on-one, accompanying and encountering each person.”
So how do we evangelize one-on-one? The key, I believe, is personal invitation.
For a year after I graduated from college, “personal invitation” essentially was my job description. My role, as Peer Ministry Coordinator at Duke University, was to welcome and reach out to, in a special way, first-year students on campus who had registered as Catholic. Similar to the campus ministers in this week’s faith story, I would do laps around the campus quad during class changes and visit the dining hall at lunchtime. My goal was to be where the students were, because it was there that I could talk to them, get to know them and form a relationship with them. This conversation naturally had a way of leading to invitation.
I would wager that there’s a fairly high percentage of people reading this who can remember how and why you joined a parish ministry, participated in a service project, decided to keep a regular Holy Hour or attended a retreat for the first time. I know I can. It was because someone asked me to. That’s likely what happened for you, too.
There’s a power to inviting someone to participate. It means something to be singled out or even to be noticed among the throng of Mass-goers. This asking — this personal invitation — needs to happen more if the Church is going to succeed in its mission of evangelization. Parishes often are criticized, especially when compared and contrasted with Protestant congregations, on the connections, or lack thereof, that it has with its flock. Many people prefer to exit the side door, heads down, and head for brunch. I sure did. There’s an allowed anonymity to the Catholic Church that is both welcome and frustrating.
Perhaps this could be our goal this Holy Week: to break the mold and be a person of invitation — of evangelization. We never know the difference it could make.