Evangelization

“May He soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith. . . .”

According to CARA (The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate), these words were said to the 713,302 babies in the United States who were baptized in 2013. Can you imagine what would happen if a high percentage of them really integrated this into their lives and really did “hear the word” and really did “proclaim it”? In addition, during the same year in the United States, there were 38,042 adults who were baptized and 66,413 adults who were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. At a baptism each person is anointed, signifying that he or she shares in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

I have heard it said, and I truly believe, that the crisis in the Church in the United States is not the lack of ordained priests, but the shortage of lay people who truly understand their priesthood. It is not just the bishops, priests and deacons who are “to hear the Word and to proclaim the faith.”

I serve as pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Philadelphia, the first foundation of the Augustinians in the United States (1796). I have said to my parishioners that I am not in their workplaces where there are people wondering about God or wondering about the Catholic Church. I am not in their neighborhoods where there are people looking for peace, forgiveness and acceptance. I am not at their family gatherings where someone shares a horrendous experience they had with the Church or shares a very bad misconception of the Church. I do not have the opportunities that my parishioners have.

People do not usually come to the parish office unless it is a requirement for a baptism or a marriage, to arrange for a funeral, schedule a Mass, or seek a Mass card or a certificate. As much as Pope Francis has said that priests are to be among the people and “smell like the sheep,” we do not have the same opportunities to evangelize as the ordinary lay person does.

After I arrived at St. Augustine Parish, I asked the parish pastoral council if they would be willing to read and reflect on a chapter a month of Pope Francis’s exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.” The plan is (we are still in the process) that, after discussing five chapters in five months, we will come up with a pastoral plan of evangelization for the parish, based on the words of Pope Francis and based on the realities of our parish.

Not knowing where the process would lead us and sensing my own impatience to do “something,” I asked the council if we could try a process in which we could be involved immediately. I asked them to get into small groups of three or four people and gave them a list of eleven suggestions for evangelizing. I asked them to commit to do one of the suggestions in the next month. They then shared with the whole council how they would evangelize during the next month. One council member said it would be a sense of accountability to report back the following month on how they did.

When we think of evangelization, we often think of big projects. Or we think of being on street corners, holding signs and confronting people as they walk by. My point was to help them see that evangelization can be incorporated into the very ordinary events of life.

The suggestions were:

1) Take a parish bulletin to someone who does not ordinarily receive it. How often does someone say, “I didn’t know they had Masses at that time” or “I didn’t know the parish had meetings for single parents, for young adults, for divorced and separated people, or a twelve-step meeting”? Jesus met people in their own individual situations before He asked them to follow Him.

2) Invite someone to Mass. I know from being involved in campus ministry at Merrimack College in Massachusetts that students often would say “I would go to Mass if my friends did.” I know I am not inclined to go to a movie by myself, but I am more likely to go if someone invites me. Some people may not have a way of getting to Mass, or for many reasons do not want to go alone. A friend of mine who was a student at St. Michael’s in Vermont was asked one Sunday evening where he was going when he left the dinner table in the cafeteria. Ben said he was going to Mass. The next thing he knew his friends were in the pew next to him in the chapel. Ben didn’t make a big thing about going to Mass, but neither was he ashamed or secretive about where he was going.

3) Invite someone to a parish event. Some people may feel the roof would cave in if they entered a church building. Attending a Christmas concert or another event on parish property, they may get a sense of friendship, welcome and community. They may realize that they are not being judged. I know a woman who asked a co-worker one day if she wanted to go out for a drink after work. Patricia said “I am going to the opening of the parish mission at my parish tonight. Why don’t you come with me? We can go out for a drink after that.” The woman accepted Patricia’s invitation and eventually enrolled in our R.C.I.A. (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) process.

4) Distribute flyers of upcoming parish events. Many college students major in marketing. Many people make their living by marketing cars, hair lotion, lottery tickets, vacation spots, etc. How well does the church market itself? We certainly can use all forms of the media better. Flyers are just one way. Don’t people look at them on bulletin boards, in elevators, etc.?

5) Tell someone about a good church experience, such as a homily or confession. How often do we incorporate into conversation an experience we had at a ball game or at the hairdresser? “You know, when I was at the mall yesterday, I saw Joe Smith, and he said. . . .” Can I be as comfortable saying in the midst of a normal conversation, not in a bragging way, “When I was at Mass last week Father was talking about such and such in his homily”? Or “When I went to confession last month, I felt such a relief.” Or “When I was coming out of church last week, I saw Bill and Peggy, and they were telling me about their children.” Can’t we share — certainly not in an obnoxious way — our religious experiences as well?

6) Tell someone you will pray for them or invite them to pray with you. I remember being asked to go to Children’s Hospital in Boston one Sunday to baptize a baby who wasn’t expected to live. The father said to me that many people had said they would pray for them, but he didn’t know what that meant. After we discussed prayer, I baptized the baby and asked if I could pray with them. They said they felt a sense of peace. I maintain that they experienced the presence of God. Jesus said “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” This may not have happened if family and friends hadn’t said they would pray for them. If someone gives permission to pray with them, the prayer offered can be spontaneous or memorized. Even if it is as short as 15 seconds, it sets a tone, an environment, and it makes an impact. God’s presence is felt.

7) If away on a weekend with family or friends, make a point of getting to Mass. We are all familiar with the expression that actions speak louder than words. Recently, at a family Christmas dinner, my niece’s husband Kevin was showing me an “app” on his phone that, no matter where he is (he has three daughters in different colleges in Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston), he can see where and what time Mass is being celebrated nearby — not unlike my GPS that can tell me where the closest McDonalds is. Imagine the impact it has, not in a holier-than-thou attitude, but that others know the Eucharist is important for Kevin, even when on vacation or away from home.

8) Wear a religious symbol, pin or cross, and see the conversation that can evolve. Recently, a woman asked me about the medal around my neck. When I told her it was the seal of the Augustinian Order to which I belong, we got into a conversation about who the Augustinians are, who St. Augustine was, and how the different religious orders are distinct from each other. I answered the latter by telling her that the Augustinians were the best. Many people wear a symbol during the entire season of Lent. Isn’t that what ashes on Ash Wednesday do? They signify that I am acknowledging that I am a sinner and I intend to repent. We never know what grace may come from outward signs.

9) Inform someone new in your condo/apartment/neighborhood about your parish. Jesus said “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” As we help new neighbors get oriented part of that orientation can be where the parish is. I can also inform the parish about new residents in the area and the parish may send a “welcome” letter.

10) Say, “God bless you” when someone sneezes — even strangers. More often today, if someone says anything at all when someone sneezes, it is “Bless you,” leaving the word “God” out of it, as God is left out of many situations in our society today. I have received many surprised, but pleasant, reactions at an airport or supermarket when I have said, “God bless you” in response to a sneeze.

11) Encourage someone you know who has a question or has had a bad experience with the Church to come and talk with someone who may be able to help them. Lay people are more likely than priests to hear the horror stories of other lay people. It may only take a little encouragement to have the person talk with someone who can answer the question or who can help the person work through the experience. More than once I have apologized to people who have received bad information or who have had a difficult experience with a priest (e.g., in confession). Such clarifications and/or apologies have gone a long way. I recently witnessed the convalidation of the marriage of a couple who would fall into this category.

12) Celebrate the anniversaries of baptism and of children, grandchildren and godchildren. We all celebrate our birthdays and the birthdays of friends and relatives. Most couples celebrate their wedding anniversary, and many young couples celebrate the anniversary of their first date. Doing this signifies that they think these happenings in their life were important. What would the impact be if I placed the “Baptism Candle” in a cake on the anniversary of my child’s baptism and invited the godparents to dinner (and maybe the priest or deacon who baptized the person)? Or if there were some other recognition: a card, a phone call, a religious gift? Perhaps I could frame the baptism certificate and place it on the wall as I would a diploma, rather than putting it in the bottom drawer. Wouldn’t this say something about the importance of sharing in the priesthood of Jesus? Does failing to recognize this say something also?

These are all very simple suggestions (and there are certainly many more) for lay people to live their priesthood in very ordinary, everyday circumstances.

Evangelization does not have to be doing missionary work in a far-off country. As Pope Francis said in his interview with Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., (America magazine, Sept. 30, 2013), we need to be “able to do the little things of every day with a big heart open to God and to others.” It is a life style where we “hear the word and proclaim the faith” in the here and now in every day circumstances. If this were understood and integrated into the lives of all the baptized, our Church would be radically different.

FATHER WATERS, O.S.A., was ordained in 1971 as an Augustinian priest. Currently he is pastor of St. Augustine parish in Philadelphia. Most of his ministry has been in parishes — four years as an associate pastor and 25 years as a pastor in five parishes throughout Massachusetts, New York and Philadelphia. As a member of the Augustinian Province of Villanova in the United States, he also has served as vocation director (1975-79).