New evangelization commission looks to bring back Catholics

Mon, Apr 14th 2014 03:00 pm
A new diocesan commission has been formed to implement one of Bishop Richard J. Malone's initiatives, New Evangelization. The Commission for Promotion of the New Evangelization is seeking to find ways to engage and reengage Catholics who may have fallen away from the Church.

The new commission, which was implemented last fall, is comprised of both administrative and lay leaders appointed by Bishop Malone to help develop a strategic plan for evangelization, look for new methods for outreach and support various diocesan efforts to reach inactive Catholics in the diocese. The commission is chaired by Dennis Mahaney, diocesan director of the Office of Parish Life.

"It's a brand new animal and everyone is coming into it with their own perspective, which is what we wanted," he said.

A central tenet of the group is to reflect and learn about Catholic teaching and values, then direct it back into the diocese.

"Unfortunately, our culture doesn't support a Sunday Sabbath mentality," said member Diane Brennan. "People have grown up without a firm sense of faith and understanding of our traditions, what we do and why we do it. We can't really hold people responsible for not knowing there's something there for them when they've never had access to it."

While the commission is fairly new, work on promoting evangelization has been ongoing at the parish level at some churches. Commission members have reached out to vicariate representatives to see what individual communities are doing and whether those practices could be applied elsewhere.

"We've been listening and getting a pretty positive response from them, that there is openness and interest in learning more," said Mary Beth Coates, diocesan director of Lifelong Faith Formation. "There's also recognition and sharing amongst each other, that they have a lot of assets in their parishes already. The people are good. We already have things that are part of our Catholic nature, (like) the sacraments, that we don't have to reinvent the wheel here. There's a lot of hopefulness among our pastors."

"Some communities are living the New Evangelization with their enthusiasm and their energy," said Sue Ann Saltarelli. "Sometimes it's the excited usher who's greeting you who's living the New Evangelization."

Jeremy Dolph explained that the commission is not designed to hand down mandates from the diocese, but rather research new approaches to evangelization, determine "best practices," and assist individual parishes with their own efforts to be more welcoming to the community. The group will also consult with Bishop Malone. He notes a national survey suggesting that Catholics have not fallen away because of specific doctrines, but because they haven't been made to feel welcome in many church communities.

"Our Protestant brothers and sisters make a focus on that," he said. "We have the Eucharist, Body and Blood of Christ, but if we're not welcoming people into that, that message can be lost."

Some members are extremely passionate about their mission of New Evangelization. Adam Pasterneck explained that the only reason he was there was because his mother and friend Brad introduced him to a relationship with Jesus. As he becomes emotional while talking about his past, he knows that's what the New Evangelization is all about.

"It's the same call to be in a personal relationship with the Lord of the Universe who became Jesus," Pasterneck said. "What's unique about the New Evangelization is that for the first time in Church history we find ourselves in a culture where institutions and governments have been formed by the Gospel message, but no longer are those institutions run, in a large part, by disciples of Jesus Christ. The challenge is, what do we do now? The answer is simple: Calling people to follow Jesus personally. You commit your whole life to Him. No matter what kind of programming we do, that's the goal."

The key, according to Pasterneck, is to engage Catholics into a daily prayer life to build the relationship with God. Otherwise, it's easier to grow complacent with the Catholic faith to focus on a secular worldview.

"The pope talked about people living like God does not exist," he said. "Not that they'll stand up and say God doesn't exist, but from the surveys we've been studying, 50 percent of Catholics do not believe a personal relationship with God is possible. If that's not a personal rejection of the fact that God became a man in Christ, I don't know what is. It's not like they're angry; it's just that no one has ever showed them to have that relationship."

In addition to engaging Catholics with individual prayer life, another idea the New Evangelization commission hopes to promote is the building of a parish community that extends beyond the Sunday Mass. Whether it's enrolling children in the neighborhood school or spending a weeknight in the community center by joining a ministry group, these efforts can help parishioners form stronger bonds with one another, and hopefully, create a vibrant parish.

"The parish used to be the hub of a lot of community," Pasterneck said. "But today, it's really hard. How do you form that human community that's beyond just praying together?"

One pastor of a small parish has formed a discussion group about lessons from the Gospel.

"That is a very simple thing that most anyone can do, but yet we make it so hard," Coates said. "We want that silver bullet, but we are learning that a lot of our work is very much like it was in the early Church - person to person, and connecting that way."

Part of the commission's mission is to look into how those communities are forming online. An ad hoc committee has been tasked with seeing how web-based technology can enhance the practice of the Catholic faith.

"Some parishes are doing that very well and make themselves available," said Brennan. "It's just a question of evaluating how we are doing to make sure that we're accessible. Are we using the tools that we have to make sure people are engaging in it? We hope in doing some of our surveying that we get that from people. New stuff comes up every day."

But the commission is also aware that interacting online or through mobile devices is something that should be done in moderation, so users don't disconnect from the natural environment around them.

"If (online media is) serving real community, like it hooks them into the Eucharist, then it's a tool well used," Pasterneck said.

"Your presence there (online) has to reflect your presence in the real world," Dolph said. "Social networking can't replace what has been established by Christ. There is no substitute for that."

Other ad hoc committees of the commission will focus on advocacy and education, vicariate and parish cluster collaboration, and clergy support. As their late-March meeting adjourned, commission members seemed energized and enthusiastic, lingering in the room afterwards to continue conversations.

"(It was a) great dialogue," said Saltarelli. "We went back a little to gain more. That's the hope I felt about it. We came in thinking some things, and based on the conversation, they got changed a little and we're now moving in a better direction."

"I thought it was a lively discussion," said Coates. "It's been nice getting to know everybody. It really points out the diversity of the diocese."

Located at the top of the New Evangelization group mission statement is a quote from the soon-to-be sainted John Paul II, "Faith is strengthened when it is given to others."

"We've taken that whole sense of cradle-to-grave Catholics for granted," Coates said. "Each person that you encounter has the ability to spread the Gospel message, and you are the face of the Gospel for that person that day."


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