Paving the road into the New Evangelization

September 13, 2016

In a 2007 report to Pope Benedict XVI, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires, wrote: “I remind the lay faithful that they too are the Church, the assembly called together by Christ so as to bring his witness to the whole world.”


The occasion was a historic conclave held in Aparecida, Brazil. The bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean gathered to address, among other issues, the flight of Latin American lay Catholics to other Christian faiths. What about these Protestant denominations resonated in them? The answer was evangelization. 

While not disputing that the Word of Christ is powerful from the pulpit, when their brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors proclaimed the Word, they tended to listen. When they listened, they underwent a conversion, which not only brought them closer to Christ, but imbued them with the desire to share their conversion story.

For the man who would later become Pope Francis, the lesson was clear: Proclaimers of the Word can’t simply preach to the pews. They must also preach to the porches. And not just clergy, but everyone baptized in Christ.

“All baptized men and women must become aware that they have been configured to Christ, the Priest, Prophet and Shepherd, by means of the common priesthood of the people of God,” he wrote. “They must consider themselves jointly responsible for building society according to the criteria of the Gospel, with enthusiasm and boldness, in communion with their pastors.”

The Aparecida Document provided a clear call to action for Pope Benedict’s New Evangelization. Every baptized Christian shares the missionary responsibility of spreading the love and joy of Jesus to the world. In 2013, Aparecida’s sentiments were expounded upon in Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. 

Putting evangelization into practice
“It all leads to conversion,” said James Barette, Archdiocesan Secretariat Director of Pastoral and Educational Ministries. “The key is not just having book knowledge of Christ, but having conversion that draws them into a personal relationship with Christ. That’s why you hear of so many people who have a retreat experience where they’re introduced to this personal relationship – among a community of people who have personal relationships. That experience is life-changing for some people.”

The energy formed in that community dynamic can accomplish many things, he noted. “When people go on a retreat, they’re either introduced or refreshed in their relationship with Christ, through that community that seeks to have a relationship with Christ, they have a little glimpse of the reign of God.”

A culture of missionary discipleship
Barrette is active at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in downtown Houston, where he and other parishioners are working with its pastor, Father Lawrence Jozwiak, and staff on how best to instill a culture of discipleship. 

“We’re all co-responsible with clergy and all the members of our parish to go out to the world and give witness to Christ in our lives,” Barrette said. 

As a summer project, parish leaders are reading Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell. This book, the sequel, Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples, and companion study guides are popular readings among parish leaders across the U.S. 

Easier said than done
Dwindling numbers of men and women in religious orders over the past 50 years have given rise to lay ecclesial ministries and more lay people in collaborative diocesan and parish roles. 

Creating co-responsibility for missionary discipleship is easier said than done in a culture and organization so steeped in a tradition of specifically defined roles for clergy, staff and laity. It was first broached just after Vatican II.

For co-responsibility to work, lay ministers must support the missionary Church; they must embrace their roles as missionary disciples. 
On the parish level, the key is getting everyone on the same page, says Cecilia Estrada, who works with Barrette and others on the Co-Cathedral’s evangelization mission. It starts with dispelling the notion that only clergy can evangelize. She sees these as necessary steps:
• An alignment of vision, strategy and mission between clergy, staff, ministers and volunteers and the community and the greater Church;
• An understanding that change is required;
• An understanding that focus and commitment are required, and
• An agreement that changes must be managed via a solid communication plan.
To accomplish any of these, Estrada says, the clergy, staff and laity must be willing to:
• Change their culture;
• Change how they interact with each other;
• Embrace the laity’s co-responsibility (and the laity must embrace it, too); and
• Have confidence.

“We know this is an evolving journey,” Estrada said, and added that to do their part, each group must be empowered to do so. 
Creating new traditions is slow work. 

“Ministries within parishes tend to exist in silos at varying degrees. This is predominant as their focus is specific and different from one another to some extent,” she said. 

Instill paths for personal growth
Sefanit Mekonnen, ministry leader of New Evangelization at Prince of Peace Catholic Community in Northwest Houston, said she believes one of the best ways to tear down ministry silos is to make sure that each minister and each volunteer have a clear path for growing in their personal relationship with Christ. 

“Are all of your ministries, are all the people who fall under your area of responsibility, are all of them areas where people can grow in their faith? Oftentimes that’s not the case,” she said. “The Church exists to evangelize. Every single ministry – whether it’s preparation for Sacraments, our Christian initiation ministry, baptismal preparation, Confirmation or what happens during Mass in our Sunday experience – everything here should be about evangelization. It’s not one department. It’s not one ministry.”

She said getting everyone to accept that evangelization is their job is her job. 

Mekonnen was hired two years ago to fill this role. Prior to this position, she was director of religious education at a suburban Dallas-area parish.

She’s also in charge of welcoming. 

“The challenge is, people come to us and they want to grow in their faith,” Mekonnen said. “I see the people who come to us and say, ‘I just had some experience of God; I had this conversion and I want to get involved.’ Where do I send them? To the ushers? To the linen ministry? If they have those gifts and talents and they want to serve the church, that’s great. We can talk about that. But those places of service might not also be a place of growth as well. What we want to do is have every opportunity here to be not only a place of service but a place of growth.”
Each ministry or group, including staff, has a liaison to the parish’s evangelization leadership team, which includes Mekonnen, Pastor Father John Keller, pastoral-care Deacon Ken Stanley and Youth Minister Matt Regitz. The committee evaluates the ministries’ activities with an eye toward pruning duplication of efforts. 

“It’s a better use of resources,” she said.

Fifty-fifty by twenty-twenty
One of the most interesting initiatives for co-responsibility is occuring at Sts. Simon & Jude Catholic Church in The Woodlands, where Father Patrick Garrett, his staff and lay leadership have a goal of having 50 percent of the 3,500 registered families actively participating in ministries by the year 2020. 

“Our mission is to make disciples by becoming a Eucharistic community where we grow in our knowledge, love and service to each other so that we can go forth and proclaim the Word,” Father Garrett said. “So ‘make disciples’ has become the heart of what we’re doing and we want parishioners to become co-responsible for that.”

For any of that to occur requires organization. “I talk about the parishioners being the team. The staff are the coaches and equipment managers and the back-office people supporting the team,” he said.

The mission is in three parts: engage parishioners; create formation plans for them “in their faith, but also in being leaders,” and to help them discern the call in their life; and get them to “go forth and proclaim the Word.”

Currently, the pastor, staff and lay leaders are working on parish engagement.

“The goal is that by 2020, on any given day, half the parish will minister to the other half of the parish,” Father Garrett said. “That’s the co-responsibility. Part of our measurement of that engagement is that they have positions of responsibility in the parish. The problems with that are twofold. It’s getting people involved, getting them to step up to positions of responsibility; but it’s also creating the structure – actually giving out that responsibility.”

He said that one of the challenges the Church has is it doesn’t have good models of co-responsibility, how that works, and how the staff interacts with parishioners, so development needs to continue.

“All too often the collaboration breaks down, and either the staff becomes responsible for it or it becomes an initiative completely of the parishioners,” Father Garrett said. “There’s nothing bad about that but you lose that co-responsibility. You lose that connection. You lose that ‘co-’ part.”

One of the parish’s major initiatives is ministry development: “What do you to recruit; what do you do engage people in the ministries; once they’re in the ministries, how do you form them; what’s the basic training they need. The last part is vocation discernment. Is this ministry for them? Do they look to make it their life vocation? Or do they look to move on to another ministry?”

This fall, Father Garrett’s leaders have a goal of starting to implement some “standardized formation” plans, beginning with the “Sunday Experience Groups” (liturgical ministries, hospitality, children’s Liturgy) “to start trying to see how we can make it easier for people to become part of those groups, the practical training they need, and to get the theological training – not just how am I doing this ministry but why am I doing this ministry.”

Another key component he hopes to pilot this year is leadership training.

“Part of what we’ve struggled with is developing leaders in the sense that they can have their piece but they’re also coordinating with other ministries,” he said. “You can go to a parish and have a hundred different ministries, but the problem is they’re working in silos. They’re each individually doing their own thing. We want to try to set up a structure where the ministries are coordinating their work. But I think part of what we have to do is work on the leadership training to be able to work in an environment like that.

Father Garrett said the church has really started studying what it means to be servant leaders. 

“It is a basic component of our faith. It’s training they can use not just in the parish, but in their everyday lives,” he said.

A book Father Garrett found helpful in his pastoral planning is Divine Renovation by the Rev. James Mallon.

One size does not fit all
While parishes can certainly learn from each other – and from best-selling authors – each will have to solve the riddle of co-responsibility in its own unique way.

“Every parish needs to give God permission to God to do what He wants to do in their community,” Mekonnen said. “I think it’s going to look unique for different parishes. I think sometimes parishes make the mistake of looking at other parishes and trying to replicate what they’re doing. I don’t find that works very well. The first thing we need to do is pray, ‘God, what do you want us to do here?’”