Last week, I met with the deans of our diocese to discuss a number of issues, the most prominent of which was the ongoing process of merging some of our parishes and reorganizing others into clusters. These moves, which have been happening over the past several years, are necessitated by a number of factors: the diminishing number of priests, demographic shifts in our cities and towns, economic pressures, etc. Even as I expressed my approval for some of these changes, I told the deans that, for every strategy of consolidation, I want a strategy for growth as well.
I simply refuse to accept the proposition that I, or any other bishop, should be presiding over the decline of our churches. By its very nature, Christianity is centrifugal, outward-tending, universal in purpose and scope. Jesus didn’t say, “Preach the Gospel to a handful of your friends,” or “Proclaim the Good News to your own culture.” Rather, he said to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:18–19). He also instructed his followers that the very gates of hell would not prevail against the fighting Church that he established. Therefore, maintaining things as they are, or managing decline, or treading water is absolutely not what Jesus wants or expects of us.
Permit me to say, right away, that the expansion of our Church is by no means the exclusive responsibility of bishops and priests. As Vatican II clearly teaches, every baptized Catholic is commissioned to be an evangelizer; so we’re all in this together. Therefore, what are some of the strategies of growth that can be employed by any Catholic? A first one I would highlight is simply this: every family that comes regularly to Mass should make it their evangelical responsibility to bring another family to Mass this coming year. Every faithful Mass-goer reading these words knows people who should be going to Mass and aren’t. They might be your own children or grandchildren. They might be coworkers who were once ardent Catholics and who simply drifted away from the practice of the faith, or perhaps people who are angry at the Church. Identify these wandering sheep and make it your evangelical challenge to bring them back to Mass. If we all did this successfully, we would double the size of our parishes in a year.
A second recommendation is to pray for the expansion of the Church. According to the Scriptures, nothing great is ever accomplished apart from prayer. So ask the Lord, insistently, fervently, even stubbornly, to bring back his scattered sheep. Just as we have to beg the harvest master to raise up workers to gather in his harvest, so we have to beg him to increase his sheepfold. I would encourage the elderly and the homebound in a parish to take on this specific task. And I might ask those who regularly do Eucharistic Adoration to spend fifteen or thirty minutes a day asking the Lord for this specific favor. Or I would suggest that liturgy planners include petitions for the growth of the parish in the prayers of the faithful at Sunday Mass.
A third enjoinder is to invite seekers to raise their questions. I know from lots of concrete experience over the past twenty years that many young people, even those who claim hostility to the faith, are actually deeply interested in religion. Like Herod listening to the preaching of John the Baptist in prison, even the seemingly anti-religious will go on religious websites and attend carefully to what is being discussed. So ask those who have disaffiliated why they no longer come to Mass. You might be surprised by how ready they are to tell you. But then, you have to have followed the recommendation of St. Peter: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Pet. 3:15). In other words, if you elicit questions, you better be ready to give some answers. This means that you have to bone up on your theology, your apologetics, your Scripture, your philosophy, and your church history. If that sounds daunting, remember that in the last twenty-five years or so there has been an explosion of literature in just these areas, focusing precisely on the kinds of questions that young seekers tend to ask—and most of it is available readily online.
A fourth and final suggestion that I would make is simply this: be kind. Sherry Weddell, whose Forming Intentional Disciples has become a modern classic in the field of evangelization, says that a crucial first step in bringing someone to the faith is the establishment of trust. If someone thinks that you are a good and decent person, she is far more likely to listen to you speak about your faith. May I be blunt? Even the most casual glance at Catholic social media reveals a plethora of obnoxious behavior. Far, far too many seem intent upon trumpeting their own correctness, focusing on narrow issues that are unintelligible and irrelevant to most people, and tearing down their enemies. I fear that this reality on social media may be an amplification of attitudes in the Church outside of the digital space. These attitudes are inimical to evangelization. A colleague of mine has related that in his conversations with the alienated and unaffiliated that what keeps them away from the Church is their experience of what they describe as meanness from believers. So both online and in real life, be kind. No one will be interested in hearing about the faith life of obviously bitter and unhappy people.
So, we have our marching orders: proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ to all nations. Let us start with our own parishes, our own families. And let us never settle for maintenance of the status quo.