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June 18, 2008

The parish and evangelization: Will returning Catholics feel welcome? - Three vital sources of hope - What makes Catholics reluctant to evangelize? - Surging food costs and the poor -- The church's divided people

In this edition:
-- Reasons why Catholics are reluctant to evangelize
-- The parish and evangelization; hearing the voices of nonpracticing Catholics
-- Pastoral strategy for evangelization
-- Three vital sources of hope
-- Current quotes to ponder: unity among the church's divided people; a note on poverty and bootstraps; surging food costs and the poor
-- Why is religious dialogue essential today?

What Underlies the Reluctance to Evangelize?

"The whole idea of sharing faith with others is something that most Catholics find terrifying," Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., said in his June monthly message to the diocese. He thinks that "it is not so much the lack of programs, resources or direction that is the primary cause of our reluctance as Catholics to evangelize, but a combination of historical, cultural and social factors which have created an awkwardness or uncomfortability with the idea."

There are a variety of reasons for this discomfort, Bishop Hubbard said. He listed four reasons:

"First, American Catholics tend to be very privatized in our approach to religious belief and practice. It seems acceptable to profess belief in a liturgical setting or a faith formation program, but not in everyday encounters."

"Second, the catechism format which an older generation of Catholics experienced tended to identify faith sharing with knowledge. Consequently, many Catholics are reluctant to discuss matters of religion with others because those Catholics might not have the 'right answers' to questions or observations others may share."

"Third, many Catholics today tend to identify faith sharing with the pushy tactics of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the 'God on my sleeve' approach of some born-agains or the blatant hucksterism of some of the televangelists. They in no way want to be associated with this type of coercive proselytism."

"Fourth, in our pluralistic society, many Catholics are afraid to share their faith with others because they may come across as intolerant, paternalistic, judgmental or condescending, or because of fear that they themselves will be rejected."

The bishop said he is "convinced that the best ones to fulfill this 'job' [of evangelization] are lay people -- through a peer approach, on a friendship basis. But, to do this, we must be faithful and spirit-filled people ourselves because we cannot share with others what we do not possess."

Bishop Hubbard urged lay Catholics to undertake the task of evangelization, saying he believes that "we can develop a dynamic new approach to evangelization in our day -- one that is not coercive, not hysterical, not paternalistic or condescending, not engaged in 'spiritual mugging,' if you will, but one that emanates from the love of God and the movement of the Spirit within us, that is respectful of the dignity of the other person and that is responsive to the call to discipleship each of us has received through our baptism and confirmation."

The Parish and Evangelization: Listening to Nonpracticing Catholics

While "parishes are left to choose their own plan for ongoing evangelization," all pastors and administrators in the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., are to designate someone to coordinate the evangelization efforts of the whole parish, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson said in a pastoral letter May 11. He said that "the parish evangelization director must be a permanent member of all staff and parish council meetings. In this way evangelization can remain a fundamental dimension of all parish ministries."

A parish "becomes more effective at evangelization" when its people "form a true community," Bishop Serratelli said in his pastoral letter, titled "Evangelization, Grace and Vocation." He explained: "Christian life is always a life shared with others. Therefore, a parish is more than a place where people come to discharge their obligation to worship and then leave. The parish is a network of relationships in the Lord. It is a place of genuine friendship and mutual concern."

In light of this, the bishop discussed actions within the parish that "build up the communion of faith and make it easier for others to find Christ in the church." For example, "the sharing of material goods with those in need builds fellowship, or communio, in a very visible manner." Furthermore, the communion of faith is built up by "extending hospitality and a warm welcome in church; stewardship with the sharing of time, talent and treasure; small Christian communities within the parish; participation in social events and charitable projects; [and] serving in different ministries, especially youth ministry."

Evangelization, said the bishop, "remains an essential dimension of our life as church." He added: "We are called to move from a model of maintenance to mission. We are called to grow. A church that is not growing is dying."

However, "evangelization is not the communication of an ideology," the bishop wrote. Instead, evangelization "is the effort to bring someone to a personal encounter with the risen Lord." Since the Gospel's proclamation "aims at the heart as well as the mind," every evangelization approach "must begin and end with a deep respect for the conscience and good will of the other," Bishop Serratelli said.

The pastoral letter discusses the evangelization of nonbelievers as well as the re-evangelization of Catholics. "Evangelization is at its best when we present to others the opportunity to believe and to experience the salvation won for us in Christ," Bishop Serratelli commented in discussing the evangelization of nonbelievers.

At the same time, he said, "we are called to reach out to Catholics who have fallen away from the practice of the faith." He said that some Catholics "deliberately choose to stay away" from the church "because they disagree with a particular teaching." And some stay away because they "have been hurt by those who represent the church." There are others who "see the reality of sin in the church and walk away," while some others simply have "drifted away because of work or a lack of attention to their relationship to the Lord."

Bishop Serratelli wrote: "We are called to reach out to Catholics who have fallen away from the practice of the faith. We need to listen to the reasons for their absence. We need to recognize their inherent goodness and openness to the Lord. As we listen to others tell their story, we cannot be ashamed to invite them home where they belong, because we love them."

Pastoral Strategy for Evangelization

A new, national pastoral strategy for evangelization was approved by Australia's Catholic bishops during their May 2-8 meeting in Sydney. The strategy encompasses:

-- An effort to reach out to Catholics who no longer practice their faith or who never really connected with the church in the first place.

-- An effort to prepare parishioners to welcome those who respond to the evangelization campaign.

As a first step, the church on a national level has begun a national advertising program in which the bishops invite nonpracticing Catholics to reconnect with the church. The bishops acknowledge that some Catholics drift away from the church due to the pressures of life. The advertisements ask: "Why not join us again? We need each other. You have a God-given gift which you alone can bring to the church. We need that gift."

In the advertisements, the bishops also state that "the church is God's family, and like any family has its differences." The message continues: "Sometimes people are hurt by other family members. We ask your forgiveness if you have been hurt in some way through the church."

The advertising campaign includes a special hotline to call; trained staff put callers in touch with a local church community.

The national evangelization strategy also includes a June pastoral letter to Catholics in the pews, encouraging them to make their parish a place of true welcome for people who respond to the invitation to return to the church's life. "We must ensure that our parish communities are genuinely welcoming and respectful," the pastoral letter says. It asks, "Why should people come back to us if the welcome they receive is no better than it was previously?" In addition, it says, "we need to go in search of those who are no longer with us. It runs the risk of rejection, but that is a risk which the new evangelization demands."

The pastoral letter says that "the right approach is essential. Only slowly can one broach the delicate questions of faith and conscience with those we are seeking. The approach will often take the form of allowing them to tell their story in a context of sharing our faith. Whatever form it takes, it should arise from their need, not ours."

The pastoral letter encourages parish communities to make use of a six-week program titled Reconnect. The program is designed to help equip parishes and individuals to reach out and invite people back to the practice of their faith.

A second, similar resource titled Rewired is designed to encourage young people to engage in the life of the church. The bishops hope in this way to welcome young people who want to connect with parish life after the July 15-20 World Youth Day in Sydney.

Three Vital Sources of Hope

A good community - a life shared with others - is a source of hope in life. Dialogue also ought to serve people today as a source of hope - alongside another quite different, or contrasting, source of hope, namely an interior spiritual life and a measure of silence, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England, said in a June 4 address to the Big Hope international youth congress held in Liverpool, England.

1. Community: "In Orthodox monasteries at the end of the day, after Night Prayer, the abbot sits in his chair and, one by one, the monks go up and kneel before him, and he kisses each one on the top of his head -- a sign of acceptance, forgiveness and love," Cardinal Murphy O'Connor told the youth congress. He said it is within a community -- most notably the family -- "that everyone first feels accepted and loved. It is the best place for profound human flourishing."

The cardinal said that "young people need the experience of good community in order to thrive." Faith needs to be rediscovered "in the humanizing experience of community and our respect for the community as a place of healing," he said.

2. Dialogue: A second source of hope for people today is found in the opportunity for dialogue, said Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor. He explained that in speaking about dialogue, he was thinking not only of "dialogue between people of religion, but dialogue with people who do not believe or express any need for religion." Dialogue is a source of hope because from it a much-needed commitment to the common good emerges, he suggested.

"True dialogue respects everybody's integrity," the cardinal said. He insisted that in order "to live out the search for real hope in pluralistic, democratic societies, we need to recognize that not all people share our views or even our deepest convictions." However, entering into dialogue with people who do not "share our views" need not bring relativism into play, he said. The cardinal commented:

"We can recognize people's differences without saying that our differences are unimportant. This is precisely why we need to have space in our societies for proper dialogue where nobody is prevented from expressing his or her convictions simply to conform to somebody's idea of political correctness."

Furthermore, the cardinal said, "genuinely strong people have no fear of other people's views, so they feel able to allow people of radically different convictions to speak freely. They are happy to hear what others have to say."

3. Third, "a personal spiritual life -- a life of interiority" is a source of hope for people, Cardinal Murphy O-Connor said. It is interesting that he included this as a source of hope in a list that also includes community and dialogue.

The cardinal pointed out that to tap into this source of hope, one needs to listen, which isn't easy in a world of noise. Here is what he said about this:

"The first words of the Rule of St. Benedict are, 'Listen, my son.' It is not easy for young men and women, in a world bombarded by noise and rapidly changing pictures, to be able to be silent. We have all heard of 'information overload' and probably experienced it frequently. To stay sane we need to be able to decide what is worth ignoring and what is valuable. So silence is a discipline."

An ability to listen and to be silent is helpful when it comes to discerning what makes sense and what is nonsense, what is good and bad, what is "peripheral and what is genuine," the cardinal said. He recalled that 400 years ago the philosopher Blaise Pascal pointed out that "all our problems come from the fact that we cannot cope with quiet and inactivity, even though we often complain that we have too much to do."

Current Quotes to Ponder

Unity Among Divided People of the Church: "As the people of God immersed in the world, often tempted by our own false idols, we too need to examine the way we pray, celebrate and proclaim the Gospel. Our mission requires us first of all to create in the church itself mutual esteem, reverence and harmony, and to acknowledge all legitimate diversity. The ties which unite the faithful together are stronger than those which separate them. Let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is doubtful and charity in everything." (Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec City, Quebec, speaking May 30 in Toronto, Ontario, to the Catholic Media Convention)

Of Poverty and the Bootstraps to Pull: "[Candy] Hill said that if people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps really was the solution to poverty, 'Catholic Charities USA would have been willing to buy 36.5 million sets of bootstraps, declared victory and moved on.'" (From a June 16 Catholic News Service report on comments of Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy and government affairs at Catholic Charities USA, during a June 12 congressional forum in Washington on poverty)

Surging Food Costs: "We are faced with the overwhelming challenge to adequately feed the world's population at a time when there has been a surge in global food prices that threatens the stability of many developing countries. This calls for urgent concerted international action. Higher [food] prices may cause some inconvenience to families in developed countries since they find it necessary to spend 20 percent of their income on food. However, such prices are life threatening for the 1 billion people living in poor countries, since they are forced to spend nearly all their daily income of $1 per day in search of food. The grave task before us is to design and implement effective policies, strategies and actions that will result in food sufficiency for all." (Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Vatican representative to U.N. agencies in Geneva, speaking to the U.N. Human Rights Council May 22)

Why Religious Dialogue Is Now Essential

"We are all condemned to dialogue," Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said in a May 27 speech in Britain. In other words, dialogue among those who believe in God is essential today, the cardinal proposed. He spoke at Heythrop College, the philosophy and theology college of the University of London. Why is dialogue essential?

First, Cardinal Tauran pointed out, "there is no religiously homogenous society" nowadays. In more than a few nations, "from kindergarten onward, young children rub shoulders with companions of all origins and different religious affiliations." It is "to state the obvious" to say that we now "develop in multicultural and multireligious societies," he commented.

In such an atmosphere, "all religions, in different ways, urge their followers to collaborate" with others who, for example, "endeavor to assure respect for the dignity of the human person and his fundamental rights" or who "draw inspiration from the 'know-how' of communities of believers who, at least once a week, gather together millions of widely differing people" for worship.

The second reason that we today are "condemned to dialogue," Cardinal Tauran said, is that the God dismissed by many in the past "is reappearing in public discourse." There are two reasons for this. First, and unfortunately, religions are viewed by many "as a danger" due to the "fanaticism, fundamentalism and terrorism" practiced by some who call themselves believers. This is one reason that people now have God and religious topics on their minds. The cardinal said:

"Religions are capable of the best as well as of the worst; they can serve holiness or alienation; they can preach peace or war. Yet it is always necessary to explain that it is not the religions themselves that wage war but rather their followers!"

Another reason why God "is reappearing in public discourse" is that "men and women of this generation are once again asking themselves the essential questions on the meaning of life and death," Cardinal Tauran said. He observed: "All religions, each one in its own way, strive to respond to the enigmas of the human condition. Each religion has its own identity, but this identity enables me to take the religion of the other into consideration. It is from this that dialogue is born."

What is dialogue? Cardinal Tauran defined it as the search for understanding "between two individuals with a view to a common interpretation of their agreement or their disagreement. It implies a common language, honesty in the presentation of one's position and the desire to do one's utmost to understand the other's point of view." However, he said, dialogue is not a matter of saying that "all religions are of equal value." Rather "we say, 'All those in search of God have equal dignity!"

Often people have a fear of other religions, Cardinal Tauran suggested. It is a fear born, for example, of simply not knowing what another religion teaches or not really knowing any members of that religion. He said that "to remedy this situation it is necessary to have a clear-cut spiritual identity -- to know in whom and in what one believes; to consider the other not as a rival, but as a seeker of God; to agree to speak of what separates us and of the values that unite us."

Cardinal Tauran devoted particular attention to Christian-Muslim dialogue. He noted that in the open letter sent by 138 Muslim leaders to Christian religious leaders in 2007, it was "opportunely stressed that Christians and Muslims represent 55 percent of the world population, and consequently, if they are faithful to their own religion, they can do a lot for the common good, for peace and harmony in the society of which they are members."

Christians and Muslims herald a "twofold message," the cardinal said. It is a message, first, that "only God is worthy of adoration," and "therefore all the idols made by men (wealth, power, appearance, hedonism) constitute a danger for the dignity of the human person, God's creature." Second, it is a message that "in God's sight all men and women belong to the same race, to the same family. They are all called to freedom and to encounter him after death."