“Direct our primary attention and strategic efforts to the weekend so that the music, message, and ministries form a high-impact, integrated evangelizing message of Good News, especially to the lost and seekers.”
– Third key initiative on liturgy, 2014 Archdiocesan Synod

Christopher Kolenke and Mary Bennett lead the congregation in singing during the Rite of Election of Catechumens and Call to Continuing Conversion of Candidates at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, March 16, 2014. “A Vision for the Future: Evangelization and the Sunday Mass” purposely focuses on “music, message and ministry,” according to Susan McNeil, a member of the team that developed the document. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)With those words as its guide, the synod implementation team responsible for evangelization and the Sunday Mass developed and wrote “A Vision for the Future: Evangelization and the Sunday Mass” – a document containing three guiding principles for parishes and individuals “to strengthen the Sunday experience for all who come to the church.”

The principles focus upon preparation for Sunday worship; welcoming those who come and who do not come; and growing in faith as a result of the Sunday Mass.

The document references data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) which notes fewer than 30 percent of Catholics attend Mass regularly.

Relationships essential    

“One of the things we talked extensively about is that we don’t live in a culture or world where people understand a sense of obligation,” Susan McNeil, director of the archdiocese’s Nazareth Project at the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization and member of the implementation team, told the Catholic Herald Jan. 20. “I’m not sure how compelling that is to people if you say to somebody who doesn’t really have a relationship with the Lord that they’re obligated to go.”

Randy Nohl, director of synod implementation for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said a key to “moving people’s hearts”

Fewer Masses could ‘maximize’ participation

Brian T. Olszewski
Catholic Herald Staff

One of the suggestions offered in “Evangelization and the Sunday Mass” is for parishes to “consider reducing the number of Sunday Masses offered to preserve the energy of the priests and ministers and to maximize participation from the full pews.”

Acknowledging the emotions “attached with our faith, our parish, our Mass times, and even the time we go to Mass,” Fr. Phillip Bogacki, pastor of Christ King and St. Bernard, both in Wauwatosa, knows this is a sensitive topic.

“Unfortunately, any minor adjustment of Mass times for some people can be a source of pain,” he said. “They are difficult moves to make, but they are moves that need to be made, if we’re going to survive in a way that is healthy, in a way that is vibrant. When convenience is a factor in our decisions concerning these things, we‘re going to make poor decisions.”

Fr. Bogacki noted that reducing the number of Masses is “not something we’re pushing in a strong way, but it’s a question that should be raised.”

“We always need to look at quality over quantity. The reality in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and in most individual parishes, we have far more Masses than is necessary for the number of people who actually come to church,” he explained. “It stretches our priestly resources, our pastoral resources and that of many lay volunteers.”

Fr. Bogacki sees it as quality over quantity.

“We can spend a lot of energy getting ourselves tired to celebrate the number of liturgical celebrations that might not be high quality rather than focusing on a lower quantity but a higher quality,” he said. “Whether we have enough priests or not, it’s better (to have fewer Masses). It’s also a reality that when a parish is fuller, and there’s a greater number of people celebrating the Mass, that it really creates a higher quality celebration.”

Susan McNeil, director of the archdiocese’s Nazareth Project at the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization, noted that as part of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s 2020 Plan (tinyurl.com/zn573ef), approved by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki in 2012, many parishes – some with identical Mass times – will be clustered.

“That is where we need to work past parochialism and get to a sense of different parishes having different Mass times to help ease that and that we share people with one another so we don’t own parishioners in a sense,” she said.

is through relationships.

“If I’m taking my faith seriously, if I’m really preparing for worship, if I’m really being welcoming, if I’m really growing in my faith, that’s what’s attractive and appealing for someone else,” he said during a Jan. 20 interview. “We’re no longer in a culture that we can say, ‘You have to do this,’ and people will respond to that.”

McNeil added, “If you have a relationship with the Lord, you want to go and you go out of that relationship to worship the Lord because you’re in relationship with the Lord and the community.”

She said the document purposely focused on “music, message and ministry.”

“If we want people to come, then it has to be attractive; we to have good quality preaching,” McNeil said. “When we say good quality music, we’re not talking about a specific genre; we’re saying it needs to be well done. And (we need) good ministries that help people participate.”


Another statistic from CARA included in the document notes that 71 percent of Catholics who leave for Protestant churches do so because their spiritual needs were not being met. Respondents often cite the quality of preaching.

“I would say many priests today know the importance of good preaching, and want to be better at preaching, and really want to work very hard at it,” said Fr. Phillip Bogacki, pastor of Christ King and St. Bernard parishes, Wauwatosa, and a member of the implementation team. “What preachers need is the true, concrete support of their parishes and of the church. In particular, time.”

Fr. Bogacki said parishioners must be willing to allow their pastors time away – “a day a week, for instance, as Protestant pastors are afforded, and to not accuse the priest of being lazy or skipping out on responsibilities.”

He said part of improving preaching involves focusing on the most important things we do in a parish.

“Preaching is one of them. So in what ways is the whole parish going to prioritize, making sure Father really has the time to do it – that the resources are provided for proper support staff to handle other things?” Fr. Bogacki said about having time to prepare the homily “which is so important and impacts the greatest number of people during the week.”

Welcoming and hospitable

While the document makes clear the link between welcome and hospitality, it also notes the connection of those principles to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s mission statement. Fr. Bogacki said a key to establishing a culture of hospitality is for everyone involved in a parish – volunteers, staff, maintenance personnel, secretaries – to be focused on the same mission.

“We have a beautiful new mission statement from the archdiocese. I wish more parishes would adopt that mission statement so as to reiterate we are all about the same thing; we are all being disciples and bringing more people to discipleship and that involves every single person who is involved in Catholic life in any way,” he said.

McNeil added, “We’re going to start working toward everybody, no matter what their role is, to see themselves as parish ambassadors. We all need to focus on that and be formed in that.”

Fr. Bogacki termed hospitality “essential,” particularly when it comes to reaching youth and young adults.

“Young people will shop based on hospitality and we need to look at our parishes and see those areas we need to emphasize differently, whereas 30 years ago we didn’t necessarily need to emphasize them if we didn’t want to,” he said, noting the document suggests parishes “see through the eyes of a stranger.”

“Are we truly hospitable to newcomers and not just to people who are inside? Are we just welcoming to ourselves or are we really welcoming people from outside?” he said. “Because people will make a decision to come back or not based on that … we need to emphasize that in a new way.”

When to reach whom

Among those the church is trying to reach are “cultural Catholics,” i.e., those who identify as Catholic but who do not attend Mass, and “seekers,” i.e., those who do not have a church affiliation but who might be interested in joining one. The implementation team looked at when they are likely to attend Mass.

“At Christmas 68 percent of Catholics go to Mass; then Easter with 52 percent; and 45 percent on Ash Wednesday,” Nohl said, quoting statistics from CARA. “Those times and throughout Lent we know there are people coming to church that are on the edge and maybe in the seeker category.”

Noting individuals and parishes need “to do a better job of reaching out to people,” he continued, “How are we welcoming them? What is their experience? Are they going to come back based on that experience?”

Fr. Bogacki said that, as a pastor, he sees summer as a time when “many people church shop.”

“Unfortunately, the traditional culture of parishes is that they shut down over the summer and don’t put their best foot forward when it comes to music or other ministries which are generally on hiatus due to people taking vacations,” he said.

“Why don’t we rethink that when many people are looking at our parish, looking at neighboring parishes, to really be putting our best foot forward in the summer and think differently about that as another example?” Fr. Bogacki said.

Reaching people in time of need

McNeil noted seekers, cultural Catholics and those on the margins feel “a tug of their faith life” to come back to church when they are in need, e.g., when someone dies, needs to be anointed, want to get married, have a child baptized.

That’s when they call the parish.

“That’s what we’ve talked about – all the way from the pastor to the person shoveling snow – we all have to be parish ambassadors. It needs to be the best foot forward of ‘welcome’ and ‘yes,’ not ‘no,’” she said, “because our Catholic culture has tended toward our first question when someone calls us seeking assistance is usually, ‘Are you a registered member?’ when really that’s not what the church teaches. People have a right to the sacraments so we want it to be: ‘We’re here. We love you. We care about you. We welcome you back.’”

McNeil added she has seen how welcoming a family back for a funeral has resulted in that family returning to Mass because the personal connection with the parish drew them back.

‘Long, slow effort’

While numbers, e.g., decreasing Mass attendance, are part of the reason synod initiatives are being implemented, Fr. Bogacki cautioned against placing too much emphasis on them.

“The effectiveness, the role of Jesus Christ in the world, is not connected to numbers. In the end, we’re hoping this touches some lives and that we are living out effectively the great commission of Jesus to be disciples and to make more disciples,” he said. “In the end, this is all connected to discipleship.”

In emphasizing the undertaking as “a long, slow effort,” McNeil said the hope is not only for an increase in Mass attendance but “increasing the vibrancy in our parishes.”

Nohl said the effort was one piece of what the implementation team was doing.

“This becomes a living document,” he said. “We want parishes to pull out a few ideas from here and start working on those, especially during Lent.”

‘Do things differently’

Fr. Bogacki said if one were to do an autopsy on a closed business or a closed parish one would see “scattered around a generous use of the term, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’”

“I hope the synod as a whole, and this initiative as a start, is a way for us, as Catholics, to refrain from using that term in many aspects of our parish life,” he said. “We must be willing to do things differently.”

The priest cited Pope Francis’ “tone” as a “blessing” for how the church serves.

“We hope with this effort and all the efforts of the synod that parishes and those who’ve been Catholic for a long time might be willing to look at things just a little bit differently and find new and exciting ways to communicate the Gospel.”