ST. FRANCIS – Statistics tell part of the Catholic story:

  • 62,000 fewer people attend Sunday Mass in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee than did in 2000.
  • 10 percent of Americans are former Catholics.
  • 36 percent of former Catholics stopped thinking of themselves as Catholics between the ages of 18-29

The development of another chapter in that story – a chapter that will address and maybe improve those numbers – began Saturday, May 5, when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee hosted “Making Disciples of All Nations,” a summit on evangelization.

Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki told more than 300 Catholics at the Cousins Center, representatives of every parish or cluster in the archdiocese whom he termed “disciples of Christ,” that when he was introduced as the 11th archbishop of Milwaukee in November 2009, a reporter asked him what his vision was for the archdiocese. He recalled that he told the reporter that Catholics had a “common vision.”

“It is our responsibility to respond to the Gospel of Jesus,” he said, noting that his vision is based upon three things that are intertwined – Catholic identity, evangelization and stewardship.

“Identity is who we are – having the sense of knowing who we are, having the sense of knowing the teaching of the church,” he said. “We understand who we

are, what we are called to. Our hearts and minds are committed when they understand the sense of the church and sense of their identity.”

Evangelization, Archbishop Listecki said, “is our mission – to proclaim Jesus.”

“Stewardship is how we do it, how we marshal our resources, how we come together to accomplish that,” he said.

‘Introduce people to Jesus’

Archbishop Listecki said that the local call for evangelization came from the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council in 2010 because of its concern about declining Mass attendance.

“One of the most shocking statistics for me all the time – whatever your most populated Mass is on a Sunday, then realize that there are only 30 percent of the Catholics that should be there,” he said. “What does that mean? That means there are 70 percent of our brothers and sisters who aren’t in that relationship (with Jesus) – and I’m not saying that just so we raise the population at Masses. Think of what we could do affecting the teaching of the church, touching people’s lives, if we just raise that 10 percent.”

While the Mass attendance figures concern the archbishop, he said, “Evangelization is more than just Mass attendance. It is introducing people to Jesus Christ.”

Citing Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20, as well as documents of the Second Vatican Council, and the writings of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, the archbishop said, “We represent the living reality of Christ to the world.”

While Vatican II, particularly the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, “Lumen Gentium,” called upon the church to evangelize, Catholics weren’t prepared to do it, he said.

“The Catholic Church has been in an entrenched mode for almost three decades. We have been hesitant to proclaim our faith and to invite others to share our faith,” he said. “Part of this was due to the lack of catechesis. In the post-Vatican II church, we did not have a proper understanding of the faith; we did not have proper grounding in the faith.”

Echoing the words of Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Listecki said the church is “confronted with objections to evangelization – relativism (denial that there is an absolute truth) and subjectivism (person’s own experience in a God of their own making, with no regard to what church, if any, they belong).” He added that evangelization must take place “in the post-Christian culture of which we are a part.”

“There were times that we could take for granted the Christian sense and Christian understanding in the communities we belonged, even within our society,” the archbishop said. “But realize, more and more, we live in communities that don’t share that understanding, that don’t have that sense of Christ, that don’t have that sense of belonging to the assembly of faith, which would be the church.”

Who to evangelize

As Pope John Paul II did when he introduced the new evangelization in 2001, Archbishop Listecki listed three groups that are the focus of any evangelization effort – those who have not heard of Jesus and the Gospel; those who no longer practice the faith; and those who are practicing the faith.

“There is no greater poverty than not knowing Jesus Christ,” the archbishop said of the first group. “He reveals the love of God for each one of us.”

Of the lapsed, he said, “We must find ways to reach them and invite them back to the church.  If it is true that they are spiritual but not religious, then we must help those who have fallen away to understand the significance of the church.”

Those who practice the faith “must evangelize ourselves. … It means we must prepare to live the Gospel. Conversion is an ongoing process, and deepening of faith is necessary,” the archbishop said.

Archbishop Listecki said the summit provided an opportunity to hear what had been done in evangelization, to focus energy, examine best practices, and “utilize our resources in a way to maximize our efforts in fulfilling our mission.”

“Evangelization takes generosity of heart, knowing what we possess. It takes patience, knowing that the message won’t always be received and, in our age, even being subjected to mocking and ridicule,” he said. “Most importantly, it takes love, for love is at the very heart of evangelization. We love the person of Christ and we desire that this love be experienced by others. Evangelization is a joyful task. And we’re all attracted to individuals who are happy. That happiness is a sign of peace, and that peace is a sign of confidence in Christ. Many who see it in others desire it for themselves…”

Undertake ‘subversive activity’

Bishop Donald J. Hying spoke about the what, how and why of evangelization.

“Evangelization is a subversive activity, because when we proclaim Christ and his Gospel, we are subverting or upending the sinful or established order of things,” he said. “Evangelization is about subverting anything that is contrary to the kingdom of God. In that perspective, it is a dangerous activity.”

While acknowledging that for many “it is difficult to share our faith,” the bishop, noting that the church was not about structures, programs, institutions and buildings, said, “It is fundamentally about proclaiming the mission of Jesus Christ to the world.”

“To evangelize, we must turn our hearts and souls inside out. We can’t stay in the basement; we have to get up on the roof,” he said, referencing Luke 12. “We have to allow ourselves to be so transparent that we can share with others the very depth of our inner strength with God.”

Bishop Hying explained what he termed an “urgency” to evangelize.

“When we look at our parishes, when we look at the life of the church, there are many people who are not at the table. In a sense, the voice of the church is being marginalized. The life of the church is being pushed to the corners,” he said. “We evangelize not primarily in response to crisis, but because Jesus tells us to – the Great Commission to go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel.”

He continued, “Is that not our mission – to look the world in the eye, not in a condemning way but with the loving heart of Christ and to proclaim him once again, with all the passion and fire of Pentecost?”

Why early church was successful

The bishop said the reasons that made the early church a “success” are a guide to how evangelization should be done today.

“Courageous proclamation of Christ (by his followers),” he said. “People were not afraid to stand up and speak of their personal experience of him.”

Another factor was authenticity.

“The early church lived what it believed. There was no division between ideas and practice. They acted out of the power of this Jesus whom they had experienced. He took over their lives,” Bishop Hying said. “Authenticity has to be a key to what we do.”

Success, he said, was also due the church’s “communal life of love and service.”

“They ministered to everyone’s needs. We should be communists,” he said, noting that he did not mean communist as “Marxist.” “We are called to share the resources of this world; everyone has a right to the basic fundamentals of life. Combining justice and mercy, we give witness to the holy Gospel of Christ.”

Another reason that people were attracted to the church was the joy and power Christ’s followers experienced.

“People wanted to be a part of it,” he said.

Why evangelize?

Sharing the Catholic faith is “the greatest act of love and service we can perform,” Bishop Hying said.

Referring to a tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous that “sobriety shared is sobriety strengthened,” he continued, “As Pope John Paul II said, ‘Faith shared is faith strengthened.’ I can only grow in my own faith if I am actively sharing it with others.”

“Significant forces” pulling people away from the practice of the faith are another reason the church needs to evangelize, Bishop Hying said.

“Due to a lack of catechesis, many people in the pew have a sketchy knowledge of their faith. They believe it, they love it, they live it, but it’s hard for them to articulate it,” he said. “How do we equip the average Catholic in the pew who can talk to someone at work, across the neighbor’s fence, to a relative or friend about the basics of Catholicism in a way that is loving, in a way that is authentic, in a way that is persuasive?”

The bishop said “another program” is not necessarily needed for this to occur.

“(We must) equip them to be comfortable to speak of their love for the Lord Jesus and why faith makes a difference in their lives,” he said.

Sharing of possibilities

Following the presentations, participants met in small groups to discuss what they had heard, including what membership trends concerned them.

Jackie Rekowski, a member of St. Agnes Parish, Butler, said she was “shocked by the number of people attending Mass” in the archdiocese. Referring to a story Bishop Hying told about meeting a bishop from the Netherlands in whose diocese Mass attendance is 5 percent, she added, “Five percent is where we could be going.” 

Fr. Tim Bickel, pastor of St. Agnes Parish, who will becomes pastor of St. Mary Parish, Menomonee Falls, in June, said, “Every Friday I tell our school children during the announcements, ‘Go home and beg and cry at your parents’ feet that you want to go to church this Sunday.’ I call families throughout the week to check in on them. Maybe we need to do more of that.”

Eileen Zaffiro, a volunteer from St. Anthony Parish, Menomonee Falls, added, “People have to make it a priority.”

Regarding a point made by Bishop Hying that Pope Benedict was looking to the church in the U.S. for models of evangelization, Maryrose Wolf of St. Agnes Parish, Butler, said, “I’m surprised the pope is looking to Americans for keys; it used to be the reverse (looking at what the church in Europe was doing).”

Jim Waters of St. Mary Parish, Menomonee Falls, said that his parish “had a great turnout” during Lent when 15-16 small groups would meet regularly to “explore grassroots” of faith. He noted that a “lot of veteran (long-time) Catholics have problems articulating the faith. We need an RCIA program for veteran Catholics.” 

Help, please

At an “open mic” session during which individuals were able to report on the small group discussions, Chris Hoar from Caritas for Children Inc., one of several Catholic organizations participating in the summit, spoke of drawing people to Christ.

“We don’t want to establish more programs; we want to focus on forming people in the faith,” she said. “It’s not about marketing and promoting; it’s about attracting people to Jesus Christ.”

Alejandro Preciado of St. Anthony Parish, Milwaukee, said that technology needed to be used if the church was to reach people, but he added a cautionary word: “If we don’t have patience and love, we have nothing.”

Catholics’ discomfort with speaking openly about their faith, and a request for help in getting them to overcome it, was voiced by at least two participants.

Devan Gracyalny of Mary Queen of Heaven Parish, West Allis, asked, “How uncomfortable are we, as Catholics, to share this relationship we have with Jesus?” He noted that people will hang door hangers for organizations and political candidates, but they won’t do it for their parish.

Kurt Piernot, an Archdiocesan Pastoral Council member from St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Ripon, said, “We feel uncomfortable doing this. How do you go about talking to someone? What questions do you ask?”

Tonya Johnson of All Saints Parish, Milwaukee, said, “Office staff needs to be evangelized and catechized; we are the frontline; people meet us first.”

Process continues

Mark Kemmeter, archdiocesan coordinator of parish mission, provided participants with “follow-up tasks” that included conversations about evangelization and the summit with their pastors or parish directors, and parish councils, and completion of an “evangelization focus form” in which they indicated evangelization activity in the parish.

“We are looking for best practices,” he said of the feedback he was seeking.

He cautioned about responsibility for evangelization falling to one person.

“This doesn’t become one person’s project,” he said. “Every parish should have a committee responsible for this.”