I don’t go in for clergy-policing, to the point that I have to remind myself it’s okay to give a guy a compliment when he does a good job. Likewise, as my husband pointed out one day when I was whining about some trivial shortcoming on the part of Fr. Excellent, most pastors are trying to do the job of five men, and if they manage to do the job of three men well, they’re ahead of the game.
I write now with both those perspectives firmly in mind. Executive Summary: If you want your parishioners to evangelize, Fathers, there’s not a whole lot we need you to do. Many of you are doing it, and doing it well. Thank you. I repeat: Thank you.
For those who are wondering, “Is it me, or is it my parishioners?” here’s my answer:
You bring to your parish just three things, and the laity should be able to take care of the rest.
If you are doing these three things, the problem is not with you. It’s with us.
Evangelization Prerequisite #1: Decent Liturgy
We can build bridges in the community all we like, but there’s this pivotal moment in evangelization when one must say, “Would you like to come to Mass with me?”
If you, Father, can provide a decent Mass, we can extend that invitation.
I don’t mean an amazing Mass. You don’t have to have the town’s best musicians or a world-class homily. (If you do, we’re good with that.) But remember that we’re trying to get folks to:
A) Not run away.
B) Experience the answer to the deepest longing of their being.
Category A Troubleshooting:
Does the sound system hurt anyone’s ears? (Yes, I really had to leave a congregation once because I spent the whole service covering my infant’s ears to protect her hearing.)
If there’s music, is it performed with a minimum of competence? The odd dropped note is not a problem. Clergy get a free pass (and bonus points) for chanting to the best of their ability. But if your choir sounds like a scene from the Brementown Musicians, consider scaling back and channeling that enthusiasm towards a parish sing-along some other hour of the week.
These things aren’t complicated. It is tempting, though, to tolerate soul-deadening incompetence in the name of Franciscan-inspired poverty or some kind of misguided “kindness.” If any sane visitor will want to hide under the pews covering his ears (as my six-year-old did once when we visited a parish on a particularly bad sound-system day), that’s not kindness.
Category B Troubleshooting:
To advance your liturgy from don’t make them run away to make them want to stay, we have to ask: What is the purpose of evangelization? Why do we want people to stay?
People will quibble over music styles and homilies and you-name-it all afternoon, but ultimately what we seek in the liturgy isn’t a concert or a good speech. What the would-be convert is seeking is the one thing for which he was made: To worship God.
If your liturgy isn’t about the worship of God and only the worship of God, there’s no point in inviting anyone to Mass. Things other than God are more easily found elsewhere.
Evangelization Prerequisite #2: Orthodoxy
If I want to help someone discover the joy and beauty and wonder of the Catholic faith, I need a place where that person can be sure to find the Catholic faith.
You may know a priest, or be a priest, who does not believe the Catholic faith. This is an absolute obstacle to evangelization. Dead stop.
But suppose you do believe, and you wish to help others believe. Because you are a charitable soul, you might even assume your volunteers and staff are, in fact, adherents to the fullness of the Catholic faith.
If you are known for your orthodoxy, and you have any influence over what happens in the parish, those around you will quickly get good at concealing their dissent from you. They don’t, after all, wish to lose their position.
It is also likely that those who are disturbed by pockets of dissent within your parish have been trained through years of experience to put up and shut up. “How dare you question those holy volunteers / deacons / sisters / priests who have given their life to this parish out of love for the faith?” “Who died and made you Pope?” “Maybe you’d be happier at another parish.”
Achieving parish-Orthodoxy in the post-dissent era is no small feat.
Doing so requires not just unequivocally and explicitly declaring that the parish will teach and act consistently with the Catholic faith, but it requires providing a known avenue of recourse for addressing concerns as they arise, and charitably following through on every instance. Over time, and only over time, your reputation is proved.
Until then, evangelization remains a dicey prospect. A realistic assumption is that those in your pews most serious about their faith and most eager to evangelize assume you may not in fact hold to the Catholic faith, except in those matters where you have proven yourself. Literally every encounter with your parishioners is an experiment for them in finding out what kind of person you are. The faithful have a catalog of reasons to set their expectations in the gutter, even as they secretly hope those expectations will be disproved for the better.
Evangelization Prerequisite #3: Kindness
The laity don’t need you to be smart. We don’t need you to know how your computer works, how to fix the toilet, or how to plan a funeral meal. It would be nice if you were Father Everything, and indeed the more talented you are, the more you can accomplish; but in practice your parishioners can cover a multitude of deficiencies.
The one thing we can’t do is be the priest. That means that in all the priest-things that you do (everything you do is a priest-thing), you have to avoid undoing the work of evangelization.
To do that, you have to be kind to people. Here are some things you must not do:
- Yell at people in the confessional, and then follow them into the nave for additional yelling on the topic of what they confessed, how they confessed, and why they deserve to be yelled at.
- Publicly berate a family as they are praying after Mass for indulging in devotions that show a superabundance of piety in a manner not to your own taste.
- Announce “Meeting over! Can’t help you! We’re done here!” and show a family to the door when they come to you seeking the sacraments, and you discover that they have some situation that will require rectifying before they can receive the desired sacrament.
- Subsidize your gambling habit with the parish building fund.
- Have an affair with the parish secretary.
- Look a woman straight in the face and tell her she must continue to live with her physically abusive husband.
You have to not do these things.
You have to not do even the much milder, small-time versions of these things.
It doesn’t help evangelization if we have to say, “Hey, come check out my church. And if Father is mean to you, just, um, try not to think about it. We’ll dash to donuts fast as we can and maybe he won’t see you.”
Your would-be evangelizers might be doing their St. John of the Cross routine and putting up with you for now. But we cannot expect anyone who isn’t yet absolutely firm in their faith to stick around and endure even a low-grade case of Father Horrid.
Kindness doesn’t mean soft-pedaling the faith. It means practicing the faith in its entirety. For every Father Horrid I’ve heard about or encountered, I’ve met dozens of priests about whom I can say with confidence, “You know, for that problem, just give Father Decent who lives in your area a call. He’ll help you sort it out.”
Father Decent might or might not get the call. But being Father Decent means someone could call. It leaves the option on the table.
Only Three Things
When Catholic people use the word evangelization, sometimes what they mean is, “My conception of evangelization that involves doing things I’m comfortable with and that make me feel good.”
Sometimes, though, what they mean is, “An impossible thing I can never hope to do.”
This isn’t so.
None of us can control what others around us do. We might have some influence for the better, but ultimately even Father Perfect can’t override free will and cause the devoutly-lukewarm to do anything other than wallow in their tepid juices. Our mission isn’t to be the person other people are supposed to be; we just have to be the person God created us to be.
Every Catholic has a long list of things we’d like to see in Father Ideal. But evangelizing Catholics in fact need very little from our parish priests: A decent liturgy, orthodoxy, and kindness. That’s it. More might be better, but good enough is good enough.
- Taming the Feral Faithful: How to Lure Serious Catholics Back to Your Parish
- Evangelizing in the Face of Dissent
- 10 Ways to Support Evangelization Even When Your Parish is Falling Apart
Image copyright Jon Fitz, all rights reserved.