"Then Jesus said to them, 'Do not be afraid.'" Mt 28:10
Christ’s message to the women at his tomb is also addressed to us. With his Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension, Christ has vanquished death and granted us the hope of eternal salvation. Therefore, there is nothing to fear. However, because of Original Sin, we still experience fear and anxiety. Our brothers and sisters who no longer actively practice the faith may have apprehension about “coming back.” They may wonder and worry about the following: Will the Mass be the same? Will I be judged because I stayed away so long? Maybe I have sinned so greatly that I cannot come back. What if I cannot remember the words to Mass? Maybe I have sinned so greatly that I cannot come back.
Those who minister to our missing brothers and sisters are filled with questions also: Who am I to welcome people back? Am I actually capable of explaining what the Church teaches? Can I offer guidance and listen to their concerns without judgment? Indeed, Christians often experience these concerns when they evangelize. We are often afraid to ask our family, friends, and co-workers, “Would you like to come to Mass with me this weekend?” We have difficulty saying, “I saw the same news story, but this is what the Church actually teaches.” We have trouble revealing, “Yes, sometimes going to confession is hard, but once I am there, I experience God’s peace and mercy. If you haven’t been in awhile, consider giving it another chance.” There are several key components to successful evangelization programs designed to engage our missing brothers and sisters. This section of the resource will examine these components and offer concrete practices for fostering a culture of witness in diocesan and parish-based programs designed to invite all Catholics to a fuller participation in the life of the Church. Who am I to welcome people back?
In 2010, the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis conducted a nationwide survey of dioceses and eparchies on their best practices for outreach to Catholics. Based on the results of this survey as well as the National Directory for Catechesis, Go and Make Disciples, and A Time to Listen . . . A Time to Heal: A Resource Directory for Reaching Out to Inactive Catholics, the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis proposes several key components for programs meant to invite Catholics back to the Lord’s Table.51 These components are not meant to be comprehensive but rather serve as a foundation for diocesan and parish-based programs. The key components are the Holy Spirit and conversion, leadership, team preparation, an atmosphere of hospitality and trust, catechesis (including sacramental catechesis), prayer and popular piety, the Sunday Eucharist and effective preaching, resources, and continued support.
The Holy Spirit and Conversion
The New Evangelization is an opportunity for ongoing conversion. This reorientation of one’s life toward Christ is possible because of the work of the Holy Spirit. The process of returning to active participation in the Church is a process of conversion that unfolds through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. For some Catholics, the conversion process to return to the Lord’s Table will take time. Therefore, complete trust in the work of the Holy Spirit is essential. Programs designed to invite Catholics back to the Church should emphasize the following aspects of the role of the Holy Spirit and conversion:
- Openness to the Holy Spirit.
- Personal witnessing to the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the pastor and team members
- Recognition that each person's conversion will be unique and unfold at a different pace
- Realization among team members that it was the Holy Spirit who led participants in their journey back to the Church. (It is God who reaches out first.)
- Use of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) model for conversion
- Ability of the pastor and team leaders to articulate personal faith experiences
- Programs that are flexible, because some individuals may not be able to participate in an entire program
- Participation in retreats ( e.g., marriage preparation and enrichment, adolescent, and young adult)
- Involvement in faith formation programs and direct service opportunities
- Recognition that the conversion process may go beyond the length of the program and require follow-up with the person by a team member or pastor (All participants would benefit from follow-up contacts.)
- Evangelization and long-term evangelization planning in the parish.
The bishop, as the shepherd of his diocese and chief catechist, has been entrusted with the sacred duty to provide for the spiritual needs of those in his care, especially those who are absent from the community. The bishop’s witness and active engagement in reaching out to our missing brothers and sisters demonstrates to the entire diocese the importance of this ministry. Pastors who assist the bishops in this sacred duty are vital elements in welcoming back our missing brothers and sisters. Lay parish leaders and staff also have a role in this ministry, as they are often the first points of contact and witness to the parish community. The following leadership skills and practices ought to be emphasized in outreach programs designed to welcome Catholics back to the Church:
- Public testimony and witness by the bishop about the importance of this ministry, including a personal invitation by the diocesan bishop to reconnect with one’s parish
- Personal invitations to those who are missing to join the community for Sunday Mass
- Reaching out to former parishioners and demonstrating a spirit of welcome to all those who seek assistance
- Use of various ways to invite Catholics back (e.g., through letters, phone calls, social media, and home visits)
- Diocesan support of pastors and parishes implementing the bishop's pastoral plan for this ministry
- Support for pastors when engaging in and setting aside parish resources for this outreach
- Periodic parish censuses to determine the population and parish demographics (This is an opportunity to invite people to return to the Church.)
- Involvement of the clergy in the formation of lay leaders as evangelizers
Programs that utilize a team-based approach should ensure that team members have been carefully selected and formed and that they embody a sense of welcome. Team members need not be master catechists, but they should have a deep love of the Church and a mature prayer life. If possible, the team should include Catholics who have had a lifetime commitment to the faith and others who have returned to the active practice of the faith. Some additional skills and practices for team formation include the following:
- A love of God and his Church
- Involvement and assistance of the pastor in the program
- Dedication to daily prayer
- Team members who are joyful mentors to returning Catholics
- Willingness to share one's own spiritual journey
- Ability to articulate how Christ changed one's life
- Knowledge to share the Gospel message
- Attendance at catechetical formation programs and retreats offered by the diocese or parish
- Participation in training programs for one-on-one evangelization, including online resources that make use of social media
- Ability to empathize
- Willingness to learn active listening skills
- Commitment to participate in the entire length of the program
An Atmosphere of Hospitality and Trust
The next element needed for effective evangelization is hospitality and trust. The entire parish community, especially the parish leadership, must foster a spirit of hospitality and welcome. This sense of hospitality extends beyond those who participate in formal “welcome back” programs. It includes Catholics who approach the Church at key “teachable moments,” such as couples seeking the Sacrament of Matrimony, parents who have children in Catholic schools or parish-based religious education programs and are bringing their children for sacramental preparation, and Catholics who seek assistance from parish social ministry programs. Additionally, Catholics who choose to participate in a “welcome back” program ought to feel supported in their journey by the entire community. The following are among the other aspects of hospitality and trust that could be included in outreach programs:
- Fostering a liturgical environment that invites, spiritually fulfills and welcomes the full and active participation of the parish
- Encouraging words of welcome by pastors at all liturgies, especially key liturgical moments when Catholics attend liturgies, such as weddings, funerals, quinceañeras, and Christmas and Easter Masses
- Offering the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation during hours that are convenient for those with busy work schedules, such as during lunch and after work
- The use of multiple languages in every aspect of parish life when culturally diverse groups are members of the parish
- Accessibility of worship and inclusion in all aspects of parish life for all, especially those with physical and mental disabilities
- Creation and pastoral formation of a welcome committee to help greet and support new parish members
- Parish-based support groups for those populations who tend to drift away from the Church, such as young adults, the newly married, new parents, and the recently divorced or widowed.
- Openness to the participant's questions and listening to the group's concerns
- Respectful dialogue during the meeting sessions
- Confidentiality of conversations that take place during formation opportunities
Catechesis, Including Sacramental Catechesis
Many times, Catholics who have been away from the Church return with questions about the Mass, Scripture, and the teachings and traditions of the Church. These questions should be addressed openly and honestly by pastors and knowledgeable team members. Participants should be encouraged to ask questions, learn more about the faith, and receive the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance and Reconciliation to experience God’s grace and mercy. The catechetical component should include the following elements:
- Teaching and reflections on the Creed, sacraments, and moral teachings of the Church based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults
- Bible Study and reflection on the role of Scripture in one’s life.
- Opportunities for more thorough Scripture studies.
- Sacramental catechesis on the Seven Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance and Reconciliation
- Encouraging returning Catholics to receive the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation and the Eucharist
- Emphasis on the transformative grace of the Eucharist, including a sense of discipleship.
- Links on the parish website to creditable Catholic catechetical websites and Catholic social media sites
- Use of teachable moments (e.g., Christmas, Easter, Baptism, First Communion, and other special liturgies) when Catholics come in contact with the Church (These are important opportunities not only for catechesis but also for evangelization.)
- Information about parish adult faith formation programs
Prayer and Popular Piety
Outreach programs must include prayer and help nurture the spiritual life of those returning to the Church. Even if someone has been away from the Church and Sunday Mass for a significant period of time, it should not be assumed that they have ceased praying. Indeed, many Catholics who have slipped away still have a deep devotion to Mary, the saints, and popular piety practices. These devotions should provide the basis for deepening their spiritual life. Programs developed for reaching out to our missing brothers and sisters should emphasize the following teachings and practices:
- Because prayer is the means through which we enter into a relationship with God, what a regular prayer life entails and how to pray each day should be explained.
- The Mass is the source and summit of the Church’s life because it is through the Eucharist that one is nurtured by the Body and Blood of Christ.52
- The common prayers of the Church (Our Father; Hail Mary; Glory Be; Acts of Hope, Faith, Love and Contrition) should be taught, explained, and prayed.
- The various expressions of prayer (vocal, meditative, and contemplative) along with the basic types of prayers (adoration, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise) should be examined.53
- The rich spiritual traditions of the Church (Rosary, lectio divina, Liturgy of the Hours, novenas) should be explored.54
- Popular piety practices and devotions (devotion to the saints, scapulars, house blessings, home altars) should be taught and encouraged.
- The popular cultural devotions of various ethnic communities represented in the parish should be incorporated in various aspects of parish life.
- Ecclesial movements may be involved in parish life and faith formation.
The Sunday Eucharist and Effective Preaching
Outreach programs ought to invite people to return to the Sunday Eucharist. It is during this celebration that we encounter Jesus in the Eucharist. Pastors endeavor to ensure that both the preaching and the assembly are sensitive and welcoming to those who infrequently attend the Eucharist. The following are among the other aspects of the Sunday Eucharist and preaching that should be emphasized:
- Prayerful and faith-filled celebrations of the Eucharist with thoughtfully prepared homilies that stir the heart and mind
- The celebration of Sunday Mass in multiple languages when culturally diverse populations are present
- The accessibility of the Church building for those with disabilities, including the use of American Sign Language for the Deaf community
- A welcoming and inviting atmosphere toward those who infrequently attend
- Homiletic training during clergy formation and ongoing training for ordained clergy
- Opportunities for the clergy to study and reflect on Scripture
- Dedicated time for clergy for prayer and homily preparation
- Focus on integrating the teachings of the Catechism with Scripture in preaching
Catholics returning to the faith may need resources beyond what a team can provide. Team members will also need resources and support from the parish. Additionally, the community will need to commit parish resources to the program. The following resources should be readily available before a program begins:
- Meeting space in the parish that is set aside for the program
- A program budget for supplies, such as catechetical materials and refreshments
- Catechetical materials for team members so that they can better explain the Church’s teachings
- Contact information for professionals who can assist those struggling with depression, addiction, or other related needs
- Contact information for the diocesan tribunal to assist those who wish to regularize their marriage
An evangelization program for returning Catholics is the first step in the process of rejoining the community at the Lord’s Table. The Church’s outreach cannot end with the completion of a program, no matter how good the program is. The Church’s outreach cannot end upon one’s return to Sunday Mass. We are called to continually support and encourage our returning brothers and sisters so that they can become true disciples of Christ. Continued support should include the following:
- An ongoing relationship between the participants and team members
- Encouragement to join parish prayer groups and small faith communities
- Opportunities for lifelong faith formation and catechesis, including reflection on Scripture
- Catechetical formation through parish and diocesan programs including on-line formation programs.
- Occasions for service within the parish community (e.g., to the sick and homebound)
- Involvement of ecclesial movements and new communities
- Parish revivals and missions
- Continued hospitality at parish liturgies and events
Dioceses, eparchies, and parishes are encouraged to use this resource to develop their own programs or enhance existing ones to “re-propose” the Gospel to our missing brothers and sisters. Outreach to Catholics seeking to more fully participate in the life of the Church is dependent upon the entire community’s commitment to the New Evangelization.
- For additional components and concrete practices, see A Time to Listen…A Time to Heal, 12-17 and Go and Make Disciples, nos. 90-127.
- See Lumen Gentium, no.11.
- See USCCB, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA) (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2006), 467-468, 473-475.
- See USCCA, 472.