With Holy Week quickly approaching, we have been preparing for the Easter Vigil liturgy, the most exciting event on the church calendar. My enthusiasm is tempered this year because we have no one entering the Church from our parish. Our faith formation class has only one candidate and she will not be making her profession of faith until later. This saddens me for several reasons.
First of all, nothing is more exciting than seeing new people being baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil. I feel reenergized by those who have finally discovered the Church Jesus established. Especially rewarding is having a hand in preparing them for that beautiful event. Seeing them arrive with family and friends, their nervous anticipation, and the excitement of receiving Our Lord for the first time brings great joy to me and the entire faith community.
An Easter Vigil without catechumens leaves a void in the liturgy. Beyond that, it saddens me that we are not sharing our faith the way we should be. I have always believed that every Easter Vigil would be flooded with new Catholics if we were spreading the gospel the way Our Lord commanded us to do. We have too long subscribed to the notion that actively sharing our Catholic faith is uncharitable or at least, not ecumenical. Quite the contrary, we should be doing it out of love for our fellow Christians and non-Christians too for that matter.
Unfortunately, many Catholics today do not know their faith well enough to explain it to others. In our community, the Catholic school closed its doors more than thirty-five years ago. Up until then, most Catholics received at least eight years of Catholic education. There are still a few of us around who graduated from that school. By today’s standards, our Catholic education far exceeds that of most of our current parishioners. Yet, even those eight years are hardly adequate. Can you think of any profession where an eighth grade education would be considered sufficient?
Our parish offers classes in Faith formation, but attendance is practically non-existent. Getting people to turn off the television even one night a week to enhance their religious education is next to impossible. The Wednesday evening Lenten program in our parish did meet with limited success. A soup supper with guest speakers drew an average of about thirty-five parishioners on each of the four evenings it was held. While you see mostly older people at these events, I was encouraged to see a few young families in attendance. Perhaps that bodes well for the future.
I believe there are many things we could be doing to draw people to the Church. We need to be more visible. Matthew 5:14-16 tells us we should be a light to our community and not be hidden. Twenty-first century technology offers us many opportunities to get our message out and we need to take advantage of all of them.
The Internet is probably the greatest educational device ever conceived. Search engines allow anyone looking for information to find it in an instant. We must make certain we are available with answers. I started a website for our parish about ten years ago. In addition to weekly updates about our church, it contains links to orthodox Catholic sites where seekers can find answers to their questions about the Catholic Faith. We average about 4000 hits per month, not a lot by some standards, but not bad for a parish with about 200 families.
Aside from the website, which goes unnoticed unless someone seeks it out, how visible are we? Our church building is the tallest edifice in town. The Cross on the bell tower can be seen from most any approach and the carillon plays Catholic hymns twice a day, and more often on weekends. While this may attract attention and curiosity, it does little to spread the gospel message.
At one time, our parish published weekly messages in a local advertising publication. They were meant to be inspirational and informational. I do not know how effective they were, but we did seem to have more catechumens back then. The ads were discontinued about two pastors ago.
As many churches do, we have a sign out front with Mass times and space for messages. It is used to advertise dinners and other events, but could be utilized more for evangelization. Often, it is simply left blank which also sends a message. It says, we have nothing to say to you right now.
Many other opportunities exist to be visible in the community. Our town has an annual festival, some of which takes place on church grounds. The Knights of Columbus sponsor a pancake breakfast during the festival, and last year, our parish held a chicken carryout dinner. Each event lasted only a few hours of the festival, and aside from full stomachs, visitors took nothing away. Festivals provide wonderful chances to connect with visitors on the midway. Invite them into your booth for a sandwich and a cold drink, and hand them a Catholic tract before they leave.
Some parishes have their own festivals. Non-catholics may be more inclined to attend a Catholic-sponsored street festival than an event located inside the church itself. Any opportunity for interaction can be an ice-breaker. The key is to look for ways to evangelize while fundraising. With that in mind, make certain such events avoid any activities that could cast dispersions on the parish. Gambling or alcohol consumption is never appropriate when our mission is attracting converts.
All of these ideas require a commitment. In a small parish like ours, finding people willing and able to devote time and energy is difficult. The potential harvest is great, but the laborers are few. Perhaps the best way to share our message is to lead by example. Proclaim your Catholic Faith boldly, and lead your life in such a way to gain the respect of those around you every day. Then, sit back and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.