In the United States, research shows that the average Catholic
parish has about 5,000 "unchurched" people within its boundaries.
Some of this group have never been part of a religious
tradition, while others have been but no longer are. Of these,
5,000 people, about 3,000 indicate that they would be open to
considering the possibility of a religious affiliation.
This information is never far from my mind when doing
formation work on the Church's vision of evangelization and
how this seeds the terrain that leads people into the precatechumenate
in our parishes. Against the backdrop of this reportedly
fertile terrain, I am struck by the negative images people
often associate with the word "evangelization." It seems that
many of us, when trying to grapple with the vision of evangelization,
know better what we don't want to be than what we
would like to be as evangelizers. Clearly, when it comes to our
faith we don't want to be part of anything that smacks of the
"hard sell" experiences we have all had.
In light of the reported openness to dialogue about faith
among many in our neighborhoods and communities, how
might we move toward what we are called to become? A first
step in helping others to have a more conscious part in the
vision of evangelization is to help them to rediscover the love
relationship they have with God in Christ. This is less a question
of loving and being loved than it is of simply being "in
love" with the Lord. The fact is that the scriptures show that
this is precisely how the Lord is with us. Why else would God
be so faithful to the covenant for so long with a people such as
we are? There are ways to help people come to know God in
this way: retreats, adult formation, and preaching that exude
this kind of relationship in the life of the teacher and preacher,
small Christian communities that invite intimacy with God
through the close sharing of one's life with others, and so on.
The dynamic by which we rediscover our "in-lovedness"
with God will teach us about how we share that experience
with others. The process of such discovery requires listening,
receiving, and reverencing the stories of lives caught up in the
journey with others to God. If we as a Catholic people are to
learn the ways of evangelization, we will have to begin with the
understanding that at least half of the task is listening for what
God is already doing in people's lives. Our job is to learn how
to listen with Gospel hearts that hear that movement of the
Spirit and second it in whatever way we are called.
However flickering the flame of love, we know that deep
in the human heart is planted that very same longing that
we ourselves have experienced for God. Out of this personal
experience, it may not be so hard, after coming to know an "unchurched" neighbor, to offer our parish as a place to find a
faith community if they ever would like to give it a try. Or with
a work colleague who is unchurched and to whom we have listened
and offered support through a family struggle, we might
tell them how our faith community has supported us through
similar struggles and suggest a parish that is not far from their
home, in case they ever want to make the connection. In this
case, it would be good to have a contact name ready.
Here, relationship is everything - real relationships with
people in all their variety and complexity whom we help introduce
to Christ as he is incarnated in our faith communities.
This variety is named in the initiation process that may follow:
"The rite of initiation is suited to a spiritual journey of
adults that varies according to the many forms of God's grace,
the free cooperation of the individuals, the actions of the
Church, and the circumstances of time and place" (RCIA, #5).
Clearly, nothing can be predicted. We are simply helping
to make the introduction and leaving persons free to find their
way more deeply into our company in a manner and in a time
that God and they will determine together.
Learning to listen in this way, to respond appropriately,
and to help people make the connection is not easy. It requires
love, perceptiveness, and personal authenticity. There is a new
practical resource available to help parishes more consciously
and concretely embrace their indispensable role in the Church's
mission of evangelization. Entitled Invite, it can be obtained
from the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association
(PNCEA). Visit www.pncea.org or write to PNCEA, 3031 Fourth
Street, NE, Washington D.C. 20017.
© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609
is executive director of the North American
Forum on the Catechumenate, www.naforum.org. He and his family
live in Arlington, Virginia.