On the heels of Easter Sunday, a holy day notorious for bringing generally "inactive" Catholics back to church for one day, the bishops' Evangelization and Catechesis committee has released a document, Disciples Called toWitness: The New Evangelization, which is geared toward reawakening the faith of Catholics.
The document never actually talks about “inactive” Catholics and makes this omission intentionally. For instance, people who can’t make it to Mass because they are homebound or because they’re working three jobs to stay afloat may not be regularly participating in parish and sacramental life, but they haven’t exactly renounced their faith either.
The document instead takes a more universal approach, saying that the bishops want to re-energize the faith of all Catholics. A Catholic who’s lost a sense of the faith can be someone who hasn’t been to Mass in 30 years or someone who comes to Mass every Sunday but experiences no personal growth, who goes through the paces with no internal conviction.
Of course, the idea of energizing Catholics, wherever they may be in their faith journeys, ties directly into the New Evangelization. Popularized by John Paul II and made a major priority of Benedict XVI, the New Evangelization is the notion that every Catholic must have a relationship with Christ, and have an authentic experience of their faith if they are to in turn draw others to Jesus and the Gospel.
In the final section of Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization, the bishops list areas where parish communities can strengthen their outreach to Catholics who might be returning to the practice of the faith. Some of the specific suggestions include:
- Since returning to the Church is an act of the Holy Spirit, emphasize personal witnessing to the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the pastor and pastoral ministers.
- Recognize that each person’s conversion will be unique and unfold at a different pace.
- Have programs that are flexible, as some people might not be able to participate in an entire program.
- Extend personal invitations to those who are missing and a spirit of welcome to all who seek assistance.
- Have pastoral ministers who have the knowledge to share the Gospel message and how have the ability to listen and empathize.
- Foster a liturgical environment that invites, spiritually fulfills and welcomes full and active participation.
- Offer encouraging words of welcome, especially at special events such as weddings, funerals, quinceañeras, and Christmas and Easter Masses.
- Offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation when it is convenient for those with busy work schedules.
- Utilize multiple languages in every aspect of parish life when dealing with a diverse community.
- Include links on the parish website to reputable Catholic catechetical websites and social media presences.
- Ensure the church building is accessible to those with disabilities.
- Provide resources and training for pastors to give well-prepared homilies that stir the heart.
- Provide catechetical materials, as well as contact information for marriage tribunals and professionals who can assist those seeking to regularize their marriages or who are struggling with depression, addiction, etc.
- Provide opportunities for lifelong faith formation.
- Maintain personal relationships with returning Catholics, bearing in mind that the process of welcoming someone back into the Church is an ongoing one.
This weekend, if there are a few extra people in the pews, remember the words of St. Paul: “Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you” (Rom 15:7).