Taking people from ‘nones’ to regulars

Amazing Parish Conference debut highlights parishioner experience

Nissa LaPoint

Catholic heavyweights behind a Denver-launched parish revitalization movement shared with evangelizers across the country last week the keys to converting the unchurched into front-pew regulars.

Some 140 parishes and organizations from as far as New York and Canada gathered for an invitation-only workshop called The Amazing Parish Conference Aug. 27-28 in Denver to help churches become more vibrant centers for an encounter with Christ.

The first conference, funded by the local VINE Foundation, drew Catholic leaders including Jeff Cavins, Curtis Martin and Chris Stefanick to present with businessman Patrick Lencioni seven identified traits of an “amazing parish”—a reliance on prayer, a real leadership team, a clear vision, the Sunday experience, compelling formation, small group discipleship and missionary zeal.

What’s missing is not the sacraments, according to key organizers. What’s needed is a church filled with hearts on fire for Christ, and parishioners helpful to fallen-away Catholics navigating their way back to church.

“Yes, the Eucharist is enough, but so many people need more to understand that,” Lencioni, author and leadership consultant, said to the packed conference room inside the Hyatt Regency. “Those people out there who are former Catholics or Catholics going other places—they’re hungry for what you have. We know the most important part. This conference is about all the other things.”

Founders are calling it a Holy Spirit-inspired movement that began on the day Pope Francis was selected pontiff in March 2013.

Co-founder John Martin of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver told the Denver Catholic Register they want attendees to have “a zeal to take their parish to a level where parishioners are active disciples for Christ.”

 

Hearts on fire
This personal zeal is necessary for a transformation, Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said during his talk on evangelization.

“If we don’t have the fire in us it’s because we’re living a lukewarm and superficial existence,” he told the crowded conference room.

He urged pastors and parish staff that the best incentive for sharing the Gospel message comes from inside, from contemplating Christ in love.

“The fire begins to grow as I spend time with the one I love and when that fire grows then the Holy Spirit can use me,” he explained.

Parishes were asked to brainstorm ideas for putting this into action.

The bishop added that true zeal begins where natural enthusiasm ends.

“When you reach the end of natural enthusiasm and spiritual failure and weakness and you can’t go on, invite the Lord then a real transformation can happen and then real zeal begins.”

 

From consumers to disciples
Conference talks were built on the idea that a parish is where most people come to know Christ.

An alarming number of Americans are missing this opportunity, according to the Pew Research Center. “Nones” or those with no religious identity are a growing 19 percent or one-fifth of the population—and a third of adults under 30—researchers found in a 2012 poll.

Father Michael White, pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Md., and associate Tom Corcoran, shared how they shifted focus to these unchurched people.

Instead of adding more programs and ministries, the parish prioritized the Sunday experience and mobilized the help of regular parishioners.

The people in the pews were no longer approached as customers, he said.

“We were not leading people and we were not making disciples, but we were creating religious consumers in our parish,” Father White shared about the programs and activities they labored to provide. “So much of it was a waste of time.”

Together the pastor and associate authored the books “Rebuilt” and “Tools for Rebuilding” about the lessons they learned.

They asked attendees to brainstorm on ways to reach the unchurched by reevaluating their worship music, the message given during homilies and how ministers affect the Sunday experience.

“I want to see the average parishioner reawakened,” said Cathy Gold, parishioner at the 5,000-family St. Patrick’s Church in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. “Everyone should be sitting on the edge of their seat.”

After the discussion, Father Jarek Pochocki, O.M.I., pastor of St. Lawrence the Martyr and St. Patrick churches in Hamilton, Ontario, said he and his parishioners could work on reaching out to the small and diverse community.

“The topics seem obvious but this (conference) really reinforces our understanding of it,” he said.

During the conference, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of the Archdiocese of Denver celebrated Mass. Matt Maher led an evening of music, and adoration and confession were made available.

Lencioni presented on “a real leadership team,” Lisa Brennikmeyer presented on “small group discipleship,” Martin on “a reliance on prayer,” Cavins on “compelling formation,” and Matt Manion joined Lencioni to speak on “a clear vision.”

 

Resources
The Amazing Parish movement has provided free resources for Catholic leaders, clergy and laity, to achieve the seven traits at www.amazingparish.org. Key organizer Dominic Perri said the movement will also provide consultants to help parishes become thriving centers.

“The response has been tremendous,” he said during the conference. “There’s a tremendous hunger for this. … We’re here to serve the (parishes).”

 

 

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

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Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.