Taking people from ‘nones’ to regulars

Amazing Parish Conference debut highlights parishioner experience

Nissa LaPoint
Father Michael White, left, Patrick Lencioni, center, and Tom Corcoran talk about creating an amazing Sunday experience at the first Amazing Parish Conference Aug. 27-28 in Denver.

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: Joe Biden is Isaac Hecker’s fault?

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Vice President Joe Biden takes the oath of office at the 56th Presidential Inauguration, Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009 (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

U.S. Catholics generally know little about the Church’s history in our country. But whether you’re trying to fill gaps in your knowledge or just looking for a good read, let me recommend a new book by Russell Shaw: Catholics in America – Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor (Ignatius Press).

Its formidable subtitle notwithstanding, Russell Shaw’s new book is an easy-to-digest smorgasbord, a portrait gallery of fifteen important characters in the American Catholic story. Three of the heroes of my Baltimore boyhood get their just deserts: Archbishop John Carroll, first and arguably greatest of U.S. bishops; Cardinal James Gibbons, America’s most prominent Catholic for four decades; and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, “Wild Betty” as she once called herself, foundress of the Catholic school system that’s still the Church’s best anti-poverty program.

The politicos (Al Smith and JFK) and the intellectuals (combustible, cantankerous Orestes Brownson and the scholarly old-school Jesuit, John Courtney Murray) are neatly sketched, as are three women of consequence: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O’Connor. A trio of New Yorkers (one born in Ireland, another in Massachusetts, and another in Peoria) take their turns on stage in the persons of Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, Cardinal Francis Spellman, and Spelly’s rival, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Then there’s the remarkable Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus and, I hope, America’s next beatus.

For contemporary purposes and debates, one of the most suggestive of Shaw’s portraits is that of Father Isaac Hecker, another candidate for beatification. Shortly after his death in 1888, Hecker became the subject of contention in Rome, when an ill-translated biography of the founder of the Paulists, and some intra-Catholic brawling among U.S. hierarchs, led to a papal warning against “Americanism” – a way-of-being-Catholic that Pope Leo XIII deemed excessively privatized, insufficiently contemplative, and dismissive of the Church’s magisterium. Ever since, U.S. Catholic historians have been arguing about whether “Americanism” was a phantom heresy.

There seem to be three contending parties in that debate. The canonical view of classic U.S. Catholic historians like John Tracy Ellis was that “Americanism” was indeed a phantasm of fevered Roman minds. Then, in the 1970s, came the revisionist view that Hecker, and bishops like John Ireland of St. Paul-Minneapolis, John Keane of Catholic University, and Cardinal Gibbons, were in fact exploring a new ecclesiology, a new way of thinking about the Church, that Vatican II would vindicate in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

Now comes Russell Shaw, who, in his portrait of Hecker, continues to press an argument he first raised in 2013 in American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (the man does have a way with subtitles). Reduced to essentials, Shaw’s contention is that Hecker and those of his “Americanist” cast of mind did represent an assimilationist current in U.S. Catholic thought – a tendency to bend over backwards to “fit into” American culture – that eventually made possible Ted Kennedy, Barbara Mikulski, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden: cradle-Catholic politicians who support public policies that flatly contradict basic moral truths taught by the Church on the basis of reason and revelation, justify their votes in the name of “democracy” and “pluralism,” and are supported by a lot of fellow-Catholics in doing so.

To be sure, Shaw acknowledges that Hecker’s great goal was to convert America to Catholicism, not retrofit Catholicism to the dominant American culture of his day (which I think my friend misstates as “secular” rather than “Protestant”). Hecker’s failure, as I read Shaw, is that he didn’t grasp that there were corrosives built into American public culture that would eventually eat away at core Catholic convictions. And if that’s what Russ Shaw is arguing, then he’s implicitly adopting the “ill-founded Republic” optic on U.S. history advanced by such scholars as Patrick Deneen and David Schindler.

My own view is that the failure of Catholics to infuse American politics with Catholic social doctrine has had a lot more to do with creating Joe Biden & Co. than Isaac Hecker and the 19th-century “Americanists.” In any case, Shaw’s new book and its predecessor are good places to begin thinking about what went wrong here and why.