The five traits of an Evangelizing Parish

Cardinal Francis Arinze to speak about his new book at John Paul II Lecture Series Nov. 6

Far from being a place where people can hide and live comfortably, the parish is a Eucharistic community that is called to “launch into the deep” because it is, “by nature,” missionary, as the first Christians were. It is called to be open to the surrounding community, to those who have not received the Good News, says Cardinal Francis Arinze, former Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in his new book The Evangelizing Parish (Ignatius Press).

Ahead of his presentation on the book at the John Paul II Lecture Series in Denver Nov. 6, here are five essential qualities that he says make up an Evangelizing Parish.

All of its ‘major actors’ cooperate

Cardinal Arinze assures that in an evangelizing parish, the chief actors of the parish community are active in their own respective ways: the parish priest, other priests, religious brothers and sisters, the lay faithful, ecclesial movements, Catholic associations and small communities.

Other than being an administrator of the goods of the parish, the pastor acts as the extension of the bishop, the cardinal says, and “should have a deep experience of the living Christ and be priest with a burning missionary spirit in going in search of the lost sheep.” He should also be distinguished for his “sound doctrine” and “integrity of morals.” Pastors should strive to live in fraternity with other priests and welcome the charisms of the religious brothers and sisters, who “can be of great help in the parish witness of Christ.”

The lay faithful make up 99.9 percent of the Church worldwide and share in the evangelizing activity by cooperating in inner-Church affairs and in the secular order. “Their activity is so necessary within the Church communities that without it, the apostolate of the pastor is often unable to achieve its full effectiveness,” the cardinal writes. Their participation in the parish ranges from forming or partaking in faith formation programs to serving the poor and helping in parish building projects. Called to evangelize the temporal order, they are to bring the spirit of Christ beyond the parish, to the family, workplace and even politics.

It teaches the faith

An evangelizing parish is a place where its members are nourished. With cooperation of other priests, religious, or the laity, the parish priest has the duty of teaching and preaching God’s word to the parish community, “so that, rooted in faith, hope and charity, they will grow in Christ, and as a Christian community bear witness to that charity which the Lord commended,” Cardinal Arinze writes, quoting the Second Vatican Council.

“Sacred Scripture has a key and honored place in the imparting of the Christina doctrine,” he says. And assures that all ordinary activities, communities and movements should be examined in its light, “’to see if they are truly concerned with fostering a personal encounter with Christ, who gives himself to us in his word.’” The Catechism of the Catholic Church also has an honored place, for it allows priests and catechists to give genuine religious instruction to the people in our time.

Moreover, the priest should see the homily as a “major area of responsibility” in which he beautifully presents the liturgical texts. The cardinal urges that homilies not be too long and strive to cover most areas of the Catholic faith over a period of about three years.

It prays

“Effective witness to Christ is not an exercise to be achieved by mere human effort,” Cardinal Arinze states. “Prayer and Christian life are inseparable.” The Holy Eucharist occupies a central place in this regard because from it, “as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God… is achieved in the most efficacious way possible.” For this reason, the parish priest must foster great reverence for it. “The way in which the priest celebrates Mass becomes, in a sense, a homily without words because it manifests his faith… and influences the congregation,” he says. While the Lord’s day is “the major weekly event at which the parish community gathers before the Lord,” the priest is to see that Mass is celebrated daily and promote that it also be reverenced outside of the celebration of Mass.

The other sacraments also have their importance in the life of evangelization of the parish, the Cardinal says. The required preparation for some sacraments provides an opportunity to help children and parents develop a relationship with Christ.

Moreover, besides promoting devotional groups of prayer, the parish community must work to teach its members the value and practice of personal prayer.

It opens out

Far from settling down to a type of “business as usual” method, “a parish is expected to look out in a dynamic way for what it can do for Christ,” the cardinal writes. There are in most parishes people who have not yet been reached with the Good News, lapsed Catholics and people who are poor and sick, he says. This going forth “can disturb one’s personal comfort,” but “readiness to make sacrifices for the Kingdom of Christ is part of what is required of the evangelizer.” Since a parish community is to be “permanently in a state of mission,” it must always reach out, “as it should, to everyone living within the parish boundaries.”

The parish community should seek to enter into dialogue with non-Catholics, non-believers or non-Christians, in the light of proposing the Gospel of Christ. The parish should also reach out to the poor in the community or worldwide. Cardinal Arinze quotes Pope Francis’ warning to parishes who remain comfortable without helping the poor, saying that such community “will easily drift into a spiritual worldliness camouflaged by religious practices, unproductive meetings and empty talk.” The priest and community should also seek to accompany the sick or the homebound through personal visitations.

The cardinal further warns about the danger of “departing” the secular culture to form a secluded “Christian society,” for such action would contradict the apostolate specific to the laity to evangelize the secular sphere. Instead, he calls for hope and patience: “No matter the initial difficulties, the seed… will eventually sprout from the local ground… When Jesus sent his first disciples to evangelize the world, there were no Christian communities. The challenges posed by society were formidable. But the disciples did not quit.”

It fosters special apostolates

Among the many aspects of an evangelizing parish that Cardinal Arinze spells out, he also chooses to give attention to special parish apostolates that help the aforementioned characteristics take place. Among these are the apostolates to the family, to young people, to the education of children, to elderly citizens and to devotional groups.

In these, he highlights the importance of helping families pray together, educating their children in the use of social media, fostering vocations to the priesthood and religious life and forming groups according to professions that help the faithful be witnesses to Christ in their work.

John Paul II Lecture Series

Tuesday, Nov. 6, 7:30 p.m.
1300 S. Steele St., Denver
Space is limited; RSVP at

COMING UP: How one Denver parish is making disciples

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How one Denver parish is making disciples

Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish trains parishioners to be disciples of Christ

It was one of Christ’s chief commands to his apostles: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” (Mt 28:19). Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has lost its way in some regards when it comes to living out this call.

Father James Spahn, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Northglenn, has decided to do something about it. Disciple Maker training is an eight-week program designed to help Catholics in the pews more fully live out the call of discipleship that Christ commissioned. With this program and others, he is attempting to build a culture of discipleship at his parish, among both the staff and his parishioners.

Mica Brougham, 39, is a one such parishioner at the parish who has gone through both of the Disciple Maker training sessions the parish has held thus far. It was a personal invitation someone gave her at the right time that spurred her to go, she said – discipleship in action.

A parishioner of six years at IHM, the program has helped her to see what she can do as an individual to help her impact the Church as a whole.

“I felt like it made you think about what you could do at an individual level, instead of always thinking what the greater Church could do or what the priest could be doing,” she said. “It’s opening up doors to think of ways that you can really step into peoples’ lives.”

Her husband, Joe, went through the second session with her, and they’ve discerned that they’d like to try and be mentors to other married couples. Brougham has also started a classical learning group with other families from Frassati Catholic Academy, where she will be sending two of her four kids starting in the Fall, and has brought lectio divina (the prayerful reading of scripture) to that group, which she learned from the Disciple Maker program.

The seed for the program was planted when Father Spahn was a pastor at Our Lady of the Valley in Windsor and St. Mary in Ault. He was part of a ministerial alliance with other ecumenical leaders from around the area that would meet occasionally to discuss how to get more people to Church. However, six years ago, he had a paradigm shift – one that he thinks came from the Holy Spirit.

“I began to really feel in my heart a conviction that before we can look outside and get [more] people to come in, we need to look at the people that are coming in the pews. I began to see more and more that even the people in my pews needed [to be evangelized],” Father Spahn said. “The people in my pews didn’t know how to pray. The people in my pews didn’t know Jesus.”

The reason for this is, in part, a failure on the Catholic Church’s part, he said. Too much focus on doctrine and dogma has mixed up the sequence in which authentic discipleship should happen.

“In some ways, for decades, I think the Church has kind of failed because we focus so much on dogma, doctrine and Church teaching – which is important – but that comes secondarily in my opinion,” he explained. “I’ve come to see that first, people need to know who Jesus is.”

The result of this failure? Lots of “cafeteria Catholics,” or those Catholics who pick and choose which Church teachings to follow.

“Why would they listen to the Church if they don’t even understand what the Church is or what the role of the Church is?” Father Spahn said. “They don’t understand that the Church is Christ Jesus – there is no distinction between Jesus and the Church.”

Around the time he was assigned to Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), Father Spahn had just finished reading Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell. The book confirmed what he learned about people in the pews not knowing how to have a relationship with Christ, he said. He, along with other pastors of the archdiocese, also attended the Amazing Parish Conference that year, which served as the catalyst for starting discipleship programs at IHM.

Father Spahn “deliberately handpicked a group of people who had experience in ministry” and appointed them to be part of a special committee at his parish that focused solely on ministry and evangelization efforts. After meeting with them on a regular basis and discussing ways in which the parish could better reach people in the pews, they came up with the concept for Disciple Maker training.

“We wanted to hand pick the people in our parish who we saw that kind of already ‘got it,’ that already had a relationship with Jesus, but wanted to help them get to that next level,” Father Spahn explained.

The goal of Disciple Maker training is to equip those in the program with the necessary tools to be mentors and build relationships with others – just as Jesus did with his apostles. The program teaches various practical skills such as how to engage with others, how to be hospitable and how to pray using lectio divina. Ultimately, however, it’s about making more disciples of Christ.

“It’s really about spiritual multiplication,” Father Spahn said. “It’s a snowball effect. Once you get this going, it feeds on itself.”

Andrew Barga, who has been a part of the evangelization committee at the parish since the beginning and teaches some of the Disciple Maker classes, has learned how to better utilize those moments in everyday life as an opportunity to share the good news of the Gospel, and he said the goal of the program is to help every Christian realize that evangelism is a crucial part of following Christ.

“We tried to help people realize that the essential call of the Church has an evangelistic nature,” Barga said. “We all have a part to play in that. Even though they might work at a food bank or teach at a school, they can still evangelize.“

In addition to disciple maker training, Father Spahn has introduced several other programs to help with evangelization at the parish. He hosts discipleship nights every Wednesday during the school year, has introduced the Alpha program to help reach people who have never had a relationship with Christ, and implemented Christ Renews His Parish retreats for men and women, which he said are setting people “on fire for the Lord.”

These programs make it easier for Father Spahn as a pastor to make a proper “diagnosis” of where people in the parish are at and where they need to be.

“You as pastors and parochial vicars and your deacons and your staff need to be trained and have eyes to see people to engage and find out where they’re at in their faith journey and then plug them into the right place,” he said. “It’s critical that you make a proper assessment.”

Featured image by Jordon Lebsock