A generation or two ago the entire community was involved in “making kids Catholic,” says Auxiliary Bishop Michael Byrnes from the Archdiocese of Detroit. Families typically lived in neighborhoods that were predominately Catholic and had strong ethnic identities. There was almost a tribal allegiance to the parish, which was the center of all activity. Most adults displayed a “visible discipleship” with Mass attendance, prayer in the home, fish on Fridays, and other practices. Bishop Byrnes remembers that “being Catholic was part of the air you breathed.”
In present times, we are not as connected to our geographic neighbors, and outward displays of faith are infrequent. The guiding principles of evangelization today need to be less institutional and more intentional.
“There is a difference between a shepherd and a fisherman,” says Bishop Byrnes. “A shepherd calls his flock and they come to him. You can’t do that with fish.”
“We face more 1st Century issues than 21st Century,” he says. “We need to go back to being fishers of men.” Parishes need to take on the missionary task of spreading the Gospel by figuring out how to stay in contact with the culture. Where are the fish? What are they biting? How do you set the hook? What does it take to reel them in?
Today our communities and our families are different. Our culture seems to reject Church teaching and discourages expressions of faith. Many families are now less traditional and often their situation might qualify as “wounded.” Pope Francis cautions that when faced with these difficult situations, “it is always necessary to recall this general principle: ‘Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations’ (Familiaris Consortio, 84). The degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases and factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision. Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgments that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition.” (Amoris Laetitia, 79)
This is good advice for pastors and lay evangelists alike. Respecting how a person’s personal situation affects their ability to accept the love and mercy of Jesus through the Church is critical to opening their hearts. We will not succeed in reeling people into the Church if the bait we set repels them.
The Archdiocese of Detroit trains parishioners to be effective evangelists through parish-based Alpha programs. Alpha is an eleven-week course that gathers people socially into small groups to have conversations about different questions of our faith. Bishop Byrnes says the program creates an environment of “radical acceptance” of the Gospel and teaches them how to share it.
Potential evangelists learn to answer questions that people are already asking. This apologetics of the heart seeks to understand what is beneath people’s feelings, and how what people are dealing with affects their understanding of God. “We have focused so long on filling the head with doctrine,” says Bishop Byrnes. “We forget to fill hearts with love. Evangelization only happens when the heart is touched by Jesus Christ.”
The purpose of the New Evangelization is no different than what evangelization was in the earliest days of Christianity, but what’s in the tackle box of today’s fishers of men must be different.