Fr. Eric Gilbaugh is the pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Belgrade, MT and of Holy Family Parish in Three Forks, MT. He generously gave SPES his time to discuss the Catholic evangelization going on in his parishes.
Could you tell us a little bit about your story, how you came to be driven to evangelize?
Maybe this story would apply to a lot of priests. I had reached a point of dryness in terms of pastoral vision. I remember expressing to Arlene [the secretary] over lunch one day that I was at a loss for where to guide the parishes. I was coming up on an anniversary, maybe it was five years here, and I thought I pretty much accomplished everything I had wanted to. The facilities were in good repair, the liturgy was standardized and orthodox. My deacon had finished his formation and was ordained; we had adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; we had a schedule that worked for me and my staff; good volunteers; financially we were in good shape; we had just gotten the school started, etc. By and large, things were working well.
So I thought, what now? What am I going to do now? Are these poor people going to just listen to me and my take on the Gospel for the next four years until they can’t take it any more? It was around that time that Pope Francis had published the “Joy of the Gospel” and I think it was the Holy Spirit that gave me this insight that, for the most part, my first years in this assignment were spent directing my energies internally. There was a lot of work to be done and that was just objectively true. I mean the facilities were not in good repair and there was a tremendous amount of latent dysfunction that I inherited from dysfunctional pastoral situations before me. It takes time, but it didn’t take much time in the grand scheme of things to get these things in order. What were we spending our money on? We were spending it on fixing up our buildings and not on feeding the poor, for example. I think it is easy for a person to think that I’m being a good pastor, I’m being a good priest because my house is in order. But the fact of the matter is that that house exists principally for evangelization, quite frankly. If, as Pope Paul VI said, the Church exists for evangelization, then the parish is just the base camp in its particular geographical location for that evangelization.
I had always had that perspective from a personal point of view, that there are tens of thousands of souls in the Gallatin Valley, but in the western end, there is only one priest, who, before Almighty God, will have to answer for their evangelizaiton, and that’s me! When I go to the supermarket, I am passing all kinds of complete strangers and yet, before God, I will have to answer for whether or not I evangelized that person because I am not just shepherd of the Catholics or of just the active Catholics, I am shepherd of everybody. The goal is to get everyone to become practicing, faithful Catholic Christians. That is my game. Thanks be to God for the example of St. John Vianney because that was his perspective. So I had this shift of focus, “Okay now I am going to devote these energies externally. We have things in order now, so let’s not sit on our laurels or put it on cruise control, let’s go out.”
What were the first steps you took?
I decided the first thing I had to do was educate myself about evangelization and then educate my parishioners about evangelization. So that whole Easter season, every Sunday was a sermon about evangelization. It seemed to be very appropriate for the liturgical year, because we were focusing upon the period after the Resurrection, the establishment of the infant Church, the Great Commission and the entrustment of the Gospel to the Apostles to spread.
How did you decide the evangelization plan for your parishes?
We picked three programs mainly because that was what was available. We found out about the Emissary Program because we already have the LightHouse CD’s and that was through them. We have connections to the Augustine Institute [who provides Symbolon] and the two might have even been linked together because a lot of these organizations network. And then Catholics Come Home, I think I just heard about.
The goal with the Emissaries was to first of all, become active evangelizers ourselves. I knew that we would be planting seeds in our own people if they actually had to hike up to someone’s door as a representative of the Church. That is a pretty unique thing. Then we would be planting seeds with all of these CD’s and in God’s time, hopefully that message would have an effect. I wanted to be able to say to the Lord that at least once in a concrete way, we invited every household in our geographical region to know God through his Church. God understands our limitations, and He is also loving towards all of these people that we are going out to and He is working in their lives. If He wants to put two and two together and have this invitation be the moment for a particular person, then He is all too capable of doing that. But at least we would be doing our part.
And the goal with the Symbolon was to allow there to be evangelization through catechesis in an easy and sort of safe/private way. Nobody had to come to us – to our building or even to Mass – to learn about what the Church teaches, but if they have the internet, I-phone, or the like, they could get this really good catechesis. That too could be a seed whereby, when they were ready, they could manifest themselves and say, “You’ve never heard of me, you’ve never seen me before, but I subscribe to this online program and I am convinced and I want to be a part of this.” This is available through the parish website.
The third tier, Catholics Come Home (CCH), was intended to be a very public – through TV and one billboard – way of saying that the Catholic Church exists, we’re out there, we’re proactive, we’re good, and we’re beautiful. The commercials are very effective at communicating the positivity of the faith, its universality and hopefully inspiring people who have had a connection to the faith in the past to return to it. Again, I think that we’re in a pretty unique place in the U.S. Church since these resources are available to us. For the most part, they are pre-done and super easy. For example, if I want to do CCH, basically what I have to do is just pay for the air time. If I want to do the Emissaires program, I don’t have to produce the CD’s; LightHouse produces them I just have to pay for them, get people to go door-to-door and organize it. Same with Symbolon, just subscribe and put it on the website. Saying that, you sort of acknowledge the fact that the things we’re talking about cost money.
We’re in a position whereby we can pay for these things not all churches are. On the other hand, if you don’t invest in growth, then you’re not going to have money. I’m extremely fiscally conservative and I think a pastor has the moral obligation to be so. However, I’ve always had the perspective that money is for making our Church beautiful, accessible, comfortable (in the sense that elderly people aren’t passing out from heat-stroke in the summer, etc.) and for building up the school. It is for donating for the benefit of the poor, but it is not just to heap up in a bank account. Therefore, it is for evangelization. Evangelization is an extremely legitimate way of spending the Church’s financial resources.
Symbolon is the least expensive because as many people as want can access the materials. CCH is a matter of whatever the air time costs in your region. So for us it was $22,000 for this 4 week program. That covered the whole Gallatin Valley. That is also almost all of the channels in Butte, which means it is going to Anaconda, maybe Deer Lodge, maybe reach as far as Helena, and Townsend. We live in this mountainous region where signals bounce in strange ways. You might get something and a mile down the road, your neighbor doesn’t. But we’re broadcasting this message far and wide.
So the Catholics Come Home will have been the most expensive. Now we are also going to layer onto that the data from the Emissary Program so we can put together mailers. We have to get them designed and printed. I don’t think anyone will be able to say, “Gosh, I just didn’t feel invited or welcomed by the Catholic Church.” Somebody came to the door and gave them a gift. They’re sitting down on the couch watching TV there is CCH. They are driving down Jackrabbit Lane and there is a billboard. And then they get a postcard that says the Advent and Christmas Mass schedule.
What is done to prepare to catch people coming in?
Well, for one thing, they benefit from the fact that my people are extremely good and loving. This is a very wholesome and functional parish. Functional as the opposite of dysfunctional. There are lots of parishes that people just don’t know each other. They don’t hang around and they don’t associate with one another. The parish is sadly just the facility in which they worship, fulfill their obligation and then leave. They pour out into the parking lot and try to get out before they get jammed in by other people. That is not the case with us. This is really a family of faith that loves each other.
Part of the answer, part of the preparation was the years leading up to this. Coming to the two churches, my thought was that it is my responsibility to get everybody in these towns into these churches. If this is not a church that an elderly person or a pregnant woman can feel comfortable in because it soars to near 80 degrees then maybe we need to install air conditioning. When I came, our heating system didn’t fully function. In Three Forks, the only way you could get in and out of the church was steps or a ramp that was not built to code, was perpetually slippery and far too steep. If that had remained, we would have been saying, “Everybody is welcome except those who are handicapped, disabled or elderly.” There was no bathroom on the main level and there was no place to take your crying child. Are we saying, “Everybody is welcome except those with little children or those who may have to go to the bathroom”?
And, quite frankly, the music in some cases was so terrible I remember thinking to myself, “I would be embarrassed to invite somebody who was thinking about the Catholic faith.” If they were to come to Mass, I would have had to apologize and say “Sorry this isn’t really what the Mass is supposed to feel like, but, you know, give it time.” You can’t do that when you are inviting people. You need to give them autheticity when they come.
Here is a real challenge for evangelization. Most people, it doesn’t matter how nice, how generous, or how joyful – you can invite, invite, invite, but they will not get up, get out of their comfort zone, out of their house, get into a car, and come to your parish. The vast majority just won’t come to a Catholic Mass. They say, “Thank you very much, but no thank you.” Rare is the person who will respond, “Okay. Sure. Rather than lounge around on Sunday morning or watch football, I will leave my house at my own expense and drive to your building that I’ve never been into and insert myself into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable environment of ritual that is strange to me with a group of total strangers.” Rare is the person who will do that.
Therefore, how precious is that time when such a person does do that. If they come, and that which is preached to them is bland or untrue, in a sense you can’t blame them for concluding that this is what Catholicism is. The same if people are cold to them and the music is goofy and bad. Therefore, as high a bar as we’re setting, we have to have our best every Sunday. To be quite honest with you, this is a source of continual stress and anxiety for me because I’ve been in churches where it is very apparent that the priest started “phoning it in” a long time ago. He does not care and is not coming up with any new material. He wants Mass to be over with as fast as possible, therefore it is no surprise that his people want it to be over with as fast as possible. Those are the churches that are just degenerating; they’re not evangelizing, they’re not growing, they’re dying.
When it comes time to preach on Sunday, the people who are there have made great effort and expense. They’ve come and are saying, “I’m here. I’m giving you my time.” I feel I have the obligation to make it worth their while. To not preach for eight minutes and just to entertain them. I know I am lame a lot of the time, but I always seek to offer the Mass intentionally and prayerfully. I strive to make sure my volunteers, my music, etc. is of a good quality if not of an excellent quality. I would not be embarrassed ever if a person just randomly came to check it out. I would be able to say, “You just had a very authentic experience of Christianity. Now, you have to process that.”
I’m kind of glad that your question led me to express that and have that memory. I remember thinking, “I can’t evangelize yet, because I would be embarrassed if someone came and this was their first experience.” I couldn’t really blame them if they said, “You know, I don’t think I’ll be back.”
If they come, experience something inauthentic and they reject it, they are not rejecting the true faith, but that which is inauthentic. Even still, an opportunity has been lost since you usually don’t get a second chance. Really, maybe ever! We have to admit that it is human nature. For example, once I went to a Baptist service. That is in essence, for me, what Baptist services are. It is unlikely for me to step back and say, “Remember that was just one.” Most people don’t think that way. They think, “I went to a Baptist service and it was just absolutely wild and uncomfortable.” And why would I go back? My time is precious. I am barely getting my laundry done. I am not going to go to different Baptist services just so I can have a really objective impression.
So too with the Catholic parish. As I approach it, is the place run down or is it dignified? Are people warm and welcoming? Did someone greet me? Is there a resource to help me through this strange ritual? So, as you know, we started having a sign that says “Welcome” and resources for people to understand the Mass. This is something we hadn’t had before. And, what is nice about having parishes of modest size, is that I know my people, their names and faces. So I can and I do make an effort to greet everybody. I say, “Are you visiting us?” if I don’t recognize them; at least there is a little bit of personal engagement. I think that is extremely good and important.
Just last night, I was out to dinner and a gal who’s face I did not recognize said, “You’re Padre, right?” “Yes, I’m Fr. Eric Gilbaugh.” She said, “I know so and so; I’ve come to your church a few times where I’ve met you.” Even though I didn’t remember her, at least each person can touch the priest, shake his hand and have that personal contact. That is very important.
We began all that after I learned more about evangelization, in preparation to share “how to evangelize” with the parish. We’ve added to the announcements a message of welcome at the end of every Mass. We say, “To all our visitors and all who may be new to our parish, welcome. Thank you for joining us here at St. John Vianney.” I think that is a good practice.
What other recommendations do you have?
I’m a big advocate of small groups. They’re the little molecules that make up the cell and every molecule is made up of different atoms; an individual is like an atom. Unfortunately, if you aren’t bonded to at least some little group, if you don’t have some friends or a friend, it is very easy to drift away.
In your efforts, where would you see the bishop being helpful? How can it be done from a diocesan level?
I just read in that same NCRegister you just referenced, Archbishop Chaput saying, “I came from a diocese of mission to one of maintenance.” God bless him, he is just so refreshingly honest. And he is still the archbishop so he has kind of “condemned” his diocese; he is trying to get them to mission.
The Diocese of Helena has been a maintenance diocese for years and is not a mission diocese at this time. The evangelization in our diocese is happening from the bottom up and that basically means from the movements and organization of the faithful laity along with the reform at the parochial level by good priests. Therefore, if you can help the good priests, the faithful priests, and say “Father, your deepest desire is for everyone to be Catholic, to fill your parish. You are probably completely overwhelmed by your responsibilities. We’ll help you to do this; we’ll show you how it is done and we’ll answer your questions.” I think there are a lot of priests who would be interested in that.
Thank you Father!