Knocking on heaven’s door

DPC session discusses different types of evangelization

By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor

The Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) met at Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School on Saturday, Nov. 7. The agenda revolved around ideas for evangelization, which is the theme for the DPC’s year.

The first speaker was Father James O’Brien, pastor of St. James in Liverpool. His parish recently completed a door-to-door evangelization project in the church’s neighborhood that aimed to welcome lapsed Catholics and those who might be interested in the Catholic church.

Father O’Brien said that the process arose from a church committee meeting last September that decided to commemorate the year of St. Paul. A Bible study group with approximately 90 people focused on the writings of Paul.

“And we quickly identified that the spirit of St. Paul was his evangelization,” Father O’Brien said.

St. James Church is located in a suburb of Syracuse that has a number of housing developments. New families are moving in all the time, and Father O’Brien said the committee decided that there were a number of families that had settled in the area that no one on the committee knew.

The question was how to welcome these unknown faces into the church. “We, in our discussions, came to the point where we decided that a personal, one-on-one, face-to-face discussion would bear the greatest fruit,” Father O’Brien said.

The committee decided that they should aim to have these discussions in every residence in the parish area.

But when the committee decided on door-to-door visitations throughout the neighborhood, one of the real obstacles they faced was the negative perception of such evangelization, Father O’Brien said.

The committee turned to resources provided by the Paulists, who he said are recognized as developers of strategies for carrying out evangelization. In particular, they settled on the program entitled “Awakening Faith.”

This program helped the committee produce a parish brochure. Packets were prepared, 154 in total, which covered the different situations visitors might encounter.

Packets for lapsed Catholics had a theme of “We Miss You,” and included an invitation to return to the church. Those who were not a part of the church were provided with “Come and See” packets, with invitations to explore the Catholic faith.

The packets also included inserts about the church and invitations to some specific event like the church picnic or an RCIA program.

Father O’Brien stressed the theme of evangelization in his homilies as well. Recruitment sessions for door-to-door visitors drew 82 volunteers total.

“I really think that there’s a greater acceptance in the whole community,” he said. “I think all of us had a higher sense that we were called to do evangelization.”

They were broken up into groups of two and set out on Sept. 21. Visitors knocked on the doors of 1600 homes. Some weren’t home, some weren’t interested, but some expressed interest.

“They actually talked to 1200 people,” Father O’Brien said. “Twelve hundred people actually talked to a believer who invited them and reinforced for them the importance of a life filled with faith.”

There were two new families at the parish picnic and four people returned to Mass the following weekend. There was an increase in sacramental requests and registrations in the parish, and two people attended the “Awakening Faith” program for people returning to the church.

“We talked about it and we decided that if there was one person that came back and renewed their faith and lived it, then we would feel that the time and effort and even the cost was worth it,” Father O’Brien said.

After his talk, Father O’Brien also updated those gathered on the senate of priests, of which he has recently been appointed the chair. He said the current agenda for the senate is focusing in particular on evangelization and on priest retirement issues.

Josie Geer of St. Lucy’s Church in Syracuse then spoke about the church’s Bread of Life Meal, which is a free lunch ministry on Wednesday afternoons provided for those in need in the community.

“Some of these are neighborhood people, street people and people from the Rescue Mission, so we are truly, truly blessed,” Geer said. “These people are sent by Jesus Christ.”

Father Timothy Elmer, judicial vicar for the diocesan tribunal, spoke on the role of the prophet.

He said the prophets worked in troubling times that included invasion, exile and destruction. The prophets fearlessly challenged society to live according to higher ideals no matter the consequences.

Being prophetic means that the Gospel must be proclaimed by words and by actions, Father Elmer said.

“Being prophetic does not come easily, somewhat like deciding you’re going to become a parish visitor and go knock on doors,” he said. “In many ways, many of us prefer to place our faith as Catholic Christians into a kind of witness protection program. We prefer to hide who we are and what we are.”

“It is so easy for us to say, ‘This is the best we can do.’ But the prophet says, ‘This is not good enough,’” Father Elmer said. “It is not enough for us to hear the truth, the prophets demand that we also speak the truth.”

Father Elmer’s talk was followed by a brief explanation of the Legion of Mary at St. Patrick Parish in Jordan.

Jane Klaben told those gathered that the legion members visit those in hospitals, nursing homes, those who are newly-baptized, those who are grieving, and they also participate in door-to-door evangelization.

“We do it in a very gentle way,” Klaben said. “We try to engage them in a dialogue because everyone has a story that they’d like to tell. We are looking for those who are hurting, those who have had a bad experience, those who don’t go to church and are looking for a way to come back.”

Msgr. Robert Yeazel was then introduced as the new vicar general.
He began by expressing his gratitude for the position and explained the role as one in which he will assist the bishop.

In this role, he said he has focused on the diocese’s finances and, in particular, the diocese’s debt.

The collective debt for the parishes is $8.5 million that is owed to the diocese for things like health care, building insurance and the HOPE Appeal. Since June 30, $1.5 million has been collected from the parishes with the agreement for another $1.5 million to be paid over the next three years.

“Much of that $5.5 million that’s not been paid is the school subsidy, and I’m not quite sure how to read that,” Msgr. Yeazel said.

If the money isn’t given to the schools, then the schools can’t pay the diocese, Msgr. Yeazel explained. In the meantime, the diocese has covered the school’s debts, and they’ve done that by borrowing money that has to be paid back.

Msgr. Yeazel stressed the importance of Catholic education, particularly since the majority of the church’s vocations come from these schools.

“If you want priests and religious, you better have Catholic schools,” he said.

The plenary session ended with Bishop Robert Cunningham answering the written questions of those gathered. There were 14 questions in total, ranging from checking in with Bishop James Moynihan (who is recovering from a second knee replacement operation but is doing well) to questions about future church closings and canon law.

Bishop Cunningham spoke of the importance of Catholic schools and the role they played in shaping his own character and vocation.

He said that the majority of church closing announcements have already taken place. Some more will probably be needed, he said, and they may be announced before the end of the year.

In particular, Bishop Cunningham addressed a question about the fate of churches on the northside of Syracuse. He said he had not yet received a recommendation on these churches, but he said it is a fact that there are too many churches to support the population of the neighborhoods there. This, coupled with declining vocations and difficult financial times, means that some changes are inevitable.

“There will definitely be some changes there. It’s not a happy occasion,” he said. “I think we owe it to the people that have gone before us and to all that the parish has taught us to let that parish have death with dignity and to move on and to find a life in another parish.”

Bishop Cunningham said he hopes to be able to visit more of the parishes in the diocese. He acknowledged that he had visited all of the parishes in the Ogdensburg Diocese while he was bishop there, “but I did it over the course of five years,” he said.

He encouraged those gathered to remember that evangelization is not simply an effort to convert those outside of the church, but it is also an opportunity to remind one another of the good news of the Gospel.

“So many Catholic people are in need of evangelization,” he said.

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