There was an informative and helpful article in the Washington Post this Easter Sunday that demonstrates certain keys to success in evangelization. The focus of the article is the happy fact that the Archdiocese of Washington welcomed a record number of converts this year at the Easter Vigil. But the article also documents important factors that helped that number. Let’s review excerpts of the article and consider some important keys for evangelization. My remarks are in red text. (The Full Article is here: Record Number of Catholic Converts for DC)
Austin Russell [a] University of Maryland sophomore…started dating a Catholic woman and befriended other practicing Catholics, he became interested in the Church’s teachings. He enrolled in a class to learn more, and this weekend, he joined a record number of people in the Washington area taking the final steps to convert to Catholicism. Once he is baptized and receives his first Communion this weekend, “I can really walk into the church and say that I’m a follower like everybody else. It’s going to be exciting….Seventy-two percent of new converts cite marriage as an important reason for coming into the church”
And here is the first key: RELATIONSHIPS. Knowing a fellow Catholic who is serious about his or her faith is absolutely central to the conversion of the vast majority of people who find their way to the faith. For Austin, beauty and truth coincided. The beauty of his girlfriend first drew him. But soon enough the beauty AND truth of her faith, and the beauty and truth of the Catholic Faith, which she lives, also attracted him.
For many others, it is within the Call to Holy Matrimony that their call to the Church was experienced. Of the five converts we welcomed in my parish at the Easter Vigil, three of them are either married to, or engaged to a Catholic in my parish.
There is a form of evangelization known as “Friendship Evangelization.” Obviously, the first stage in friendship evangelization is friendship! But it is a particular friendship that sets the stage for witness to the faith rather than just beer drinking, sports, or other superficial things.
[T]he highest conversion rates are in the South, according to an analysis released last week by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a Georgetown University group that studies American Catholicism. The report also found that adult converts are more active in the church and more knowledgeable about the religion than those who have been Catholic since childhood.
And here are two more keys: Demographics and Well-formed Converts. One we cannot really control, the other we can. The demographics are clear; the US population has shifted south. For the Catholic Church this has been a problem, since we own a LOT of real estate in the Northeast, a region whose population is both declining and aging. We are scrambling to build and establish parishes in the South even as we have to close and consolidate parishes in the North. It is a painful process to be sure. Some very beautiful churches and once-effective schools have been closed. If only we could put those old parish plants on wheels and roll them south! But demographic realities of this sort have a life of their own that we can do very little to change. They are rooted in economies and shifting preferences.
However, another key mentioned here is well-formed converts, and here we can do a lot. Nationally, we have been wonderfully blessed by converts from many Protestant denominations, especially the Evangelicals. They bring with them a great love for Jesus and the Scriptures, a joy, and an evangelical zeal. Marcus Grodi’s The Journey Home tells many wonderful stories of their entrance into the Church, and what they have been doing since that time. Some very great evangelizers are among the ranks of converts: Scott Hahn, Tim Staples, Jimmy Aiken, Peter Kreeft, and so many others!
Welcoming converts joyfully into our ranks, accepting their gifts, and giving good, solid formation, are the keys to more converts. And though not all of them come to us as well-trained as some of the national figures mentioned above, giving solid formation ensures not only their stable status, but also their ability to draw others to the Catholic faith through compelling testimony and well-reasoned, joyful answers to those who ask the reason for their conversion.
Although conversion numbers in the Catholic Church have fallen nationally in recent years, possibly because marriage rates are down, they are up in the Washington area, where there has been an overall uptick in population. The Washington Archdiocese said it is welcoming 1,306 new Catholics this Easter, a higher number than it has ever recorded.
Yet another key (if you ask me) is to dream big and to create high expectations. This record number is good news, but frankly, our numbers should be a lot higher. In a diocese that has 136,000 people in the pews every Sunday, that means that only one in a hundred Catholics were able to call someone to conversion. We can and should do better than that. And note that 136,000 is the actual headcount at masses, not just the number on our rolls. Is it really so unrealistic to expect that one in ten Catholics bring a convert each year? Am I dreaming? If that were to happen, then our Easter harvest would be 13,000! Even half that number would be over 6,000.
Thanks be to God for our higher-than-ever number. But let’s dream big! Let’s work at being more intentional in training Catholics how to evangelize more effectively. It can start with simple training such as this: “When someone asks ‘How are you doing?’ don’t just say ‘Fine’ say ‘God has been very good to me!’”
Some years ago I trained over one hundred people in my parish to evangelize, and though our numbers should be higher, our headcount has edged up by almost a hundred, from 425 to 525 per Sunday, a twenty percent increase. I’m not satisfied. But I’m adding a Mass, not eliminating masses. And we’re going to keep knocking on doors, doing sidewalk evangelization, reaching back into our families, and encouraging Holy Matrimony. It’s working, even in a neighborhood of dramatic demographic shifts.
While the U.S. Catholic Church will soon become majority Latino because of immigration patterns from Catholic countries, converts within the United States tend to be more diverse. In the Washington area this year, nearly one-third are between 19 and 35. That does not surprise Susan Gibbs, an adviser to Catholic organizations and a board member of CARA: “Washington is an interesting case because so many people come here to serve others,” she said. “Young people are searching for a start in life, and part of that journey can be to find faith.” Washington is also home to two of the nation’s largest Catholic universities, Georgetown and Catholic, Gibbs noted, adding that other campus ministries, such as Catholic Terps at the University of Maryland, have active peer fellowship and evangelization programs.
Yes, reaching young adults is another key growth factor in Washington, D.C. In my own parish, we have added a 7:00 PM, Sunday Mass since so many young adults asked us to do so when we met them in our neighborhood walks. We have also started a young adult Bible Study and fellowship that is growing. We want to expand with a kind of “Grill the Priest” offering wherein we have food and the Young Adults get to ask questions of the priest, no holds barred. It’s like Theology on Tap, except the participants call the shots and get to set the agenda based on what is on their mind.
“College, for a lot of these kids, is really a time for discovering who they are,” said Rob Walsh, chaplain at the Catholic Student Center on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. “They’ve tried one side . . . through partying, through stuff, through sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and it didn’t work.” They may also be disappointed by the limits of technology and social media, he said, adding that replacing human interaction with screen time can make young people feel lonely. “You can get so buried in it that you lose a part of who you are, and they reject that,” Walsh said of the young converts.
Yet another key is effective campus ministry. Fr. Walsh is doing great work at the University of Maryland. We also have some great College Chaplains at several of our other Colleges here. FOCUS is also a great asset and is reaching a lot of young people on college campuses throughout the country. As Fr. Walsh points out, many young people are dissatisfied with aspects of modern culture. They seek answers and community.
I would also add that a significant number of them have had it up to here with the dysfunctional and selfish aspects of the lives of their baby boomer parents and grandparents. Many want more than the vain, vapid, and self-centered world of broken families, sexual irresponsibility, and addiction that is the legacy of the sixties and seventies. Frankly, a lot of the young adult Catholics I meet are much more mature and responsible than I was at their age.
Aaron Holland, 18, a freshman there who grew up Methodist and became a Catholic this weekend, said he was drawn to Catholicism because he felt it answered more of his questions. “It’s not so much what I learned in the Methodist Church, it’s what I didn’t learn,” said Holland, who is studying aerospace engineering…
And here is yet another key: clear and cogent answers, in a word, the TRUTH. Many people love to hate the Catholic Church because we have prophetic stands and are often a sign of contradiction to a world lost in relativism, and that often celebrates that there are “no answers.” The angry ones tell us we have to change and parrot the culture to win converts.
And yet many others are hungry for answers and appreciate that the Church tells them clearly what is taught, even if what we teach is not popular or fashionable. For all the problems that the Catholic Church has had with declining numbers in Mass attendance and demographic shifts, the Liberal (Mainline) Protestant denominations, which largely parrot modern trendy thinking, have fared far worse.
It would seem that many people, young adults among them, appreciate that the role of the Church is not to tickle people’s ears, but to speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable or challenging. Surely, the Church must console and embrace sinners, but we cannot and should not coddle them. That is disrespectful and also leads to the Church not being taken very seriously. A designer church with a designer god is really a sham and most people seem to know it, as the numbers show.
The prominence and popularity of Pope Francis, who was elected last year and has an 85 percent approval rating, could make Catholicism more attractive not only to non-Catholics but also to Catholics who have fallen away from the church, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “There’s a renewed interest, a renewed pride in the Catholic Church,” she said. “Personally, I’ve seen more people in church, people coming back.” But this year may be too early to see the “Francis effect” in conversion rates, said Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the Washington Archdiocese, noting that the course of study leading to conversion generally takes nine to 12 months.
Another key to remember is that, while the Church is Universal, conversions are more dependent on local factors. Pope Francis, or other ways the Church is in the news may have an initial impact on how someone sizes up Catholicism (for better or worse). But there comes a time when the person must encounter the local diocese or parish.
Pope Francis might be able to draw someone to Sunday Mass, but what they find when they walk in the door of the local parish is really more critical to making or breaking the deal. Politics is local, and so is the Church and the experience of faith, even in a worldwide Church of over a billion members. You don’t get Holy Communion on the news or on the Internet.
It takes a parish and a local community to seal the deal. The parish needs to be healthy and inviting. Even a charismatic Pope can only do so much.
The 2006 arrival of Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who is known as one of the country’s most efficient administrators and who has expanded outreach efforts, has perhaps been more instrumental in attracting people, said Sara Blauvelt, director for catechesis at the Washington Archdiocese. “He’s a great leader, and he gives great guidance to his priests,” she said, adding that the archdiocese has been encouraging the laity to go out and invite others to the Church.
Yes, here then is the final key for evangelization to consider from this article: a strong, stable, and steady diocesan Church. The Archdiocese of Washington has been blessed with strong and steady leadership all along. On account of this, the clergy work very well together, and an excellent, well-trained lay leadership has grown over the years.
There are not many factions within the Archdiocese of Washington. We have a legacy of good administrators, solid, orthodox teaching, and far less history of strange and exotic dissent among the clergy and parishes than in many other dioceses. We have over seventy seminarians currently studying.
The Archdiocese of Washington, despite criticism from both the left and right wings in the Church, has always been a middle-of-the-road, steady-as-you-go Archdiocese. Cardinal Wuerl is a fine leader marked with great prudence, as have been all the Archbishops before him. Some want him to be more severe about this or less severe about that. So too, for his predecessors. Nevertheless, time proves where wisdom lies.
Having a strong and stable Archdiocese with a predictable, ecclesial environment has permitted steady growth and has allowed what works to flourish.
OK, so there it is. Take what you like and leave the rest. But I would argue that some very important keys for successful growth are articulated in this article. There are more keys than these, but the ones I’ve highlighted here are evidence enough that evangelization benefits well from certain important factors. Add your own and make distinctions in the comments. Please remember to exercise charity and know that personal attacks against people, parishes, or legitimate and approved movements in the Church will not be published. You are free to state your preferences and what you think will work best, but it is not necessary to attack.