PHOTO BY GENE PLAISTED, O.S.C.
CAN YOU HEAR the death knell ringing in your parish? In these times
of declining membership, can the Catholic Church in the United
States breathe new life into the Body of Christ? Is a resurrection possible?
If we focus on the basic mission of the Church, namely, to take
the Gospel into the world (to evangelize), we have reason for
hope—contrary to prevailing perceptions.
In the broadest sense of the word, evangelization is spreading the Good News
of Jesus Christ. In the narrowest sense, it is presenting the Gospel in such a way
that those who hear it are led to respond in an “aha” or “now I get it” moment.
In between the broadest and narrowest sense lie catechesis, faith formation, liturgical
celebration and theology.
On the practical level, the parish is both the object and the subject of evangelization.
In this setting, two dynamics work simultaneously: A parish must be
evangelized and a parish must be evangelizing.
St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Findlay, Ohio, is a “megachurch” with a
census of 10,000 members (www.findlaystmichael.org). Holy Infant Parish in
Durham, North Carolina, is a moderate-sized parish with 771 families (www.holyinfantchurch.org).
Both parishes give witness to the power of taking evangelization seriously. They
provide encouraging examples of American parishes which are both evangelized and evangelizing. They give witness to
a healthy vision of Church in our day.
A Catholic Megachurch
St. Michael, founded in 1839, is the
sole Catholic parish in Hancock
County, Ohio, in the Diocese of Toledo.
It fits into the category of “megachurch,”
that is, a worshiping community
of 2,000 or more members in attendance
The new church, built to accommodate
the large congregation, seats 1,500.
It is a beautiful, modern, inviting structure
in the Romanesque style. Although
the structure is as large as a cathedral,
it maintains the feel of a parish church.
The parish plant is a complex of
church, school (three rooms of each
grade), gymnasium, auditorium and
offices. As impressive as the buildings
are, more remarkable are the active
involvement of the parishioners in
church ministries and the enthusiasm
of their participation in liturgies.
The pastor, Father Mike Hohenbrink,
believes the enthusiasm and participation
of parishioners flow from their
openness to the Holy Spirit. The people
have been invited to take their faith
Geri Leibfarth, the parish’s director of
religious education, suggests that there
are three essential steps in the process:
“Keep the people informed, provide
opportunities for faith formation and
then send them out in a variety of ministries.”
She credits the pastor with the ability
to “connect with the parishioners
and learn their needs. Father Mike is
good at that,” she says about the priest
who has been pastor of the parish since
July 2000. “We have to listen first. Programs
that don’t meet the needs don’t
One of the needs obvious to St.
Michael’s membership was ongoing
adult education. A monthly systematic
study of the faith titled “What Do
Catholics Really Believe?” has an attendance
of some 300 members. Parishioners
asked for a parish mission and
over 400 attended the four nightly sessions
offered during Lent in 2007.
“There are over a hundred ministries in
our parish,” a parishioner explains,
“and several of them are to people outside
the parish. We take care of our
own, but we don’t stop there.”
Asked what sustains him at St.
Michael’s, parishioner Chris Brooks
says, “In brief, God’s grace through the
Eucharist. I also experience his love
through the church members.”
Beth Seman has been a parishioner
her entire life “and it feels more like my
family every day. We have a vibrant
parish with over 100 ministries available
for all ages. A person can choose to
be part of a ministry by simply praying.
Or a person can become involved, using
God-given gifts and talents to minister to others. There is something for everyone.
“Our current staff and ministry teams
are just as dedicated as our priests. Their
hard work really shows,” Beth adds.
“We have also been blessed by many
parishioners willing to volunteer their
time and talent.”
According to Father Mike, “St.
Michael’s has benefited from strong
lay participation over the past 40 years.
Their good understanding that they
are Church has helped them to be faith-filled
and to search for ways to grow in
faith. Our history of parish retreats,
enrichment programs, participation in
RENEW [a spiritual-development program]
has raised the bar for them to be
active in ministry.”
About 40 percent of the congregation
attends Mass regularly, which is about
10 percent above the national average.
Father Mike maintains that his people
take prayer very seriously, a reflection
that “prayer calls us to ministry and
ministry calls us to prayer.”
In a parish-sponsored synod (a gathering
of parishioners for assessment
and planning), members agreed to
renew their efforts in Catholic education
for adults and youth, to be more
welcoming and inviting, to improve
their marketing and advertising, and to
engage in additional outreach.
City flooding in 2007 prompted
community-minded parish members
to launch “Calming the Waters,” a
flood-relief outreach to citizens hardest
hit by the deluge. Other parishioners
offer year-round support to an adopted
parish and school in Belize, a small
country with the highest unemployment
rate in Central America.
“The parishioners have taken ownership,”
Leibfarth says about these and
other forms of parish outreach. “I
believe that this is the work of the Holy
Father Mike is understandably proud
of the physical plant, but he knows
that there is more to a parish than a
“build it and they will come” dream.
“We have the facilities,” he says. “Now
we can focus even more on the mission
and ministries they imply.”
The megachurch is not the only successful
model for the evangelized
church. Every type of parish church
has the potential for realizing the mission
of evangelizing and being evangelized.
Within each parish there are all
the charisms necessary to make Church.
When the U.S. bishops issued Go and
Make Disciples, their 1992 national plan
and strategy for evangelization, they
outlined three basic goals:
1. To encourage Catholics to get excited
about living their faith and sharing
it with others.
2. To invite our fellow citizens to listen
to the Gospel and to become members
of the Church.
3. To promote Gospel values in society
so that the power of Christ may
transform our nation.
The bishops then listed dozens of
strategies for achieving those goals,
such as programs for renewal, Spirit-filled
celebrations of the liturgy, better
catechetical materials, formation of
review of hospitality, ecumenical outreach
and parish-education programs
geared toward social justice.
Clearly, it is not the size of a parish
that determines its spirit, its outreach,
its power to evangelize. Every ecclesial
assembly has the potential. The deciding
factor appears to be whether the
assembly is “called forth.”
Holy Infant Parish is a case in point.
Tucked in a pine grove deep in Durham,
North Carolina, this vibrant parish
brings a unique blend of intergenerational
catechesis to 771 families.
Holy Infant sustains an active faith
community based on gatherings for
members from preschool to the elderly.
At these gatherings catechesis
and evangelization are featured.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes the ideal Church as a Christian
community which is “united, heart and soul; no one claimed private
ownership of any possessions, as everything they owned was
held in common” (4:32). The clue to achieving such a Church may be
found in Acts 2:42, in Luke’s list of these four characteristics:
■ The members are guided by the teaching of the apostles.
■ They attend to the needs of the community.
■ They devote themselves to prayer.
■ They celebrate the breaking of the bread (Eucharist).
Lynn Sale, the parish’s director of
faith development, believes that the
parish’s success is based on a desire for
interpersonal support that the traditional
Catholic parish may not offer.
The intergenerational model “widens
the circle of formation to include parents,
children and adults without children,”
Holy Infant, located in an area
known as Research Triangle Park, is a transient parish that attracts Catholics
beyond territorial boundaries. Lynn
says that last year, 89 families joined the
parish and 81 families left the parish.
Yet, the Triangle area is expanding and
so is Holy Infant Parish.
More than half of Holy Infant’s membership
is young families, with 60 percent
consisting of adults between the
ages of 15 and 60. Parishioners are well-educated:
Durham has the highest per
capita number of Ph.Ds. The transitory
nature creates a special challenge for
At the time of this interview, Father
Mike McCue, an Oblate of St. Francis de
Sales, was the pastor of Holy Infant.
(He was reassigned last summer.) “Holy
Infant has a solid tradition of member
involvement,” he says. “People make
liturgy, faith development, service and
community happen. In addition, our
people have a good understanding of
these elements of parish life.”
While the parish has a fine reputation
as a spiritual center that emphasizes
Salesian spirituality, the shift to
programs seems to have boosted the
spiritual energy of Holy Infant.
Intergenerational means that younger
and older members are brought
together for instruction, faith formation
and prayer. Older members model faith
life for the younger ones, and the
younger ones inspire the older members.
According to longtime parishioner
Tom Goehl, “The appeal of Holy Infant
Parish stems from our priests’ understanding
that it is imperative to address
not only the parishioners’ spirituality
but also their humanness. This understanding
has led to a vibrant parish
whose people truly care about each
other and the wider community.”
So what accounts for such dynamic
and sustaining energy in this mid-sized
Southern parish? In 2000, the vision of
the parish changed when parishioners
undertook a long-range plan for evangelization.
It was John Roberto’s Generations
of Faith Resource Manual: Lifelong
Faith Formation for the Whole Parish
Community that re-created the parish
with “new wineskins,” says Lynn Sale.
A previous pastor, Father John
McGee, invited Lynn to join the staff
and immerse their ministry in this
intergenerational model. Eight years
later, the staff works in a collaborative
style that encourages everyone to cross
over their job descriptions as they work
together developing the lifelong learning
The old CCD model was discarded. HI-life,
as it is now called, offers faith formation
for everyone at Holy Infant.
Throughout the year, a theme-based
curriculum is offered to the entire
parish. The annual theme (justice,
creed, prayer, sacramental life) is integrated
into everything the parish does,
from homilies to outreach ministries.
Last year’s theme was “Acting for
Justice.” This led the parish to start
“Just Faith”: small-group discussions. In
addition, parishioners built a Habitat for
Humanity house and moved forward
with a parish-stewardship campaign.
Paulo Chiquito, the father of three
and an active HI-life participant, reports,
“Coming from a very traditional
Catholic upbringing, HI-life breathed a
new life into my concept of catechism
teaching. The sessions are very dynamic
“I love going together as a family, but
with the opportunity for separate age-specific
activities,” Paulo explains. “The
kids love these and the grown-ups have
a chance for a more mature presentation
and discussion. Some sessions offer
beautiful music, superb acting and some
very spiritual experiences.”
Mike Somich, a member of the HI-life
core team, notes, “I think most men are
uncomfortable expressing their faith. I
have found that, in the development
and presentation of our intergenerational
gatherings, parishioners are very
supportive, so much so that, at a recent
gathering, I was willing to witness to
the role that the Holy Spirit has played
and is playing in my life.”
HI-life gatherings turn the entire
parish space into an interactive learning
center. The vision of Holy Infant is
to create a lifelong learning model in
which more and more pieces of parish
ministry and formation opportunities
can be added as the community evolves
into a deeper understanding of the
Father Mike had an optimistic outlook
about the parish: “For our future, I
hope we grow in understanding and in
action in these areas of parish life. I
can see us continually rising to the
challenge to keep fresh and alive—not
giving in to the tendency to rest on
our laurels. Church is a living body.
“One future task that we share with
the whole American Church is that of
welcoming new Americans, people
from cultures that are so different from
standard, middle-class American culture,”
he added. “We have to make sure
that their Church is a home for them.
“At Holy Infant, we have people from
Asia, Africa and Europe,” Father Mike
explained. “We need to make sure they
feel a part of the parish so that we no
longer think entirely in terms of ‘they’
When Father Mike called the people
forward, Holy Infant parishioners
echoed that call to one another.
Marshall Robers, member of the parish’s
pastoral council, points out that the
parish adopted the pineapple, a longtime
symbol of hospitality, as the
parish’s symbol. “Parishioners feel connected
to the parish as a whole,” he
says, “rather than merely having a close
friendship with a few people.
“Stewardship goes hand in hand with
this overall hospitality and sense of belonging,
since parishioners willingly
give of themselves when they are within
a nurturing environment,” Marshall
explains. “Once stewardship and hospitality
have been embraced, the overall
opportunities for faith development
increase dramatically, since parishioners
are connected with each other and
growing in faith together, not only at
events targeted for faith development
but also within the ministries in which
There is a movement in the Church in
America that is unprecedented. The
evangelization that is taking place plays out in a variety of forms. The model of
Church is changing as numbers of
active Catholics decline and the priesthood
is undermined by crises.
Yet never before has there been such
a unique energy to make Church. What
is significant is that there are as many
ways to create an evangelized parish
as there are faith communities to fill
them. St. Michael in Findlay, Ohio, and
Holy Infant in Durham, North Carolina,
are different in many ways: large
vs. mid-sized, Midwest vs. South, megamodel
vs. a smaller intergenerational
faith community. Yet each parish has
discovered a working solution to creating
a vital, living community of faith.
There is no template in evangelizing
the Catholic parish. Every one is a
unique faith family. The demographics,
the leadership style of the pastor and
staff, the cultural and ethnic character
of the members—all this and much
more determine the means through
which a faith community will invite
and sustain conversion for its membership.
The days in which a formula could be
imposed on a Catholic congregation
are over. While Catholic dogma and
doctrine remain steadfast, the manner
in which a Catholic parish catechizes
and evangelizes is developed through a
vision that is its own.
These two Catholic models of evangelization
offer great hope for the future
of the Catholic Church in the United
States. Invigorating the People of God,
the Holy Spirit has been quite busy
building up the Church, not in cookie-cutter
fashion, but in ways peculiar to
the talents and needs of the people.
Within both communities, it is
apparent that this Spirit provided all the
gifts necessary to create and fulfill a
healthy vision of Church. There are
gifts sufficient to do this work and, just
as Jesus promised, we have not been left
On several occasions Pope John
Paul II challenged the Church to
undertake a program or process
he called “a new evangelization.” It was not new in its content but
new in its energy, its style, its language. He said, “No believer in Christ,
no institution of the Church, can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim
Christ to all peoples” (Redemptoris Missio [Mission of the Redeemer], #3).
The task he set before us is the same daunting mission given by Jesus
himself: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations; baptizing
them...and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded”
(Matthew 28:19-20). Translating that responsibility into strategies, tactics
and actions is as mammoth a task today as it was in the first century.
By breaking the mission down into its various parts, we can muster
the courage and decipher the ways to accomplish it. We recognize that:
1. Evangelization is the responsibility of all Christians.
2. The message of evangelization is Christ and the Gospel.
3. The target audience of evangelization is believer and nonbeliever
4. Evangelization occurs when we give witness by words and deeds.
5. Evangelization is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit
accomplished with human cooperation.
An evangelized parish is in the never-ending process of hearing the
Gospel and being formed by it. An evangelizing parish is “bringing the
Good News of Jesus into every human situation and seeking to convert
individuals and society by the divine power of the Gospel itself”
(Go and Make Disciples, U.S. bishops).
Every parish has the duty and ultimately the resources to be an evangelized,
evangelizing parish, whether large or small, rich or poor, ethnic
or multicultural, rural or urban. The primary dynamic for
evangelization is the Holy Spirit. The primary message is the Good
News of God’s love for the world.
Evangelizers are the people who believe that they are loved by God
and who want to share that Good News with others. Although we tend
to make the matter complicated, in essence, evangelization occurs
when we live the Gospel.