Coming alive in faith

As part of the New Evangelization, there is a lot of legitimate focus, energy, study and money being spent about how to get fallen away Catholics back to the practice of the faith. But one of the questions that regularly arises whenever outreaches are planned is what the re-evangelized will be coming back to should they respond to a Divine and human invitation. 

Will they be returning to a vibrant parish that will receive them with enthusiasm and energize them to continue to grow in faith? Or will they come back to a parish of the “frozen chosen,” a cold or lukewarm group of half-hearted, barely alive, bored believers who seem to survive rather than celebrate Mass and to treat their faith more as a burden than a blessing? 

Just like with the seven Churches Jesus addresses in the Book of Revelation, so today there are parishes that are faithfully thriving like Ephesus, Smyrna and Philadelphia, others that are mixed bags like Pergamum and Thyatira, many that are “lukewarm” like Laodicea, and some that are actually “dead” like Sardis. 

What accounts for the difference between parishes that are dynamic and those that are dying? The answer may be somewhat obvious but parishes that are alive have a critical mass of parishioners who are excited and enthusiastic about growing in the faith, whereas those in decline are often leavened by parishioners who are stagnant, uninvolved, and minimalistic. 

One of the best books I’ve found to describe the difference between the two is Matthew Kelly’s recent “The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic.” I gave copies to all my parishioners last Advent as part of Kelly’s Dynamic Catholic Parish Book Program. Kelly is a 41-year-old, Australian-born business consultant who has been using his business school know-how to try to help the Church discover the best practices to help people and parishes grow in faith. 

Kelly and his team at Dynamic Catholic sought to study the differences between vibrant Catholics who get involved in the life of their parishes and those who remain on the sidelines. They anticipated that, like in many organizations, they’d find that 20 percent of parishioners would cause 80 percent of the effects; what’s called in business that Pareto principle. 

Instead they discovered that not 20 but 6.4 percent of registered parishioners contributed 80 percent of the volunteer hours, that 6.8 percent of registered parishioners donated 80 percent of financial contributions, and that there was an 84 percent overlap between the two groups. That meant that for the most part, only seven percent of parishioners are giving 80 percent of the time and treasure of a parish and 93 percent are giving less than 20. 

While to most that would seem like bad news, Kelly saw a silver lining. Imagine, he said, what would happen if we increased the percentage of actively engaged parishioners in a parish from seven to eight percent. That would mean that volunteer hours in a parish would increase by 15 percent and in general collections would grow by the same margin. If a parish were able to succeed in getting 14 percent of parishioners to become truly engaged, the volunteer hours and the collection fueling so many parish programs would double. 

Dynamic Catholic began to study what made the seven percent of engaged parishioners different from the other 93 percent. Both groups came to Mass and both had gone to Catholic schools or Religious Education, but there were 264 concrete behaviors that differentiated them, behaviors that fell into four basic habits. 

First, the seven percent have a daily commitment to prayer, whereas the 93 percent pray spontaneously and inconsistently. 

Second, the seven percent are continuous learners, spending 90 minutes a week growing in faith through Catholic books, articles, CDs, DVDs, radio and television stations, Bible studies and other adult education opportunities, and retreats. The 93 percent on the other hand may have questions about the faith but don’t come up with a plan to grow. 

Third, the seven percent are generous as a way of life, seen in their cutting out other activities to make the time to volunteer at the parish and prioritizing the parish in their budget. The 93 percent often have good intentions, but just never get around to making similar commitments. 

Finally, the seven percent share their faith with others because they recognize it as a gift whereas the 93 percent often approach their faith as something private and keep it mostly to themselves. 

Vibrant parishes are generally those with higher percentages of those with the good habits found in the seven percent. 

The secret to creating more vibrant parishes, Kelly said, is to help people in the 93 percent grow in faith, a process that doesn’t happen overnight. He encourages incremental growth, like encouraging everyone to spend one more minute in prayer, to read one to five pages of a good Catholic book, and to do one good deed each day, to give one more percent to the parish, and to try to share one thing about the faith with someone else each week. Once people commit to growing in faith in these small steps, they often pick up steam and come fully alive. And once that starts happening, not only is their life richer, but their parishes become more vibrant. 

I’d encourage those who want to see their parishes become more alive to pick up Kelly’s helpful and practical book, start applying the lessons to their own life and then encouraging family members and fellow parishioners to join them. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River.

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts