Harvesting where God does not sow

The ultimate challenge to evangelization in every parish is reaching beyond the walls of the building to the greater community beyond. Most parishes are so busy trying to engage the people already loosely connected that the concept of evangelizing the people they do not know is overwhelming. 

The task becomes even more daunting when we look at people as demographic labels and not see them as our own. Whether they are “Nones” (no religious affiliation), fallen away Catholics, Millennials, Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers, they all belong to God, and are our responsibility. Jesus does not expect us to dazzle them with doctrine, or offer them a Liturgical experience that would rival Cirque du Soleil. We simply need to ask them to share their story.

Just to concretize this vague concept of evangelization, here are two real stories of parishes outside of our diocese that have conflicting approaches to evangelization. One parish is in an inner-city location abutting a low-income housing project. The basement of the church is offered to three different 12-step communities. The parishioners are from an ethnic European community that has dwindled in numbers through the years. 

They are not members of the local community, but come from all over to attend Mass in their former native language. Their numbers are few, but they fought closure because their concept of “Church” is to have a homogenous community that is centered on their culture, even if it means importing their own personal priest. They have no interest in interacting with the surrounding community, nor the people in the basement of their church. There is no mission of evangelization operative in this parish. 

Contrast this with a thriving parish that through the years has quadrupled in size, has a weekly collection in the 20 of thousands; is so committed to stewardship that its parishioners attend its Catholic school for free. How did they get there? Many years ago they met one-on-one with the people in the parish and asked them to share their stories. They found out that some had elderly parents living with them but had no one to look after them while they were at work. The parish formed an elders day care program.

Others talked about how hard it is to take part in parish events and Mass because of their young children. The parish created a baby-sitting service for Mass and events. They provide meals for the homebound; support for the bereaved; afterschool childcare for the latchkey kids and many more services. Word spread that this parish is in touch with the needs of the people in the community. Through the years the number of parish services grew as the size of the parish grew; all of which are served by and for the parishioners. It all started by asking the question: “How can we help you?”

Finding people to save was never a problem for Jesus because He knew just where to find them. He didn’t need a social media campaign to lure people in; He went to where they were mired in the mess of their lives and gave them the physical care they asked for, and the Spiritual comfort that they didn’t know they needed. Many of our parishes do an excellent job of caring for the obvious needs of the poor and sick, and when the need is beyond their capability, they rely on the services of our diocesan social and health services. 

There are many more needs in the community that should be addressed by the parish. Adults, young and old, are trapped in the grips of opioid addiction. A one-on-one conversation with parishioners may reveal that this affliction has touched their lives. Many people in our community are under-employed and are in need of job counseling. People may struggle to navigate the complexity of health insurance markets; others may not know how to begin the long and arduous journey toward citizenship. 

Even though these needs are met to varying degrees by agencies outside of the parish, aren’t these the stuff of life that is purview of evangelization? A parish does not need to provide all of these services, but must be in the business of connecting their people, inside the walls and in the greater community, with the material comfort they need. Parishes can then accompany their people in the mess of their lives and bring the Spiritual comfort they crave. 

A parish is much more than a Sacrament factory, but needs to get into the muck and mire of the lives of the people. This was what Jesus did, and this is the mandate given to us. The Gospel this Sunday about the demanding and unforgiving master has a lesson for parish evangelization. The servant who receives the master’s wrath was so afraid to venture forth and invest his talents and thus receives the master’s wrath. The key to this parable lies in the unworthy servant’s understanding of his master. “Master, I know that you are a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter.” The unworthy servant missed the point: God reaps the harvest from the mess that is sown by others. This is where we need to be, too.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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