APPLETON — Evangelization means sharing your faith. For people of many faith traditions, evangelization is a way of life. For a good number of Catholics, it doesn’t come so easily. Julianne Stanz, director of the diocesan Department of New Evangelization, is on a mission to change that.
“The Department of New Evangelization aims to inspire and equip parishes to form disciples for the new evangelization, to create a culture of discipleship where all encounter Jesus in a loving, warm and hospitable way,” she said.
Deacon Gib Schmidt and youth minister Bill Nettekoven of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Appleton recently invited Stanz to share her message with their parishioners. More than 100 people attended the meeting.
“We knew we had to do something as a parish,” said Nettekoven. “If you go to Mass on Sundays the church is more empty than (full). We’ve been watching our numbers dwindle and people not getting involved. We could see the writing on the wall that either we had to do something or we wouldn’t have a parish anymore.”
Of the 360,000 registered Catholics in the Green Bay Diocese, approximately 28 percent attend Mass on a regular basis, according to Stanz. Mass attendance at Sacred Heart is down 20 percent from just six years ago. There are two statistics that may explain that trend, said Nettekoven.
“Sixty-four percent of Catholics do not believe that at Mass the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ,” he said. “If you don’t believe that it’s the body and blood of Christ, you’re just sitting in a pew. You don’t know why you’re there, so it makes it easy to leave and go to a different church.”
Another statistic jumps out, he said.
“Sixty percent of our young adults, 18 to 39, do not believe they can have a personal relationship with Christ. That’s why it’s so easy for people to not go or go somewhere else, because they don’t understand what we have to offer them,” said Nettekoven.
“Our goal is to have more people at Mass on Sunday and more people involved in the day-to-day life of the parish,” he added. “We need to concentrate on the beauty of what it means to be Catholic, that we have the Eucharist and what it stands for — and that people can believe that they can have a relationship with Christ.”
While the church still needs to evangelize people who haven’t heard of Christ, “our big emphasis now is bringing back the people that have fallen away from the faith,” Nettekoven added.
Stanz told the crowd that their parish “needs to be known for what is unique to it and how you can put people in touch with Jesus.” She quoted Pope Francis’ words from Evangelii Gaudium. “‘It should be a sanctuary for the thirsty where all come to drink,’” she said. “We need to be joyfully Catholic. Who are the lost sheep in your parish? You need to create a culture of intentional discipleship in your parish. It’s not just about getting people to come in, we need to go out.”
Going out and getting people is exactly what a core group of volunteers, led by Mary Werth and Deacon Rick Simon, did at St. Pius X Parish in Appleton. “Sixty-five percent of our people don’t attend Mass regularly,” said Simon. “Every parish is dealing with the same issues, how do we reach our people?”
Two years ago the parish was consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Packets were put together for every family in the parish that included a picture of the two hearts, a consecration prayer to Mary and Jesus, and a letter from Fr. Tom Farrell inviting all of the parishioners to consecrate themselves and their families to the two hearts. About 950 families picked up their packets while attending Mass.
“That left us with 1,150 families that didn’t receive the message,” said Simon. “Our goal was to get that prayer and packet to each family. We sent our people out to knock on doors. If the people were home they were there to say, ‘We’re here as a parish community, we have a gift for you, we just want to make sure that everything is OK with your family.’”
If a family was not home, a letter was included in the packet inside a plastic bag with a pink bow. It was tied on the doorknob.
While it is hard to quantify, the mission was a success, according to Simon. “If we delivered the 1,150 packets and we had one family that came back and became alive, I can say, here is a positive result.”
The new evangelization, as expressed in the life of the parish, is not about a “one-size-fits-all” approach, said Stanz. Parishes are rising to the challenge of the new evangelization with creativity and energy.
“Sharing our faith with others and boldly proclaiming it is not easy, but Jesus did not promise us this,” she added. “We are asked not just to believe in the Gospel but to allow it to take deep root in us so that we cannot help but to announce the Gospel with our lives in word and in deed. This missionary outreach is at the heart of a life of discipleship. This is what our parishes are striving for.”