We’ve heard the phrase “new evangelization” repeated over and over since it was introduced by Pope John Paul II, promoted by Pope Benedict XVI and put into practice by Pope Francis. But is there a disconnect with the laity? Are we really practicing what the new evangelization asks of us, mainly to know our faith, practice our faith and share our faith?
Sharing the Catholic faith may be our biggest challenge because it requires human interaction. As New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan explains: “The new evangelization is accomplished with a smile, not a frown.”
I found myself questioning whether Cardinal Dolan’s words had fallen on deaf ears during Mass July 26 at the Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee. I traveled there to photograph the German Fest Mass, which Bishop David Ricken had been invited to celebrate for the first time.
Many of the people attending this Mass were dressed in ethnic German attire: lederhosen pants and shorts for men and dirndl outfits for women. The celebratory mood took a bitter turn soon after the first reading.
While moving down a flight of steps to get closer to the amphitheater stage, I spotted a young woman, wearing a brown and turquoise dirndl, following her daughter, who had a matching outfit. The toddler, perhaps 2 years old, was a bit fidgety so the mother was walking her around. After snapping a few photos, I continued to move toward the stage, as did the mother.
Suddenly, a man sitting in an aisle seat called the woman over. Since I was near, I overheard the conversation. He was upset that she could not keep her child quiet and sitting still. He told her in a loud voice that she was disturbing him and others around them. The woman was visibly distraught, and so was I.
At the outdoor amphitheater, a venue for concerts, the audio equipment carries sound loud and clear. A child’s cry could not overpower a lector’s voice. In addition, I’ve been to Masses in many states, celebrated by many cultures and in many languages, where children make their presence known. At these churches, such as St. Willebrord in Green Bay, young families are welcome with their sometimes boisterous children.
Before Bishop Ricken began his homily, I saw the mother stand up with her daughter and walk out of the amphitheater. I could see she was crying. Her husband followed. I took it upon myself to catch up to them and offer an apology on behalf of the church. I knew that such behavior by the bitter man was uncalled for and that it would have been upsetting to Bishop Ricken had he seen what happened.
When I tracked down the husband, he was angry. His voice reflected a husband and father upset that his wife was hurt. I introduced myself, told him I was from the Green Bay diocesan newspaper and that the bishop presiding was from Green Bay. I also told him I had witnessed what happened and that the man had no right to belittle his wife in public the way he had.
While I don’t recall the husband’s exact words, they can be summarized (and sanitized) in one sentence: “We will never come back to church again.” He added that, if the incident had happened outside of this religious setting, he would have settled the situation physically.
It took a lot to put myself in the presence of God after this experience. I sat down and listened to Bishop Ricken finish his homily. His words reinforced what I knew to be right about welcoming people to worship. He spoke about the challenge we face of bringing people back to the church. “We must pray them back into the house of God. … We should not walk around like sour pusses — that’s what Pope Francis tells us,” said Bishop Ricken. “Let’s be proud to pass on our faith to the next generation.”
It was as if he were speaking directly to the bitter Mass-goer. All I could do was hope and pray he and others at this Mass got the message. It’s a matter of life and death, figuratively, for the church.
Last May, the Pew Research Center released a survey showing that 35 percent of adult Millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 1996) are religious unaffiliated. “The 35 percent of Millennials who do not identify with a religion is double the share of unaffiliated Baby Boomers (17 percent) and more than three times the share of members of the Silent generation (11 percent),” stated a Pew press release. These figures show that the church is, indeed, facing a crisis.
Just before the closing procession, the angry husband, whose name is Dan, tapped me on my shoulder. He returned, wanting to apologize for lashing out at me. I told him no apology was necessary, except to his wife from the bitter Mass-goer. Dan said they had traveled from northern Iowa to attend German Fest. No words I could offer, however, were going to change his mind about his perception of a non-welcoming church.
The next time you or I hear a child crying in church, let’s remember Dan and his wife. Let’s also remember Cardinal Dolan’s words: “The new evangelization is accomplished with a smile, not a frown.”