DENVER (CNS) — Catholic heavyweights behind a Denver-launched parish revitalization movement shared with evangelizers ideas on how to convert the unchurched into front-pew regulars.
Some 140 parishes and organizations from as far as New York and Canada gathered for the invitation-only Amazing Parish Conference Aug. 27-28 in Denver to help churches become more vibrant centers for an encounter with Christ.
Funded by the Denver-based VINE Foundation, the conference drew Catholic leaders such as speaker and author Jeff Cavins; Curtis Martin, president and founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students; Chris Stefanick, president of Real Life Catholic; and businessman Patrick Lencioni to discuss seven identified traits of an “amazing parish” — a reliance on prayer, a real leadership team, clear vision, the Sunday experience, compelling formation, small group discipleship and missionary zeal.
What is missing is not the sacraments, according to conference organizers, but what is needed is a church filled with hearts on fire for Christ and parishioners helpful to fallen-away Catholics navigating their way back to church.
“Yes, the Eucharist is enough, but so many people need more to understand that,” Lencioni, an author and leadership consultant, told a packed conference room. “Those people out there who are former Catholics or Catholics going other places, they’re hungry for what you have. We know the most important part. This conference is about all the other things.”
Founders are calling it a Holy Spirit-inspired movement that began on the day Pope Francis was selected pontiff in March 2013.
Co-founder John Martin of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver told the Denver Catholic Register, the archdiocesan newspaper that the group wants attendees to have “a zeal to take their parish to a level where parishioners are active disciples for Christ.”
This personal zeal is necessary for a transformation, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of St. Paul and Minneapolis said during a talk on evangelization.
“If we don’t have the fire in us, it’s because we’re living a lukewarm and superficial existence,” he told the gathering.
Bishop Cozzens suggested the best incentive for sharing the Gospel message comes from inside and contemplating Christ in love.
“The fire begins to grow as I spend time with the one I love and when that fire grows, then the Holy Spirit can use me,” he explained.
Parish representatives were asked to brainstorm ideas and ways to put them into action.
The bishop added that true zeal begins where natural enthusiasm ends.
“When you reach the end of natural enthusiasm and spiritual failure and weakness and you can’t go on, invite the Lord, then a real transformation can happen and then real zeal begins,” he said.
Other conference talks were built on the idea that a parish is where most people come to know Christ.
An alarming number of Americans are missing such an opportunity, according to the Pew Research Center. “Nones” or those with no religious identity are a growing 19 percent or one-fifth of the population — and one-third of adults younger than 30 — researchers found in a 2012 poll.
Father Michael White, pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, and associate Tom Corcoran shared how they shifted focus to these unchurched people.
Instead of adding more programs and ministries, the parish prioritized the Sunday experience and mobilized the help of regular parishioners. People in the pews were no longer approached as customers, he said.
“We were not leading people and we were not making disciples, but we were creating religious consumers in our parish,” Father White said about the programs and activities his parish labored to provide. “So much of it was a waste of time.”
Together, Father White and Corcoran authored two books — “Rebuilt” and “Tools for Rebuilding” — about the lessons they learned.
They asked attendees to brainstorm on ways to reach the unchurched by reevaluating their worship music, the message given during homilies and how ministers affect the Sunday experience.
“I want to see the average parishioner reawakened,” said Cathy Gold, parishioner at the 5,000-family St. Patrick Church in Yorktown Heights, New York. “Everyone should be sitting on the edge of their seat.”
After the discussion, Father Jarek Pochocki, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and co-pastor of St. Lawrence the Martyr and St. Patrick churches in Hamilton, Ontario, said he and his parishioners could work on reaching out to the small and diverse community.
“The topics seem obvious, but this (conference) really reinforces our understanding of it,” he said.
The Amazing Parish movement provides free resources for Catholic leaders, clergy and laity to achieve the seven traits at www.amazingparish.org. Organizer Dominic Perri said the organization also will provide consultants to individual parishes.
“The response has been tremendous,” he said. “There’s a tremendous hunger for this. … We’re here to serve the (parishes).”
LaPoint is a staff writer at the Denver Catholic Register, newspaper of the Denver Archdiocese.