A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away Print
Written by Sherry   
Thursday, 03 January 2008 05:43
Everything was down yesterday: internet, phone, TV for over 5 hours! Thanks goodness for cell phones!
It has been interesting prepping for the Dominican Pastoral gathering next week in California. We are starting off with a 30 minute "here's where we've been and here's where we are going" talk and I begin with a quote from the 1995 Dominican Chapter at Caleruega:

"In many places our commitment to parishes is the main obstacle to our itinerancy and our preaching. Chapter 2, II, 20.9.
In parishes we must not be satisfied with preaching to those who come to Mass. We require every province to consider its present commitment to parishes and ask if each one represents the best basis for itinerancy in preaching to the unchurched. Is a particular parish a basis of new evangelization? Can it become so? If not we should probably hand it over to the diocese."

I also began with that quote the very first time I ever spoke to Dominican pastors. It was in November of 1995, before the Institute was a gleam in anyone's eye.

Fr. Michael Sweeney asked me to speak for 30 minutes to the first gathering of western OP's engaged in pastoral work - all priests (the next year, they started the tradition of inviting lay leaders). Me, the blue-eyed baby Baptist and still a quite new Catholic, facing an audience of 35 guys in white. Nothing in my life to that point had prepared me for this.

it was both the fulfillment of that fantasy that many of us have had: "Boy, if I just had a chance to tell priests what I think!" and absolutely terrifying. As I walked up to the little podium, my knees literally buckled. I remember grimly forcing myself upright and fiercely promising myself: "You can't faint now! You can faint later after you are done!" I also remember trying to console myself at the time with the idea that no one knew who I was, so I could say my piece and disappear and they'd never be able to find me!

In fact, the Dominicans stunned me with their enthusiastic reception. I heard about that talk for years afterwards. My trembling presentation and its aftermath set the stage for my developing collaboration with Fr. Michael and birth of the Institute. The topic: the strategic role of lay Catholics in the Dominican mission of evangelization. It's fairly long so I've skipped a lot of the magisterial quotes, so if you want to see the context. read the whole thing.

It is amazing how the basic ideas still fuel the Institute's work: Here's a few snippets:

. . . I'd like to ask a question about what might seem to be obvious: What does it mean to evangelize the unchurched? What is evangelism? I think that we need to ask this question because the issue is often framed in terms of assisting "inactive" Catholics to become "active" again, of somehow getting them to come back to the Mass and to take up again their identity as Catholics. I believe that when we focus on the "inactive" Catholic becoming "active" again, we may inadvertently be skipping over a essential intermediary step: that of discipleship. Are "returning" Catholics returning to our parishes and to the Mass in order to follow Jesus? Are they becoming "active" because they have first become disciples? I ask this because discipleship, not just activity, is the true goal of evangelization.

When I use the word "disciple", Catholics sometimes tell me that I am showing my Protestant roots, that "disciple" is a Protestant term, not a Catholic one. But the U.S. Bishops don't seem to think so. When they issued their recent pastoral letter on evangelization, they entitled it "Go and Make Disciples," taking the term from Jesus' commission to his apostles at the end of the gospel of Matthew. Fr. Robert River, the director of Diocesan and Parish Services for the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association, put it this way:

Discipleship is 'what faith is for. . .it makes people into disciples of Jesus'. . . What is the purpose of our Catholic schools? To create active disciples of Jesus. Our religious education programs? Our sacramental catechesis? To create active disciples of Jesus. Moreover, discipleship involves a personal decision and a commitment - a free response to Jesus' call. . .Our whole way of being church must stem from knowing that the purpose of our faith is to be lifelong disciples. This is what makes us an evangelizing church." (Evangelization Update, vol. 2, no. 1)

To succeed at evangelization, we must be clear about what it entails. When we talk about preaching to the unchurched, we are talking about reaching out to those who have either ceased to be practicing Christians or who have had no meaningful contact with Christianity. But when we speak of evangelization, we are talking about reaching out to these people and calling them to become lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ and responsible members of his Church. Anything less than a proclamation and evangelization centered around life-long discipleship is less than Catholic.


My oldest female friend is currently living in one of the most religious repressive of the Islamic countries. I cannot reveal either her name or her location because it would be dangerous to both her and her family. She is a quite ordinary, middle-aged, five-foot -nothing housewife and mother. She and her husband spent years equipping themselves to be "tent-making" missionaries, that is, Christians who work at a secular profession that enables them to live in a country where no overt missionary work is possible in order that some living witness to the love of Jesus Christ might be found there. She now speaks the language fluently and frequently dons her national dress and goes out to the desert tribes and the outlying villages where she has developed many friendships. There she shares not only goat and spiced coffee, she shares the gospel.

What she does is possible only because she is a lay woman - no "official" missionary, no pastor, priest or nun would be allowed into the country. My friend is supported in her efforts not just by her husband but by her local Protestant congregation back home in the States. But when I tried to tell her story in a magazine article on lay vocation, the editor of a national magazine for committed lay Catholics told me to take it out. "None of our readers could hope to aspire to such a ministry," he said.

The odd thing is that lay evangelicals aspire to it all the time. I myself come from a quite ordinary family of Southern Baptists. We do not have any missionaries or pastors or evangelists in our background. Yet my youngest sister turned 20 in Nigeria while serving as part of a evangelistic team sent out by a Protestant congregation just a couple blocks away from Blessed Sacrament. One of my cousins is currently in Moscow where he is busy planting Protestant churches. My roommate in seminary spent five years as a lay "tent-making" missionary in Turkey. And I could tell many more such stories.

As a fellow evangelical-turned-Catholic observed to me, it is ironic that while Catholicism has a much stronger and richer theological basis for evangelization than evangelical Protestantism, the Protestants are the ones who are actually doing the lion's share of the evangelizing. The fact is that the global evangelical missionary movement has grown explosively over the past decade. In just the past ten years, the number of evangelical Protestants in the Third World has doubled from around 150 million to about 300 million. Why is this important to our discussion? Because this missionary explosion has been carried on by an evangelistic workforce that is 99% lay. And even more meaningful is the fact that a large percentage of these lay Protestant evangelists are former Catholics.

Everywhere I go in the world of evangelical missions, I run into leaders and activists who were baptized and raised as Catholics. That is because approximately 30% of today's 35 million evangelicals in the US are first or second generation former Catholics. That means that something like 11 million former Catholics identify themselves as Protestant evangelicals (Ralph Martin, The Catholic Church at the End of an Age, p. 39).

Among Hispanic Catholics in the United States, who now constitute nearly a third of American Catholics, five million have left the Catholic Church in the last ten years to join evangelical or Pentecostal churches or other religious movements. In 1970, 90% of American Hispanics identified themselves as Catholic. In the early 1990s, only 70% so identified themselves. (ibid., p. 38)


To return to the recommendation of Caleruega: ". . .we can learn from aspects of their efforts, biblically-based preaching centered on Jesus in the language of the people, giving immediate access to lay ministry in the context of basic communities". (Chapter 2, no. 38) There is a particular quality of warmth, relationship, and intimate sharing centered around the discipleship of the people in the pews that characterize an evangelizing parish. As a Swiss Catholic missionary to Bolivia, Robert Aubrey, has observed, "The atmosphere of a community of converted people which praise the Lord and find religious and human warmth in the midst of a faceless society and of almost anonymous parishes, is something essential for human life. Only within a community can the new convert persevere, and experience the riches of faith and its implications for life" (Samuel Escobar, "A New Reformation," Christianity Today, April 6, 1992, p. 33-34). Ninety-nine percent of all Catholics have only one place where they could hope to find such support for their Christian life and vocation - their local parish.

When you entered the Order, you spent years being educated and formed for your vocation. But I, too, am a preacher of the gospel in my own right - and where is my house of formation? Your parish is my St. Albert's, the only house of formation I may ever have to prepare me for my vocation as an evangelizing change agent in the world.

I can still remember how still the room became as I spoke that last paragraph. And how nervous I was. I knew it was the teaching of the Church, the OPs knew it was the teaching of the Church but neither of us was used to stating it so baldly.

And it is still very good if challenging news.