In May 2009, the Pontifical Council of the Laity did something out of the ordinary. Instead of recognizing an association of the lay faithful, it issued a formal recognition of a parish-based evangelization process: Parish Evangelization Cells.
To say that the history of Evangelization Cells is unusual is an understatement. But it does show us the Catholic world we live in.
In 1981, Fr. Michael Elvers, an American priest with a strong Irish brogue, traveled to Seoul, South Korea to study the evangelization practices of the largest congregation in the world: David Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church. Yoido Full Gospel Church is a Pentecostal congregation with approximately 830,000 members divided into thousands of small “cells” for formation, pastoral care, and evangelization. Fr. Elvers adapted the cell idea for a Catholic context and implemented it in his parish in Pembroke Pines, Florida which grew tremendously as a result.
I first heard of the Evangelization Cell process in the early 90’s when an older couple who had attended the Florida parish moved to Seattle. The basic approach flavored the married couples groups that they started in our parish. The lay people who make up the cells met weekly and invite friends to participate. They listen to an audio recording of a formation talk by the parish priest. (The man whose suggestion led me to create the first version of the gifts discernment program was familiar with the Florida parish and told that the pastor had a charism of teaching and a deacon with the charism of administration – both critical to making this process work!)
I had always assumed that the Evangelization Cells process didn’t spread in the US because of its charismatic coloring although we’ve talked about it, among other parish-evangelization processes, in our Making Disciples seminar. I knew that the Cells method migrated to a parish in Milan in 1986 and from there had begun to spread around Europe and elsewhere including France, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Brazil, Venezuela, Eastern Europe, etc. There are now bout 4,300 evangelization cells in Catholic parishes on 5 continents.
Don Pigi Perini, the pastor of the Milanese parish, has been holding annual International Parish Evangelizing Cell seminars to prepare pastoral leaders to use the cell system in their communities and this past Memorial Day, 400 leaders from 28 countries participated.
Don Pigi Perini felt called to seek Vatican approval of the method and after three years of study, the Pontifical Council issued its recognition of the “International Service Organism” of Parish Evangelizing Cells in May, 2009. That formal acknowledgement has generated interest around the world, including, ironically, in the United States where the Catholic cell approach seemed still-born. The Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, has recently announced that they are implementing the cell process.
Welcome to the global village that is 21st century Catholicism. A process that sprang out of a Korean Pentecostal pastor’s exhaustion in the face of mushrooming numbers in the 60’s, has, by 2009, become firmly and formally a part of the Catholic world because of the efforts of a creative Irish pastor in Florida and a determined Italian pastor in Milan.
I find it both fascinating and telling that the Pontifical Council approved a method of evangelization, a “service organism” rather than a lay community as has been the norm till now. It seems to be a foretaste of what we will see from the new about-to-be-created Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.