Here's one reason that I am thankful this Thanksgiving:
What I found while teaching a Called & Gifted workshop in Brooklyn last week is absolutely unique. I’ve worked in hundreds of Catholic parishes in 100 dioceses on 5 continents and I have NEVER met Catholics who is doing what Most Precious Blood parish is attempting. (There is no parish website yet. They've been busy building other things.)
Most Precious Blood parish is located at the tip of Brooklyn, next to Coney Island, in an area that has been majority Italian for generations. Over the past 10 years, the Italians have been moving by the thousands and their place has been taken largely by Chinese and Russian immigrants who are not Catholic. Many have no Christian background at all. Like most parishes in the area, Most Precious Blood’s membership had dropped nearly 80% from the its height in the 60's and the majority who attend are elderly.
Fr. Maduri, who grew up Catholic in the parish next-door, became pastor just over a year ago and responded in a remarkable way. He sized up the situation quickly: either the human community had to be rebuilt or the parish would close. Since the traditional Catholic population was leaving the area, he would focus on making disciples of the unchurched and apostles of the churched.
When the parish school closed, he rented the building out and used the income to renovate the old convent into a faith formation center. He brought in two enthusiastic young evangelists, newly married Andy - with his wife, Megan - and a exuberant young woman named Kree. They work with a Catholic group called Dirty Vagabonds, which specializes in the personal evangelization of urban youth. These recent graduates of the Franciscan University of Steubenville sport lots of conversation-starting tattoos, live very simply in the faith formation building, and spend their afternoons going out and meeting the kids in the neighborhood and the projects nearby. They have resurrected the parish youth group and renovated the rectory basement into an "Underground" gathering space. After only 4 months, attendance is going up steadily – with non-Catholic black and Chinese kids.
Fr. Maduri has also begun an outreach to local Hispanics. He brought in Nancy, a quietly vibrant and efficient woman, whom he had worked with in another parish, to run adult faith formation. He is forming a critical core of the parshioners, sending them to conferences, bringing in speakers to give retreats, putting on Life in the Spirit seminars, and bringing us in to teach his parishioners about gifts discernment.
But Fr. Maduri has even bigger plans. Next year, he will be collaborating with a Catholic Chinese woman to begin reaching out to the huge number of non-Christian Chinese immigrants in the area. When I realized that I was in the midst of a group of life-long Italian Catholics who were planning to learn Chinese (!) in order to evangelize their new neighbors who have no Christian background, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto!”
How rare is this? As the late Avery Cardinal Dulles noted:
“Asked whether spreading the faith was a high priority of their parishes, 75 percent of conservative Protestant congregations and 57 percent of African American congregations responded affirmatively, whereas only 6 percent of Catholic parishes did the same. Asked whether they sponsored local evangelistic activities, 39 percent of conservative Protestant congregations and 16 percent of African American congregations responded positively as compared with only 3 percent of Catholic parishes.”
No wonder the beleagured Diocese of Brooklyn is watching and supporting Fr. Maduri's efforts. All Archbishop Dolan has to do to find a remarkable example of new "vigor" in his backyard is hop the subway to Brooklyn.
Most Precious Blood parish reminded me of the amazing impact that the Parisian parish of St. Sulpice, and its pastor, Jean Jacques Olier, had on the French Catholic revival of the 17th century. How tragic that 21st century Catholics have only heard of Saint Sulpice via the Da Vinci Code! When it comes to the evangelical and missionary traditions of the Catholic Church, we are anything but "deep in history" or we would know that evangelizing mega-churches were not invented by American evangelicals! Here's the description of the parish from the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia:
"In August, 1641, M. Olier took charge of St-Sulpice. His aims were to reform the parish, establish a seminary, and Christianize the Sorbonne, then very worldly, through the piety and holiness of the seminarians who should attend its courses. The parish embraced the whole Faubourg-St-Germain, with a population as numerous and varied as a large city. It was commonly reputed the largest and most vicious parish, not only in the French capital, but in all Christendom. The enormity of the evils had killed all hope of reformation.
Father Olier organized his priests in community life. Those who found the life too strict separated from the work. The parish was divided into eight districts, each under the charge of a head priest and associates, whose duty it was to know individually all the souls under their care, with their spiritual and corporal needs, especially the poor, the uninstructed, the vicious, and those bound in irregular unions. Thirteen catechetical centres were established, for the instruction not only of children but of many adults who were almost equally ignorant of religion. Special instructions were provided for every class of persons, for the beggars, the poor, domestic servants, lackeys, midwives, workingmen, the aged etc. Instructions and debates on Catholic doctrine were organized for the benefit of Calvinists, hundreds of whom were converted.
A vigorous campaign was waged against immoral and heretical literature and obscene pictures; leaflets, holy pictures, and prayer books were distributed to those who could not or would not come to church, and a bookstore was opened at the church to supply good literature.
The poor were cared for according to methods of relief inspired by the practical genius of St. Vincent de Paul. During the five or six years of the Fronde, the terrible civil war that reduced Paris to widespread misery, and often to the verge of famine, M. Olier supported hundreds of families and provided many with clothing and shelter. None were refused. His rules of relief, adapted in other parishes, became the accepted methods and are still followed at St-Sulpice. Orphans, very numerous during the war, were placed in good parishes, and a house of refuge established for orphan girls. A home was open to shelter and reform the many women rescued from evil lives, and another for young girls exposed to danger. Many free schools for poor girls were founded by Father Olier, and he laboured also at the reform of the teachers in boys' schools, not however, with great success. He perceived that the reform of boys' schools could be accomplished only through a new congregation; which in fact came about after his death through Saint John Baptist de La Salle, a pupil of St-Sulpice, who founded his first school in Father Olier's parish. Free legal aid was provided for the poor. He gathered under one roof the sisters of many communities, who had been driven out of their convents in the country and fled to Paris for refuge, and cared for them till the close of the war. . . there was no misery among the people, spiritual or corporal, for which the pastor did not seek a remedy.
Update: I just had to add this wonderful little snippet that I just stumbled upon: the critical role of Bl. Agnes of Langeac, a Dominican nun, in Fr. Olier's life. This is such a classic experience for someone with a charism of intercessory prayer. We've heard hundreds of similar stories over the years through the Called & Gifted process. I'm not surprised one whit that the Holy Spirit called intercessors to pray for someone like Olier whom God was using in such a critical way. Anyway, here's the story:
In 1631, Jesus and Mary interiorly invited Agnes to intercede and pray for a priest she did not know. Three years later, in the monastery parlour she met Msgr. Jean-Jacques Olier and learned that he was the priest for whom she was offering her life of prayer and sacrifice. She died a year later, leaving to her sisters her particular vocation to pray for priests.
It is far too early to know whether or not Most Precious Blood is another Saint Sulpice. But the spirit of evangelical creativity, of going out to the living community present now - instead of lamenting the loss of an idealized mini-Christendom with a Brooklyn accent - is the same. Fr. Maduri is very aware that this is all experimental and that his efforts to transform the parish could fail. But he knows that, even if the parish isn't ultimately saved, the lives of some of the Catholics and non-Catholics involved will have been changed and that sort of fruit is eternal.
What a privilege to be allowed to witness such a work of the Holy Spirit in its earliest days! This Thanksgiving, shoot up a prayer for the apostles of Most Precious Blood parish, Brooklyn.