August 2011 Evangelization Exchange – DeSiano

Evangelization Teams, Part 1
Can They Work?

by Frank DeSiano, CSP

Fr. Frank Desiano

One of the many unfulfilled visions of “Go and Make Disciples” concerns the failure of most parishes and dioceses to develop effective evangelization teams. Around the early 90s, just after “Go and Make Disciples” was promulgated, some dioceses made a concerted effort to organize evangelization teams in almost all their parishes; most, however, did not. It was not even clear that some dioceses paid lip service to the idea.

Why haven’t evangelization teams taken off? “Each parish should have an evangelization team trained and prepared to help the whole parish implement the goals and objectives of this plan. These teams could help train Catholics in evangelization and provide resources to individuals, families, and parish groups. Parishes might even consider designating a trained persona as a full-time coordinator of evangelization.” So said “Go and Make Disciples” #136, C.

In the Chicago evangelization plan, “Spreading the Holy Fire,” in 2002, one of the visible signs that evangelization was occurring in a parish went like this: “The parish supports a Parish Evangelization Team” (p. 30).

Still, it is hard to get teams started, and even harder to keep them resourced and sustained.

Perhaps we can look at some of the issues that seem to make it hard for evangelization teams to work. In the first place, Catholics, after some 40 years, still have not taken to the word “evangelization,” and are not jumping more easily at the phrase “new evangelization.” So to invite Catholics to be part of an “evangelization team” seems like inviting people into a pit of tar. I know one pastor who decided to call his evangelization team a “marketing committee”—being in New York, that might be more effective than in the more rural parts of the country.

Secondly, evangelization, as a concept, is enormously broad. Pope Paul VI, when he reluctantly defined evangelization, used broad strokes to allay his worry that some people would want to narrow it down and make it a simplistic process. Pope Paul saw evangelization as encompassing active Catholics, inactive Catholics, the catechetical formation of children, ecumenical work, and mission to those without faith. As a result, people do have a tendency to grab onto one piece of evangelization simply because it’s hard to grasp the whole thing.

Thirdly, evangelization can easily become part of the endless culture wars that have marked Catholic life for the last twenty years as different pieties, dispositions, assumptions, theologies, and ecclesiologies have staked out various overlapping, and oppositional, forces in the Church. As a result, evangelization can become the reason for one Catholic to insinuate that another Catholic might not have it all together. We start playing the game of “Who is the real Catholic?” We use evangelization as a shoehorn to nudge Catholics into our preferred form of Church. This, ultimately, goes nowhere.

A fourth factor involves the way a lot of evangelization efforts seem directed more toward active Catholics than anyone else. As a result, evangelization becomes indistinguishable from, say, catechetics, or from liturgy, or from devotions, or from a certain social policy. I have heard this put this way for most of my priesthood: “We can’t invite people to our Church until we have become the people we should become. What are we inviting them to?” Apart from the implicitly broad and devastating admission that something essential is missing at the heart of Catholic life, we have also opened an endless can of worms: when will we be perfect enough, holy enough, liturgically-whatever enough, catechetically savvy enough? And do we really think our Eucharist, our Scripture, our commitment to service, and our moral vision has nothing to offer seeking folks today?

I’m sure there are more reasons why evangelization teams are hard to get started, but these observations present formidable issues in themselves. In my next essay, I’ll talk a little more about the difficulty of sustaining evangelization teams once they begin.

Here at Paulist Evangelization Ministries, we are committed to a vision of every parish having an evangelization team. We believe that parishes simply cannot pay due attention to the people who are not present unless a team is thinking, all the time, about who our mission is missing. Even the most successful parishes are missing almost 60% of Catholics (not to mention people hungering for faith).

We have developed a Parish Evangelization Jump Starter Kit to help parish teams get started with the formation and ministry aspects of initial development, knowing how broad the need is across the country. You can check it out here to see if it can be of help in your parish.

One thing seems certain, with Pope Benedict’s establishment of a Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, every pastor and pastoral worker will be hearing more about evangelization in the coming decade. Alleluia for that!

In the next issue, I’ll talk about some difficulties in sustaining evangelization teams.