Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

The Diocese of Richmond’s 2014 five-stage evangelization plan, “Encounter the Joy of the Gospel and Set the World Ablaze” is undergoing a “revamping and renewal.”

Michael School, director of the diocese’s Office for Evangelization, used those words as he opened a day-long evangelization summit attended by 75 leaders from parishes and organiza- tions, Wednesday, Jan. 30, at the Pastoral Center.

Speaking of the stages, i.e., personal encounter with Jesus, evangelizing families, equipping parishes to evangelize, evangelizing in communities, School asked, “Do these stages still make sense? What are the challenges? Where are the successes?”

Addressing the group, Bishop Barry C. Knestout linked the New Evangelization called for by Popes Benedict and Francis to the diocese’s bicentennial in 2020.

“I see (evangelization) as a really key component to how we can, as a diocese and as a local Church, prepare for an important celebration,” he said. 

Noting that while the bicentennial is an opportunity for evangelization, evangelization should not be limited by one event. 

“This is something that’s part of our life daily throughout all of our lives; it is our personal encounter with Christ,” he said, adding that from that encounter one is to go out and invite others to have a similar encounter.

The bishop said the Church knows what it is called to do.

“You don’t have to figure out a new vision or a new mission,” he said. “It’s already given to us by Christ.”

How that mission and vision are carried out, he said, is found in the New Evangelization which “is new in its ardor, new in its energy and its initiatives and its efforts.”

(The New Evangelization) seemed to me to be an appropriate way, a good way, for that spiritual preparation within the diocese,” Bishop Knestout said.

‘Culture of encounter’

Among the speakers to address the gathering was Jonathan Lewis, assistant secretary for pastoral ministry in the Archdiocese of Washington, who participated in last October’s Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Development in Rome.

Drawing upon the Road to Emmaus account in the Gospel, Lewis emphasized a “culture of encounter” in evangelization.

“We must acknowledge polarization and overcome it through friendship and encounter,” he said. “Where do spaces for encounter take place? Prioritize encounters with other people.”

A point raised by Lewis, as well as summit attendees, was the importance of “accompaniment.” 

“It underpins all of our work in evangelization,” he said. “We don’t have enough well-formed people to be accompaniers. The foundation begins with our own call to holiness. How do we help people walk with others?”

Lewis added that the four pillars of formation — human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral — are “integral” for adults who accompany others in their faith journeys.

He noted that the “culture of accompaniment” includes empowerment of young adults.

“Meet young people where they are,” he said. “God continues to call young people to take on leadership roles.”

Prayer is priority

Father Jonathan Goertz, pastor of Sacred Heart, Danville, and a candidate for a licentiate in sacred theology from Sacred Heart Seminary, Detroit, spoke about the 2014 evangelization plan and his efforts to implement it when he served as pastor of St. Timothy, Tappahannock.

He summed up the document as, “Great theology. Terrible methodology.”

Father Goertz recalled some of the challenges the plan presented, e.g., not enough time “to infuse the spirit of evangelization in parish teams.”

“One challenge I recognized is that I didn’t have the right people in place to be on the evangelization team,” he said. “How do you discern those gifts? How do you recognize people to do that?”

Father Goertz noted that the “stage” approach proved problematic.

“We had done the personal part (first stage) and moved on to the family part (second stage), but it was hard to know we had arrived at that point of sufficient success,” he said.

As the diocese refocuses on evangelization, Father Goertz said prayer should be the priority.

“The most important thing is prayer. I heard that from everybody,” he said, noting that the Archdiocese of Detroit spent an entire year praying for the “new Pentecost.”

“It is providential. 2020 could be a year of prayer, calling upon the Holy Spirit in our diocese,” the priest said. “2019 would be a time of looking back; 2020 would be a time for looking forward, begging the Holy Spirit to look upon our diocese.”   

Conversion an ongoing process

During breakout sessions, eight groups were invited to look at, among other things, missionary discipleship and what should be included in and excluded from the renewed diocesan plan for evangelization.

Speaking about missionary discipleship, Father John David Ramsey, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Newport News, said, “Evangelization is the Church. Missionary discipleship is a parish identity.”

Deacon Darrell Wentworth, a member of St. Gregory the Great, Virginia Beach, and founding director of the Awakening the Domestic Church Project, added, “It has to be personal and relational.”

Asked how missionary discipleship could be implemented, all agreed it required patience.

“Start small,” said Rita Hipple, director of children’s faith formation at St. Bede, Virginia Beach, and a member of the parish’s evangelization team. “Be patient to let it grow. A lot of people think it has to happen overnight.”

“Conversion is an ongoing process,” said Deacon Wentworth. “There comes a point when you give up and let the Holy Spirit take over.”

Father Ramsey added that implementation would require “openness, acceptance, willingness and commitment” by those involved in the evangelization process. 

Father Tony Marques, pastor of St. Benedict, Richmond, said evangelization needed to be defined. 

“We need a usable, workable definition of evangelization,” he said. “People jumped immediately to the programatics (when the pastoral plan was issued in 2014). We have to say what it is and what it isn’t.”

He noted that the 2014 document used three pages to describe evangelization but did not define it.

Saying there was a need to raise awareness among the faithful about evangelization, Mary Sue McClintock, director of evangelization at St. Michael the Archangel, Glen Allen, asked, “How do we know everybody else knows what missionary discipleship is about?”

Quality over quantity

As to what should be included in the revised pastoral plan for evangelization, participants suggested less emphasis on quantifying results.

“Evangelization is not a question of how many people, but how well it is done,” said Father Marques.

While noting that “some numerical content” is necessary, he continued, “Numbers don’t tell the whole story. We are looking for trajectory and change rather than a number.”

Father Ramsey said the word “plan” should be excluded as well as anything that involved “success metrics or that tries to encapsulate the success” of the evangelization effort.

“We’re called to cast out seeds and water them,” he said. “We’re not called to count trees.”

Both priests suggested there be emphasis on prayer and sacraments.

“With anything you try to implement at church, intentional prayer cannot be skipped,” Father Marques said. 

Daniel Villar, associate director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries and facilitator for one of the small groups, likened evangelization to Silly Putty.

“Evangelization is the Silly Putty of our faith. You can stick Silly Putty to a wall, but when it falls, you have to reshape it and do it again,” he said.

Suggestions for renewal, revamping

When the participants re-convened, a spokesperson from each group provided summary reports to aid in implementing evangelization. Among the multiple points expressed:

n All evangelization begins with prayer.

n Create a culture of evangelization and get people comfortable with the term evangelization.

n Constant emphasis on prayer, sacraments and Scripture.

n Employ a circular, cyclical process rather than stages.

n Avoid a “one size fits all” approach.

n Train people for one-on-one discipleship.

n View evangelization as a process and a vision instead of as a plan.

n Approach evangelization with a servant mentality.

School expressed his appreciation for the participation of and input from the attendees.

Noting that there would be follow-up to what had been shared, he said, “What’s exciting is we’re all in this room having this conversation.”

Editor’s note: A copy of “Encounter the Joy of the Gospel and Set the World Ablaze” can be downloaded at https://tinyurl.com/ y9sqaxbd.