Sunday, October 15, 2017



St. Frances of Rome

The servants  went out into the streets
and gathered all they found, good and
bad alike, and the  hall was filled with
guests.                               Matthew 22

I’m sick to death with hearing about “shortages” in the Catholic Church! As far as I am concerned, the biggest shortage in the Catholic Church may be imagination!  Why else do most dioceses have detailed plans on how to close parishes and almost none on how to keep them open before it’s too late?  This thinking has bothered me for a long time! A few years after I was ordained, I needed a program that would teach me about “parish revitalization.” Not finding one in the Catholic Church, I looked outside the box: I turned to the Protestants! I was not only accepted into the doctoral program on “parish revitalization” by McCormick (Presbyterian) Seminary in Chicago, I was given a full scholarship on two grounds: minority religion and poverty income! At the time, I was serving two tiny mission parishes in the “home mission” area of our diocese. Using what I learned from the Presbyterians, I have focused on growing the numbers and deepening the faith in those two mission churches, in an historic rural parish in the center of the state and here in our cathedral parish 1983-1997. In all three cases, I was told by my predecessors, in various ways, that “nothing could be done.”  In all three cases, we proved them wrong, especially here in our cathedral where we grew from 100 elderly members to over 2,000 members, in less than 14 years!

In all three cases, I saw these parishes as “spiritual banquet halls” waiting to be filled with invited guests, as today’s parable of the Wedding Feast puts it! In fact, this parable has guided my ministry for many years. Moreover, I have come to believe that any dying parish could come to life by modeling itself after this parable.

I noticed several things about this parable. (1) The first thing I noticed was that something very special was going on: it was the wedding of the king’s son! The first step in filling an empty church is to convince parishioners that what they have to offer is a “pearl of great price,” something rare, good and beautiful, something people would be honored to share in! That’s why preaching is the “vital” in revitalization.  Any preaching worth its salt is “good news” about God’s unconditional love for all of us. Its purpose is to inspire an enthusiastic response in people’s hearts.

 (2) The second thing I noticed about this parable is that the host not only has something wonderful to serve, he is prepared to serve it.  A crucial step in filling an empty church is to make sure that what you have to serve is ready to be served! An inviting church must also be a receiving church. We must be careful not to be accused of false advertising, as many half-baked revitalization efforts often are, or your next invitation will be shunned for sure. That’s why I don’t believe in those big parish advertising campaigns that usually end up being grandiose claims about a reality that does not exist. Most Catholics are already starving for spiritual food. If you really have it to offer, they will find you! Parish boundaries and diocesan lines mean nothing to them when the news gets out about a place that really nourishes the soul.

(3) The third thing I noticed about this parable is that those who were always invited to such affairs, refused to come. So that the banquet did not go to waste, the servants went out into the highways and byways, issuing invitations to anyone they came upon. The only way struggling parishes have a chance in hell of surviving beyond a hand to mouth existence and flourishing into the future, is to fill their half-empty “spiritual banquet halls” with hungry guests. Where do they come from? (a) There are over 14,000,000 non-practicing Catholics in the United States, an average of 600 per parish. Most parishes, already overwhelmed, are not paying much attention to them. I believe that many of our dying parishes could be revitalized by turning them into the “spiritual acute centers” of the diocese.

(b) The Roman Catholic Church has been bold in doing a lion’s share of work with the material needs of the poor, but it seems that it has become increasingly timid when it comes to sharing our faith with them in a direct way.  Could it be that we believe that our church, unlike a store-front “holiness church,” is too complicated for the poor and that they could not possibly find us attractive beyond our social service ministry? 

(c) What’s wrong with asking other parishes to loan struggling parishes a few parishioners for a couple of years? I had the idea years ago that, rather than close struggling parishes, we set up a “diocesan missionary program,” whereby up and coming parishes could share a few of their talented parishioners with struggling parishes until they get back on their feet. These “missionaries” would bring needed talent and resources to places that need to revitalize their missions: teachers, evangelists, musicians, whatever is needed. One of the basic things about Catholics is that they are supposed to be “inter-dependent.” What better way to challenge the parochialism that inflicts many of our parishes today?  

(d) So that nothing of the banquet went to waste, the servants invited the “good and bad alike.”  I have learned from my many years of experience that great numbers of marginal, disaffected and rejected Catholics respond enthusiastically to a serious invitation to come home, no matter how much or how often they have been hurt, if they are simply invited to sit at the table without condemnation. They don’t even expect the high ideals of the church to be changed. All they want is a safe place to bask in God’s unconditional love and a chance to turn their lives around without judgment. “The healthy do not need the doctor, sick people do!”  If the church is truly “catholic,” “universal and inclusive,” our “mother and teacher,” we can always come home to “mother,” can’t we? Prodigal children still want to come home! Let’s leave the porch and go out to invite them.


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