For the last 20 years or so, the Church has been heavily focused on the New Evangelization. There have been new ministries, new religious orders, new media, new programs, and new art all created for the purpose of bringing the Gospel and our Faith to the world as it is now. Decades into this project, it is time we start looking back and asking the question: how is it going? Tackling this question means taking an honest look at where we are at now, how we arrived at this point, and what we can do to positively impact the Church and her mission to the world.
Where we are (really)
In many ways, things seem like they are going well. There is incredible work being done through organizations like FOCUS, Word on Fire, The Augustine Institute, The Thomistic Institute, Lifeteen and many others. Recently Fr. Mike Schmitz’s Bible in a Year podcast spent weeks as the number one podcast on iTunes. There have been a lot of programs started to help parishes, whether it’s Amazing Parish, ReBuilt, or various rebranding and outreach initiatives. A lot of these types of projects are highly visible and serve as a draw to bring people into the Faith. However, when we look beyond these highlights, the raw numbers show a different story.
The truth is that we are still bleeding major numbers, particularly with young people. Despite the millions of dollars spent on youth ministry initiatives, 85% of young people will end up leaving the faith. The vocations crisis is still in it’s beginning stages with the worst of it yet to come. On top of that, after 20 years of sex abuse scandals followed by a global pandemic, parish donations are at an all time low. As a result, more and more parishes are closing and consolidating around the country as bishops everywhere are trying to figure out what to do. The parishes that remain are staffed by overworked priests and parish teams who have less time and less money than ever before.
So, how did this happen? How is it that despite so many great things happening through the New Evangelization, we are not seeing dramatically different results? While it is likely a number of factors, we believe that there is a glaring one that stands out: as we came up with new ideas to introduce people to Christ and our Faith, we forgot the Sacramental Life.
How we got here
One of the fundamental truths we believe is that while God’s grace is not bound by the Sacraments, it is bound to the Sacraments. Jesus Christ instituted the Sacraments, carried on by the Church, so that we would have a guaranteed source of grace and encounter with Christ himself. However, in the post-Vatican II Church and in the New Evangelization, there was a great realization that many who were receiving the Sacraments lacked a real personal relationship with Christ. Parishes were seen as “sacramental dispensaries” with parishioners who were “catechized but not evangelized” as the common turn of phrase goes. This led for there to be a great push and focus on helping people develop that personal relationship with Christ.
Many of the new ministries and programs focus on fostering a moment of encounter, whether it is intellectual, relational, or emotional, which is intended to lead to an “aha” spiritual moment of realization that one is a beloved child of God, who is known and loved personally by God, called to an intimate relationship with Christ. To be perfectly clear, this is an essential part of the Christian life. The problem, though, is that the pendulum of focus swung so far in the “personal relationship” direction that it became untethered from the Sacramental life. Instead, what has resulted is an entire industrialized evangelization complex built to help people encounter Christ through conferences, podcasts, programs and influencers. In short, we have built an industry out of people seeking the possibility of finding grace and meeting Christ outside of the Sacraments, and forgotten to also invite them to the guaranteed wellspring of grace and encounter which is the Sacramental Life. This has, in turn, created an unsustainable problem for parishes.
New programs and new ministries require time and money, both of which parishes don’t have. Parish secretaries and priests are now bombarded by salesmen promising the transformative, cure-all solution to their parish woes, which further wastes their time (and often their money). Some of these new programs may have some success, but likely it is only for a short time and with a relatively small group of people. Once the initial excitement wanes, the program fades and dies, and life goes back to normal until the next “big thing” arrives. In the end it leaves priests and parish staff burnt out, and often (sadly) cynical.
We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. It’s time for a change, and as any good coach knows, when your team is stuck in a rut, you go back to fundamentals.
What we can do
Canon Law is very clear on the reason parishes exist: to provide the Sacraments. The Church is clear on where we are guaranteed to encounter Christ and receive grace: the Sacraments. If we have reduced the Faith to a personal relationship with Christ apart from the Sacraments, we have not introduced people to the truth of our Faith.
The Catholic claim is that God created mankind to have an intimate personal relationship with Him, and through Christ established the Sacraments so that we have concrete markers of that relationship. Yes, it is possible to have a relationship and receive grace outside of those markers, but we know it is through those markers that we build and strengthen that relationship. This is not simply a “belief,” it is the vision of reality and what God intended that we hold as true as Catholics. Our personal relationship with God is essentially tied to the Sacramental Life. If we want to turn the tide in the Church, we have to recapture that vision of reality.
In order to make that happen, we need priests and parishes to be free to live out their fundamental calling and purpose. Instead of programs that tell priests and parishes what they are doing “wrong” and how to do it “right”, we must ask priests and parishes what they need in order to better administer the Sacraments. We need to create affordable tools that make parish and sacramental administration more time effective.
When priests and parish staff have less stress and more time, they are healthier, and healthier priests and staff tend to be holier priests and staff. With more time, priests and parish staff can be more present to their people and build meaningful relationships while forming each parishioner in their personal relationship with Christ through the Sacramental Life. With more time, priests and parish staff can have more space for prayer, rest, or get away for a retreat or a game of golf or whatever they need to do to be the best version of themselves as stewards of the Sacraments. With more money, priests and parishes can try out various programs and see which are truly effective in leading more people to Christ and a regular Sacramental Life.
It may not be as flashy as a new program, but we absolutely believe that turning the tide is about going back to basics: helping priests and parish staff be more present, build stronger relationships with parishioners, and helping each and every parishioner come to know Christ personally through the Sacraments. For our part, this is the only reason Pastoral Parish exists. We cannot transform your parish, we cannot transform you, but we can help you have 20% more time to be whatever you need to be and do whatever you need to do to walk with your people, and bring them to Christ through the Sacraments. It’s not rocket science, it may not even sound that exciting, but it’s what Christ and the Church instituted, and to us that sounds like a pretty good foundation for a truly new evangelization.