Catholics should not regard evangelization as something scary or to be avoided, said Jonathan Lewis, the director of evangelization, youth and young adult initiatives for the Archdiocese of Washington. Rather, they should think of the call to evangelization as “sharing the story of God working in our lives,” he said.
On Nov. 5, 350 parish leaders from across the archdiocese learned how to share this story as they gathered at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring for an Evangelization Conference, featuring keynote speaker Sherry Weddell, author of Forming Intentional Disciples.
The conference, which was the first of its kind held in the archdiocese, was designed to further the mission of the Archdiocesan Synod to increase parish evangelization, and to continue thinking about how to go out to the peripheries after the visit of Pope Francis, said Susan Timoney, archdiocese’s secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns, as she opened the conference.
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout led Morning Prayer to begin the conference. He told the participants in the conference that they are the light and salt of the earth, with the light illuminating the world and the salt adding “the flavor of faith to the world around us.”
The archdiocese has hosted many smaller, regional evangelization meetings, but this was the first conference of this size.
Sherry Weddell spoke about the “Thresholds of Pre-Discipleship,” which are: initial trust, spiritual curiosity, spiritual openness, spiritual seeking and intentional discipleship. Each of these stages is a mini-conversion along a spiritual path, said Weddell, determined by where a person is in their lived relationship with God.
“Active Catholics tell me they didn’t even know it was possible to have a personal relationship with God,” Weddell said.
Weddell grew up as a fundamentalist Christian in Southern Mississippi before converting to Catholicism while she was in college. She said members of the Catholic Church think it is a nice, warm and friendly place, but for others it “may feel like throwing yourself into the Grand Canyon with no parachute.”
In order to overcome the skepticism that people like her feel about the Catholic Church, Weddell said bridges of trust need to be built, and “maybe you and I will be the bridge.”
“Pope Francis has an incredible gift of building bridges of trust,” Weddell said. “But it is going to be you and I who walk across the bridge” with people around us, she added.
Weddell emphasized the importance of listening to people’s stories in order to “know where they’ve been” and then journey with them.
Among the leaders gathered at the conference was a group of students from the University of Maryland’s Catholic Terps. Following Weddell’s first talk, the students discussed how to reach out to people who had gone to Catholic school but stopped going to Mass when they got to college.
“Evangelization on a college campus is pretty difficult,” said senior Katrina Haas, who noted that the University of Maryland is secular. “…It is really interesting to come to a conference to see how you can bring Christ into relationships with people.”
Following Weddell’s morning talk and a small-group discussion, Michael Owens, the coordinator of evangelization initiatives for the archdiocese, and Lewis spoke about the importance of “knowing and sharing the story of God in our life.”
“The goal isn’t simply to share our stories,” Lewis said. “…It’s moving to recognizing each of our stories is in the great story of Jesus.”
After their talk, parish leaders had the opportunity to reflect upon their own faith stories and share with the people sitting beside them.
“This event is a powerful message in terms of the amount of people here and parishes represented who are committed to evangelization, strengthening parishes and living out the mission God gave us,” Owens said.
Ashley Davis, the leader of RCIA at Holy Face Parish in Great Mills, said she liked seeing the different, diverse groups who had come together for the conference. Despite having different ethnicities or speaking different languages, “all of us are people who care about forming the Kingdom of God,” she said.
The afternoon of the conference focused on evangelization in parish life, with another talk given by Weddell and a panel about “the Sunday experience” with Msgr. Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish in Washington, and Deacon Dan Finn, who serves at St. Francis of Assisi in Derwood. Throughout the afternoon, people also had the opportunity to discuss practical ways to implement what they have learned at their parishes.
Rachel Anglade, who attended the conference with a group from Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac, has experienced the importance of parish evangelization firsthand as a recent convert to Catholicism. Anglade married a devout Catholic, and said she had been praying for him to convert to her Protestant faith. But one Sunday when she went with him to Mass at Our Lady of Mercy, the friendliness of the greeters at the parish began to open her mind to the Catholic faith.
“It was the first time I walked into a Catholic Church, and I felt welcome,” she said.
Soon afterward, she met with another woman who had converted to Catholicism, and eventually began the process of RCIA.
“It was nothing but the Holy Spirit that could have taken me from being anti-Catholic and wanting to protect my children” from Catholicism, Anglade said, to being what she described as “a super-Catholic.”
“I just did it to follow Jesus, which led me to believe that this is the best way possible to be close to Jesus,” she said.
Weddell encouraged the leaders to help parishioners encounter Christ and realize the gifts that He has given them. Too often, she said, the culture of a parish silences stories of personal faith and “can suppress spiritual growth of individuals.”
“Different parishes have different fruit, but there is always abundant fruit where there are disciples,” Weddell said.
Franciscan Father Erik Lopez, a priest at St. Camillus, was happy that his parish was hosting the conference, and said, “It is good to open the doors to brothers and sisters from all over the diocese.”
Father Lopez remembers when he had his conversion at 18 or 19, after reading a Bible he had found in a drawer in his grandmother’s house in Cuba. When he kept reading it, one of his friends warned him, “If you keep doing that, you are going to become one of them.”
Now he is a priest at a parish that has an active evangelization ministry that includes small communities and a yearly Kerygma retreat that people go door-by-door to invite people to.
“When we meet a person, we meet them at that moment in life,” Father Lopez said. “We don’t need the Summa (a book of theology written by St. Thomas Aquinas), we just need to listen, need to be human."