The notion of a Catholic church in the United States which evangelizes was not a common understanding for most Catholics in the past. From the days of the earliest Catholic settlers to the latter part of the twentieth century, the church grew primarily through immigration and birthrate. The church also added new members through the conversion of non-Catholics who became Catholic in order to marry in the church.
There was evangelization activity but it was referred to as “the missions” because it took place far away from the local parish. Catholic school children contributed their pennies, nickels and dimes to benefit “pagan babies” so that they had enough to eat. Catholic missionaries throughout the world were financially supported by parishioners through special collections. During the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, the church in the United States provided 25% of all the Catholic missionaries in foreign countries. Evangelization did not appear to be needed on the North American continent then.
The reliance on immigration and birthrates as the primary means of growth has now changed for most parishes in the United States, but not all. Parishes in the South and Southwestern United States are still growing due to immigration from Central and South America as well as Asia. Birthrates among these immigrant populations are greater than the national average birthrate, particularly among first-generation immigrants.
There are other factors which are influencing the need for an emphasis on evangelization efforts. Catholics are not automatically joining parishes and are leaving the parishes they have joined. Even though the numbers continue to grow, the decline is happening not in some organized movement but “one Catholic at a time.” Unfortunately, a growing number of Catholics do not see the church making a difference in their personal lives or on the world.
Most of the parishes around the country need to come to the realization that the “good old days” of organic growth are over and evangelization ministries must be designed which seek out and invite searching Catholics and new believers. These ministries need to be focused on reaching out to those who are on the peripheries of the parish community, those who are not members of the community, and those who can experience the love of Christ activity through the social ministries of the church. The guide for social ministries can be found in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy as well as in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25. The guiding principles for evangelization ministries must be rooted in a clear articulation and practice which witnesses to the difference the church can make in the world and the impact faith can make on individual lives.
The next blog will focus on some key ideas for effective and measurable evangelization activity flowing from parish data and demographic information.