The recent report on religious adherence by the Benedict XVI Centre for Society and Religion highlights the depressing fact that Catholics in this country are not very good at making converts, as I have mentioned before.
But this is not the case everywhere. There are some places, many places, where Catholics are making converts. According to a recent article from the United States, numerous conversions are taking place in the American South. The whole article is worth reading, but here is the key quotation:
At the Easter Vigil this year, thousands of converts across the South entered the Catholic Church. That translates to hundreds of new Catholics in the individual dioceses, and dozens in the local parishes.
At St Catherine of Siena Church in Kennesaw, Georgia, Vislocky, the parish RCIA director, said 25 people in her parish entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil.
“And we’re one of the smaller ones,” Vislocky said. “Last year, we had 30. When I was growing up in the North, it was like two or three a year.”
In the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Cardinal DiNardo estimated that about 2,200 to 2,300 catechumens and candidates have joined the Church at the Easter Vigil. Catholic News Service reported that it was thought to be the highest for any US diocese. The majority of those have been catechumens — people who were not previously baptised.
“We have a fascinating phenomenon going on in this area of the country,” Cardinal DiNardo said.
Bishop Hartmayer of Savannah said 450 people entered the Catholic Church in his diocese, while Bishop DiLorenzo of Richmond said 365 adults entered the Church at the Easter Vigil. In the Diocese of Knoxville, an average of more than 250 people every year become Catholic at the Easter Vigil.
“We have a growing, vibrant church, like the church in the Acts of the Apostles,” Bishop Stika said.
Randy Hain, a lay Catholic evangelist who grew up Baptist and converted to the Faith in 2006, told OSV that 36 people in his parish in Roswell, Georgia, entered the Church at the Easter Vigil. Every year, his parish sees anywhere between 35 to 40 people becoming Catholic.
All this makes deeply interesting and instructive reading for us Brits. I note that the majority of converts in Galveston-Houston are people not previously baptised – the one group that we here in England and Wales are not reaching in any great numbers.
All the parishes and diocese mentioned above have websites, which the curious can check out. The parish in Kennesaw, Georgia, has a mission statement: “Under the protective mantle of our Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Parishioners of St Catherine of Siena Catholic Church strive to follow the examples and teaching of her son Jesus Christ by engaging in the Holy Eucharist and actively living our Catholic faith through prayer, education, fellowship and works.”
They also have, in Ginger Vislocky, a full time head of RCIA. (Resources are important!) But to get back to that mission statement, if it reflects the facts on the ground, their parish has the following characteristics, which I will list for convenience.
• It is Marian.
• It is Christocentric.
• It is Eucharistic.
• It is not clericalist: all the parishioners are called to be involved.
• It emphasises prayer, education, fellowship and works – in that order.
Given that they are making converts, it is my guess that this mission statement reflects what the parishioners are actually doing, rather than just a paper statement. The mission statement of itself is clearly both deeply traditional and at the same time outward-looking and evangelical.
Too often the Catholic Church is characterised as “inward-looking”, with the implication that this is a bad thing. And it is. If you spend your time looking at yourself, you will make little progress. You need to look at Christ, you need to pray, you need to contemplate the Eucharist, you need to be devoted to the Blessed Virgin – all of these will cure your from being inward-looking and all will bear immense fruit. This is why prayer and education (learning about God) must come, causally and temporally, before fellowship and works. The transcendental element precedes the horizontal.
What is needed, it seems, to make converts, is a Copernican revolution. The Church in the American South may well be a good place to look for instruction. One notes their emphasis on language: in other words, in a place where many of your parishioners speak Spanish, you need to learn Spanish too. Yes, the immigrants can and should all learn English, but that is not the point. And in a place which is so culturally Protestant and Evangelical, you need to adopt the culture and speak its language: you need to become evangelical and as eager to talk about the Faith as your Protestant neighbours.
In other words, you need to learn, and adapt your way of being a parish – without, of course, compromising the content of the Faith. This, incidentally, is known as “inculturation”, and has born great fruit in Africa. As in Africa, so in the American South: running a parish is in fact running a mission. In this country parishes used to be called missions: we seem to have forgotten that.