A small group of students at Truman State University didn't know they were spreading their faith until one day a friend told them she was already in the process of entering the Catholic Church because of them.
Joe Slama, a St. Louis University High School graduate who attends the Newman Center at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., told the story at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Assembly Oct. 21 at the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson led the discussion on spreading the joy of the Gospel in St. Louis and reinvigorating the Church's commitment to missionary discipleship.
The Catholic students' friend paid close attention when she heard them talk about their faith and that "was extremely powerful in her conversion," Slama said, noting that their enthusiasm about the Catholic Church and describing it as their home was contagious.
Oren Walter, a member of St. Richard Parish in Creve Coeur, said that taking part in the archdiocesan lay formation program gave him the strength to invite people who are unchurched to parish events such as fish fries, barbecues and picnics, making them feel welcome. Oren is among parishioners working with their pastor, Father John Seper, on becoming more of an outreach and welcoming parish.
Walter said evangelists have to counter media reports that portray the Church in a poor light and a perception by people that an invitation to attend church is just a way to increase contributions. "You're going to church to get the love of Christ," Walter said. "People need to feel they're welcome just because they're a person, and the only way to get to know people is to talk to them and grow in a relationship."
Slama and Walter were among people from more than 90 parishes in the archdiocese who registered for the event. They brought their joy for their faith and desire to spread the faith, even though they were spending a nice fall Saturday afternoon indoors.
Nancy Werner, chancellor of the archdiocese, described the assembly as a time to get together with "grassroots cooperation and overall collaboration" to set a path for moving forward. She explained that this summer leaders from the archdiocese attended an unprecedented gathering of diverse leaders from dioceses and Catholic organizations from across the country. Held in July, the "Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America," aimed to form missionary disciples, to invigorate the Church and to engage the culture.
The convocation and assembly took their cue from Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel." Werner cited several passages, including the pope's hope that "all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion, which cannot leave things as they presently are. 'Mere administration' can no longer be enough. Throughout the world, let us be 'permanently in a state of mission.'"
John Schwob of the archdiocesan Office of Pastoral Planning set the stage by providing statistics on a "constant state of mission" that exists in the archdiocese.
He pointed to a Catholic presence and impact on the St. Louis region that is far greater than the number of Catholics. It's "an incredible opportunity," he said, "yet we have challenges."
The Catholic Church in the St. Louis Archdiocese was established by many immigrants, becoming a melting pot, or as a parishioner at the meeting called it, "a stew" of people bringing their many cultural gifts. Today, Latinos are becoming a significant part of the Catholic Church in America, Schwob said. They and other recent immigrants are just one part of that mission field here, he added.
Baptisms and Catholic marriages in the archdiocese have declined. A third of children who have been baptized are not in a Catholic school or Parish School of Religion five years later, he said, and two-thirds of Catholic high school students are not receiving formal catechesis.
The Catholic Church does not have a history of welcoming African Americans, he said, and he urged parishes to invite people of all cultures to parish activities and to Mass.
Other talks were on "The Radical Call to Missionary Discipleship," "Going to the Peripheries" and "Evangelizers Equipped for Excellence."
Carol Wilmes, campus minister at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, cited examples of students inspired by the ministry. "Once you fall in love with Jesus Christ you can't help but be joyful," she said.
Another speaker, Brian Miller, executive director of Catholic Youth Apostolate of the archdiocese, said missionary discipleship is personal. "It starts with us," he said.
Joseph Rutten, director of Benedictine Institute and assistant professor of theology at Mount Marty College, said parishioners can be "bridge builders" linking people on the peripheries to the faith. He urged people to be "strong storytellers about their faith."
LAMP, a Catholic Charities agency, provided interpretation services in Spanish at the assembly.
>> opportunities to evangelize
Advice from Pope Francis and others
• Be fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit
• Recover and deepen your enthusiasm for your faith
• Be happy and encouraging
• Show love and allow people to ask questions
• Talk about your faith
• Help keep Catholic schools open and affordable
• Contact Micahel Horn, evangelization coordinator, at (314) 792-7178 or [email protected] or visit archstl.org/evangelization
"Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey His call that we go forth from our comfort zone in order to reach all the 'peripheries' in need of the light of the Gospel."
Pope Francis, "The Joy of the Gospel"
In discussing the need to go to the peripheries, Javier Orozco, executive director of intercultural and interreligious affairs for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, offered a blueprint.
• Be the bridges to others
• Begin with your own faith
• Go out broadly and confidently
• Encounter everyone without fear or prejudice
• Engage others with generous dialogue and grace
• Accompany one another's stories with respect and humility