The efforts of ordinary people to spread the Gospel can have incredible effects in the world, Dr. Edward Sri told adults gathered at the SEEK 2023 conference Jan. 3.
Sri gave the example of Ven. Jan Tyranowski, a tailor living in Nazi-occupied Poland in the 1940s who saw a need to share the faith even in the midst of a difficult environment. So, he started small groups dedicated to training young people in the Catholic faith.
“Jan Tyranowski was just an ordinary layman. But he didn’t sit back and do nothing. He didn’t have training, but he just said, I’m going to do my best at evangelization,” said Sri, a theologian and author who now serves as vice president of formation at FOCUS and adjunct professor at the Augustine Institute.
One of Tyranowski’s small group members was a young Karol Wojtyla — the future St. John Paul II.
“If Jan Tyranowski didn’t rise up, if he didn’t live his baptismal call to evangelize — which every Catholic is called to do — if he didn’t do that, we may never have had John Paul II,” Sri said.
Sri’s talk kicked off the Making Missionary Disciples track of the five-day SEEK 2023 conference, which focused on practical ways for adults to evangelize in their parishes, homes and the greater community. About 450 parishioners from across the Archdiocese of St. Louis attended the Making Missionary Disciples track at the conference, joining about 3,000 others on the track from around the country. Session topics included ministry, prayer and divine intimacy, marriage and parenting, avoiding burnout, leading small groups and more.
Sharing your testimony
Parishioners from Holy Infant in Ballwin, St. Joseph in Cottleville, Assumption in south St. Louis County and St. John Paul II in Affton scootched their chairs close together in a circle for an afternoon small group “power session.” On the Making Missionary Disciples track, small groups of 6-10 people from the same parish, archdiocese or region came together in the afternoon to share takeaways and practice the skills they learned in the morning training sessions.
That morning, Karen Bromeier of Holy Infant and Josephine Frey of St. Joseph Cottleville learned how to effectively share a personal testimony in a session from Amber Ezeani, a former FOCUS missionary and host of “Becoming Love” podcast.
“Your testimony is simply sharing with others about your friendship with Jesus Christ and the influence He’s had on your life,” Ezeani said.
Although it might seem awkward, sharing your testimony can come naturally as you get to know someone, Bromeier explained to her small group.
“Maybe you’ve built a friendship, and they ask you why you live your life the way you do, and you can say, ‘This is why,’” Bromeier told them.
Briana Exline, a parishioner at Sacred Heart in Florissant, attended the conference with her 2-year-old daughter in tow. As a former sidewalk counselor with Coalition Life, she’s had some practice sharing her faith with people, but the testimony training helped her “hone in on the skills and how to make it short and simple,” she said. She learned to “try to keep the focus on Jesus and how He intentionally comes into our individual lives.”
A quote from the session will stick with Exline for a long time, she said: “Eternity is worth the awkwardness,” she repeated.
Accompaniment on the journey
Evangelization can be a “scary word” for many older Catholics, Elizabeth Cassmeyer said.
Cassmeyer, a parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary in south St. Louis, said she and many of her peers grew up thinking of it only as the kind of door-knocking more common in religions like Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Bringing that word, evangelization, back has been an eye-opener,” she said. Learning about intentionally sharing her faith with others in a relatable way was a highlight of the conference, she said.
“I have difficulty sharing my own story sometimes, but there is worth in that. I’ve always been one to think, if they see my life, hopefully they’ll understand, but sometimes you do have to share your story,” she said. “We have some people in (my small group) who do that very well, and it helps me be aware that that’s my area that I have to work on.”
Immaculate Heart of Mary pastoral associate Debbie Gartner was excited to attend the SEEK conference after going to the SEEK First preview event in October. “Being in a room full of people that were happy to be Catholic, that were proud and listening and excited — I thought, ‘I want to be around more of that type of energy,’” she said.
The talks on evangelization through accompaniment stood out to her, she said. In her parish, she recalled a young man who she knew was struggling with an addiction and had just recently started attending Mass. She made it a point to greet him whenever she saw him.
“He’s like, ‘You remembered my name?’” she said. “…Sometimes it’s just knowing how to love each other because God loves you.”
It’s providential that the SEEK conference was held in St. Louis this year as the archdiocese is in the midst of the the All Things New pastoral planning process, Gartner said.
“I think it’s perfect timing so we can stop concentrating on just the buildings and the changing boundaries and realize we’re doing this to talk about Jesus, to grow in our faith, to become a stronger Church,” she said. “Us coming now and saying, let’s learn how to share our love of Jesus — that’s where the Church can be growing in all of this.”
Jesus at the center
Ryan Carney, chief advancement officer for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul national office and parishioner at St. Justin Martyr in Sunset Hills, agrees that accompaniment is an essential part of evangelization. He sees that through the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
“We’re preaching the Gospel through our actions,” he said. “We enter into real relationships with the people we serve. And where God takes that, it can be in very unexpected and wonderful ways.”
Serving others opens a door to invite them into the faith, he said. “It can be, ‘Hey, if you’re not part of a faith community, or if you’re looking for a home, come to church with us.’ And there’s been amazing and unexpected fruit that comes from that,” he said. “But it starts with a loving relationship, responding to their needs, treating them with a great deal of dignity. They see something authentic in us, and then great things happen.”
While his own focus might be on his work at the St. Vincent de Paul Society, when he looked around the Dome at the 17,000 people gathered, he was struck by a simple truth: “It’s just remembering who’s at the center of all this, and it’s Jesus,” he said.
“We’re reminded that we’re all Catholics,” he said. “Some of us are called to different charisms. Some might be leading worship, some might be serving the poor, but that core message of Christ resonates with everybody.”
>> Sharing your testimony
A testimony is a short, personal story about a time you came to know Jesus or encountered Him in a significant way. All Catholics should be ready to share their testimony whenever the opportunity arises in conversation. These tips were shared by Amber Ezeani in her training session, “The Power of Your Testimony.”
Four parts of a testimony:
1. Life before Jesus. Don’t get into too many “gory details,” but explain what your life was like before your encounter.
2. Coming to know Jesus. Pick one moment and name specifically where you saw Jesus working in your life.
3. Life in Jesus. How was your life different after your encounter with Jesus?
4. Inviting others to know Jesus. After sharing your own story, ask the other person a simple question like, “How have you seen Jesus working in your life?”
Elements of a good testimony:
1. Concreteness. Be accurate in your details (don’t embellish with white lies), and be real and approachable.
2. Accessibility. Tell your story so that anyone can understand it. For example, don’t use technical theological terms that might be confusing.
3. Simplicity. Stick to a story you can tell in five minutes or less, and make sure the thread of the story is easy to follow.
Watch a video of Josephine Frey, a parishioner at St. Joseph in Cottleville, sharing a personal testimony at stlreview.com/3XkgNij
FOCUS speakers on missionary discipleship
>> Father Josh Johnson
Vocations director for the diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and host of the Ascension podcast “Ask Father Josh”
What does it mean to be a missionary disciple?
It means that we follow the Master, Jesus Christ, that we walk behind Him in His dust — that’s how close we are to Him, right? That we don’t just listen to His talks, but we study His life. We live with Jesus, we abide with Jesus, we remain in relationship with Jesus. And then because we are so proximate to Jesus, we imitate Jesus. The fruit of adoration is imitation.
What do priests need from the laity?
I think the first thing that priests need from the laity is for the laity to live in the world. There’s such a temptation to spend all their time in the church, especially after your encounters with God on retreats or conferences or events. Sometimes, they want to spend all their time in the church, but part of the lay vocation is to be in the world, to embrace the workplace environment in the secular world, and to be in your neighborhood.
Jesus gave us the Church as the body of Christ — I don’t have every gift. I have a number of laypeople who have way more gifts than I have. They’re way more talented and way more holy than I am. And through teamwork and collaboration with other disciples, religious sisters, laypeople and priests, we see a lot of supernatural fruit happen, because we’re embracing the body of Christ.
Advice for anyone who wants to live as a missionary disciple:
My number one piece of advice is to commit to prayer every single day. We need prayer like we need air. If we’re close to Jesus in prayer, everything else will flow from that.
>> Mike and Alicia Hernon
Founders of the Messy Family Project, parents of 10 children and five grandchildren
What does it mean for parents to be missionary disciples?
Alicia: When parents hear, ‘making missionary disciples,’ they immediately think, this is because I’m supposed to be making my child into a missionary disciple. And that’s certainly one of our goals in our lives. But it’s also parents being open to realizing that this vocation is going to change you, this is going to refine you, this is going to ask you for more self-sacrifice and make you more aware of your weaknesses and more aware of God’s grace than anything else you can do. The best way I can serve my children is to become wholly myself and to really lean into God and what He has for me right here, right now. My children need holy parents more than they need any formation program.
Advice for parents living as missionary disciples:
Mike: As Pope Francis says, the Catholic Church is a family of families. That’s how we renew (the Church). Too many times we want to make it something that is outside of our control, or something big, when it is the small stuff that we do in the home. It’s in making choices to choose my spouse over all others. It’s putting my kids first, putting the phone down to look at my kids to make sure they are known and loved.
I also want to emphasize that whether you’re a single parent, or you’re a married couple, you will never be sufficient for your kids — none of us are enough. Yes, we are called to do more, and not be complacent. We’re not called to have mediocre lives. We’re supposed to go to our very limits of giving of ourselves, but then we also have to count on God’s grace to fill in the gaps.
>> Hector Molina
Evangelist, former director of the Archdiocese of St. Louis Office of Evangelization and Discipleship and parishioner at Little Flower in Richmond Heights
What does it mean to be a missionary disciple in the Archdiocese of St. Louis?
To be a true disciple of Jesus Christ does not simply mean that we believe or follow Him or associate ourselves with Him; it means that we become His channel of grace, that we become missionaries into the world.
It’s all predicated on the encounter with Jesus Christ. I think that’s something that we don’t pay enough attention to. Looking at my years of experience working for the institutional Church, we kind of presume that that those who come to our parishes know Jesus. The fact of the matter is that a significant percentage of our Mass-goers, those who show up on Sunday, don’t truly know the person of Jesus Christ — they haven’t had an encounter with Him. The Church teaches us that the encounter with Jesus is the foundation of Catholicism. And I think that we need to recognize both as a Church and even individually, that we have to ask the question, “Have I encountered the person of Jesus Christ? Do I truly know Him?”
What are your hopes for evangelization in the Archdiocese of St. Louis?
It’s all about getting back to the basics. Part of what is going to catapult us into the deeper waters of evangelization is if we can recognize that the mission of the Church is evangelization and the salvation of souls. If we can harness all the energy, and all the enthusiasm of the entire people of God, toward that goal, then we are going to reap tremendous fruit.