Evangelisers must embrace the qualities of courage, connectedness, urgency, and joy to combat growing secularism and revive parishes, the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, said on 1 September.
In Australia as a keynote speaker at the 2016 Proclaim conference on the new evangelisation, the cardinal told The Catholic Weekly that “the overwhelming reality of secularism” is the greatest challenge facing Catholic parishes.
“Parishioners live in this world, they’re immersed in this world of secular views, of politically-correct substitution for what used to be generally accepted moral norms. That is the challenge.
“How do we help our people understand what it is that Jesus is asking and then to build up the level of courage to be able to face that?”
Cardinal Wuerl, a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and a former relator-general of the 2012 World Synod of Bishops meeting on the New Evangelisation, said there are three Cs essential to renewing parish life: communication, consultation and collaboration.
Communication is crucial in undertaking anything new in the parish, from something as simple as reviewing sacramental preparation, he said.
“We all have to know, ‘What is the goal? What are we talking about?’”
Opening up channels of communication will invite feedback from the community, he said.
“Consultation is the response to your communication. You need both of those elements if you’re going to make progress.”
The final step is collaboration.
“We have to work together. In the consultation period, you arrive at the basis for collaboration.”
With this in mind, the cardinal introduced in Washington a parish self-assessment program called the Indicators for Vitality, to compile a report card for the archdiocese.
“It gives you practical way to take a look at the vitality of your parish in those fives areas: worship, education, service, community and stewardship or administration,” he said.
“This is a way to consciously, seriously look at parishes and say, ‘How well are we doing? Where do we need to do more? And is there anything else we should be thinking about?’”
The Indicators of Vitality program was distributed to the archdiocese’s 140 parishes, and also used to assess the archdiocese as a whole.
“We asked for people to take a lot at these indicators, and we got 15,000 responses,” he said.
“I had 200 people primarily lay people, and we began to sift through all those to hear what people had to say.”
Having opened up communication, the archdiocese took two years to consult with parishes, schools and agencies before implementing changes.
“After two years we got to the point where we were able to say, ‘We believe this is what we need to do to move into the future’.
“And the collaboration has been extremely responsive.”
Cardinal Wuerl said archdiocesan leaders were prepared for constructive feedback.
“We said we were just going to be open, as the pope told us, ‘Speak clearly, listen humbly, be open to the Holy Spirit’,” he said.
“We learned basically that the Church, at the parish level and as an archdiocese, was going in the right direction.
“It was a lot of fine-tuning, but we didn’t have any major problems to deal with.”
While Cardinal Weurl said his team had anticipated most of the problem areas – “you can’t be engaged in the oversight of a church and not know” – the most common complaint from parishioners was somewhat of a surprise.
“The number one issue was: can you help provide priests with what they need for better preaching,” he said.
“That’s understandable, because priests have to do so much. Homilies are one thing in the midst of all their other commitments.
“The challenge for a parish priest is that he is preaching on the same Gospel with great regularity to the same people, all the time. It’s difficult to make something fresh after many, many years.”
In response, the archdiocese provided priests with resources on constructing homilies and how to incorporate their own pastoral experience.
Despite the growing secularisation, Pope Francis leads by example in his call to evangelise, Cardinal Wuerl said.
“Pope Francis is the example of how significant the message can be when it is presented with clarity, simplicity and obviously great commitment and love,” he said.
“He is, I think, the quintessential evangelist.
“What we hear and see in him is what we imagine hearing and seeing in Christ.”
The Proclaim conference continues today at The Concourse, Chatswood.
Visit proclaimconference.com.au for more information or go to xt3.com to view a livestream of the conference.