I’ve been cleaning off the bookshelf in my parish office. A few weeks ago I noticed two brief, older volumes I must have picked up shortly after grad school. Authored by the Chicago archdiocesan priest Patrick J. Brennan, each is a quick easy read: paperback and under 200 pages. Each is out of print, I think. They describe early efforts (in the 1980’s) to revitalize Catholic life through evangelization and a more proactive approach to the Great Commission. Fr Brennan takes Evangelii Nuntiandi seriously. But it was also a time when many Catholics fretted about the word “evangelization.” I remember those discussions in my first parishes. “Evangelization” sounds too darned Protestant. Our people will misunderstand. Can we call it something different? Outreach? Re-Membering Church? What a difference a generation makes.
The first book, The Evangelizing Parish, from Tabor Publishing in 1987 was written by a priest for other priests. Or so it seemed to me. Fr Brennan has a snappy, no-nonsense writing style. He jumped from topic to topic. He offered a lot of forms he used, told a number of stories and anecdotes on how things worked for him. He wasn’t shy about mentioning things that he tried that worked for a few years, then didn’t. Or the occasional effort that bore no fruit.
The Evangelizing Parish progresses from a treatment of “What Is Catholic Evangelization?” in Chapter One. The foundation document is Evangelii Nuntiandi, and Fr Brennan explores succinctly what this might mean in a parish.
The largest chapter (forty pages) addresses “Evangelizing Active Parishioners.” There’s a lot to do, obviously–mainly getting people on board with leaving behind the “productivity” of parish programs and renewing the sense of turning Catholics into evangelizers in their workplace,s neighborhoods, and communities as they attend to greater personal depth in their own life in Christ.
Maybe Fr Brennan will disappoint some by this assessment:
The parish, like the larger Church, is a tool–a tool whose purpose it is to help make the Reignb of god more and more realized in time and space. The true focus … is the world, the marketplace, the neighborhoods, the mores of the nation, and the geopolitical climate of the world.
Honestly, I could set some people’s teeth a-gnashing by suggesting the same of the liturgy. But it would be true.
From here, the author tackles possibilities with “Inactive or Alienated Parishioners,” and then “Evangelizing Youth.” A very brief chapter on “The Catechumenal Parish” wraps it up by page 113.
The other book came out three years later, and while it doesn’t feature evangelization in the title, this effort is both the stated and unspoken theme throughout.
More than half the book considers “Base Communities” and looks at various manifestations of these in North America and around the world. In my parish we have about thirty “small groups” for students each semester. Many resident parishioners have similar structures that have held up well over the years.
Fr Brennan explains why these groups–between households and parish–are essential for faith development. There are lessons to be learned from the Americas and Africa. Notably, no examples from Europe.
From there, Fr Brennan turns attention to adult Catholics for twenty-plus pages. Then he addresses the family, including a brief chapter on “Family-Centered Evangelization and Catechesis.” All interesting stuff, peppered with real experiences: successes and a few failures and some things in-between.
It was illustrative to me what a good, thoughtful, and proactive pastor in the 80’s was doing. Long before the malaise of the later JP2 and B16 years set in. Before evangelization was “new.” When more people, it seemed, were taking Church documents more seriously than the distillation that became the catechism.
A bit of the lingo was cringe-worthy, but I have the perspective of another generation, I suppose. And while Fr Brennan was critical of “programmitis,” a lot of the efforts of the 70’s and 80’s were indeed … programs. On the other hand, I applaud the author’s insight that the catechumenate offers more than a liturgical structure for evangelization and initiation. It can become an effective model for renewing the baptized believers of a parish.
RENEW and other efforts gave parishes and small groups a helpful structure and model to follow. The problem was that many lay people, and a good number of parish professionals lacked the depth or insight to follow up with the published offerings. Catholicism is far too rich to allow people to just sit back and do nothing once their five, six, or ten semesters are completed.
Patrick Brennan was very successful in launching Holy Family Parish outside of Chicago and stemming the loss of Catholics to Willow Creek Church, a large, active, family-friendly evangelical church that was decimating the local Catholic churches at the time:
I attended mass there once many years ago and was blown away at the life and joy exhibited by the people of that parish! I had to pinch myself to be sure that I was in a Catholic church.
These books sounded really interesting, so I went to Amazon to check if they were still in print. They aren’t, but Fr. Brennan does have two other books in print, “The Mission Driven Parish” (Orbis Books, 2007) and “Re-Imagining Evangelization” (Crossroad Publishing, 1995). An excerpt from “The Mission Driven Parish” is available on Amazon–it’s refreshingly blunt!