Rev. Carrozza is pastor of St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Yonkers, NY. This article was originally posted on fathercarrozza.com
As Christians, our “mission statement” is very clear: “Go out and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you, and know that I am with you always, even until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Any parish that is truly striving to be faithful to our call to be disciples and to have a missionary spirit, rather than simply being stuck in maintenance mode, struggles with the question of how to bring in people who have left the faith, as well as reach people who have never known Christ.
When we think of the people who have left, there are so many different ways we have tried to reach out to them. My experience, however, has convinced me that we’ve been addressing the symptoms and not the cause. As a priest, I’ve tried all the gimmicks that are touted with the promise that they will get people to come to Mass. Perhaps they work for a time, but none of them offers the permanent effect of faithful disciples.
I have come to realize that all of the things we’re trying to do to bring people back are simply addressing the symptom and not the cause. People are not staying away from church because they don’t like the music or because the priest is boring; those are the excuses they use. No, they are staying away because they don’t realize why we go to Mass in the first place and why they need to be there.
Most people don’t like to go to the doctor, but they go because they know it is important for them to do so. They don’t complain that they don’t like the music they play in the waiting room or that the doctor is boring and doesn’t tell jokes. If someone actually were to use that as an excuse for why they don’t go to the doctor, I doubt that anyone would tell doctors to learn good jokes and start playing different music in the office. Why, then, do we think this is the answer for how to bring people back to Mass?
I have come to believe very firmly that the only way we are going to get people to return faithfully is to get them to see that “I need a regular relationship with Jesus that I will find not by praying on my own at home, but that I will find when I come to church every Sunday to receive the Eucharist for the forgiveness of my sins, to unite myself with Christ in his suffering, death, and resurrection, and be strengthened by my fellow Christians as we journey together to follow Christ and be a community.”
We’ve had lots of wonderful programs that have attempted to provide precisely this, yet many of them, in my opinion, have failed.
I’ve used lots of retreat programs that had people giving personal witness talks about the power of Christ in their lives and the things he’s done for them, and they can be very powerful. The problem is that not everybody’s witness talk is appropriate, and some are questionable in their content or in their interpretation of what God actually did for them. Other times programs tend to become a clique. The people bind nicely to each other in the name of the program, but not in the parish and in the church, and it ends up creating a sub community of the parish rather than encouraging participants to be active members of the Church Universal. They tend to refer to each other as “my ‘Such-and-Such’ Program brothers and sisters”, but not “my fellow parishioners”, and certainly not, “my fellow Catholics.” Being members of the ministry program frequently becomes the end in itself to the exclusion of parishioners who are not part of the program. When this happens the program has failed in its stated purpose. It has brought people closer to each other but not together in Christ. They may strive to bring other people into the program, but it often becomes apparent that they are more interested in membership in the program rather than in the Church.
We started using ChristLife in 2015 and, like any other program, I was optimistic, but skeptical, because I’ve been down this path before. What pleases me about ChristLife is that the heart of the program is not personal witness by individual volunteers, but rather the videos that ChristLife provides. The videos are solid in their theology, but also touching. They have a way of communicating the need for Christ in his Church in a common sense manner that combines the beauty of being part of a community with an authentic encounter with Jesus. The programs do not turn in on themselves, having the people do merely a group huddle, but are founded firmly on Christ. Yes, there is certainly group sharing, and yes there is a great sense of community, but it is a community founded on Christ and not merely on membership in the group.
I am very happy with using ChristLife in our parish, and we are now planning to use it as our pre-catechumenate in hopes that people will experience the need for Christ and develop a desire to know and follow him before entering into the formal catechesis of the RCIA process. ChristLife is far less expensive than many of the programs that we have tried and the support from the ChristLife staff is fantastic. The people on the ChristLife staff see their work as a ministry and not merely an occupation. I strongly encourage the use of ChristLife in every parish, as I think it is the only program out there that truly addresses the real malady and doesn’t merely spend time putting Band-Aids on wounds.