by: Donna Ottaviano-Britt

It is hard being an evangelizer in today’s post-Christian world. There are many reasons people have left God behind in pursuit of… what? Our call is to share the Gospel with everyone, and to help our sisters and brothers encounter Jesus in a deeply personal way, one that is life changing.

“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI in the Encyclical “Deus Caritas Est.” This quote carries so much weight — it is not an idea — it is an encounter.

Sharing the Gospel means talking about Jesus. Easier said than done, but it is literally our vocation regardless of our occupation.

Here are three parishes that reject the idea that evangelizing is too hard. They are bringing God to the people in a singular way, helping one another on this journey — a great example of parish collaboration and sharing.

Holy Eucharist (Cherry Hill), Christ the Redeemer (Atco) and Our Lady of Peace (Williamstown) parishes are creating a unique space for encounter through the ChristLife process for people in their parishes and surrounding communities.

Jim Scheiner of Holy Eucharist has been part of his parish initiative, inviting people to relationship with Christ through multiple iterations. A staunch advocate of the fruit it bears for participants, he is a wealth of knowledge. He belongs to the parish ChristLife team, and is point leader for the group who attended the Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in South Jersey in 2019.

“This process helped us prepare for the Convocation and the parish plan we created because we were centered on Christ,” Jim said. People’s lives are changed and new ministries have started. His own personal fruit are the friends he has made and belonging to a growing Christian community.

The ChristLife process has three phases for those on the journey: Discovering Christ, Following Christ and Sharing Christ.

Kathy Correa, a participant at Holy Eucharist, shared her experience. “I realized I was no longer alone and that God loved me. It gave me a family here (in New Jersey) that I did not have. I was in a group of girls that opened their lives to me, and they are now my friends.”

Since the Convocation, and because of Jim’s endorsement, the other two parishes decided to move forward and began in the fall of 2019. Jim was the mentor.

Donna LaMonica, the point leader of the Convocation team at Our Lady of Peace, knew people needed to get involved in their faith more. There are people that come to church every weekend, but they do not know Jesus, she said.

The pandemic did not make it any easier to help them encounter him, but technology helped them continue. “People are surprised to find Jesus as a close friend after this experience,” she said.

Father Cadmus Mazzarella, pastor at Our Lady of Peace, said rolling out ChristLife is directly related to the Convocation. He has been pastor for many years, and he said this is one of the best things the parish has ever done.

“It created personal connectedness for people. … It gave us seeds for planting, cultivating and harvesting.”

He encourages this discipleship process to his brother priests who are seeking new ways to engage their communities in developing a deeper relationship with Jesus.

Donna said she “made a deal with the Holy Spirit” in whom she has great trust. “I knew if Father Mazz was supportive, and the hall was available for every date needed for nearly a year, it was meant to be.”

At Christ the Redeemer, Laurie Power, director of evangelization and discipleship, said the parish was seeking a way forward to give people a chance for faith sharing. It was also a way of invitation for those away from the church. The focus was on parishioners first before a larger invitation.

Laurie and others visited Holy Eucharist. “We were very impressed with the team, and they are invested in what they are doing,” so the team in Atco moved forward to plan. 

Joe Bednar, another Convocation attendee, Grand Knight of Council 7463 and member of the planning team believes ChristLife can help bring Catholics back to the church.  Each step in the process is about knowing Christ. “As you go through it, it opens up your mind, your heart and your faith.”

Andrea Rybacki, a recent college graduate and participant, shared she was not thinking about her faith very much. Her mom invited her.

“Christ is at the center of my life now. I am not on my own,” she said.

Her advice to anyone who is invited — be open-minded and give yourself a chance to shift from self-reliance to reliance on God.

Another participant at Our Lady of Peace, Tricia Stefanelli, captures the experience in its essence. “Community is a huge part of what I was looking for. We all look for it, a place to belong, to be open and to faith journey. I met amazing people I would never have met without this experience,” she said.

This article was original posted in the Catholic Star Herald on June 24, 2021.