This was preached by a priest ordained almost one year, Fr. Brian Dolejsi, who teaches with the Institute (as you might gather from the content of his homily). He serves a cluster of parishes in South Tacoma.
A few years ago, I went hiking with two friends. Towards the end of the second day, our trail disappeared. We are all experienced hikers but our trail simply had not been maintained and so we were a little anxious. At this point, we had hiked many hours and miles that day and planned to return to our car that afternoon. The sun was starting to set and we thought we were almost there…what to do? We knew it would be difficult to stay another night not to mention there were people waiting for us at home. We could go down a different valley, far from our car but not sure where that would lead. We could go up, which we tried but there was an impassible crevasse on the other side. Our only option was to patiently retrace our steps for a little while in search of our trail. After a few minutes, we could see the continuation of our trail up a steep incline. We had to work hard but after several minutes of effort we blazed a new trail which led us to where we needed to go. Eventually, we made it to our car some three hours later in pitch black, happy for soft seats and a warm place.
This evening, we gather as a community of faith in south Tacoma. Where are we on our journey of faith as followers of Christ? Fundamentally why are we here as parishes? Are we to thrive or to fade out? Some might say, like me and my friends we have lost the trail, the path God has called us to. My friends and I could have stayed in the same place in fear, or we could have gone another more dangerous direction of our choosing either up or down but none of these options would have helped us attain our goal. Instead, we retraced our steps a little bit to get back to common and familiar ground, then we scanned the horizon for our destination and blazed a trail to get there.
I propose this evening that we now have the opportunity to do the same. We have the opportunity to look back to remember our identity and then to scan the horizon of our faith again to see where God is leading us, to final glory and the fulfillment of the kingdom of God here and now. The only way to get there is to blaze a new trail, by having hope, working hard and together and taking courage we are moving in the right direction.
I propose nothing less than a re-evangelization of south Tacoma through our parishes. This is the new trail we must blaze through the work of the Holy Spirit. We can accomplish this by shifting our paradigm, doing what we already do in an excellent way, and in creative new ministries.
First, we need to shift our paradigm of how we see ourselves. The only reason the church exists is to evangelize. We begin with evangelizing our own and then proclaiming the good news to the local community. In turn, our parishes are not to be seen as a hospital where people only come if they have problems to be solved. We are this for many; however, we are to be centers of evangelization where we form competent lay apostles able to respond to the various needs of the local community. The model of the parish as a house of lay formation proactively meets the needs of the local community. Instead of waiting for people to come to us, we move out into the world preaching the good news that we are redeemed, that God’s grace is at work in everyone’s life and can lead us to new life. In this area, we need to start with inviting back, indeed calling back those who have fallen away from regular participation in their parishes. These may be your family, friends, or co-workers, and it will take time but unless we invite we cannot expect a return. After this, we move to the larger community of those who have no experience of the church and the presence of the Risen Christ in their lives.
Secondly, we need to renew excellence in all of our ministries to accomplish our mission of re-evangelization. Many positive ministries are already taking place with many faithful people engaged in helping proclaim the message of Christ. What I am proposing is a thorough and prayerful reflection about the quality of each ministry in our parishes. Can they be improved? Are we accomplishing what we have set out to do? Can we do a better job of showing God’s love? Are we doing our ministry not just in an adequate way but in an excellent way? In our communities, perhaps more than most places in the Puget Sound, there are people hurting, lonely, lost, fearful, and in need of a place to call home. These needs stem from lack of jobs, drugs, depression, abusive relationships, discrimination and other injustices which infect our world. Yet, it is us, the people of God, who have a message of healing and grace to offer to all. Why should we not be the ones to offer these people a message of healing and grace? Indeed, we exist to do just this, to evangelize, to propose the faith, to invite, to be the risen Christ in the lives of others.
Thirdly, we are called to create new ministries. If what we are currently doing is not helping our church grow, then things need to change. We need to start with an honest evaluation of the place when we encounter 90% of our people, the weekend masses. We need to re-evaluate and do a better job of celebrating our Sunday liturgies in an excellent way. We should have a greeter and commentator at the beginning of each mass welcoming and educating the entire community before mass even begins. Our music, preaching, and liturgical ministries should be performed in the most excellent manner possible. There should be effective advertising of our parish services and opportunities for people to easily become engaged with us. We need to invest more time, energy and resources into making our Sunday liturgies consistent moments of evangelization. I also propose we take a new parish census. This would involve a systematic assessment of the local community in south Tacoma. This takes place with a series of phone calls to those already on our parish directory, thanking those that have remained engaged and welcoming those back that have fallen away from active participation. Following this, we can move out into the local community and go door to door if necessary and welcome Catholics back or at least make personal contact with our neighbors to let them know we are here as a resource for them.
No doubt this is a great deal of work but it must be supported by my other proposed new ministry. In order to strengthen and engage all parishioners, I propose a renewal of small faith sharing communities. Many of the most active and happy Catholics I have met in these parishes are the ones who are actively engaged in a ministry which on many levels functions as a smaller community within the larger parish, enabling a sense of place, support, and ongoing spiritual growth. We need to invite all members of the parish into similar types of groups, meditating upon the Gospel and living it in our lives in a spirit of prayer. I believe that a renewal of our Sunday liturgies, a parish census, and an increase in small Christian communities as a way for us to blaze a new trail of evangelization. These ministries will help us welcome all, proclaim the risen Christ in a tangible way, and give us all a new sense of mission as the baptized…and just maybe renew our own faith experience.
Many of you might be thinking…the new priest is full of unrealistic ideas…it can't be done. My question to you would be, why can’t we do it? Are we happy with our parishes right now? Sure, there are some good people and some ministries are functioning well, but could we do more to proclaim Christ? These are things I have prayed over…if you have other ideas, let’s hear them and bring them all before the Lord in prayer and ask God to show us the way and we will gladly follow.
Actually, I beg the Holy Spirit to show us this night, do you want these parishes to survive and thrive or not? If you don’t, if this is not your will, then give us the courage and patience to accept this and to find ways in which to fulfill our vocations. However, if by chance you do…then all of us gathered here this evening shows not only who we are but what we can be. If you do want us to thrive, then Holy Spirit blow through us this evening. Renew us again just as you did for the disciples, revealing to them the presence of the Risen Christ in the Church and giving them courage and wisdom to carry out your mission in the world as apostles. Holy Spirit, enliven our minds and hearts to know and love your goodness so that renewed in our love of you we may invite others into the wonders of your mystery.
Can we respond to the needs of our local community? YES. Can we form members of the community who can live out their baptismal call for their own benefit and benefit of others? YES. Can we inspire another generation of Catholics to live and love the faith? YES. Can we re-evangelize our community? YES. We can accomplish this mission - with the help of God alone. But this has been the experience of the Church throughout generations. Trusting in God’s grace, the mission continues. Indeed this process of re-evangelization will lead to your own perfection and growth in holiness as you fulfill again the mission Christ has given you through the use of our individual and common gifts of the Holy Spirit. This will not take place over night as we know, but if we are not moving towards this, blazing a new trail, if we do not have a goal as a cluster of parishes, as individual parishes, then we are lost. We trust that nothing is impossible for God, even bringing life from death and filling the people of God with grace when we say Amen!
Many would say that these parishes are like a smoldering fire. They once were great but now they are ashes, with only a few coals burning at the bottom. But what is in the coals simmering down below but an intense heat: the faithful that have remained true, that have been consistent in their love of God and the Church. And what do we do this evening is invite the Holy Spirit to come and breathe new life into these ashes…and, just like a real fire, have those smoldering embers catch blaze again and produce light, heat and goodness…to catch fire again, to be filled with the Holy Spirit and generate a blaze that will be seen for miles, all the miles of south Tacoma. A blaze of a new trail leading to our final destination, the proclamation and the building of the kingdom of God in the world and our own perfection in love. Veni Sancte Spiritus! Come Holy Spirit!