When Father Ryszard Gron, pastor of St. William Parish, asked Aida Rodriguez to be the parish’s evangelization lead, she wasn’t sure she was the right person for the job.
“At the beginning, I thought he needed someone more qualified. … I thought I wasn’t spiritual enough,” said Rodriguez, who has belonged to St. William, 2600 N. Sayre Ave., for about 10 years. Her two older children graduated from the school there; the two younger children are still enrolled.
Pastors themselves are often surprised by who they end up asking to become evangelization leads, said Elizabeth White, director of the archdiocese’s Office for Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship.
The role is a new one being created in parishes that have entered the “Building a New Reality” phase of the Renew My Church process. Evangelization leads are members of the parish’s core leadership team, the main point of contact with the Office for Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship, and they are charged with helping the pastor develop an evangelization plan, which will work to create a culture of evangelization in the parish.
Evangelization leads can be volunteers or staff members, White said, but when pastors suggest people who already volunteer for everything in the parish — and that’s what most pastors do — White suggests they think again.
What they need, White said, is someone who is a missionary disciple, comfortable with sharing their faith, and who can help build an evangelization team with members from all different groups in the parish, and with that team, help build a culture of evangelization in their community.
At a parish like St. William, with three language communities and a school, as well as several other parish groups, that’s a lot of outreach.
“Also the youth,” said Rodriguez, a research specialist by profession who is working toward a master’s degree in social work. “We wanted to make sure we had at least one person representing the youth.”
She and Gron invited 26 people to an initial meeting where they laid out what the evangelization team would do. That includes bringing the idea of evangelization back to their own parish groups, planting a seed about how everyone in a parish is an evangelizer. The team members also run the Alpha program in the parish.
Alpha is a 10-week program for anyone who wants to discuss and learn more about their faith, and it is designed to be welcoming for everyone, including those who have no experience of church, those who have left and active members of church groups.
The plan is for parish evangelization teams to run Alpha twice in their parishes before turning it over to other parishioners.
Melissa Howlett, the director of religious education and evangelization lead at Ss. Faith, Hope and Charity in Winnetka, said her team has found Alpha to be a rich and rewarding experience, but getting it started wasn’t easy.
Howlett, a school parent who was hired to lead the religious education office in July 2018, said she and her pastor identified about 20 people as possible members of the evangelization team, but several of them were unable to participate in Alpha because of other commitments they already had.
“I spent time teaching them about Alpha, explaining Alpha, doing all that, and then finding out they weren’t able to be part of the team, that kind of tripped me up,” said Howlett, who spent 13 years as an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County before changing careers. “I found it hard to sell it, not having experienced it myself. It’s one of those things you can’t really know until you do it.”
But once Alpha started, it made sense, she said. The evenings aren’t difficult or labor-intensive to set up, and parishioners are getting to know and appreciate one another on a whole new level.
“It’s been really great,” she said. “All the things they said about it are true: that it’s fun, that people enjoy the time together. Because you’re starting it with people in the parish, there are people who think, ‘Wow, I’m so advanced in my faith, this isn’t for me.’ But it’s a nice chance to go back and reset and connect on a more emotional level.”
Rodriguez, who also started with a list of more than two dozen people to invite to participate on the evangelization team, said St. William also ended up with a core team of about eight, and about 15 who have been attending Alpha sessions.
“I’m very optimistic,” Rodriguez said. “Even within myself, I feel that it’s changing my understanding and my relationship with Jesus Christ. For me, it has been eye-opening. Many people during the sessions comment on how different they feel. The whole group is opening up a little more and trusting each other.”
White said that her office suggests looking for people who are active in the parish, but not necessarily leaders of ministries or groups, to serve on the evangelization team. Rather, they should be people whom other people are drawn to, people who listen to others and make connections between people.
Evangelization team members should be joyful, loving, prayerful people who have encountered Jesus in their lives, she said.
“We say, it should be the person you’d want sitting next to your most adamantly atheist friend or most angry fallen-away Catholic at a dinner party,” White said.
The goal, Rodriguez said, is spreading that culture of evangelization through the whole parish.
“I think the test will be for people who have been involved in the church for a really long time and are used to doing things a certain way,” she said. “This requires more community involvement, so that everybody feels that they have something to contribute and that they are responsible for spreading the word, that evangelization is something for everyone.”
Representatives from parishes across the Archdiocese of Chicago got an example of what a warm welcome feels like when they attended the first session of the Office of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship’s Vitality Day: Hospitality and Welcoming.
When members of St. James Parish, 2907 S. Wabash Ave, attended the Renew My Church Summit in October 2018, they heard a lot of great things about how the church needs to have a culture of evangelization.
The renewal we are undergoing through Renew My Church is encouraging us to be creative and to sometimes use distinct words or phrases to capture a new concept or to provide a different way of looking at something otherwise familiar.