John Gallagher felt anxious as he set out on a rainy Sunday afternoon to knock on doors in Georgetown, inviting people to a barbecue and, hopefully, to Jesus Christ.
The 25-year-old had been in Catholic schools through college, has a priest brother and a deacon father, and is a member of a parish and a young Catholics professional group — his faith is his core, his identity. But talk to strangers about it?
That’s what the Vatican is asking Catholics to do — to take up evangelizing, to speak openly of one’s faith in order to spread it.
While such personal sharing has long been the province of, well, evangelical Protestants (among others, including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses), it means a paradigm shift for Catholics, whose spiritual lives have been largely centered inside the parish. But with Catholicism in the West facing major losses and what Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl — a Vatican point man on the new request — calls a “tsunami of secularism,” the church this year is pouring resources into a massive campaign dubbed “the new evangelization.”
Which is what brought Gallagher out in the rain this spring, a few weeks after the Rev. Adam Park at Epiphany Catholic Church laid out the challenge to his young congregation.
“You’re kind of like, ‘Ugh.’ It’s something you want to push off and let other people handle. Why be on the defensive if you can stay in your community where everyone nods their head and everyone goes home happy?” said Gallagher, a software developer who lives in Glover Park. “There’s an anxiety that accompanies putting yourself out there, especially with a topic such as religion. But once I realized: If God and my religion are important to me . . . I shouldn’t have any problem talking to other people about it.”
The campaign seeks to overhaul the concept of evangelization to something built for 2013, more subtle invitation then pushy dogma. In new church-created classes, lectures, conferences and iPhone apps, Catholics are asked to think of evangelization in terms of generous gestures, small comments and overcoming the fear of simply inviting someone to church.
The effort is global but heavily focused on Europe and the United States — places where Catholicism has lost the most ground. Ten percent of Americans are former Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center. From the Vatican down through bishops and then to priests, the church is telling Catholics — many for the first time — to find ways to evangelize, a word and concept with which many of them don’t identify.
“Catholics tended to be more private about faith” after they grew in stature and size in America. “There was this ‘we’ve kind of arrived’ comfort factor,’ ” said Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, a Catholic school in Front Royal. “We’ve been kind of resting on our laurels with these beautiful churches and traditions. But we are in a new situation now.”
The topics of God and the supernatural have become more delicatein an increasingly diverse and secular America. Tack onto that the very public dispute in the past couple of years between the Catholic Church and the Obama White House over mandatory birth control funding, and a prayerful comment at the water cooler can quickly get entangled in partisan politics.
Gallagher was among about 50 Epiphany congregants who hit the streets in April, hanging advertisement-like notes on door knobs. The wording was carefully considered — enticing but general: “Are you hungry for something?” It mentioned Epiphany — and an upcoming barbecue.
Then they followed up a few weeks later with a knock. “The reception was mixed. Some tolerated us, some were accepting,” Gallagher said.
Meanwhile he’s been making daily efforts. He’ll use a piece of religion news as a conversation starter, make a visible point of walking out of the room at the office when talk turns to a racy, drunken work party, or wear a suit from a morning prayer event to work so people might ask why he’s so dressed up.
Church leaders are deliberate when they talk about “the new evangelization,” a term first used by Pope John Paul II and made more specific by Pope Benedict XVI, who declared October 2012 through November 2013 a year for Catholics to re-educate themselves and plunge more deeply into church teachings and practices — particularly evangelizing.
Pope Francis used his weekly public address a few weeks ago to explain the campaign, saying Catholicism “does not grow by means of proselytizing” but “by attraction, by witnessing, by preaching.”
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Canadian priest who works with the Vatican’s press office, had a list of what the effort is not.
“It’s not a public relations campaign to bolster the troops. It’s not a whitewash. It’s not proselytizing nor some media strategy. It is a new way of telling the old story to people of today. It’s a bridge, an outreach; it’s a new lens, a new perspective,” Rosica said.
Rome is calling for all Catholics to respond, and while many have, church leaders don’t have data on how deeply the effort has penetrated. Responses have included families who start podcasts and programs, such as one run out of the St. Paul and Minneapolis diocese that posts videos of Catholics poring over issues such as the role of doubt and why Catholic teaching opposes in vitro fertilization. Church leaders say the typical church-going Catholic has heard the phrase “new evangelization” but might not have gone further than that.
Lisa Bowler has.
The 54-year-old health-care worker from Rockville is part of a close-knit spiritual community within Catholicism called the Neocatechumenal Way that calls for regular personal sharing in small groups. So she was accustomed to talking about how powerfully her life changed when she began really praying and feeling a loving God in her life after her marriage imploded.
But not to strangers. Still, her prayer group responded to the Vatican’s campaign by meeting near H Street NE on five consecutive Sundays after Easter, aiming to draw lots of public attention. The group of about 40 played drums and guitars and sang as they marched down the gentrifying city canyon, past hipsters in bars and old men dozing on benches and ending at a park where they set up a microphone and let loose to the crowd with intimate tales. They spoke of leading double lives in their marriage, of loneliness and other topics.
Most of the park regulars played chess, drank and seemed to ignore the evangelizers. But a few engaged, asking questions, picking arguments, shedding tears. Some people took seats in the chairs the group had set up.
Bowler spoke into the microphone about how prayer and spiritual community changed her outlook. She forgave her ex-husband and moved on.
“I consider myself to be pretty private and introverted, not outgoing. I don’t know if you ever get used to talking about your faith. For me to do so is to speak about my life and my experience, and sometimes it’s hard to do, right?” she said after. “But the very act of sharing how I met God and recalling how I was, how my life has changed — it’s a happy event. It’s a kind of cause for joy.”
Bowler says she’s working on opening more conversations at work and in her extended family.
“Before it was more: ‘Here’s the parish structure. If someone else wants to come in, fine, but we’re not going to come look for you.’ . . . But today, where are the people? Even though it’s more comfortable to keep to myself, it’s worth me getting outside my comfort zone to maybe bring a word of comfort, hope.”