This week, myself and four members of our parish family – Greg VanThiel, Dorene Schuster, Julie Rohan and Rodney Zahn – attended the Amazing Parish conference in Atlanta, GA, and based on a number of messages and emails that I received from parishioners, I know that a number of people were praying for safe travels and a successful conference. Your prayers were very appreciated and also quite helpful, because we learned early on that the devil was working against us … for so often I’ve witnessed, when something great is going to happen, something truly Holy, there will be forces that seek to distract us from that opportunity.
Well last Sunday night, we had set up a hotel room in Milwaukee so we could catch our early morning flight to Atalanta, just in case there should be bad weather. And bad weather there was – we awoke to plenty of snow as we departed for the airport, and after boarding our plan at the right time, 7 AM, we all got ready to depart as the pilot came on the intercom and announced we’d be on our way right on time, just after we get de-iced. About a half hour later, we heard the de-icing being applied to the outside of the plane, only to receive another announcement that, while we were waiting for the de-icing, they had shut down the runway to be cleared off. An hour or so later, they announced we could take off, but by now we had to be de-iced again. After another nearly hour, we thought we were on our way … only to have the runway shutdown again! Finally, after deboarding and reboarding the plane, we would be on our way, 6 hours late to depart. But we made it, thanks to your prayers, in time for the start of the conference!
The Amazing Parish conference is a new development in our church that has sought to examine why we, as a Catholic Church, continue to see declining involvement and engagement among parishioners, and to look at some churches that are doing well, especially those of the Evangelical and Non-Demoninational faiths. Basically, they’ve come up with three main areas in which churches that are growing are focusing on, and ways that we as a Catholic Church could be doing better – Leadership and Guidance, the Sunday experience, and Evangelization/Discipleship building.
Leadership and Guidance doesn’t just involve the pastor – it speaks to the ways in which churches seek to help to form good leaders, people who will emerge to the forefront in helping others to discover and best-use their gifts to develop the mission and vision of the church in their own community. Many of these churches focus on skills that God has put within them, and those that have been formed through education or work experiences.
The Sunday experience speaks to that which most of our parishioners have of church … for maybe 90% of parishioners or more, when they think of Holy Family Church, they think of 4 PM, 8 & 10 AM, the times of our Masses on the weekend. What happens Monday through Friday or the rest of the doesn’t impact them, so we look to how the celebration of the Mass and our experience of Church can best be formed. Most of what we do is guided by the church – maybe 60% is the form of the Bible readings, the Eucharistic Prayer, the opening an closing prayers of the Mass. But there are variables that are open to change … to ask if the music we have at church is leading us into the mystery that we celebrate, if we truly feel that we are praying when we sing (something that clearly many non-denominational churches are focusing upon very well). Secondly, think of a good Mass … when we say “That was a good Mass, Father!”, what are we really saying? We’re probably not judging the prayers said or the announcements … the Mass is usually judged on the homily … how it was prepared, how it was delivered, how it was received. Are there ways as a church that we can engage the homily process and make it more sanctifying, more uplifting in our Masses? What can priests learn from others to help them prepare better homilies? All of these things are points to consider in the homily or message process.
Finally, there is the aspect of Evangelization and Discipleship, and for that, this weekend’s Gospel reading presents the perfect platform for us to consider how we may work at this as a church community. We learn of a Samaritan woman, a person who has experienced the pains and difficulties of life all around her … we could say in a sense that she has been both owned and disowned by her community. Owned in that, as the Gospel relates to us, she has been passed around from husband to husband, almost perhaps treated as a piece of property or material good, and currently is with a man that is not her husband. She has been disowned by her community in the sense that, as the gospels relate to us, she had gone to the well at about noon.
This short little phrase tells us a lot about her … for the cistern, the well, was a place of community for those in the time of Christ. It was a place that, early in the morning, women of the community would rather before the heat of the day and gather the water that they would need for the days cooking, cleaning and washing. It was a place where stories were exchanged, lives were shared, and there was a true sense of community here at the well spring of life … in fact, with this sense, we could say that the well was not only a place to get the water needed for life, but the well was the place of community life as well. In the evening, they may gather there again, when the sun had gone down, to gather additional heavy jugs of water to take back home.
But this woman was not with the community … she was alone in the noontime of the day in the burden of the heat, isolated from others … whether they had cast her out, or she was hiding herself from others. How often sin does that in our lives, it alienates us or makes us retreat or turn inward on ourselves, whether its the sense of guilt and shame of our own sin, or the sin of others that causes us to hide. Maybe the other women of the town looked down upon her, maybe others were angry at her – regardless, she was not with them. Jesus, it tells us, had grown weary from his journey with his disciples … one could surmise that this woman was weary too … only weary from the burdens, guilt, and shame of her life.
But Jesus comes to her, and like a river that we see running through the fields and woods, hills and valleys, always meandering and turning in its searching, the stream of Divine Mercy is always moving, always seeking the destination it longs for, and here it finds the heart of a woman in need of love, of mercy, of being made whole.
How many around us, among our communities and our families, have come to the well of life alone? Maybe its the single mother struggling to feed, clothe, and provide shelter for her children all alone? Maybe its the homeless person, who through their own bad actions, poor choices of others, or difficult life circumstances who now relies upon others for their basic needs in life? Maybe its the separated or divorced son or daughter of ours who, in guilt or shame, never calls, never visits, never connects with the rest of the family. Could it be the person who we know whose life has fallen under the control of drugs and alcohol, slowly spiraling out of control into an addiction? Or maybe its the person whose skin is a different color, or speaks another language, the refugee or the immigrant who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the community that they have moved into? The woman at the well is in the people we meet each day.
And here begins the work of evangelization, the sharing of the Good News of salvation. Look to the Samaritan woman’s path – she is hungering, thirsting for something in life (perhaps its this hunger to be loved that she has sought to fill in the different relationships in her life), and she meets someone – in this case, Christ Himself. Her need for mercy is met with a conversation, and a relationship is formed with someone who does desire her the way that many others have … he desires her heart, her soul, her love. Together, they share their life stories, their common journeys. Next, there is the call to conversion, a deep inner desire for change, and this response becomes one of faith in the mercy that Christ offers us.
What does the woman do? She drops her jar at the well … perhaps a sign that she no longer needs it, perhaps a different sign that she intends to come back to the well to meet Christ again (something we seek to do in our lives of faithful prayer, day after day) … but she runs to tell others what she has experienced. “Guess what I just found? I have met the Messiah, He is here among us!” She can’t wait to boldly proclaim to her community the faith and mercy she has just experienced, and she can’t wait for others to have it too!
How often in our own lives do we have something that makes an impact on us, and we can’t wait to share it with others? Maybe its a new restaurant, or a new recipe that we’ve tried that we’ve loved – we tell others about it, we share it to our Facebook page, we write it down to give to others at family gatherings … all because we want them to have what we have had! We see a good movie, and we tell others about it so that they don’t miss out and they can have the same experience. Now let me ask you a question … When’s the last time you’ve done that about your church, or our own parish community? When’s the last time you couldn’t wait to tell someone you know, “You just have to come to Holy Family Parish … each weekend we receive Jesus’ Body and Blood, we receive mercy, we had such a beautiful celebration of the Mass!” How many times? When’s the last time?
This is part of what we have to examine to determine how we truly become an Amazing Parish, and how we carry out lives of discipleship, evangelizing others and sharing the Good News that “truly, this is the Savior of the World!”
Because Jesus didn’t meet the Samaritan woman in a church, in a temple, or in a synagogue … he met her where she was, at the worst of who she was, and into this life situation, he offered her what he had to give her … the gift of life giving water, the gift of faith. As a church, we’ve too often relied upon our church as sustaining itself in terms of children being raised in the faith, growing up and sharing the faith with their own children, and on and on, generation after generation. But that doesn’t work today – in fact, we know that only 1 in 20 people by the time they’ve reached age 24, even if they’ve received all the sacraments of initiation, including Confirmation, will still be practicing their own or any other faith. We will not grow our church simply by the waters of baptism, or by the life-giving Bread of the Eucharist, or even by having open doors to our church … we have to begin to meet people where they are at, in our homes, at the coffee shop, in our places of work, and share the Good News that has touched our lives!
One woman, whose life was touched by the gift of Divine Mercy, became a spark that welled up into a fire that spread rapidly throughout her entire community. It starts with one person, one soul, being touched by Christ, entering into relationship with Him, and sharing that message with others. To highlight this point, I want to share a visual experience of what we had at the conference … I ask one person in the church to stand up and touch three other people on the shoulder; then, when you’ve been touched on the shoulder, stand up and touch three others. We will have to cross the barriers of our pews to share the touch on the shoulder, something that we’re not accustomed to, something that will feel awkward … and crossing these barriers outside the church will be even more awkward, even more threatening … but we have to do it!
See how quickly one person, over time, can make a difference? See how we are talking, laughing, sharing, moving about? This is gospel joy, this is the Good News of our faith! This is our faith, this is the faith of our church, and we SHOULD be PROUD to proclaim it, in Christ our Lord!