There has been a lot of talk over the last couple of decades of the so-called “new evangelization”. From my perspective, I haven’t seen much evangelization at the local parish or even group level anywhere. There hasn’t been much evangelization, either “new” or old time, for that matter. Lots of talk and no action, for the most part.
And yet, evangelization is one of the main reasons – if not the main reason – that the Catholic Church exists. Today in the West, local parishes are shutting down. In fact, of the ones that trudge along, it’s all about keeping the furnace going or paying the electricity bill. For the Basilicas and Cathedrals, especially in dying areas, it’s all about selling tickets as a tourist attraction. We’ve become a museum piece, as Pope Benedict once quipped. To say that we have lost our way is a major understatement. I told the guys in the Legion at the start of our group that evangelization is not just a pious option, it’s a matter of survival. We simply will not survive as a potent religion if we don’t spread our Faith.
The challenges and opportunities today are vastly different than they were 50 years ago. We are not dealing with anti-Catholic protestants. We are largely dealing with fallen-away Catholics, and people who know little about Christianity or the Catholic Faith. We have a different challenge that, in some ways, is easier than times past. There is a great hunger for spiritual truths, and all of us have to take concerted, specific, and deliberate efforts to make it happen. It’s not good enough to let someone else do it, or have just a good, fuzzy feeling about evangelization. Uh….who’s gonna get in the car and hit the pavement and do it? Warm fuzzies doesn’t do the trick, sorry to say. Nor does sitting behind a computer. That’s not going to cut it either…at least not totally. We need to get personal and press the flesh – in your face with a smile kind of evangelism. Each one of us needs to step out of our comfort zone and get uncomfortable, be vulnerable, and yes, even look like a fool and idiot at times. Step out into the peripheries, as Pope Francis says. That is the cost of furthering the Gospel. We have to start at Square 1 and build from there.
My good friend, Fr. Anthony Hannon, who pastors St. Catherine of Sienna parish in Metcalfe started something rather bold a number of years ago at the rural fair in his Community. He purchased a booth at the Metcalfe Fair, and started doing evangelization. When things didn’t work out the way he had planned along the more conventional approach to evangelization, he rolled with the punches and got smart. He invited the Queenship of Mary and put them as the first point of contact, setup a popcorn machine and started getting different results.
I was impressed with this strategy. Fr. Anthony happened to mention to me that the Sisters needed a popcorn machine maker for this year’s event. So the Legion bought one for them, organized a rotation to help them out, and do some reconnaissance to find out what works and what does not in evangelizing people. Catholics don’t do evangelization, do we?. That might have been the reality in the past, but we cannot afford for this to be the reality going forward. We need to learn “real fast”, as the saying goes. In my first encounter this year, I must admit being somewhat awkward, but I brought my wife and kids out to help ease into it. They had some fun on the rides and experienced a rural fair, and they also got a chance to engage and to make evangelization part of normal life. Sometimes, it was a smile and simply passing out popcorn; other times giving out a pamphlet or rosary; other times engaging in an invitation to learn more about the Catholic faith in a follow-up session on the following Tuesday at the Church; other times engaging in a more substantive conversation. There weren’t any on-the-spot-conversions, but I noticed that lots of people are attracted to popcorn and religious sisters!
The latter is what fascinated me, in particular. I think it has a lot to do with their habits and their sense of purpose and meaning — something that is sorely lacking in today’s nihilistic culture. One group of teenagers has now been back four years to have a chat with Sr. Philomena. It’s about establishing relationships and building from there. Constancy, consistency, and the joy of Christ are the keys. Young people are looking for a challenge and a way of life that the world does not offer. The Church and her traditions can offer it. We just need to get out there and make it happen, and simply draw back the curtain and say, “Hey! We’ve got a lot to offer in here.” One young man who I had the opportunity to engage in came back a second time. When I asked him what he was looking for, he said he wasn’t sure. After a short conversation, I have him a booklet on how to be a man from a Catholic perspective. Maybe a seed was planted. Who knows? I also remember a group of young children who were all excited about the popcorn. Before giving them their bags, I asked them, “How many of you know that God loves you, raise your hand?” They all raised their hands. Here’s your popcorn, kiddies. Next year, we’ll take it one step further.
There is a risk of just stopping at popcorn evangelization without going further, but there’s a certain prudence in starting out light and soft and then moving in on harder subjects. It all depends on where the individual is at, and your discernment in probing deeper if they will let you. That’s something we will have to work on together as a group. There’s a skill to it and a discipline. It’s not some loosey-goosy exercise. I came away from the experience a bit wiser and with an idea or two of how to entice people into learning about the Faith. Popcorn evangelization is a phrase I like to use to describe an approach that brings down people’s barriers to the Christian Faith and gets them to consider the Catholic Faith in a natural and “safe” context. It works. And we need to grab a clue and work with it as a strategy. The account below is from one of our other Legionnaires who was present at the Fair.
I was at the Metcalfe Fair this afternoon, did some observing and helping. The flow of people was moderate but the free popcorn did help a lot in attracting people to the booth, kids especially. People were friendly and polite. I did try to talk to them but I’m poor at starting a conversation, so mostly it was just a “hi”, do you want some free popcorn. I did talk to a mother who “complained” about a priest who has not yet replied to her daughter’s letter. She said that her daughter wrote a letter to ask the priest something like, why spend thousand of dollars on a gold-plated monstrance? Wouldn’t it be better to spend that money to help the poor as Jesus taught in the Bible. I tried to explain and told her that It is kind of showing respect to God and in Jesus time the Jerusalem temple was also decorated with gold and expensive things but Jesus did not complain about that. Furthermore, the Church is still doing a lot of charity work, it is not like the Church just spend money on expensive stuff and not helping the poor. She seemed to feel better with my explanation and before she left I asked her to bring her daughter to the booth if she has more questions. I also said the priest should respond. Several people, especially kids were looking at the rosary, I tried to tell them what the rosary was about but I didn’t do a good job, I was ignorant and unprepared about the rosary. There were free pamphlets available on the table which talks about the rosary. I should have taken a look at all the pamphlets being displayed at the booth so that I could be more prepared to help when people show an interest in them. One last thing, the popcorn machine works in a cycle, it takes time to produce the popcorn and people are willing to wait and the waiting provide opportunities to engage them. Some people started talking and some looked at what were on display at the table but most of them just looked at the popcorn machine. It would be nice if we can add some slogans or catch-phrases, like “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”, promote some ministries/activities at the local church.