This is one of those times of year when people who most weeks don’t go to church may find themselves in a pew. Maybe it’s part of a family visit. Maybe it’s tradition. Maybe it’s an itch in need of scratching. Or maybe it’s a desire — and one that could fuel civic renewal.
While the world seems somewhat obsessed with Washington, D.C., albeit for understandable reasons, with a mix of encouragement, concern, dread, outrage — and just about every other kind of emotion in between — we’re missing what a powerhouse a nation of parishes could be.
That’s what California businessman William E. Simon Jr. has set his focus on, with a group he’s founded called Parish Catalyst and with a book called Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive. Having surveyed 244 parishes, he’s in the business now of sharing what works.
“This is one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” Simon tells me. “It was Rick Warren who pointed this out to me, and he’s right: The local church is the greatest engine for good in history. It’s got the biggest distribution system. It’s got the longest track record. It’s got the most committed people. It’s better than any government, any bureaucracy, any agency. It’s been around for 2,000 years, and there’s no sign that it’s not going to be around for another 2,000 years. You can’t say that about any other entity.”
Focusing on the Catholic piece of the engine, Simon points out that there are roughly 80 million Catholics in the United States, about 80 percent of them affiliated with a parish. “About 64 million Catholics are affiliated somehow or another with a parish. So if only 10 percent of them are paying attention, that’s 6.4 million. If you could double that number, that’d be another 6.4 million. That’s a hell of an opportunity.” The highway to heaven affects not just the souls of individuals but potentially every aspect of American culture and life.
So how to renew and expand the reach of churches, whatever your religious persuasion? Instead of just dropping by for an hour or so on Good Friday or Easter, inquire about making church more a part of your life every Sunday and beyond. It should be more than just by trying to get there in time for a seat. Consider the different ministries or suggest one yourself. “Take small steps,” Simon advises. “Don’t be overwhelmed. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
For people already in a local church, he suggests considering the needs of already-existing services in the community around it. A soup kitchen? A shelter for them homeless? A hospital? Get people going out and volunteering. Or start a small group discussion on prayer during the week, perhaps reading the Bible, or organizing around tools that already exist, such as videos at Formed.org. Gather for Eucharistic adoration or some ministry, not just on Sunday.
And maybe especially at this time of year, when new people do naturally show up, heed the words of Pope Francis. “We need to remember that churches are field hospitals,” Simon says. “And when the wounded come in, your first question is: ‘Welcome. How can I help? How can I minister you? How can I help?’”
On a recent weekday afternoon I stopped by St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and watched the hundreds streaming through every minute. Some would join a line for confession, others would join the Mass in progress, others would pray. (There were selfies and map-checking, too.) And there were candles being lit. At another, more remote New York church days before, I found a “resist” business-card-size notice someone had left in the hymnal, drawing people to the current political situation. I wondered if the card-leaver realized that there’s a real opportunity to be a light instead of cursing the darkness, real or perceived, exaggerated or underplayed. People frequently go to church and light a candle. By staying a while and becoming part of a community of prayer and service, reinvigorating it by your presence and participation, you are a light, with a source in one much greater.
“Be active,” Simon says. “Be involved with the greatest engine for good in history.” And, he emphasizes, “God’s there, God’s love is there. Why wouldn’t you want to be involved in that?” And share it. Our nation’s church communities are home to some of the most powerful things in the world: faith, hope, and love. And couldn’t we use all of it that we can get these days?
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.