I have often thought of my parish Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary as an end point for seekers—a “Finder’s religion.” It has everything I searched long and hard for over many years: beautiful worship; wonderful priests and a bishop who believe what they pray and preach: great preaching and teaching; clergy open to the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, and a real community of believers—truly the Cheers of Churches where everybody knows your name. And! it is fully Catholic so I am at home in any Catholic Church anywhere in the world.
Why aren’t people lining up around the corner to get in?
As someone who had to try many other religions and places of worship while I was seeking what I have contentedly found, I have often wondered how Annunciation would have affected me at earlier stages in my search. Would I have run away in horror at the all male priesthood? How would the reciting together of set prayers have affected me? As a bunch of rote praying similar to spinning a Tibetan Prayer Wheel and as efficacious? How would I have reacted to being told, “No, sorry, you can’t receive Holy Communion because . . .” How would the unpolitical-correctness of it all have struck me say 30 years ago? I might have been repelled because I was not ready yet.
In a conversation with a board member the other day, we discussed outreach to non-Ordinariate members and he said the best thing to do is look at what type of people predominate in your area and gear your outreach to meet their needs. If it is in the South, maybe you are surrounded by Baptists—so what would appeal to them? If you are in the Boston area, maybe you are surrounded by lapsed Catholics—how do you reach out to them?
One group that is growing in size are those who say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” They do not feel the need to go to church or to belong but they pray from time to time, they believe in God, they believe in the supernatural, but their beliefs are all over the map, inconsistent and even contradictory. They certainly do not want to abide by any moral strictures handed down from some authority they do not accept.
Hey! That was me 35 years ago.
I would love to hear what your parish or community is doing to appeal to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd out there probably right within walking distance in your neighborhood.
Here are a few things we do in Ottawa.
On the first Sunday of the month we have choral Evensong with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, followed by a wine and cheese reception in the parish hall. Though Benediction may be a bit of the “deep end” to seekers, or those coming from a Protestant formation, it can be profoundly moving for people on many levels. We do not have a choir, so our congregation provides the “choral” part but it’s great for us to do Anglican plainsong for the Psalms and Anglican chant for the canticles. The wine and cheese afterwards is a great time to fellowship. This is a great event to invite people to who are unable to receive Communion.
The third Sunday of the month we reflect another side of Anglican patrimony by having Evening Prayer and a sermon, followed by a reception of either wine and cheese or tea and cookies. This is something that might appeal to those from a strong evangelical or Reformed background.
Every Saturday we have Mass at 9:00 a.m. followed by breakfast in the parish hall. This is a great Mass to bring people who have questions because usually both our priests are present and happy to do catechesis over “twigs and berries” as Father Carl Reid used to call our cereal offerings. It is a weekly time of fellowship and conversation that can also help the “spiritual but not religious” start to feel the bonds of religion despite themselves! Everyone is welcome at the table in our parish hall.
On the last Saturday of the month, we offer healing prayer at the altar rail. This is another opportunity for people to receive divine help for physical ailments and psychological distress.
Throughout the year, we have special dinners in the parish hall: Canadian Thanksgiving we serve a turkey and ham dinner with all the fixings; Epiphany we have a potluck feast after Mass; Shrove Tuesday we have a pancake supper; in the summer we have traditionally had a parish picnic. We always have room for more at these events and much more food than we can possibly eat, so these are great to invite friends and relatives to.
Once a year we partner with the Roman Catholic parish nearest us to do a Corpus Christi Mass and procession, followed by a potluck lunch. Last year the Nuncio to Canada led the procession; this year it will be our own Bishop Steven Lopes. We hold the Mass at St. George’s because our parish is too small to accommodate everyone, but the procession stops at several stations for prayer, including one at Annunciation. It is a beautiful event that goes through our neighborhood.
Many years a small group of us has gone out Christmas carolling and leaving flyers with the dates and times of special events and services over Christmas. People open their doors and listen to us, beaming, and even offer us money (which we never take). But the response in the neighborhood is lovely.
Prior to our coming into the Catholic Church, Annunciation ran several Alpha courses out of church basement. We would provide a pot luck meal—divvying among the parish members attending such things as main course; salad, dessert so there would be a fellowship time over supper; time together watching lectures on video by Nicky Gumbel; and a discussion period afterwards. We had some most interesting times and some conversions, including one man who got baptized at our church afterwards. While a lot of traditionalists like to disparage Alpha, I think highly of it as a refresher course on the basics of Christianity and a way to lead the “I’m spiritual but not religious” into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ if they do not already have one and to help deepen their conversion. Alpha has many types of courses now that I believe can be downloaded for free off the Internet. Many Catholic parishes in Canada anyway are using Alpha. The Catholic representative for Alpha Canada is Fr. James Mallon, author of Divine Renovation, a book that talks about the renewal of St. Benedict’s Parish in Halifax. He used Alpha courses to evangelize his parish, to get Catholics excited about being committed disciples. He also had small group ministries set up so those who had taken an Alpha course but were not ready for sacraments at Church could belong to “connect groups” and continue to be catechized.
One of our young men designed a card for us to pass out that folds to be the size of a business card. On it is our address, website url, a little drawing of our building, Sunday Mass time. Inside is a brief description of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, with a website url, and a line or two about Anglican patrimony in the Catholic Church. These are great to give to people who have questions.
There is more outreach done by our priests and by individuals in the parish, such as visiting the sick, participating on St. George’s social justice committee and in helping a Syrian refugee family, and so on.