Evangelization Brings New Members to Mission
In the four years since Glenmary missioners first called together a Catholic faith community in Erwin, Tenn., in 2011, St. Michael the Archangel mission has grown from about 35 to nearly 200 members. What accounts for such remarkable growth in an area like Unicoi County, where fewer than 1 percent of the population are Catholic?
Father Tom Charters, this diverse mission's founding pastor, says the major factor in its rapid development has been parishioners' inviting and welcoming of new people to their faith community. "From day one," he says, "I've told the people we are a mission, talked to them about what a mission is, and asked them to have a mission mindset—which means that as Christians, we always need to be reaching out to other people."
This evangelization is rooted in Jesus' missionary mandate to his disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), Father Tom points out, and it's part of the charism of Glenmary and all its missions. "It's an essential part of what we as Glenmary missioners have been called to do since Father Bishop founded our home mission society 76 years ago."
In Pope Francis' document The Joy of the Gospel, he calls for all people to have joy as they evangelize. Father Tom believes his mission members' joy is evident in their living out of the Gospel message—and that this joy is an essential part of their evangelization.
He says that if visitors arrive before Mass, they are welcomed graciously. Parishioners ask them who they are and where they are from. At announcement time, visitors are welcomed again and given a round of applause. They are also invited to stay and enjoy after-Mass refreshments, and they are often invited by parishioners to join them for lunch at a local restaurant.
If a visitor is from the local community, parishioners understand that a follow-up might be needed—not to pressure the person, but just to let that individual know he or she is welcome anytime.
One example of evangelization that Father Tom shares is the story of Mary and Larry. A couple of years ago, a parishioner named Terry told Father Tom about a Catholic woman named Mary who was not attending church. He and Terry visited Mary just to get acquainted, but said nothing about God or the Church except for the pastor's friendly invitation to come to Mass. Terry followed up for the next two years by just dropping off the mission's weekly bulletin to her.
Then one day a parishioner invited Mary, a gifted seamstress, to help with a mission sewing project. And she did—coming weekly, talking with other group members, and even staying for lunch. After several months, Mary showed up for Mass one Sunday, found the people welcoming, and has attended regularly ever since.
Her husband Larry, a non-Catholic, later began attending Mass too. The couple started bringing after-Mass refreshments and helping with clean-up work. After several months, Larry began going up the aisle at Communion time for a blessing. Now one or both are at church every Sunday. Mary is an active member, Larry has been very touched by the warm welcome, and he now wants to be baptized and become a Catholic. He began the RCIA process this past summer.
Larry, in turn, just recently invited his brother and sister-in-law to Mass and a parish picnic when they were visiting from out of town.
As Father Tom says, "One does not need to be a great preacher or talk religion. One only needs to be compassionate, caring and welcoming, letting others know that the Church is there for them when they are ready to come back, or enter into it, or be with the community."
Father Tom continues to set the tone, talks regularly to mission members and others about the importance of this outreach, has repeatedly complimented members on their efforts, and comments that their support for one another makes a great difference.
He also says that pastoral associate Kathy O'Brien "has been a key to the success of St. Michael's evangelization efforts" since she joined the mission's pastoral team in 2012. With her fluency in Spanish, Kathy has reached out to, invited, and built strong relationships with the local Latino community. In addition, she has started and shepherded the children's religious education program that has grown from 24 to 92 students. And she has established a dynamic, enthusiastic youth group that's grown from four members to nearly 30—a group which the Bishop of the Knoxville diocese considers a model for others.
"Youth group members have invited other youth to the group and to mission Masses," says Father Tom, who serves on the youth catechist team. "And the religious education program has often drawn whole families to the Church and mission."
Pope Francis has also written in The Joy of the Gospel that "a Church which ‘goes forth' is a Church whose doors are open." (paragraph 46)
Father Tom says he would paraphrase this quote in describing his Erwin mission community: "A mission which ‘goes forth' is a mission whose doors are open, and which is welcoming, inviting and filled with joy."
This article first appeared in the October Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.