Brother Practicing New (and Old) Evangelization

Posted: 4/3/2013

Glenmary Brother Craig DigmannFather Aaron Wessman, associate pastor of Glenmary’s missions in Maynardville and Rutledge, Tenn., wrote the following article after observing Brother Craig Digmann’s “uplifting” evangelization efforts in both mission areas.

It begins with a simple knock on the door. For the inactive Catholic who answers, it sometimes ends with a return to the faith. And for the active Catholic, it sometimes leads to joining the new mission in his or her own county instead of traveling to a church in another county.

For over a year now, Glenmary Brother Craig Digmann has been knocking on doors to extend an invitation to Catholics in two East Tennessee counties who had not joined Glenmary’s new missions there.

Brother Craig, Father Steve Pawelk and Brother Joe Steen arrived in the summer of 2011 to establish the first-ever Catholic presence and church communities in Union and Grainger counties. (I came in 2012 shortly after I was ordained.) The Glenmary team’s early efforts included inviting Catholics in these counties to attend organizational meetings—through letters and Father Steve’s brief end-of-Mass talk at the nearest church in each neighboring county.

Brother Craig later compiled a list of Catholics who had not responded, using a mailing list from the East Tennessee Catholic, the Knoxville diocesan newspaper. Then he charted a map and systematically began visiting each of these families or individuals in the hollers, mountains and valleys of the two counties.

“I simply knock on the door, introduce myself, and ask if they know there is a new Catholic church in their county,” says Brother Craig. “Then I find out about their history as Catholics, and if it seems appropriate, I invite them to join us for Mass or faith formation. I’ve learned how important a personal invitation can be.”

Brother Craig’s persistent work (he has visited over 70 homes) has resulted in a number of inactive Catholics joining their counties’ Glenmary missions, returning to the sacraments of the Church and deepening their relationship with Christ. In addition, a number of the active Catholics who were attending other churches in the region have now become members of the new missions.   

As one returning Catholic noted, “Brother Craig provided the gentle kick I needed to return to the Church.” And when Brother Craig knocks on doors of homebound Catholics, he tells them that if they can’t come to the church, the Church will come to them! Several are now receiving Communion at home from Glenmary team members and mission members.

Sandra Wolfe is one example of the Catholics in Union and Grainger counties who were attending Catholic churches in other counties. In May 2012, Brother Craig knocked on her door and invited her to Mass at the new Grainger County mission. Several months later, she decided to visit and then to join.

One factor was that the storefront mission church is more accessible for her on her walker. But her most important reason, she says, is the warm welcome she has received—and positive attitude she has experienced—from parishioners and Glenmarians.

“I hear from many of these new mission members,” says Brother Craig, “that they are drawn to our strong sense of community and like being part of helping a new church get started.”

For me and the other Glenmarians working alongside Brother Craig, each weekend is a time of anticipation. As we gather for our mission Masses, there’s no telling who will walk through the doors. His ministry always keeps things interesting and exciting!

In Glenmary’s early years, a missioner new to his rural, very non-Catholic county would often go house to house, knocking on doors to introduce himself as the new Catholic minister. Sometimes he was welcomed and spent time visiting with the people; other times he was asked to leave or had the door closed in his face. Occasionally, he’d encounter people interested in learning more about Catholicism.

The door-knocking tradition has continued throughout Glenmary’s history—although it has become less common as other forms of outreach have developed. But no matter the technique used, missioners find ways to let people know, as Glenmary founder Father Bishop instructed, that they are there to serve the material and spiritual needs of all those living in their mission counties—both Catholics and non-Catholics.

Brother Craig says he has been interweaving the door-knocking ministry with his many other responsibilities. He still has to visit about 25 more homes of Catholics on his list. But one of his next efforts will be to knock on doors of non-Catholic county residents.

In this Year of Faith, the Church invites us to consider the task of the New Evangelization. This ministry doesn’t necessarily mean just the discovery of new methods for spreading the Gospel; it can include the renewal of time-tested methods as well. And the most ancient form of spreading the Good News is the one being utilized by Brother Craig: caring outreach and an invitation from one person to another.

Keep knocking, Brother Craig!!