By Celine Klosterman
In hopes of helping parishioners embrace their call to evangelize, energizing parish life and welcoming lapsed Catholics back into the fold, parishes in Burlington and West Burlington have hired a coordinator of evangelization and renewal.
Ruth Skeens, a member of Ss. John & Paul Parish in Burlington, started work Aug. 1. Her position is the first of its kind for Ss. John & Paul and Ss. Mary & Patrick Parish in West Burlington, which have a total of about 1,700 families.
“I have a great love for the Church and would like to see it continue to grow,” Skeens said.
She’ll encourage that growth by developing an evangelization team, coordinating the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and leading adult faith formation programs at the two parishes.
Father Tony Herold, pastor of Ss. John & Paul Parish, said he hopes her efforts make parishioners more aware of their call to evangelize. “We tend to think of evangelization as a Protestant word, and it’s not,” he said. “It’s a very Catholic word. All of us are called to preach the Gospel by the quality of our lives.”
Skeens is just the person to lead Des Moines County Catholics in answering that call, said Fr. Herold and Father David Steinle, pastor of Ss. Mary & Patrick Parish. After a nationwide search, parish leaders chose her because of her enthusiasm, decades of experience consulting companies in leadership development, and her involvement in the Catholic Church at the diocesan and parish level. She co-chairs the Diocesan Planning Commission, has completed the Davenport Diocese’s Ministry Formation Program (Basic track), has taught religious education and helped lead parish activities such as Christian Experience Weekends and Bible studies.
“She is a very organized person, very astute in group dynamic work,” Fr. Steinle said.
“Her people skills are excellent,” Fr. Herold added.
Building relationships is the key to creating vibrant, engaged parishes — just as it’s key to strengthening businesses, Skeens told leaders of corporations in her former career. Though she said that career was rewarding, several years ago she began to feel called to do something different — such as serve full-time in Church ministry. As she prayed about her future, the opportunity to serve as coordinator of evangelization and renewal appeared.
“In my corporate work, I’d run into people who called themselves ‘recovering Catholics,’” she said. “I always thought that was extremely sad.” According to a 2008 report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a third of U.S. survey respondents who said they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic. That means 10 percent of Americans are former Catholics, the report stated.
In such numbers, Skeens sees opportunity. “For me, this is exciting because there’s fertile ground to make our Church culture more welcoming.”
One of her first priorities is training a team of Ss. Mary & Patrick and Ss. John & Paul parishioners who will work to further engage existing parishioners, reach out to inactive Catholics and evangelize to people of other faith backgrounds. Team members might form groups to minister to certain segments of the parishes’ population, offer programs inviting lapsed Catholics to return to the sacraments, hold ecumenical retreats, publicize the parishes at city events and increase social-outreach efforts to the community, she suggested.
“We need to communicate more effectively about who we are. There are a lot of misunderstandings about the Church … we’re one of the best-kept secrets when it comes to social action.”
In her ministry, Skeens plans to draw on Pope Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, “On Evangelization in the Modern World.” More recently, Pope Benedict XVI issued the apostolic letter Ubicumque et sempere, “Everywhere and Always,” by which he established the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. That fall 2010 letter inspired Fr. Herold and Fr. Steinle to consider how to better evangelize in Des Moines County, the priests said.
“It is the duty of the Church to proclaim always and everywhere the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote. “…Without doubt a mending of the Christian fabric of society is urgently needed in all parts of the world. But for this to come about what is needed is to first remake the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community itself present in these countries and nations.”
Skeens has faith in the Burlington and West Burlington ecclesial community’s potential. “I’ve been in this community for 16 years; I’ve seen a lot of passion. The Holy Spirit works miraculously.”
Faith central to Skeens since childhood
Growing up the Illinois towns of Nauvoo and later, Hamilton, Ruth was the fifth of eight siblings. When she was about 9, her parents stopped going to church, so she and her brothers and sisters began walking to Mass together, she said.
Her faith comforted her during a life-threatening bout with pneumonia around the same year. Terrified after being placed in an oxygen tent, she prayed the Lord’s Prayer over and over. “All of a sudden, a tremendous peace came over me,” she said. “I knew I was going to be OK.”
“My faith has always been a huge part of my life. I can’t imagine being without it.”