By Celine Klosterman
IOWA CITY — Building community is key to engaging people in their faith, Leisa Anslinger told about 45 Catholics Aug. 16 at St. Patrick Parish.
An author who served as a parish faith formation leader for years, she led the Diocese of Davenport’s 2013 August Gathering, “Building Bridges.” The workshop was designed to energize pastoral leaders for the coming year and explore how to bring Catholics closer to Christ and their parish.
She shared a story of an Ohio parish that faced problems including divisions between parents of Catholic school students and parents of public school students. Yet parishioners came together to help the family of a parish teenage girl who suffered a stroke-like episode. Supporters raised funds for the family and held a luminary in her honor, and hundreds of Catholics participated in a weekday Mass shortly after the tragedy. “We’d wish that kind of community for everyone,” Anslinger said.
Catholics who form such community call each other to holiness and self-giving love — and foster deeper parishioner engagement, she said. Research shows that engaged parishioners more often pray, forgive, take unpopular stands for their faith, give to charities and invite others — on average, six people a year — to a parish event or program, she said. Such invitations play a vital role in bringing people to the Church. “Belonging leads to believing,” not vice-versa, she said.
In Gospel stories involving the Samaritan woman at the well, Nicodemus and Jesus’ selection of his disciples, Christians see how personal encounters and relationships with Christ lead to belief in him.
Quoting Pope Francis, she said: “Christians who are afraid to build bridges and prefer to build walls are Christians who are not sure of their faith, not sure of Jesus Christ…. Build bridges and move forward.”
Parishioners can build bridges by working to grow in holiness, friendship, understanding of others and mission or service, Anslinger said.
Gallup research on U.S. churches shows that engaged parishioners make up about 16 percent of Catholics, she said. Forty-nine percent of Catholics are unengaged — coming to Mass, but not connecting it to the rest or their lives, or building relationships with fellow parishioners. Thirty-five percent of Catholics are actively disengaged — attending Mass perhaps only on holidays.
Many unengaged Catholics would accept a personal invitation to get involved, she said. Once they do so, their witness may inspire their actively disengaged family and friends to consider joining in.
“We have a real opportunity for evangelization,” Anslinger said. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, about 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics, while just 2.6 percent of the American population has become Catholic. And today’s young adults are less likely to affiliate with any denomination than previous generations of young adults.
When people come to church for the first time, they have four questions: 1) What do I get? 2) What do I give? 3) Do I belong? and 4) How can we grow?
Catholics need to know the expectations that come with parish membership, Anslinger said. After a survey of her Ohio parish showed parishioners weren’t sure what was expected of them, the pastor devoted part of his homily one weekend to explaining the requirements. His list included attending Mass weekly and taking advantage of parish opportunities for faith formation. “We need to have this kind of ‘family meeting’ occasionally,” she said.
She suggested pastoral leaders consider surveying their own parishes to discover how to better meet Catholics’ spiritual needs; a survey is available at www.catholiclifeand
In response to the question “What helps you grow spiritually?” one international focus group’s top response was “participation in Mass,” Anslinger said. Other popular responses included “daily prayer” and “good friends who share faith with me.”
“We experience the Mass differently when we feel rooted in our community. Then the liturgy transforms us and sends us back out to the community. It’s a dialogue.”
Listening to others, volunteering, holding gatherings with food and providing opportunities for faith sharing help build friendships, said August Gathering attendees.
Research has shown that belonging to a small group — such as the parish choir or Knights of Columbus council — positively impacts every other aspect of engagement, Anslinger said. But parishioners have just six weeks to engage new members before the newcomers drift away, she added.
Dan Teets, director of adult faith formation at St. Mary’s in Iowa City, said he appreciated her observations that individuals respond to personal invitations and that each person has a story to tell. “I liked the idea of saying that ‘There is always an open door here!’” To help welcome newcomers or returning Catholics, parishes can have “persons available from the RCIA team or people who know how the annulment process works, or update the faithful to handle the individual needs of those who reply to an invitation.”
Carol Laughlin, director of religious education at St. Mary’s in Pella, said she’s making a renewed effort to grow and invite others to grow as community. “Leisa’s whole concept of building bridges is something we often talk about, but I think the idea of taking holiness, friendship, understanding and mission and looking at them from the different perspectives was very good,” she said. “It is important that we not only look at where we are, but where we are striving to be and how we get there. She challenged us not only as individuals but as a community to connect what is working and let it lead to where we should be by building the bridge.”
For resources or more information, visit www.thepastoralcenter. com or www.csec.info.