Father Geno Sylva is a prime example of the “John Paul II Generation” of priests.
Young, culturally savvy and personally committed to the Church’s mission, he has worked for the past two years in an area close to the heart of Blessed John Paul II, a concern that has also been promoted by Pope Benedict XVI: the New Evangelization.
That concern will be coming more and more into focus this year, as Pope Benedict and the world’s bishops prepare for a synod meeting in October on the New Evangelization. During that month, the Pope will inaugurate a Year of Faith, beginning on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
Father Sylva, 44, holds the unusual title of episcopal vicar for evangelization for the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., and his home base is equally unusual — a renovated mansion on the grounds of a former private Catholic school that is now called St. Paul Inside the Walls. Each week, about 1,500 people come to the site for evening classes and informal gatherings designed to equip practicing Catholics with the skills they need to draw others to the faith and also to attract inquirers to ask questions in a non-church setting.
Register correspondent Brian Caulfield talked to Father Sylva about his mission and goals.
When did you first think about the priesthood?
I first thought about it when I was a little kid, mostly because the old priest in my parish in New Jersey was such a wonderful witness. He was simple and humble, but people would look at him and feel better, just by him coming into a room or saying a word. I thought that would be a cool way to live my life.
Then I went to Holy Cross College, and I thought my life was set. I loved playing on the lacrosse team, I wanted to fall in love, get married and take over my father’s business.
Then one day I get this call from a Sister Ann, who said she needed help with the religious-education program in a local parish. It turns out the classes were the same time of day as my lacrosse team workouts. I thought, No way, but I went to the parish in downtown Worcester and saw Sister with these 100 or so kids in the parking lot, and I knew this was my mission. I went to my coach and told him that I didn’t understand this, but I had to quit. I had something more important to do: to help this sister and these kids.
I went to the seminary, just really to get it out of my system, and then [would eventually] go off and propose to the young lady I had been dating in college. I woke up every morning asking God to tell me that this was the day he was not calling me. But the call became stronger and stronger.
Did your family encourage your vocation?
I come from a good Catholic family. We went to Mass every Sunday and said our prayers, nothing really pious beyond that. But once I told my parents this was what I wanted, they said, “Whatever God wants you to do, we will support.” Of course, they wanted grandchildren, but my sister and brother have taken care of that, both with five children.
Was Pope John Paul II a factor in your vocation?
Yes, without a doubt. As a seminarian, John Paul was a model for me — his strength and courage really impressed me. What inspired me so much is that he wasn’t afraid to wrestle and tackle the culture and politics of the day. He recognized that as a Church we have a responsibility to bring Christ into those public spheres. I would see him and think, That’s a leader you want to follow.
What is the New Evangelization, and how can the average Catholic get involved?
The New Evangelization is all about a new ardor, a new courage, a new precision in presenting the faith, in which we introduce people to Jesus Christ and the practice of the faith so that they see it anew, even if they think they know about the Church or have fallen away. We need to be creative and dynamic in the way we dialogue or witness to those who have stopped listening or have never heard the really Good News that Jesus Christ and his Church have for the people of today.
There are two levels. One is the formation and education of those who practice the faith, so they can be better witnesses and evangelizers in their own lives to those in their family, their neighborhood and their workplace. The other level is to reach out to the secular culture, to people who are away from the Church or who are seeking something better, and to put together arenas where they can feel comfortable coming to find something they are looking for.
That is why at St. Paul Inside the Walls we have formed groups of people with something in common, such as young financial people, lawyers, doctors, veterans, even grandparents. We meet them where they are and try to show them how Jesus Christ is the answer to the issues in their lives. They may not feel comfortable entering a church or going to Mass, at least not yet, but they are willing to come to this beautiful mansion where people welcome them for who they are, where they can find genuine fellowship and friendship. I am convinced that you cannot evangelize unless you really love the person. You have to see and love the humanity of the person you are bringing to Christ, because that is what Christ did here on earth. He saw everyone as they were, and he loved them and had compassion on them, and they were drawn to follow.
The dynamic at St. Paul Inside the Walls is that we foster an environment where people can experience anew and afresh the love of Christ, and then they go out and invite others. They want to let others experience what they have found. My dream and my goal is that after coming here for a while, they will see that practicing the faith is a great value, and they will continue to go deeper. The measure of success here is this: Are we increasing people’s hunger for the Eucharist? At the end of the day, we all have this deep yearning for a connection, a relationship that only God’s grace and the Eucharist can answer.
You had an exorcist from the Vatican speak recently. How did that go?
We had over 600 people come; we had to open the old gym and put out chairs for them all. It was a great night, and many good connections were made. After the talk I told everyone that they may have come to find out more about the nature of evil, and now they had the opportunity to experience the most powerful and effective way of overcoming evil in their own lives, through the sacrament of confession. I had invited many priests to hear confessions.
Recently we also had a discussion — “Why Is ‘Gay Marriage’ a Question?” — with Dr. Robert George and Helen Alvare and others. We also have started a night called “Wounded Catholics,” where we invite anyone who has been hurt by the Church in any way to come and talk, and we just listen. As a Church we need to hear how people have been hurt. There is also a group for grandparents, where we help grandparents learn ways to talk to their children who have left the faith and how to handle situations in which their grandchildren have not been baptized.
There is so much more we plan to do. We are converting the building next door to a 500-seat lecture hall. Once you have the understanding that evangelization, the sharing of this wonderful news of Jesus Christ and his Church, can take place in everyday life — at work, among neighbors, in families — then the possibilities for the New Evangelization are endless. I want all the world to have this truth of Christ, so that they can experience his love and truth, the beauty and goodness of God.
Register correspondent Brian Caulfield writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.