The snow lies deep on the grounds of St. Paul Inside the Walls in Madison, N.J. Inside, Father Geno Sylva stirs the embers of a fading fire while addressing a group of parish evangelization directors. They have traveled from all over northern New Jersey to learn what too many Catholics have forgotten: how to make disciples.
These parish leaders and teachers have come to the Diocese of Paterson’s new Catholic Center for Evangelization. Named St. Paul Inside the Walls in reference to one of the great papal basilicas, the facility is rising from the ashes of the shuttered Bayley-Ellard High School. Once the premier Catholic prep school in northern New Jersey, Bayley-Ellard finally closed its doors in 2005 due to declining enrollment. Its 40-acre campus, complete with a gorgeous Colonial-Revival mansion and adjoining school building, was beginning its slide into ruin when Bishop Arthur Serratelli resurrected it as a new kind of education center.
“I had this idea long before I became a bishop,” says Bishop Serratelli, “to reach out to people whose professional lives have gone beyond what their religious training taught them, and to let them see how much the Church can offer them and the world.”
St. Paul Inside the Walls is the fruit of that vision, and Father Sylva is making it a reality. Bishop Serratelli chose Father Sylva, former head of DePaul Catholic High School in Wayne, N.J., for the job, and then sent him to Rome to complete a doctorate in dogmatic theology. To allow Father Sylva time to work on his doctorate without distraction, the bishop wouldn’t tell him what he had in mind, only hinting at a special project. During the priest’s final year in Rome, Bishop Serratelli revealed his plan.
As the bishop says, “From the Lord himself, we have the exciting mission of sharing the Gospel with others and of leading others to come to know the Lord in the mystery of the Church. As Pope Paul VI reminded us, ‘the Church exists to evangelize.’ The mission is the same as given to the apostles, but the way that we live out the mission changes to meet the needs of our day.”
Bishop Serratelli’s vision was to create a place that could be the hub for outreach to those who are not yet ready to come back to the Church. At the heart of St. Paul’s mission is a slate of 43 outreach and training programs.
Outreach programs range from simple hospitality and entertainment to more substantial courses. One room may host an open-mic night for youth from Farleigh-Dickenson University across the street, while another offers educational programs on Scripture and Tradition, the Virgin Mary in art or Catholic marriage. Support groups, ranging from Project Rachel to 12-step programs, also meet at St. Paul’s.
The new center has also taken over most of the training for the diocese. They don’t duplicate programs traditionally done at a parish level, but they do everything else. This includes ongoing education for the diaconate; training for people dealing with post-abortion trauma and end-of-life issues; and formation of leaders for catechetical, pre-Cana, music and other ministries. The core of its mission, however, is to train Catholics for evangelization.
As Bishop Serratelli explains, “St. Paul Inside the Walls begins a great adventure in the Diocese of Paterson to move beyond what parishes can do. In our outreach to doctors, business leaders, to catechists, to young adults, to grandparents and to so many other groups, we are opening the great treasure of our faith, both as teaching and as a personal relationship with the Lord. We want our people to have an appreciation and love of the Church and her wisdom that will serve them in living the Gospel in their professional and personal lives and in making others disciples of the Lord.”
Jean Pankow, a pastoral associate at Notre Dame of Mt. Carmel in Cedar Knolls, N.J., says that the new facility is “proving to be a valuable and needed blessing to the parishes of our diocese. The leadership and staff convey a zeal for the faith that is absolutely contagious. Monthly sessions have been a source of useful, real-world assistance in furthering the vital mission of evangelization at the parish level. Program content is a blend of instruction — with a special focus on the scriptural roots of our mandate to evangelize — and group discussion about what each of us has done, and are planning to do, to internalize and fuel this mission at our own parishes.”
An important part of their approach is found in the elegance of the campus itself, with a restoration funded wholly by donations. As Father Sylva points out, “The roots of our faith are about beauty driving us to the divine. It’s much easier in an environment of beauty to talk about heaven and hope.”
From the 500-year-old statue of St. Paul, carved by a student of Donatello, to a chapel decorated with fixtures salvaged from historic churches throughout the diocese, the entire facility is permeated with the beauty of the Catholic faith.
“Symbols have to speak to us,” Father Sylva continues. “We want those symbols to envelop people when they enter the building. Symbolism, art, music: They’ve always been instruments of evangelization throughout the history of the Roman Catholic Church. We’re not creating anything new: We’re using old mediums. When a young person has left the Catholic Church and is practicing in a gymnasium somewhere else, and they come back here and see the beauty, they can’t help but be drawn to the divine.”
Beneath that classical surface, however, hums state-of-the-art technology. Audio-visual, recording and Internet technology is incorporated throughout the entire facility. The chapel is equipped for live streaming to every room in the building, and even webcasting.
“The question is: How do we invite people to Christ in the most powerful way?” asks Father Sylva. “We need to do that creatively, in ways that are dynamic and take into account how Generation Y, and those who have left the Church, receive and process thoughts. We never change the story, but we want to share the story in a way that it can be heard and savored. Our litmus test is this: Are we increasing people’s hunger for the Eucharist?”
That hunger is the fruit of successful evangelization.
“Christ created the Church to evangelize,” concludes Father Sylva. “We don’t do it for utilitarian reasons or because of declining attendance. We do it because Christ told us to.”
Thomas L. McDonald prepares young people for confirmation in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.