SAN FRANCISCO — When Jehovah's Witnesses knock on the door or pass out literature, most Catholics get frustrated. But David Mees was inspired by them and decided that Catholics, too, should evangelize their neighbors.
“I got the idea for doing missions in the mall from the Jehovah's Witnesses, so I bought some materials from Catholic bookstores, filled out the appropriate paperwork at the mall and began giving away Catholic materials and rosaries,” said Mees, a parishioner at St. Mary's Church in Walnut Creek, Calif. — a suburb of San Francisco.
After working on his own for about a year, Mees joined forces with Youth for the Third Millennium, a Maryland-based apostolate that engages in door-to-door Catholic evangelization and is just getting started in the Bay Area.
Mees said he has seen the work he does deeply affect people's lives.
“There was this teen-age boy who got into trouble with the law,” Mees said, and “he noticed the table and came across and asked for prayers.
“What was touching,” Mees added, “was to see the look on his grandmother's face because [it was] Catholics [who] were doing this.”
In another instance, four teen-agers came over and one asked for information on the Catholic faith for his boss. Mees said the boy explained that his boss was constantly asking the young man questions such as, “Why do Catholics worship Mary?”
Mees gave the young man a tape by Scott Hahn — a prominent Protestant minister who converted to Catholicism — and various pamphlets from the organization Catholic Answers that would help the boy's foray into apologetics.
Recently the group has even taken its message from the malls in the suburbs to the streets of San Francisco.
The city's historic Union Square — surrounded by upscale department stores and restaurants — might seem like an unlikely place for Catholic missionaries, but this and other shopping areas are prime grounds for evangelization, according to Mees and others involved in Youth for the Third Millennium.
Youth for the Third Millennium members have not only set up tables with Catholic materials in Union Square but have also even gone door to door to spread the Gospel on the scenic streets of San Francisco. They give out Catholic Answers' booklet-form introduction to the Catholic faith, Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth, and copies of the Register, Mees said.
The missionaries — usually young lay people — receive basic catechetical instruction from a priest before setting out. They attend Mass and pray together as a group while they are together.
Michael Garibaldi, a youth minister at St. Luke Parish in Foster City, near San Francisco, found most people the missionaries encountered in Union Square were polite and many were supportive.
It was a low-key approach, he said, with people able to come up to the tables if they wished. The missionaries would ask people if they had any prayer intentions and, if they were Catholic, would encourage them to go to confession. Priests took turns awaiting penitents at the nearby Daughters of St. Paul bookstore.
“One man on the opposite side of the square made an obscene gesture, but that was it in terms of negative reaction,” Garibaldi said.
In April, Youth for the Third Millennium did a mission weekend at both the square and St. Finbar Church near San Francisco State University.
“We made some wonderful contacts, including a Protestant minister to whom we gave a Scott Hahn conversion tape,” said St. Finbar's pastor, Father Lawrence Goode. “People came out of Macy's to get rosaries as word got around.”
Door to Door
After manning the tables in Union Square, the Youth for the Third Millennium missionaries went door to door based on a list of parishioners provided by Father Goode. The parishioners on the list — mostly young people — were invited to come the next day to an event held in the parish hall after the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Finbar. Several dozen people showed up for the event, which featured a Christian rock band.
One house had a sign warning non-Catholic solicitors not to knock, he said. The missionaries decided this was a great place to visit even if it was not on the list. It turned out that a man in the household was very ill, but the parish had not been informed. As a result of the visit, Father Goode was able to give the man the sacraments before he died.
“The number of local mission coordinators has grown dramatically in the last year,” said Paul Bernetsky, executive director of Youth for the Third Millennium in Bethesda, Md.
Since July, Bernetsky said, there have been more than 90 Youth for the Third Millennium missions, some outside the United States, with more than 950 youth participants.
Garibaldi, who participated in the San Francisco mission, said he and many others view the missions as invaluable.
“It's important that people who understand their faith are out there and are at least planting seeds,” he said.
As for Father Goode, he said he sees a great deal of potential in the Youth for the Third Millennium missions in his area.
“I didn't know much about it before,” he said. “I'd be happy to do it again.”
He thinks future missions will be even more successful. And until the missionaries return to St. Finbar, according to Mees, they will continue to go to a mall at least once a month.
Andrew Walther is based in Los Angeles.