Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
The streets of Lansing, Michigan, were filled with prayer and song on Sept. 22, as five thousand Catholics joined in a Eucharistic procession organized by the Diocese of Lansing. For four and a half miles, the faithful accompanied Christ, present in the monstrance – trekking from Lansing's St. Mary Cathedral, past the Michigan State Capitol, and onto the campus of Michigan State University. There, the marchers joined thousands of other worshippers in the Breslin Student Events Center, where Bishop Earl Boyea led a period of Eucharistic adoration – asking those present to pray for the healing of victims of sexual abuse by clerics, and for reparation for the sins of clerics who abused and the bishops who covered up. He asked for Christ to heal the Body of Christ.
Inside the sports arena, an all-diocesan Mass was concelebrated by Bishop Boyea and priests of the Diocese of Lansing, and simultaneously livestreamed and televised for the benefit of those who could not attend in person. The day culminated in a diocesan assembly titled “Made for Happiness,” featuring speakers including Father Mike Schmitz, Jennifer Fulwiler and Deacon Larry Oney.
MSU's Breslin Center has a capacity of 15,000. According to reports, more than 14,000 Catholics – approximately 22 percent of the churchgoing Catholic population in the ten-county Diocese of Lansing – were in the bleachers on Sept. 22. According to the diocese's own statistics, the “Made for Happiness” assembly was the largest gathering of the Catholic faithful in the more than 80-year history of the diocese.
Core Problem for the New Evangelization – Declining Mass Attendance
The Register talked recently with Craig Pohl, director of New Evangelization for the Diocese of Lansing and one of the emcees for the “Made for Happiness” assembly. Pohl explained that the assembly had been in the works for eight years – that in fact, this was the third assembly since 2010, when Bishop Boyea first called together a task force to address what he considered a core problem to the new evangelization: the decline in Mass attendance among Catholics. The bishop, acknowledging this disturbing national trend, expressed concern that his diocese didn't look any different from the rest of the nation.
The task force was charged with developing recommendations to reverse this downward trend. After a year, the task force submitted several proposals – among them, the hiring of a Director of Evangelization – and they urged Bishop Boyea to write a pastoral letter.
The task force also recommended that the diocese hold three assemblies: the first focused on ourselves; the second, on our closest loved ones, people with whom we have the most contact, who are already “gentiles” who have left the faith behind; and lastly, a third assembly intended to carry the gospel to the streets.
Step One: Our “Household of Faith”
On Holy Thursday 2012, Bishop Boyea issued a pastoral letter kicking off a Year of Prayer, and announcing plans to hold three assemblies. In 2014, the first assembly, titled “Household of Faith,” brought together parish staff, religious education and evangelization coordinators – “all those,” Craig Pohl explained, “who get a paycheck in ministry.” Pohl expected 400 people to register; to his surprise, more than 850 people signed up for the three-day event. It was, Pohl reported, a turning point in the diocese. “A miracle happened,” he told the Register. “The Holy Spirit lit our diocese on fire in a way that is still unexplainable. God visited us on those three days.”
Step Two: Reaching Out to the “Lost Sheep”
Two years later the second assembly, “Called by Name,” focused on how to reach the “lost sheep” – family members and loved ones who are no longer coming to church, but who are among the Called. Two thousand people – nearly 4 percent of the churchgoing body in the diocese – attended the two-day assembly to learn how to evangelize in their homes and families. Through small-group study in homes, intercessory teams, the Alpha course, Cursillos, Life in the Spirit seminars, the program has flourished and has created a welcoming environment for fallen-away Catholics who might want to return to the Faith.
Step Three: Court of the Gentiles – Taking the Gospel to the Streets
Finally, after another two years of preparation and prayer, the “Made for Happiness” assembly reached out to what Pohl called the “Court of the Gentiles.” Pohl explained that in the eyes of the world, the phrase “made for happiness” means “do what makes you happy” – but that Catholics understand it differently. It's important, when you go into the world to announce the Gospel, that you don't speak a foreign language to the people – and so the day was an immersion experience into the kerygma, the basic gospel message. Father Mike Schmitz spoke about the love of God, which is the first point of the kerygma.
An important message from the assembly was that we need to be in the world, and we need to be proclaiming the gospel. The planning team considered how best to achieve that goal, and decided to hold a eucharistic procession through the streets of the state capital, marching four miles while worshiping Christ present in the monstrance. The procession traveled the main street, with the state capital behind them, made a triumphant entry into the Breslin Arena. “It sounded like a gladiator had just entered the arena,” said Craig Pohl. “The entire arena erupted, rumbling. It was the bishop processing in with the Blessed Sacrament.”
Bishop Boyea then lay prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament, begging for mercy and praying over the sexual abuse crisis which has inflicted the Church. The eucharistic devotion ended with Benediction, after which attendees had lunch and were encouraged to visit the displays in the concourse.
Featured displays sought to communicate to everyday Catholics that we have something in our faith that science and the world cannot explain. The Shroud of Turin display, an explanation of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and 50 posters describing eucharistic miracles around the world all showed the inscrutable elements of faith, tangible things which science and the world cannot explain.
A number of highly regarded Catholic ministries were present in the concourse to provide further information to attendees, including EWTN, Renewal Ministries, the Augustine Institute, St. Paul Street Evangelization, and Ave Maria Radio.
The afternoon sessions expanded on the kerygma, with speakers covering the key points:
Fr. Mike Schmitz, director of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the diocese, explained that “God is love.” Deacon Larry Oney, a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of New Orleans and founder/president of Hope and Purpose Ministries, spoke on the second point of the kerygma: that we've been separated from God by sin. “You need to make a decision,” Deacon Coney said. “God can't do anything with you if you just go along with the crowd. You need to make a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ.”
Jennifer Fulwiler is a best-selling author, daily radio host on SiriusXM, frequent speaker and mother of six. Fulwiler is a convert from atheism, and spoke about the third point of the kerygma: Jesus can help us to grow in faith.
Bishop Boyea, in his homily during the closing liturgy, drew upon the writings of St. John Chrysostom. He reminded the faithful that the Christian life includes an imperative to spread the good news: If salt loses its flavor, can you call it salt? If a lamp does not shine, can you call it a lamp? If a Christian doesn't evangelize, can you call him a Christian?
A Challenge for the Road
“Made for Happiness” was a great day of worship and learning; but the Diocese didn't want conference attendees to go home and simply go on with their daily lives. Instead, they hoped that they would be inspired to learn, to witness, to continue on their faith journey. Attendees received a pocket bible including the four Gospels and Acts that had been published by the diocese, because they hadn't found what they were looking for among current published titles. The pocket bible was a basic proclamation of the Gospel in small pamphlet form, but offered a good pathway forward, answering the question of “What's next?” All received a copy of Matthew Kelly's book Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic, as well as a free subscription to Formed.org until Nov. 9. The diocese was planning to offer a diocesan-wide study of the 14-part Wild Goose series by Fr. Dave Pivonka, TOR, answering the question of “How do you listen to God?” and “How do you open your ears to Him, and respond?”
Finally, the Diocese of Lansing is once again embarking on a Year of Prayer. “We don't know how to answer the question of how to train disciples on parish grounds,” said Craig Pohl. “We feel that's where God is calling us next. This will last for the next thousand years.”