What 6 Bishops Say About Evangelization

“It begins when we are transformed ourselves, especially through the power of the Eucharist, into the image and likeness of Christ.” —Bishop Thomas Tobin

Giovanni Paolo Panini, “Ruins With St. Paul Preaching”, 1735
Giovanni Paolo Panini, “Ruins With St. Paul Preaching”, 1735 (photo: Public Domain)

Jesus commanded His disciples to “make disciples of all nations” [Matthew 28:19]; the bishops of today, their successors, have the same Great Commission. The following is a sampling thoughts on evangelization by some American bishops who head dioceses today.


Archbishop Robert Carlson (St. Louis)

A second priority of mine is evangelization [after Catholic education]. We were one of the first dioceses, for example, to bring in [Catholic speaker and author] Matthew Kelly to train evangelization teams for our parishes. We welcomed Catholics Come Home [which produces television commercials inviting Catholics back to church], which we estimate brought 37,000 people back to the Faith.

I’m reading a book now about the Great Commission. We’re all called to be missionary disciples. It’s not enough to be in church every Sunday, or even every day. We have to share the Good News of the Faith.


Archbishop Paul Coakley (Oklahoma City)

Our big focus is looking at the call for us to be missionary disciples. It’s been part of a planning process for us over the past few years; an attempt to respond to the Lord’s call to go and make disciples [Matthew 28:19].

When I became a bishop, I took as my motto Duc In Altum/”Put Out into the Deep,” which was a comment made by Pope John Paul II about evangelization. We want to embrace that transformation which makes us into missionary disciples.

We’re exploring what that means for the Archdiocese—our priorities, structure, ways of collaborating—and how we might be better focused on the mission to share the Gospel with others. We want to help people to come to an intimate relationship with Jesus, putting on the person of Jesus Christ, which shouldn’t be foreign to us as Catholics.


Bishop Thomas Olmsted (Phoenix)

Evangelization of our youth is an area of great concern for me and an area of special focus in the past few years. [In 2009] I released “Serving Truth in the University,” a pastoral letter setting guidelines to our ministry to our youth in our universities. I’ve concentrated a lot of personal time and effort to get those Newman Centers to be really effective in reaching out to students.

I’ve also appointed priest-chaplains to all of our Catholic high schools. I work with them closely to build up and strengthen our ministry to our Catholic schools.

Our catechesis has been weak over the last 40 years. Many of the parents of our young people have had inadequate catechesis, so it is difficult for them to be first teachers of their children in the ways of the faith. Our schools must offer parents the help they need to fulfill their teaching role. We must meet the hunger for truth in the hearts of our young people.

When our young people receive the truth, their reaction is often positive. I’ve been pleased with the feedback I’ve been getting from the priests at our Catholic high schools. We’re seeing a greater number of young people coming to them to talk to them about vocations, whether married vocations or vocations to the priesthood or religious life. We’re seeing a stronger desire among our young people to be engaged in addressing issues in the life of society, such as pro-life concerns or missions to serve the poor in our cities.

When I participate in retreats with young people, I see a real hunger for the word of God. They want to know what love is, what it means to be a man or woman, and what the true meaning of freedom is. Fighting a secular culture is difficult, because there’s so much confusion out there. The false answers our young people receive don’t ring true, so there’s a real hunger and openness which offers great possibilities for the Church. 


Bishop Thomas Paprocki (Springfield, Illinois)

I talk a lot about growth. How do we grow as a Church? Growth is my word for evangelization. The Lord told us to go out and tell the Good News; He also calls us to grow in the depth of our faith. We don’t just want a handful of strong believers, nor do we want to have many believers who have little depth. So, I’m always asking, “How can we draw more people into our churches and call them to a deeper relationship with the Lord?”

… In our diocese, every October we have what we call our “October Count.” We count the number of people we have coming to Mass. When I received my first report after coming to Springfield, I was also given the October Counts from the previous 15 years. During that 15-year time period there had been a 30 percent drop in Mass attendance. That was shocking to me.

Yet, all I had was raw numbers, but not the reasons why. So, I started asking people, who conjectured at the reasons behind the numbers. One thought was that the population in central Illinois was in decline. But I checked, and that was not the case. Our population had been pretty stable.

We commissioned two surveys through Benedictine University, which has a branch campus in Springfield. In one, we surveyed people who didn’t go to church, and in the other those who did. The surveys came up with a lot of different reasons, but one in particular was a common denominator in both the surveys: there was a need for a sense of community. Many people who stopped going to church did so because they didn’t feel connected. Since they didn’t feel connected, it was easy for them to walk away. Conversely, those who did come regularly cited a positive sense of community. They thought something would be missing in their lives without church.

I published two pastoral letters related to the surveys. The first was Ars Celebrandi et Adorandi (The Art of Celebrating and Adoring), which focused on the spiritual and sacramental life of divine worship. If we’re going to invite people to Mass, we have to give them a good experience of prayer and liturgy. We have to have good liturgies, good music and good homilies.

The second was Ars Crescendo in Dei Gratia (The Art of Growing in God’s Grace). It went into some detail about the surveys and was a call to growth for our Church. At the end of the second pastoral letter, I offered four pillars of discipleship and stewardship, which included four nouns accompanying verbs. The first pillar and noun was hospitality, with invite being the verb. What are we doing to go out and invite people to church in one-on-one conversations, such as when we share with a co-worker what we did over the weekend? This could include mention of attending Mass at our parish.

The second pillar and noun was formation, with the accompanying verbs being to study and to learn. We have to study the Bible and we have to study the Catechism of the Catholic Church to learn about our faith. The third pillar and noun is prayer, with the verb being to provide opportunities for prayer. And the fourth pillar and noun is service, with the verb being to serve. What are we doing to serve the poor and vulnerable?

[Our Mass attendance numbers] are up slightly, but mostly stable. We’re not losing people anymore, which is a good thing. But, we haven’t seen the bump in growth that I would hope to see.

… The Catholic faith is based on reason and revelation, so the intellectual side is important. But, if our first pillar was merely an invitation for people to come by and study with us, we’re not going to attract many people.

I knew Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, when he was a priest in Chicago. He liked to use a sports analogy. If you’re going to play a sport, you need to know the rules. But, if you’re going to interest someone in, say, baseball, you don’t start out by saying, “Let me tell you about the infield fly rule.” Rather, you get them excited about playing the game, and then in the course of playing that game the infield fly rule will become of interest to them.

In the same way, we won’t get too many people interested in coming to church if we say, “Come on over and we’re going to study the details of eschatology.” We want to first get people attracted by the power of the message, and then we can go into more detail.

… When Christ spoke to his disciples about the Eucharist, He said, “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you.” [John 6:53]

Many of His followers thought He was speaking of cannibalism and walked away. But the Apostles didn’t walk away, because they knew Him and loved Him. They weren’t repulsed; they wanted to know more. Peter said, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life?” [John 6:68].

The people who didn’t have a close relationship with Jesus heard the message, but hadn’t yet fallen in love with Jesus and walked away. Those who stayed had fallen in love with the Lord and wanted to deepen their relationship with Him. We want to reach out to people and invite them to fall in love with Our Lord, demonstrating that we can help them to do that through prayer and the sacraments.


Bishop Thomas Tobin (Providence)

 [Referring to one of his books, Effective Faith] Effective faith is a theme that has emerged from my own teaching, preaching and writing. If our faith is authentic, it is effective and makes a difference in our daily lives. We can’t compartmentalize our lives, going to church for an hour on Sunday and then acting like pagans for the rest of the week. If our faith is authentic, then it touches every part of our lives: our work, our family lives, our community involvement and the activities with which we entertain ourselves.

That has been one of the great failures of many of us in the Church; we do not incorporate our faith into our daily lives. Jesus said Christians are the salt of the earth and light of the world. [Matthew 5: 13 & 14] As the Second Vatican Council taught, our faith is supposed to transform us, and then we move out into the secular world and transform it into the Kingdom of God.

It begins when we are transformed ourselves, especially through the power of the Eucharist, into the image and likeness of Christ.


Bishop Robert Vasa (Santa Rosa, California)

The renewal is already happening, but slowly. Young families and young adults in particular have sensed and experienced the emptiness of the promises of the world. They sense almost instinctively that there has to be something more.

Society looks at the human person, and it operates in regard to the human person with a philosophical base and foundation that is hollow and shallow. It treats us as a biochemical entity which is merely capable of pleasure and enjoyment.

But human beings are capable of so much more. We are spiritual beings. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We have a deeper component, a spiritual and supernatural component that is unsettled. As St. Augustine would say, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Even though there has been a great attempt in society to alleviate that restlessness, it has been unsuccessful. And, that restlessness is rising up. People are asking, is that all there is? 

The Church is the place where we say, ‘No, that is not all there is.’ You are much more. You are created in the image and likeness of God. In baptism, you become a child of God. You are beloved of God, and you have been saved by the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord. He lives with you today. He calls you to recognize your dignity and to live that dignity to the fullest. That’s a message that the world cannot offer and for which the world is hungry.

I always encourage Catholics to look forward and upward. I tell them not to be frustrated by a seeming lack of success, whether it be in the pro-life area, or in a desire for a stronger manifestation of Catholicism in political life, the health care world or other elements of our society. Such frustration is a sign that we want the success for ourselves.

What we are called to do, as Mother Teresa said, is to be faithful. If we are faithful, then we are successful. That’s really the bottom line.