Putting Christ First: How 1 Catholic Parish Found the Secret to Thrive Amid COVID-19 With ‘JOY’
A parish collaborative known for its welcome and faithful Catholic teaching transformed its whole future with a movement to put Jesus Christ first.
QUINCY, Mass. — With 10 to 36 months of savings left — and no lifelines available from the Archdiocese of Boston — the St. John the Baptist-St. Joseph parish collaborative in Quincy needed a miracle when the pandemic shut it down in March 2020.
“We started talking and praying because this was critical,” Father Matthew Williams, the pastor, told the Register. The obvious choices presented themselves: Lay off staff, cut programs, do a parish fundraising appeal, or have an increased offertory campaign.
“It has to be a movement,” Father Williams explained. The Church in Europe, he knew, is most alive in its movements, such as Focolare or Communion and Liberation, and he wanted “something that’s going to rally people into the next generation.”
So the pastor and the collaborative pastoral council came up with the “JOY” movement — standing for “Jesus, Others, Yourself” — as their core mission. “Because if we get Jesus right, we’ll get everything right,” Father Williams said.
And over the course of the year, the community of St. John-St. Joseph’s had their prayers answered. Instead of surviving the pandemic, St. John-St. Joseph’s was thriving on every level thanks to their JOY movement.
The core nucleus of the JOY movement began with intentional discipleship nourished by the sacraments. When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly shut down church life back in March 2020, Father Williams and his pastoral team made a decision to recommit themselves to follow Jesus more closely as his disciples, support each other, and listen to what Jesus’ will was for them now.
“It gave us an opportunity as a team to be discipled, to be supported, and through that … rethink how we do church,” said Father Williams.
Andrea Alberti, the parish collaborative’s evangelization and outreach director, told the Register that the next few weeks of intensive formation with their pastor helped them to be “a light and anchor to others.”
“Once we were formed, strengthened and supported, we thought, ‘What are we going to do? What are we going to do to be church in this hour?’” she said.
From there, they invited members of the parish to be intentional volunteers and join the staff in their journey of growing personally closer to Jesus through discipleship, utilizing online evangelization and formation.
At the same time, Father Williams moved to make the sacraments as accessible as possible. Utilizing the gifts of his parishioners, he set up an outdoor Mass, and drive-through confessions, because “people who live a Eucharistic life accompany others.”
In laying the foundation for the JOY movement, the pastor and his team launched a 54-day Rosary novena — 27 days to petition for their miracle and 27 days to offer thanksgiving for the miracle they had faith would come.
“We were convinced that if we did this, we’d get a miracle, that Mary and Jesus would take care of it,” Father Williams said.
On June 11, Father Williams and his team unveiled the proposal for the parish’s new movement and discussed it with parishioners in a series of livestreamed town halls.
“JOY” would be a stewardship movement rooted in an intentional decision to follow Jesus Christ. It would call each person to live in such a way where “you give your time, talent and treasure to Jesus, to others and then yourself.” And by doing so, the priest explained, “the fruit of this will be the Spirit’s joy, and you will be bringing joy to the world.”
Faithful Disciples, Faithful Stewards
While the money issues loomed, Father Williams focused on getting the “JOY” right.
“The first thing was helping people in their relationship with Jesus, helping our team in their relationship with Jesus, and from there, what is Jesus calling us to do to help people love him and to worship him, and then to serve him, in the least of our brothers with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy?” Father Williams said.
Lisa Cahill, a parishioner who joined St. John the Baptist right before the pandemic, said JOY took the parish’s life to a whole new level.
“Everything is Jesus-centered,” Cahill said.
Cahill noted that while other Catholic parishes were sending out cancellations for their events, the St. John-St. Joseph parish collaborative was sending out invitations “to really put your faith into action.”
“In this time of such uncertainty and so much fear, this parish has really found a way to connect people,” she told the Register.
Cahill’s older children joined the outreach activities, particularly the Virtual Hunger for Justice campaign, to support the parish collaborative’s food pantries. Her younger children joined the parish collaborative Bible camp and made new friends.
“They loved it,” she said. Cahill said the JOY movement made a real impact on her own faith. Cahill joined 140 people over Zoom every week to do a consecration to Jesus through devotion to Mary.
“I’ve always been an active Catholic, but I’ve never done a Marian consecration,” she said.
The parish has also become a heavy volunteer-based parish, with volunteers doing everything they can to take care of the landscaping, set up the outdoor worship, or using their talents to set up a drive-in theater, showing Fatima, The Passion of the Christ, or the Witness to Love “Be Light” marriage renewal date-night series. Some parishioners even set up a small stable for a month with animals for a live Nativity scene and invited people to come to church. That spirit of stewardship also allowed the St. John-St. Joseph parishes to be among the first to reopen as soon as restrictions were lifted.
“These laypeople were so engaged — they had encountered Christ in this time — and they created this beautiful Advent,” Alberti said, adding that it “was the ending fruit of that intense time of relationship and ministry.”
Father Williams said that while the unchurched may not be immediately attracted to the Eucharist, inviting them to the other parish events like the drive-in movies, service activities and Nativity petting zoo, for example, allow “you [to] build a relationship, and you accompany them to the Eucharist.”
Disciples Tithe to the Vision
JOY gave parishioners more than a picture of their current financial reality — it gave them a vision of a better Christian community, rooted in following Jesus, that would go out and serve the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.
The final component of the parish movement is realizing the parishes’ shared vision of church through “tithing” — giving that first 10% of time, talent and treasure to God, recognizing that everything comes from him.
They did catechesis on tithing, with biblical examples, and started with inviting people to give Jesus just 1% of their day — about 15 minutes — in prayer. And from there, they were encouraged to work up to 4%, devoting time to a Holy Hour every day. And then Father Williams invited people to look at the gifts God has given them and ask him how they are to put them at the service of the community.
Father Williams with the finance councils made the decision that the parish collaborative would also model tithing.
“We embraced it in our own call to discipleship,” Father Williams said. From then on, 10% of each week’s offertory went to a charity. “We took the Lord on his word.”
By the end of the year, the parishes had gone from running deficits to a budget surplus, and offertories were up 14%-21% from pre-pandemic levels. “We’re fiscally solvent now,” he reported.
The priest sees real fruits in his community thanks to this movement where “Jesus leads the way.”
“People say to us that ‘You guys have always been there for us, your doors have always been open, and we’re so grateful,’” he said, saying it has “created unity in our community.”
No Alternatives to Discipleship
Alberti said the pandemic gave the parish the opportunity to disciple people and model church in a way they knew would work, but had not been fully implemented until the crisis hit.
“It created an atmosphere where we could do good, relational ministry in a unique way,” Alberti said.
Katherine Coolidge, director of parish and diocesan services at the Catherine of Siena Institute, explained to the Register that parishes that truly commit to a “focus on making disciples” have much more traction than parishes that emphasize a “purely engagement focus” that brings people into programs without personal relationship.
“Intentional disciples are there for Jesus,” she said, not programs. “Their primary motivator is their relationship with him.”
“Time and again, when the percentage of intentional disciples increases, we see increases in offertory, volunteering; more people are attracted to the parish and join or come into the Church,” she said.
“To the extent that [a person’s] experience of Catholicism and the Church is strongly personal and positively life-changing for themselves and for others, they will stay, they will return, and they will enter,” she said.
Parishioner Cahill believes that what the JOY movement has done for their parish collaborative is doable and repeatable for every parish wherever it is.
“When you lead with Jesus,” she said, “you’re going to get it right.”