NY Diocese Goes Out to Count Christ’s Flock and Bring Back the Lost Sheep
Inspired by Pope Francis, Ogdensburg Bishop Terry LaValley sends out the laity two by two to every home to learn who is Catholic, who is not and let all know the Church is there for all.
OGDENSBURG, N.Y. — Catholics in an upstate New York diocese are going two by two to every household within their diocese, knocking on every door, as part of a diocesan-wide census that is as much about evangelizing as it is counting the numbers of Christ’s flock.
The census envisioned by Bishop Terry LaValley for the Diocese of Ogdensburg is far more ambitious than mere number-crunching. The bishop and pastors are sending out the lay faithful in pairs to make personal visits to every single household — not just Catholic households — reaching 500,000 persons in the region.
“We want to know who our neighbors are, and we want to let them know that the Church is right around the corner,” Bishop LaValley said, beyond the need to get parishes accurate records.
“Whether they’re baptized Catholic or not, we just want to let them know that the Church is alive and vibrant in their neighborhood,” he added.
Bishop LaValley said he was not aware of another U.S. diocese that combined evangelism with a census in the way they are carrying it out in New York’s North Country.
“Northern New York is quite an expanse, and so it’s quite an ambitious project,” Bishop LaValley said. The census started last October and is expected to wind up this August. “People have already begun to hit the pavement and knock on doors. And again, it’s not just people we think we know or think they’re not Catholic or whatever; we’re asking them [parish volunteers] to go to every door.”
Bishop LaValley pointed out that Jesus Christ did not say, “Let them come to you,” but to “go out” to them.
He said Pope Francis’ words and example inspired him to invite the entire diocese to realize this ambitious dream of making the Church known to every single home and family.
“He, over and over, urges us to get uncomfortable, if you will, and to reach out to those whom you don’t know, to the stranger and the unfamiliar, and to do it two by two. … This is who we are, that’s being Church, and we can’t run in place.”
More than 1,000 lay “visitors” from the diocese’s parishes are taking to the streets, meeting people and letting them know about the Catholic Church as they gather data for their parishes.
Bishop LaValley said the idea is that the pastors are not walking, but are rather commissioning the laity to go out to their neighborhoods and bring the Church to people personally. He also made clear going door-to-door is “not about proselytizing” — where the point of the interaction is to gain converts at the door — but is rather about evangelization, which involves building relationships with people, letting them know the Church is there for them and inviting them to learn more if they are inclined.
Parish volunteers have said the experience has been rewarding for everyone involved.
“I was totally surprised at the openness and welcoming nature of almost everybody we talked to,” said Mary Wood, 64, of Notre Dame Church in Ogdensburg. She so far had knocked on approximately 70 doors, with 50 households left to go.
Wood said the experience has been like “planting seeds all over the place.” The conversations have cleared up misconceptions people had about the Church and opened doors.
“I had people who had been away from the Catholic Church who commented by saying things like, ‘Yeah, I’ve thought about going back to the Church, and I just didn’t know the best way to make that happen.”
Bryant Sandburg, 78, a parishioner at St. Mary’s Cathedral, said he felt the best combination was to have a man and a woman go in pairs. His team added on a question about asking people if there was anything they could pray for and said people looked far more relaxed after that.
“People who invite you in, they’re open to chatting, and they want to open up and tell you about their story,” Sandburg said. “And I thought, ‘Okay, this is fine, because we’re here to reach out.’ That’s part of evangelization; we’re not just here to gather information. In a real sense, we’re here to convey the Good News, and we’re not here to preach, but we are here to share Christ. We take our time, and we listen.”
Hearts Brought Back
A five-minute visit can turn into a 45-minute or an hour-long chat. But the conversations open hearts.
One woman Sandburg talked to had not stepped into a church for 30 years. The woman told him she used to get Mass cards for her family regularly, noticed that none of the Masses she requested for her family ever appeared in the parish bulletin. Other families’ requests did appear regularly. When she asked her pastor why, he told her that they “farmed out” the Masses to other parishes, and the families whose Masses appeared had contributed a lot of money to the parish.
“She said, ‘Oh, I see, Father. Thank you very much,’ and she picked her $20 off the table and left. And she had never been back since,” Sandburg said.
“We revisited that, and we both pointed out that it is unfortunate what happened, and we hope that you come back,” he said. He pointed out that the priest was human, with human failings, but that Christ was the one inviting her to experience the Church again.
The packet of materials Sandburg and the other volunteers share with the people they visit includes a letter from the pastor, a sheet with basic parish information, a prayer card with Jesus’ face and a sheet about how to access the parish subscription to the Augustine Institute’s Symbolon program and information about subscriptions to the diocesan newspaper, the North Country Catholic.
“I said, ‘Just take a look at that, because it gives a different picture of the Church than what you and I got as kids, and it might help heal that sore,’” he said.
“She told us that she would think about it,” he said.
“I hope I would have a good experience this time,” she said.
While the laity reach out to the neighborhoods, the pastors have the task of following up. Father Joseph Morgan, the pastor of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ogdensburg, said they have had questions from people regarding annulments, baptism or other questions.
“One of the questions on the form is: ‘Do you want a priest to call you or a priest to visit you?’” he said. “So our job has been to do the follow-up.”
One woman away from the sacraments had been wrongly told by someone years ago that she was excommunicated because she had been divorced. She was not remarried and had no one living with her, so the parish visitors told her that it was not the case.
“They said, ‘No, it isn’t so, but you talk with Father, and he’ll let you know what the Church teaches about that,’” he said. Father Morgan said he and the woman talked, “and now she’s just so happy that she can receive the sacraments.”
Catholic door-to-door ministry has seen similar success elsewhere in inviting people to discover the Catholic faith. Other dioceses have encouraged parishes to make similar efforts, and programs such as Lighthouse Catholic Media provide people training in how to evangelize in an effective Catholic manner.
In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, door-to-door ministry has been promoted as a “significant part of the evangelization package” under Archbishop Robert Carlson’s leadership, said Andrew Kassebaum, the evangelization coordinator in the Office of Laity and Family Life.
One of their parishes, St. Anthony of Padua, a “regular-size parish” in the diocese, has been very intentional about door-to-door evangelism and has seen remarkable results.
“Over the last few years, they’ve seen 200 families come into the Church,” Kassebaum said.
Parishes in the diocese, he said, typically engage in two approaches: One is to visit registered Catholic households. The reasoning is that 25% of Catholics attend Mass on Sunday, so they can encourage both practicing Catholics and invite non-practicing Catholics to return and experience the Church.
“It’s a little bit easier to do because you have all the names on the parish books,” he said.
The other is to reach every household in the parish boundary to let everyone know the Church is present in their area and to invite them to learn more.
The fundamental idea is to “propose rather than impose” the faith at the doorstep by making “that first step of friendship, sharing the information and letting people think about it.”
Faith Must Be Shared
Bishop LaValley said North Country in New York has seen population shifts, and the Church must respond to changes in people’s physical and spiritual needs.
“The families are smaller; the kids graduate from high school, and they leave the area,” he said. “The economics here are tough, and for the rural poor, it’s real, so we need to extend a hand and be present. But again, first, we need to meet them.”
He wants the experience to open Catholic hearts to their vocation as followers of Jesus Christ to evangelize: “Our faith is very, very personal, but it essentially is not private. We have to share our faith.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.