Engagement equals evangelization

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Fr. Andrew Ricci speaks to parishioners during Mass April 3. On average, 35 people attend the 8:30 a.m. daily Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Superior, he said. (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)
Fr. Andrew Ricci speaks to parishioners during Mass April 3. On average, 35 people attend the 8:30 a.m. daily Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Superior, he said. (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald Staff

Fr. Andrew Ricci is not selling Catholicism. For him, evangelization is not about wooing, proselytizing or recruiting.

“I’m not some greasy-haired salesman,” he said with his customary grin.

Instead, the rector of Christ the King Cathedral, Superior, seeks to enflame parishioners, to help them become more committed to and enriched by their faith. He believes their engagement is key to evangelizing the community.

Planning by the numbers

Fifteen months ago, the Cathedral staff implemented an ambitious plan.

Using Gallup Research, Fr. Ricci began drafting an evangelization strategy in 2010, one year into his Cathedral ministry, in conjunction with the Catholic Church’s new evangelization.

Promoting religious engagement among parishioners — encouraging them to let faith seep into every corner of their lives and inform their behavior — was his objective.

Statistically, according to Gallup, 29 percent of members in a religious congregation are engaged, he said. Fifty-four percent are not engaged — their faith is compartmentalized and doesn’t affect how they live — and 17 percent are actively disengaged, rarely attend services and are negative or disgruntled.

With those numbers in mind, Fr. Ricci set out to feed the faith of the engaged, his No. 1 rule of evangelization.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is the key principle,” he said. “If you know you have a group of people who are engaged, feed them. Stoke the fire.”

His second rule: “Invite the not engaged.”

“If you invite and you haven’t got a roaring fire, what are you inviting people to?” he said. “You can’t fake an authentic Christian witness. If they come to something that is alive and they don’t come back, they never would have anyway.”

Conversely, if they stay, they become members of the engaged.

“We’re now giving them something that speaks to their needs,” he added.

Over time, as the level of engagement grows and behaviors change, the Good News seeps out into the community. Despite his eagerness to embrace nonpracticing Catholics, Fr. Ricci hasn’t stepped foot outside the Cathedral.

“Invite them from within, let word of mouth invite them from without,” Fr. Ricci said. “It’s the witness of the community that testifies to the power of the message.”

“I haven’t even tried to go outside the parish yet,” he added. “I’m just trying to stoke the flame.”

Three ways to draw closer to God

Fr. Ricci emphasizes study, prayer and service as ways to draw closer to God. Study, the intellectual pursuit of greater understanding, can be a group effort, as in Bible study (about 40 people regularly attend) or individual, such as reading a blog or engaging in personal reflection. Fr. Ricci’s blog, studyprayserve.com, is one resource for his parish — he writes entries while preparing for his weekly homily, and they prompt readers to study, pray and serve in harmony with the week’s Scripture readings.
Educators will recognize his “stoking” style, which involves spiritually nourishing parishioners with a variety of learning tools — books, prayer cards, blog posts, CDs, DVDs, reading and film lists and more.

Many parishioners also serve their community at schools, hospitals, in church and through the Cathedral’s primary charitable mission, the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Poverty is a serious problem in Superior, according to Fr. Ricci, and parish members donate thousands of hours to support the organization and its clients. He makes a point of thanking volunteers for their service.

“All is important,” he said. “All is valued.”

Growth in Mass attendance

Fr. Ricci strives to build community within the parish. The Cathedral keeps an active social calendar to foster fellowship; Fr. Ricci’s last picnic attracted 250 people.

Seasonally, Cathedral staff mail out books and devotionals to parish members. Just reading a paragraph-long daily devotion over a cup of coffee can be enough to influence the day’s happenings, he said. Soon God weaves his way into every thought, every action, and begins influencing behavior — the testament to engagement.

Fr. Ricci is witnessing the effect of the Cathedral evangelization plan in growing Mass attendance, more service and increased giving, but the numbers may be the most concrete proof of their success.

When he took over as rector, parish membership was 725 households, but the numbers hadn’t been checked in years. After mailing out letters to parishioners — about 500 were returned — Cathedral staff began calling and whittling down the list to weed out “ghost members” — former parishioners who had moved or, for some other reason, were no longer there.

They figured parish membership was more accurately between 560 and 600 households, he said. As of January, they have 765 registered households of sizes ranging from one to 10 persons.

Paul Birch can attest to the growth. The director of the diocesan Office of Worship, he is also a cantor, choir member and Cathedral parishioner since 1979.

Birch remembers looking out into the crowd at an Easter Vigil three or four years ago and being pleasantly surprised by the number of new faces. He said attendance at Sunday Masses just keep growing.

“It seems to me that there are more and more people in attendance,” Birch added.
“I think he’s doing a great job,” he said of Fr. Ricci. “There’s a plan behind what he’s doing.”

Different ingredients

The Cathedral is in an urban area – logically, a larger population equals a potentially larger body of parishioners — but Fr. Ricci does not feel village churches are limited by their rural locations.

Before becoming rector of the Cathedral, he was the pastor of the Spooner parish cluster for 10 years.

“Parish ministry is a lot like cooking school,” he said.

If one cook is given steak and another gets salmon, both have the ingredients to make a fine dinner.

“We don’t have the same things,” he agreed. The question, he said, is “Can I take what I’ve been given and make something great?”

He uses a metaphor inspired by another hobby, gardening.

A healthy parish he likens to a well-tended garden — no weeds are visible, no yellow plants grow. Passers-by may not see the gardener pulling weeds and planting seeds, but they can see “a lot of love went into this garden.”

Spiritual fruits

“Jesus said you’ll judge the tree by the fruit,” he said.

The biblical fruits of the spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control — (Gal 5:22-23) — are for Fr. Ricci the harvest, the proof of spiritual health. When they are present in his parish, he tries to foster them. If those qualities are absent in a situation, he assesses what should be changed.

The passage from the fifth chapter of Galatians is also the foundation of his leadership style. If love is in the room, even in difficult circumstances, Fr. Ricci knows he is on the right track.

“I live by this,” he said.

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