Rich Curran, founder of Parish Success Group, facilitates parish revitalization at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Park Falls. The event challenged participants to go outside their comfort zones and be courageous in sharing their faith. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

The Sunday, Nov. 5, gathering of 200 people in Park Falls was a bright spot for St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, whose nearly century-old school closed earlier this year.

St. Anthony’s parish leadership used the word “reorganization” in reference to their hopes for the 2017-18 academic year, but it was clear on that chilly morning that the community is seeking more than the rebound of their school.

“Moving from Maintenance to Mission” was the title for this parish revitalization event. Presenter Rich Curran, founder of Appleton-based Parish Success Group, has more than 30 years of ministry and parish support experience.

Curran understood the parish was in a time of renewal, and confirmed it is part of a growing number of parishes reinventing themselves. His organization offers training and mentorship to parishes, and his expertise has earned him speaking engagements such as the U.S. Bishop’s Convocation of Catholic Leaders in July and the recent National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis.

Facilitating rather than presenting, Curran incited crowd participation by starting with the questions, “Why are you here?” and “Where are those who are not?”

Some answers matched Curran’s wit and humor. One man joked, “The Packers don’t play ‘til Monday,” and a youth gave an honest confession: “We had to come.”

Others spoke of the faith community dying, of needing hope and rejuvenation, and of wanting a deeper understanding of the Mass and sacraments – a desire to re-engage families with young children and to combat the pervading sense that private spirituality doesn’t require formal religious affiliation.

Assuring them Catholics everywhere share the same concerns, Curran addressed a crowd largely comprised of, in his words, “Those with hair the color of wisdom,” save a group of two dozen high-schoolers.

It was apparent the north-central Wisconsin community feels the absence of families with children. A parallel conference track had been organized for fourth- through eighth-grade students, led by youth minister Ben Rippe, and four children attended. Daycare was also provided for those in third grade and younger, and just a handful of children were dropped off.

Behavior versus belief

Raised in a front-row, Sunday Mass-going Irish Catholic family, the young Curran saw the behaviors but didn’t understand the beliefs. An aspiring professional athlete, he was sidelined by a career-ending injury. It was in a hospital bed that he came face-to-face with himself and the Lord he’d known of, but hadn’t known personally.

After a process of apprenticeship and with renewed purpose, he began working at a parish in Chicago with 1,200 households. Seven years later, that number had grown to 6,700 families, with many driving for miles.

“We did not have better Eucharist … God was not more present in our community than theirs … we didn’t have a different lectionary, we didn’t have even better-tasting wine.” Emphasizing with pauses, Curran continued, “but we behaved differently. And it was (through) our behavior that people came to know the Lord.”

Curran unpacked the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, describing the early Church after Christ’s Ascension. Locked in the upper room, Jesus’ followers gathered together, praying the prayers and breaking the bread, but they were literally afraid for their lives.

With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Curran said, “They opened the door because … it wasn’t enough to believe … and they said, as afraid as we are,” Curran said, deliberating each word, “We must leave this space.”

He likened many churches to an upper room where 20 to 30 percent of registered parishioners comfortably sit in their favorite pew surrounded by familiar faces, and 70 to 80 percent are absent without anyone wondering why or committing to seek them out.

“Evangelization is not about what we need to do to get people to come back,” he said. “Evangelization is about what do we need to do to go to them.”

Curran described a typical parish process.

“When a child is baptized, the adult community is asked to pledge support for that family in raising their child in the faith. And what do we do? We take them and put them into a classroom on a Wednesday night for catechetical formation.

“We allow the book to teach them about the Lord instead of this community teaching them about the Lord,” he added.

Through Curran’s consulting work, he sees 95 percent of a parish’s activities are for those who show up on Sunday. Iterating the need to apprentice in the faith, he said a “one-size-fits-all” approach is no longer sufficient. Families and youth not in the pews are receiving instruction for life, but by secularized society in the absence of courageous Catholics.

“Let’s stop blaming the parents,” Curran emphasized. “Let me rephrase that: Let’s stop blaming the parents.”

He explained those growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s were not effectively catechized. With a drop in religious vocations, parents didn’t have a faith formation structure to fall back on, and their children were besieged by attacks on Christian faith and values.

Curran concluded with an assignment: to intentionally eat with a stranger and to sit next to another unfamiliar person for the afternoon session.

Share the stories

“I want to show you evangelization, not talk about it,” he said as the group reconvened.

The first question for pairs to discuss was “What was or is your faith life like growing up?” After a few moments to share, he posed the second question, “Why are you Catholic, or what are you proud of in the faith?”

Before the third question, Curran depicted the scene of the disciples on the road to Emmaus from Luke chapter 24. Distraught after the crucifixion, the two didn’t recognize Jesus as ‘he drew near’ (verse 15) until their eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread. Referencing the disciples’ experience that “their hearts were burning,” he asked each pair to share, “What is your most profound encounter with the Lord?”

Reassembling, the group was asked about the exercise. Many agreed talking with someone unfamiliar was not torture, that they truly enjoyed telling their stories and even more so, hearing others’ stories of faith and encounter.

Then Curran exposed his methodology: moving from statements and facts to more personal thoughts and opinions, then finally to intimate and meaningful experiences. What began as nonthreatening conversation led to learning and being enriched – listeners were apprenticed. Having observed from the distance, Curran revealed the changes in body language he saw; through the process of sharing and reliving stories, “You drew near.”

The silence was notable at this moment of revelation. Curran had brought to life Luke’s Gospel in the pews of St. Anthony of Padua’s Church.
“Why are our pews empty? Because we ran back to the upper room and locked the doors,” he said.

Curran spoke of safety, routine and protection, and then articulated, “Love requires vulnerability.”

Posing scenarios of what and how things could change if church communities shared on this deeper level, Curran let his words hang in the air: “How many (would) start to see Catholicism is not a thing we do, but something we become?

“Why have all the people in our neighborhoods stopped coming? Because the messengers are afraid to share the story,” he said.

He further explained his approach as an equation for action, speaking pointedly of the many brothers and sisters who used to be in these pews but who have left, often for legitimate reasons.

Start with nonthreatening questions, Curran directed. Let them talk about themselves; many just need to permission to talk. He continued, “(They know they) need to go back to church. They just need to know it’s okay.”

Second, build relationships – acknowledge the negative but also share about the positive. Curran did not discount the frustrations people have with the Church, “But I also love the Church, and I think the Church is full of unbelievable wisdom, and absolutely is the center and source of truth,” he declared.

“And we can’t be afraid to talk about that. They need to hear it from you and me, just normal people.”

Third, make the faith come alive; share the stories of the Lord’s action and personal encounters with His goodness. An animated Curran then said, “And guess what happened in the upper room? They kept telling the stories and the more they kept telling the stories, the more they began to believe … (until) We have nothing to fear. Unlock the door, and let’s go.”

“We. Lack. For. Nothing,” he concluded. “God has given us all that we need. And it’s right in these pews. And the mission field is right out those doors. Amen.”

Northwoods Catholic Communities Pastor Fr. Shaji Pazhukkathara thanked many persons by name for making the event possible. He presented the online resource and encouraged all present to take some concrete step deeper into their faith journey and to share it with others.

A plan had been carried out to personally call and invite each of the cluster’s registered households. Fr. Shaji also enlisted the homebound of the cluster to pray for the fruits of the event. Speaking with the Catholic Herald after the event, the Indian priest – who had become an American citizen just days before – expressed how pleased he was with the turnout: “Some told me I was dreaming.”