Evangelizing the Distant and Parish Renewal: a Winning Recipe!

In 1989, I presented to the superiors of my community a missionary project for the evangelization of those who were distant from the Church. The next day, to my great surprise, my superiors accepted the project and asked me to propose the choice of the three other members who would be part of it. A few days later, a second wink of the Holy Spirit: the three confreres I had proposed agreed to be part of it! Three months later, I left for the Gaspé Peninsula with my small Redemptorist team composed of three young confreres and an older confrere. Our mission? To evangelize people outside the Church in a particular sector on the north side of the Gaspé Peninsula.

As soon as we arrived, all the faithful of the 12 parishes in the region where we were to intervene had been informed of our presence and warned not to be surprised to see three young religious in unusual places such as bars, high schools, centres for drug or alcohol addicts, adult education classes, social evenings or in places where groups of young people gathered. Through the parish leaflet, we had also offered to all the parishioners who wished to invite us to share a fraternal meal in their homes. can confirm that my young confreres and I were individually invited three to four times a week to have a meal with different families during the first year of our presence in the area. What a wonderful way to evangelize those far from the Church!

The parish priests and parishioners had also been informed that our primary goal was to implicitly and explicitly evangelize the people we did not see in church. At the end of a year of presence in a given area, we wanted to offer a parish mission to all the people we had met or evangelized. Whenever possible, we could even gather them in a place other than the local church. The people were also informed that we would not accept any parish ministry, nor would we get involved in the usual parish ck w 1 pastoral work. If necessary, we were available only to replace a priest who was si or on vacation.

At the very beginning of this exciting new project, which the people wonderfully welcomed and appreciated, I would go one evening to a bar located in the small village of Mont‐St‐Pierre, where many paragliding and hang gliding enthusiasts used to go during the summer season, to launch themselves into the skies from the top of the majestic mountain that presented itself at the end of the cove. It was eleven o’clock in the evening, and some of the regulars were already there enjoying a drink while fraternising with each other. I entered wearing my Roman collar shirt, smiled at the people, and sat alone at a table. All eyes were turned towards me. Some could not believe their eyes. Others must have been thinking, “He must be one of us!”

I ordered a beer and some of the people were still staring at me. After the third sip, the bartender came up to me with another beer and said, “This guy is offering it to you!” And suddenly I realized that I should have a simple soft drink from now on, otherwise I would be crawling out of the bar. As time went on, I was starting to build relationships with everyone on a more regular basis.

After a month, I knew most of the people who went to that bar. Then one night around midnight, I approached four young people who were playing at the pool table and started talking to them. After about 20 minutes, one of them asked me, “How did you become a priest?” I said, “Do you really want me to answer this? Then you’ll have to stop playing for about twenty minutes because I can’t answer within that time.” The four young people agreed that they had time and that they were willing to listen to me.

Then, being a passionate Redemptorist for the work of evangelization, I opened my mouth and began to give them my testimony of conversion at the age of 24: how my life had suddenly taken an unexpected turn when my father was ill; how I was distraught at the thought of losing him and all the questions I had about the meaning of life and why we are born on this planet and why we all have to die. I told them about the voice I heard in my heart one evening, urging me to read the Bible that my mother had given me as a gift the year before and that would enable me to find the answers to the pressing questions I was asking.

I added how I resisted this voice that had resounded in my heart three times in three weeks. Each time I said, “No! I will not open this Bible. I don’t want to change my lifestyle. I know very well that this so‐called God will not approve of the kind of life I lead, and that he will ask me to leave my bad habits.” I was simply not ready to give up the drugs, drinking, and pleasures of all kinds that were forbidden by divine laws and by the Church. However, the third time, I finally decided to let go, for my fear of my dear father’s death was increasing. I said to him, “All right, Lord, if you exist, I’ll change, but please don’t pressure me. I don’t want to change too quickly!”

Then I opened the Bible at the very beginning of the New Testament: the Gospel of the apostle Matthew. As the days went by, I kept reading a bit more and a little more, with fascination and interest. After only two weeks of reading, my faith was beginning to rise from its ashes. What an extraordinary discovery! I was discovering the true meaning of our existence, of why we are placed on earth: it is to respond to God’s love to inherit eternal life one day. I now believed that my body and soul had to unite with God’s will and become one with Him. And that if this was the case, even this poor, fragile body would one day rise and become one with my soul again, following the pattern of the risen Jesus.

Finally, I explained to them how the doctor had predicted the worst‐case scenario for my father: he would only have a 50% chance of surviving the operation. But then his prognosis and his findings didn’t hold up after the operation. The doctor confessed that he was extremely surprised to see how well the operation went and how my father recovered quickly and against all odds. He told my father, “Mr. Desrochers, you are the luckiest of the 13 people I operated on for heart surgery this week!” And after having four bypasses, my father was cross‐country skiing two months later as if nothing had happened. He was 55 at the time and lived to be 86!

Then I shared with my young listeners how my life was quietly beginning to change: after two months of assiduous reading of the Word of God every night, followed by prayers and praise, I had the opportunity one evening to share my faith with my older brother. Three weeks later, I arrived from work and saw him sitting on the edge of his bed reading his Bible. I was so excited! I was so happy to see that he, too, was taking an interest in reading his Bible. And as it happened, after a few weeks of reading, he decided to open up to me by telling me that he too had begun to read the Holy Scriptures and that he was discovering little by little how God loved him and supported him in all his endeavours.

My young friends listened to me with great interest and asked me questions of clarification and asked me to continue my story of conversion. I came to tell them about my call to the priesthood six months later, after I had slowly said my Our Father, and dwelt on the words: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Then I said to the Lord, “What can I do today, Lord, to do your will?” Suddenly, I heard a word that seemed to pervade my whole being: “Priest!” “What?” I replied, “Priest? Oh no, Lord. Anything, but not that!” I wanted to get married instead and have children like most people. But I also resisted because I was afraid of what my friends would say or think when they learned that I had decided to radically change my life direction after leading such a disorderly life.

I had been a graphic designer for Le Droit newspaper in Ottawa for seven years at the time of my conversion. Two years later, after reconsidering and hearing again the call to become a priest, I left “all this disorder to enter the orders” as my cartoonist friend Bado had written on my farewell card. A little later, about fifty employees planned a wonderful surprise party to mark my departure after so many 3 years.

I later opted for religious life in the Redemptorist community, because I was always inhabited by a great desire to preach the Good News to all those I met along the way. I became a priest at the age of 32. When I told my story to my young friends, I was only in my first year of priesthood. I blessed God for opening their hearts to my words. I had spoken with them for almost an hour, and at the end of my testimony of conversion, they were asking me all sorts of questions.

This evangelization experience was an extraordinary grace that was given to my young interlocutors to allow them to come closer to God and to give meaning to their lives.

Throughout our seven year presence in the Gaspé Peninsula, my three Redemptorist confreres and I often had the opportunity to witness to our faith and hope in Jesus Christ. I give thanks to God and invite all of us to believe that the God of the impossible will always bless our evangelization efforts towards those who are far from the Church.

Based on this experience in the Gaspé Peninsula, allow me to make a few important observations that could contribute to the survival of our current parish communities, and that would have a knock‐on effect in increasing the revenues needed to renovate our churches that have been weakened by time and wear and tear.

First observation: The loss of income caused by the constant decrease in the number of faithful participating in our liturgies mobilizes a large part of the energy of the older people who still practice their faith and who are dying. As a result, they spend very little time investing in evangelization projects because they focus almost exclusively on short‐term financial challenges that are urgent and imperative for the preservation of their aging buildings.

Second observation: it is a fact that young people are largely absent from our liturgical gatherings. The challenge is all the greater in rural areas. But if we no longer try to reach out to them, to invite and welcome them properly and give them the chance to collaborate in our assemblies—in their own way—how will we survive in the long term? Many projects aimed at renewing parish communities have shown that the number of distant people evangelized contributes to improving the financial situation of a parish. Even if young people cannot contribute financially yet, they are nevertheless in the category of the distant ones, and they will one day be able to contribute.

Let us remember, dear brothers and sisters, that all of heaven rejoices when even one of the lost sheep returns to the heart of God. So let us dare to deploy our energy to reach them where they are. Let us go to them in a spirit of faith and courage, without fear of rejection or mockery and sure of the presence of the Spirit working n us and in them.

Third observation: We must also accept to renew our ways of doing things and of being together in the parish. The life of the community does not depend only on the capacity of a small number of people who are comfortable and capable of supporting the parish financially. It depends on its capacity to invite and welcome people who will one day choose to return to our assemblies. The invitation and warm welcome of people who have distanced themselves from the Church for all sorts of reasons is an indispensable asset that allows all of them to identify themselves and find their place in the community.

Is it necessary to recall here that our liturgies play a capital role in maintaining this vitality? Its purpose is to unify and sanctify the whole Body gathered in the name of Christ. For this reason, it must be prepared with not only care but also taking into account the mentality of the newcomers, who are often younger and more dynamic. A dull and lifeless liturgy divides and alienates instead of uniting. Yet I know that change is always difficult for most of us. Especially as we grow older. But if our churches are to survive over time, the whole community will one day have to accept the choice to give up, at least in part, its resistance to change and then look for ways to better invite and welcome newcomers.

Let’s wrap it up.

A nice display in the store window does not necessarily make customers want to spend more or return to the store if the interior is devoid of goods and the decor is dull and inhospitable. We can use this analogy to understand how the two pastoral actions are intertwined: our efforts to reach out to those who are far away, combined with our efforts to make our parish communities more vibrant and welcoming, are definitely a winning recipe. They will give a second wind to communities that were suffering financially and pastorally and who were foreseeing imminent death in the short term. And they will no doubt allow the new community renewed in the Spirit to sing one day in unison: “Yes, it is good, it is sweet for brothers to live together and to be united!” (Ps 132)

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