Dave Brenner recently visited the community of Franciscans at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago, where he witnessed something of a "new" model of evangelization- the bold, fearless, and fervent adherence to a spiritual legacy that is revolutionary in its simplicity. Dave explains...
Something isn’t working in the Catholic Church. American Catholics can universally relate to stories of declining class sizes in Catholic schools, combined or shuttered parishes, reduced Mass attendance and all the implications these things bring.
The vivacity of our response has been meek. The result of our response has been deeply disappointing. Despite parish renewal programs, vocation events, and incremental programming, one still senses a purely secular society is our ultimate destination. It seems like we’re grasping at thin air with the hope that it’s our silver bullet. We boldly go forth to add incremental programs of minimum consequence: “If we just had guitar music/shorter sermons/donuts after Mass, people would feel more welcome…” this line of reasoning goes. One gets the impression of being on a slowly sinking ship while the crew rearranges the deck chairs.
This backdrop makes the story of the Franciscans serving at Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago more remarkable. Their work has been highlighted on a previous blog so I’ll just give you the bullet points: In April, this new community of Franciscans is re-opening a mission church in an economically depressed Westside neighborhood that was devastated by a fire 53 years ago. They feed 700 families a month and work with 800 – 900 kids in an after-school program.
After touring the church and spending a few weekends with the community, it’s clear that these results don’t explain what’s happening. What’s happening is that this community is blazing a path forward to revitalize a neighborhood, a city, a Church. While volunteers are outside distributing clothes and food on Saturdays, other volunteers are inside praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament for the success of the mission. This community isn’t only giving material assistance to its neighbors and an outlet for altruism to its volunteers; it’s cultivating a sense of hope and spreading a type of self-giving love than can only come from Christ. And, when they’re done distributing food and clothes, the first thing the Franciscans do is hit their knees and make a holy hour of thanksgiving for a successful day.
In “seeking first the kingdom of God,” they find that everything else gets thrown in. On my most recent visit, there were as many volunteers distributing food as there were neighbors receiving it. There were more clothes donated than clothes needed. One senses that they’re part of something larger than themselves when they help to strengthen the body of Christ, and anyone that spends time with this mission experiences something of that realization.
Simply put, they’re just letting the Holy Spirit do his thing, and they’re transforming the people of God in the process. This shouldn’t be mistaken for a passive “let God do what he wills” response. Nor should it be mistaken as an active “it all depends on me” response. It exemplifies the Catholic genius of the “both…and.” We pray and we serve. We are directed and must direct.
So what does one learn from this example? What can be reapplied to help this sinking ship?
The first thing that strikes me is the ambition of the vision. This part of the city has been abandoned and forgotten, yet these Franciscans entered the neighborhood and set priorities – what would be built first, which parts of the project could wait. They raised funds and found ways to cut costs. Anyone that knew this community understood that their focus and entire agenda was to bring Christ’s love to the people of the neighborhood through this new mission church.
The second thing that strikes me is the simplicity and timelessness of their tactics: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, pray for the living and the dead etc… Even as I write this blog, post it on Facebook, and check for comments from my phone, I’m extremely aware that Christ’s calling to us isn’t complicated. Difficult, perhaps, but not complicated. Spending time with a community that “gets it” reminds one of this fact. I asked one of the Franciscan sisters what made them successful. What was their “secret sauce” that made their mission thrive? Her response, again, was startling in its simplicity: “We just try to live the Gospel.”
The final thing that strikes me is the explicit connection between Saint Francis and this community. Eight hundred years ago, Francis heard Christ say, “Rebuild my church.” He dedicated his life to that task, first working on the physical structure and through that, the spiritual structure of the body of Christ. This mission does the same thing today and that tight connection shouldn’t be unique. We are all inheritors of some spiritual legacy that provides the guideposts for our mission today. Married couples should know to love one another as Christ loved the Church and they have examples of this love in history. Priests should know that they must “feed [Christ’s] sheep” and they have examples like St. John Vianney. Winston Churchill was right to observe, “the further backward you look, the further forward you see.” Allowing oneself to be inspired by one’s spiritual inheritance provides impetus and creativity in manifesting Christ to the world today.
This community has the game plan for evangelization in the 21st century – make no small plans when it comes to serving God, live the Gospel authentically and draw upon the graces of your charism.
Dave Brenner is a Word on Fire blog contributor and a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Chicago.