Sanctifying, Evangelizing and Catechizing a Parish

by Fr. Francis J. Peffley


Fr. Francis Peffley suggests numerous practical steps that may be taken to strengthen the spiritual life of a parish.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, October 2010

Twenty years ago I was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Arlington. I served in many wonderful parishes before becoming the founding pastor of a newly formed parish named the Church of the Holy Trinity in Gainesville, Virginia. Just nine years ago, only three hundred families made up the parish, Sunday Masses were held in a public high school, daily Mass in the local Benedictine monastery, and the rectory was (and still is!) a private home in one of the neighborhoods. By the grace of God and a lot of hard work, our parish has grown and we are now blessed with 3,300 families. I have baptized more than 1,400 babies in the last nine years, remarking to the deacon that it seems everyone in the parish is pregnant except him and me! We have 1,600 kids in religious education. In our first year of the new parish we did about forty weddings, and currently have about sixty-five organizations and ministries functioning in the parish. From this growth of the Body of Christ (and aware that each parish is unique and has its own particular set of needs and circumstances), I would like to offer some practical suggestions on how to sanctify, evangelize and catechize a parish.

Sanctifying the parish
Eucharistic adoration. The number-one factor to examine is starting a Eucharistic adoration chapel. This, more than anything, focuses the faithful on the very center of the Catholic faith, Jesus Christ. It will strengthen their belief in the Real Presence, prompting them to spend time in silence and prayer. Eucharistic adoration gives them an opportunity to do spiritual reading, to discern a vocation, to make reparation or to come to a deeper appreciation for the sacraments. The adoration schedule in our parish lasts 140 hours per week, beginning 5 PM Sunday night and going to 9 AM Saturday morning.

Promote the Legion of Mary. Although the Legion of Mary is primarily known as a worldwide apostolic organization, its main purpose is sanctification—first, of its members, and second, of the society and environment in which it works. The Legion offers those who give themselves to it a system of spiritual formation based on St. Louis de Montfort's "True Devotion to Mary," Our Lady's spiritual motherhood, and the Mystical Body of Christ. The Church has accepted this sanctifying charism of the Legion by recognizing three of its members as candidates for beatification: Venerable Edel Quinn, Legion Envoy to Africa, as well as Servants of God Alfie Lambe, who was a Legion Envoy to South America, and Frank Duff, the Legion's founder.

Confession: Good for the soul, good for the parish. Our weekly confession times are every Thursday evening, every Friday morning after Mass, and Saturday afternoons for an hour and a half, as well as during Lent on Friday evenings after Stations of the Cross. I find that if this sacrament is promoted the people will come; if we sit in the confessional, encourage confession, and talk about confession, they will come.

The confessional as the spiritual pharmacy. I have placed a small bookcase in my confessional, equipped with quantities of holy cards and other useful prayer leaflets; these are my "prescriptions" based on the penitent's confession. In addition to words of advice and encouragement and the "three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers," I give an appropriate card to match the problem or situation of the soul. When I hear of stress, scruples or anxiety, the penitent receives a tangible help for that condition; when he or she confesses contraception, I give Natural Family Planning information; when abortion, I provide Project Rachel literature. The space behind my screen could be considered a medicine chest. When the contractors were installing the confessionals I made sure the screen had a slot at the bottom for passing out my "pills"; these include copies of the Act of Contrition to help those who can't remember it, and also a guide to confession for those returning after a long absence, which is very much appreciated by them (see the guide offered by the Knights of Columbus). By the way, the kids love their holy cards! (I get my supply from the Autom Company for about a nickel a card.)

Parish retreats and missions. Lent is a perfect time for a parish retreat, when our parishioners are focused on spiritual things like prayer and sacrifice. It's a help to have a guest priest for a week emphasizing the truths of the Catholic faith in the context of Lenten holiness. Our schedule for the priest is to preach all the weekend Masses, to celebrate the morning Mass, and hear confessions for about an hour thereafter. He also holds a Holy Hour in the evening and gives a talk and Benediction with confessions following. We also hold an annual Fall Mission in October or November following the same routine, and do a mailing and advertise in the local newspaper. Finally, we have found it beneficial to the spiritual life of the parish to hold "Half-days of Recollection" either mornings or evenings, separately for men and women. For these "mini-retreats," we bring in priests from various religious orders and congregations. They give a talk, hear confessions and give spiritual direction when needed.

Sacramentalize every nook and cranny. Order sacramentals by the thousand, and give them to every parishioner. In November, around the feast day, give the Miraculous Medal; in July, in honor of Our Lady of Mt. Cannel, give the Brown Scapular, and in October, a Rosary. We know that by promoting these items we are promoting instruments of grace. Holy Water bottles, for example, can be made available near the dispenser for people to take home. The devotional use of votive candles before the statues is also very popular. With regard to statues, find and place a stack of holy cards to match the saint. In this connection, a small parish gift shop would be a good way to make available to our people not only the sacramentals mentioned but also good books for spiritual reading.

Evangelizing the parish
Personal encounter. Part of the charism of the adult Legion of Mary is to go door-to-door throughout the parish for the pastor (although anyone could be trained to do this). It takes from a year to two years to knock on each of the 10,000 doors in the parish boundaries. When no one is home, a packet is left containing a parish bulletin, information about the church and a letter from me. Many people will show up merely because of the packet left at their door. It's wonderful to see! One summer, the Legionaries knocked on the door of a Catholic man away from the Church for forty years; he cried when he tried to talk to them and said, "Jesus sent you to me!" He was dying of lung cancer. I saw him a few days later, heard his beautiful confession and anointed him. His wife, a Baptist, began bringing him to Sunday Mass. He lived another peaceful six months and often expressed his gratitude to the Legion for having brought him back. On another occasion the Legionaries came across a family with three lovely unbaptised children ages two, four and six. Both parents were lapsed Catholics. We got the kids baptized, both parents attended RCIA, were confirmed and married in the Church and were teaching CCD the year after! Being the shepherd of so large a flock, I affectionately call my Legionaries the "Pastor's Sheepdogs," because they go about rounding up the lost sheep of the fold.

Pick up the phone. I can vouch for the fact that it is not easy to call every parishioner on his or her birthday. When I started using this evangelizing tool the parish was small, and I made only half a dozen calls a day. Now it's thirty to forty! It involves about a minute to speak to the person or leave a message, but if you're willing to do it is well worth the time. You'll hear things like: "Father, I've been a Catholic for seventy years and no priest has ever called me on my birthday!", or "Father, your birthday call got us back to church—we hadn't gone for months!" Although my main motive is evangelization, I look on it as an act of kindness to people I may not often see in person. (Non-Catholic spouses also receive a call, which has led some to join RCIA.) One break is in the fact that, about half the time, no one answers, so the message takes much less time than talking in person! Of course we could also reach out to those within our parish boundaries by the post and by the phone. Each year before RCIA begins, I personally sign about 500 letters a year, expressing how pleased we are with their presence in the parish and inviting them to learn more about the Catholic faith. We also send a letter to every parishioner before Christmas and Easter, supplying them with the Mass and confession schedule. And a third letter is sent when someone is newly registered, so the first thing they receive from the parish is a welcome letter signed by the pastor.

Don't ever take the "Sunday Catholic" apostolate for granted. Never underestimate the importance of the Sunday homily. It's really our one chance to reach all the "Sunday Catholics," to make use of that one collective moment to educate, motivate, and inspire them, and to help them move their will to be "Weekday Catholics" as well. I think it is a great, providential opportunity given to us priests, the one chance to influence our people each week. I am reminded of the ditty: "Paddy Reilly went to Church / He never missed a Sunday / But Paddy Reilly went to Hell / For what he did on Monday!" Let us pray and work so that our "Sunday Catholics" will become "Weekday Catholics" as well.

Entrees and evangelization. Marriage preparation meetings are a great time to evangelize couples. I meet with every couple about four times and do about forty weddings a year; that's 160 meetings! It's not that bad, though, since I do most of my marriage preparation in restaurants! Saturday and Sunday lunch is a great time to meet couples. This system leaves most of my weeknights free to have dinner with families and then attend other meetings. I usually do back-to-back lunches with the couples, scheduling one for 11:30 AM and having a salad while they have lunch; the next couple comes at 12:45 PM and I have my entrde with them. If I happen to have a third couple, I get dessert. I evangelize by giving them CDs, Miraculous Medals, pictures of the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart, and lots of handouts. By the way, every couple getting married at Holy Trinity has to take the full Natural Family Planning course; it's not an option. When one of them is not a Catholic, I invite the couple to attend RCIA and our young adults group. We have had a good number of converts with this approach.

Go for groups. I can't emphasize enough the need to get as many parishioners as possible involved in parish life. These groups make parish life! We must especially provide for the young adults, both married and single. In addition to good social events, our young adults attend our monthly Praise and Worship Holy Hour on Sunday nights from 6:30 to 7:30 PM. The lights are dimmed throughout the church, the monstrance is well lit, and I hear confessions during that time. After Benediction the young adults go out for a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant. This group is a good resource for helping with parish activities and is a seed-bed for future vocations.

By now I'm sure you realize my goal as a pastor is to start as many organizations as I can. At last count we had sixty-five. Do I go to all of them? No. Do I delegate to the laity? Absolutely! The more there are, the more life there is around us, the more wholesome activities are available in the parish for the non-participants to discover. The Knights of Columbus circle was one of the first things I started. We also have the Cyrenians, who do bereavement meals, and the pro-life group, which prays at the abortion clinic. There's actually a sewing committee that makes baptismal garments and vestments. Of course another special group is the Altar Boys. We are blessed with 150 of them, and usually there will be between twelve and twenty-five altar boys serving at each of the Sunday Masses. It is inspiring for the people to see these possible future vocations.

Catching them in the Web. I am sure every pastor in today's world realizes the value of a parish website for information, education and evangelization. Our website was recently re-designed by a convert who came into the Church last year. It has been especially helpful with the sections on RCIA, "How to Deepen Your Faith," the Mass and confession schedules, photos of the church, the Church calendar, and listings of our many ministries. Furthermore, with today's sophisticated technology, parishioners can be provided with your homilies and talks online. The shut-ins, the home-bound, and anyone around the country or the world can now listen and be evangelized.

Advangelizing. Order car magnets for your parish. There's nothing like it for keeping the Catholic name in the public eye. We ordered 5,000 and gave them out after the Christmas Masses as a gift to the parishioners. The magnet is an oval shape, yellow-gold on dark blue, proclaiming: "Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Gainesville, VA," with the website. They show up everywhere. In the neighborhood where I live I've seen them on cars of people I didn't know were my parishioners. When I see this I can comfortably approach them and say hello. It creates a nice connection as well among the other neighbors who see the magnets displayed. Some call it advertising—some call it evangelizing; I call it "advangelizing." Another area in which to "advangelize" the church is in the local secular newspapers. Many people come to our church because we advertise our Mass and confession schedule in the local papers. Another idea would be to post a "Welcome Home" sign on the church property; something like "Welcome home inactive Catholics; rediscover your Church."

Catechizing the parish
The baptismal class. At our monthly baptismal class, the participants receive a binder that we have put together containing good articles about baptism, messages for the godparents and literature on such topics as "Why go to Mass on Sunday?", "Why go to Confession?", the examination of conscience, Natural Family Planning, etc. Many of our coicples have come back to the practice of their faith through our baptismal class. Parents can be caught and taught through their kids—their kids' baptisms, their kids' first confessions and First Communions, and their kids' confirmations. We want to use these "sacramental opportunities" to bring people back to the faith. If the parents are not married in the Church we get their information and I, or one of the other priests or a deacon, work with them to get their marriage validated.

The trifold library. To be a catechizing parish, a library is a must—not just the usual library of excellent spiritual reading, but in today's world, a library of DVDs, CDs, and audio books is indispensable. We have over five thousand volumes of donated books in our library, all solid, orthodox Catholic books. The video and audio sections are nicely stocked with good family and Catholic DVDs, and it's great to see parents and others coming in to the library after Mass and signing out this worthwhile material, offsetting, hopefully, the dominance of secular influence.

The pamphlet rack. A familiar sight for years in the vestibules of many Catholic churches was the pamphlet rack, and the need for this today is greater than ever. I recommend some space be made for these "impulse items" for people to pick up after Masses, before and after confession, or while gathering in the vestibule. Our Sunday Visitor is one of our sources, with attractive covers and "Take Me and Read" titles. I also recommend the pamphlets from the Knights of Columbus, Couple to Couple League, One More Soul and Catholic Answers. By the way, once a year you could invite the Daughters of St. Paul or other Catholic vendor to set up a display for your parishioners, to acquaint them with what good Catholic books are available to them.

Formational inserts. Frequent inserts in the parish bulletin can be a regular way of catechizing the parish. In anticipation of a recruiting drive, I included an insert called "Ten Reasons to Join the Legion of Mary" with the listing of the meeting times of our eight groups. We have used articles like "How Old is Your Church?", "Why Make a Holy Hour?", "Why Not Women Priests?", "Why Celibacy for Priests?" Around Christmas and Easter, and at the beginning of Lent and Advent, The Guide to Confession is inserted. Educational items on the vestments or the sacred vessels can be used. These are all wonderful handouts and can bring about results. A few weeks back the inserts were: "Origins of the Catholic Faith," "The Four Marks of the Church," and —The Timeline of Christianity." On Sunday after Mass a man came up to me and said, "Father, this is great; just this week I was talking to my non-Catholic neighbor about when his church and the Catholic Church began, and, lo and behold! The article shows up in this week's bulletin!" The bulletin is the perfect place for the EWTN television schedule, which is free for the asking (they come every two months). Needless to say, the need for supplying information on decent TV programming is paramount in the widespread and ever-present video world.

E-mail, ad-mail. These days, the parish registration form is not complete without space for our parishioners to include their e-mail addresses. Registration forms should gather the following information: Married in the Catholic Church? Are the kids baptized? In CCD? Non-Catholics interested in RCIA? What language spoken at home? Anyone in need of seeing a priest? But to complete the form we should get as many e-mail addresses as possible. Each week we send out an e-mail to every parishioner, highlighting guest speakers, activities and events; it is like a personal invitation to participate in parish life. It is one of the best (and least expensive) ways to reach each parishioner weekly.

Always Invite. Nothing perks up parish life like occasional guest speakers, like Scott Hahn, Fr. John Corapi or Fr. Benedict Groeschel. For pro-life emphasis there are the Priests for Life or the Fathers of Mercy. There are many Catholic artists available for concerts with a message for our youth. Recently one of our diocesan priests held a seminar at our parish on praying the Liturgy of the Hours. It was well attended. Often these visiting priests are asked to speak at all the weekend Masses, which is a great way to reach the whole parish. Also available at our parish is a Natural Family Planning teaching couple who offer NFP classes at least three times a year, and we have a beautiful handout that goes in the bulletin each time they are about to start a class.

Open for discussion. In our monthly discussion group, about forty people a month come to our open forum (although we have had as many as one hundred attend). Some topics have been the meaning of suffering, angels and demons, what the Church teaches about miracles, and how to respond to The DaVinci Code. The talks are prepared and presented by parishioners, monitored by a priest, who gives his talk toward the end based on the ideas (or heresies!) generated during the session. My other recommendation for monthly adult education is the Book of the Month discussion, based on good Catholic books that are ordered and put on sale in the gift shop. Titles range from biographies of saints and famous laypersons to theology and spiritual reading categories. About fifteen to twenty attend each month, and there is usually much enriching discussion.

CD or not CD—No question! When it comes to catechizing, there is no better tool than the CD. At Christmas or Easter we will give a gift of a free CD on some topic of the faith to all the parishioners as they leave Mass. We have to reach those "Christmas and Easter Catholics" somehow! In the past it has been a Scott Hahn or Fr. Corapi conversion-story CD, a CD on how to pray the Rosary, or Fr. Larry Richards on the Mass or on confession. In fact, this past Palm. Sunday we gave out three thousand copies of a CD on confession. Hundreds of people listened to it during Holy Week and came to confession. Last Christmas we gave out the Seven Secrets of the Eucharist. There's no question that the CD is the right tool for this technical age and I recommend the Catholic Lighthouse CDs. The Mary Foundation is another economical place for CDs; if you buy in large quantities they're only fifty cents each. Left in the vestibule and at each of the exits, people will pick them up and usually leave a donation.

Fr. Francis J. Peffley graduated from Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia with a B.A. in theology. He attended Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where he received his M.Div. and M.A. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1990 for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. In June 2001 he was named founding pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Gainesville, Virginia. He is diocesan spiritual director for the Legion of Mary. This is his fifth article to appear in HPR.

© Homiletic & Pastoral Review

This item 9524 digitally provided courtesy of