By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
DUBUQUE — With inspiration gleaned from a book by Father Michael White and lay associate Tom Corcoran, St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Dubuque and other parishes in the archdiocese are taking significant steps to breath new life into their faith communities and to reach out to those beyond their church walls.
In “Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter,” authors Corcoran and Father White share how they utilized the insights they gathered from booming mega-churches and innovative business leaders to revitalize their parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Maryland.
After the staff at St. Joseph the Worker read the book three years ago, they decided to begin implementing some of Corcoran and Father White’s strategies in their own parish.
“We have a lot of faithful people, but there are also a lot of people who feel disconnected from the church, who have lost their faith, or who are ‘unchurched.’ They don’t know Jesus, never experienced him or his profound love,” said Father Gabriel Anderson, pastor at St. Joseph the Worker Parish.
“These people have a spiritual hunger, and the culture can’t provide the nourishment they long for,” he continued. “We need to engage these people where they are. After reading the book we asked ourselves how could we make the faith more relevant to them.”
Father Anderson said the parish explored ways in which it could improve upon the weekend Mass experience, a goal that corresponded with one of Archbishop Michael Jackel’s four mission priorities for the archdiocese — “enhancing the Sunday assembly.”
The parish upgraded to a digital audio and visual system with large screens in the church. This allows people to more easily follow along with prayers and songs and also can be used to show videos at appropriate times.
St. Joseph the Worker has also tried new things with its music ministry in recent months and has scheduled a “contemporary” Mass, with more modern instruments and sound, that is held each Sunday at 11 a.m.
Father Anderson said the new initiatives are meant to heighten the experience for those in attendance but are never meant to replace the centrality of the Eucharist as the center of Catholic worship.
“None of this is meant to distract, but to help inspire,” Father Anderson said.
“People are attracted to different things. Some like worship more traditional, solemn and quiet, but others find inspiration with the modern style. We want to offer different options. But our focus remains on Jesus and the Eucharist. Everything we’re doing, it brings us all back to Christ.”
Father Anderson said an important feature of the parish’s efforts has been the participation of the laity in the initiatives it’s undertaken.
“We have had a lot of people involved,” Father Anderson said. “Parishioner involvement has been key!”
Members of St. Joseph the Worker have been part of creating hospitality teams, which initially provided a welcoming presence at the parish but will soon be taking their hospitality beyond the church grounds and into the community. On Aug. 19, a group will attend the Dubuque Farmers’ Market in order to offer a public presence and provide people the opportunity to ask questions about the Catholic faith, receive a blessed rosary, or pick up a Bible or a catechism to read later.
This fall, the parish plans to initiate a campaign that will step up their evangelization efforts. Personal invitations will be sent to people in the local community and a special, multi-week preaching series that focuses on several topics relevant to today’s culture will be promoted on the radio and in the newspaper, in an attempt to welcome new faces to the church.
“If 20,000 people are invited to a party, someone is bound to show up,” reflected Father Anderson.
In August, the parish will begin to hold monthly youth Masses, followed by faith sharing opportunities for young people.
Also this summer, the newly ordained Father Ralph Davis will begin serving as associate pastor to St. Joseph the Worker, and the linked Dubuque parish of St. Columbkille, and will focus a great deal of his ministry on young people.
Father Anderson said he believes that the new priest, along with the upcoming ordination of a new deacon for the two parishes, Travis King, and the hiring in the past year of a contemporary music leader and a communications minister, both in their 20s, is likely to bring a renewed appeal to youth in the parish.
Michael Jelinske, a 30-year-old parishioner of St. Joseph the Worker, already feels the difference the outreach to younger adults has had on the worship experience at the parish, calling it a “transformation.” He said he finds the new music uplifting and believes the screens make it easier to be engaged and follow along with the music.
“Being a younger individual,” Jelinske said, “it’s exciting to see how the parish is staying true to the roots of the Catholic tradition but is finding ways to bring in new people, especially younger people, by using things such as technology to our advantage. It makes you feel good to be part of such a great community.”
Father Anderson said efforts toward parish revitalization at St. Joseph the Worker have spread to St. Columbkille Parish, where monthly youth Masses will begin in September and parishioners are implementing a number of other strategies to renew the faith community there.
“What was going on at St. Joseph the Worker has inspired St. Columbkille,” Father Anderson said, “and I’m inspired by the growth and dynamism in both parishes — by the love people in both parishes have for their parish and love they have for the Lord.”
Like their counterparts in Dubuque, parishioners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Hiawatha have also been experimenting over the past couple of years with tactics from Father White and Corcoran’s “Rebuilt.” The parish has put in place changes to appeal to “Seton Sam,” the fictional person who represents the “unchurched” or inactive Catholic who might visit St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish on any given Sunday.
“Seton Sam usually has kids,” explained Trish Lokmer, pastoral associate and director of faith formation for the parish. “We’re a young parish. Average age is about 30.”
The parish has adapted to this reality by accommodating children through an initiative called the “Play Ground” as well as other measures and has also hired staff to work on children’s programing.
Lokmer and others from her parish participated in a panel discussion at the most recent Pastoral Leadership Study Day April 20 in Waterloo where Corcoran and Father White were the keynote speakers. Afterward, she spoke with The Witness.
Trying to discover what works and what doesn’t hasn’t always been easy, but Lokmer says they have experienced some success in engaging people, some of whom are new to the parish.
To any faith community interested in exploring parish revitalization like that underway at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton or his two parishes in Dubuque, Father Anderson has advice.
“The inspiration of the Holy Spirit shows up in different ways. Homogeny is not the key, uniqueness is,” he said. “Each parish should share its unique gifts. When we ask ourselves, ‘How can we help this hurting culture?’ we’ll come up with different ways to do that. But these various applications are all meant to bring us back to Christ, who has the power to transform.”
Father Gabriel Anderson (center) at Mass with St. Joseph the Worker’s 2017 first communicants. Above them is one of the large screens the parish purchased recently that is capable of projecting song lyrics, prayers, videos and other materials. New technology is one of many elements in the revitalization campaign. (Contributed photo)