Catechists and staff from our parishes and diocese were in Ottawa April 4-6, 2019
for the National Conference on Evangelization and Catechesis.
Following are highlights on conference talks and experiences.
See also our Facebook page for posts and videos.
It was a feast for the senses, based on a Gospel story we have heard many times before.
To welcome, yes, but also to disarm our habits, our autopilot that can take over when we think we know something well or at least well enough.
What was the ‘well’ of this opening evening was the Well of Jacob.
The Woman at the Well was the story of the evening,
And the feast laid out for us required no forks or knives, only our attention.
The reward was seeing and more importantly feeling the story as if for the first time.
He Thirsts for You is the theme of this year’s conference, how Jesus longs for an intimate relationships with each of us. These next three days are to inspire and instruct us on how to evangelize, to share this profound knowledge and love with others. For to evangelize is to approach and invite, the inner curriculum as Dr. Josephine Lombardi, our evening keynote explained. Catechesis is the external curriculum of doctrine and practice, which is best past on after evangelization.
So, gathered for our initial few hours together, our deeper journey in evangelization began.
A children’s choir, voices and hands raised high in praise, called us into the room.
Our theme song, haunting and clear in the voice of Jan Bentham who wrote it, accompanied at first only by guitar and harp, called us into our gifts. Within the hour the room was filled with song, not Juno quality but not intended for such. The intention was to raise us out of ourselves and begin the process of sharing: our talents, our desire for connection, our passion for we as God’s children designed to invite and engage with others.
We stop singing as a quiet figure in black toting a large cube and a scarf glides to the stage. Within moments she is an embodiment of the woman so often talked about in the Gospel of John, but rarely talked to. She is Elisa Lollino, an actress and playwright who performs this evening one of four one-woman productions she has written. Minutes later she is an old man, bitter and judgemental of his estranged son, this woman living with a man not her husband, the world in general. She ducks behind the cube and emerges transformed again, masked and vampish, as the well, a place of satiating physical desire without thought to the spiritual life. Then, the mask disappears and she is the woman again, baking bread for the man she lives with, trapped in a cycle of unhappy relationships ‘not because I want to, but because it was expected of me! I was expected to fail and fail I did.” She went to the well often, at noon when others hid from the heat of the day. There were fewer people to condemn her that way. The she meets a man who asks her for a drink. As the actress transforms before our eyes into characters sharing this story, we are transformed by the story entering not only through our eyes to our brain but attaching to our memories, our experiences, and inviting forth our emotions, as theatre has done for centuries. We felt her confusion as Jesus offers her unconditional love, her shame as she feels unworthy in his presence, her joy in the realization of her worth and her reunion with He who made her, her agony at the cross. Then as quickly as she appeared in front of us, the tiny figure in black retrieved her cube and glided from the stage. Photos and video of the performance were respectfully forbidden, as is common for live performances, and as is fitting here. No camera can reproduce for each of us the images of the woman transforming into an old man, both transformed by the love of a man we never see but all feel, every moment, with each of us.
Followup and closure was in our keynote by Dr. Josephine Lombardi,
who illustrated in words and slides the symbols within the Gospel story and how Jesus remains a model for evangelization. An experienced communicator and knowledgeable speaker, she was also introduced as a model of humanity, with her deep faith, forthright delivery of what she knows and what she has experienced, including mistakes along the way, offering everything with courage, love, and most importantly, no shame. As evangelists, sharers of the faith, we are entrusted to approach and invite anyone in need of mercy and love, especially those in places of pain, isolation and vulnerability.
“Do we talk around the vulnerable that we have made an effort to encounter, or do we prefer to read about them, not taking time to dialogue with them?” she asks in an invitation for us to ask ourselves. “Have we allowed an encounter so someone can trust us? To allow this encounter, we need courage.” Jesus in his very act of entering Samaria rather than skirting around it, a land considered unclean and dangerous by Jews, was an act of great courage. His allowing people to approach him, touch him, ask of him, provided encounters that transformed.
He brought fruits of mercy – joy, serenity and peace – into lands and hearts overrun by fruits of exile – despair, shame and isolation, and we as His missionaries are invited to do the same.
Our evening closed with a recording of The Reckless Love by Cory Asbbury.
(Here is is on YouTube):
“It chases me down, fights till I’m found … the overwhelming, never-ending reckless love of God.”
To share this love of God takes great belief, trust and courage, first and foremost in and of ourselves. This evening’s feast for the senses was a first step in finding, filling and caring for our well of Living Water.
Opening night awakened us to our thirst for knowledge, connection, and pathways to action.
Day 2 immersed us in an abundance of talent, perspectives, words and deeds that at day’s end left us gasping and spent, but brimming with renewed hope and new possibilities.
At the pinnacle of the day’s proceedings was the two-part keynote by Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI.
He is a best-selling author, compared by Publishers Weekly to Henri Nouwen and Daniel Berrigan. He is a renowned speaker and lecturer, referred to in his bio as a “specialist in the fields of spirituality and systematic theology,” and listed in his introduction as a missionary and a prophet. He is a proud Canadian, born and raised on the Prairies. And at the moment he took the stage, he was all of these things and more, delivering anecdotes with the precision of a stand-up comic, inviting us inside ourselves with the deft manouvres of a deep sea diver and always, with the steady pulsing flow of words that nourished, challenged, raised us up and led us onward.
From the Well to the World: Evangelization and Catechesis was the title given the journey he offered in our two hours together. He framed the journey in three parts:
The Issues in our church today
Issues include loss of people from the church, due to aging, marginalization of church from mainstream society, and a reluctance of our faithful to engage in our community of faith, choosing solitary private pursuit rather than the public engagement to which our baptism calls us. Our society is also one not easily labelled or identified and as a result, not easily reached by a single ministry or message. What we casually call ‘the world today’ is in fact a melting pot of four generations: Pre-modern (seniors), Modern (Baby Boomers), Post-Modern (Generation X) and Anti-Modern (Millennials). Our church is feeling the effects of its teenage child we call secularism, rebelling against its Christian roots, and we need a new generation of apologetics to respond to secularity with new vivid imagery. Our church is also divided by tensions within the church between the conservative and liberal. Those tensions, he said, are not meant to be resolved but are there to provide the energy and insights needed for living. Both are right, both are necessary, it is openness needed to the new, different and conflicting information presented rather than pursuit of victory or resolution.
“Cesspool of sin” is how he described, through the eyes of some Christian factions, western European countries where “everything” including abortion, prostitution and recreational drugs are legal, but Rolheiser points out these same countries take care of their poor better than anywhere in the world. The critics of these countries "couldn’t find the poor with a GPS,” he counters, “but they are really into Jesus.”
He quoted a number of authors and their imagery of Christianity today:
Charles Taylor – we are in a crisis not of faith, but of imagination
Louis Dupree – secularity is not bad, it’s just not finished
Richard Rohr – we are in the belly of the whale
Peter Murran – When you don’t know what else to do, keep going to church meetings. Pentecost happened at a church meeting
Christina Crawford – I reached a point where I was a lost soul, but lost is a place, too
Chardin – we are a world still in diapers
Love is the ultimate driver. We need to love the world and be in the world, not of the world. Our faith can be personal but it cannot be private: it needs community, the arena in which energy and wisdom can flow and form each other. Consider: could you truly love and enemy or die for someone who hates you? Jesus showed that Christian love takes you farther than any other.
We need to “re-inflame the romantic imagination”, and create new symbols relevant to people for today. Live in hope and faith in the Gospels, which remain relevant in the present and any age, and then re-interpret them for new generations of understanding. When Goin’ My Way with Bing Crosby was released in the 1950s, seminarian numbers soared. Thomas Merton’s novel Seven-Storey Mountain filled monasteries for a generation. What symbols would resonate today?
Your most important catechetical tool is your own fidelity to the faith. Are you a missionary or a tourist? Trust needs to be built before news can be shared. Witnessing is the most powerful form of engaging trust and the imagination – sharing vulnerability and possibilities all at once.
Carrying us further were three workshops throughout the day.
Same Water, Different Well: Christianity in Pop Culture
With Dr. Andrew Wilson, Mount Allison University, Sackville NB
Pop culture, seen as unsophisticated, shallow, ‘junk food’ for the intellect and the opposite of sacred is in fact seen to flow through and from Christianity. And, in fact, can Christianity be seen using pop culture attributes in its messaging to reach a modern audience?
Pilgrimages are associated with sacred sites and journeys of deep inner transformation and spiritual experience. A rock concert attracts thousands of people, all deeply engaged in the lyrics and display on stage, buying and wearing the merchandise, sharing their experience for days and years to come, but not considered a pilgrimage because the crowd, nor those on stage, are considered Christian. Yet on the Camino walk in Spain, considered to be among the most holy pilgrimages in the world, only 20% self-declare that their reason for completing the Camino was for traditional religious reasons. For the other 80% the reasons are entertainment, curiosity, escape from pain at home like a breakup or empty nest. At the end of the Camino is merchandise for every size and taste to buy, share and wear. Stones left atop Camino signposts are a Celtic pagan tradition, as the Camino trail predates Christianity. That pagan practice has now become a part of the Christian Camino tradition. Where there seems to be isolated pools of culture versus Christianity, there is in fact flow. And counter culture, which seems to go against Christianity, in fact is a tradition highlighted by the story of the woman at the well. “When Jesus offers this woman a different kind of water, he is messing with the system,” Walker explains. A woman at a well was not only fetching water to drink, she was often looking for a husband to carry on the societal expectation of marriage, home, children. The system was not working for this woman, and Jesus offered her a better way, but one contrary to the norm of the community.
In a modern example Walker shared a video of the Antwerp train station, majestic in appearance as a church, crawling with commuters and travellers enmeshed in the chaotic dance of schedules and priorities until the strains of a familiar tune settle over the crowd.
Suddenly someone is dancing in centre court, followed by several, and then to the tune of Do Re Mi from The Sound of Music a flash mob erupts. Some stare in bewilderment, some clap along or join in, others are on their phones and oblivious to the dance, still others are visibly annoyed and attempt to push through with their day. Breaking into spontaneous dance is not appropriate social behaviour, but at the end the overwhelming feeling is of joy. Offering a single woman with a disreputable past the living water of redemption and hope was not appropriate social behaviour, but in that act Jesus not only saved the woman, but continues to invite us to seek him and the joy of living water in unexpected places.
It’s a Way of Life:
First Nations, Metis and Inuit Stories
with Marian Lawson-MacDonald, Curriculum Consultant with the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario
Our conference on Thursday night opened with an acknowledgement that we gathered on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people. That acknowledgement was repeated throughout the conference, reminding us that the land was assume is ours was in fact the birthplace and home of a culture that predated ours and was either assimilated or taken. Acknowledgement is the first step in understanding, which is needed for authentic reconciliation and healing.
A multimedia resource in English and French developed for elementary students by the Eastern Ontario Catholic Curriculum Corporation brings the culture and wisdom of First Nations, Metis and Inuit through youth who in a series of videos share a traditional story, answer questions, share a sacred talent and then perform a dance, song or instrumental number.
Resources are also available for download:
Videos are available on YouTube:
The Plan in Black: What Johnny Cash Can Teach Us About New Evangelization
By Blake Sittler, Diocese of Saskatoon
On Sept. 12, 2003, Blake Sittler gathered some like-minded friends for a wake to honour the music and legacy of Johnny Cash. A year later, it was suggested they do it again. It has been repeated every year since; five years ago, the numbers topped 120, not all of them Cash fans, but now being drawn into the energy and joy of a good party which has at its source the passion of those living and sharing in something – or someone – they love.
When searching for an event idea to engage men of his diocese, he didn’t have far to look.
His session has been repeated more than 35 times in places throughout his diocese and beyond, drawing hundreds of people into conversations about the Gospel and the love of Jesus for all of us. “It’s not specifically about Johnny Cash,” Sittler clarifies. “Johnny Cash is the grain of sand around which the oyster forms a pearl.”
Cash wrote a recorded Woman at the Well in 1971, but his talk, like those community presentations, was not a literal discography of the man and his music. It was how this man allowed spirit to move him, form his music, and engage with those we all claim to want to help but often fail to even notice. Cash is quoted as saying an evangelist “is one beggar telling another beggar where there’s bread.’ He is described as a shepherd who smells like his sheep. He was a musician revered by millions, who told his producers he would record the popular tunes, but only if he could record gospel after that. He is held up as a model of redemption, a man who survived violence and addiction and lust and incarceration, although for the latter he only spent one night in jail. Many prisoners after his concerts would claim their fathers spent time in jail with Cash to which the singer replied he would have had to served five life sentences to have met them all. He wrote songs about the poor, the forgotten. When President Nixon invited Cash to the White House to perform his hits, Cash offered the Ballad of Ira Hayes about the forgotten indigenous soldier who helped raise the Iwo Jima flag in World War II, and the Man in Black, about why he chose the colour that is by its definition no colour at all:
What can we learn from Johnny Cash about evangelization?
Courage: it takes a great deal of courage to share your story, especially with the people you love, but it is in that witnessing that transformation is possible for everyone.
Speak for those who need a voice: In the time of Johnny Cash it was those marginalized by poverty, addiction, or the prison system. Today that list could be expanded to include those marginalized by societal views of sexual orientation, refugees from war-torn countries, and residential schools. Our job as Christians is not to protect the well from those who are thirsty, but to invite them to drink, to love without rules or restrictions, to use our gifts – as Cash used his – to reach out to those who need the living water.
Filled to overflowing by the flow of words, thoughts and activity, we are again drawn to the well. We fear we have no thirst left to quench, but soon learn that there is always another image to inspire, another story that moves, another soul to connect with ours in breaking open and sharing the infinite love of God.
Our closing keynote was offered by Bishop William McGratton. He is introduced to our conference as the Bishop of Calgary, but I had the good fortune of sharing a table with someone who attended high school with him - she knew him as Bill, a popular athlete with the big hair and bigger attitude only the 1970s could provide. Suddenly the speaker in front of us took on another dimension, and we could more easily relate to the poised quiet leader at the podium that did not instantly appear, but took years of discernment, choices and effort to evolve.
Returning to the Well: Ongoing Transformation suddenly took on another, richer dimension, as and we could more easily relate to the poised quiet leader at the podium that did not instantly appear, but took years of discernment, choices and commitment to evolve. As was echoed throughout the conference: people listen to witnesses more than they listen to teachers and if they listen to teachers, it is because the teachers are witnesses.
From Bishop McGratton’s keynote:
An encounter with Jesus is a path for New Evangelization.
The path begins with outreach that:
- Should transform
- Offer prolonged contact
- Offered in the hope that Christ will transform not only the world but our lives as well
We as New Evangelists are called to go into a world that is cold, even hostile, to our message. We have journeyed in the desert, 2000 years in exile, and over the vast empty space and passage of time we can feel estranged from Christ and from God. But in this desert, there is an oasis of hope: it is okay to be in unfamiliar surroundings, for this is where Christ touches our lives most effectively.
“Whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up”
Returning to the source means knowing the tradition of evangelization and evolution in our church.
Vatican Council II, 1962-5
Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1975
Christifideles Laici, 1987
Nova Millennio Ineunte, 2000
Evangelii Gaudium, 2013
These documents affirm the need for outward journey and sharing of faith. Individualism, be it a person, parish, or group unto itself, has boundaries to sharing, whereas the light of Christ grows the more widely it is shared. “When I share the good news between parishes of what others are doing, I see eyes light up,” Bishop McGratton said, affirming that there is joy and hope in sharing, and in allowing others to hear what you are doing.
A catechist is a person who has experienced two calls: the initial call of baptism, and a later call of ‘Give me some water’ that is both personal and communal. This is not an easy call to accept or to live out: intimate encounters with God can be fraught with risk, despair, and difficulty. But as with each call to vocation, the call is for the sake of others and the good of community.
What can aid in the discernment of this call?
- Humility, for no human knows everything
- Generosity, embracing service to others
The catechist who hears and chooses the call “is a true living instrument, more important than any phase or program,” as agents of faith formation, and so catechists are encouraged to allow themselves to be formed.
Their agents of formation can be:
- Fellow catechists
- Bishops and priests
- Community of catechists
These agents also have a responsibility to allow space for the Holy Spirit to guide and flow, even if the paths offered are unfamiliar. Creative, Innovative and Practical are words he offered to describe pathways to success in today’s catechesis. He recently met the youngest catechist in in his diocese: a boy aged 10, who had tired of being an altar server, felt called to mentor the younger students in his catechetical program, and thanks to his response to the call and a team willing to support him is now enrolled in formation to assist with children’s liturgy at Mass. The formation resources came from the Lutheran Church, discovered by the team after a year-long search for materials easily relatable, adaptable and user-friendly. Gasps greeted this revelation, murmurs of approval soon followed when the bishop explained how the discovery generated renewed energy for the faith formation program and new relationships in the larger faith community.
We all have the tools for spiritual life:
- The Holy Spirit, principle operative informing, empowering and challenging
- Our authentic witness and relationship with Christ, offered with boldness, courage and urgency
- Our willingness to respond with love and act as servants of truth
As catechists, we are called and respond in the service of providing formation.
A final breakout session concluded the workshop portion of the conference.
From Senior Ministry: Formed in Faith
By David Dayler
Many parishes and faith communities have some form of regular contact for the sick and shut-ins. What of the well seniors? It can be easy to forget that even those able and willing to attend Mass may have spiritual needs unmet.
A commenter offered early in the talk that seniors seem to be running our churches today: they are warming the pews, leading our committees and filling both staff and volunteer spots in offices and ministries. All of this activity, however, can mask the fact that while seniors are being tapped and engaged for their intellectual talents: finance, management, work experience, life experience, for example, they may not be engaged in activity that nourishes their spirits, and in turn enables them to engage and feed the spirits of others.
By 2030, it is expected that 20% of our population – 1 in 5 people – will be over age 65.
In 2001, the fastest growing population segment was that for people over age 80.
Our society includes four generations of adults:
Elders, born prior to 1945
Boomers, born 1945-1964
Generation X, born 1965-1979
Millennials, born after 1979
Given that some places list senior as 50-plus, we have three generations of seniors in our midst.
‘Doing something for seniors” means first and foremost acknowledging the different evolutions and values of these generations.
Elders, for example, survived the Great Depression, World War II and the A-Bomb. Church attendance was not if but when. Times were tough but people were tougher. There was little recreation or waste, but lots of love and accomplishment in their own ways.
Baby Boomers rode the post-war wave of change and prosperity. They were raised to value the corporate world, lifelong jobs with a good salary now and pension for retirement. Women began entering the workforce in many forms, birth rates dropped and attention shifted from family to career.
These differing values and outcomes can be challenging to engage, but offer fertile soil for ministry.
In general, opportunities to effectively engage seniors should offer:
Effective Programming, not just ‘stuff’ for people to do
Key areas of concern for seniors?
Attitude: I Can vs I Can’t
A comment from the crowd added a deeper perspective.
She witnessed self-transformation from a simple, heartfelt sentence directed to her:
“We need you.”
Too often, she said, the words are ‘we will do for them,’ when they should be ‘you have something to offer us’. We need to see seniors not as a vast faceless group needing our help, but as individuals with many gifts that, when connected to our ideas and programs, create more pathways for God’s love to flow.
Then it was Mass, a time to celebrate together the end of a successful conference and the start of a new chapter in our lives as New Evangelists.
There was more living water to come.
Celebrant for Mass was Bishop Hector Felipe Vila, Chair of the Episcopal Commission for Evangelization and Catechesis and Bishop of Whitehorse. He is learned and reverent, a committed shepherd cloaked in purple who gathered us in and led us through the Liturgy of the Word. But as his homily began, he invited us to see him as the unborn child of a woman with nine children and an enlarged heart, warned that a 10th birth could kill her. The mother survived the birth of her youngest son but died eight months later. The baby would grow up knowing his mother only through story, never meeting but eternally reconstructing the person she was through the choices she made. Did his early life determine his path to the priesthood? The question sits above a congregation silent in grief for a child losing his mother and a woman making what seems an impossible choice, to risk leaving her nine children for the sake of one more. He offers no answer, but a perfectly timed segue: the choice to the priesthood was not always clear, he admitted, as there were times when he considered family life, but after seeing what was involved in marriage, "well, thank you, God!" Grief is melted in a wave of laughter that rolls through the room like a cleansing storm. “Just kidding,” he offered quickly, with a smile and in all seriousness, to an audience knowing and grateful. We were cracked open by a personal witness and laid bare to a universal pain that took us deeper into understanding where we thought no more could exist, then invited back to the light by and with joy. The power of witness, and a well-timed joke, demonstrated yet again.
And from there, we dispersed to the far corners of our country, our dioceses, our parishes, our homes, and our hearts. But as always, at the end of one invitation is a fresh new path to explore.
Diocese of Antigonish
About the image of The Woman at the Well:
He Thirsts for You is from an original painting by Gisele Bauche
and used with permission as the image theme for the 2019 National Conference.
Learn more of Gisele and her work: