Evangelization seen as heart and soul of parish role


Lidia Wasowicz is a former UPI science reporter and long-time freelance writer for Catholic San Francisco.

Some perceive a parish as a provider of soul food for the spiritually hungry, offering the Eucharist at every Mass and a menu of ministries to carry out the works of mercy.

Others view it as a safe harbor during life’s physical and emotional storms, shining a beacon of hope over the despondent, dejected and disillusioned.

Still others regard it as a conduit of love for and from Jesus, reminding society to rejoice in his all–encompassing embrace of humanity.

These images – with a central vision of evangelization as the primary pastoral purpose – came to light in interviews with 28 priests and parishioners, ages 9 to 88, from 13 parishes spanning the three counties of the San Francisco Archdiocese.

Fred Nangca recalled the jubilation as St. Patrick in the South of Market district of San Francisco reopened its doors, previously closed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everybody was so excited about being able to once again get spiritual nourishment from the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist and in-person service to others that had been put on hold that we had tears in our eyes,” said the 46-year-old retail manager who also volunteers at St. Boniface in the Tenderloin, his first parish upon arrival from the Philippines in 1994.

Father Paul O’Dell detailed a steady stream of calls for help to St. Denis in Menlo Park and Our Lady of the Wayside in Portola Valley, from a mother distraught over a satanic cult luring in her child to a woman seeking escape from an exploitative employer.

“People drowning in problems and pain reach out to God, to the church as a lifeline,” observed the pastor of both parishes with a combined congregation of 800. “We are here for our faith, family and community, for everyone in need of safety and support.”

Bradley Diaz, a fourth grader at Our Lady of Loretto in Novato and altar server, guitarist, singer and all-around helper at the Church of the Assumption in Tomales, talked of the joy he found in building a relationship with Jesus, particularly through reflection in the Adoration Chapel, and his wish to pass it on.

“God has called me to be a priest,” said the 9-year-old, who survived three high-risk head surgeries to repair a birth defect before his fourth birthday. “I want to respect and love God, to thank him for all he has given me and to share his word and love with other people.”

His desire goes to the heart and soul of a parish’s role.

“The main mission is to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples of Jesus,” said Father Roberto Andrey, pastor of St. Patrick.

He noted a recent focus on attracting nonpracticing Christians and Catholics, particularly family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances, through deed more than creed.

“The main role of a parish is to support our faith, to reach out to the community, to bring in those that kind of got away from the church,” echoed Linda Mendoza, 66, a parishioner, bookkeeping assistant, lector and greeter at the Church of the Assumption in the bucolic northwest corner of Marin County.

At the opposite geographic end of the archdiocese, that goal resonates with Father Larry Goode, the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in East Palo Alto who has been instrumental in pursing social justice reform for many of his 57 years as a priest.

His ultimate aim: “to bring Jesus to the people.”

Father Kevin Joyce, professor and spiritual director at St. Patrick Seminary and University in Menlo Park, discussed the importance of parish programs preparing parents for their children’s baptism, first Communion and confirmation, noting that they “usually focus on explaining the sacraments to people who often do not know Jesus Christ.”

Looking for effective alternatives to fill the pews and foster participation, Father Roger Gustafson structured a pyramid of team leaders and designed a detailed plan of invitation and involvement at St. Hilary in Tiburon.

“The challenge we face is the affluence that creates a number of distractions that have Jesus taking the back seat,” the pastor said. “We see our mission as showing people the relevance of Jesus in their lives,” an effort he assessed as “an uphill battle.”

Options for action abound, including 18 current ministries at St. Hilary’s that live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

To maximize outreach, St. Hilary has augmented the music program, transitioned to an innovative giving platform, installed a sophisticated camera, audiovisual and lighting system for livestreaming and announced website and mobile app upgrades.

The steps are moving the parish toward a desired destination.

The choir, cantors and contemporary artists who sing God’s praises during weekend Masses have garnered additional fans and national acclaim.

Overall income has surged 16 percent despite a 3 percent drop in Sunday collections during the coronavirus crisis.

The number of Facebook followers has increased by 60 percent, and the total of small groups has more than doubled.

Engagement has extended to out-of-state relatives, homebound retirees, military stationed overseas and even some converts-in-the-making not quite ready for formal initiation, reported Lisa Rosenlund, 58, director of development and stewardship and a St. Hilary parishioner for more than two decades.

“This past year, the pandemic made it very difficult to measure success, but I think St. Hilary is moving in the right direction,” said Bill Tiedje, 77, a parishioner for 32 years and a member of the finance council. “I hope we don’t create a generation of technology Catholics, but we must continue to try to bring nonpracticing Catholics back into the parish community.”

As parishes across the archdiocese urge the fallen away and the kept away to come home, they try to balance resisting and relying on the digital tools they found indispensable during the lengthy lockdown.

In addition to impeding reception of the Eucharist, central to Catholic life and worship, virtual attendance “builds an artificial relationship that undermines human interaction and the need to be with others,” said Alonso D. Chattan, a 79-year-old retired graphic artist, usher and parishioner for five decades at St. Sebastian in Greenbrae.

One of the few churches to opt out of livestreaming services, St. Sebastian committed to more conventional community connections.

“I don’t feel like there has been much of an absence or disconnect from our usual parish life,” said Deacon David Previtali. “We provided Communion and blessings from our porch to those who requested it and showed up during the most difficult isolation times, and confessions have never ceased to be available.”

The personal touch also never stopped at the Church of the Assumption, where Father Juan Manuel Lopez rode around the vast expanses of his parish in a truck, holding the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance and, unbeknownst to their dwellers, blessing all the homes he passed.

“I kept praying for us to be able to give good testimony to what we believe,” the pastor recounted. “I kept asking the Holy Spirit to allow us to open up.”

Permission came for an outdoor Mass on Pentecost 2020.

Throngs arrived from as far away as San Mateo, 92 miles to the south. Even children and teenagers knelt reverently on the harsh gravel to receive the Eucharist.

“Having been denied so long, they appreciate it more,” said Father Lopez, who stopped livestreaming services as soon as in-person attendance was sanctioned.

Rosa Ordoñez, 36, hopes Our Lady of Loretto, her parish for 12 years, will follow suit.

“I honestly have not seen seniors or people that are at higher risk hesitate to go back in person; sadly, the younger generations are the ones not coming back,” she said, blaming online availability.

“I really wish that once everything gets better we stop the livestreaming so people can come back,” she added.

Missing communion with community, retired professor and part-time lawyer Francisco Wong-Diaz, 76, and his wife, event producer Bobbie Fakkema, found it easy to forgo virtual visits in favor of a “real return” to their parish of 19 years, the Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park.

Their drawbacks notwithstanding, digital devotions provide a viable substitute for those unable to be physically present, said investment manager Scott Chapman, 62, of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Mill Valley.

“To the surprise of many pastors, the numbers of those who gathered virtually for Masses have been overwhelmingly greater than the usual in-person attendance prior to the pandemic,” said Father Raymund Reyes, pastor of St. Augustine in South San Francisco.

“There’s no doubt this particular innovation has helped parishes reach out to more parishioners than ever,” as well as meet the parish’s financial needs through online giving, he said.

St. Patrick, for one, features a user-friendly gifting option on its website and continues to provide cyber alternatives for religious education, novenas and meetings.

Technology plays a supplemental role, stressed Evelyn Bird, 58, a parishioner since 1994, lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and member of the Alpha team that evangelizes through fellowship, food and fun.

“In-person church devotions are encouraged before and after Masses and online Zoom events,” said the Native American from the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Pueblo of Santo Domingo (now called the Kewa Pueblo).

Such encouragement has brought back many of the 700 registered families along with tourists and visitors, who make up some 75 percent of the churchgoers.

Msgr. Steven Otellini, pastor, has similarly observed a “noticeable increase” in daily worshippers at the Church of the Nativity, which has maintained its adoration program throughout the pandemic and is gearing up to commemorate its 150th anniversary next year.

At St. Francis of Assisi, where services – particularly the Spanish-language Masses – have long attracted overflow crowds, “more and more [of the 2,000 registered parishioners] are returning,” Father Goode said.

“Our collection is way up,” he said, revealing a recent record of $7,000 in weekly donations that eclipsed the previous all-time high by $2,000.

To spur such success, and subvert the national slide in religious practice, local churches are beefing up communications, addressing safety concerns, enhancing preaching and teaching, expanding devotional and prayer opportunities, and boosting outreach within and beyond the parish.

In Tomales, Father Lopez makes personal visits and some 50 calls a week to ensure each parishioner is well informed and properly formed. He recommends Scripture readings and hands out Bibles to anyone who lacks one.

The parish places top priority on such faith-promoting, community-building events as the highly anticipated annual Aug. 15 celebration of the feast of the Assumption, the favorite festivity of Bradley Diaz and his mother Veronica Carrillo, a 48-year-old Guatemalan immigrant longing to recapture the church-centered traditions of her childhood.

The volunteer secretary looks forward to helping launch teen-friendly programs to keep youth “praying and staying for life.”

To keep the predominantly Spanish-speaking adults engaged, the parish joins numerous others in organizing multilingual Masses and special devotions to culturally relevant saints.

The offerings range from Vietnamese services at St. Boniface to a newly introduced Tagalog Mass at St. Augustine, where the pre-pandemic weekend attendance averaged 2,800 and is expected to surge with the marking of the parish’s golden jubilee, rescheduled from 2020 due to COVID-19.

“We at St. Augustine are a beautiful conglomeration of colors,” said Norma Bitanga–Regidor, an 88-year-old and member of the largely Filipino congregation since 1980.

“It is like saying, we are a United Nations – waving different flags, speaking different tongues, but we all have the same smile, and that smile makes us one,” she said.

Our Lady of Loretto pastor, Father Tony Vallecillo, has evoked smiles by sharing the “parish vision” on how to become saints through prayer, service and evangelization, said Stephanie Deignan, 43, who grew up and attended school in the parish.

Emotional and physical revitalization, including the addition of stained-glass windows and expanded ministries, bespeak parish efforts to provide newcomers and veterans with a meaningful experience, said Catherine Stanek, a retired teacher who has worshipped at OLL for 45 years.

“In trying to increase our parish count (of 2,200 families), there’s never enough that can be done!” affirmed longtime parishioner Donna Morris, 71.

Having laid out a complex, long-term, five-point plan, Father Gustafson agreed.

“All of us here in the archdiocese face some monumental challenges to achieving our mission,” the St. Hilary pastor concluded. “I feel very optimistic about our ability to meet the challenges and fulfill our mission.”