Parishes prepare for 'radically mission-oriented Christmas' at Parish Day of Renewal

Fr. Athanasius Fornwalt, FHS, a Franciscan Friar of the Holy Spirit, excitedly waves during the Parish Day of Renewal on Nov. 16 at the Wyndham Garden Conference Center in Sterling Heights. More than 800 pastors, lay ecclesial ministers, volunteers and parish staff attended to discuss, pray about and discern strategies for evangelization with Christmas right around the corner. (Photos by Naomi Vrazo | Archdiocese of Detroit)

Two archbishops, Fr. Riccardo among speakers firing up parish leaders, staff to evangelize on eve of new liturgical year

STERLING HEIGHTS — If Advent and Christmas are the “big games” of the liturgical calendar, then Nov. 16 was the pre-game “warmup” for parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Bishops, pastoral ministers, lay ecclesial ministers, parish staff and leadership teams met at the Wyndham Garden Conference Center in Sterling Heights for a daylong Parish Day of Renewal, a follow-up to the archdiocese's “Unleash the Gospel” weekend and a preparation for parishes looking to welcome parishioners and guests alike this Advent. 

Two weekends after 568 missionaries visited 208 parishes across the archdiocese, an estimated 276,718 people have visited, with 47,953 of those taking the challenge, watching a combined 5,100 hours of video content about how the Archdiocese of Detroit is "unleashing the Gospel." 

At the Parish Day of Renewal, keynote speakers stressed how "kerygmatic" preaching, reliance on prayer and "unusually gracious" hospitality at parishes can light the spark for people to reclaim their identities as daughters and sons of God, living in Christ’s light.

Back to the basics with 'kerygmatic' preaching

Fr. John Riccardo, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, stood at the podium with a picture of the Nativity on the screen behind him. He asked a poignant question.

“Why is He here?”

Fr. Riccardo said Catholics don’t have a consistent answer to this question, and that’s a problem.

“Why are they here?” Fr. Riccardo asked, showing a picture of Allied soldiers storming the Normandy beaches in France on June 6, 1944. “They are here to fight; and that’s what Jesus is here for. To fight.”

Fr. Riccardo said the kerygma – the essential message of the Gospel – is broken into four key points: The goodness of God’s creation; sin and its consequences; God’s response to sin; and mankind’s response to what God has done.

In order to emphasize how great Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross is, Fr. Riccardo said the Church and her pastors can’t minimize sin and the harm it causes in the world.

Fr. Mario Amore, associate pastor of St. Hugo of the Hills Parish in Bloomfield Hills, talks with parish leaders at the Parish Day of Renewal on Nov. 16 at the Wyndham Garden Conference Center in Sterling Heights.

“We often minimize sin and its consequences, and when we do, we minimize grace,” Fr. Ricardo said. The book of Genesis, Fr. Riccardo said, teaches that there is one God, and “He creates out of Love. He creates everything, even the stars, then He creates you; and He loves you.”

Regardless how many times one might have heard the creation story, Fr. Riccardo said, it's important to revisit such fundamental principles to fully understand why Jesus was sent by God to heal the human race.

“Jesus, who is utterly unconquerable, is Lord, absolutely,” Fr. Riccardo said. “Jesus appears in our world to destroy the works of Satan. Jesus, the ruler of the world, has come to bind the devil and seize his goods. He has come to save us from our enemies, to set us free, to guide us to safety.”

Understanding this, Fr. Riccardo said, is the only way to make sense of Christ's Passion and mankind's role in spreading God’s kingdom.

“The battle is already won; it’s like between D-Day and VE Day, the war is won, but we need to save people,” Fr. Riccardo said. “The Christian life is about saving souls, not private devotion. That’s what it means to save souls, to explain the kerygma: that sin is defeated, (the devil) has been humiliated and the Lord has defeated him.”

Those who spread the Gospel will be enriched

Returning from Baltimore, where he took part in the fall meetings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron celebrated Mass for the more than 800 participants at the Parish Day of Renewal.

During his homily, Archbishop Vigneron thanked the pastors and parish staff for their prayers for him and his fellow bishops and their continued support for the “Unleash the Gospel” movement.

“We continue to experience the synodality we experienced at Synod 16; I don’t mean to sound like the Chamber of Commerce, but I told my brother bishops that’s what we’re doing in Detroit,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “We continue to talk about this ongoing experience on the road together. We’re not stalled out. Programs come and go, emphases come and go, but I see signs that this is not going to happen with grace. We asked for a new Pentecost, and the Lord did it; He answered us. He’s doing it.”

Parish leaders pray with one another during the Parish Day of Renewal. Among the ways for parishes to promote a "mission-oriented Christmas," prayer is essential to ensure God blesses efforts to evangelize, speakers said. 

Archbishop Vigneron reflected on St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which St. Paul says, “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel.”

“Woe to the Archdiocese of Detroit if we don’t preach the Gospel; woe to parents, to coworkers, if we don’t preach the Gospel,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “This grace we receive is a free gift, and it puts us under the obligation of being trustees, stewards of this gift.”

More so than fulfilling the Great Commission given to the apostles by Christ – and in turn, to the Church – Archbishop Vigneron said it is through evangelization that Christian disciples grow in their own relationship with Christ.

“Whenever a teacher, a coach, mentor or parent shares what is the truth, then it becomes our own all the more deeply,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “That is the difference between the truth and a Hershey bar. When you share a Hershey bar, the less you have of it for yourself. When you share the Gospel, the more you share, the more you receive. When you share Christ, you grow in Christ; the more you give, the more you witness.”

Understanding the power of prayer

Conference-goers were delighted to see and hear Agana, Guam, Archbishop Michael J. Byrnes, former auxiliary bishop of Detroit and a native Detroiter, return to the archdiocese for the Parish Day of Renewal.

Archbishop Byrnes displayed a picture of U.S. President John F. Kennedy with his son, John Jr., playing beneath the Resolute Desk. Just as the little boy had access to the commander-in-chief of the most powerful army in the world, so do Christians have access to God, Creator of the Universe, through prayer, Archbishop Byrnes said.

“The Lord taught us to pray. He gave us the ‘Our Father,’” Archbishop Byrnes said. “This picture of JFK and his son, it’s an illustration of our access to our Heavenly Father, an access to the gates of heaven that leads to our apostolic boldness.”

Archbishop Michael J. Byrnes of the Archdiocese of Agana, Guam, a former auxiliary bishop of Detroit who helped lead efforts during Synod 16, speaks during the Parish Day of Renewal.

Archbishop Byrnes said confidence in God through prayer is a prerequisite to changing the culture of the Archdiocese of Detroit, just as it was in the lead-up to Synod 16. 

On a more personal level, Archbishop Byrnes said it is prayer that continues to guide him as he leads an archdiocese halfway around the world, rocked by an abuse scandal precipitated by allegations against his predecessor, Archbishop Anthony Apuron.

“I’m not sure how I got to Guam; I have no idea why,” Archbishop Byrnes said. “But that is the road. For all of us, (trust in God) is what we have to follow. Our trust is not in ourselves; faith is not a matter of sight. Yet surrender is what we’re called to. Accepting the circumstances of life, the frustrations, the disappointment, the slights and asking the Lord, 'How do I react? Am I able to deal with the irritation, the discouragement? Am I able to receive to those disappointments somehow in the providence in God?'”

Armed with prayer, Archbishop Byrnes told parish staff they must arm themselves for a spiritual battle against the forces that don’t want people to have an authentic encounter with Jesus, and the inner struggles parish staff and pastors might have when it comes to stepping out of their comfort zones and trying something new.

“We’re not trying to make an impact; we’re trying to change a culture,” Archbishop Byrnes said. “So we need to start with small things. Listen to the Scriptures, pray with the Scriptures, because the Lord does speak to us through the Scriptures. Through reading them, the Holy Spirit becomes active in our hearts.”

A radically mission-oriented Christmas

Fr. Stephen Pullis, the final keynote speaker of the day, presented to parishes the next phase of the “Unleash the Gospel” movement, which will focus on the one day of the year many Catholics who aren’t regular Mass-goers attend Mass: Christmas.

Whether they are lapsed Catholics, relatives of more devout Catholics, or people who are just curious, Christmas is a prime evangelization opportunity for parishes, Fr. Pullis said. 

In order to be prepared for this, it's important for parishes to seize the opportunity for a "radically mission-oriented Christmas," Fr. Pullis said.

Fr. Stephen Pullis, director of the archdiocese's Department of Evangelization, Catechesis and Schools, speaks to parish staff, pastors and volunteers at the Parish Day of Renewal.

“The first aspect of this radically mission-oriented Christmas is prayer,” Fr. Pullis said. “Unless we build the Lord’s house, we are going to labor in vain. In vain will be our early rising, our late rest, all the late nights getting ready for Christmas, if our Christmas preparations aren’t rooted in prayer.”

Fr. Pullis laid out practical principles for parishes to follow to show “unusually gracious hospitality” to visitors; steps like encouraging regular parishioners to greet someone they don’t know, to sit in the middle of the pews to keep the ends open for visitors, keeping the sidewalks well-lit and salted and posting accurate, up-to-date information on the parish website.

Finally, Fr. Pullis said, more than any other time during the liturgical cycle, Christmas is a time for "kerygmatic" preaching — a “back to the basics” approach to why people should embrace Jesus and His message of salvation.

“Our preaching, brothers and sisters, should be tied to the kerygma,” Fr. Pullis said. “When people want to be here, they should hear the central message of the Gospel — the life-changing news, the essential truth, that God has won us back. That is the powerful message people need to hear, that they are begging to hear. This audience is looking for the most powerful story all of us know, and we need to convey that message and the beauty of it.”

Fr. Pullis said the Church in southeast Michigan has been praying for a new Pentecost for almost four years, and now is the time to step out of the routine and become missionaries on fire for the Lord.

Against the backdrop of all the scandals, disappointments and setbacks for the Church and her faithful, Fr. Pullis said, recent news is no reason to abandon the Gospel, but rather to embrace it, and to be formed by the saving power of Jesus Christ.

“We have a litany of excuses, through all the scandals of the Church. We have reasons to fear, but we have to deflect that fear,” Fr. Pullis said. “Now is the time to be on mission. Now is the time to be ready to share the Gospel.”