What is a 'culture of encounter?' Parish Day of Renewal offers answers, food for thought

Sr. Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, speaks during the 2019 Parish Day of Renewal at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi. The two-day conference for parish staff, pastors and parishioners provided tips, tools and advice for Church leaders on evangelizing in today's world, starting with creating a “culture of encounter” with Christ. (Photos by Paul Duda and Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Second annual conference for Archdiocese of Detroit parishes helps ministers devise strategies for real-life evangelization

NOVI — The good news of Jesus, the Pascal mystery, is the “most beautiful story there is,” said Sr. Miriam James Heidland, SOLT. 

Telling that story with the love and conviction it warrants is the challenge facing every Catholic parish and school, she said.

Sr. Miriam James was the keynote speaker Nov. 15 and 16 as more than 1,000 clergy, parish staff and parishioners from across the Archdiocese of Detroit gathered at the Surburban Collection Showplace in Novi for the second annual Archdiocese of Detroit Parish Day of Renewal.

The focus of the two-day conference, “Encounter,” was also the theme of Sr. Miriam James' first talk, as she encouraged those in attendance to foster an authentic relationship with Jesus as the first step toward real evangelization. 

The Texas-based sister, a frequently sought speaker in Catholic circles, gave four talks — two on Friday and two on Saturday — stressing that evangelization isn't about the evangelizer; it's about Jesus.

“As you go out and proclaim the Gospel to people, what you find is this: People don't want to meet (you),” Sr. Miriam James said. “And thank God they don't. Ultimately, people want to meet Christ. They want to be able to come to you and tell you their deepest secret and their deepest struggle and their deepest fears and hopes. They want to know that God is alive, and that He loves them, and that this is not the end of the story.”

Attendees take selfies at a photo booth during the Parish Day of Renewal at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi. In addition to talks and Masses, the two-day conference provided a host of resources to help parishes better evangelize and foster an encounter with Christ.

The encounter, the moment when a person truly realizes who Christ is and what it means to be his disciple, is what facilitates all of evangelization, Sr. Miriam James said.

“Before the gaze of Jesus, all falsehood melts away,” Sr. Miriam James said. “To encounter Christ means to melt away and to be transformed by his gaze. It allows us to go through an undeniable transformation through the fire, a blessed pain. It’s a blessed pain that pulls us into greater intimacy with him.”

There are three questions each disciple needs to ask themselves if they want to transform their lives and their parishes, Sr. Miriam James said: “No. 1, where do you come from? No. 2, where are you going? And No. 3, where are you now? Our honest answers to these questions are essential in our journey with Christ.”

With the mantle of leadership, parish leaders must cultivate good habits of regular prayer and confession if they are to transform their own parish culture into a place where true discipleship is fostered, Sr. Miriam James said.

“When we talk about a culture of encounter, let's let that transformation take place,” Sr. Miriam James said. “To create that culture in our parishes, in our hearts and in our homes requires a way of life where continual contact with Jesus Christ and others is the norm.”

Calling on the Holy Spirit

Auxiliary Bishop Gerard W. Battersby celebrated Mass on the first day of the conference, which was specifically geared toward clergy and parish staff.

Since his 2017 episcopal consecration, Bishop Battersby has been tasked by Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron to lead the archdiocese’s Unleash the Gospel movement, which involves a transformation of minds and hearts, he said. 

During his homily, Bishop Battersby said such transformation begins by falling in love again with Jesus.

“The truth of the matter is, Archbishop Vigneron is a romantic at heart,” Bishop Battersby said. “He wants all of us, with him, to be men and women who fall in love again — to fall in love more deeply with Jesus.” 

Attendees listen as Sr. Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, gives a keynote address. Almost 750 people attended the conference's first day for parish staff and leaders, with almost 500 attending on Saturday, which was open to the public.

Bishop Battersby recalled what he said were Archbishop Vigneron's “prophetic words” when he opened the 2016 archdiocesan synod by borrowing the words of Ezekiel, speaking “a word of power over the 'dry bones' of Detroit.”

“When he did that, something happened,” Bishop Battersby said. “It was a new beginning, a new moment in the history of God’s plan for Detroit. I don’t have the competence to speak about other places, but here in Detroit, it’s God’s plan that you and I should be re-established in Christ.”

In order for that re-establishment to occur, Bishop Battersby pleaded with pastors, pastoral staff and parishioners to allow the Holy Spirit to guide them in making big, bold changes to bring Christ to the forefront of everything in parish life.

“It’s about being renewed in the truth, allowing the power of the Resurrection to flow through us into the world,” Bishop Battersby said. “It’s not the job for bishops, for priest, or deacons or religious. It’s all of our jobs, that Jesus might flow through us into the world.”

Where are we?

In order to know where a parish is going, Sr. Miriam James said, it's critical to know where it is. 

“In Genesis, God spoke to Adam and Eve, after they turned away from God, and asked them one question: ‘Where are you?’” Sr. Miriam James said. “Now, He's God. He knows where you are. The real question is, 'Do you know where you are?' Many times, we’re hiding out in the garden, in areas of sin and shame, things we’re not proud of. So we need to ask, 'where are we?'”

By asking where one is, Sr. Miriam James said Christians can better evaluate their own encounter with Christ, which is not a single, solitary moment, but rather a continuous relationship with the Lord.

A man wears a “No Bystanders” shirt, a reference to Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron's pastoral letter, “Unleash the Gospel,” during the 2019 Parish Day of Renewal. The limited-edition apparel will be offered at store.unleashthegospel.org

“Pope Benedict said it’s only in this friendship with Christ that the greatest of human existence is revealed,” Sr. Miriam James said. “Christ takes nothing from us; his only desire is for us to become fully alive.”

Upon opening oneself up to transformation, Sr. Miriam James said it becomes one’s duty, one’s joy to telling others about an encounter with Christ. 

In the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well, Sr. Miriam James said the woman, a social outcast, became transformed when she recognized Jesus as a long-awaited prophet, rushing to tell the whole town about Jesus and forgetting all her past hurts.

“It was only though the encounter that this woman had her entire life changed, and the whole town was converted,” Sr. Miriam James said. “This happens in our lives, in our families, in our parishes. And when it happens, we live differently, and people will ask why. You don’t have to live perfectly, but you do live differently, and when you do, you won’t help but be able to share why you live with such hope, bringing others into communion with Christ.”

Something to take back home

A significant portion of the Parish Day of Renewal was dedicated to evaluating parish life and providing tools, resources and advice for pastors and parish staff seeking to renew a spirit of missionary evangelism. 

Tom MacNeil, a member of the parish council at St. Aloysius Parish in Detroit, said the downtown parish is “rebuilding” and was interested in learning how small groups can encourage a more active parish culture.

During the breakout portion of the conference, MacNeil said St. Aloysius staff members discussed the impact of the parish's music ministry in drawing in new members, which includes a younger demographic moving into the city's center.

“We’re growing with a lot of young people moving into our area, so we were keen on listening to our breakout speaker (Tom Corcoran, co-author of “Rebuilt,” which focuses on parish ministry) in growing our parish,” MacNeil said.

Parish staff members gather for small-group discussion during the Parish Day of Renewal at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi. 

Suzie Fazzini, communications coordinator for St. Joseph Parish in Lake Orion, originally intended only to attend the first day of the conference (for parish staff members), but opted to buy a ticket for the second day (open to the general public) after seeing the resources offered. 

“I’ve been fed by this whole experience and am grateful to the Archdiocese of Detroit for caring for us in the parish,” Fazzini told Detroit Catholic. “Walking around, I see so many who are on fire with the Holy Spirit, (making changes) little by little. At our parish, seven years ago, we started to rebuild how we did things, and just now you are seeing the fruit starting to ripen.

“It’s humbling to work in the vineyard, being tied to the greater Church,” Fazzini added. 

Archbishop implores parishioners, ‘Don’t be intimidated’

It might sound like something Jim Harbaugh or Mark Dantonio would tell the Michigan and Michigan State football teams before a big game, but Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron's words to the faithful during the closing Mass of the 2019 Parish Day of Renewal sounded a lot like a coach.

“Don’t check out. Don’t lose focus. Don’t panic. And don’t be intimidated,” Archbishop Vigneron said.

Concluding the two-day conference, Archbishop Vigneron struck a motivational tone as he encouraged those in attendance to stay strong in their pursuit of the Gospel. 

In times of persecution throughout history, Christians faced temptation to lose hope and abandon the mission, the archbishop said.

“St. Paul advises us that Christ will be the judge of the living and the dead,” Archbishop Vigneron said, commenting on the day's Gospel reading from 2 Thessalonians. “St. Paul is asking us, ‘Don’t check out, don’t just turn off the world.’ We’re part of the world. We have a house to take care of, food to work for; we are part of this time.”

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron arrives for the closing Mass of the Parish Day of Renewal on Nov. 16. During his homily, the archbishop implored parish leaders not to lose heart amid struggles, but to persevere in proclaiming Jesus as the “Lord of history.” 

Archbishop Vigneron then implored congregation not to lose focus, even amidst trials and disturbing trends.

Just as Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple in ancient Israel, so the Archdiocese of Detroit must be prepared for worldly failures, yet all while keeping eyes fixed on Jesus, he said.

“As Jesus said, ‘Not one stone of the temple would be left unturned,’ we in the Archdiocese of Detroit have seen things come undone,” the archbishop said. “We face that. But the Lord, the Lord of history, knows that as our parishes, our schools, our institutions experience change, we cannot lose focus. Things come and things go. But in history, Jesus is Lord.”

Recognizing the transformations and trials the Church must endure in order to fulfill its Christ-sanctioned mission is part of being a Christian, Archbishop Vigneron said. But in the course of time, Christ will be the judge of all. 

It is up against these challenges that pastors and parish staff must not be afraid to announce Christ as risen in their communities.

“Jesus advised his followers not to be intimidated, that they will be vindicated,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “Our job is to persevere — not to conquer, but to be faithful to the power of Christ. ... Being faithful to him, accepting his lordship, gives us a testimony to give to the world of who Christ is and what he will do for us.

“And this is ultimately our testimony, ultimately why we are here,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “Because we have encountered Jesus as the Lord of history, who assures us that in the end, we will all be freed.”

Detroit Catholic editor Michael Stechschulte contributed to this report.