What it looks like to 'meet people where they are'

Bishop Donald F. Hanchon baptizes a student at Catholic Central High School in Novi on April 27, 2022. This year, 11 students will enter into full communion with the Church at the school during a school Mass on April 26. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)

Recently, my wife and I went to see the movie “Jesus Revolution.” We enjoy supporting movies with a strong Judeo/Christian worldview. We weren’t certain about this one until we realized who was starring in it: Jonathan Roumie. Roumie, of course, is the “headliner” in The Chosen series, and is a strong pro-life advocate and devoted Catholic. His involvement sold us.

The film highlights the true story of a "revolution" that began on the heels of the 1970s’ "hippie movement." The message is poignant, and it still rings true today: the kids of that age, many of whom were steeped in destructive behavior, were doing so because they were searching for something. In fact, one of the lines in the movie sums it up nicely: “These kids are searching for all the right things, but in all the wrong places.” Their search was for Truth. And it was not unlike the quest of our youth today in what has become an over-secularized culture brimming with easy answers and instantaneous gratification. The main character, a “hippie,” convinces an old-school pastor that his church is stale, but if he can tap into what these kids are truly looking for — if he can “meet them where they are” — he could start an abiding revolution that could lead anywhere.

By the end of the film, something struck a chord in me. And it prompted me to re-read parts of Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron's pastoral letter, "Unleash the Gospel.”

The archbishop reminds us, as it says in the Gospel, to “go out to the highways and hedgerows, and make people come in, that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23). Accompaniment is a vital part of how we do that. We can “accompany” those searching for truth by tapping into people’s need for healing and using media, both ways that assist us in “meeting people where they are.”

I’ve been involved in the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Detroit for more than 10 years. In that time, I’ve had the privilege to experience both triumphs and struggles. I’ve learned that the Spirit lives wholeheartedly in our schools and in our parishes, but sometimes, so does that pesky human nature. And occasionally that nature launches us all too easily into “maintenance mode.”

“Unleash the Gospel” challenges us with a reminder about Christ’s meeting with the woman at the well. “Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well is a paradigm of evangelization,” the archbishop writes. In fact, Jesus meets this woman “where she is” — truly the only way we can attract people, especially our youths, to Christ. Our Catholic schools embark on that mission in ways that prompt us to “be present with no utilitarian purpose” other than loving people and leading them in ways they most need to be led and loved.

As a theology teacher, I've often had students express interest to me in becoming more fully Catholic — students who, for whatever reason, were never baptized or confirmed. In the past, this could seem like an uphill battle. Trying to connect such students with parish communities hasn't always been as easy as it should be.

The Basilian priests at Catholic Central High School in Novi, where I work, recently found a solution. If a student encounters Christ in his high school community, what better place to complete one's sacraments? Talk about “accompanying” someone. For the last eight months, 11 students at Catholic Central have been meeting regularly with campus minister Kevin Walters, leader Colin Whitehead, former principal Fr. Dennis Noelke, CSB, and many of the other theology teachers to participate in what is known as the Order of Christian Initiation for Teens. The team and students have encountered Christ together through rigorous theology classes, prayer services, morning Mass and a plethora of other meetings meant to foster a faith that has grown so deeply within the walls of a Catholic school. On April 26, these 11 students will enter the Catholic Church in front of the community that brought them there.

As our culture’s climate changes and secularism grasps more tightly the lives of our youth, finding ways to bring them to Christ can be challenging. I wish families would spend less time on travel soccer and more time at Mass. But that’s not what’s happening. There’s “the way things are,” and then there’s the way things “ought to be.” If we get too caught up in the “ought to be,” we can miss the opportunities in front of us.

As Archbishop Vigneron reminds us, to help others find Christ, we must begin with a “kerygmatic proclamation” of the Gospel, stemming from our experience of who Christ is and who He has become for us. From what I’ve seen, our youth are starting to do that within the walls of our schools. And wouldn’t it be funny if they were the ones to bring their families back into the fold?

Who says the Lord doesn’t work in mysterious ways?

Paul Stuligross is a retired police officer. He currently teaches theology at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Novi.


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