By Alice Huth-Derrah
“It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome…but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people…beginning with those who are farthest away, with those who do not usually go to church.” These words were often spoken by Pope Francis as a reminder of the need to reach out to Catholics who had strayed from the faith, and it is at the heart of the mission of the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate Order. Sister Mary Beverly is a member of this order and lives this ministry of “door-to-door, person-to-person missionary outreach,” and understands first-hand the need for evangelization.
“This isn’t a new challenge,” Sister Mary explains, “Mother Mary Teresa Tallon, our Foundress, was already witnessing a decline in church attendance in the late 1800’s” and so, in 1920, the Parish Visitors was formed. The goal of their evangelization is to seek out Catholics who no longer prioritize their faith, and help return these “strayed and lost sheep to the Good Shepherd.” Through her outreach, Sister has heard many reasons for the lack of commitment: an invalid marriage (married outside the Church), divorce, the belief that attending Mass is “an option,” and many have just “gotten out of the habit” of faithful worship and have “become lost.” She remembers one woman telling her “’I’ve been away from the Church for 30 years and I didn’t know the Church still cared about me.’” Sister Mary says the message of evangelization “is that no matter the reasons, no matter what has happened in their life, all non-practicing Catholics are always welcome.”
Using a map of the parish boundaries, Sister Mary and volunteers begin a day of evangelization by choosing an area on the map and then literally take a walk. They work in pairs, moving from house to house, and knock on doors asking if there are any baptized Catholics living in the household. “The element of surprise is an advantage,” Sister says smiling, because the volunteers may be invited into the home which provides an opening to make a human connection, begin a conversation, and establish a rapport. Sister Mary refers to these house calls as “visitations” rather than “visiting” with people. The word “visitation” gives a “sense you’re bringing Jesus to each person – you’re bringing God with you” just as the “Blessed Mother did on Her Visitation to Her cousin Elizabeth.” Sister Mary and the volunteers try to limit visitations to about 20 minutes, and then conduct unannounced follow-up visitations, very important because people feel more comfortable after the initial contact and are more willing to share their stories. It’s also at this point that people may ask Sister Mary or a volunteer to pray with them or ask for assistance in returning to the Church. “People are sometimes fearful” Sister Mary states and “we will offer to pick them up and bring them to Mass, talk with them about making a confession, or speak with the parish priest about their concerns to help them feel more comfortable. Whatever they need.”
Evangelization entails a patient, measured, loving outreach and the need for volunteers to carry out this vital work is great. “We need as many volunteers as possible,” Sister Mary says matter-of-factly, and she emphasizes that this missionary work is just as much a gift to those who volunteer as the people who may be helped by it because the “Holy Spirit is working through” them in their efforts to “gather in the harvest,” and call Catholics home.