... at risk of using some of the most popular buzzwords in current Church lingo, it was hospitality and small groups that played an invaluable part in my conversion experience.
''Because we all know deep down that we're doomed." This was the response author Lesley Nneka Arimah gave in a recent interview with Scott Simon on National Public Radio when asked why she thought post-apocalyptic fiction, like that of her new book, has gained in popularity these last few years. As a Christian preparing in these latter days of Lent to soon celebrate the joy of Easter, the day of our salvation, I found these words both chilling and incredibly insightful to the underlying view to which so many people currently subscribe. A belief in our inevitable doom is, in a sense, to be perpetually walking the road to Emmaus without ever becoming aware of the presence of the Risen Lord walking beside us. The person's heart cannot move past the reality of Good Friday, where their hope for redemption and a future beyond the struggles of this world still hangs lifeless on the cross. It is the role of the Church to meet those on this road who have not embraced the Good News and lead them to a transforming encounter with Christ. As we are reminded in the archdiocese's pastoral plan, Disciples in Mission, our local parish community is the primary context for this evangelization and, hopefully, a sincere conversion of heart to take place.
In my late 20s, I was certainly wandering on a disheartened journey like the one mentioned above. As a fallen away Catholic who had not been confirmed, I was a classic example of someone in need of the New Evangelization. While there was no magic bullet that led me to a reunion with Christ, looking back I can see that the clincher for me was multiple personal invitations to small faith sharing communities. Yes, at risk of using some of the most popular buzzwords in current Church lingo, it was hospitality and small groups that played an invaluable part in my conversion experience. By hospitality, you may be thinking of a well-oiled ministry with properly trained, smiling greeters (never a bad thing, of course). In actuality, at the time the parish had no formal greeter ministry. What they did have was a culture of invitation in which pastoral staff and parishioners would make casual conversation that usually ended with an encouraging invite to an upcoming church happening. Many of these opportunities involved regularly occurring small faith sharing groups. After repeated friendly invitations, I ended up taking part in the young adult group. Being an active part of this small community offered me an authentic Emmaus experience.
This past fall I was blessed to become part of the pastoral team at St. Michael Parish in North Andover as the pastoral associate. Our parish is a stand-alone, Phase II collaborative made up of over 5,100 households whose pastoral plan was approved by Cardinal O'Malley in the summer of 2016. The first priority of our plan is to "create a spirit of evangelization in heart, mind and action by encouraging all to develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." The two first goals within this priority are to achieve at least 30 small faith sharing groups and to foster a stronger spirit of welcome by establishing a dedicated hospitality team at each weekend liturgy by June 2019. It probably goes without saying that due to my own faith experience I was thrilled to jump in and take part in the implementation of this pastoral plan. In the work of our newly formed Small Group Leadership Team, I've been moved by the evangelical spirit of the members whose collective goal is to build up small communities that allow us all to accompany and support one another on our faith journey and that have a special concern for the newcomer. In truth, we are all newcomers when it comes to encountering the eternal and ever new God of hope. As perennial beginners on the road, we are all in need of a continual warm welcome and "welcome back" that contains at its heart an open and heartfelt invitation to companionship. In our imperfect imitation of the God who walks beside us, we realize our hearts are on fire with a hope that tells us deep down in our core: we are not doomed, we have been redeemed.
DOMINIC MARGAGLIONE IS PASTORAL ASSOCIATE AT ST. MICHAEL PARISH IN NORTH ANDOVER.
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