The ninth annual diocesan catechetical convocation offered presentations on forgiveness, how to deal with loved ones who leave the Church, and parish plans for evangelization. The convocation, which also emphasized the "Catholics Come Home" program, took place at Lucarelli's Banquet Center in Lackawanna on Nov. 4.
Keynote speaker Dr. Jo Ann Paradise, a national catechetical consultant for Our Sunday Visitor and a resident of Pittsburgh, Pa., who has served in several Diocese of Pittsburgh parishes, said there are three elements of forgiveness: asking if forgiveness is necessary, how to forgive when it is necessary, and how to forgive and be truly free after wrong, even great evil, has been done.
"I have sat with so many people who have spent so much time, prayer and desire in trying to forgive wrongs that had happened to them," Paradise said. "It has to do with this: that, obviously, any journey in forgiveness begins with a wrong. In some way, you understand that something has been done to you that harms you, or harmed someone else you love. It is a wrong that needs to be forgiven."
Paradise said in many circumstances, staying angry is a waste of time because people may misperceive something as a wrong, when they have not actually suffered any wrong at all. When true evil has been done, forgiveness is not about forgetting the incident or minimalizing the hurt. Instead, it is a "decision not to surrender your power over to a person, an action or a circumstance," to "not allow what has been done to you to become the source of your responses, whether to that person, or to life, or to anyone else." Those who do not do this place themselves in a "prison of bitterness and resentment," she said.
"Jesus, in His death, resurrection and ascension, has made it possible for every evil to be redeemed," Paradise said. "There is nothing outside of the power of God's love. That is the indescribable truth we proclaim every time we go to Eucharist, every time we receive the Body and Blood of Christ." Instead, children of God are called to place the wrong in God's hands. Much as people are called to forgive, God is able to forgive even those wayward Catholics who feel they cannot be redeemed, Paradise said.
Mary Beth Coates, diocesan director of Lifelong Faith Formation, said of the speech, "I appreciated her bringing our vision of bringing people home right down to the personal, so we really understand that our relationships are primary with one another, the person-to-person relationship, and understanding our challenge of what it means to forgive others, in terms of our choice."
After this speech, Dennis Mahaney, director of the Office of Evangelization and Parish Life, introduced a panel consisting of Lorene Hanley Duquin, author of "When a Loved One Leaves the Church," Deacon William Hynes of St. Benedict Parish in Amherst and Michael Hayes, author of "Googling God: the Religious Landscape of People in their 20s and 30s" and a campus minister at Canisius College in Buffalo. These experts addressed audience questions of what happens when someone leaves the Church.
As "Catholics Come Home" commercials, dubbed "evangomercials," begin to air throughout the diocese on Dec. 15, Duquin said she hopes ex-Catholics who watch them become filled with the Holy Spirit, which will bring people back. Initially, they may come reluctantly, sit in the back row of the Church and not talk to anyone, and parishes need to be ready to make these people feel like their return is welcomed.
Deacon Hynes is a teacher and a father of three children who do not attend Church. At a recent family gathering, however, his son said a coworker was picking on the Catholic Church.
"My son finally became a defender of the faith," Deacon Hynes reminisced. "He thinks of himself as a Catholic. That term 'fallen-away Catholic' is our house term. They're Catholics - what you have to do is just bump them up another grade. Catholics, even when they leave, still have an accent."
"Perhaps there's nothing wrong with them. Perhaps there's something wrong with us," Hayes proposed. "Maybe we're all just a little out of touch sometimes. We offer the people the Bread of Life each Sunday, but let's face it: in a great many parishes, there is very little enthusiasm for that, and that leads to little joy amongst the faithful. Some people leave the Church because they're just bored."
After the keynote speech and panel, Adam Pasternack, director of evangelization of St. Amelia Parish in Tonawanda, shared some of his experiences in bringing his own parishioners back into the fold. He asked attendees to imagine themselves as the chief executive officer of a major company that needs to make changes in order to bring back profits. This CEO may start by analyzing the situation, he said.
"You start reading over the financial statements, looking into the personnel. Do you have good people? How is the company culture?" Pasternack asked. "You soon discover this is a nightmare: you're the CEO of a company that has been going into the red for 25 years, for many different reasons, which you're trying to find out. Your company is hemorrhaging millions of dollars. You can't just leave. What would you do?" Pasternack soon revealed this company is the Catholic Church, and it is losing souls, not money.
Pasternack said if the Church is to bounce back, its leaders must be realists. They need to take a serious look at facts, and there is no "silver bullet" for bringing people back. Instead, the only thing that works is "our own dedication to our own discipleship of daily prayer and conversion, and surrendering sin in our own lives," he said. Other disciples and active evangelization, in turn, create more disciples. When he began at St. Amelia two years ago, he was initially overwhelmed, but realized what he had to do.
Bishop Richard J. Malone thanked the priests, deacons and religious who attended the convocation, as well as the laypeople who do God's work in parishes throughout the diocese. "As Pope Francis reminds Catholics, it's all about Jesus," Bishop Malone said. "Don't think that's a unique thought from Pope Benedict - I think you have to go back to St. Paul to find that one. That's what draws us here today."
"My background also is in the work of catechesis," Bishop Malone told the congregation. "If we heed our Holy Father's urging, that whatever else we're talking about, whether it's our Catholic moral teachings or whatever it is, (we have to) keep the person of Jesus at the center of it."