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Catholics Reach Out to a Whole Town

It began as a simple idea: a parish census. Through brainstorming and research, it developed into an ambitious strategy for multi-level evangelization known as “Outreach ’96.” Here is the plan one parish used to reach every single home in its city-with often surprising results.

St. Thomas Aquinas is the only Catholic church in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, a rapidly growing suburb of Albuquerque that is expected to be the state’s second-largest city by 2005. Of a population of 50,000, Catholics comprise 35 to 40 percent, yet only 3,000 families were registered in the parish.

Msgr. Douglas Raun realized that many were falling through the cracks. The question was, how to reach the fallen-aways and invite them back to the Church?

Raun’s first move was to bring in Veronica Frazier, an enthusiastic Third Order Dominican, as director of evangelization.

“I was hired to get this ball rolling,” Frazier says. “At first, we were kind of sitting there saying, ‘How the heck do we do this?’ ” 

The team members first thought of renting mailing lists. But that was expensive, and they couldn’t be sure of reaching the right people-the unregistered and inactive Catholics they wanted to bring into the fold.

“After talking with the post office, we found that we could hit every single address in Rio Rancho for six cents apiece-cheaper than the cost of renting a list. It’s called ‘bulk saturation carrier pre-sort.’ ” 

The project was expanded to serve several purposes, Raun explains. It would identify all Catholics in the area, inviting those who were inactive or estranged to return to church. It would help the diocese plan for two new mission churches to be built within the year. It would evangelize the unchurched.

“We decided on a two-pronged attack,” says Raun. “A mass mailing, followed by home visits in high-target areas.”

To reach every address in town, St. Thomas would need to send out 17,200 packets. Each packet contained a copy of Catholic Answers’ booklet Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth, a Divine Mercy prayer card, a letter from Raun explaining the purpose of the outreach, and a postpaid reply card.

St. Thomas chose Pillar because Raun had approved of it “ever since I saw it up in Denver [at World Youth Day]. I thought, this is just top quality, one of the best things out there, for a brief explanation of the faith.” 

The letter urged inactive Catholics to register, asked registered parishioners to update registrations, offered help on questions about or problems with the Church, and invited non-Catholics to request information on Catholic teachings. “People have so many myths,” says Raun. Even many Catholics needlessly stay away from church because they “think they have a problem, but don’t.” 

The reply cards had check boxes for the options listed in the letter and offered the choice of being contacted personally, by mail, or by phone.

Once the materials were purchased or printed, volunteers stuffed envelopes, then filled postal trays with enough packets for each postal route. Mailings were sent out over a two-to-three week period.

Going Out Two by Two — Reluctantly

“We did an initial run of 2,600 packets, which went into four identifiable neighborhoods,” explains Frazier. “We immediately launched our door-to-door visitation on Divine Mercy Sunday” (the Sunday after Easter).

Jesus sent the apostles out two by two, and there’s still no more effective means of evangelizing than personal contact. But convincing St. Thomas parishioners to go evangelizing through the streets was a bit of a challenge, Frazier admits.

“It was not met with a great deal of enthusiasm,” she says with a laugh. “They weren’t falling all over themselves.” 

One church member asked if Catholics are even allowed to go door to door. Once Frazier explained that the goal was to “share our love of Christ and the Church,” people warmed to the idea.

“The push is to help round up Catholics who are disconnected from the Church, to let them know we want them back as active members,” she told parishioners. “If they don’t want the [weekly contribution] envelopes, that’s fine-we just want them in the parish.” 

In the weeks before the campaign was launched, articles in the Sunday bulletin asked for volunteers. Two training sessions were scheduled, one for the last Sunday of Lent and one for Palm Sunday.

The leaders reviewed the missionary mandate of Christ to the apostles and explained that there is nothing inconsistent between being Catholic and going door to door. They said that volunteers should prepare themselves, so the parishioners engaged in role-playing, fielding the kinds of questions they would likely be asked, learning how to defuse hostility and to terminate the visit on a positive note.

“We sent 33 teams of two people to visit every address that had received a packet,” Frazier recalls. “They were going out with misgivings, but coming back ecstatic! Our teams found people who have been away from the Church for years. Praise God, the Spirit is working!” 

Volunteers were surprised to meet a friendly welcome in most homes visited. In the first wave, “Nobody met with any hostility,” Frazier says. “They were in shock. Most did not do this with a real evangelical heart in the beginning. Now they’re excited.” In the first week, St. Thomas received more than sixty reply cards.

Shaken by a Fundamentalist

Inevitably, there were a few negative responses. Parishioners Melinda Leonhardt and Dora Sandoval visited one woman, an ex-Catholic, just as she was conducting a Fundamentalist Bible study.

“She politely yet bitterly attacked the Catholic Church, beginning with apostolic succession and ending with the Eucharist,” they report. “This woman was quite intelligent and biblically literate.

“She left us very shaken, and we were hesitant to go on. However, the next day we found inspiration-and answers. While one of us received helpful advice and encouragement from our vicar, Fr. [William] Young, the other was on the phone with Peggy [Frye] from Catholic Answers, who gave us helpful Scripture references and much-appreciated inspiration.

“By the next evening, we were anxious to go back out, and we discovered that this ‘negative’ experience turned into a positive one, by encouraging us to seek more knowledge of our faith.” 

The more obviously positive encounters far outweighed the difficult ones. The greatest surprise for Raun, he says, was “how open people were to Catholics evangelizing.” The door-to-door teams were “overwhelmed at the power of the Holy Spirit working through them and how readily people accepted them.” 

There were tears, he notes. One person said, “Finally someone has come to see me.” 

When people said they weren’t interested, they were often unprepared for the missionaries’ pleasant “thank you” and good-bye. As the visitors were leaving, the “uninterested” person would often say, “Now hold on a moment,” says Raun. “Then they’d open up and start talking.” 

One team encountered a young mother who seemed impatient with them until she learned why they were there. Then she quickly became interested, since her family is Catholic. “As her husband approached us,” reports a team member, “he overheard our conversation and said, ‘So. . . we’ve finally got the right church knocking at our door!” 

“People couldn’t believe we were looking for Catholics to get them back to church,” says Tom Madrid. “Catholics just don’t do this kind of thing. All the people we talked with were wonderful” 

Debbie Hanko admits she was “very apprehensive” about making the visitations: “I’m a shy person, but what happened to my partner and me was beyond anything I could ever imagine. Monsignor and Veronica both said that the Holy Spirit would be with us as we went out to the homes in Rio Rancho. Well, he was, and he still is.”

Almost Universally Positive Responses

After the first round of visits, members of the evangelization teams spoke at Sunday Masses, encouraging others to join in the effort. All parishioners were urged to follow up by visiting at least the homes on their own block.

“A lot of Protestants congratulated us on doing this,” Raun says. The few really negative responses came from disgruntled Catholics. One of the reply cards came back anonymously with the message, “Ordain women now!” 

The biggest response from inactive Catholics came from those with marriage problems-or those who think they have marriage problems-and many responses were from people who left the Church because of anger or hurt.

“We invite people who may have had an unpleasant experience with the Church to talk with us about it, to see if it can be resolved,” Frazier says. “Msgr. Raun wants them to know that they are welcome, that Christ loves them, and that the Church is waiting for them. We made that explicit.”

Immediately following the first foray into the streets of Rio Rancho, missionaries were “anxious to go back out,” Raun says. A second wave of home visitation took place in May. As a whole, the project was “an incredible success. God has been using us in a big way.” 

It is too soon to say how many seeds of conversion were planted by Outreach ’96, but it has already produced measurable results. More than 400 reply cards were returned, and almost 200 new households have registered in the parish. On December 1, the mission parish of the Incarnation will begin meeting in a school in the northeast part of Rio Rancho.

Perhaps the most noticeable benefit has been for parishioners themselves, as they came to sense the power of God working through his Church. “The Holy Spirit was just really working through our home visitors,” Raun says.

One volunteer had a dream during Outreach ’96 in which Jesus said to him: “You asked in my name for help, and I have given to you. St. Thomas Aquinas parish is on fire, don’t you see it?”

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