"Monsignor," I said to my pastor, "I have an idea I'd like to run by you. Do you have a few minutes?"
"Sure, what's on your mind?"
"I've noticed you sometimes use filler items in the parish bulletin when there aren't enough announcements. Would you be interested in using questions and answers on religion when space is available?"
"Who'd provide them?"
"At first, you and I would supply the questions, but, if we invite parishioners to submit them, I'm sure we'll get plenty. This could be a great form of adult education."
"But who would answer the questions? I don't have the time."
"I would. I've taught religion to high schoolers and adults for twenty years. I think you know I have a pretty good grasp of our faith, and I know where to find information. As a check, I'd have you review every answer before it goes into the bulletin."
"Do you have any questions in mind to get this off the ground?"
"As a matter of fact I do," I said, smiling. "Here are three questions with answers. Why don't you look them over and tell me what you think? These deal with prayers to saints, purgatory, and what to say if people ask if you've been saved. I call the series Catholic Replies. Notice the tag line at the bottom. It says, 'If you have a question about religion, put it in an envelope addressed to Catholic Replies and drop it in the collection basket.'"
"All right. Let's give it a go."
That conversation took place in 1987. The first two questions were printed in our parish bulletin in October, and the first question from a parishioner appeared in the collection basket the next weekend. Over the next two months space was available in five bulletins for ten questions, only two of which had come in from parishioners.
The pastor and I tried to make the replies timely and interesting. On the weekend before the feast of the Immaculate Conception, we published an exchange explaining the meaning of the dogma, which even many Catholics misunderstand, and another question dealing with the "brothers and sisters of the Lord."
My name was not associated with Catholic Replies, and many parishioners assumed the answers were the work of the pastor. He didn't identify the author until the following June. This anonymity was enjoyable because I could listen to people's comments and get a candid assessment without anyone knowing of my involvement.The reactions were positive. One woman told me she had been saving the bulletins for future reference. A man said he gave them to a non-Catholic friend who was interested in the Church.
After my authorship became known, someone asked Monsignor's opinion of the series. "Catholic Replies has stimulated interest, and the questions and answers have been excellent. I recommend it highly. People can no longer say they can't find anyone to give them answers to questions on religion."
As the weeks went by, more questions were dropped in the baskets. They were on limbo, the communion of saints, cremation, organ donations, predestination, and the Jehovah's Witnesses. We were able to publish replies to 32 questions in 21 bulletins.
Getting Catholic Replies off the ground was made easier by two decades of working closely with my pastor and by a long friendship with his secretary. They were grateful for my always saying yes when requested to help, so they were more than willing to give Catholic Replies a chance.
What started out as a willingness to help me promote the project turned into genuine enthusiasm as they saw the educational value the series had for the people of the parish. Catholic Replies began to be given priority over non-parish announcements which had always been a part of the bulletin.
The format of the bulletin lent itself nicely to the series. The pastor didn't like to carry ads, so the back page was always available for extra material, such as letters from the Cardinal, school and CCD activities, and major parish events. When none of these was pending, the back page took questions and answers.
This ideal situation ended when my pastor retired. The new pastor, on being apprised of Catholic Replies during the summer, agreed to having it continued in the fall, and he suggested I talk to the priest who would be in charge of the bulletin. That priest also was receptive to having the series continue, but the situation was disturbed when the new pastor changed the bulletin format and put ads on the back page. That meant Catholic Replies had to be squeezed into the inside pages when announcements were scarce. They seldom were. During the next year the bulletin carried only one-third of the number of questions it did in under the old pastor.
But at least the series was continuing, and the number of questions picked up a bit in the fall of 1989. There was one week in November that must have been slow for announcements: The priest in charge of the bulletin found room for three questions in one issue. Then he used only one the whole of December and two in January, before leaving for another assignment. Responsibility reverted to the (new) pastor and secretary, who published no questions in March or April, though they had plenty of space available.
I wasn't standing still. I tried to broaden the reach of Catholic Replies. When the first year had proved so successful, my wife suggested contacting other parishes. One Sunday I drove to ten of them and got copies of their bulletins.
They were all shapes and sizes, from a single sheet of typing paper folded in half and crowded with copy to a sheet with twice the area. Some were done on a typewriter, others on a computer. Some contained advertising, others not. One already had questions on the front page, with answers provided by "Dear Padre" from Liguori Publications. Another had both front and back pages filled with instructional and inspirational material from Liguori--you had to look inside to find the name of the parish.
Although the smallest bulletins seemed to have no space for Catholic Replies, the larger ones seemed to have plenty of room. I decided to contact some pastors I had known for years to get their reaction.
In July 1988 I send five of them and my regional bishop a letter describing the project, a list of twenty questions available to them, and copies of four sample replies. I had settled on twenty questions because of my experience in my own parish, where space had been available in less than half the bulletins published in a year. The twenty questions represented a year's supply.
After considerable thought and discussion with others, including my former pastor, I decided on a fee of $50 per year for the series. For an additional $50 I would guarantee answers to any questions which came in from parishioners. The pastors would forward those questions to me, and, as with the twenty questions I drew up, I would supply them with camera-ready copy for their bulletins.
A week after my letter was mailed I received a call from my bishop. He was enthusiastic and said the answers were clearly written so people could understand them. He encouraged me to offer the service to parishes in his region of the Archdiocese and said I could use his name in promotional material.
Before another week went by, two pastors had written to say they were interested. One sent a check for $50, the other a check for $100. But there was no response at all from the remaining three pastors, and that helped keep my enthusiasm under control. I should have followed up with phone calls, but was afraid of being pushy. I've since learned it's a greater failing to be too reticent.
The fellow who does my income taxes suggested I form a corporation for Catholic Replies so the project would be separate from my regular job as a magazine writer. Like so many other things in Massachusetts, forming a corporation is not cheap, either in the initial stages or when it comes time to pay the annual excise tax to the Commonwealth, but it seemed like a good idea.
After incorporation, I received a letter from the Massachusetts Division of Employment Security. It was about unemployment insurance and offered to help me "comply with the registration and quarterly filing requirements of the Massachusetts law." I didn't think I needed much assistance for a one-man, part-time corporation.
The existence of my dynamic enterprise soon became known throughout the land--not in parishes clamoring for the series, unfortunately, but in companies wanting to sell me insurance, offices supplies, and tools of the trade. Even today I get solicitations.
A few months later, the attorney who drew up the incorporation papers wrote me and invited me to call his secretary for an appointment "where we can go over the corporate books and records." I politely informed him that since only seven parishes had subscribed to the service, my checking account stood at $41.41, and there wasn't much to discuss.
I mailed the Catholic Replies packet (cover letter, list of twenty questions, four sample answers) to 103 parishes in my own region of the Archdiocese of Boston. The letter related my experience in my own parish, cited favorable comments of my pastor and bishop, described my background in religious education, and invited subscriptions.
Within four days I received three favorable responses accompanied by checks totaling $200. "Wow, this is easy!" I thought. I wondered if I'd be able to keep up with the demand. I needn't have wondered. There wasn't much demand. That mailing brought in only three more subscriptions.
Meanwhile, I had contacted another Boston bishop and gotten his blessing for a mailing to the pastors under his jurisdiction. I mailed the introductory packet to 105 parishes, but received only one order.
Early last year I called each of the ten parishes which had ordered the series and found that eight were using the questions and answers regularly, one now and then, and one not at all because of a lack of space. The income generated that year didn't come close to covering expenses, but the priests using the series seemed pleased.
So another twenty questions were prepared in the summer of 1989 and sent to the previous subscribers with a request they provide me with the names of three or four friends who might be interested in Catholic Replies. I hoped a more specific mailing might bring a greater response than had the scattershot mailing the year before.
This request produced thirty new names, and each of them was sent a packet, which had a modified format. The cover letter included comments from three pastors who had found the series fruitful and suggested the recipients try the sample questions in their bulletins at no charge. Then the pastors could circle the questions they wanted (the questions were appended to the letter): For $50 they could choose twenty questions out of forty.
Nine of the original ten subscribers signed on again, but from the thirty new names came only two new clients. I telephoned each of the rest, and their response was always the same: not enough space. They get deluged with announcements from all kinds of groups, and they have barely enough room to list their own activities.
It's true pastors get inundated with material each week, not only from Church-affiliated organizations, but from public schools, community associations, and social groups. Each provider thinks his announcement is of primary importance, and pastors and secretaries are hard-pressed to decide what should be included and what should be omitted.
What information should be communicated? There must be announcements of marriages, anniversary Masses, catechesis, evenings of prayer, parish missions, and meetings of parish organizations. These are all part of parish life and deserve inclusion in the bulletin.
But what about non-parish events, as valuable as they might be? Should they be printed to the exclusion of significant spiritual or educational information? In my admitted biased opinion, no. Catholics aren't well versed in their religion. They have difficulty explaining even the most elementary beliefs, which means they're easy targets for fast-talking proselytizers.
One way to arm Catholics with solid information is a question-and-answer column. A large audience can be reached with minimal effort, and the format appeals to many. Consider the millions who read advice columns every day. Granted, the sensationalistic and graphic nature of those columns accounts for much of their popularity, but the question-and-answer approach attracts people too.
After seeing how one pastor was able to fit two questions at a time on the front of his bulletin, I've taken more notice of how much empty space there is in these weekly publications. Does a sketch of the parish have to take up half the cover? What about poor clip-art cluttering the inside?
If you're like me, you begin a project with great enthusiasm, whether it's wallpapering a room or starting something like Catholic Replies. But then something pops the bubble. Frankly, I anticipated a better response to the project. I didn't think myself optimistic to expect to sign up thirty parishes the first year or to have triple that number by now. (I even counted on some additional income to help with college tuition.)
The reality has been different from the expectations. Although mailings went out to 240 pastors, only a dozen--five percent--subscribed. Does this mean the idea isn't a good one? I don't think so, judging from the enthusiastic reaction of parishioners. What can be done to produce a better response?
If pastors are swamped with items for their bulletins, an introductory packet mailed to them may not be the right approach. Some pastors told me they remembered getting the packet, set it aside to look at later, and then lost track of it. A personal presentation might have a better "closing" rate.
Another approach, which I haven't tried because of the capital outlay required, is advertising in Catholic publications more interested in what the Holy Father and the magisterium teach than in musings of trendy theologians. There must be plenty of pastors who would try Catholic Replies if only they knew about it.
A third angle might be to shorten questions and replies so they would fit more easily in crammed bulletins. When I first started and was publishing only in my own parish's bulletin, there was plenty of room (when there was room at all), so some exchanges went to 500 words. Now I'm striving to keep the replies to no more than half that length.
People have asked if I'm discouraged at the slow growth of Catholic Replies. Not really. Of course, I wish my expectations had been met, but I'm grateful even for the limited success achieved. Who knows how many people have had their questions answered and their faith increased? If Catholic Replies has brought even one person closer to God and the Church, the effort has been worth it. (That said, I admit I'd still like to see the series spread far and wide.)
[To have your parish to carry a question-and-answer series, have your pastor contact Catholic Replies, 345 Prospect St., Norwood, Massachusetts 02062; (617) 769-2746.]