The Archdiocese of Portland is entering a partnership with an Indiana-based group that seeks to supercharge Catholic evangelization efforts.

The St. Paul Evangelization Society offers dioceses intercessory prayers, free consultations for long range planning, conferences, research and even financial support aimed at “fostering the growth of an army of missionary disciples,” according to its website.

Two representatives of the society visited western Oregon in mid-March to consult and lay plans for an upcoming evangelization conference that will draw bishops from all over the nation.

“We want the world to be evangelized,” said Deacon Vince Bernardin, cofounder of the society. “What we do is help bishops become leaders of evangelization. That will have a big effect.”

George Witwer, the other cofounder, likes to remind people that the church exists to venture outside itself to evangelize and that the regular people in the pews need to know that their special mission is to bring others to Christ.

“We all have a piece of that great commission,” said Witwer, who works in publishing and public policy in Indiana. “One of our big goals is to change the experience from sitting in the pew to being a very active Christian.”

Bernardin and Witwer, longtime friends, met over lunch one day and decided the best pathway for spreading the Gospel is to help bishops in the mission. The fire, they say, then will move to priests, religious and the lay faithful.

The pandemic has brought an opportunity, as people feel a dearth of interaction and meaning. “The ultimate relationship to have is with Jesus Christ,” Witwer said.

Bernardin explains that most priests, until about a decade ago, were not formed to be evangelizers. In the old days, people would come to the church for what they needed. In modernity, the church needs to go out to the people. Bernardin likes to quote Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, who says clergy in the past have been prepared to be shepherds, but not fishers of men and women.

The St. Paul Evangelization Society does not offer a program, but seeks to support evangelization as a movement.

Catholics, Witwer explained, should realize that even works of mercy and charity have evangelization as an end. A sense of new evangelization emerged strong at the Second Vatican Council, was nurtured by St. John Paul II and then raised more and more by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis.

The society’s board includes seven bishops. The chief advisor is theology professor Ralph Martin, whose latest book is “A Church in Crisis: Pathways Forward.”

It will be a challenging path for the archdiocese. Catholics have remained roughly a fifth or a quarter of the U.S. population, but that is only because so many immigrants are Catholic. Roughly 13% of all adult Americans are former Catholics. A quarter to a half of new converts typically stop practicing within a few years after their baptism.

In 2015, Bernardin wrote a framework for diocesan evangelization, arguing that quick fixes do not stick.

“Today, a ‘business as usual’ attitude can no longer be the case,” he wrote. “We cannot truly evangelize the world by limiting ourselves to everything we are already doing.”

Bernardin and Witwer said a deep and lasting movement is needed, starting with spreading the first, core truth: Jesus became human and died to save us. As more Catholics engage with that truth, often referred to by the Greek word kerygma, they will want to share the good news with others. Then, Bernardin wrote, everything will be done with evangelization in mind.

“The full fruition of the New Evangelization will train and commission a teenage girl to actualize her confirmation by sharing her excitement about Jesus with her friends on Facebook,” Bernardin wrote. “It will help a soccer mom witness to her friend how she came to love the Lord, who gave her the strength and peace to forgive her ex-husband. It will train dads to lead their families in prayer. It will work through the lives of college students intelligently and respectfully defending the truths of natural law in a secular environment. It will find its way onto the street and into subsidized housing and onto secular TV channels with 30-second spots and special programming.”

Bernardin knows Catholics want to avoid the stereotype of the corrupt televangelist. Catholics already have a sense of humility, service and authenticity, he wrote. The next step is to allow those qualities to shape a new kind of personal witness and evangelization.

The movement may be guided by a bishop but will be fueled by the laity, Bernardin wrote.

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