Part 3: How to Be a Dynamic and Evangelizing Parish

By Father Norman Langenbrunner and Jeanne Hunt

Holy Infant Parish is a case in point. Tucked in a pine grove deep in Durham, North Carolina, this vibrant parish brings a unique blend of intergenerational catechesis to 771 families.

Holy Infant sustains an active faith community based on gatherings for members from preschool to the elderly. At these gatherings catechesis and evangelization are featured.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes the ideal Church as a Christian community which is “united, heart and soul; no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, as everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). The clue to achieving such a Church may be found in Acts 2:42, in Luke's list of these four characteristics:

쳌¡ The members are guided by the teaching of the apostles.
쳌¡ They attend to the needs of the community.
쳌¡ They devote themselves to prayer.
쳌¡ They celebrate the breaking of the bread (Eucharist).

Lynn Sale, the parish's director of faith development, believes that the parish's success is based on a desire for interpersonal support that the traditional Catholic parish may not offer. The intergenerational model “widens the circle of formation to include parents, children and adults without children,” says Lynn.

Holy Infant, located in an area known as Research Triangle Park, is a transient parish that attracts Catholics beyond territorial boundaries. Lynn says that last year, 89 families joined the parish and 81 families left the parish. Yet, the Triangle area is expanding and so is Holy Infant Parish.

More than half of Holy Infant's membership is young families, with 60 percent consisting of adults between the ages of 15 and 60. Parishioners are well-educated: Durham has the highest per capita number of Ph.Ds. The transitory nature creates a special challenge for this community.

At the time of this interview, Father Mike McCue, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, was the pastor of Holy Infant. (He was reassigned last summer.) “Holy Infant has a solid tradition of member involvement,” he says. “People make liturgy, faith development, service and community happen. In addition, our people have a good understanding of these elements of parish life.”

While the parish has a fine reputation as a spiritual center that emphasizes Salesian spirituality, the shift to intergenerational faith-development programs seems to have boosted the spiritual energy of Holy Infant.

Intergenerational means that younger and older members are brought together for instruction, faith formation and prayer. Older members model faith life for the younger ones, and the younger ones inspire the older members.

According to longtime parishioner Tom Goehl, “The appeal of Holy Infant Parish stems from our priests' understanding that it is imperative to address not only the parishioners' spirituality but also their humanness. This understanding has led to a vibrant parish whose people truly care about each other and the wider community.”

So what accounts for such dynamic and sustaining energy in this mid-sized Southern parish? In 2000, the vision of the parish changed when parishioners undertook a long-range plan for evangelization. It was John Roberto's Generations of Faith Resource Manual: Lifelong Faith Formation for the Whole Parish Community that re-created the parish with “new wineskins,” says Lynn Sale.

A previous pastor, Father John McGee, invited Lynn to join the staff and immerse their ministry in this intergenerational model. Eight years later, the staff works in a collaborative style that encourages everyone to cross over their job descriptions as they work together developing the lifelong learning model.

The old CCD model was discarded. HI-life, as it is now called, offers faith formation for everyone at Holy Infant. Throughout the year, a theme-based curriculum is offered to the entire parish. The annual theme (justice, creed, prayer, sacramental life) is integrated into everything the parish does, from homilies to outreach ministries.

Last year's theme was “Acting for Justice.” This led the parish to start “Just Faith”: small-group discussions. In addition, parishioners built a Habitat for Humanity house and moved forward with a parish-stewardship campaign.

Paulo Chiquito, the father of three and an active HI-life participant, reports, “Coming from a very traditional Catholic upbringing, HI-life breathed a new life into my concept of catechism teaching. The sessions are very dynamic and challenging.

“I love going together as a family, but with the opportunity for separate age-specific activities,” Paulo explains. “The kids love these and the grown-ups have a chance for a more mature presentation and discussion. Some sessions offer beautiful music, superb acting and some very spiritual experiences.”

Mike Somich, a member of the HI-life core team, notes, “I think most men are uncomfortable expressing their faith. I have found that, in the development and presentation of our intergenerational gatherings, parishioners are very supportive, so much so that, at a recent gathering, I was willing to witness to the role that the Holy Spirit has played and is playing in my life.”

HI-life gatherings turn the entire parish space into an interactive learning center. The vision of Holy Infant is to create a lifelong learning model in which more and more pieces of parish ministry and formation opportunities can be added as the community evolves into a deeper understanding of the Gospel.

Father Norman Langenbrunner, a parish priest in Cincinnati, Ohio, has written for Catholic publications as well as for The Gettysburg Experience. Jeanne Hunt, advisor for catechesis and evangelization at St. Anthony Messenger Press, preaches parish missions and gives workshops on adult and family faith formation.

Part 3 of 4 parts. The full article can be found at St. Anthony Messenger.


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