While Good Friday and Easter are expected to draw some of the biggest crowds of the year to churches this weekend, Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik is calling on all Catholics to invite and welcome people the rest of the year.
Bishop Zubik is issuing an Easter pastoral letter calling on lay Catholics to be evangelists, reaching the people that priests and even a popular pope cannot in an era of declining participation in Catholic sacraments and in attendance at churches of any sort.
"Be a friend. Be a friend of Jesus. Make friends for Jesus," Bishop Zubik wrote in the 42-page document, titled, "The Church Evangelizing: A Pastoral Letter to the Church of Pittsburgh on Sharing the Good News of God's Love."
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Bishop Zubik acknowledged that for many Catholics, the term "evangelism" is still relatively unfamiliar, although the past three popes have promoted the concept of a "new evangelization" to reach Catholics who have drifted or become estranged from their cradle faith.
Bishop Zubik said his childhood image of an evangelist was the Protestant Billy Graham -- which, he said, is a good example of inspiring others to follow Jesus.
"Not unlike Billy Graham, we all, you and I, are called to be evangelists," Bishop Zubik wrote.
This is the fourth pastoral letter of Bishop Zubik's tenure in Pittsburgh. It is being distributed in this week's edition of the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper and being heavily promoted through social media.
"You as our laity can proclaim the Good News and evangelize others better in your workplaces and in the marketplaces than we priests, deacons and bishops could ever do in those places. You are there," Bishop Zubik wrote.
"Though Pope Francis captivates large crowds in Saint Peter's Square, there are many more people he simply cannot reach," he added.
Bishop Zubik said in an interview that his letter responds in part to trends of secularization, with a rising minority of Americans with no religious affiliations and declining membership in many Protestant denominations. In a separate recent report on a survey of local Catholics in advance of a Vatican synod on the family, Bishop Zubik acknowledged many Catholics themselves don't observe church teachings on marriage and sexuality.
He wrote of a man who approached him in a store and asked where one could get a "trinket" like the one Bishop Zubik was wearing -- his pectoral cross. "Here was a man of the 21st century who knew neither the Cross nor the One who hung from it," he wrote.
Roman Catholics remain the largest religious group in the region -- about a third of the population in the six counties comprising the Diocese of Pittsburgh: Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Lawrence and Washington.
But that is "hardly a number we can be comfortable with," Bishop Zubik said.
In fact, the local Catholic population, about 637,000, has declined both in absolute numbers and as a portion of the population over the past dozen years. And while some parishes are booming in high-growth suburbs, overall baptisms, first communions and other sacramental vital signs are down since the start of the new century.
Scholars said Catholic evangelizers will face challenges.
"Indicators of church participation are all down," said Timothy Kelly, professor of history at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe and author of works on Pittsburgh Catholic history. "This is an effort to try to stem that. The new pope seems to have generated a lot of enthusiasm among Catholics who stepped away. Maybe the timing is right."
A major obstacle, Mr. Kelly said, is that the church "is still oriented around the presence of a robust and active clergy" to bring sacraments such as the Eucharist, "and the priest shortage is so critical."
Nationally, the church "is looking to bring more peripheral Catholics (attending Christmas and Easter or less often) into parish life," said Mark Gray, director of Catholic polls at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, in an email.
"However, in some areas they have to work harder and harder to do this because there are less of them. In the Northeast and the Midwest this is an issue," with aging and shrinking Catholic populations.
Mr. Gray said he doesn't know of any studies proving which evangelistic practices are most successful, but "being open and welcoming and providing community is essential," he said.
Bishop Zubik echoed the theme of welcoming in his pastoral letter.
"The most consistent complaint I hear from people who have left the Church, or who do not enter its doors, save for Christmas and Easter, it is that they do not feel welcomed," he wrote. "They don't feel welcomed when they are met by the ushers. Neither do they feel welcomed by people who resent finding a visitor in 'their' pew. They don't even feel welcomed at the Sign of Peace before Holy Communion because there are frowns on too many faces."
The evangelistic push, Bishop Zubik said, isn't a program: "It's a different manner of thinking. It's meant to prompt each parish to think, 'How do we want to implement that?' "
Some parishes already are taking up Bishop Zubik's challenge.
Many congregations' growth or decline closely tracks that of their communities -- with shrinking parishes in older urban neighborhoods and booming ones in new suburbs. But the "first question would be, no matter what size your parish is, 'Is it a welcoming place?' Then, 'Do you do well what only you can do?' " said the Rev. Charles Bober, who was a parish pastor in struggling Pittsburgh neighborhoods before becoming pastor of St. Kilian Church in Cranberry.
Fueled by a suburban boom, St. Kilian grew more than 400 percent in the past decade to more than 10,000 parishioners.
"We had nothing to do with the growth," Father Bober said. "That's demographics. But it's how you respond to the fact that there are more people. The thing that only we can do is celebrate the Catholic sacraments and the liturgy and [offer] education, catechesis, adult education, religious education."
If a church does those things well, "people respond and they become a part of it, and then you begin to develop all the other ministries that support the core mission."
He said Pope Francis' emphasis on solidarity with the poor has prompted the parish to launch a food bank and weekly fellowship meal.
At St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon, parishioners have taken part in special prayer hours and other activities to focus on evangelization and to welcome people who haven't attended in a long while. Greeters welcome visitors at major church services.
"Pope Francis calls us to be missionary in nature," said the Rev. David Bonnar, pastor of the parish. "We're starting with our own."
While the church, which also has about 10,000 parishioners, has seen some growth, the main impact has been spiritual life, Father Bonnar said. "Evangelization is not just bringing people back but reigniting the fire within," he said.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith. First Published April 17, 2014 12:13 PM