Elmira parish reaches out to inactive Catholics - Catholic Courier

Elmira parish reaches out to inactive Catholics

Christmas liturgies are typified by overflow crowds, thanks to the presence of people who may only show up to one or two Masses all year. Though the overcrowding may annoy some regular churchgoers, infrequent attendees are just the kind of folks that a ministry at Elmira’s St. Mary Southside Parish seeks to embrace.

Outreach to Inactive Catholics, which held its first two meetings in September and October, will next convene on Wednesday, Jan. 20, at 7 p.m. in the lower level of St. Mary’s rectory, 224 Franklin St. All are welcome, and Father Jeff Tunnicliff — St. Mary’s parochial vicar who oversees the ministry — noted that the meeting will be publicized at upcoming Christmas Masses.

The new program sprang from a discussion by the parish pastoral council in the fall of 2008. From there, a parish team was formed with the goal of establishing an ongoing ministry, as opposed to a one-time event.

"With less than 40 percent of Catholics regularly attending church, it is something we know we need to do," Father Tunnicliff observed.

St. Mary Parish has employed several approaches to track down inactive Catholics. For instance, a mailing went to all parishioners with a special emphasis on reaching people who are registered at St. Mary but don’t attend church. Other communication vehicles have been the parish bulletin; the Internet; a homily by Father Tunnicliff at Sunday Mass; and brochures made available at church on how to evangelize in the community and approach acquaintances who are lapsed Catholics.

Father Tunnicliff emphasized that newcomers are always welcome at Outreach to Inactive Catholics meetings, regardless of whether they’re St. Mary parishioners or if they attended the first two sessions.

"When they arrive, we do not ask where they are from. We welcome anyone," he said.

During the ministry’s initial meetings on Sept. 16 and Oct. 21 — the latter of which focused on divorces and annulments — participants shared how they became distanced from the Catholic Church. Father Tunnicliff said some of the issues stemmed from misunderstanding of church teachings "or more so, a lack of understanding. People often have not learned as much about the church growing up as we would like. They go by what they hear, and that is often incomplete at best." In other cases, people have stopped coming to church not because of any single issue, but simply from letting their devotion slip.

Father Tunnicliff views participants’ willingness to talk about their inactivity as a real desire to deepen their faith. He emphasized the importance of making them feel at ease.

"We believe it takes great courage for these people to come forward. People may fear that the first action of the church will be to judge them for not coming (to church regularly)," he said. "We do not judge them for that. Rather, we seek to move forward by dealing with any issues of why they have not been coming."

He said a group setting helps for people to feel comfortable and have their feelings validated, adding that they "may not be willing to come one-on-one for a meeting with the priest or staff."

Certainly a desired outcome by team members is for people to return to church regularly, but that’s not the ministry’s only goal.

"It is not just about numbers," Father Tunnicliff said. "Our current diocesan spiritual renewal, Spirit Alive!, began by encouraging us to work on our personal relationship with Jesus. We wish to help people build their own relationship with Jesus by offering them a friendly relationship with the church that helps them to understand their faith and how to live it in the world today."

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on Outreach to Inactive Catholics, contact Father Jeff Tunnicliff at 607-734-6254 or ftunnicliff@dor.org.

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