AUBURN — From boosting its social media presence to creating new sports leagues, Deacon Dennis Donahue is leading the work of the new evangelization at St. Mary Church.
As coordinator of new evangelization, he has been charged with inviting "absent Catholics back to full membership in the church," according to information from Father Frank Lioi, pastor, in the church’s May 17, 2015 bulletin.
"We are the ones who have been commissioned to carry on (Jesus’) mission and preach the Good News to the ends of the earth," wrote Father Lioi of the deacon’s newly created position. "This ‘Great Commission,’ as it is often called, provides an opportunity for us to place our attention on the mission of evangelization. … We also should remember that the mission we have been given is to spread the good news to all peoples, not just those baptized Catholics. That’s why at the end of Mass, we are sent to ‘Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.’"
Deacon Donahue was assigned to St. Mary in May but also will continue working with Good Shepherd Catholic Community in southern Cayuga County, he said.
He explained that he was interested in taking on a new project after decades working as a psychologist first and later as an administrator. He recently retired and believed his skill set of working with people and organizations would be useful, he added.
And as a parishioner of St. Mary with his wife, Cindy, Deacon Donahue said that he could see the demographic shift going on at the parish, with lots of older people in attendance and some families with young children.
"The missing component is (parishioners) between the ages of 15 to 35," he remarked. "Father Lioi was quite interested in doing new and innovative things to re-engage that population as well as build the rest of the community."
He went the traditional route initially by introducing himself to the parishioners in person in May during his first homily and his first column for the bulletin’s "Deacon’s Corner." He invited parishioners to join him as "new evangelizers," as he is the coordinator, "not the doer," he noted.
Then, he met with all staff members at the parish office individually and in groups to get their thoughts and ideas. Most recently, he spoke of "discipleship" for his second homily at St. Mary and again asked for feedback. This time, he included a survey in bulletins.
"Since the ones in the pews are most likely to fill out the survey, we did that as a first round (of feedback)," Deacon Donahue said.
He had received only one e-mail in his first nine weeks on the job, but many people volunteered to complete the survey, he said.
His experience with Good Shepherd taught him that when you try new ways to engage parishioners, they do participate, he added.
He held periodic "date night with the deacon" events, and many couples from the Good Shepherd churches took part at local restaurants, even when the weather terrible. The idea stemmed from a young parishioner’s comment that the way to get people to talk about faith was to host a gathering outside the church, Deacon Donahue said. The idea was so successful that some couples went home and read more of the Bible passages he had referenced, he said, noting that he offered prizes of the garlic he grows to get volunteers to read the passages aloud during the gatherings,.
"That kind of engagement … is critically important," Deacon Donahue said. "It may be date nights, kids’ movie nights, get certified babysitters and have parents come to 5:30 Mass and go to dinner. There are things we can do as a community to strengthen families, strengthen marriage."
Young couples have told him anecdotally that they have been made to feel uncomfortable at Mass, especially if they have crying babies. So one of the survey questions asks if parishioners would like to have surrogate grandparents if their own families live out of town, he explained.
"We want to reach out to them (and ask), ‘How can we make this more comfortable for you without giving away the essence of what Mass is for?" Deacon Donahue said.
He also hopes to work with the seminarian at St. Mary to develop a youth group focused on social justice and ecology based on the pope’s recent encyclical. And he has begun looking to partner with other organizations, such as Champions for Life Sports Center in Auburn, to provide other sports and recreation opportunities for younger parishioners, Deacon Donahue said.
But reaching out to couples who baptize their babies and those recently married will be a critical component of the mission, he added. People who have distanced themselves from the Catholic Church often return at those junctions in their lives, he said.
The work will take a "Jesuitical approach," as led by Pope Francis, he added.
"Sometimes we make life choices that make us feel separated from the church or from God, not recognizing that God continues to want to be in relationship with us," he said. "What we’re trying to do is help them rebuild that relationship. Our message is, ‘God loves you and wants you to be engaged in the church."
And like the story of the child throwing starfish back into the ocean to save them one by one, he said he welcomes all hands on deck to bring as many people as possible back to the church.
"We’re going to use every possible device to help a starfish get back into the water," he said.