Growing up in the 1970s, many in the Church urged me to care for the poor, work for justice, and love God. But I don’t recall being told to “go and make disciples.” For whatever reasons, efforts by Catholics to personally share the fullness of the Gospel seemed absent, even when other faiths were hitting the streets and knocking on doors.
But thanks to the encouragement of His Excellency, the Most Reverend Thomas J. Tobin, bishop of Providence, and the work of dedicated members of the Legion of Mary, since 2010 six parishes within the Diocese of Providence have held a “Day of Evangelization”—an event that includes prayer, Eucharistic Adoration, and going door-to-door within parish boundaries. In total, these days have resulted in the visitation of about 7,500 homes and conversations with some 3,500 people, with about 370 asking for follow-up, such as requests for visiting the homebound, rides to Mass, information on annulments, or how to have their children baptized.
“These door-to-door events grew in a special way out of our Year of Evangelization,” said Bishop Tobin, referring to an initiative in 2009 and 2010 in which he encouraged parishes to reach out to their neighbors. “One important response was that parishes began going door-to-door, which makes evangelization a personal event. You can have all sorts of billboards, bumper stickers, and pamphlets to help evangelize, but as helpful as all that can be, evangelization must be a personal encounter.”
Father Edward J. Wilson, Jr., pastor of Saints Rose and Clement Parish in Warwick, Rhode Island, echoed the bishop’s words. In June, his parish held a Day of Evangelization using the expertise and assistance of the Legion of Mary and a small army of parish volunteers and others from across New England and as far away as Illinois. To date, this was the largest such event in the diocese, with some 130 people knocking on doors, dozens in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament (or at home), and many more helping with daycare, the kitchen, or registration tables.
Father Wilson held the Day of Evangelization because of its ability “to bring a personal invitation, to go where our neighbors are and bring them the Good News of God’s love.” He also noted that because of the group support, prayers, and blessings being offered, such organized events help parishioners overcome their own fears.
“People want to evangelize and invite their neighbors to know Christ, to receive him in the Eucharist,” said Father Wilson. “And yet, they can be hesitant because they don’t want to be seen as being pushy.” But with the Day of Evangelization, there is a communal aspect to the personal invitation, said Father Wilson.
Saints Rose and Clement is my parish. I was one of those who did the unthinkable: I visited strangers and spoke about my Catholic faith. Like others that morning, I teamed up with a more experienced visitor, prayed before the Blessed Sacrament, was commissioned by my pastor, drove to a designated street, and began knocking on doors, saying “Hi, we’re from Saints Rose and Clement Parish; Father Wilson has asked us to say hello and see if there’s anything we might be able to help with or anything we can pray for.”
This resulted in conversations with at least 15 people who were intrigued that Catholics had come to their homes. Some asked questions. Others aired concerns. Most took blessed religious medals for their children. A few hinted at past unhappy events. Some admitted that they stopped going to Mass after their confirmation or marriage but had been thinking of returning. Several weren’t Catholic but were “happy the Catholics are doing this,” as one woman, a Southern Baptist, put it. Having seen the interest at our arrival—from the elderly, young families, and a group of teens—I can testify to the power of these very Christian acts: Go. Knock. Greet. Listen. Listen some more. Offer a holy medal, an information packet, or a prayer, right there and then. And if the opportunity comes, invite people to Mass.
“The immediate benefit is [for] those who go door-to-door,” said Bishop Tobin, who was installed as the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Providence in 2005. “They return invigorated and eager to share the stories of what they’ve just experienced.” But the bishop cautioned about the importance of remaining available to those who need additional contact. “We can’t just knock on doors without committing to whatever follow-up is necessary. That’s like casting seed on dry land; it’s offering the promise but not tending and nurturing the growth.”
And indeed, following up is stressed by the Legion of Mary. Visitation teams are asked to take notes on where they went, with whom they spoke, and what the needs were of those they met. Special teams—either the original visitors, the pastor, a deacon, or parish staff—can then contact anyone who asked for more information, or who seemed open to a return visit, or (if they gave their phone number) a telephone call.
Building such relationships takes time. But they begin by first going and knocking. It is, after all, what incarnational faiths should do. A great benefit of going two-by-two is that while one person knocks, their partner prays for the grace to have a fruitful conversation. These prayers echo with those being offered at the church before the Blessed Sacrament, which connects the inner life of the Church with its mission in the world.
“I tell the participants that we give what we have, our own conviction of our faith and love of our Lord,” says Kathleen Kerin, a Day of Evangelization organizer with the Legion of Mary. “That is what moves people to God. Arguments and discussions often get muddled in pride and hurt. What is most beneficial and accepted is a humble invitation to visit the church and talk to our Lord, who knows us and loves us and wants us to come home. People are searching for meaning, for purpose. That’s why we need to tell them about Christ.”
Days of Evangelization typically begin in the early morning and include the Rosary, Mass, breakfast, a time of preparation for those going two-by-two, Adoration, and prayer for those on the streets. When the teams return, the day concludes with Benediction, lunch, and sharing stories about the miracles that just took place. The events are typically held rain or shine.
Edward Gallagher, also of the Legion of Mary, helps coordinate Days of Evangelization with Kerin. He says that he has never tired of seeing the transformation of ordinary Catholics as a result of going door-to-door.
“Catholics need to know that they can do this,” Gallagher said. “No experience is necessary. We simply allow the Holy Spirit to use us because we cannot keep our love of Christ locked up at home or in our parish walls. We must take back our streets and we must remember all the while that Jesus and Mary have already prepared the way in advance. We visit with love, gentleness, and joy.”
“It is truly the work of the Holy Spirit,” said Kerin. “It’s a bit like Pentecost—the fear of the disciples in the face of the work to be done, then their great joy and courage after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. This transformation is reflected in each Day of Evangelization.”
Gallagher adds that “those whom we visit are just like those who visit: wounded in some way and in great need of God’s mercy, love, and help.” For Gallagher, greeting people door-to-door is “not an option” for Catholics. “If we don’t do this, who will?”
Father Wilson noted that such events are “moments of transcendence” for parishes and that the work of evangelization is an ongoing process, one requiring great patience and trust in the Holy Spirit. “What I would tell pastors is to not be discouraged if, after holding a day of door-to-door evangelization, there is not an immediate, noticeable increase in Mass attendance or requests for confession,” Father Wilson said. He notes, however, that he was touched when one person visited the church after the Day of Evangelization to inquire about receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the first in years, as a result of being contacted that morning. “The work of these events is in how they plant seeds,” Father Wilson said. “What results may take time, but they are beautiful to see when you do.”
More parishes in the Diocese of Providence are considering holding a Day of Evangelization and others, including Saints Rose and Clement Parish, are planning to hold their second, maybe making them regular occurrences—whether on a large or small scale. Holy Family Parish in Pawtucket, Rhode Island will be holding a Day of Evangelization on Saturday, September 8.
While Bishop Tobin is delighted to hear of the successful Days of Evangelization held to date, he recognizes that not every parish can take on such large-scale initiatives. Still, he sees any form of door-to-door evangelization taking on special graces, especially during the upcoming Year of Faith.
“For so long, Catholicism in areas like New England has been so deeply rooted in the culture—prosperous and institutionally quite large—and this can lead to a certain complacency. Now, reading the signs of the times, what we’re seeing begs for some kind of evangelization. Door-to-door is not the only way to do this, but it is one of the most effective.”