A Mansion for the New Evangelization
In 2010 Bishop Arthur Serratelli dedicated the most beautiful property of the Paterson Diocese to the New Evangelization. His vision was to restore a hundred-year-old mansion and turn it into a place that welcomes unbelievers, young adults and those seeking training in Catholic evangelization. Visitors enter through the gates and find themselves amidst old, beautiful trees, outlined by a purple-colored wall made of rare pudding stone. Walking toward the mansion, the senses are overwhelmed—The architecture and landscape draw the eyes, the roses call out to the nose, but most importantly and most subtly, the water falling from the fountain of St. John the Baptist echoes the words of that first convert, “Look, there is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36).
This is St. Paul Inside the Walls: The Catholic Center for Evangelization, located in Madison, New Jersey. St. Paul’s is about 30 minutes from Manhattan and about 30 seconds from Morristown, a small city full of young adults in their 20’s and 30’s. My wife (a recent convert to Catholicism) and I were two of those Morristown twentysomethings in 2010. Though I worked in finance I dedicated most of my time to ministry and evangelization, leading RCIA, various bible studies, and pursuing my master’s in Theology from the Augustine Institute (AI). We stumbled upon St. Paul’s on the way to the grocery store. The staff explained to us that the chasm between the secular world and the average parish is often too large for an “unchurched” young adult to cross, and how the mansion serves as a “halfway house” with the hope of integrating the unchurched and young adults into parish life. To oversimplify the story, I walked out as a full-time employee.
I was commissioned as the minister to college students on two college campuses adjacent to the evangelization center. Before the Fall semester began, I was able to find a half-dozen undergraduates who made me look good at my job. They committed to attending Sunday Mass, going to a formation bible study once per week, and inviting their friends to do the same. It was a motley crew: A Jewish student, the captain of the women's soccer team, a churchy girl from Connecticut, the hardest partier on campus, an unchurched gamer and “herbal enthusiast,” and a tree-hugging environmental engineer. The soccer captain would bring her entire team to Mass and the partier came to each event with two new friends. Their exposure to Scripture, the great priests on staff and the community of St. Paul’s was transformative. The Jewish student and unchurched gamer were fully initiated into the Church, and campus ministry was well on its way.
Campus Ministry is a night job, so I took my master’s classes in the morning and often incorporated what I learned later that very evening. The Fundamental Theology class was perfect preparation for encountering the unchurched and the Pauline courses were perfect for dialogue with non-Catholic Christians. My studies at the Augustine Institute also led to an inner transformation. The Moral and Spiritual Theology course made me less judgmental of others and more motivated to grow in virtue, the Church and Modernity course helped me realize I was more influenced by secular philosophies than I thought, and all of the courses combined led to a deeper prayer life and an immeasurable appreciation for the sacraments. By the end of my AI studies the way I approached others about the faith had completely changed. Instead of sharing the faith with a “take it or leave it” approach, I began to tailor my approach to the needs of each group and individual. In other words, my rhetoric was enhanced.
The bliss of having a pure evangelization job lasted only one year. My responsibilities gradually increased over the years and now include diocesan coordination of campus, youth and young adult ministries, the coordination of programming and facilities at St. Paul Inside the Walls, managing some of the staff, strategic planning, and some dabbling in development. On one day I may be sweeping the floors, and on another, giving a lecture. I like to call myself a “theostodian,” but my official title is Assistant Director of Evangelization.
In 2012 The Executive Director of St. Paul Inside the Walls and Vicar for Evangelization in the Diocese of Paterson, Fr. Geno Sylva (now a monsignor), moved on to coordinate New Evangelization efforts at the Vatican. He was succeeded by Fr. Paul Manning who brought our staff through a strategic planning process. To our surprise we learned that 80% of our visitors were invited by a friend. We were under the impression that communication in the 21st century was more technological than personal but we were wrong. It seems that northern New Jerseyans are so fed up with being solicited (they see up to 10,000 ads per day) that they ignore all solicitations indiscriminately. This means that as evangelists, we’re back to 1st century techniques: invitations by word of mouth, personal relationships and disciples making disciples.
As a result of our strategic planning process, we agreed to stay local and personal. We realized that we have a big, beautiful mansion, which creates a great communal atmosphere, and set out to encourage a culture of proximity, where the distant, digitized relationships of today are replaced with eye contact, handshakes and hugs. We purposefully and proudly produce no formational media, first because the AI and other organizations are already fulfilling this need, and second because we want to encourage people to come inside the walls to have a personal and interactive experience. St. Paul Inside the Walls aims to be a place for the soul to journey towards God. For the person with no faith, the initial attraction is either the beautiful space or the vibrant community, or both. The senses are often the threshold to the mansion of relationship with God, and it’s through sights, sounds, smells and feelings that a person is initially drawn to Catholicism. Young souls are needy, requiring phenomenal music, engaging preaching and a community of people who remember their name.
But sights and sounds and nice feelings do not bring salvation! Young souls are attracted by certain sensory aspects of Catholicism, but when the euphoria wears off, they too often seek it elsewhere, which is why we encourage an attachment to the interior and unseen beauties of Catholicism before the sensory appeal wears off. At St. Paul’s we ease people into the realms of spirit and intellect with events like “Fire on Father,” where participants pelt random questions at a priest and watch him squirm. The content of this and some other events we host is driven by the audience, making them fun and unpredictable. The audience is given a chance to express themselves and at the same time they receive, often for the first time, answers to their questions that are both Church-approved and logical.
One would think that events like “Fire on Father” would inspire young adults to take the next step in faith formation, but they don’t! We’ve noticed that young adults generally don’t have a desire to learn the details of the faith, but once they do the learning, they’re glad they did it. This means that open invitations to young adults for faith formation do not work. They need to be invited, one by one, to a learning program that has a purpose, goal and commitment. We’ve developed a program made up of 6 three week sessions called “One Way,” which caters to the particular needs of our community and aims to equip the faithful to evangelize. For the most zealous, an accredited master’s level Certificate in Catholic Evangelization is offered, co-taught by the staff of St. Paul’s and professors of Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University. I’m proud to say that the bishop and I will be co-teaching one of the courses this Spring.
A few years ago, the diocesan departments of evangelization were transferred from the chancery to St. Paul Inside the Walls. This includes the departments of Catechesis, Family Life, Multicultural Ministry and others. The purpose of the move was to infuse these departments with a sense of teamwork and evangelical dynamism, and several fruits have been borne as a result. The Office of Family Life, for example, moved its Theology of the Body marriage preparation day to Sundays at St. Paul’s, where the engaged couples join in the 11 AM Young Adult Mass and the lunch that follows. This joint effort by the Young Adult and Family Life offices allows hundreds of largely unchurched engaged couples per year to experience Church at its finest: beautiful surroundings, music, preaching and community. As they learn the theories of Theology of the Body, often for the first time, they are able to share lunch with one of the many married couples at St. Paul’s who joyfully practice it. It sounds miraculous but it’s true: the practice of Natural Family Planning has become normalized among the young adult couples at St. Paul’s!
Should every diocese have a “St. Paul Inside the Walls?” Yes and no. In many ways St. Paul’s cannot be replicated: The bishop, the executive director, the mansion and the culture. But what can be replicated is the investment in evangelization, the recognition of a need for a “halfway house” between the secular world and the parish (especially for the unchurched and young adults), and the permission for diocesan departments to leave their “keeper of the aquarium” mentality and to return to the mission of “fisher of men.” Praise be to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Pt. 1:3).