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The History of the Parish Mission

(Written in 1998 as part of my D.Min. project)

In the mid-1850s, the fires of revivalistic Protestantism swept over the American landscape, ignited by evangelists such as Charles G. Finney. Finney’s "new measures" (i.e.: the "anxious meeting," the "protracted meeting," and the "anxious seat") provoked tremendous controversy and charges of "innovation" within the various Protestant bodies.1 At the same time, bands of Catholic missionary priests were crossing the nation to revive and to strengthen the struggling parishes of immigrant Catholics. Many people, then and now, have noted similarities between these two forms of revival.2  Both made use of the "protracted meeting," with sermons every night for 10 days or more. Both concentrated on basic themes of judgment, hell, repentance, forgiveness, and life everlasting. Both were sensationalistic, with public displays of piety and raw emotion. And both Protestant revivalists and skeptical Catholics accused the missionary priests of having jumped on Finney’s band-wagon. Orestes A. Brownson, the leading American Catholic intellectual of the period, took pen to paper to rebuke the cynics. Those who made such a comparison were naive, he charged, and were looking at the phenomena on the most superficial level. Not only were there important differences between the two events, but the Catholic mission antedated the Protestant revival by centuries. If someone was copying, it wasn’t the Catholic.3

European origins

Some have traced the roots of the parish mission back to the days of the mendicant friars, who carried out an extensive itinerant preaching ministry in the 13th century. There may be some truth in that, but it is safer to see the mission as a product of the Catholic Reformation. The parish mission was developed largely by St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), beginning in the 1590s. It was a means of educating the people and renewing their faith--in large part to counteract the advance of Protestantism. In the following centuries, other orders were created specifically for the purpose of preaching missions, including the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians) founded by St. Vincent de Paul (1580-1660), the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) founded by St. Alphonsus de Liguori (1696-1787), and the Congregation of the Discalced Clerics of the Most Holy Cross and the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Passionists) founded by St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775).4 Following the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773, the parish mission declined, and was even outlawed in some countries. This was only a temporary setback, for with the French Restoration of 1815, the mission experienced a resurrection, now as a means for reviving faith in the wake of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment.5

Though preached in many different countries by different orders, these missions were very similar to one another; the missionaries felt free to take what others did and either copy it completely, or modify portions as they saw fit.6  Throughout this process of modification, covering many national adaptations and the passage of decades--even centuries--some themes and practices remained consistent. Parish-centered (but sometimes embracing an entire town), the missions were preached by a team of missionaries under the direction of a superior. The missionaries lived in simplicity, and identified with the poor and neglected of the community. They typically stayed 10-12 days. Each day the priests would celebrate masses, give instruction, and lead the rosary; but the main event was the evening meeting, a feast of oratory and ceremony. The sermon was up to 90 minutes long, and was intended "to renew the faithful, to awaken the lax, to revive the weary."7  Only if the people were deficient in an area were other doctrinal matters discussed,8  for the preachers’ main concern was repentance. Vivid, soul-searing, "fire and brimstone" tirades on sin, death, judgment and hell9 would prepare the way for soothing proclamations of God’s mercy and the reception of the sacraments. The converted sinner was then directed to amend his life, with the final sermons of the mission warning of vices like drinking and impurity, and encouraging virtues like prayer, frequent reception of the sacraments, and perseverance.10

These sermons were impressive, but the missionaries believed words alone to be insufficient; the people must also see and experience the message in ceremony and ritual, and in the life of the preacher. The goal of the Passionists, for example, was to draw the congregation into the experience of the passion of Jesus, "to raise the people of God to a living participation in those sufferings, to a veritable con-crucifixion."11  The rituals played an important part in this process. St. Paul of the Cross would begin the mission with a triumphal entry into the city. Over the course of the mission, he would lead the people step by step through the story of the passion. In telling of the whipping of Jesus, Paul would "take the discipline," wearing a crown of thorns on his head and a chain about his neck and waist.12

The ceremonies of Paul of the Cross were a carefully orchestrated mix of informality, staged spontaneity, and public spectacle. During the evening service, a large crucifix occupied center stage. He would preach informally, walking up and down the aisles, engaging in dialogue with the people. He would sometimes pull up a chair at the foot of the crucifix, and continue chatting in an intimate fashion. Sometimes he would direct his conversation to the corpus itself; he might even spin it around away from the people to demonstrate God’s displeasure at their stubbornness. If he detected irreverence on the part of the people, he would "suddenly" have the Blessed Sacrament taken from the church, then the crucifix, then the statue of Mary, then the clergy would leave. He would stay, however; he would first rebuke the people for their sins, but then he would turn and plead with God for mercy. If he didn’t get the tears of repentance he desired, he might end the service there. On the other hand, if there was a display of sorrow, the procession would come back into the church with songs of rejoicing.13

Similar activities were adopted by all the major missionary orders. Over the years, however, some of these displays were toned down, especially when the work of the missionaries was extended beyond the predominantly Catholic countries in which they originated. This necessary process of adaptation provoked a crisis in some orders. While all agreed that public use of "the discipline" should be omitted in an Anglo-Saxon context, and public Marian devotion should be kept within certain limits, there was disagreement as to how much else should change. Manuals were written for the priests, with detailed choreography for all the ceremonies--but also giving permission to the superior to make what adaptations might be necessary in a particular community.14

The changes that were introduced were not simply omission of morbid practices like the crown of thorns and self-flagellation, but included the simplification of some of the more elaborate rituals. Paul of the Cross had used a complete funeral procession when speaking of death; the Redemptorists reduced this to a simple catafalque surrounded by lighted candles. Paul’s outdoor procession with the cross became the erection of a mission cross. That ceremonies were necessary was not doubted; as one (unnamed) bishop said, "Man perceives first through the senses, then through reason." But caution was the word, as a Redemptorist manual said, for "there is great danger of being carried away by an ill-regulated zeal, and, consequently, of introducing things that border on the profane and burlesque."15

The Mission to America

Various orders of priests had been actively involved in evangelizing Indians in both Spanish and French colonies since the fifteenth century, but the young republic of the United States remained virgin territory. The American hierarchy in the first decades consisted of a single bishop and two dozen priests. This all changed with the sudden surge in immigration from Catholic countries in the early nineteenth century, which increased the number of lay Catholics, and the scope of the mission field. It also brought increased numbers of bishops and priests to carry out the work. And both of these fueled the fires of Nativism.16

To stir up and educate the masses, to alleviate the problem of the shortage of priests, and to assist in the defense of the Catholic faith, the missionary orders soon joined the work. The first parish mission was preached in 1792 in Maryland by Fr. John Baptist M. David, in French, using an Ignatian model. German Jesuits were next, preaching missions in Philadelphia and Baltimore in 1807. German Redemptorists followed in 1832, and in 1852, the Passionists. It was after 1850 that the missions truly took off. In that decade the Redemptorists preached 188 missions--five times the number they had preached in the 1840s-- and in the period from 1860 to 1890 the number would balloon to 3,955.17

The basic format for the missions remained what it had been in the European setting. The combination of ceremonies, dramatic preaching, and hymns18 (sung only by the choir until the 1880s) proved to be just as effective on the American frontier as in the cathedrals and village churches of Europe. The mission would almost always end with the candle-light renewal of baptismal vows or the erection of the mission cross, books and religious goods would be sold, and the priests would leave for the next engagement, exhausted but fulfilled. As described by Joseph McSorley, "A mission was an event to be long remembered, an occasion for unbounded enthusiasm on the part of the people, but also a test of the missionary’s bone and sinew."19

Throughout the first half of the 19th-century parish missions remained truly "parochial." Not only did they remain Catholic events (though a few Protestants might attend), but they were restricted to Catholic ethnic minorities such as the Germans, the French, or the Irish. It was not until 1851 that the first parish mission was preached in English, and not until 1857 would a priest think of directly targeting non-Catholics. And that attempt to expand the evangelistic horizon would produce as much pain and discord as St. Paul’s mission to the Gentiles had eighteen hundred years before.

Isaac Hecker and the Paulists

The central figure in this controversy was one of the more creative, daring, colorful individuals in 19th-century American Catholicism. Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1888), founder of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, was a thorough-going American in a church of European immigrants, a convert via transcendentalism in a church of authority and tradition, an ecumenist in an era of Ultramontanism, one who trusted in the universal indwelling Spirit at a time when Papal infallibility was being defined. His story has been told in many places, so only those things pertaining to missions will be touched on here.20

As a young man, Hecker came into the orbit of the transcendentalist movement through his friendship with Orestes Brownson. He stayed for awhile at both Brook Farm and Fruitlands, where his circle of acquaintances included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Henry David Thoreau, and George Ripley. Encouraged by these friends, he read voraciously in German and English Romanticism, Greek philosophy, and the mysticism of Jakob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg. He plowed into Buddhist and Hindu works. But the longest-lasting influence would come through his reading of the Christian mystics, especially Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Erigena, Bernard of Clairvaux, Meister Eckhart and the Victorines. He already had a sense that he was being led by the indwelling Spirit of God, and these readings and his conversations helped him to articulate that experience. Together, his mystical experience and his reflection upon it led him to break through the walls of hostility and suspicion that separated Protestant from Catholic in that era of Know-Nothingism. As Farina has said, "Transcendentalism showed Isaac not a picture of Rome as the great Harlot, but a picture of Catholicism as the store house of precious mysteries and wonders." In 1844, the year that many New Englanders were anticipating the end of the world (and were disappointed), Hecker’s own world was transformed, as he took the fateful step of becoming a Catholic. The following year he entered the Redemptorists.21

The Redemptorists sent Hecker to Europe for his formation; he then returned to America to preach missions. He also faced the personal task of integrating the Catholic culture into which he had been immersed in Europe with the Americanism in which he had been raised.22  Hecker’s mission band included four other American converts (Clarence Walworth, Nathaniel Hewit, Francis Baker, and George Deshon) and two European "cradle Catholics," Alexander Czvitkovicz and Bernard Hafkenscheid. Hecker’s enthusiasm for the work shows in letters to friends; following one of his first missions, in Loretto, Penn., he wrote to Brownson that after a slow start, the whole town eventually turned out, and many experienced dramatic conversions. "Some time[s] the scenes were such as to excite laughter," he said. The mission closed with the standard raising of the mission cross. They began inside the church at 3:30 p.m. with the rosary, then they assembled outside for the grand procession.

First came the processional cross with the boys; then the men carrying a large cross 41 feet long entwined with garlands of flowers born by 60 of them; on each side of the cross was a file of soldiers with a band of music; then came 20 or 30 Franciscan brothers of the 3rd order with their cowls; then the clergy; after them the missioners in their habit, followed by the Sisters of Mercy, & then by the girls & women. The number of the procession was about 4000. We marched through the village to the site of the cross with music, and there we blessed & erected the cross in a most conspicuous place. The farewell sermon was preached at the foot of the Cross & the Papal Benediction given. The soldiers fired a salute as the finale. It was a novel scene for america [sic] . . . which never will be forgotten by those who witnessed it.

The band was successful. From 1851-1858 they preached 85 missions throughout the eastern United States, from New York to Georgia, and as far west as Michigan. In town after town, thousands attended, and were revived, and received the sacraments.23

Problems arose for the band when they sought to expand the work of the missions in an unheard of direction. By 1857, they were thinking that the time had come to shift their focus from the revival of Catholics to the evangelization of non-Catholics. They conceived of an approach based not on logic or external evidence (let alone crass appeals to "return to the true Church"), but on an appeal to the longings of the human heart. Hecker wrote two books showing how the Catholic faith answered "the deep craving of man’s heart for love and union with God." Here the abiding influence of transcendentalism upon Hecker is most apparent; this methodology (adapted from Schleiermacher) had first been used in an American context by Theodore Parker and George Ripley in their debate with Andrews Norton on miracles.24

Hecker and his fellow convert priests believed that such a patient explanation of the Catholic faith, appealing to what is good and honorable in the American Protestant heart, would combat fear and hatred. But they had not counted on the fear and hatred that would arise within Catholicism to their proposal. Antipathy between Catholics and Protestants was mutual. Many Catholic priests and bishops had an equal disdain for converts, and frowned on efforts to evangelize; within the Catholic hierarchy a fear of American customs and democracy also festered. Thus the proposal of these American Redemptorists to begin missions to non-Catholics, explaining the Catholic faith in an American idiom, with respect for American traditions and values, hit a brick wall. When they asked their superiors for permission to open an English-speaking house, they were refused. When Hecker took their appeal to Rome, he was expelled from the order without trial.25

But Hecker had many friends in the American hierarchy, and his ideas found favor in important offices in Rome. In April, 1858, as the band was preparing to begin a mission at St. Patrick’s Church, in Watertown, NY,26 word came from Hecker that Pope Pius IX had released them from their vows, and had given them permission to begin work toward founding a new community. Pius suggested that they adopt St. Paul as their patron. They would continue their missions to Catholics, and would have freedom to begin the work among non-Catholics. Thus the way was paved for the founding that year of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, or, the Paulists.27

Because of his preoccupation with founding a community, it was 1862 before Hecker was able to begin his Protestant project. He abandoned the mission format for that of the Chatauqua lecture hall; his habit gave way to secular clothes. He spoke extemporaneously, and avoided controversy. He assumed the good faith of the listener, and gave his arguments with patience and kindness. He sought, said an historian of apologetics, "to win the sympathy of the man in the street by letting him feel that his difficulties were understood." He concentrated on points held in common, believing this the best path to unity. And, most importantly--and what drew the most crowds--he "loved to tell his story."28

But even this irenic approach drew criticism. A Protestant magazine denounced his "effrontery." Catholics were suspicious. Even his fellow Paulists did not fully understand his concern. Other Catholics saw in Hecker a convert stereotype who immediately imagined he could do things better. They were afraid that his path would lead to accommodation, and to watering down of Catholic theology. After Hecker’s death, a French translation of Walter Elliott’s Life of Hecker would even lead to a papal condemnation of "Americanism," with a clear connection to Hecker’s name. In that climate, one Redemptorist historian would even brand him "a dangerous innovator, and barely, anything less than a heresiarch."29

The controversy over "Heckerism" was half a century away, however, when Hecker began his Protestant outreach, and even the criticism he received in his lifetime from both Catholics and Protestants did nothing to keep people away. In 1862 he even "begged Catholics to stay away" so that the objects of his ministry, their Protestant neighbors, would be able to attend. His audiences were as large as 2500. One might even call it a success. But even Hecker viewed it only as an experiment, and it was over after only a year, he told a friend in 1863. He would only give the lecture series one more time, in 1865. Hecker’s resignation was due in part to his need to establish both a seminary and the parish of St. Paul’s in New York that the Paulists had been assigned. Partly it was due to Hecker’s realization that he couldn’t provide the extensive follow-up he knew was needed. And partly it was due to his realization that neither the Catholic hierarchy, his fellow priests, nor the American Catholic laity had any interest in his novel experiment.30

Post-Vatican II Approaches

In the years leading up to and immediately following the second Vatican Council, preachers of parish missions engaged in a lively debate about whether those missions still served a useful purpose. The debate was inaugurated with the 1963 English translation of Swiss Redemptorist Paul Hitz’s 1954 book, To Preach the Gospel. Hitz’s critique was biting; he said the old-style missions revealed a perspective "very different from . . . that of the New Testament." The "cardinal point" of the traditional mission, "its central vision, is far too much man and what he does, not primarily and simultaneously God’s action to save us in Christ." The missions he saw to be moralistic, driven by fear, and leading to scrupulosity.31

Over the next few years the pages of the journal Worship carried on the debate provoked by Hitz.32  The authors echoed Hitz’s criticism of the moralistic, legalistic, and individualistic nature of most missions. Part of the solution, they suggested, was to change the focus of the preaching; the topics of sin, redemption, and conversion were fine, but the gospel should be stressed rather than human guilt. After all, remarked Henry Noyes, "it is Christ’s glad news that we have been commissioned to proclaim." And this proclamation, Noyes continued, must be kerygma, rather than catechesis; it must be encounter with Christ that leads to conversion and commitment.33  For preaching to be thus, it must be rooted in and addressed to the real life situations of the people. Reflecting on other concerns of Vatican II, Noyes and the others argued that mission sermons must be scriptural, and should take advantage of the latest theology. They also voiced a concern for ecumenical sensitivity, especially concerning the use of traditional Catholic devotions, like the rosary, as a part of missions that Protestants might attend. And they encouraged a view of conversion that is not individualist, but calls people to social action.

The post-Vatican II climate generated excitement and encouraged experimentation. Some of the novelties suggested by these authors may cause one to smile today--like the very 1960s image Lucey gave of handing a group of "five elderly ladies" "a large sheet of wrapping paper and a box of crayons."34  But some of the suggestions continue to speak. For example, is the very language of "parish mission" meaningful, even in a Catholic context? Could we find another label, such as "Week of Parish Development"? Can we expand the idea of mission beyond the parish, to involve an entire city or region? Can we strengthen the pre-mission preparation and follow-up, so that the mission is integrated into the life and mission of the parish?

These excited discussions died off quickly, however. After 1967, there was not another article in Worship on parish missions until 1993, when Redemptorist James A. Wallace once more issued an invitation to "Reconsidering the Parish Mission."35  He noted the decline of missions after Vatican II, despite the attempts at reform. Partly this was due to skepticism about whether the mission could be salvaged from its association with moralism and the fire and brimstone methods of the past. But it was partly due to the fact that the mission simply got swept aside by the surge of other forms of renewal, including Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, Renew, and the charismatic movement.36

Wallace argued that present trends show that the mission is making a comeback, however, and the concerns of today echo many of the concerns made by the critics of the early 1960s. First, said Wallace, the mission is now seen as truly evangelical; rather than emphasizing sin, the emphasis is on God’s mercy, forgiveness, and healing. Second, it is open to local adaptation. Third, there is a growing realization of the importance of ritual, resulting in a more careful selection of ritual actions, and elimination of the "macabre" rituals of the past. Fourth, the mission’s scope is broader than the parish, and may involve an entire city or diocese. Fifth, it is now seen as simply one evangelization tool; as such, it must be integrated into the full life and mission of the parish. Sixth, it must call to social and cultural conversion. Seventh, the preaching must be Biblical; Wallace suggested that "not only might a single text be at the heart of each sermon, but a particular biblical vision could be at the heart of each mission."37  Eighth, the sermon should avail itself of the latest homiletical theory, adopting an inductive rather than deductive approach, and an emphasis on narrative. Finally, according to Wallace, contemporary mission preaching not only allows for but encourages collaboration between men and women, clergy and lay, allowing different voices, with different experiences to be heard.

The Journal of Paulist Studies recently devoted almost an entire issue to "Preaching the Contemporary Mission," with articles by a number of Paulist missionaries. Much of what they say reiterates the conclusions of Wallace. An important contribution, however, is made by Frank DeSiano’s article which discusses further the role of the mission (or, "parish renewal") in the parish’s ongoing life.

Unless the parish renewal is inserted into the dynamic of the parish, it can have only a tangential impact on the people, fitting into their world like a TV serial or some sports playoff. . .

Consequentially, the work of the parish renewal is primarily catalytic. The . . . missionary catalyses, re-focuses, and re-energizes the parish’s life that has preceded and will follow him.38

DeSiano’s model calls for the preacher to do nothing but preach. Everything else is done by members of the parish. The missionary meets with representatives of the parish to determine themes, scriptures, rituals, and music. The parish determines how the mission will be followed up. "[M]y rule is that the preacher does only that, preaches; all the other ministries and activities of the renewal are done by local parishioners and parish leaders."39

A critical component of the DeSiano model is the parish survey he asks the planning group to complete prior to their first meeting with him. "What I am looking for . . . is a pastoral picture of the parish, something of its story, and specific outcomes that people would like to see from the renewal." The questions include:

1) If you were asked: where has your parish community been and where it is going, how would you answer? No more than three sentences, please!

2) If you were asked to do a pastoral analysis of your parish community, what would that be, e.g., what are its greatest opportunities, what are its most difficult elements, what do most people feel about the community and themselves, and what is God calling the parish to do or be? No more than five sentences, please!

3) What do you hope to accomplish from this renewal? Be specific. Name outcomes you would most like to see happen because of this parish renewal. How do you imagine things being different? What kinds of changes do you look for from this mission?

4) What three themes, in light of the above, would you center on for your renewal?

5) What scriptures support these themes?

6) What group will take responsibility for coordinating the renewal (music, greeters, readers, publicity, follow-up, etc.)?40

Isaiah Parish Missions

Despite the decline mentioned by Wallace, a number of parish mission programs have been introduced since Vatican II. One of these is the Isaiah 43 Parish Mission, developed in 1984 by two lay Catholic evangelists, Susan W. Blum (now Gerding) and Chet Stokloza, and two priests, Richard Delisle of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette and Robert J. Deshaies (now an Episcopalian priest). Two concepts were central to the mission they developed: collaboration of lay and clergy in the preaching, and empowerment of laity in the parish. These features are maintained in the three additional missions subsequently developed by Isaiah Ministries, Inc. (Isaiah Revisited, Isaiah Remembered, and Isaiah 2000),41 and in the recently introduced "Heart-to-Heart" Evangelization Training Seminars.42

Echoing the other post-Vatican II mission preachers cited above, Isaiah Ministries is also concerned that conversion not be seen in an individualistic way, but should include conversion to a concern for the world and for social justice. Isaiah missions have always included an appeal for the poor. Since 1992, Isaiah has been working in formal partnership with the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA), a Catholic child sponsorship organization. During Isaiah missions, the preachers encourage people to sponsor children through CFCA. CFCA, in turn, helps to subsidize the annual Isaiah staff development retreat, and pays transportation expenses for Isaiah staff who conduct the Evangelization Training Seminars.43

The basic Isaiah Ministries mission, "Isaiah 43," takes its name and theme from that passage, portions of which are read each evening.

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you . . . .44

The preparation begins as soon as the mission is scheduled, which is often as much as a year in advance. The preaching team (a lay person and a priest45) is in contact with the pastor as soon as they are assigned, to make themselves known to him and to learn about the parish. About two months before the mission, the parish picks a team of 10-12 members, which should represent the diversity of the parish. They meet for several weeks; this period is partly a time of prayer and formation, in which they study Sue Blum’s book, Renew Your Faith,46 and it is partly a time of coordination and planning. The week of the mission itself, the preaching team arrives on Friday, and then leads a day-long retreat on Saturday with the parish team. This provides an opportunity for the preaching team to acquaint themselves with the parish team, and to select a member of the parish team to give a brief "faith sharing" presentation each night. The preaching team also introduces some basic concepts of evangelization training. The preaching team then preaches at all the weekend masses, inviting the people to the mission.

The mission itself runs from Sunday night through Wednesday night. The themes of the four nights are: God’s Unconditional Love, God’s Forgiving Love, God’s Healing Love, God’s Empowering Love. Both preachers preach each night; between their talks, a member of the parish team gives a brief "faith sharing" talk, telling about a time in their life when they experienced God’s love, forgiveness, or healing.

Each night includes a ritual, with the parish team members assisting. On Sunday, after a renewal of baptismal vows, one team member washes the hands of a parishioner, then passes the person’s hands to one who dries, then a third team member says a brief prayer invoking the Holy Spirit (this procedure is repeated at multiple stations). On Monday, parishioners are handed a stone as they arrive; the sermons are followed by an examination of conscience, after which the parishioners are invited to go to priests for confession (or for a blessing); on their way back to seats, they deposit the stone in a container of water, and are then invited to reverence a crucifix held by a parish team member. On Tuesday, team members anoint parishioners with oil [note: due to a Vatican instruction on lay ministry, this was changed in 1998 to a simple laying on of hands or blessing with holy water], praying for healing (no priests take part, and it is specifically stated that this is not the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick). On Wednesday night, the mission concludes with Eucharist. Each night, some of the parish team members make themselves available after the mission to pray with parishioners who may desire this.

A key element of the Isaiah missions is that the mission is designed to lead into fuller parish renewal. For that purpose, Isaiah Ministries provides several options for post-mission seminars on faith renewal, faith sharing, social justice, and evangelization.47

Catholic parishioners often bring their non-Catholic friends or spouses; frequently they ask whether an Isaiah mission could be done in their church. For many years, this question has been tossed about by the Isaiah board. The new "Isaiah 2000" mission (introduced in 1996 to assist parish preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000) includes an ecumenical component on the third night, which has the theme "Yearning for Unity." For this one night, the host parish is to invite other churches in the community, and to include non-Catholic pastors, choirs, and lay witness talks in the service. The ritual for this evening consists of giving people randomly drawn pieces of jigsaw puzzles on the way in. After the talks, this is explained as representing the diversity of the church. Each person is asked to write their name on the back. After this, the preachers invite those with (e.g.) blue pieces to stand, and the color is linked to one of the attributes needed for a healthy church. This continues for various colors. The people are then invited to come forward for a blessing; as they do, they are to trade pieces with another person. After returning to their seats, they are asked to pray for the person whose name is on the piece they now have, and to continue to do so over the next thirty days.48

In the few "Isaiah 2000" missions preached, some problems have been encountered on this night, however.49  Many of the evaluations have expressed disappointment that so few non-Catholics came. One parish sent out 134 form letters to invite the churches of their town, but only 25 non-Catholics came. Another church sent out letters of invitation to 20 churches and got no responses (they did no follow-up to these letters). The pastor did issue a personal invitation to the pastor and choir from one church, but only that pastor and choir attended, and none of them stayed for the refreshments afterward. The Isaiah preachers involved found such experiences disheartening. In addition, some of the Isaiah preachers questioned the wisdom of including a collection for CFCA on that night; one remarked that "there was a fairly strong consensus that taking up a collection . . . with guests from other churches present, was inappropriate (i.e. ‘tacky’)."

Ecumenical Missions in Canada

Paulist Thomas Ryan, presently Director of the Unitas Centre in Montreal, began to experiment with the concept of an ecumenical parish mission in Canada in 1989 with an Anglican priest friend, William Derby. Over the next three and one half years they preached ten missions, in Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec, on the theme of "The Calling and the Marks of a Christian." Their format brought together several churches of different denominations in a community for a mission which typically lasted five days. There was significant local input. Each participating church planned the service for one of the evenings; an ecumenical choir provided the music.50 Ryan has said that "The ecumenical agenda for the next decade at the grass roots is to provide church members with increased opportunities for sharing faith, life, and a common vision in the name of Jesus Christ." He accomplished that in this mission by bringing Christians "into each other’s churches where they may listen together to a common gospel," engaging them "in a renewal experience which sends them out energized to serve ‘together’ their common Lord and Saviour."51

Ryan demonstrated an experience-based approach to ecumenism, rather than a theoretical one: "We did not feel a need to talk a great deal to the people about ecumenism. Our approach was to let the medium be the message."52  Recalling one of DeSiano’s themes, the members of the local parishes were involved throughout the planning process. This communal involvement continues in the mission itself.

The missioners do their best to get around to preach at all the participating churches’ Sunday services, and on Sunday evening there is a common potluck supper as a "getting to know you" experience with good food, storytelling, laughter, hymn singing and prayer for blessing on the mission.

Then, each night of the week, a different church hosts a one-hour non-eucharistic worship service in its own tradition within which service the missioners preach together. In the course of the week, churchgoers will have taken active part in worship in at least four different traditions. The services are followed by informal gathering in the church hall.53

Ryan chose not to adopt a series of uniform rituals as in other mission formats; instead, the ritual component is provided by the host church. Ryan said to them, "Bring out the best liturgy you have for a non-eucharistic evening service and give everyone a taste of vespers/evensong/night prayer in your tradition." Some of the churches would also use symbols (and even dance) to illustrate the particular theme for the evening.54  Within this context, the preaching would occur, with the team of two clergy alternating. After each sermon, the other preacher went into the congregation with microphone in hand to elicit comment.55

Ryan’s evaluation revealed that one obstacle to fuller participation was the lack of familiarity among Protestants with the Roman Catholic term, "parish mission."56  On the positive side, one of the goals Ryan hoped to achieve was to effect real change in ecumenical relations, and this goal was sometimes achieved. For example, following the mission in Edmonton, Alberta,

The four parishes met weekly for prayer during the Gulf War, and co-sponsored a retreat for shut-ins and the ill, as well as a session on women’s issues in spirituality. They engaged in a "Ten Days for World Development" pulpit exchange, and, most significant of all, have continued to co-sponsor ecumenical parish missions each year since . . . .

In Mount Royal, Quebec, there is now in place an inter-parish Council which acts as a steering committee for several joint activities annually. In Dollard des Ormeaux, Quebec, the four congregations have continued to co-sponsor a mission together annually, experimenting with different formats. In Pinawa, Manitoba, a new church was built cooperatively, and a shared pastoral resources centre established.

Ryan noted that the missions "did not change the landscape in every case, but in most it did leave behind one or more on-going structures or programs which significantly altered the way the co-sponsoring parishes relate to one another."57

The missions proved to Ryan that the "word has much more power when Christians of different traditions find ways to deliver the message together." Through this process of experimentation, Ryan’s model was "tested, refined, and proved very successful. It is now there for others to take up, to draw inspiration from, and to work with." This follows (and encourages) the tradition of adaptation and freedom which characterized the parish missions of European founders, their American descendants, and Protestant revivalists. Ryan himself remarked that he "felt fully in the stream of the Paulist mission tradition, giving old methods a fresh twist in new times."58


1The "anxious meeting" involved taking time to speak to each person individually, learning his specific circumstances, and exhorting to repentance (Finney’s critics objected not to the idea, but to the manner in which Finney practiced it, which, they thought, smacked of intimidation and manipulation). The "protracted meeting" lasted for several days; Finney advised that the same person preach each night, that "the fundamentals of the gospel" be preached, and that controversy should be avoided. The "anxious seat" was the equivalent of what is today known as the "altar call;" the goal was to call people forward for individual prayer and conversation, in the hope of swaying someone at the edge of a decision. Finney justified the novelty of his practices on the grounds that the gospel gives freedom. Jesus told the disciples to go and preach, but he didn’t say how, he argued. "Do it--the best way you can¾ ask wisdom from God--use the faculties he has given you-- seek the direction of the Holy Ghost--go forward and do it. This was their commission. And their object was to make known the gospel in the most effectual way, to make the truth stand out strikingly, so as to obtain the attention and secure the obedience of the greatest number possible." Charles Grandison Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, ed. by William G. McLoughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1960), pp. 250-51, 262, 265-68.

2E.g., Jay P. Dolan, Catholic Revivalism: The American Experience, 1830-1900 (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1978), pp. xvi-xvii; John Farina, An American Experience of God: The Spirituality of Isaac Hecker (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), p. 103. Many of the contemporary observers made the comparison critically, but not all. Charles G. Finney, for example, reported a friendly meeting with Fr. Clarence Walworth, who was "trying to accomplish in the Roman Catholic Church what I was endeavoring to accomplish in the Protestant church," "laboring . . . to promote revivals of religion." Charles G. Finney, Memoirs (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1876), pp. 367-68; cited by Dolan, Catholic Revivalism, p. xv.

3Orestes A. Brownson, "Protestant Revivals and Catholic Retreats," Brownson’s Quarterly Review, 3 (July 1858):293, 303ff. Some of Brownson’s charges were overblown and unfair, e.g., his accusation that the Protestant revivalists were unconcerned with follow-up, with instruction, or with the need to change one’s life. Both movements insisted on conversion of life; in particular, exhortation to sign the temperance pledge was connected with both. Brownson also criticized the revivalists for the lack of ceremonial; but one could compare the Catholic ceremonies (described below) with Finney’s "new measures" and argue that they served a similar purpose. A major difference, though, was the absence of sacraments in Finney’s system. The call to the sacraments imparted an objective character to the message of grace in the Catholic mission that was lacking in the subjectivism of Finney’s emotionally charged decision-based methodology. This led Dolan to term the Catholic mission "sacramental evangelicalism." Brownson, "Protestant Revivals," pp. 297,311; Dolan, Catholic Revivalism, p. xvii; Farina, American Experience, p. 103; O’Brien, Isaac Hecker, pp. 91, 93; Cassian J. Yuhaus, Compelled to Speak: The Passionists in America, Origin and Apostolate (New York: Newman Press, 1967), p. 250.

4Dolan, Catholic Revivalism, pp. 12-13; See also the New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), under the names of the orders and founders.

5Dolan, Catholic Revivalism, p. 15.

6Yuhaus, Compelled to Speak, p. 220-222; Farina, American Experience, p. 102. See also David Gentilcore, "‘Adapt Yourselves to the People’s Capabilities’: Missionary Strategies, Method and Impact in the Kingdom of Naples, 1600-1800," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 45 (1994):269-296.

7Farina, American Experience, p. 102.

8Joseph Wissel, The Redemptorist on the American Missions, 3rd ed. (N.p.: n.p., 1920; Reprint: The American Catholic Tradition. New York: Arno Press, 1978), 1:5.

9The American Paulist Walter Elliott would warn his hearer that he would preach so his depiction "scorches his face with the fires of Hell." Dolan, Catholic Revivalism, p. 59.

10Wissel, The Redemptorist, 1:xiv.

11Yuhaus, Compelled to Speak, pp. 232-33.

12Ibid., pp. 222-24, 227-28.

13Ibid., pp. 226-231.

14Wissel, The Redemptorist, 1:105-118; Yuhaus, Compelled to Speak, pp. 236-245; Dolan, Catholic Revivalism, p. 60.

15Wissel, The Redemptorist, 1:105, 112-114; Yuhaus, Compelled to Speak, pp. 247.

16Edward A. McCarthy, "Preface," in Kenneth Boyack, ed., The New Catholic Evangelization (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), p. 1; Dolan, Catholic Revivalism, pp. 1-8.

17Dolan, Catholic Revivalism, p. 17, 38, 44; Joseph McSorley, Isaac Hecker and His Friends, rev. ed. (New York: Paulist Press, 1972), p. 26; New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Passionists" and "Redemptorists."

18The mission hymns of Fr. Frederick Faber proved especially popular, and even found their way into many Protestant hymnals.

19Wissel, The Redemptorist, pp. 5-6; Dolan, Catholic Revivalism, pp. 69-86; McSorley, Isaac Hecker, p. 26.

20Biographies include: Walter Elliott, The Life of Father Hecker, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbus Press, 1894); David J. O’Brien, Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic (New York: Paulist Press, 1992); Vincent F. Holden, The Yankee Paul: Isaac Thomas Hecker (Milwaukee: Bruce Pub. Co., 1958); Farina, An American Experience of God; McSorley, Isaac Hecker and His Friends.

21O’Brien and others stress the continued impact of Hecker’s transendentalist formation: "The immediacy of God’s presence and the priority of Spirit were transcendentalist themes that would never be erased from Hecker’s life." O’Brien, Isaac Hecker, p. 47; Farina, American Experience, pp. 69-70; Joseph P. Chinnici, ed., Devotion to the Holy Spirit in American Catholicism, Sources of American Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), p. 25. I have explored the backgrounds of transcendentalist thought elsewhere, especially the religious variety associated best with Theodore Parker that most influenced Hecker. William J. Cork, "Race, Transcendentalism and the American Dream: The Abolitionist Ideology of Theodore Parker" (M.A.R. thesis, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, 1986), pp. 26ff.

22Farina, American Experience, pp. 88, 99.

23Isaac T. Hecker to Orestes A. Brownson, 15 May 1851, in The Brownson-Hecker Correspondence, ed. by Joseph F. Gower and Richard M. Leliaert, Notre Dame Studies in American Catholicism (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1979), pp. 151-152; McSorley, Isaac Hecker, pp. 22-29.

24Farina, American Experience, pp. 105-107; Hecker, Questions of the Soul (New York: D. Appelton, 1855; rep. ed.: New York: Arno Press, 1978), p. 207; Hecker, Aspirations of Nature (New York: James B. Kirker, 1857). Schleiermacher, said Ripley, "aimed . . . to awaken the soul itself to a sense of its affinity with the essential revelations of the Gospel, and to lead it to embrace them with a consciousness of sympathy and relationship." In a similar vein Ripley argued (against Norton’s notion that miracles provided a foundation for faith) that "The evidence of miracles depends on a previous belief in Christianity, rather than the evidence of Christianity on a previous belief in miracles. In presenting the argument for our faith to an unbeliever, I would begin with establishing its coincidence with the divine testimony of our spiritual nature; and having done that I would proceed to shew the probability of miracles." Perry Miller, ed., The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1950), pp. 100, 161. See also Theodore Parker, "Of Conscious Religion and the Soul," in Ten Sermons of Religion (London: Trübner & Co., 1876), pp. 79-106, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion 4th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1856), and Levi Blodgett [Parker’s pseudonym], The Previous Question Between Mr. Andrews Norton and His Alumni Moved and Handled, in a Letter to All Those Gentlemen (Boston: Weeks, Jordan, & Co., 1840).

25McSorley, Isaac Hecker, pp. 41-52; O’Brien, Isaac Hecker, p. 176; Farina, American Experience, p. 111-12.

26It was at this parish that I was Director of Christian Initiation and Formation from 1994-1996. The mission cross still hangs in the transept.

27McSorley, Isaac Hecker, pp. 92, 97; O’Brien, Isaac Hecker, p. 166.

28O’Brien, Isaac Hecker, pp. 7, 195f.; McSorley, Isaac Hecker, p. 155-157, 170-171; Robert T. Handy, "Father Hecker, A Bridge between Catholic and Protestant Thought," Catholic World 202 (Dec. 1965):163.

29Farina, American Experience, p. 123; O’Brien, Isaac Hecker, pp. 339, 376ff; McSorley, Isaac Hecker, pp. 108, 110, 156; William L. Portier, "Isaac Hecker and Testem Benevolentiae: A Study in Theological Pluralism," in Farina, ed., Hecker Studies: Essays on the Thought of Isaac Hecker (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), p. 11; Edward J. Langlois, "Isaac Hecker’s Political Thought," in Farina, Hecker Studies, p. 68; Pope Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Testem Benevolentiae, 22 Jan. 1899, in John Tracy Ellis, Documents of American Catholic History (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1962), pp. 533-543 [also in John J. Wynne, ed., The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII (New York: Benziger, 1903), pp. 441-453]. Ellis incorrectly refers to Testem Benevolentiae as an encyclical, and this erroneous designation has been picked up by many historians. But Ellis’ source, Wynne, correctly labels it as an apostolic letter.

30McSorley, Isaac Hecker, p. 155-56; O’Brien, Isaac Hecker, pp. 195-197, 199.

31Paul Hitz, To Preach the Gospel, trans. by Rosemary Sheed (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1963), pp. 128, 169. Cited by John P. Doyle, "Renewal of the Parish Mission--an Approach," Worship 40 (1966):47; and James A. Wallace, "Reconsidering the Parish Mission," Worship 67 (1993): 342-43.

32Doyle, "Renewal of the Parish Mission--an Approach," Worship 40 (1966):46-53; Dennis J. Geaney, "Parish Mission Outdated?" Worship 38 (1963-64):95-100; James Hoffmann, "Parish Mission Outdated?" Worship 38(1963-64):433-434; Gregory F. Lucey, "Up-dating the Parish Mission: Another Approach," Worship 41 (1967):32-39; Henry D. Noyes, "Preaching and the Parish Mission," Worship 39 (1965):294-297.

33Noyes, "Preaching and the Parish Mission," p. 295-96.

34Lucey, "Up-dating the Parish Mission: Another Approach," p. 39.

35Wallace, "Reconsidering the Parish Mission," Worship 67 (1993):340-51.

36Ibid., p. 343.

37Ibid., p. 348.

38Frank DeSiano, "Missionary as Catalyst," Journal of Paulist Studies 4 (1995-96):113.


40Ibid., pp. 114, 116.

41For further information, contact ----

42See Susan Blum Gerding, Heart to Heart Evangelization: Building Bridges Between Proclamation and Justice (Boca Raton, FL: Jeremiah Press, 1996).

43Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, One Elmwood Avenue, Kansas City, KS 66103-3719.

44Isaiah 43:1-5a.

45Isaiah Ministries, Inc., presently has a staff of approximately 60, roughly equally divided between priests and lay people (though only three or four lay men).

46Susan W. Blum, Renew Your Faith (Boca Raton, FL: Jeremiah Press, 1992).

47"Renew Your Faith," using Blum’s book of that title; "Faith in Action," using Blum, Faith in Action (Boca Raton, FL: Jeremiah Press, 1989); "Share Your Faith," using Susan W. Blum, Share Your Faith (Boca Raton, FL: Jeremiah Press, 1990; "Mission: Evangelization," using Robert Deshaies, Chet Stokloza and Susan W. Blum, Mission: Evangelization (Boca Raton, FL: Jeremiah Press, 1984). See also, Susan W. Blum, The Ministry of Evangelization (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1988).

48Parish Mission Schedule & Team Orientation Supplement for ISAIAH 2000 (Boca Raton: Jeremiah Press, 1996), pp. 21-28.

49The following is based on material distributed at the 1997 Isaiah Staff Retreat.

50Thomas Ryan, "Ecumenical Parish Missions," Journal of Paulist Studies, 4 (1995-96):129-30. See also Ryan’s "Information Kit," available from the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, 2065 Ouest, Rue Sherbrooke, Montreal, Quebec, H3H 1G6; and Ryan, "Ecumenical Parish Missions," Ecumenism #105( March 1992):13-16.

51 Ryan, "Mission Purpose," from "Information Kit."

52 Ryan, "Ecumenical Parish Missions," Journal of Paulist Studies, p. 131.

53Thomas Ryan, "Ecumenical Parish Mission: ‘This Is Grace!’" Prairie Messenger (May 18, 1992), p. 19.

54Ryan to William J. Cork, 5 December 1997.

55Ryan, "Ecumenical Parish Missions," Journal of Paulist Studies, pp. 132-33.

56Ibid., pp. 133-134.

57Ibid., p. 134.

58Ibid., pp. 133-34.

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