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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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,
43Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, One Elmwood Avenue,
Kansas City, KS 66103-3719.
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
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
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,
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,
56Ibid., pp. 133-134.
57Ibid., p. 134.
58Ibid., pp. 133-34.