Speaking to the Heart

“I want a mess. I want to see the Church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools, or structures. We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel. It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people! Let us courageously look to pastoral needs, beginning on the outskirts, with those who are farthest away. Go and look for them in the nooks and crannies of the streets.” —Pope Francis, World Youth Day Address (2013)

Pope Francis wants a mess. He urges us to get out of our parishes and take the Gospel to the streets. While this call to evangelization has rung out from the Church throughout the centuries, it cuts especially to the heart now. This is because “more Americans today than in the past are not remaining in the faith traditions in which they were raised; are switching religious affiliations . . . are losing their religious faith.”[1] Furthermore, 16.1% of American adults are unaffiliated with a religion and 24% of 18- to 29-year-olds are unaffiliated as well.[2] The call is not new, but the current climate makes it all the more urgent. COR at 220 East is an initiative that came about as a renewed vision of evangelization inspired by Pope Francis’ words to get out of our parishes and seek and meet the people. COR is a center for evangelization designed to strengthen parishioners in intentional discipleship, provide a safe environment for inactive parishioners to be reintroduced into the faith community, and reach out to the rest of the community whose hearts are longing for the Good News of Jesus Christ.

COR at 220 East is a downtown storefront building located in the heart of Waterloo, Iowa. There are four Catholic parishes in Waterloo that have a longstanding tradition of collaboration. This sharing of resources began in the 1980s with a combined high school religious education program and continued with the consolidation of several programs, the creation of new staff positions—including a metro Youth Minister and Director of Adult Faith Formation—and most recently a total restructuring of all faith formation staff. With this new staffing model created in 2014, Waterloo considered seriously the guidance from the Church that adult faith formation is the “principal form of catechesis” (Catechesi Tradendae, §43) and created a new fulltime position for Young Adult Ministry in addition to the already established full time Director of Adult Faith Formation. This faith formation team serving four parishes and the two positions dedicated to adult faith formation set the stage for COR.

The concept of COR has evolved. It was originally called 220 East and I stumbled upon it when I, the new young adult minister, was looking for a potential venue to host monthly movie nights for young adults. At the time, the building was in transition; therefore, the cost per event was out of the budget range. The faith formation team decided to rent the building for a trial period in order to lay claim to the space and discern whether it could be a long-term rental space to use for young adult programs.

The spring of 2015 held much prayer, discernment, and discussion, and the Waterloo parishes made a commitment to rent the space long-term. The mission of 220 East evolved from being a space for young adult programs to a center for outreach and evangelization for all. That spring, the faith formation leaders in the Archdiocese of Dubuque were reading the book Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell. Weddell identifies conversion as a dynamic process in which every person experiences the Holy Spirit working and moving in their lives even if they are not yet an intentional disciple of Jesus Christ. This seemingly obvious definition was eye opening, especially when applied to young adult programs.

A defining characteristic of young adulthood is a lack of trust in the institution. This can be seen especially in the dramatic drop in Mass attendance over the last four decades.[3] The connection between young adult ministry and evangelization became all the more clear. Few adults, especially young adults, are intentional disciples; however, many of our programs are geared toward those that are. This was the primary reason for moving 220 East from being a place to do young adult programs toward becoming a center for evangelization. It is directed to those that are not yet intentional disciples. The exodus of young adults from the Church expresses this great need to build and rebuild trust and foster spiritual curiosity and openness.

A new logo and name was developed: COR at 220 East. COR is Latin for “heart” and is an acronym for the action words, “Come, Observe, Reconnect.” This is descriptive of the conversion process that we hope each person that walks through the door will experience. The logo depicts two hands forming a heart. The logo represents the hands of Jesus and his mystical Body, the Church, reaching out and touching the heart of each person. It can also be interpreted as being every individual’s hands, as they seek to grasp the desires of their own hearts. Everything at COR strives to point to Christ offering his heart, and providing guidance when one is ready to offer their heart to him in return.

Sherry Weddell identifies initial trust as the first threshold of conversion, explaining,

a person is able to trust or has a positive association with Jesus Christ, the Church, a Christian believer, or something identifiably Christian. Trust is not the same as active personal faith. Without some kind of bridge of trust in place, people will not move closer to God.[4]

The realization was profound. No matter how great the young adult programs, how sleek the website, or how innovative the marketing, if someone does not trust the Church, chances are slim that they will step onto church grounds and come to programs. This is why Pope Francis urges us to get out of our parishes and offices. We need to build trust in an environment that is non-threatening and comfortable to the person and meets them where they are in the process of conversion. COR seeks to do this.

A visitor to COR expressed the unique environment of COR well: “You would never guess when you walk through the front door what is waiting for you on the other side.” COR’s surprises include radical hospitality, complimentary tea and refreshments, access to alcoves for small group discussions, personal reflection, and spiritual reading. The laid-back environment leaves room for the Holy Spirit to work. COR will also be an event venue for meetings, fundraisers, art shows, music concerts, poetry readings, etc.

Beauty through art and music is valued as a means to open the heart of those in the broader community. COR will also be open and participating, as much as possible, in downtown events and festivals. COR recently was open for people to stop in and enjoy Burmese delicacies from our refugee community, listen to local musicians, play board games, and just hang out during an event that the city hosted called Taste of Waterloo. Taste of Waterloo invited ticket holders to go downtown to participating restaurants to sample local specialties, but it provided a great opportunity for evangelization. Community events are the first prong of how COR will evangelize.

The second prong is to foster spiritual curiosity and openness through faith formation programming. We want to reach out to those that are skeptical of religion or institutions. We want to welcome those that are seeking answers to their questions; furthermore, we want to be present for those that are looking for faith formation programming that is geared to them. At COR this takes the form of listening sessions, open question and answer forums, monthly discussion nights, and street evangelization initiatives.

The exodus of young adults from the Church expresses this great need to build and rebuild trust and foster spiritual curiosity and openness.

Each event at COR is staffed with trained evangelization ministers that can engage in conversation with the attendees. The evangelist will be looking to see if the person has initial trust and if not, discern how to build that bridge. It might happen in that conversation, it might not. The evangelist is constantly called to let go of their agenda to push people through the conversion process and allow the Holy Spirit to work and move. If the evangelization minister discerns spiritual curiosity, the second threshold of conversion, they will consider inviting the person to one of the faith formation programs at COR. A person is spiritually curious when they are at a point when they find themselves “intrigued by or desiring to know more about Jesus, his life, and his teachings or some aspect of the Christian faith . . . . Curiosity is still essentially passive, but it is more than mere trust.”[5] Fostering curiosity and spiritual openness is the primary goal of the faith formation programs held at COR. Spiritual openness is the third threshold of conversion. This is when a person “acknowledges to himself or herself and to God that he or she is open to the possibility of personal and spiritual change.”[6] When someone is spiritually open, they are on the cusp of being ready to be introduced or reintroduced to parish life and community.

One critical development in COR was discovering how it fits into the RCIA process. The faith formation events at COR function as an ongoing inquiry process. The RCIA states that the period of evangelization and precatechumenate is “a time of no fixed duration or structure, for inquiry and introduction to Gospel values, an opportunity for the beginnings of faith.”[7] In the past, the well-intentioned Waterloo parishes have skipped the inquiry process almost entirely, calling part of the catechumenate “inquiry.” This took the shape of formal catechetical sessions in the parish basements—something to which someone who lacks trust or any spiritual curiosity would never be drawn. To summarize, COR will seek to build trust through community events. Once this trust has been built or if it exists already, the evangelization minister will discern how to start fostering spiritual curiosity. With inquirers, as they begin to be more spiritually open, the proclamation of the Gospel and invitation to conversion to Jesus Christ will become the focus. Once they are spiritually seeking, they are ready for Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens.

Spiritual seeking and intentional discipleship are the fourth and fifth thresholds as identified by Weddell. Spiritual seeking is the point in which

the person moves from being essentially passive to actively seeking to know the God who is calling him or her . . . At this stage, the seeker is engaged in an urgent spiritual quest, seeking to know whether he or she can commit to Christ in his Church.[8]

Once someone is at a point of spiritual seeking, the focus will shift away from COR and more into the life of the parish.

COR is dependent on the intentional disciples in our parishes. Intentional discipleship, the fifth threshold of conversion, involves those that have decided to “drop one’s nets” to make a conscious commitment to follow Jesus in the midst of his Church as an obedient disciple and to reorder one’s life accordingly.”[9] Our intentional disciples are those that accompany their friends and family members to events at COR. They are those that will be the evangelization ministers, living out COR’s mission to bring the Church and the community in closer contact with each other. They will be willing to be led by the Holy Spirit in discerning how to best build trust, foster curiosity, proclaim the Good News, and lead people to the heart of Christ and the Church. In order to do this, our intentional disciples will be guided by Pope Francis to “have the courage to strike out along the new paths that God’s newness sets before us” and to resist being “barricaded in transient structures that have lost their capacity for openness to what is new.”[10]

Evangelization is a mess and it can be incredibly challenging. It does not fit into neat and tidy compartments, but rather is a dynamic process in which the Good News of Jesus Christ is shared and integrated into the unique context of every person’s life. Before the initial proclamation of the Gospel, each individual’s story must be heard and listened to. In this listening and trust-building phase, spiritual, physical, emotional, and social needs inevitably come to the surface. Pre-evangelization builds on these basic human needs, and shows how these needs include a desire for God.[11] We want to be prepared to meet the needs of every person as best as we can at COR.

If someone does not trust the Church, chances are slim that they will step onto church grounds and come to programs.

COR is not equipped—or designed—to be a social outreach center. It is primarily a center for evangelization; however, the principles of Catholic Social Teaching have played a large role in developing the mission, values, and goals of COR. COR seeks to affirm the dignity of the individual as the beloved child of God. Many events held at COR are open to all but targeted to people that are marginalized. Examples include community meals on Friday evenings, programs for Burmese refugees, discussion sessions for divorced Catholics, and listening sessions for Gay & Lesbian and inactive Catholics. We have also worked loosely with Catholic Charities in providing community service opportunities. One of our core values is community presence. In offering hospitality and programs during community events such as Irish Fest, Downtown Trick-or-Treating, Winter Wonderloo etc., we are taking the call to family, community, and participation seriously through a ministry of presence. We are strengthening community by collaborating with local businesses and restaurants to provide food and plan events.

In the few short months of being open and offering minimal programming thus far, we have already been serving an average of 50 people a week in different capacities. Our programs bring out vulnerability as we seek to get to know every person’s story and respond with compassion to their questions and concerns. We have made many referrals to social ministries in the community, taking a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. The Catholic social tradition also places critical emphasis on our duty to care for God’s creation. COR strives to be as green as possible through use of environmentally-friendly cleaning products, reduction of paper products and purchasing local and organic food for events.

COR at 220 East is a place to intentionally encounter people that are not in the pews of our parishes on Sundays.

Evangelization is not divorced from the social and catechetical ministry of the Church. A goal of COR is to adequately train our evangelization ministers due to the various complexities of the position coupled with the unique situation of every individual. The first component of this training focuses on the evangelist’s personal discipleship. This will begin with reflecting on their personal faith story. Next they will explore the kerygma, or “the great story of Jesus,”[12] the concise and simple explanation of Jesus as Savior of the world. This “initial announcement of the Gospel”[13] introduces people to Jesus and lays a foundation for a personal relationship with him. After this exploration, the evangelist will discover how to connect their personal faith story with the great story of Jesus. They will then work on reducing their story into a one-paragraph elevator speech that they can use as an initial proclamation when the door opens with those they meet.

The second component of training evangelists will focus on how to form others in discipleship. This component will explore the thresholds of conversion from Forming Intentional Disciples. This will be used as a tool for the evangelist to determine where each person is in their faith journey and what their needs might be. The training will conclude with practical tips on how to begin conversations with random people in a crowd at one of the events at COR, how to build trust, when to give an initial proclamation of the Gospel, and the appropriate times to invite into further discussion and relationship.

COR at 220 East is a place to intentionally encounter people that are not in the pews of our parishes on Sundays. COR will honor the slow process of conversion that is unique to each individual through empowering our intentional disciples to build bridges of initial trust through community events; furthermore, it will foster spiritual curiosity and openness through faith formation programming. An important variable to consider in planning a project like this is the percentage of salaries and parish budgets that can be allocated towards the overwhelming number of parishioners that are not in our pews. The question must then be asked, how does that percentage compare to the percentage that is dedicated to regular Mass attendees?

Conversion is hard to measure and should not be agenda-driven. There is no greater turn-off than an agenda-driven form of evangelization, because it comes off as insincere. Often the fruits of the labor of the evangelist cannot be perceived immediately, so how can we truly know that what we are dedicating our time and effort to is resulting in success? It depends upon how a parish defines success. This is why it can be a messy process that takes a parish outside of its comfort zone. It can at times feel that the parish is leaving the flock to retrieve one stray sheep, but did not the father rejoice at the return of his prodigal son? What are metrics that adequately measure conversion yet ultimately surrender to the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit?

If we do not focus on evangelization, on taking the Gospel to the nooks and crannies of the streets, we risk becoming a Church that is closed in on itself. Pope Francis states:

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. (Evangelii Gaudium, §49)

Evangelization is dirty work. It is trusting in the slow work of God.
God is always waiting for us; he never grows tired . . . God responds to our weakness by his patience and this is a reason for our confidence, our hope. It is like a dialogue between our weakness and the patience of God; it is a dialogue, that if we have it, will grant us hope.[14]

The COR evangelist is called to reflect this patience and mercy of God in every encounter.

All images courtesy of the author and used with permission.

[1] Christian Smith, Kyle Longest, Jonathan Hill, and Kari Christoffersen. Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, out Of, and Gone from the Church. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014. 267–268.

[2] Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and following Jesus (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2012), 20

[3] Smith, et al. Young Catholic America, 265

[4] Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, 129

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 130

[7] International Commission on English in the Liturgy, and Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults [RCIA], Study ed. (Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training Publications, 1988), 14.

[8] Weddell Forming Intentional Disciples, 130.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pope Francis, “Homily on the Solemnity of Pentecost” in The Church of Mercy (Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, 2014), 47.

[11] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), National Directory for Catechesis [NDC] (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005), 49.

[12] Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and following Jesus, 201

[13] NDC, 49

[14] Pope Francis, “Homily for the Mass for the Possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome” in The Church of Mercy (Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, 2014), 5.


Ellen Voegele

Ellen Voegele is the Associate Director of Young Adult Ministry for the Waterloo Catholic Parishes, and piloted the COR initiative in Waterloo, Iowa.

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