The New Evangelization in Suburban Detroit: A Sociological Case Study

In response to Pope John Paul II’s call for Catholics to implement a New Evangelization (NE) in order to revitalize the Church, parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit have been attempting to implement the NE through the day-to-day efforts of parishioners, lay leaders, and pastors. In particular, beginning around 1992 and gaining momentum from around 2005 to at least 2012, evangelization committees increasingly have been formed in Detroit parishes as part of the broad push of the Catholic Church’s efforts at the NE.

Among church leaders, professionals, and academics, it is often taken as common sense that if new ideas or policies need to be implemented, then they should set about the task of informing people through educational efforts. Yet field observations and the theorists I draw upon point in another direction. Rather than educational or implementation efforts guided primarily by rational communication and bureaucratic procedures, I observed affective/emotional communication and practices as more accessible, more widely shared, and as a more effective means of evangelization.

In the case study that follows, participant observational methods were used in two suburban parishes of the Archdiocese of Detroit to ascertain how these parishes were implementing the NE. I observed extensive differences in their implementation processes through their evangelization committees. A lay volunteer, more emotionally charged, chaired St. Priscilla’s evangelization committee while a more rationally oriented, paid professional minister led St. George’s (parish names changed). Overall, the emotionally charged, lay-led committee developed robust evangelization activities whereas the rationally oriented, professional-led committee developed much less evangelization activity during the same period.

The emotionally charged, lay-led evangelization committee burst forth with evangelization activities whereas the rationally oriented, professional-led evangelization committee showed only modest gain in evangelization activity. These two basic orientations—emotionally charged and rationally oriented—have been discussed in American religion more generally, e.g., Gary Wills’ “heart and head” thematic (Wills 2007, 3). While obviously the situation “on the ground” is much more complex than this thematic suggests, and while emotional and rational approaches are not mutually exclusive, each parish committee certainly was characterized by a dominant “force,”[1] emphasizing either emotions or rationality.

Although these are just two cases out of many, many other possible cases, the objective nevertheless is to take a snapshot of these two parishes here and their efforts at implementing the NE. First, I describe what the NE is according to relevant ecclesial statements as well as provide a brief history of the implementation of the NE in Detroit only because this is such a new effort by the Church. Second, I discuss the key sociological concepts of religious virtuosi, rationalization, and collective effervescence[2] in light of the parish’s NE implementation strategies. Next, a presentation of the qualitative data, which illustrates how each parish is implementing the NE, will be delineated. Finally, in discussing these data, the concepts of collective effervescence[3] in conjunction with religious virtuosi and rationalization will be revisited to help explain the variation in the relative effectiveness of the implementation of the NE in these two suburban Detroit parishes.

A Brief History of the New Evangelization at International, National, and Local Levels

Beginning as early as 1979 and taking more complete shape by 1991, Pope St. John Paul II (r. 1978–2005) called the Catholic Church and all Catholics to implement a “New Evangelization,” by which he meant that faith in Jesus Christ should be proclaimed more boldly and with greater conviction. While evangelization itself is not new, what is “new,” at least in part, is how evangelization is carried out. Denouncing proselytism, the new evangelization ideally incites people to faith because of its compelling message and truth for people’s lives. John Paul II claimed the emotional and personal dimension is necessary in proclaiming the Gospel in today’s highly secularized world and, therefore, the NE is defined by its “ardor” and expression or methods of implementation. This NE is directed at all Catholics in order to renew their faith, but also, to inactive Catholics, other Christians, and those who have “no knowledge of Jesus Christ.” The historical and rhetorical context of the emergence of the NE has been elaborated elsewhere (Bennett-Carpenter and McCallion 2012; McCallion, Bennett-Carpenter, and Maines 2012; McCallion and Maines 2009), but some crucial historical and textual background information should be noted.[4]

[caption id="attachment_6169" align="alignleft" width="400"] Sweetest Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church, Detroit; Photo: Bryan Debus; CC-BY-ND-2.0.[/caption]

The NE emerged as one of the defining marks of both John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s pontificates and, I suggest, perhaps the primary way that the charisma of John Paul II and agenda of Benedict XVI has been institutionalized in the Roman Catholic Church (McCallion, 2012; cf. Dillon 2007). In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio (1990), John Paul II elaborated upon Pope Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), which brought evangelization back to the forefront of concern in an age primarily concerned with ecumenism. John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio set into motion efforts to further implement evangelization throughout the Church and world.[5] For example, around that time the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued their own document on evangelization based on the above papal documents entitled “Go and Make Disciples” (1992, 2002), in order to promote evangelization specifically within the United States.

At a local level around the same time (1992), the Archdiocese of Detroit hired a director for the Office of Evangelization with the initial goal of making the document “Go and Make Disciples” more accessible to local parishes.[6] By 1995, Cardinal Adam Maida, Archbishop of Detroit (1990–2009), had initiated a pastoral planning process that was subsequently implemented by the archdiocesan Department of Parish Life in 1996. Vicariates, or groups of parishes, were to organize and implement the planning process, and by the year 2000 youth ministry and evangelization were surfacing as the major areas of concern in nearly every vicariate. When the final stages of the plan rolled out in March of 2006, youth ministry and evangelization, once again, were the top two priorities emerging from the planning process (cf. McCallion, 2013).

The Archdiocese of Detroit also implemented the NE through the archdiocesan seminary. The seminary made the NE one of its hallmarks in 2005 by creating the first Licentiate in Sacred Theology (a graduate level ecclesiastical degree) in the United States with a concentration in the NE. Then, in 2009, the newly appointed Archbishop formed a Department of Evangelization, Catechesis, and Schools, upgrading the Office of Evangelization to a Department, which is significant in that Directors of Departments become curia or cabinet members—official representatives at the highest levels of the Archdiocese.

Furthermore, in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI issued the apostolic letter Ubicumque et semper to establish a new Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. By October 2012, a worldwide Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization had been called. A volume of documents was issued to all participants at the Synod containing writings related to the NE from Popes Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul XVI, to the Second Vatican Council documents, to John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI (Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization 2012).[7] The liturgical year 2012–2013 was declared a Year of Faith, ambitiously promoted by the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization through events and a sophisticated website. By early 2013, on the eve of the election of a new pope to succeed Benedict XVI—Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis—talk of the NE had become common among Catholic media sources such as Catholic radio, news, blogs, and websites. Fervent laypeople were among the leaders of this turn toward the NE.

Religious Virtuosi, Rationalization, and Collective Effervescence

The important sociological literatures informing this study of two suburban Detroit parish evangelization committees are those that discuss the concepts of religious virtuosi, rationalization processes, and collective effervescence—social realities both committees exhibited to varying degrees. Weber ([1904] 1958), Troeltsch ([1911] 1950), and Niebuhr (1929) were the first to attempt an explanation of religious revivalism within various religious traditions—especially Protestantism and Catholicism. Although there have been many refinements of their theory of church growth and decline, and some calling for its abandonment (Demerath 1967; Goode 1967), the basic premise still has merit: historically all churches begin as sects via religious virtuosi, but over time, as sects gain members, rationalization and institutionalization inevitably set in and transform the sect into a church (which is then more bureaucratic, rational, larger, and more accommodating to the surrounding culture). Upon evolving into a “church,” certain members begin to experience the original spiritual vigor waning and so they begin complaining about the dampening of the spirit and want to return to the church’s “sectarian” roots, and, in many cases, they break from the church at large via a religious virtuoso (schism) and start a new sect. Eventually, this new sect experiences institutionalization as in previous years and the whole sect-to-church process starts again.

Rationalization/bureaucratization are key to Weber’s theory ([1922] 1963), but also key is the role of religious virtuosi. Religious virtuosi have been likened to spiritual athletes, who often call others back to the pristine spirit of the church’s beginnings. These are people who are ‘on fire with the Holy Spirit’ or feel the religious impulse more strongly than most and, consequently, often feel the church has accommodated itself too much to the surrounding culture. The church needs to be revived and reminded of its true mission and these religious virtuosi are just the people to make such a religious revival happen. One of the stated goals of the NE is exactly this—the revivification of ordinary Catholics’ faith. Sociologically considered, the NE creates an ecclesial (church) context and a legitimizing theology within which religious virtuosi might arise and be given authority to initiate intra-institutional revitalization.

Finke and Wittberg (2000) have argued that Catholic religious orders of priests, religious women and men such as nuns and monks, are like Protestant sects in that they “stimulate organizational growth, develop innovations for adapting the faith to a specific culture or era, and provide institutional support for a high tension version of the faith” (2000, 157), and they do so intra-institutionally, limiting considerably the possibility of schism in the Catholic church compared to Protestant churches.

The implementation of the NE in the Catholic church, therefore, can be illuminated by the focus on religious virtuosi and rationalization. The NE is an effort by the Church to revitalize the faith by stimulating organizational growth at diocesan and parish levels (among other levels), by developing creative ways to adapt faith in today’s culture, and by providing a more “high tension” version of the faith, in relation to the surrounding culture, than was the case in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II)—that is, post-1965. In particular, the NE in its theology and overall emotional impulse to revitalize Catholic faith has created the emotional and ecclesial conditions for religious ‘virtuosity.’

This is plausibly the case in Detroit because the Archdiocese has recently set in place institutional mechanisms to support a high tension version of faith by, as mentioned above, highlighting the NE in the archdiocesan planning process (evangelization and youth as top priorities), having an archdiocesan New Evangelization Mobilization Team, establishing the first graduate ecclesial NE program in the country (STL in the NE), and forming a NE department. In all these efforts, moreover, Pope Benedict XVI and especially Pope St. John Paul II are continually referenced in order to lend greater credibility to the ministry of the NE (see Pontificio Consiglio per la Promozione della Nuova Evangelizzazione 2012).

Based on participant observation fieldwork (during the years 2007–2009), I recognized parish revitalization by way of the NE occurring at two Catholic parishes in particular. Weberian religious virtuosity was operative in one parish where a number of parish lay volunteers were ‘on fire’ with the spirit of the NE. These lay religious virtuosi made a dramatic difference in their volunteer efforts not only because they were ‘on fire,’ but also, I suggest, because the pastor allowed them to operate quite freely within the structure of the parish (contrary to a rationalizing trend).

In addition and particularly interesting is the fact that the virtuosi created a certain intensity of collective effervescence (Durkheim) around the implementation of devotional practices.[8] And in examining the combination of the emotional component of religious virtuosi with the broader emotional collective effervescence that virtuosi can stir up, I have witnessed powerful NE influences on parishioners and programs at one parish (St. Priscilla’s) compared to weaker effects on the other parish (St. George’s).

I observed that social connections in these two parishes changed: in one parish, local religious virtuosi surfaced who in turn ignited a high degree of collective effervescence within the NE committee and, moreover, instigated broader changes throughout the parish; in the other parish, connections changed along more “rational” lines which, at the time, stifled religious virtuosi from surfacing and/or any high intensity collective effervescence from blossoming within the NE committee.

These observations and analysis do not mean that rational approaches simply are ineffective. Without longitudinal data I simply do not know if the rationalizing approach works, works more slowly, or ultimately how it does or does not work. Likewise, with the emotionalizing approach, I do not know if it will continue to work or will fizzle out, create schism, or simply meld into the larger parish structure in the long term.[9] However, I do suspect that more rational-only approaches versus more emotionally charged orientations to evangelization efforts will be less effective. Furthermore, I suggest that more instructionally oriented efforts within a parish will be, on the whole, less effective at gaining members and facilitating action within parishes than will more affectively oriented activities such as devotional prayers and singing.

Methodology: Snapshot of St. Priscilla’s and St. George’s Parish Evangelization Committees

Figure 1 below compares and contrasts these parishes’ NE implementation efforts. Methodologically, qualitative research was conducted in order to begin to understand not only what the NE is (because most people were unclear about the NE) but also how it was implemented and practiced (cf. McCallion 2009; Bennet-Carpenter and McCallion, 2012). Each parish was called for an interview at which time permission to conduct qualitative fieldwork research was granted. The fieldwork consisted mainly of attending and observing the monthly NE committee meetings and the NE events these committees organized for their respective parishes. St. Priscilla’s committee had been in operation for about six months prior to arrival and St. George’s was just beginning their efforts. After about six months in the field, it was clear that these two parishes had very different approaches to implementing the NE through the evangelization committees.

Figure 1: Approaches of Evangelization Committees

St. Priscilla’s NE committee was led by two laymen—we will call them Paul (chair) and Peter (co-chair). It was a memorable encounter in that these men exuded an engaging confidence beyond simple friendliness and a welcoming spirit. Within a matter of months it became clear that Peter and Paul understood themselves to have a mission, a vocation even, to advance the NE. They wanted everyone to be touched by the spirit of the NE and to come to know and experience the joys and benefits of being a member of the Church as they had. Consequently, their meetings were not typical parish committee meetings in that, while they remained business-like, they were joyful and pastoral.

St. George’s committee had not completely formed when fieldwork commenced and so initial research involved interviewing the pastor, who became chair of the NE committee, his lay professional associate, and listening to presentations by the Archdiocesan New Evangelization Team (AOD NE Team). Although semi-suspicious and curious about our research, the pastor and lay associate soon became comfortable with our presence and we in turn felt more comfortable in the parish. Approximately five months later, after the AOD NE Team made separate presentations to each of the four parish commissions (Education, Worship, Christian Service, Administration), the parish council, and conducted a parish mission, the parish council decided that the NE was not a priority the parish should be addressing at that time. As one parish council member said, “You know, I still don’t quite get what this NE is and what I’m supposed to do about it.” Another said, “I still feel like an outsider with all of this. I mean we are supposed to discuss worship matters in the parish. I was never told that part of my role was to go out and evangelize, so I am not really sure about all this.”

It was after hearing the parish council’s confusion about the NE that the pastor decided to move forward by forming his own NE committee without approval from the parish council. And once this committee was educated, the pastor reasoned, these committee members could infiltrate the council and commissions “through the back door,” as the pastor said, and then the formal structural bodies of the parish (council and commissions) would establish the NE as a top priority for the parish. It was this jarring experience—the dismissal of the NE by the parish council and commissions—that highly motivated the pastor to make education and formation of the NE committee his top priority. By doing so, it was the pastor’s hope that the committee members would then return to the council and commission members and convince them to fly the banner of the NE. The NE committee, therefore, needed to be equipped to defend their commitment to the NE rationally, theologically, and with personal conviction. The parish council’s rejection of the NE acted as a catalyst for setting in motion a process of rationalization or systematic theological education at the committee level.

The role of the pastor at St. George’s, along with his lay professional staff associate, consequently, was intense and involved. He not only chaired the committee but he had an additional incentive to make the committee successful in order to delegitimize the parish council’s belief that the NE was not important. As the pastor stated:

I decided to reach the parish council and commission members through the back door [and] so the first thing I need to do is educate or catechize the committee about what the NE is so they don’t walk away scratching their heads about this like the council members.

One of the first things he decided to do was to have the committee read the book From Maintenance to Mission by Fr. Robert Rivers (2005). As the pastor’s staff person noted, “the committee will read this book one chapter at a time and allow plenty of time for members’ comments and questions. Of course, important documents by Pope John Paul II on the New Evangelization will be looked at too.” Besides the motivation provided by the parish council, the pastor’s passion for making the NE a top priority was accentuated by the fact that he is a young priest in his first pastorate (he is in his late 40s, whereas the average age of priests is 57). A faithful and “holy man,” as parishioners repeatedly mentioned, his desire for success nevertheless was less significant than his sincerity for implementing the NE as being the right pastoral thing to do for his parish, something that could be methodically imposed through rational, instructional means to the people.

The pastor at St. Priscilla’s could not have been more different. First, he was not a member of the committee, let alone the chairperson. Secondly, he was older (in his 60s) and has been a pastor several times as well as a professor and administrator at the archdiocesan seminary. He exuded a pastoral calm and wisdom which non-verbally communicated that not much could happen in the parish that would unseat him. He has years of experience, with his lead staff person to the NE committee stating, “the pastor knows the Eucharist is the heart of Catholic parish life and he has seen programs come and go but the Eucharist is still there. The Eucharist is his priority—that it is celebrated and celebrated well.” It is not that he does not support the NE, but he has no problem delegating others to lead this ministry—including lay members of the parish as long as they are in communication with the council and commissions of the parish and, in particular, the parish’s overall calendar. Indeed, the pastor appointed a staff person to the NE committee mainly for these reasons—keeping the NE committee connected to the larger parish and steering it clear of parish scheduling conflicts. Loosely connected, the pastor nonetheless supports the NE committee and its efforts.

The main parish events I participated in were the monthly NE committee meetings as mentioned earlier. The structure and flow of these meetings were the first indicators that St. Priscilla’s NE efforts were dominated by a process of recurring collective effervescence and St. George’s by a process of rationalization. For example, although both parishes had typed, orderly agendas for each meeting, St. Priscilla’s veered from the agenda on many an occasion. Why? Primarily because someone had an evangelization experience during the week prior and felt compelled to share that experience at the meeting. One such situation was during a two-month process in which the committee members called every parishioner in the parish to attend the upcoming NE-sponsored parish mission. At one meeting Paul enthusiastically said, “I had a twenty-minute conversation with a man in the parish about the NE parish mission, and the next thing I knew we were talking and talking about Jesus and the church.” Within seconds, another committee member mentioned something similar, and then another and another. In the end, there was a collective realization that their task of calling each member of the parish was a form of evangelization—a method of evangelizing that they just happened to stumble upon. Nevertheless, business was attended to and accomplished at these meetings. Their enthusiasm and commitment to the many NE activities they developed and implemented was dizzying and took tremendous organizational skills to implement. My fieldnotes indicate, time and again, our amazement about how much attention to detail they devoted to implementing NE activities. Calling every parish member, for example, about the NE parish mission was labor intensive and took a great commitment from these professional and busy NE committee members.

St. George’s evangelization committee meetings, by comparison, were highly structured, following a three-part process: education/catechesis, storytelling/faith-sharing, and prayer. Catechesis formed the heart of their meetings, permeating the faith-sharing portion as well (as I will soon describe). Initially, the book From Maintenance to Mission was the educational centerpiece. Each meeting was devoted to analyzing and discussing a chapter of the book that was to be read beforehand. The pastor took the lead in this discussion, making sure that the members properly understood what the chapter was conveying. Although committee members would comment on what they found interesting in the chapter, the pastor always responded by interpreting their comments within the narrative or theology of the NE. For example, when discussing chapter three one committee member stated:

I like how chapter three began. Jesus Christ had faith in his disciples that they would follow His plan with the help of the Holy Spirit and each generation continues it. Evangelization is an everyday thing—a part of everyday life. We leave church and evangelize.

Immediately the pastor responded:
Right, that it [the NE] should become part of our DNA—a recessed gene which we should bring back out. In chapter 3 the word ‘disciple’ is mentioned twenty times in Vatican II documents but no theology on disciple or discipleship. As we go along we must realize that we need to work on discipleship—it is the community aspect of our faith.

While a follow-up response to a committee member’s comment is certainly appropriate in this context, the pastor’s comment turned to further elucidation of ecclesiastical documents rather than following the committee member’s lead toward discussing practical, every-day situation in which to evangelize.

Particularly interesting was the second part of each meeting that was devoted to storytelling or faith-sharing because in this case it was another form of catechesis: after sharing their faith the pastor would comment on their story to demonstrate how it could be interpreted within the narrative of the NE. For example, one committee member shared with the group how by simply discussing his faith with a man he assists he had facilitated his return to the Church and the sacraments. Not skipping a beat, the pastor spoke up and discussed how evangelization is a two-way street, much like a conversation, and then continued by saying:

A person of faith sharing his faith results in this man growing and deepening his faith. It will not always be easy however. We must be prepared to have people laugh in our faces and so it is very important to have a good prayer life. You must always be open to the Holy Spirit.

The pastor, by theologically reflecting on committee members’ faith stories, was catechetically preparing the NE committee for what might lie ahead.

The members’ characteristics differed as well in the two parishes. For example, St. Priscilla’s committee had sixteen members, most of whom are in their 40s, married with children, white collar professionals, and upper middle class, if not upper class. They appeared to be in the prime of their careers and, it seems, in expressing their faith. In other words, they stand confident in their occupations and in their relationship with Christ and his Church. They spoke willingly and quite eloquently about their faith and how it and the Church have enriched their lives beyond measure. Generally, as fieldworkers, we did not receive the impression that religion was operating here as an opiate or painkiller (Marx and Engels [1878] 1964), or necessarily as a compensator (Stark 1985), or that it was simply about relative deprivation (Oberschall 1973) for these committee members. In fact, the opposite appeared to be true: religion acted as an ‘amphetamine’ that intensely influenced their lives. Most members appeared to be at a place where they were ready to give back and it just so happened that the NE was the perfect means in and through which to embody their service to others. After a year in the field, we observed no sign of slack in their NE efforts or commitment.

St. George’s committee, on the other hand, had fourteen members, most of whom were in their 50s and 60s, married, and working class. Many, nearing the end of their occupational careers, willingly volunteered to be on the NE committee. Indeed, many church volunteers generally come from this age group (Ammerman 2005, 97; Lichterman 2005; Rossi 2001), making St. Priscilla’s 40-something committee a young group comparatively. The overall impression one received from the members of St. George’s committee is that they were open and willing to listen to the pastor and do what they could to implement his vision of the NE. Comparatively, they are a more passive group, at least as we observed. There were indications, however, of the group creating a certain level of collective effervescence as they continued to meet and grow stronger in one another’s presence. Their increasing solidarity was evident as well in that they collectively chose the song “Spirit of the Living God” as the committee’s song. The ritual practice of singing “Spirit of the Living God” each time they gather created positive bonding effects, ala Durkheim (see endnote 3). Although this committee did not burst forth with a host of NE activities like the committee at St. Priscilla’s, it is just such bonding mechanisms (the committee’s song) that suggest the possibility that collective effervescence could build.

St. Priscilla’s uniqueness, on the other hand, is largely due to Paul and Peter, whom I identify as local religious virtuosi. These men and their energy and commitment to the Church and the NE were intense. Although they have charisma (though not members of the Catholic charismatic renewal), they do not exhibit off-putting behavior that some Catholic charismatics may exhibit.[10] These are the type of guys one might like to ‘hang’ with, if you will, outside of the parish. They are confident, determined, kind, and generous men who attract parish members to an increased faith commitment in large part because of their own commitment. In particular, it is their “generosity and commitment” that prevail over other characteristics in their ability to gain followership.

In other words, these men do not just talk a good game, they appear to live it, do it, enact it, and embody it with their time, energy, and money. Generosity, in particular, has a mesmerizing, attractive effect on others, and both these men are extremely generous with their time and money—both having donated large amounts of money to advancing the ministry of the NE at St. Priscilla’s (one donated $3000 to obtain and place a series of CDs on apologetics in the church entranceway for parishioners to take for free). These are the men, legitimized by the NE, who seem to fit the role of an effective evangelizer. After a year in the field, I observed that these men had what it takes—i.e., charisma, religious virtuosity—to advance the cause of the NE. Meanwhile, we speculate that St. George’s committee may have latent religious virtuosi, yet at the time they seemed more or less “strapped in an iron cage of rationality,” as Max Weber might say, that prevents NE energies from advancing or bursting forth in the parish.

Comparing these committees’ structures and meeting components, we observed that St. Priscilla’s committee operated practically and emotionally, whereas the committee structure and approach at St. George’s operated more rationally and bureaucratically. I suggest that these basic orientations direct St. Priscilla’s to moments of collective effervescence where the group was clearly emotionally bonded and communally charged to start various NE activities, whereas at St. George’s it led to continued education, reflection, subdued emotions and, from what I observed, consequently, fewer NE activities. St. Priscilla’s is engaged in an embodied, free-flowing emotional atmosphere inspired by the mission of the NE, which legitimized a host of parish NE activities. St. George’s, although potentially eruptive, even disruptive (Smith 1996), is, from what we observed, more cognitively, rationally, and educationally oriented (with spurts of intense solidarity around faith sharing and singing) that has contributed little in the way of NE or other parish activities.


Although broad, encompassing or “sensitizing” (Blumer 1954) concepts, religious virtuosi, rationalization, and collective effervescence are fruitful to consider in discussing and partly explaining what is happening at these parishes as they proceed in their implementation of the NE through the evangelization committees. Clearly, St. Priscilla’s NE committee members are experiencing a certain intensity of collective effervescence, especially given that the chair and co-chair are local religious virtuosi. In other words, there is explanatory power in combining Weber’s notion of religious virtuosi with Durkheim’s understanding of collective effervescence (cf. Tiryakian 2009, 327). Both are emotionally laden concepts that, from a sociology of emotions perspective (Goodwin et al. 2001), help explain initial beginnings of social group formation and even social movements of which, broadly conceived, the NE could be considered (see McCallion, 2013). Indeed, this is one possible explanation for why St. Priscilla’s had more NE energy and activity than St. George’s because it was more emotionally connected and driven—at least in the initial stages observed—what Poloma and Hood name the group’s “charismatic moment” (2008, 206).

[caption id="attachment_6174" align="alignright" width="440"] Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Detroit; Photo: Steve Burt; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.[/caption]

Another important aspect, however, is that the pastor’s tangential relation to St. Priscilla’s NE committee allowed the religious virtuosi and the overall collective effervescence of the committee around the NE to spill over into the larger parish community. The pastor’s passive role, in other words, allowed the cup of collective effervescence to runneth over—that is, for it not to be curtailed by parish bureaucracy. Meanwhile, St. George’s pastor set in motion a strong process of rationalization that includes ongoing education of the committee and then a five-year plan.[11] From a Weberian perspective, this pastor has “iron caged” the members inside a rational educational process. St. George’s NE committee members studied and shared faith but without the benefit of the kind of emotional intensity found at St. Priscilla’s.

It is important to recall that one of the central ways John Paul II described the NE was in terms of emotion. As mentioned above, he called upon all Catholics to implement this NE, which meant that faith in Jesus Christ was to be proclaimed more boldly and with greater conviction. Again, while evangelization itself is not new, what is “new” is how evangelization is done. At least in part, the idea is that it should incite people to faith—that is, emotionally ‘rev’ them up. The evangelization team at St. Priscilla’s seemed to cohere closely with John Paul II’s initiative to promote a strong emotional and personal dimension to the implementation of the NE. Like John Paul II, they believe this “ardor” is necessary to advance the NE.

In an edited collection of essays titled Passionate Politics (2001), Goodwin et al broaden the argument by arguing forcefully for the important role that emotions play in all kinds of social movements. Indeed, the various authors in Passionate Politics argue that emotions are particularly important at the inception of a movement, often tangled up with rational thought but trumping or exceeding it in most cases. This is exactly what occurred at St. Priscilla’s and to a much lesser degree at St. George’s. There was an unleashing of emotion and conviction of faith at St. Priscilla’s that has instilled in the committee members the collective effervescence or emotional energy necessary to initiate and potentially maintain NE efforts.

Although the data on parish membership and monetary intake cannot be elaborated extensively (given space constraints), I do note some change from snapshots of 2005 and 2011 in the parishes under study. Between these dates, St. George’s saw a 25.2 percent decrease in registered parish households (from 1,020 in 2005 to 770 in 2011), while St. Priscilla’s saw a 0.7 percent increase (from 2,621 in 2005 to 2,640 in 2011). This is an impressive difference, especially within the economic and demographic trends in metropolitan Detroit that have shown major economic challenges coupled with a Catholic population that would be in decline except for the influx of Latino Catholics. Even in this climate, St. Priscilla’s grew, while St. George’s declined significantly.[12]

Nevertheless, qualitative measures indicate notable increases in parish activity. Indeed, both parishes have increased activities by way of the NE, but St. Priscilla’s has increased their activities exponentially compared to St. George’s. For example, both committees have increased the prayer opportunities available at their parishes, but St. Priscilla’s has initiated considerably more opportunities than St. George’s. St. Priscilla’s, moreover, has involved a much greater number of parishioners in these activities than has St. George’s. More NE activities, more people involved, and a higher level of emotional energy exhibited at these activities suggests possible parish revitalization at St. Priscilla’s.

As Durkheim noted time and again, lurking beneath the surface of social life are many sacred energies (collective effervescences) waiting to burst forth to shape new ways of acting in the world. Nevertheless, longitudinal research is needed to determine if St. Priscilla’s activity is just a momentary burst of emotional energy or something that will last. In other words, are the committee members at St. Priscilla’s likely to maintain their high energy and thereby continue to implement the NE, or are they likely to get discouraged and quit? Or, as one might predict following Weber, their discouragement will lead them into schism or their spiritual energies absorbed by the regular ongoing routines of parish life.

Moreover, as previously noted, the revitalization observed is occurring mostly with those who are already Catholic. At the same time, those touched by the NE have embraced their Catholicism more fully and with the positive sense that it is good to be Catholic. It is not the case, however, that these same parishioners are beginning to spread the Gospel by proclaiming it to non-members, though they are willing to do Catholic activities and exhibit pride in doing so. At St. Priscilla’s, pride in being Catholic is the dominant emotion I witnessed time and again, an emotion that is spreading not only through the committee but also to the parish at large.

This is noteworthy as well from a sociology of emotions perspective, for as Thomas Scheff (1990) has pointed out, pride is an especially pervasive motivator of action (as are shame and guilt). Not only, then, do I suggest that talking proudly about being Catholic or talking more openly about Catholic ‘things’ is a strong motivator of action at St. Priscilla’s, but that it is also slowly becoming the new parish moral order of the day. As Durkheim might say, this collective way of speaking and acting lies in the “moral” power of the parishioners, and this moral power is associated with the positive collective sentiments that have arisen through the NE which in turn have legitimized talking proudly about being Catholic.

Furthermore, in Durkheimian language, this narrative shard of ‘Catholic proud’ is beginning to take on a ‘sacred’ quality. At St. Priscilla’s people are exposed to the collective effervescence exhibited by the NE committee which has developed into Catholic proud—now a Durkheimian sacred object.[13] At the same time, however, the reach of this ‘sacredness’ is probably limited to the 100 or so people who attend their monthly faith sharing gatherings and perhaps another 500 or so who attended the NE parish mission. Although the entire parish may have been touched by the NE in one way or another (e.g., advertising in church bulletin), I count only about 200 (or 3%) of the parish who have been so moved to proclaim their identity as Catholics more vigorously and proudly.

Particularly interesting, in comparison to St. George’s parish, is that this enhanced good feeling about being Catholic occurred not through education or catechesis, but through an emotionally contagious process. It was through a process of ordinary parishioners experiencing hyper-spiritual Catholics (those influenced by the NE, especially local religious virtuosi) practicing proudly by word and deed their Catholicism that these same parishioners began to experience feeling good about being Catholic. As previously noted, St. Priscilla’s implementation process operates more like the sacred does for Durkheim, with a virus-like quality. They do not feel good about being Catholic because they have been educated about the faith but because they have caught this emotional outburst of sacred energy or collective effervescence from others.

Certainly, more ethnographic research is needed to tease out the various emotional, cognitive and behavioral factors contributing to this spread of emotion and behavior around the NE. Nevertheless, fieldwork strongly indicates that collective effervescence is palpable. Education, meanwhile, is still important. Indeed, on the occasions when the St. Priscilla committee studied the NE, especially the documents of Pope John Paul II, their collective enthusiasm rose (Durkheim says that such educational commentaries or cognitive understandings are retrospective accounts of social ritual practices and can have an enhancing effect on the ritual practices as such; see Rawls, 2004). Education, nevertheless, is not the key motivating variable. Rather, emotional collective effervescence is, especially as it swirls around ‘Catholic proud,’ whether that is expressed bodily or verbally.

Although Durkheim discussed collective effervescence and its socially solidifying effects on a broader scale (the French Revolution), I have noted at a more local level similar effects as the emotional energy of the NE is spread to others at St. Priscilla’s. There is simply a greater degree of Durkheimian collective effervescence present at St. Priscilla’s than at St. George’s. Moreover, as Durkheim argues, this collective effervescence strengthens individuals and indeed the entire group through this heightening of emotion by way of the members doing or practicing rituals associated with the NE (be they devotions or ritual-like language). Collective effervescence is not a euphemism for crowd hysteria (Goodwin 2001), but is, rather, the result of humans bodily assembling and then focusing their communal attention (Collins 2004). By bodily assembling and mutually focusing attention, collective effervescence is more likely to arise, in and through which individuals and groups are made stronger.

Similarly, certain people at St. Priscilla’s have opened themselves to being caught up with the collective effervescence of the NE because, first, the NE committee members have already done so and are now practicing it through embodied devotional prayers and through Catholic proudness rhetoric. Other parishioners, having placed themselves in the path of this collective effervescence, have bodily experienced the NE and have caught, consequently, feeling proud about being Catholic. Durkheim argues that not only does collective effervescence make individuals and groups stronger it also strengthens the moral/social order of the group. St. Priscilla’s, through the collective effervescence of the NE, has strengthened its ecclesial moral order, which is not only discussed but is, more importantly, practiced through talking Catholic proud and enacting NE social ritual practices such as devotions.

Another factor contributing to the greater revitalization at St. Priscilla’s (and not at St. George’s) is that the religious virtuosi of the committee have channeled their emotional energy into promoting (and practicing themselves) religious devotions and various other types of prayer for parish members to participate in and, moreover, because these same religious virtuosi have not unleashed their spiritual energies outside the parish (e.g., attending/focusing on seminary, vicariate, or diocesan events which might siphon off their energy from the parish level). Durkheim claimed that ritual practices, in particular, are the central medium of collective effervescent which intensify, regulate, and direct social energies essential for collective life. St. Priscilla’s evangelization committee simply introduced more ritual practices (various devotional prayers, including adoration and benediction) that have served to intensify, regulate, and direct the spiritual energies of the parish-at-large in and through the NE. As Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta argue:

If emotions are intimately involved in the processes by which people come to join social movements, they are even more obvious in the ongoing activities of the movements. The richer a movement’s culture—with more rituals, songs, folktales, heroes, denunciation of enemies, and so on—the greater those pleasures. Most discussions of the solidarity-building functions of movement culture have concentrated on shared rhetoric and beliefs rather than on the emotions which accompany them (2001, 18).

Thus, at least at this point in time, St. Priscilla’s has experienced greater collective effervescence associated with the NE than has St. George’s because of shared emotionally charged practices. Nevertheless, it could be that the parishioners at St. George’s are stalled in terms of evangelizing but will soon burst forth onto the parish scene with great vigor and conviction proclaiming the Good News. And those at St. Priscilla’s, as mentioned earlier, could tire or break away from the Church or simply fade into normal parish life. I would be negligent in my analysis, however, if I did not mention, in conclusion, that the differences found in these parishes had much to do with the fact that one parish had a lay volunteer chairing the committee and the other a professional minister (the pastor), a point I have addressed elsewhere [McCallion, 2000] and could be elaborated further in relation to the NE. This lay-professional difference is further accentuated, however, by the fact that the lay volunteer was a local religious virtuoso filled with the passion of the NE while the professional pastor was more catechetically or educationally oriented in promoting the NE. At least at this point in the research and in the life of these parishes, emotionally charged collective effervescence rather than rationally oriented education has made the difference in the relative effectiveness of implementing the NE through parish evangelization committees.

Featured Photo: Ste. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church by GollyGforce; CC-BY-2.0.

[1] Durkheim (1912/1995: 190–206) argued that the idea of “force,” especially moral force has an origin in feelings or emotions. These emotions are generated by the collective enactment of social ritual practices. In this case, even the rationalizing approach has an emotional origin in that the pastor was upset (felt let down) about the parish council not understanding the importance of the NE (this will be explained later in the paper).

[2] The professional / lay attitudinal gap literature within the field of the sociology of religion is tangentially related but will not be addressed. We are sensitized to this reality, however, especially given that one parish NE committee was led by a layperson and the other by a professional minister, and, moreover, that their NE implementation strategies were considerably different.

[3] We use the concept of collective effervescence in conjunction with religious virtuosi because they are both emotionally laden concepts. Given that collective effervescence is a fairly well known concept of Durkheim’s, we do not elaborate here. Instead two quotes from Durkheim remind or inform readers of the concept’s emotional tenor: “Apart from these passing or intermittent states, there are more lasting ones in which the fortifying action of society makes itself felt with longer-term consequences and often with more striking effect. Under the influence of some great collective shock in certain historical periods, social interactions become much more frequent and active. Individuals seek one another out and come together more. The result is the general effervescence that is characteristic of revolutionary or creative epochs. The result of that heightened activity is a general stimulation of individual energies. People live differently and more intensely than in normal times. The changes are not simply of nuance and degree; man himself becomes something other than what he was. He is stirred by passions so intense that they can be satisfied only by violent and extreme acts: by acts of superhuman heroism or bloody barbarism. This explains the Crusades, for example, as well as so many sublime or savage moments in the French Revolution. We see the most mediocre or harmless bourgeois transformed by the general exaltation into a hero or an executioner.” (Durkheim 1912/1995: 212–13) Another example is as follows: “Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation. Every emotion expressed resonates without interference in consciousness that are wide open to external impressions, each one echoing the others. The initial impulse is thereby amplified each time it is echoed, like an avalanche that grows as it goes along. And since passions so heated and so free from all control cannot help but spill over, from every side there are nothing but wild movements, shouts, downright howls, and deafening noises of all kinds that further intensify the state they are expressing.” (Durkheim 1912/1995: 217–18)

[4] The following background is adapted from Bennett-Carpenter, Benjamin and McCallion, Michael J. 2012.

[5] McBrien notes that several new movements in the Church since Vatican II have been legitimized by John Paul II and are often referred to “as agents of the so-called new evangelization in the Church. They include Opus Dei, the Legion [Legionaries] of Christ, Communion and Liberation [its Italian name is Comunione e Liberazione], the Neo-Catechumenate [also known as the Neocatechumenal Way], the Focolare movement, and the Community of Sant’Egidio, which is the exception to the rule of conservatism” (McBrien, 2008: 345).

[6] In 2003 the evangelization minister for the eastside of Detroit (a limited area marked for evangelization efforts) left his position and was replaced with three new Catholic evangelizers and a new secretary. These four then joined the first director and formed the AOD Evangelization Team in 2004. Soon after, however, the first director left the office and so in 2005 the Office of Evangelization consisted of four evangelizers and a secretary. As of 2006, two new members have joined the team as part-time ministers: a musician and a Franciscan priest. By 2009, an entire Department of Evangelization was formed, which included Catechesis and Catholic Schools as well. In 2016, a diocesan synod on the NE is scheduled to take place in Detroit.

[7] This volume was issued in Rome in Italian with plans from the publisher Libreria Editrice Vaticana to issue it in English and other languages as soon as possible.

[8] We find this interesting because in a sense they are implementing pre-Vatican II religious practices (devotional practices) while at the same time legitimizing their own doing so by referring to a post-Vatican II theology of the role of the laity.

[9] We do know that St. Priscilla’s NE efforts have continued into 2014 with some of the same people still on the NE committee, especially one of the religious virtuoso. The pastor at St. George’s, however, was re-assigned to another diocese in the Province because that diocese was in desperate need of a canon lawyer. We have heard anecdotally that NE activities have waned since his departure.

[10] Mostly anecdotal evidence, but Catholic Charismatics say themselves that their style is off-putting to some people. Also, see Neitz (1987).

[11] This was a development that the pastor introduced to the NE committee in September 2008, which included further theological study and a more systematic method for implementing the NE over a period of years. Since that time, the pastor moved on to another parish.

[12] Meanwhile, both parishes saw declines in offertory and Christmas giving (St. George, $625,608 to 478,321 or -23.5% and St. Priscilla, $2,068,812 to 1,844,673 or -10.8%, respectively), although the primary factor in this decline is likely the 2008 global financial recession.

[13] We suggest based upon our data that being proud to be Catholic is closely identified with the NE at the parish level by mass-going Catholics (McCallion and Maines, 2009). According to Durkheim, anything can become sacred—objects, things, words, etc.—as long as people act toward these objects, things, or words as being sacred.

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Michael J. McCallion

Michael J. McCallion is the Rev. William Cunningham Chair of Catholic Social Analysis at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.

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