Parishes already fulfilling Pastoral Plan goals

By Kira Ciupek
Correspondent

In response to Pope Francis’ call to “embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by joy,” the Pastoral Plan invites Catholics in the Austin Diocese to experience personal encounters with Christ that lead to joyous transformation. 
“Encounter is an experience of meeting someone or experiencing something that affects the whole person –– mind, heart and soul,” says Charlene O’Connell, a member of the Pastoral Plan Core Team.
In 2013, Bishop Joe Vásquez and the Pastoral Plan Core Team addressed the needs of an ever-growing population in the Austin Diocese by casting a fresh vision for outreach and ministry. The Pastoral Plan was the result of their yearlong research, conversation and spiritual reflection. Rather than being a strategy of defined steps, it is a guide that proposes the threefold goal of “Encounter, Ministry and Witness.” 
The encounter
Father Kirby Garner, pastor of Santa Cruz Parish in Buda, believes that encounter with Christ naturally sparks a renewed desire to serve the church.
“Encounter is the realization that your faith isn’t something you’ve inherited, but something you experience,” he states. “When you do, you will want to join groups like the Knights of Columbus, or help ministries such as St. Vincent de Paul. It’s the encounter that makes you want to serve. Unless Jesus means something to you personally, you’ll be a nominal Christian.”
A question frequently asked by Protestant groups seeking to convert nominal Catholics is, “Do you have a personal relationship with Christ?” The question may be proving effective considering recent statistics from a 2015 Pew Research Center study that show more than half of all those raised Catholic eventually leave the church; among those, 28 percent describe themselves as “ex-Catholics,” and only 11 percent come back to the church. 
To help reverse the trend, the Austin Diocese through its Pastoral Plan has proposed goals, initiatives and objectives for reaching lapsed-Catholics and non-Catholics, while at the same time re-igniting commitment in the hearts of the faithful. 
“The second biggest denomination in the U.S. is the ex-Catholic,” Father Garner says. “When a family does not practice their faith, we are practically guaranteeing that the next generation will leave the church. Wouldn’t it be better to say we need to be committed? To be committed means more than simply being registered at a parish and coming to Mass twice a year.”
The transformation
Father Dean Wilhelm, pastor of St. William Parish in Round Rock, says that renewed commitment to the church results from personal transformation, which “begins with a prayer life in which we encounter the Lord each day and spend time with the Lord as our best friend.”
For St. William parishioners, personal encounter with Christ is an intentional, daily experience. In addition to offering the sacrament of penance every day, St. William provides perpetual adoration, and conducts Mass seven days a week with Spanish, English or bilingual services.
They also conduct comprehensive faith formation courses for children, teens and adults.
Father Wilhelm says, “800 adults have participated in some way in adult faith formation this year alone. The centerpiece of our adult ministry here is a semester course our staff has created called ‘Jesus is Lord’ — it is the prerequisite of all the other courses we offer. The focus is that Jesus is Lord of my time, my talent, my treasure, my sexuality — of everything. He is either all, or nothing.” 
In addition to adult classes, St. William offers middle school and high school courses and activities that draw hundreds of teenagers.
“Let’s not just entertain our kids in high school to keep our numbers up,” Father Wilhelm says. “The reason we have 500 kids in the high school ministry is because of empowering them to be Catholics who desire a personal encounter with Christ — to be Catholics who really believe that the most important thing in their life is their relationship with the Lord.”
Growing parishes
First established in 1916, St. William has grown from a handful of parishioners to more than 5,000 families, and has outgrown three church buildings. As a result, the parish recently launched a new Capital Campaign, “Maintenance to Mission,” with the goal of building a $10 million Parish Activity Center. Additionally, the parish has a team that travels internationally on medical missions, and Sacred Heart Community Clinic, located on the parish campus, provides outpatient health services to medically underserved residents of the Williamson County. 
Father Wilhelm says that none of this would be possible without the energetic participation and commitment of the people, and the servant leadership of the priests and staff.
In the community of Buda, 15 miles south of downtown Austin, is the Santa Cruz Parish where more than 2,300 families call home. “Encounter” and “transformation” are guiding principles for their ministries, which serve the Spanish- and English- speaking congregation. Movimiento Familiar Cristiano, is “aimed at building strong marriages, strong families, strong kids and strong faith,” according to Father Garner. Retreats, small group discussions, and opportunities for personal encounter come through groups like Christ Renews His Parish and Covenant of Love. 
Since its inception in 2008, more than 2,000 families have participated in the Santa Cruz non-profit ministry, Evangelizacion de Familias, which focuses on healing broken families and restoring marriages. Publicized primarily through word of mouth, and by the efforts of volunteers who go door-to-door, the ministry has been successful in reaching the community.
Zulma Hernandez, a Santa Cruz parishioner and certified counselor, says, “Once we went to a house where a lady had, that very day, decided she wanted to end her life, she wanted to commit suicide. We knocked on her door that day and invited her to the Evangelizacion de Familias retreat. She decided to go, and had an encounter with Christ. Now, she is part of our parish, and continues formation through our ministry.”
Hernandez, who leads the ministry, says the retreat format has been very successful in their parish.
“At our children’s retreat, I noticed an 8-year-old boy crying. His tears were coming down fast, and he couldn’t express himself,” she says. “I asked him what he was feeling, and he said, ‘my heart is just pounding because Jesus is in my heart!’”
Founded in 1941, Santa Cruz Parish has grown to include a new Parish Activity Center, a two-story Religious Education Building, and, in 2007, opened the only Catholic school in Hays County.
“I credit the school to Msgr. Joe Dean who first envisioned the school years ago,” Father Garner says. “I’m supportive because I’m a convert to the Catholic Church. My Lutheran parents sent me to a Catholic school in the first through third grades, and the sisters made a really good impression on me.” 
Spreading the joy
Pope Francis, whose words in Evangelii Guadium have inspired the framework for the Pastoral Plan, writes, “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” As evidenced through the vibrancy of many parishes, including St. William and Santa Cruz, an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ is the key to transforming individuals, ministries, schools, and parishes. 
“The message of the Plan is not to emulate, but to capture the excitement of what others are doing, and apply it to the specific and unique needs and resources of your own organization or parish,” O’Connell says.
Father Wilhelm concurs.
“You might be limited in financial resources, but there are other ways. The starting point has to be that we desire to encourage people to have a personal encounter with the Lord.”