Pastoral Plan guides outreach efforts at Waco parish

By Kira Ciupek
Correspondent

In the same way that many of us make New Year’s resolutions for better health, it isn’t uncommon for dioceses to develop plans to guide their faith communities toward a more spiritually healthy future; the Austin Diocese is no different. Since 2000, it has developed at least three Pastoral Plans, and in 2013, a group including Bishop Joe Vásquez, the Steering Committee for the diocesan Pastoral Plan, the Pastoral Plan Core Team, and the Essential Conversations consultant team gathered together to draft a new document that would lead the diocese into a brighter 21st century.
“If you were a Fortune 500 company, you would probably do something like a strategic plan, opening new businesses or creating different widgets,” says Scott Whitaker, Secretariat Director of Stewardship, Development and Communications at the Austin Diocese. “In the church, we commonly refer to them as Pastoral Plans. They are strategic in nature, but they are more focused on high level attitudes and approaches.”
The current plan contains the threefold vision of “Encounter, Ministry, and Witness,” and was implemented in October 2015, after a yearlong process of prayer, discussion and listening sessions.
“A Pastoral Plan is not about increasing revenues in the church or creating more widgets. It’s about how we are reaching more people for Christ and helping them encounter him in various ways,” says Whitaker, who is also a member of the Pastoral Plan Core Team.
Inspired by Pope Francis’ call “to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by joy,” the Pastoral Plan encourages Catholics to share their faith boldly within their neighborhoods and communities, especially reaching out to inactive Catholics, the poor and the disadvantaged.
Changing demographics
In the Austin Diocese, there is particular concern about changing demographics. Census studies indicate that by 2017, the Hispanic population will nearly double from the 2000 Census. 
“My neighborhood is almost exclusively Hispanic,” says Father John Guzaldo of St. Louis Parish, which is located in north Waco, along the I-35 corridor. 
With the help of dedicated parishioners, Father Guzaldo has developed a unique evangelization program for reaching the Hispanic and immigrant communities surrounding St. Louis Parish. Monthly, parishioners gather for a Saturday morning prayer and mapping session, before going door to door in teams of three to distribute pamphlets and church bulletins. 
“The idea came when I realized that no one in my neighborhood was going to Mass here, and half of them were Catholic!” says Father Guzaldo. “When I saw the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses go door to door, I said, ‘why don’t we do that?’” 
Father Guzaldo adds, “Now, I have a little team of people, and we start walking around … knocking on doors. We ask, ‘Is anyone Catholic?’ If they say yes, I ask where they go to church. Most of the time they go to a Catholic church on the other side of town. I am responsible for the Catholics in my boundaries, and I want to reach out to them,” he says. 
In addition to starting an outreach ministry, Father Guzaldo also initiated a new Saturday Latin Mass for the Spanish-speaking last year. Attendance began with more than 60 people, but has now almost tripled, with more than 160 people from the surrounding neighborhoods regularly participating.
In addition to the call to serve a growing Hispanic Catholic population in the Austin Diocese, the Pastoral Plan has identified a series of guiding principles that include the “formation and spiritual nourishment” of all Catholics, regardless of culture or language. In particular, the plan seeks to invite inactive and non-Catholics to “come and see” what the church has to offer. 
“In all the listening sessions across the diocese, regardless of language, there seemed to be one major concern among the people: That is the fact that so many people were concerned that their children and grandchildren weren’t going to church,” Whitaker says.
Father Guzaldo points out that the St. Louis Parish outreach program is sensitive to the needs of ex-Catholics and non-Catholics. 
“We’re trying to bring the lost sheep back first,” Father Guzaldo says. “We’re not out to convert anyone. But if they were Catholic, or are Catholic but not practicing, I want to invite them back. Sometimes they’ve been hurt by the church and need somebody to listen to them. We get a chance to say ‘I’m sorry.’ Then we ask, ‘is there anything we can do for you now?’ Sometimes we have H-E-B gift cards we give out or groceries.”
The outreach
Mark Veselka, a St. Louis parishioner, says the outreach ministry has deepened his own faith, while giving him an opportunity to practice apologetics. 
“Once, a gentleman answered the door and he said, ‘I’m not Catholic. I think that religion gets in the way of your personal relationship with Jesus Christ.’ I said, ‘Actually, you’re more Catholic than you think. We believe in Jesus Christ, and have communion with Christ because he is the one who started our church,” says Veselka, who has been joining the teams monthly for door-to-door ministry. “When I encounter people at the door who say things combative, I have something to offer, without being preachy.”
Father Guzaldo says the ex-Catholics are “usually the most hostile, which makes the encounter even more fun. “One hundred percent of the time they were usually invited to a Protestant church and offered a personal relationship with Jesus.”
Julia DeLaRosa, a St. Louis parishioner and outreach team member, was immediately attracted to the ministry when she returned to the parish after college.
“When I came back to Waco after college, and I saw the notice in the bulletin, I thought it was interesting and a great thing to get involved with because I know there are so many people who are lost and who don’t necessarily get reached,” she says. 
It was her own personal encounter with Christ, and a strong Catholic upbringing at home and in school, that motivated her involvement with the outreach. 
“Once I realized, with heart knowledge, that Jesus exists in the Eucharist, I realized that everyone deserves to have this knowledge, this relationship. Everyone is called to that. This needs to be given to others who are not able to find it,” DeLaRosa says.
Be not afraid
St. Louis Parish serves more than a thousand families in the Waco area, and offers daily Mass, weekly adoration and a variety of ministries including ACTS retreats. For parishes interested in launching their own neighborhood outreach ministry, Father Guzaldo recommends that the parish priest take the lead.
“Don’t be afraid,” Father Guzaldo says. “Even if you get just a few people, they are the most blessed. Spread and defend the faith in word in deed, that’s what we are supposed to do by our confirmation. The first time I did it by myself I was absolutely terrified. But after I did it for two hours, it turned out to be my best day. It was an awesome experience.” 
For information on the Pastoral Plan, visit www.
austindiocese.org/welcome.