How My Parish Fought Off an Invasion

Author: Rev. Edward C. Petty


Rev. Edward C. Petty

In June 1992 I was assigned to pastor one of the largest parishes in our Midwestern diocese. It is a small town/rural parish, but as almost all the people in the neighborhood are of German and Irish decent, the area is 90 percent Catholic, and the parish numbers around 5,000 registered members. The other churches in town are a small Lutheran and an even smaller Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses. Relations with the Lutheran congregation are cordial, and the two parishes work together on a number of social projects.

The associate pastor was also new. Arriving at the same time and happily agreeing on basic theological and administration issues, we decided on goals for our first year together. One was to increase weekend Mass attendance. By providing liturgies of a reasonable length and, if not always wonderful, at least always well-prepared, homilies, within a few months, we reached our goal of having 75 percent of our people at Mass on any given weekend.

In late January 1993, just when things were going well and both priests were resting on their laurels after a successful Advent and Christmas season, we received a challenge we did not expect. A small group of Fundamentalists rented an unused movie theater in the town and opened up their own church. They were well-financed by the national headquarters of their denomination and by a large church in another town thirty miles away. Visiting evangelists and students from a Bible college were coming to help them establish their new church and to knock on doors. There were some fallen-away Catholics in their group, and they were more than aggressive in their entrance to our neighborhood.

Every family of the Lutheran parish received a letter inviting them to leave the Lutheran congregation and join the "Bible-believing" and "fast-growing" church. But it was the Catholics of our parish they were really after. They made it plain that our town had been targeted because it was predominately Catholic, and their group had previously been successful in Catholic areas. We were "ripe for the picking."

And they were right. Even though Mass attendance was in good shape, given the poor catechetics of the past 30 years, many of our parishioners were Catholic simply because their grandparents had been. They were good "cultural Catholics" but did not know why they believed what they believed nor why they did what they did as Catholics. The area had been solidly Catholic since the nineteenth century, so few, even among the older parishioners, ever had to defend their faith on an intellectual level. Then came the Fundamentalists.

We decided that we had three choices in dealing with this challenge. We could do nothing, ignoring the interlopers, or we could try to be "nice" and go out of our way to be ecumenical. With either of these choices we could envision the Fundamentalists taking many of our cultural Catholics away from the faith. The third choice was to be real leaders and pastors of our parish and take on this challenge. We chose the third option and decided to act quickly, before the denomination could get a foothold in the community.

Establishing more Scripture study groups and more adult catechesis groups were options as to "how," but the main way to reach the majority of parishioners was still through the pulpit. We decided to use that route primarily. While the Church's liturgical instructions state that on Sundays and holy days a homily on the Scripture readings is to be preached, for good pastoral reasons (and ours was pastoral) a sermon not directly connected with the readings could be preached. A sermon series seemed to be the most effective way to go.

We also—and this is most important—let the chief pastor of the diocese, our archbishop, know about the new Fundamentalist challenge in our community and what we intended to do about it. He supported us fully.

Using primarily two resources, Karl Keating's <Catholicism and Fundamentalism> and the collection of tracts from Catholic Answers, we developed the sermon series. Secondary resources included Fr. John A. O'Brien's <Faith of Millions>, Frs. Leslie Rumble and Charles M. Carty's <Radio Replies>, Bishop John F. Noll's <Father Smith Instructs Jackson>, Fr. William Jurgens' <Faith of the Early Fathers>, and Fr. William G. Most's <Catholic Apologetics Today>.

On the Sunday before Ash Wednesday we began with a sermon entitled "Kennedy Quarters." Kennedy quarters appeared during the 1960 presidential campaign. Using red fingernail polish, anti-Catholics opposed to Kennedy painted skull caps on George Washington's profile, and George looked something like Pope John XXIII. It was a supposed to be a reminder to those who received the quarters in circulation that a vote for Kennedy meant that the Pope would be running the country.

This first sermon was key. It set the stage for those following. It began with the story of Kennedy quarters, a short history of anti-Catholicism in the U. S., and the fact that our area was settled by the parishioners' ancestors in order to avoid anti-Catholic prejudice. Then, thanks to a Catholic president, Vatican II, and the ecumenical movement, anti-Catholicism largely died out in our country, at least for a time. Also dying out in those years was much of the apologetical content of Catholic catechesis—why we believe what we believe and how to defend it.

The sermon went on to explain new religious phenomena: the rise of Fundamentalism in America, a new anti-Catholicism accompanying it, and how Catholics are being taken in by Fundamentalists because they no longer know how to defend their faith when it is being challenged. Then we used examples of Fundamentalist openers: "We put our faith in Jesus, not in any church or sacraments." "Why go to a priest to have your sins forgiven, when Jesus can do it directly?" "The Bible says not to drink blood; that's why the Catholic idea of Jesus' body and blood in the Eucharist is wrong." "Show me in the Bible where it says to honor Mary so much?"

We challenged our parishioners: "Could you answer those standard openers?" We gave them quick but not complete answers. The ending of the 15-minute sermon was a veiled reference to the new challenge in our community: "We, in this parish, have a wonderful opportunity this year to take a good look at what we as Catholics believe and why we believe those things." By then most of the parishioners knew exactly what situation we were addressing. In closing we announced the sermon series for the rest of Lent, the fact that we had the archbishop's encouragement (making it sound very official), and gave the title of the next week's topic.

During the following week the coffee shops were buzzing with talk about the sermon series. Folks were interested. There was a sense of some competition in the air, sort of an our-team-versus-their-team attitude, which we down-played, but it did interest some of the marginal Catholics.

The next weekend we began a two-weekend sermon on keeping the Bible in proper perspective. These sermons dealt with the history of where we got the Bible, especially the New Testament, how the Church Christ founded predates the New Testament, how it was the Church that gave us the Bible we have today, and how Scripture was meant to be used with, in, and through the Church.

After the first week, an unexpected thing happened. Parishioners started calling and coming to the rectory, asking for copies of the sermon. Unknown to the new priests, there were many families in the parish that had a son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter, who had moved out of town and eventually was lost to a Fundamentalist group. These families wanted copies of the sermons to send them. In addition, the Bible college students were beginning to knock on doors, and our parishioners wanted ammunition. If they couldn't argue well, they'd just hand the students sermon copies and say, "Read this."

Thanks to our parish secretaries and their computer skills, we quickly printed 500 copies of the first and second sermons in tract form and had them available in the pamphlet racks at the back of the church. We announced that each week the sermon would be available by Wednesday in the pamphlet rack as "there had been so many requests for copies." This provided incentive for parishioners to get interested. The Lutheran minister, even though he did not share our theology, was quietly cheering us on along the sidelines. He could not afford to lose many families from his small parish.

Having finished the two-part series on the relationship between Scripture and the Church, the fourth weekend we began with specific Fundamentalist arguments against Catholicism: accepting Jesus as Lord and personal Savior, being "saved," not calling anyone "Father," evil clergy and popes, "infallibility," and the "pillar and foundation of truth" for Christ's followers. That week we also had visitors. Several Bible college students began to attend Mass to see what we were saying. On the fifth weekend we began our annual Forty Hours, which extended through Monday and Tuesday. This devotion had always been held in the parish during Lent, but in recent years it had experienced a drop in attendance, and the externals surrounding it had become pedestrian.

Remembering the truth of <lex orandi, lex credendi>, we decided to "do it up big" and make Forty Hours a spectacular, external statement of our faith in the Real Presence. We got out all the "old stuff" from the sacristies and built a real throne for the monstrance. We had 40 candles plus banks of flowers on the high altar, trained an army of servers, invited a number of orthodox priests to attend, made sign-up sheets for half-hour periods of adoration, engaged the choir for each evening service, ran off sheets of real Eucharistic hymns, and opened with solemn Mass on Sunday.

The weekend sermon was essentially a warm up on the importance of the Eucharist in our lives and a pitch to attend the Forty Hours, especially the evening services. Not only did we have good crowds for quiet adoration during the three days, but our church, which holds 1,400, was packed Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday evenings for the special services.

These services consisted of a few prayers, a longer sermon, and solemn benediction, plus a procession on the last night. These three longer sermons were geared to the Real Presence and answered Fundamentalist objections to it. Sunday night the sermon began with a short explanation of transubstantiation, then Christ's preparation of his disciples for the Eucharist (the miracles in John 2-5), and lastly Christ's promise of the Eucharist in John 6. Monday night's sermon was on the fulfillment of Christ's promise, and we centered on 1 Corinthians 10-11. Tuesday night's sermon was on the acceptance of the Eucharist by the early Church. We used the testimonies of Irenaeus, Justin, and Ignatius of Antioch to show that we have the same doctrine of the Eucharist they held.

By the time the great procession wound its way around the church the final night, with Knights of Columbus, servers, priests, candles, incense, and a kneeling congregation belting out "Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All," we knew that faith in the Eucharist had been greatly strengthened in the parish. The sixth weekend was the fifth Sunday of Lent. The sermon continued with answers to specific Fundamentalist arguments against Catholic beliefs: graven images, veneration of Mary and the saints, and the identity of the "brethren of the Lord." The following weekend was Palm Sunday, and we gave the parish a break, with no homily, letting the beginning liturgy of Holy Week speak for itself.

On Easter Sunday we preached on the lives of the apostles after that first Easter Sunday, as a great proof of the reality of the Resurrection. On the Sunday after Easter, with its Gospel from John 20, the final apologetical sermon of the series was given on the sacrament of penance. We promised the parish that in the future, when the Sunday readings touched on some point of Catholic doctrine challenged by Fundamentalists, we would preach on that doctrine, explaining why we believe what we believe. Since that time, when the readings have lent themselves, we have kept that promise and have explained the Petrine primacy, purgatory, and the Marian dogmas.

What was the result of our sermon series? In spite of their money, personnel, and aggressive proselytizing, we did not lose a single parishioner to the Fundamentalists. (The Lutherans did not fare as well.) In a few weeks of direct apologetical preaching, we were able to reaffirm to this parish that it was reasonable to be a Catholic and nothing else. This is a small town, and even the 25 percent of our parishioners who are not here weekly heard the message. None of them defected either. Over 700 copies of each sermon were taken. Many were sent to prodigal offspring living away from home, and there have been good results in returns to the faith when families had concrete evidence that ours was the real "Bible-believing" Church.

As previously mentioned, our primary resources for the sermon series were <Catholicism and Fundamentalism> and the Catholic Answers tracts. We could not have accomplished what we did, and as quickly as we did, without these resources. I must apologize to Mr. Keating and the tract writers for sometimes plagiarizing word for word their works in our sermon series. (I have been assured that's why they did their work in the first place and that I am forgiven!) Those resources provided our most logical and easily understood explanations of Catholic doctrine. I am tremendously grateful that we had them available to us.

During Lent of 1994, we decided to do another sermon series. This time it was on the beauty and benefits of God's forgiveness in the sacrament of penance. By Easter Sunday the vast majority of our adult parishioners had made a good confession. For many it had been ten or more years since they had confessed. What a change this has made in our parish! It has been visible in the faces of the congregation.

We are not a perfect parish and never will be. But with God's grace we are trying to be better Catholics and followers of Jesus Christ in our daily lives. Had we not had the courage and the ability to meet the Fundamentalist challenge in 1993, I shudder to think what the situation would be in this parish, with families split, people arguing, and who knows how many Catholics being lost to the faith. The "Bible-believing" and "fast-growing" Fundamentalist church is still in our community. When their one-year lease on the old theater ended, the denomination's national headquarters decided not to renew. They are now in a small metal building at the edge of town, and at last count there were eight cars parked in front on Sunday mornings. Our parish still has a parking problem since 4,000 people attend weekend Masses, but it's a wonderful problem.

The theater has re-opened as a theater and is now showing family-oriented movies. When I drove by at Christmas and saw the marquee advertising the remake of Miracle on 34th Street rather than the denominational name that had been there the previous year, I was able to smile and say, "Thank you, Lord, for all your miracles!"

Rev. Edward C. Petty is pastor of a Catholic church in the Midwest. He prefers not to identify parish, town, and Fundamentalist denomination. He does not want to tempt the latter, or any other group, to begin funneling more money or evangelists into his neighborhood.

This article is reprinted from the February 1995 issue of <This Rock> magazine. Catholic Answers, Inc.