Bishop Byrnes: Evangelization can reverse the Church’s decline

2-BYRNES-Mike-ORDINATION-DATDetroit — Auxiliary Bishop Michael Byrnes, who was tasked by Archbishop Allen Vigneron with coordinating the Archdiocese of Detroit’s efforts related to evangelization, sat down to answer questions about the importance of evangelization and how the archdiocese can be at the forefront of bringing people back to the Catholic Church. His responses will be printed in two parts. Here, the bishop talks about the overall mission and goals of the upcoming evangelization effort; in our June 26 issue, we’ll print his responses to questions about the synod, specific evangelization programs such as Alpha and ChristLife, and the role liturgy and intercessory prayer can play in the work of evangelization.


Q: What is the Archdiocese of Detroit’s upcoming evangelization initiative, and what is its significance?

BISHOP BYRNES: The Detroit evangelization initiative is about changing the culture of the Archdiocese of Detroit. That we might become missionary both in our outlook and in our practice. Not missionary as in foreign missions, but locally. That we come to not only the understanding but the lived experience that our day-to-day life is a mission. We’re part of Jesus’ effort to make disciples of all the nations.

Q: Why is evangelization so important to the Church?

BISHOP BYRNES: That’s why the Church exists. The Church exists purely to extend the message of Jesus both by her witness and by her words to bring the Gospel “to every creature.” That’s an interesting way of saying it — it doesn’t mean we start bringing dogs to church — but everyone is expected to hear the Gospel, and we’re the only way they’re going to hear it. The Church exists purely to evangelize; that’s her reason for being. In many ways, we’ve not forgotten it, but we’ve thought that means somewhere else, in Africa or New Guinea, but we’ve forgotten that actually means here, too.

Q: How can this challenge us to think differently about our parish life?

BISHOP BYRNES: Our life in a parish is not just this enclave where we find consolation and support, where we have a good experience on Sunday, and that’s where we bring our children, but the parish is also an outpost from which we go. The work of the Church is not just in our parish life, but the work of the Church is actually outside our parish. Jesus said, “Pray for laborers to go out into the harvest.” Well, we as parishioners are already wheat in the barn. What he means is, “Go outside the barn and bring more wheat in.”

Q: We’ve heard it described as a “re-mobilization” of our efforts. Is that a fair way to characterize it?

BISHOP BYRNES: The archbishop has used that phrase a lot to motivate us. Sometimes you hear that we’re “always evangelizing,” but we think of it in terms of a passive evangelization. The fact that we go to church says something; it’s not as common as it used to be. So in one sense we’re aware of that lived witness element, and the mobilization is to bring that lived witness outside of our parish and into our daily lives as well.

Q: Why is this an especially critical focus for the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2015?

BISHOP BYRNES: A lot of what we’ve been doing has been managing the decline of the Archdiocese of Detroit, managing the decline of our parishes. I think that brings into very sharp focus that something’s wrong. It’s natural for churches to grow. It’s unnatural for churches to shrink. We’re recognizing that we need to get back to the natural. And that changes our whole way of thinking and being. I’ve presided over the closing of three churches in the last four years. It’s like going to a funeral. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be, and that’s the feeling of so many people walking out from those. There’s this feeling of “How can we prevent this from happening?” The answer is to grow. How do we grow? Evangelize. It’s not a panacea. There’s a whole host of factors about why we’re in decline, but the dynamic of our life and our experience has to change.

Q: What can we do to make sure this initiative is a success?

BISHOP BYRNES: Encounter Jesus. That is the heart of all evangelization. It’s the heart of changing the culture of the Archdiocese of Detroit. We really have to own on an individual level what Pope Benedict was saying and Pope Francis has been quoting over and over again: That being a Christian is not simply an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but it’s an encounter. An encounter with an event, a person who gives life a new horizon and a decisive new direction. … It’s knowing that I live in daily communication with Jesus and what he’s done for me in my life in forgiving my sins and beginning to transform me from the inside out. That’s the best thing that’s happened in my life, and I’m glad to share it. A preacher I once heard said, “If you’re in a relationship, you know it, but if you’re in a life-changing relationship, everybody knows it.” I always think of the young women I’ve seen shortly after they’re engaged. You know something’s really happened in their life because they’re telling you about it. That’s the joy of the Gospel. If you live in the consciousness that Jesus is the best thing that’s ever happened in your life, it’s easy to evangelize.