Memphis — Sometimes, all it takes is an invitation.
Since August, members of St. Augustine Parish in Richmond and Holy Family Parish in Memphis have been visiting parishioners who have not been seen in church in a while, asking how they’ve been doing and saying how much the parish family misses them on Sunday.
The project, called “Operation Olive Branch,” has pairs of parishioners — preferably a man and woman — drive out to the homes of people registered at the parish, bringing them information on Mass times, parish contacts and asking for prayer requests.
“We ran through two sessions of ChristLife, and we thought we were ready to do some evangelization,” said Fr. Joe Horn, pastor of the two parishes. “So we thought, meet the people who are already Catholic, but just don’t come. Let’s talk to them about why they’re gone.”
Fr. Horn came up with the idea alongside Sacred Heart Major Seminary seminarian Mark Livingston, who was assigned to Holy Family Parish for his summer internship. The two prayed about the idea and felt it was what the Holy Spirit wanted them to do.
“Over the summer, [I] took the idea to Fr. Joe, and we prayed about it; no ministry without prayer,” Livingston said. “We looked at something like Night Fever, where people outside the church invite people to come pray while adoration is going on.”
Keeping to the “no ministry without prayer” concept, Operation Olive Branch volunteers are divided into two teams: One team work in pairs to visit parishioners who haven’t been to Mass, while the other team stays in the church to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.
Since the program has started, Fr. Horn said he has seen more people come back to Mass.
“For most people, they need to hear that we wanted them,” Fr. Horn said. “Life is busy, but it’s not too busy for Christ. We hear stories about how during a time when a person died in the family, the priest wasn’t kind to them or there was something we missed.”
Fr. Horn said Operation Olive Branch allows people to talk to fellow parishioners about grievances they might have with the Church and show people that the parish community cares for them
and wants them back at Mass.
“There are cases that take a lot of healing,” Fr. Horn said. “We’re just standing there, saying we welcome you anyway, trying to get people to say ‘yes’ again to the Lord’s call. We’ve been very encouraged by it; people want to evangelize, and they want to do stuff like this.”
A key to Operation Olive Branch’s success is simplicity. The visitors operate from a list of people who are registered at the parish, so they already know they are familiar with Catholicism and the parish setting. Before visiting, the parish sends a postcard to the house weeks in advance, letting people know they’ll be coming.
For St. Augustine associate pastor Fr. Sean Bonner, the visits aren’t about converting people or reading passages from the Catechism, but letting people know they are welcomed and wanted.
“We’re not out there debating or trying to win an argument,” Fr. Bonner said. “We’re out there to invite. We find people welcome the visit, they are usually polite. I’ve never really heard of a negative experience.
“We haven’t really counted the number of people who’ve come back, but we’re planting seeds. Sometimes, we find a person hasn’t been able to come to church because their mom has been sick, so that’s a new person for us to pray for. We’re seeing issues in people’s lives, and this is a way for the parish to really connect with them.”
Around 20 to 30 people meet at either Holy Family or St. Augustine every third Saturday of the month, spending an hour out and about, visiting lapsed parishioners.
George Moomaw and Mary Iwanicki visited a man who lived north of Interstate 69 who was listed as a Holy Family parishioner.
After getting the out of the car, the two knocked on his door. They were invited in and stayed in the home for 10 minutes.
“He was a very nice man, even though we got him out of the shower,” Iwanicki said. “He registered back when his kids were in confirmation, and he needed a parish. He liked Holy Family because of its music program. Now he has a kid in Arizona receiving treatment for muscular dystrophy. He asked for our prayers, but he’s now a parishioner at Sacred Heart in Yale.”
George and Mary recorded his information and his situation anyway, promising to pray for his son, Alex, 23, who is currently with his mother, undergoing treatment.
“This whole concept is about reacquainting people with Jesus,” Moomaw said. “We’re here to plant a seed, water the seed and maybe we’ll see a harvest.”
After making house stops, the visitors return to the parish, allowing them to share their stories and receive a final blessing for the day.
“There have been several people who’ve come back; there are others who say they will come back,” Fr. Horn said. “There were a couple hundred on our list; (after that) we’ll start working on evangelization straight up — people hearing about Jesus from a Catholic perspective, but that’s a year down the line.
“People are looking for something out there. And sometimes, all you need is to open the door. So that’s what we’re doing.”