By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published June 5, 2008
The parishioners at St. Philip Benizi Church are trying to discern how to harness the power of their greatest strength and their greatest weakness, which they believe are one and the same.
Cultural diversity continues to grow throughout the Clayton County parish, which is home to 2,100 families, and the community is using the Envision program to address the many facets of this reality, in order to become a more fully evangelizing parish.
Envision is a parish planning process designed by the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association and is meant to engage parishioners in developing and implementing a faith-based plan for their parish. In addition to St. Philip Benizi, St. Pius X Church in Conyers is in the process of using Envision to plan for its future. Several short- and long-term steps are involved, and the entire process, from beginning to end, lasts more than three years.
According to the Paulist association, the goal of Envision is “to help a parish to focus or focus anew its resources and ministries on the evangelizing mission of the Church in a very intentional and public way, in a way that is highly participative and transforming.”
Conventual Franciscan Father Gregory Hartmayer, pastor of St. Philip Benizi, explained the origins from his perspective.
“Knowing that I cannot be pastor here forever, I began to ask God, ‘What do you want me to do for the people of St. Philip Benizi?’” said Father Hartmayer at a step in the process known as Listening Day. “And then, in a variety of ways and through different sources, the word ‘evangelization’ kept appearing and being heard in my life.”
After reading the apostolic exhortation written by Pope Paul VI “On Evangelization in the Modern World,” Father Hartmayer “felt called to devote the next three years to help establish the identity of St. Philip Benizi in becoming an ‘evangelizing parish.’”
The most recent stage of the program came Saturday, May 10, with Discernment Day. The gathering was part of the third phase of the program in which parishioners help set up long- and short-term plans for the parish based on priority areas determined in a previous step of Envision.
More than 125 people arrived early in the morning and gathered in the parish’s social hall to enjoy coffee, juice, fruit and pastries before beginning the full day of discernment.
Following a brief greeting and prayer by Father Hartmayer, parishioner Earl Flock ran the participants through a schedule for the day, which led off with discussion of the results of the second Envision phase.
This previous phase included Listening Day, which determined the current successes and imperfections of the parish, according to the members of St. Philip Benizi. Many parishioners named the diversity of the parish as its greatest strength, while an almost equal amount of parishioners named the diversity as its greatest weakness.
The parish is about 30 percent white/Anglo and about 30 percent Hispanic. African-Americans make up approximately 15 percent of the parish, while Africans follow closely behind at 10 percent. The church also has an Asian presence, which makes up approximately 7 percent of the community. More than 30 countries of origin are represented at St. Philip Benizi.
More than 1,800 parishioners participated in the listening phase, which included a questionnaire that was passed out during parish Masses. The nearly 100-question tool, administered by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Georgetown University research center for the Catholic Church, gathered information on how the community felt about the parish in specific areas such as community, stewardship and education.
St. Philip Benizi began Envision in 2007 on the feast of the Ascension with the first step: the organizing phase. A planning council, comprised of nearly 40 parishioners, was formed to help implement the program designed to address the constant evolution of the parish.
“I think you realize that the community of St. Philip Benizi is not the same community it was 41 years ago,” Father Hartmayer told his parishioners. “It is not the same community it was 20 years ago. It is not the same community it was 10 years ago. It is not the same community it was a year ago. The community of St. Philip Benizi is not the same community it was last Sunday, because when just one new person comes to an evangelizing parish, that parish becomes a new community.”
The goal of Discernment Day was to take the results from Listening Day and begin to form concrete plans on how to improve certain aspects of the parish. From all the events leading up to and including Listening Day, the community focused on six priority areas for discernment, which include community, social justice/outreach, stewardship, education/faith formation, evangelization and spirituality.
“We’re coming to the critical stage where we turn ideas into strategic plans,” said Father Mark-Thomas Booth, a Conventual Franciscan who came to St. Philip Benizi as a parochial vicar in January. He considers the discernment step one of the most important aspects of the Envision process.
A goal was formed for each of these areas, and those present at Discernment Day had the opportunity to express how they feel the parish should reach each of these goals. With eight to 10 parishioners at each of the 12 tables set up, one priority area was given to every two tables, allowing approximately 20 people to work on each goal. Each table was arranged so that people from various cultures, ministries, age groups and races were present to share their ideas.
The groups were given large sheets of paper and asked to write down several concrete ways to address their given priority area. Intense discussion could be heard at many tables as the groups found ways they could help reach out to their neighbors at the parish.
“In order to have a good community, you have to have a good spirit,” said Ruby Silbernagel, a long-time parishioner of St. Philip Benizi. She believes that St. Philip Benizi gives many opportunities for parishioners to grow individually but that is all the more reason to bring the community closer together. She would like to see the members of the parish become more involved with each other.
After all the ideas were gathered, the papers were placed on the wall throughout the parish hall and each parishioner was given a set of stickers to put beside their top 10 plans.
Some suggestions provided by the parishioners included English and Spanish language classes to help bridge the gap between cultures, more Bible study and sacrament classes to help with the spirituality of the parish and activities to bring the community together, such as retreats, potluck dinners and intramural sports.
The favored ideas will be addressed during the fourth phase of the Envision program. This next step, called the planning phase brings together a committee to establish three-year goals for the parish and then prepares a parish plan for implementation. The process is expected to take six to eight weeks, before moving on to the final stage, which will implement the plans suggested by the parishioners.
“As a result of the Envision process, I believe that our parishioners are now taking a more active role in articulating and setting specific goals, which will enhance the spiritual life of our parish over the next three years,” the pastor said.
“The impact on our parish from the Envision process has been a renewed awareness of evangelization as being the primary mission of the church,” he said. “Through the process, our parish has reclaimed the word ‘evangelization.’ Our parishioners now have a clearer understanding that evangelization is a call of all the baptized to know their faith, be enthusiastic about their faith and to invite and welcome inactive Catholics and people from other faith traditions who are interested in knowing more about the Catholic Church.”
Yvonne Mongue, who serves on the planning committee, has been a parishioner since 1983 and feels the Envision program is “Spirit-led.”
“Everyone has been so patient,” she said. “Now we’ll have a plan to move forward.”
The Envision process is far from over at St. Philip Benizi, but the enthusiasm and willingness of the parishioners is helping to move the program along.
“It is exciting because we are doing what the parishioners want,” said Elmer Cortez, chairman of the parish pastoral council.
“Our goal is to become an evangelizing parish,” said Father Hartmayer. “In becoming one, the way that people relate to each other in love and care is paramount. … Without a doubt, authentic community life is our greatest evangelizing tool, since authentic community is one of the hungers of the human heart.”