Seek ways to shepherd the periphery in the pew

By AJ Garcia/Office of New Evangelization & Justice

Buzzwords can be hard to keep up with when it comes to church jargon. Some of the recent buzzwords that have become popularized include: new evangelization, discipleship, missionary discipleship, periphery, etc. None of them are bad in of themselves, but when they are liberally applied and stamped on programs and events without their meaning truly being embodied or demonstrated, it can be more negative than fruitful. The words above have come straight from the mouths or pens of our most recent Holy Fathers. Read what Pope Francis says about the peripheries in “The Joy of the Gospel”:

“In our day Jesus’ command to ‘go and make disciples’ echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary ‘going forth.’ Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.”

Generally, peripheries are places on the fringes, whether it is a physical location or an outcast group of people. The peripheries are not held in high regard and are possibly neglected. There is no doubt that these are the places and groups that require (and deserve) our attention, time and resources.

However, I believe there is a periphery right in front of us that we fail to recognize or choose to ignore; a group of people that are in our pews regularly. These are people that attend Mass often, possibly even daily. This periphery likely identifies as Catholic, but may not know Jesus Christ in a personal way. This periphery may further be described as associating with Jesus and the Church on a “fringe” basis, a group that attends Mass and goes through the motions, or maybe they hardly go through the motions and are only physically present. Certainly, attending and being present for Mass is good, but if that’s it, mere physical presence, is that enough? Surely, we hope they would get more out of their Mass experience and truly encounter Jesus Christ in a personal and more meaningful way. There are few situations in life where it is acceptable or where we would encourage one to simply “show up.”

Necessary emphasis should be made for us (those active in the Church) to reach the peripheries such as the poor, sick, and unchurched, but how much more effective and fruitful would our efforts be with those peripheries if we were even better shepherds to the periphery in the pew? In each of our parishes and communities this periphery looks different, but it is there no less. Let’s all improve the way that we engage them and be more willing to go out of our comfort zones and greet that family or individual that we’ve maybe only smiled at or greeted during the sign of peace (you know, because we had to). I’m not encouraging us to neglect any periphery; rather, I offer a challenge to continue seeking ways to improve the care we give those in our midst.

This is my final column for Our Northland Diocese. I am excited to share that I am going to be the new Executive Director for Arise Milwaukee (www.arisemke.org). It is a dynamic and impactful nonprofit lay apostolate whose mission is helping people to encounter and fall in love with Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. I cannot wait to get started! I am very thankful that the Lord led me here and gave me the opportunity to serve you and walk alongside many of you in your pursuit of knowing and growing in relationship with Jesus Christ. Now, it is on to the next chapter of my journey. The Diocese of Crookston will continue to be in my prayers!

I leave you with the words of St. Catherine of Siena: “Be who you were created to be and you will set the world on fire.”