Parish Evangelization

It is common to hear or read references to the New Evangelization based on the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of St. John Paul II, Christifidelis Laici (On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World) 30 December 1988. That beautiful document covers the whole world of evangelization — the family, neighbors, and every sort of professional and working association. This article is about the effort to evangelize the geographic parish.

In the pre-Vatican II year of 1959, Father Eugene Zimmers, SJ started the Institute of Lay Theology (ILT) to prepare laymen for full-time parish evangelization. What made his vision almost revolutionary was that these lay evangelists would be employed by parishes. Yes, the parish would actually pay a living wage for someone to work full-time as a parish lay evangelist. Parishes were long accustomed to pay for janitors, secretaries and teachers, but I think it was unheard of at that time to employ a salaried lay evangelist.

Fr. Zimmers was supported wonderfully by his fellow Jesuits. The University of San Francisco gave him a classroom and office space. The Jesuit theologates lent him faculty. This was made possible because Fr. Zimmers developed a unique academic schedule. A teacher did not come for a typical semester of one-hour classes on two or three days a week. Instead, he might teach for four weeks, three hours a day, five days a week. The instructors loved teaching at the ILT because they were able to focus on the substance of the course and did not have to teach the normal academic baggage of who said what over the years.

The graduation of the first class in 1960 was written up in Time magazine, where I read about it. I was privileged to graduate with the class of 1963 and then to work at a Jesuit parish, Saint Clare’s parish in Santa Clara. Our mission was to teach the Inquiry Forum to lead inquirers into full communion with the Church. To find those inquirers, we were trained to do door-to-door evangelization as well as to publicize our Inquiry Forums not only in parish bulletins but also in local store fronts. I can still remember a few of the at-the-door conversations. As I reflect on that experience, I think that our efforts would have been helped by having some materials to leave with those who would open the door to talk with us.

Overall, the experience was very good. The number of adult baptisms increased remarkably, at least for a few years. The reception of adults into the Church at the Easter vigil was impressive.

But there were problems as well. We were called “lay theologians,” and it seems that some of us took that label to mean we could engage in speculative theology. Conditions in the Church had also changed since the first class started in 1959. A major event, the approval of oral contraceptives, occurred before or soon after that class graduated in 1960. The rebellion against Humanae Vitae in 1968 raised further difficulties. Father Gerald Kelly, SJ, a recognized moral theologian, had taught us well about the moral certainty of Casti Connubii and the Tradition, but at least one of us and possibly more became confused. More theological support from the ILT at that time might have been helpful.

At any rate, within a few years the experiment had fallen on hard ground. The ILT was renamed the School of Applied Theology, was relocated to Berkeley as part of a theological consortium, and changed its focus.

I think that door-to-door evangelization has a place in the evangelization of parishes. Many parishes have experienced a significant reduction in Mass attendance for a combination of reasons, and announcements in parish bulletins are not going to reach those former attendees. I have developed four brochures that some pastors and parishioners might find helpful.

Why Believe? addresses the most basic question of all — why should you or I believe in God? I recognize the value of the arguments for the existence of God, and I have included some of that. But I prefer examples. Alleged conflict about faith and science? Most of us are indebted to the Catholic Louis Pasteur for our pasteurized milk. Anthony Flew offers a different kind of example. He was an academic who spent his career teaching atheism but then rejected it for two scientific reasons dealing with the complexity of DNA and unbridgeable gaps in an atheistic theory of evolution.

Why Jesus? shows why Christians believe in Jesus. Emphasis is placed on the resurrection and on the importance of truth in the writings of the New Testament.

Why Catholic? explains the credibility of the Catholic Church. This includes the Last Supper promises of Jesus about the guidance of the Holy Spirit and his prayer for unity.

Why Sex? looks at the sexual landscape. It references a sexual revisionist female who in 1962 told women that they should want to be considered as sex objects. The brochure concludes that God intends that each and every marriage act should be a renewal of the marriage covenant.

These four brochures are available for free. Anyone in the English-reading world with access to the internet can download and print these brochures. The only cost is your own paper and ink. For printing, simply go to this section of the website of NFP International: The links for the four brochures are found under “Other Brochures.” The print, including the URL, uses only black ink to save on printing costs.

An easy way to get these into the hands of current parishioners is to include an unfolded copy in the parish bulletin. You can explain from the pulpit how to fold it and how parishioners can make more copies by using the URL at the conclusion of the document. Parishioners can print and distribute copies to relatives, friends, neighbors and to the people who come to service their heating and cooling and plumbing, etc.

I think that many parishes would benefit from a cadre of volunteers who do door-to-door evangelization and leave one or more of these brochures with people who are kind enough to open their doors and listen. I realize that many people today are fearful and will not open a door to strangers. Thus, in some locations that have foot traffic, it might be helpful for a priest, deacon, or parishioner to staff a table near the sidewalk in front of the church. In other areas, however, door-to-door evangelization may be feasible. In the Catholic Church we possess the fullness of the truth, and we should be happy to try to share it.

John F. Kippley About John F. Kippley

John F. Kippley is Co-founder and president of Natural Family Planning International. He was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He married Sheila (Matgen) Kippley, and they have five children and ten grandchildren. He earned a B.A. in philosophy at St. Paul Seminary; an M.A. in industrial relations from University of Minnesota; an M.A. in theology from the University of San Francisco; an M.A.T. in applied theology from the School of Applied Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California; and an Honorary Doctor of Ethics from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has authored several books, including: Battle-Scarred: Justice Can Be Elusive; Birth Control and Christian Discipleship; Marriage Is for Keeps; Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality; and multiple articles and brochures dealing with Catholic sexual morality, natural family planning, and related issues. All the books and many of the articles are currently available at, the website of NFP International.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    I began reading your article thinking it would explore parish evangelization. The three questions: Why believe? Why Jesus? Why Catholic? made some sense, but Why sex?
    The last question made me wonder, Is the goal evangelization? I would not consider sex on an equal footing with Belief, Jesus, Catholic.

    I have been intrigued with the perspective Mike Aquilina in his book Friendship and the Fathers.
    “…The common narrative [first three centuries of Church],…is a story of friendship. There was, as far as we know, no talk of evangelistic methods or institutional programs in the underground Church.” p12

    “….it seems that Christians converted the world simply by befriending their next-door neighbors and persevering in friendship…”.p12

    Friendship as understood in John 15:15 flows from the mystery of Incarnation. Would this be more on equal footing with Belief, Jesus, Catholic than sex?

    • Tom,
      Thanks for your question. I certainly agree with the importance of friendship as an important element in evangelization. The brochure “Why Sex” stems from my door-to-door experience. I would meet people who would identify themselves as Catholic but quickly adding that they did not agree with everything the Catholic Church teaches. They weren’t talking about articles in the Nicene Creed. That was simply code wording for not accepting Catholic teaching on birth control. Given the current confusion on sexuality, it is all the more important to point out that God has made it clear that there is a God-given built-in meaning to sexuality. Catholic teaching is not just NO-NO. It gives a positive meaning to sexual behavior that I have summed up as a renewal of the marriage covenant.


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