A few days ago, Archbishop Vigneron of Detroit released a document that he hopes will form the vision for his archdiocese for, in his words, hundreds of years to come. You should go read it: unleashthegospel.org.
Even while attempting to restrain my hyperbole, I can't help but say that, his document is, in a word, genius. To have this kind of vision coming from the very top of a large archdiocese will, if implemented correctly, almost certainly create a culture of vibrant, evangelization-focused Catholicism in southeast Michigan. However, it's even greater potency, potentially, comes in the example it can provide for dioceses around the country. It can only be hoped that Unleash the Gospel will inspire many more bishops to present their flock with a similar clear-sighted vision for making disciples.
The only way I felt that I could express my elation with the release of this strategic plan was in the form of a list-blog. Here are 7 reasons that Unleash the Gospel left me giddy.
1) The language is so normal.
It is not uncommon to find a lot of "insider" language in church documents of any kind, because, frankly, most of them are written for insiders. This document is accessible enough (while remaining profound) to be read by and inspiring to normal "in-the-pew" Catholics and high-level Church officials alike.
2) It was preceded by intercessory prayer and encounters with Jesus.
The Archbishop's letter is not the first thing that he has done to renew his flock. Two years ago, they had an entire year of praying for a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the diocese. Last year, they sent around to all of the parishes a team that presented a night of preaching with praise and worship and Eucharistic adoration to help facilitate encounters with Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. The way was prepared for this kind of sweeping initiative through prayer and fasting.
3) The mission could not be more clear.
"This means that the Archdiocese, following the call of Pope Francis, is resolved to undergo a “missionary conversion,” a change in our culture, such that every person at every level of the Church, through personal encounter with Jesus Christ, embraces his or her identity as a son or daughter of God and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is formed and sent forth as a joyful missionary disciple." - Archbishop Vigneron, Unleash the Gospel, page 3.
Doesn't get any better than that.
4) It provides specific, challenging, and achievable action items.
This document was prepared "in committee." The Archbishop had not only his own internal teams of organizers, but there were listening sessions done with 11,000 members of the archdiocese. Often, when documents are prepared in committee, a tendency can be to file down any "edges." The language becomes so general and bland so that it can be unthreatening enough to make it through the committee.
This document is the exact opposite. There is an entire section on action steps and they are just, simply put, on point. A few highlights:
1) Marriage preparation as a "second Catechumenate"
2) Family discipleship groups gathering in people's homes
3) Focusing all parish events (even social ones) as an opportunity for encounter with Jesus
1) Recommitment to personal prayer as the highest priority for parish leadership and parishioners
2) "Generous availability" of the Sacrament of Reconciliation
3) "Shallow entry points" for people who are seeking Jesus
4) Transformational Sunday experience (Hymns, Hospitality, Homily)
When I read these (and all of the other great ones I didn't list here), I seriously said to myself, "This bishop just gets it." These are so spot on.
5) It has specific timelines.
Only the bishop has the authority to tell his parishes that such-and-such strategic goal has to be implanted by a certain date. This document is filled with explicit dates for parishes to be aiming to have finished implementing a particular element of the evangelization strategy...and almost all of them come in the next few years. Luckily, the archbishop also outlines all of the ways that his Central Services will be supporting these efforts. The message remains clear, though, we need to change and we need to change quickly.
6) It neither fears "best practices" nor leans on them too heavily.
There is a temptation in certain books or articles I have read on parish renewal to rely too heavily on tactics lifted from the business world as the main source of our hope. The Church is not a merely human organization; if renewal happens in our parishes, it will not be as a result of us applying our natural wisdom alone. A powerful movement of the Holy Spirit is necessary for us to form disciples. A revolution of holiness will precede a revolution of parish life.
That having been said, Archbishop Vigneron does not throw out the baby with the bath water. He recognizes that organizational health and a certain level of excellence and professionalism is crucial for parishes to be effective at their mission to form disciples. Anyone who has worked at a parish for more than two months can tell you that we would be a lot better at our mission if we were a bit more professional and organized.
7) It just is.
My whole experience of reading this document was just watching my jaw drop closer and closer to the floor. What is perfect about this document? Just everything. From the opening three chapters laying out the background and theological vision, to the entire section on person-to-person discipleship, to multiple chapters focusing on the role of the Holy Spirit, to the attainable and specific goals for each parish and family, this document is just exactly right. Why is it perfect? Because it just is. I'll leave you with this quote because I just can't get over it.