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Evangelization at the core of bishop's ministry
Monday, August 06, 2012 by MARK CIEMCIOCH

Bishop Richard J. Malone speaks at a Chrism Mass in the Diocese of Portland, Maine.

PORTLAND, MAINE – Every bishop has a special ministry on which he focuses. For Bishop Richard J. Malone, you don’t have to talk to many people to find out what it is.

“If you haven’t heard the word evangelization from him, you will – every day,” said Msgr. Michael Henchal, vicar general for the Portland Diocese. “It is the theme closest to his own heart. We need to be bringing the Gospel anew to this generation, and we find creative and wise ways to do that. Even when we reorganized the parishes, the theme was always evangelization: what do we need to do to make this church in this part of the state more effective?”

Evangelization was not only a priority for Bishop Malone in Portland, but on a national stage as well. He has served on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops committees on Evangelization and Catechesis for the past decade, including a three-year term as chairman from 2008 to 2011. He also holds a doctorate in Theology from Boston University.

But when it comes to Portland, Bishop Malone reconfigured his chancery offices to give Evangelization and Catechesis a clearer focus. The Diocese of Portland formed the Office of Lifelong Faith Formation in July 2009 by combining Catechesis and Youth Ministry. Michael Lavigne, who previously served as the director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, was named to head Lifelong Faith Formation.

“As Bishop Malone himself likes to remind us, it’s leading the efforts of catechesis and evangelization from womb to tomb,” Lavigne said of his role. 

The office combines the ministries of youth, young adult, evangelization, RCIA, adult faith formation, marriage preparation, scouting and even special religious education.

“Basically anything tied to evangelization and catechesis fell into this office,” Lavigne said. 

The office came about when the diocese had difficulty finding a new director of catechesis for over a year. At that point, Bishop Malone advocated restructuring the offices. Lavigne, who previously worked as a theology teacher in Rhode Island and came to Portland in 2008, met and respected Bishop Malone for his work in evangelization.

“My first impression (of Bishop Malone) was of an enthusiastic teacher; a gifted teacher who loved the Catholic faith, but also had a real pastoral way to teach it,” Lavigne said. “That’s one of his greatest gifts. When he speaks, people want to listen to him. When he’s given the chance, (people) come away with some movement toward that truth.”

Restructuring the office was not easy, however. Several employees were laid off, but were given special consideration for new positions. The diocese also offered support for former employees looking for work. While Lavigne felt some pressure establishing the office, he felt good having Bishop Malone’s support.

“Just the reality that he would entrust this position to me spoke volumes to me of the support I knew I was going to get from him to do this work,” Lavigne said. “It wasn’t just like we were sent out there by ourselves. We had a bishop that was talking the talk and walking the walk, especially in a diocese like Maine where you have so many geographic considerations. It’s not easy work to do this, especially with such a small staff, parishes all over the place and not enough priests. You need the support of your bishop and his modeling of this to go out and help parishes to do this.”

The Office of Lifelong Faith Formation works to serve parishes and offer training sessions for Catholics, especially laity. The office sponsors a “New Evangelization Week,” which Bishop Malone likens to a Catholic boot camp to train youth leadership. Lessons include theology, Christian living, Catholic prayer styles and knowledge to evangelize the world and defend the faith. There is also a weekend version for adults.

“The goal is to send them back to the parishes not to be on the leadership team of the youth group. That’s all good, but we want to prepare them to be ready to answer God’s call to them in their lives, whatever vocation they are going to have,” Lavigne said. “If they’re called to be husbands and wives, they have a good foundation of knowledge of what it means to do that as Catholic people. If they’re called to be a priest, they have a good starting point to hear that call but to also live it.”

The office is also in a partnership with the Theological Institute for the New Evangelization out of St. John Seminary in Brighton, Mass., that offers a catechetical training program.

“It’s part of that whole evangelization theme in a sense of, how do we communicate this faith to a younger generation,” Msgr. Henchal said. “We wanted to have good youth ministry programs. We wanted to have catechetical programs for children that were not just arts and crafts, but had serious substance to them for transmitting the faith.”

Teaching the New Evangelization and catechesis is not without its challenges, according to Lavigne. He sees a society increasingly secular and focused on individuality, as evidenced by people relying on smartphones and social media rather than an in-person parish event.

“With all these tools, we have become less tied together, and so evangelization is really about bringing people together and having a relationship with Christ,” he said. “When you’re facing a society that’s a little more hostile to religion and people are more spread apart, how do you bring them together?”

Even though Bishop Malone leaves Portland as an advocate of evangelization, some administrators admit there’s still work to be done on that front.

“We’ve succeeded in reorganizing administratively our parish structure, but now we need to really focus on the work of evangelization,” said Sister Rita-Mae Bissonnette, RSR, chancellor of the diocese. “Our clergy are aging and they’re not being replaced as quickly, so we’re working on motivating men to join the priesthood. (We want to) motivate Catholics to recognize that everybody is an evangelizer; it’s not just the role of the priests. It’s also helping the laity see that the priests need to let go and the laity need to take on some of the administrative responsibilities of the parish and let the priests be priests.

“I’m not saying Bishop Malone isn’t, but I think we need a bishop who’s a priest’s priest.”

Lavigne feels Bishop Malone’s creation of the Office of Lifelong Faith Formation will be remembered. Lavigne is going to miss talking with the bishop about evangelization and catechesis.

“It’s one of his legacies, not only for this diocese, but he also set a new standard for how a diocese can look at doing evangelization and catechesis, so hopefully we’ve done him proud,” he said.

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