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The greatest engine for good

This is one of those times of year where people who don’t usually attend church may find themselves attending services. Maybe it’s part of a family visit. Maybe it’s tradition. Maybe it’s an itch in need of scratching. Or maybe it’s a desire. Whatever the cause, it could be fuel for civic renewal.

While the country seems obsessed with what’s happening in Washington, D.C. — with emotions and reactions ranging from encouragement, concern, dread, outrage and just about every other feeling in between — we’re missing something that should be more fundamental to the everyday life of our country.

California businessman William E. Simon Jr. aims to remedy that with a group he’s founded, Parish Catalyst, and a book he’s written, “Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive.” Having surveyed 244 parishes, he’s in the business now of sharing what works.

This was one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” Simon tells me. “It was (megachurch pastor) Rick Warren who pointed this out to me, and he’s right: The local church is the greatest engine for good in history. It’s got the biggest distribution system. It’s got the longest track record. It’s got the most committed people. It’s better than any government and bureaucracy, any agency. And it’s been around for 2,000 years, and there’s no sign that it’s not going to be around for another 2,000 years. You can’t say that about any other entity.”

Focusing on the Catholic piece of the engine, Simon points out that there are roughly 80 million Catholics in the United States, about 80 percent of them affiliated with a parish. “About 64 million Catholics are affiliated somehow or another with a parish. So, if only 10 percent of them are paying attention, that’s 6.4 million. If you could double that number, that’d be another 6.4 million. That’s a hell of an opportunity.”

So how to renew and expand the reach of the religious citizen? Instead of just dropping by for an hour or so on Good Friday or Easter, you inquire about making religion more a part of your life. “Take small steps. Don’t be overwhelmed. Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Simon says. For people already in a local church, he suggests looking at the needs of the community around it, and at the existing groups serving those needs. A soup kitchen? A shelter for the homeless? A hospital? There are opportunities for action and service everywhere. Or you could start a small group discussion on prayer or the Bible during the week.

Simon suggests heeding the words of Pope Francis: “We need to remember that churches are field hospitals. And when the wounded come in, your first question is: ‘Welcome. How can I help?'”

On a recent weekday afternoon, I stopped by St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and watched the hundreds of people streaming through every minute. Some would join a Confession line, others would join the Mass in progress, others would pray. (There were selfies and map-checking, too.) And there were candles being lit. At another, more remote New York church, days before, I found a “resist” business-card size note someone had left in the hymnal, drawing attention to the current political situation. I wondered if the card-leaver realized that instead of cursing darkness, real and perceived, exaggerated or underplayed, there’s a real opportunity to be a light. People frequently go to church and light a candle. By staying awhile and becoming part of a community of prayer and service, reinvigorating it by your presence and participation, you are a light, rooted in one much greater.

“Be active,” Simon says. “Be involved with the greatest engine for good in history.” And, he emphasizes, “God’s there, God’s love is there. Why wouldn’t you want to be involved in that?”

It’s a good question, and one that the entire country should be asking.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at

Kathryn Lopez

Kathryn Lopez

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