Picture the scene: Skaters clad in helmets and pads, racing down a winding ice hill at speeds up to 40 mph, while tens of thousands of cheering spectators line the course with the Cathedral of St. Paul serving as a picturesque backdrop.
“Ice cross downhill” is one of the newest extreme sports gaining popularity around the world, and it’s coming to downtown St. Paul next month as part of the Red Bull Crashed Ice World Championship competition.
Fun and exciting to watch?
An opportunity to practice the “new evangelization” that Pope Benedict XVI says is so urgently needed in today’s world?
Maybe — at least in one small way that shouldn’t be overlooked.
A survey a few years ago found that the percentage of Americans who professed no religion nearly doubled between 1990 and 2008 – jumping from 8.2 percent of the population to 15 percent. Some researchers estimate that “former Catholics” make up roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population.
These people — which include older teens and young adults — simply don’t see the relevance of religion for their day-to-day lives. Raised in an American culture that preaches materialism, moral relativism and pleasure above nearly all else, they often have a false perception of religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, as being too stodgy, too judgmental, too scandal-ridden and not at all fun.
They likely wouldn’t accept an invitation to attend a class about the catechism or hear a talk by a prominent Catholic speaker. But they might be enticed to attend an event like Crashed Ice — and here there is an opportunity to extend a further invitation.
The Cathedral of St. Paul isn’t a sponsor of the competition, but it’s allowing race organizers to use some of its property in the interest of being a good neighbor. The event also presents an opportunity to ratchet up hospitality efforts for any of the thousands of spectators who might want a closer look at this magnificent church that frames the race’s backdrop.
You might call it a “soft-sell” approach to evangelization, but it can be an effective way to make a connection with people who rarely, if ever, set foot inside a church door.
It’s not that much different than the community spirit and good image that’s cultivated by parish festivals, church-sponsored art exhibitions and concerts, and lavish feast day celebrations — like the Dec. 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which, at many parishes, in addition to prayer, features festive songs, mariachi bands, dancers and delicious food.
These are places where churches could extend a further invitation to new faces in the crowd — perhaps to attend parish faith-sharing groups, book or movie discussion clubs, or question-and-answer sessions that help explain what Catholicism really means and that invite participants to enter more deeply into the faith and learn the beauty of what the church teaches.
All of these efforts can help dispel false notions that the church has nothing relevant to offer for living a fuller, better life and they would go a long way toward clearing up misperceptions of the church as stodgy and not at all fun.
Catholics like to have a good time and share the joy with others. Here’s how veteran Catholic reporter John Allen described it in a recent interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
“I don’t think the Catholic Church gets enough credit for being … a lot of fun. There’s great warmth and laughter in most Catholic circles, a rich intellectual tradition, a vast body of lore, an incredible range of characters, a deep desire to do good, an abiding faith against all odds, an ability to go anywhere and feel instantly at home, and even a deep love of good food, good drink and good company. All that is part of the tapestry of Catholic life, but it rarely sees the light of day in commentary and reporting that focuses exclusively on crisis, scandal, and heartache.”
We need to invite more people — including fallen-away Catholics and inactive Catholics as well as teens and young adults absent from our churches — to experience the beauty and joy at the heart of our faith life. We need to show how our churches and other Catholic groups continue to enrich the local community. And, we need — when they are ready — to teach them again about the value in living a Catholic Christian life.
Those goals require creating more opportunities for evangelization and outreach as well as taking advantage of more unique opportunities — like Crashed Ice — that occasionally come racing into our neighborhoods.
This editorial appeared in the Dec. 8 edition of the Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It was written by editor Joe Towalski.