Changing the Face of Your Parish

Interview With Leader of Evangelization Cells by Isabelle Cousturie

Every baptized person has a mandate from Jesus to proclaim the love of God, but this requires prayer and friendship with the Holy Spirit, according to a priest who directs a program for parish evangelization.
Don Pigi Perini, parish priest at St. Eustorgio in Milan, is the president of the international organization dedicated to parish evangelization cells.
This evangelization method is marking its 22nd year and a conference will be held on the system in May.

Father Perini is convinced that “when a priest really mobilizes himself, the faithful gladly follow him.”

ZENIT spoke with Father Perini about the upcoming seminar and how this evangelization method works. Here are excerpts from the interview.

ZENIT: What is the upcoming seminar about?

Father Perini: […] We present the oikos method of evangelization, which is the distinctive seal of our proposal in the matter of evangelization.

Oikos evangelization consists in evangelizing those whom a person usually meets in his daily life: relatives, friends, coworkers, leisure colleagues, neighbors: They are the recipients of the proclamation of the love of God.

This is why we can say that all are called to proclaim Jesus, not only consecrated, priests or missionaries, but all, animated by the strength of their baptism, they have received the great mandate of Jesus, to proclaim the love of God.

However, oikos evangelization is never possible because evangelization passes through the action of the Holy Spirit. We are no more than simple and poor instruments in his hands.

Evangelization is first of all a commitment to prayer: that is why, in our community of St. Eustorgio, and I would say in almost all the communities in which the cells are present, there is Eucharistic adoration.

During this seminar, we will speak of the function of the Holy Spirit because, as Pope Paul VI wrote in No. 75 of his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Nuntiandi”: “It must be said that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization: it is he who impels each individual to proclaim the Gospel, and it is he who in the depths of consciences causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood.”

The lay faithful must be educated, and perhaps also priests, to have close ties with the Holy Spirit, opening themselves to his action, at once discreet and powerful.

The cells of evangelization are geared to revitalizing the parish, which will then discover its true identity and foster the missionary vocation in all believers as Paul VI suggests in No. 14 of “Evangelii Nuntiandi”: “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize.”

And John Paul II in No. 33 of “Christifideles Laici”: “The lay faithful, precisely because they are members of the Church, have the vocation and mission of proclaiming the Gospel: they are prepared for this work by the sacraments of Christian initiation and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

Acknowledging this charge, the laity will be the ferment that will transform the face of the parish.

But all this will not be possible if the priest, in turn, does not open himself definitively and firmly to what gives singularity to his priestly service, to what gives profound unity to the thousands of occupations to which he is called in the course of his life: to proclaim the Gospel of God and to form lay evangelizers.

It is by being transformed into a living and evangelizing parish, that the parish’s face will change.

ZENIT: To whom is this seminar directed and what is the main theme in relation to last year’s?

Father Perini: The seminar is directed to all priests who wish to transform their parish and also to discover new ways of evangelization in order to do so, following the teachings of the Pope.

These priests will support several laypersons of their community so that this small group that has been formed can represent a moving force within the parish itself.

This year, we will address more specifically the formation of those who are called to be the “leaders” of these small groups which are the cells.

ZENIT: The method of the evangelization cells was recognized officially by the Holy See a year ago this May. Has this recognition had an impact on its growth this year and on the perception that some might have had of this method of evangelization?

Father Perini: Indeed, many prejudices have disappeared, because this official recognition, which we had not requested but was given to us by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, qualifies us in the plan of the activities of the universal Church as such, guaranteeing the orthodoxy of the method on the very basis of the spiritual results and diffusion obtained up to now.

This recognition, which expresses the will of the Church that this method continue, confirms the catholicity and pastoral validity of a proposal capable of renewing parish communities in depth and from a missionary perspective.

ZENIT: Are there new parishes that have decided, since then, to take recourse to this method?

Father Perini: Yes, and from seeing, in fact, that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of parishes in the world have successfully adopted this method of evangelization through cells.

Written in the Decree of Recognition, is: “This because the parish community is the ecclesial fabric in which is integrated the whole of the system of cells. Its development in numerous countries throughout the world demonstrates the validity of this method, which contributes to respond to the call of Pope John Paul II to a ’new evangelization, new in its ardor, its methods and its expressions’ (Address to the Assembly of CELAM, March 9, 1983).”

ZENIT: This year has been marked by some significant moments. Would you like to say something about the cells and their evolution in the world?

Father Perini: Since the presentation of the Decree of Recognition, given on May 29, 2009, new initiatives have arisen in numerous countries.

Many communities have called us to go and present this method and many priests and laypeople have come to get to know our reality.

We have lived an important and significant experience with the Chinese communities that, after having heard talk of this method of evangelization in the parish realm, came to take part in last year’s international seminar.

We have also visited the parish communities of Brazil and Venezuela, where the experience of parish cells has produced hundreds of other cells.

Another significant moment took place in Ireland, during a seminar in which I myself participated, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the presence of the cells.

Last January, the promoters of the area, as those are called who take care of the cells present in different geographic and linguistic regions of the world, met in St. Eustorgio.

This meeting was the occasion to put on line the cells’ international Web site, which represents a good tool of evangelization.

The meeting also made room for the formation of the international team in charge of the formation of leaders and co-leaders.

Moreover, it enabled us to know how and with what amplitude the cells are spread worldwide.

This very day I have learned of the birth of 17 cells in a parish of Latvia and I learned that 30 people from this parish will take part in the next seminar from May 26-30.

ZENIT: In which countries do you find most followers of this different way of living parish life?

Father Perini: In France, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Brazil, Venezuela, in the countries of Eastern Europe, etc.

In a word, wherever the parish tends to fall asleep, the cells can represent an occasion to renew the priests and the lay faithful.

Through perpetual adoration, the motivation of the pastor and this effort of evangelization, the exercise of evangelization by the members of the cell and the leader, the cells can produce this desired awakening that leads the parish to stop recognizing itself in the sleeping giant of which Cardinal Hume speaks.

[…]

ZENIT: In this seminar, will there be a day dedicated to the "priest of the new evangelization, I imagine in relation with the Year for Priests proclaimed by Benedict XVI. Please explain the importance of this day.

Father Perini: Indeed, during this 21st seminar, which will take place from May 26-30, the 27th will be dedicated to priests.

This day owes its importance to the fact that the new evangelization will only be attained if, sustained by the Holy Spirit, it sees pastors commit themselves in the front line. It is a need that affects the whole world.

[…] We will offer the possibility to explore a method that, as stated in the Decree of Recognition of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, can “offer, with the help of divine grace, opportunities of personal and community conversion, knowing that to evangelize is the very vocation of the Church; an awareness to transmit to the lay faithful who, because of their membership in the Church, rooted in the sacrament of baptism, have by vocation the mission to proclaim the Gospel, and are then called to renew their adherence to the parish so that it will become a community of ardent faith directed to the evangelization of the most estranged.”

ZENIT: It is a year since the pontifical council asked you to ensure the continuity of this method of evangelization. What do you feel today in face of this great mission in a world such as the present one?

Father Perini: I am terrified, because I am entrusted with a mission that is truly beyond my capacities.

But I trust completely in the Holy Spirit who, since the beginning of my presence in St. Eustorgio, through Proverbs 16:3, suggested to me: “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.”

This is not about a project for me, but a responsibility to assume, with the help of divine grace, the same task that each baptized person must assume as his own and that Jesus, on preparing to leave the world, entrusted to the Church.

This discovery changed my life radically. I left many activities and hobbies that, beyond their unquestionable legitimacy, could be an obstacle for my commitment as a priest and evangelizer.

When, in 1986, I discovered in America, in the parish of St. Boniface in Penbroke Pines, led by Father Michael Eivers, a new parish, ardent with love of Jesus and capable of an evangelization corresponding to its very nature […] I experienced in myself an initial conversion that, little by little, has become a catalyst, the very reason of my priesthood, to the point of thinking of all the activity of the parish in terms of evangelization.

But the more I thought of the possibility of a papal recognition of this reality, the more anxious I felt to struggle and dedicate my energy to the advantage of this new evangelization, despite the numerous difficulties.

The situation I was experiencing, sustained by the strength of the Holy Spirit and by perpetual Eucharistic adoration, infected the laity of my community, before whom new horizons opened of commitment to the promotion of the Kingdom of Christ among the persons of their own surroundings.

At present, this commitment that the Church has entrusted to me, I entrust in turn and with great conviction to the discreet action of the Holy Spirit, who, really, will be able to lead this experience to the result of a new evangelization.

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