By Dana Hess
The Sioux Falls diocese is in the midst of discerning how evangelization fits into the bishop’s vision for missionary discipleship. Catholics in parishes across the diocese have had a firsthand look at the methods for spreading God’s word.
Those Catholics learned about those methods through interacting with National Evangelization Teams Ministries (NET). Based in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, NET has been holding retreats in the Sioux Falls diocese since its inception in 1981. However, this trip to South Dakota was unique.
According to Tessa Bernousek, a NET missionary from Holdredge, Nebraska, mission trips typically take two forms: a team roams from state to state offering school retreats and parish retreats, or a team settles at a church for a year, ministering to that parish. Bishop DeGrood had a different vision for NET’s mission in our diocese.
“This is the first time in NET history that this type of team has been done, where we stay in a particular diocese,” says Tessa. “We just stay in the Diocese of Sioux Falls and just kind of do what the diocese asks of us, attend workshops, hold our own retreats and modify our retreats to fit whatever the parish is in need of at a particular time.”
The main stops for the NET team were Dell Rapids, Mitchell and Ipswich with shorter stays around Elk Point and in Sisseton. There were eight people on the NET team assigned to the diocese from last September through May. The four men and four women on the team ranged in age from 18 to 28. By their estimate, during their time in eastern South Dakota they interacted with Catholics from 90 parishes.
With a wide range of communities to serve, the NET team’s stay in each community was tailored to the needs of that parish.
“We build a lot of personal relationships at each parish and just kind of graft ourselves to the community as much as possible,” says missionary Eddie Vinciguerra of Goodyear, Arizona. “Just getting to know people and how community life is, how their lives are going, what the community has been experiencing lately.”
A staple of NET team visits is an Encounter event that includes introducing the team, a main talk that has included topics on surrendering to God or how to pray, personal testimony from the missionaries, a drama on the importance of having a personal relationship with God, adoration and praise.
In Mitchell, the six-week NET visit included a game night for junior high students, a youth night for high school students, small group discussions followed by praise and worship music and a college bingo night.
“We have two colleges here in Mitchell so we really have a Catholic community of college-age students that we wanted to engage,” says Courtney Deinert, a director of religious education for Holy Family and Holy Spirit parishes.
One of the most daunting challenges for a hosting parish is feeding eight young people twice a day for six weeks. (That’s 672 meals for those of you keeping score at home.)
“That sign-up sheet filled up right away,” Courtney says. “Just the response there from the parishioners let us know they were very receptive to hosting the team and interacting with them.”
In Mitchell the NET team was active in forming 15 adult groups and six youth groups, many of which watched and discussed “The Search” on formed.org.
“From the small group initiative, we’ve seen it bring former members and new individuals back to Mass,” Courtney says. “We’ve seen it connect women, men and families who are in similar seasons of life. It’s created a curiosity in some of the group members to explore their faith more.”
In Ipswich the NET team got busy with an evening Encounter event and followed it up with retreats, faith sharing groups and small group discussions. According to Father Timothy Smith of Holy Cross Parish, NET Ministries has a long history in Ipswich of conducting daylong or weekend-long retreats with two individuals, one in the 1980s and one in the 1990s, serving as NET missionaries.
“NET Ministries has a longtime history of already coming to the parish and the community,” Father Smith says. “This is just the fruit of over 40 years of relationship with their organization.”
According to Father Smith, the enduring grace left behind by the NET team was their ability to impress people as witnesses for Christ. To explain it, he turns to Pope St. Paul VI: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
“It’s really true in that it applies to the NET missionaries,” Father Smith says. “The young people, they are a living witness to the faith and young people in the world today. Even non-practicing Catholics or someone who’s not religious, they can be changed by having this encounter with young people that love the faith.”
At a time in our society when so many people can be at odds, Father Smith says the NET missionaries are a reminder of the good that comes from loving God. While they all come from different places, “the one thing they have in common is human respect, love of God, love of neighbor and just being good witnesses. More than anything, people can be moved by that witness.”
In Mitchell, the NET team has prompted continued religious study. After the first NET-inspired small groups finished their studies, they turned to a book endorsed by Bishop DeGrood: “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission.”
“We had over 350 books picked up by parishioners just to study it,” Courtney says. “So that’s how we’re seeing the graces continue through our parish even now that the NET team is gone.”
Serving for weeks at a time in a parish has led to some memorable experiences for the missionaries as well.
“One time we got to do a first confession retreat for second graders which was really unique because usually NET focuses on middle and high school kids,” says missionary Robbie Voorheis of Leesburg, Virginia. “We got to kind of tone things down for the second graders and really concentrate on the sacrament of reconciliation, just in a way that would be approachable to them.”
The team’s call to minister to all ages was a blessing for Tessa. “Six-year-olds, 60-year-olds, they all get something from the events that we do. I love that aspect of ministry, getting the whole range instead of just one age group.”
Like the Ipswich recruits from decades ago, this NET team encountered young people with questions about the missionary lifestyle. Robbie says one student was a senior in high school trying to figure out her future in college when she was moved in prayer to consider becoming a missionary.
“She asked a bunch of questions about discerning a missionary year, the experience of it, what was challenging, what was good,” Robbie says. “It’s youth who are already disciples who have their interest piqued.”
A theme throughout the NET team’s visits was Bishop DeGrood’s diocesan vision for Lifelong Catholic Missionary Discipleship Through God’s Love. The visit helped illuminate the diocesan vision according to Courtney in Mitchell.
“I think at first it just helps unpack and elaborate what his vision means and how to bring it to life for the parishioners,” Courtney says. “That’s the first step in helping fulfill his vision. It’s really illustrating to everyone what this means and what it looks like in our parish.”
Coming from a farming community, Father Smith likens the NET team’s response to the diocesan vision in terms of spring planting.
“I think the first thing we need to do is we need to tend the ground,” says Father Smith, explaining that as a boy on the farm one of his spring chores was picking rocks in the field to get it ready for planting. “I believe these missionaries, in terms of the bishop, are like those young people that are hired every spring to go out and pick stones out of the fields, to try to cultivate the soil.”
For their part, the NET missionaries have focused on the diocesan vision throughout their visit, inviting people across the diocese to encounter God’s love.
“The understanding that God loves you, wants a personal relationship with you, has been our motto,” Eddie says. “I feel we’ve definitely been pushing people towards the bishop’s vision for the diocese.”
The impact of the NET missionaries was felt across the diocese. In Ipswich, Father Smith says they have just the right qualities for the job. “It’s their willingness, their openness, saying yes to God is what makes things have that positive impact. All God needs is a good will and an open heart. Thanks be to God, he gave us the missionaries.”
In Mitchell, the NET team is gone, but the changes in the parishes are only beginning. “Things are changing and the Holy Spirit is at work,” says Courtney. “We’re excited to see how it plays out. The NET team’s presence was just the beginning.”