The Catholic Church has an identity crisis, says Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) co-founder André Regnier, who offers a clear but urgent prescription for recovery in a new book.
"We need to know why and for what purpose we exist as a Church," he writes in the foreword to Catholic Missionary Identity. "We need to see evangelization as not something we do, but fundamentally as who we are.
Regnier co-founded CCO in 1988 with his wife Angèle as an outreach to evangelize Catholic students on the University of Saskatchewan campus. In an interview, he said the core of Catholic identity is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.
That encounter leads to a personal relationship with God the Son that is so life-giving and life-changing that one overflows with the desire to share it, he said.
"Holiness and mission are interdependent: As holiness is necessary to our missionary life, so is missionary life necessary to the pursuit of holiness," he wrote in his book.
"If Catholics are to engage in holy lives, they must engage in the work of evangelization."
The missionary field could be as close as the person sitting next to you in the pew. Regnier said one can never assume even a practising Catholic has a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, never mind formation in the fundamentals of the faith.
"I think the local Church has made a major assumption that those people sitting in our pews actually believe," he said. "I have asked the question to thousands of Catholics, 'Do you believe Jesus is God?' and 80 to 90 per cent don't believe this."
When he explains the Creed, they tell him, "I never had that explained to me," or that it still did not change how they understood God.
"If you don't believe Jesus is God, you might believe the Eucharist is a holy thing, but it doesn't have the potency, it is not the summit of the Church's life; it's something like a good prayer time," he said.
CCO, which now has 70 missionaries on 10 university campuses in Canada, and 4,000 to 5,000 regular supporters, continues to grow as a movement since he and his wife started it 25 years ago.
Other movements are now also engaged in evangelizing Catholics, but Regnier wants to see every parish and every Catholic set a priority for sharing the Gospel out of a radically changed heart and renewed mind.
Instead, many churches focus on a range of programs that Regnier said can "suck the life out" of a parish." The programs in themselves may be great, he said, but often those running baptismal or marriage preparation never see the participants again afterwards. Thus, the programs can become a source of discouragement and bitterness.
If the programs were missionary, calling people to conversion to Jesus Christ, the parish would begin to see the fruits of that evangelism, he said.
"If we want to bring together liberals, conservatives, social justice, pro-life people, people into liturgy, into the Knights of Columbus, all the different ministries of the parish, we have to see the only way to unite is by embracing our missionary identity."
His book begins with his own personal conversion story - a profound spiritual experience that turned his life "right side up." A cradle Catholic who had drifted away from the Church, Regnier decided one day to attend Mass in northern Alberta while away from family and friends.
He does not recall anything particular that was said or unusual that might have triggered an experience that left him with a deep sense of joy, meaning and purpose.
"I knew this was the right place for me," he said in an interview. "I wasn't looking for God, but I realized God was looking for me." He said he can identify with St. Paul's experience of meeting Christ, one so powerful it knocked him off his horse. He felt, too, as if scales had fallen from his eyes or a veil had lifted.
But when he returned to university, he was discouraged to find no Catholics with whom he could share this transformative experience. Instead, he found himself drawn to evangelicals in Campus Crusade for Christ who helped "form his missionary heart."
Regnier also found that many evangelicals had left the Catholic Church and thought they had to do so to find Jesus. This broke his heart, he said, and prompted him to pray for ways to bring the message inside the Catholic Church.
Then he discovered the writings of Blessed John Paul II that confirmed the importance of evangelization. Passages from the late pope's writings in Regnier's book provide proof evangelization is not something only Protestants do.
When young people encounter CCO on campus, they may have little attachment to the Catholic Church, her sacraments or her moral teachings on issues such as the sanctity of life or marriage, Regnier said.
"After an encounter with Jesus, everything changes," he said. "The Church now becomes a source of truth for them and the whole understanding of the meaning, purpose and role of the Church in their lives radically changes."
Regnier said that far too often Catholics push morality as their primary message, "rather than meeting people where they are at and speaking life into that and inviting them into that relationship."
His wife had been a leader with Campus Crusade for Christ and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship before her conversion to the Catholic faith and she used her expertise in crafting materials designed for Catholics. Her personal story is also included in the second edition of the book.