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The Detroit archdiocese faces significant challenges that are best met with an evangelical spirit that reflects one’s relationship with God to the outside world, Archbishop Allen Vigneron argued in a pastoral letter released Saturday evening.

The 40-page letter, titled “Unleash the Gospel,” comes at a time of re-examination in the local Catholic church. It is the product of years of work and discussion, and was unveiled after the evening Mass at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral on Woodward in Detroit.

The local church faces significant challenges, Vigneron acknowledged. But he argues that opportunities are contained within those challenges.

“For several decades the number of practicing Catholics has been in steady decline,” which has been shown in “painful closing and mergings of parishes and schools,” which has led “more people to drift away in discouragement or frustration.”

And the wider Metro Detroit region has its own issues. “In the last half century our metro area has suffered from urban blight, economic decline, racial tensions, family breakdown, substance abuse, and crime,” Vigneron wrote. And the six-county area the archdiocese covers represents urban, suburban and rural settings, “each with its own unique characteristics and needs.”

Those challenges has “contributed to a widespread pessimism regarding the possibility of authentic renewal.”

Last November, the archdiocese held a three-day Synod, its first since 1969 and only the 11th in the local archdiocese’s history. About 400 local Catholics met to talk about ways the archdiocese could “transform” the church and its parishes. A synod is a religious gathering to discuss ways to follow fundamental religious teaching while also reshaping how parishioners pray, share their faith and address spiritual needs for the future.

“The synod was the ignition spark that is to set the archdiocese ablaze,” Vigneron wrote in his letter. “Its goal was nothing less than a radical overhaul of the church in Detroit, a complete reversal of our focus from an inward, maintenance-focused church, to an outward, mission-focused church.”

Four themes were explored at the Synod: personal life, family life, parish life and central services. Those themes were chosen after some 240 meetings at area parishes when opinions on the future direction of the church were sought out by church leaders.

The synod was called, and the letter was written, to address “unnatural deterioration of the church,” officials said at the time. While the six-county archdiocese — Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Lapeer, Monroe, and St. Clair — covers some 1.3 million Catholics, it is 50 churches and many school buildings smaller than it was in 2011. The archdiocese’s own website lists some 37 buildings for sale or lease.

‘Every one of us is...capable of sainthood’

Words and deeds both matter as the local church pursues its evangelical mission, Vigneron writes in the letter.

“Evangelization is, very simply, proclaiming the good news of Jesus to those around us,” the letter explains. “This proclamation is to be both in word and in deed.”

Words alone are insufficient because “people will rightly suspect us of hypocrisy” if and when deeds don’t match. This “may even give Christianity a bad name.”

Deeds alone are insufficient because “people will not learn of the one who is the source of the joy and divine love we carry within us...how can we fail to share generously what we have freely received?”

But “to become an effective evangelizer,” the letter explains in a section titled ‘Evangelizing the Evangelizers,’ “one must first be evangelized.” Proof of that level of devotion, the letter says, includes receiving sacraments regularly, praying and reading scripture daily, and regularly engaging in service.

“There is a tendency to think ‘once converted, always converted,’” the archbishop wrote. But the faithful must examine themselves, he said, “to ensure that they have not stalled in their discipleship, and thus become unable to give credible witness to the power of the gospel...every one of us is called to, and capable of sainthood.”

The archdiocese will create a permanent “new evangelization council,” the letter said, to assess the church in its efforts to respond to Synod 16.

“Where will the archdiocese of Detroit be in 20 years?” the letter asks in its conclusion. “My hope is that it will be a community of joyful missionary disciples and of saints united in Jesus...and that southeast Michigan will be a place of the manifest presence of God.”

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