Growing up in Wisconsin, Jason Simon had a close relationship with his parents and with God. But in high school, he lost his way. Now he’s the executive director of a ministry called The Evangelical Catholic.
“I got sucked into a lifestyle of drinking and partying,” Jason said. “But I still wanted my life to be about something deeper. There were nights when I went out to party and then came home to read my Bible. One night, when I was in a drunken stupor, God confronted me about this. I heard his voice in my heart asking me, “Jason, what kind of man are you becoming?”
“Not a good man,” I answered honestly.
“What kind of man do you want to become?”
“A man like my dad and his friends.”
“After that, it was evident to me that I needed to change my lifestyle, but it still took a couple of years to orient my life toward the Lord. I was a lost sheep, and I needed someone to come after me,” Jason says.
Brothers, Side by Side. Jason started going back to church. (At the time, he belonged to an Assemblies of God congregation, converting to Catholicism in 1999.) There he was befriended by a man with an evangelistic heart who invited him out for coffee. They kept meeting one-on- one, and the man encouraged Jason to pray, sharing specific passages of Scripture to help him stick with it. He also taught Jason how to listen for the encouraging voice of the Holy Spirit instead of absorbing the lies and condemnation that would bombard him every time he made a mistake.
“Having a brother ask me every week how I was doing—without that, I think I would have given up,” Jason says.
It is this model of accompaniment and discipleship among laypeople that The Evangelical Catholic tries to inspire and form in Catholic campus ministries and parishes. At the heart of the ministry is the rich belief that laypeople have a vital role to play in Church renewal.
“We have seventy million Catholics all over the country positioned to share the gospel,” Jason says. The Catholics are there, registered at their parishes, but how many of them feel ready to lead a Bible study, mentor a fellow Catholic or non-Catholic in the faith, or share their faith openly—even in a comfortable setting? Certainly not all seventy million, and that’s where The Evangelical Catholic is trying to bridge the gap.
Experiencing Christ Together. Under Jason’s leadership, The Evangelical Catholic (EC for short) has partnered with more than a hundred parishes, university campuses, and diocesan ministries across the United States. In each partnership, EC enriches a core group of laypeople so that they can become more confident in sharing their faith.
Fr. Chris Walsh, pastor at Philadelphia-based St. Raymond of Penafort parish, says that the training and Bible study materials provided by The Evangelical Catholic make it possible for his parishioners to experience the power of God’s word in their hearts and to respond. “We’re going back to what Jesus did with the early Church,” he says.
The Evangelical Catholic helps parishes like St. Raymond to develop small groups and deeper relationships through which parishioners can lean on each other for support and help each other to form habits of prayer. More often than not, these people then go out to share with more people. Catholics thereby become empowered to equip one another without feeling they have to take theology classes.
“The Evangelical Catholic teaches people how to read the word of God, how to pray with it, and then how to develop their own prayer life—but always in a community that challenges and encourages,” Fr. Chris says. At St. Raymond, the small groups have renewed parish life in unexpected ways, with more people going to Confession, coming to daily Mass, and trying to live a life of virtue.
Joy and Belonging on Campus. On campus at Iowa State University, the students involved in EC are learning to find answers to their questions by studying the words and the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Evangelical Catholic’s Bible study guides and leader guides have helped fuel a transformation there and at other colleges and universities that adopt their people-centered, Scripture-centered ministry approach.
Emily Klaus, Catholic campus minister at Iowa State, says that small groups built around the EC model give a person a sense of belonging and being loved. This is especially important at a large public university, where a single individual can sometimes feel lost and forgotten.
“The friendships people gain through these small groups are lifelong friendships,” she says.
At Stanford University, Dylan Griswold, a third-year medical student, has been leading small groups through the school’s Catholic campus ministry since his senior year of undergraduate studies there.
It was during Dylan’s senior year that he had a conversion experience. This led him to get sober and to become more involved with campus ministry by leading a small group, something he previously thought that he didn’t have time for.
As Dylan looks back on the past four years, he says that God has helped him to balance his class schedule with prayer and outreach. Not only that, but between his small group, Eucharistic adoration, and advice from good priests, he has learned to ask God for wisdom and guidance when he doesn’t have all the answers himself. Sometimes, the answers come as he reflects on Scripture, something he started doing more regularly because of his small group.
“I was reading about the time when God asked Moses to go talk to Pharaoh,” Dylan says. “Moses gives this whole soliloquy, asking ‘Who am I to bring the people of Israel out of Egypt?’ And God’s response was, ‘You may not be anyone, but I Am’” (see Exodus 3:11, 14).
“That passage really helped me because I realized that when I am not able, God is. If I trust my heavenly Father, then I am empowered,” Dylan says.
Dylan has remained committed to medical school while leading small groups, including an outreach group for players on the baseball team.
“I have on my arm, tattooed in Hebrew, ‘Here I am, Lord, send me,’ to remind myself to abandon myself to God and to be obedient to where he wants to send me,” Dylan said.
A Tide-Shifting Presence. Jason believes that as more people respond to the Lord the way that students like Dylan have, great changes can come about. “If every Catholic church and college campus in America were alive in its mission of evangelization and had an active, zealous fire to reach out to its community through relationships of love, we would see the culture-changing, tide-shifting presence that the Lord needs!”
Julie Malucha, who worked as the Director of Evangelization at St. Charles Parish in Hartland, WI, one of the parishes that The Evangelical Catholic partnered with early on, marveled as the people at her parish experienced dramatic conversions through their small groups. People who had never read a Bible or learned how to pray from the heart were suddenly doing so, and they were being drawn into a deeper relationship with Jesus in the process. Even more amazing was how these people began to feel empowered to start their own small groups.
Go to Jesus with Your Whole Heart
God can sometimes seem remote. But this Lent, he invites you to come to him in prayer and experience his transforming power. As a starting point, The Evangelical Catholic offers a seven-session small group study guide for the Sunday Mass readings during Lent.
Each weekly session of With Jesus to the Cross includes discussion questions and guides for facilitators and participants. The study guide gives suggestions for further Scripture reading and practical tips about listening to God in prayer. Extra resources include a detailed examination of conscience, a guide to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and guidance about the process of forgiving.
To order a copy of With Jesus to the Cross: Year C in time for Lent, visit bookstore.wau.org or call 1-800-775-9673.