St. Joseph, Missouri is home to “the walking priest,” Fr. Lawrence Carney, who engages in his own form of street evangelism by walking the streets in a black cassock and clergy Saturno hat, rosary in one hand and large crucifix in the other. It is his method of being a visible presence of the Church in his local community, and many from all walks of life are drawn to speak with him. He’s been involved in street evangelism for three years, getting the idea after walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route through Spain in cassock.
His “day job” is working as the chaplain for the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles in Gower, Missouri, going daily to celebrate Mass according to the Extraordinary Form, hear confessions and offer spiritual direction. But once his duties are complete he can take to the streets, sharing the Gospel of Christ with all who approach him.
Jeanne Meyer met him three years ago while he was walking down Frederick Avenue, one of the main streets through St. Joseph. She recalled, “In only a few seconds of spending time with Fr. Carney, I recognized the fact that he takes his work seriously and sincerely cares for the people he meets along the way.”
She describes Father as “a dedicated priest who inspires a deeper faith in Christ’s teachings.” She continued, “Whenever I come across someone who has met him, there is a sense of excitement in their voice and expression … a sense of peace.”
Aimee Dossey and her two sons are being received into the Church this year after having instruction with Fr. Carney. She said, “He focuses on getting to know you personally which is inviting and a nice change of pace in a world that does more talking than listening.”
She continued, “You can see that he takes pride in his mission and that he loves all souls he comes in contact with, even the misguided ones, he blesses them all along his way.”
In a recent conversation, Fr. Carney offered some thoughts on evangelism and spirituality.
Jim Graves: What have you found to be effective techniques in evangelization?
Fr. Lawrence Carney: Listen, smile, offer some advice. Even if a person begins to be combative, just continue to listen. Every person whom I meet I want them to feel comfortable in speaking to me again. It will prepare them for the time when the real questions come, the time for their conversion.
I’ve been walking the streets of St. Joseph for three years. I think of myself as being in a marathon, and not a sprint. St. Joseph is a town of about 76,000 people, many of whom will be converted if we allow God to do the work.
So I think we need to be patient and let God take over the conversation, with us just being there for the person. It will be clear when it is time to say or do something.
I think those of us involved in apologetics have a tendency to try and force things, but we have to be God’s children when we are missionaries. He’s in charge, not us.
I don’t like to merely hand out rosaries and medals, but as a priest, I want to be present to the person who is with me, and not treat them like they are a number. How did Jesus do it? He’d listen, and preach and heal them.
The Church herself is missionary, and all her people should be missionary, but the priest does have greater power as a missionary. I think of Fr. De Smet, who converted tens of thousands of Indians in America to the Catholic faith in the 1800s. I think the sense of the priest as a missionary has been lost in our Church, and it is something we need to recapture. Sure, the priest has work to do in the parish, but we need more people to fill our parishes!
JG: What doesn’t work with evangelizing?
LC: It would not be effective if I were to get impatient with someone, or if I’m confronted and I retaliate.
JG: Do people ever ask you about scandals in the Church?
LC: It’s surprising, but I’d say that if I were to speak to 5,000 people, maybe one would bring it up. Someone driving by may yell out something about priestly scandals to make fun of me, but it’s not part of my conversations.
JG: Do you have any Catholic books you particularly like?
LC: I like Fr. Faber’s translation of True Devotion to Mary and The Secret of the Rosary, both by St. Louis de Montfort. I like The Soul of the Apostolate by Jean-Baptiste Chautard and Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. I’d also recommend The Mystical City of God by Venerable Mary of Agreda. If you’re looking for a good Church history book, try the six volume set of Warren Carroll’s The History of Christendom.
JG: What spiritual practices do you recommend?
LC: You want to start with a morning offering every day. I consecrate my whole day to the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Everyone should pray the rosary devoutly, slowly and with attention. The Secret of the Rosary, which I just mentioned, is a profound book that teaches the value of the rosary, presented by a saint who knew how to pray the rosary. The worst thing to do when praying the rosary is to say it in such a way to just get it over with. I also encourage people to pray the rosary in public, because you never know when beads will attract people.
I think it’s important to make time for meditation in front of the altar. If you can’t get to a church, make a prayer corner in a room in your house. We have to have quiet time to speak to God so He can speak to us.
You’re also anxious to see your fellow priests out on the street evangelizing.
Yes. I would encourage my brother priests to do so. A pastor of a church needs to exercise. Why not take a walk through the neighborhood and combine it with praying the Rosary? It’s a great way to get out and meet people. For me, I find it is a more effective way to evangelize than knocking on doors.
Our culture has lost its purpose of being in union with God. It aims for things that are not for our good and will not lead to salvation. As a priest, it’s my job to be counter-cultural. I was ordained to bring order out of disorder.