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CENTRAL TENETS OF FAITH IN FOCUS

A Tampa conference will address what it means to be Catholic.

From his pulpit, the Rev. Joseph Waters sees shortcomings in the Catholic Church.

Poor or irregular Mass attendance, lack of knowledge about the pillars of Catholicism, predictable services and the ultracasual dress and attitudes all weaken the faith community, says the pastor of Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Temple Terrace.

They are concerns shared by many fellow priests in the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

In response, Bishop Robert N. Lynch today will launch a three-year diocesanwide education effort on the central tenets and responsibilities of the faith. Held at the Tampa Convention Center, the daylong conference marks the first such gathering for Lynch, leader of the nearly 400,000-member Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg since 1996.

The initiative will focus mainly on understanding the Eucharist, the sacrament in the Catholic Church that is also known as Holy Communion or the Last Supper. Catholics believe the sacrament is the body and blood of Christ.

Lynch also is calling on the faithful to participate more in Mass and to ramp up evangelism and service.

Organizers expect all of the diocese's employees, including teachers and clergy, to attend. By late last week, 3,100 people had registered for the event.

"He's committed to really spend time on this,'' diocesan spokesman Frank Murphy said of Lynch's efforts. "He's been going to every single Catholic school in the diocese and spending a morning talking with them.

Besides canceling classes at Catholic schools for the day, Lynch created a DVD where he lays out his teaching mandate.

He introduced the themes in November in his first-ever pastoral letter to the diocese. Lynch challenged priests and deacons to pay more attention to Mass service preparations, including making homilies more culturally relevant. He asked parishioners to increase their commitment to service within the church and in the community. And he urged all Catholics to familiarize themselves with the significance of church rituals and practices.

To that end, many of the workshops at today's conference will focus on subjects such as understanding the meaning of music sung during worship,history of the Mass, and roles of evangelism and social justice in the church.

Priests and parishioners at some churches already have embraced the bishop's directive.

At Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, the parish began holding educational sessions last fall. In September and October, more than 700 parishioners participated in workshops on Mass and the Eucharist, leaders said.

"People are already saying how their approach to Mass (and) the way they live the faith is very different," said the Rev. John Tapp, the church's pastor.

Waters, who will speak at today's conference, sees the effort as a way to reach out to Catholics who have left the church for evangelical congregations.

"The goal is to have more alive celebrations of the Eucharist, to feel better about who we are as Catholics and to be able to witness to lapsed Catholics and others who might be interested in our church, (to show them) that it's worth coming back and giving us a look."

Sherri Day can be reached at (813) 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.

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