“When you’re going fishing, go where the fish are.”

To William E. Simon Jr., that means strengthening community by starting with the life of the local Catholic parish. He wrote his new book, Simon explains, to help parishes become thriving places of worship and community, which in turn will influence the lives of millions of American Catholics.

Simon, a trustee of The Heritage Foundation from 2008 to 2015, is a financier, philanthropist, former federal prosecutor, and co-chairman of the William E. Simon Foundation.

He spoke Sept. 30 at The Heritage Foundation on the insights in his new book, “Great Catholic Parishes: A Living Mosaic.”

The event’s host, appropriately, was Ryan T. Anderson, the William E. Simon senior research fellow at Heritage’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society.

Anderson opened by stressing the value of religion in America, both in itself and for a free society. The Founders recognized the unique place of religion in man’s life as well as its benefits for society, Anderson said:

Rather than turning to the government to solve problems, Americans form voluntary associations to assist their neighbors. And at the heart of civil society are religious institutions—churches and religious charities—feeding the hungry, healing the sick, clothing the naked, educating the young, housing the homeless. And in the Catholic tradition, it is parish life that is the source and wellspring of religious conviction and religious practice.


Heritage Foundation scholar Ryan T. Anderson introduces an appreciative William E. Simon Jr., author of the book “Great Catholic Parishes.” (Photo: Steven Purcell for The Heritage Foundation)

Anderson set the stage for a discussion of Catholic parishes by arguing that caring about parish life is necessary for anyone who cares about civil society, and thus limited government.

Simon is the founder and chairman of Parish Catalyst, an organization devoted to researching and supporting the health and development of Catholic parishes. It reflects his belief that parish life is the best way of reaching most American Catholics where they already are. He says:

If you’re going fishing, go where the fish are. In the Catholic Church, there are 80 million Catholics in this country, give or take, and about 80 percent of them are in parishes. So about 65 million people are in parishes. I like to think that’s a lot of fish, and that’s really worth helping.

And Simon is doing his part to find what is needed to help make Catholic parishes great. His book summarizes the results of an in-depth study of 244 parishes across the country, and comes up with conclusions that can help parishes become vibrant places of worship and community.

In his remarks at Heritage, Simon, 65, emphasized that all of the takeaways from the study point to the four essential practices of the book: “leadership, spiritual formation, Sunday experience, and evangelization.”

Key findings from the parishes studied included the importance of sharing leadership through consulting, delegating, and collaborating. Additionally, most successful parishes recognized that the “Sunday experience” can’t be confined to Sunday alone, but must extend to every day of the week.

Participating in Bible studies in small groups is an especially effective way for parishioners to become engaged with their faith beyond Sunday Mass.

Preaching and music, of course, are critical. Many parishes also stress the importance of evangelization, of going out and sharing the good news of the faith with others.

Simon closed the Heritage book event on a note of hope, saying:

We know that the New Testament is full of hope, full of optimism, and it is full of gratitude and trust. So today I think that I can give you honestly a message of optimism with a dose of realism. … The local church is the greatest engine for good in human history.

>>> Watch the entire event here.