By Molly Rossiter | Special to The Witness
“I was truly in a black hole of suicidal depression,” said Mathison, of Cedar Rapids. “That is what led me to really sit down and go to Jesus Christ and say, ‘I’m exhausted, I’m fried – how can I serve you?’”
It’s hard to believe that pit of depression turned into a growing Catholic and community outreach that has spread from Cedar Rapids to Dubuque, Waterloo and New Hampton, as well as a few communities in Kentucky.
“I’m 56, I’m healthy, but prior to this I never served in the church, my wife did all of that for us,” Mathison said. “But this, I believe Jesus prepared me for this.”
“This” is Catholic Evangelical Outreach, a monthly gathering of Catholic and other Christian lay people coming together for fellowship and a “re-energizing” of their spirit. The group meets once a month on a revolving schedule in Cedar Rapids’ Catholic churches to hear an invited guest tell their story about how God enriches or has changed their life.
It wasn’t an easy sell. Mathison started working on getting CEO to reality in 2012, taking it first to his parish priest, the Rev. David O’Connor, at All Saints Catholic Church, and then to other priests in the community. While no one told him it wouldn’t work, there were obstacles, he said. Other similar groups were struggling to find consistent members and were beginning to wane. Available space might be hard to find. The Catholic church as a whole was facing declining membership.
Mathison pressed on, calling on his sales background to make CEO happen.
“I’m a salesperson. If I love the product, I can sell it,” he said. “I love this. We were going to make it happen.”
He began to gather friends and colleagues from throughout the Cedar Rapids Catholic community to help. Ed Faber, CEO’s website administrator, was one of those people.
“I was immediately attracted to Pete’s ambitious proposal and the simple concept it is founded on: friends trust friends,” Faber said. “As a grassroots, lay-driven ministry, I felt we could make a real difference by personally connecting with friends and family. The outreaches give people a taste for what they may be missing in their lives.”
Mathison eventually got the approval needed and was given a green light to move forward, with the understanding that it would be led and directed by lay people and that the church had no budget for it. None was needed.
“We got ready for our first meeting, I brought in someone to make hot dogs and a light dinner for afterward,” Mathison said. “We had initially planned for 50 people, thinking we’d be happy with that. The closer we got, though, the more I started to think we should have more food.”
It was a good call – that expected first group of 50 in 2013 turned out to be 148. And it just keeps growing. Mathison said some meetings have seen 500-600 people.
And while he acknowledges that he may have gotten the ball rolling, the group’s success isn’t his or even other team members’, he said.
“As we began to build our core team, and as this all began to come together, we all started to realize this was not us,” Mathison said. “This was truly God’s ministry and he was leading it. We’re simply his workers, putting this on.”
The programs are done all through private donations given outside the monthly meetings, Mathison said. No basket is passed, no collection is taken. If people want to donate, he said they do it at another time. Yet every meeting has been followed by a meal, the flyers continue to be printed and the people continue to come.
Faber said the continued success of the outreach ministry is a testament to the need for an active parish, beyond Sunday mornings.
“It is important to have an active laity, especially in today’s church with fewer clergy. Our priests are being asked to do more than ever,“ Faber said. “According to CatholicsComeHome.org, only about 24 percent of Catholics attend Mass on a weekly basis. We must take action to reverse that trend. Parishes are stronger when everyone takes responsibility for personal invitation, being welcoming and encouraging. We all have family members and friends who have fallen away and it is our responsibility to share our joy in such a way that gets them thinking, ‘I want what he has.’”
For Mathison, Catholic Evangelization Outreach has become his personal mission.
“I’m going to work in this ministry until I die,” Mathison said. “It’s that simple. It’s what God made me for.”
The next CEO event in Cedar Rapids will be 6:30-8 p.m., May 14, at All Saints Catholic Parish. Jason Hartwig will speak about overcomig bad habits and embarking on his faith journey.
CEO has also spread to other cities in the archdiocese. In Dubuque, the next CEO event will be 7 p.m., June 16, at St. Columbkille Parish. Mathison will share his story about how he changed his life after renewing his relationship with Jesus and the church.
For more information on CEO, visit crceo.org or DubuqueAreaCEO on Facebook.
Rossiter is a writer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. This article is reprinted with permission from the newspaper.