Keeping our Traditions Alive

I spent Good Friday in Lenoir, NC, located near the eastern edge the Appalachian Mountain range.  Catholic Extension supports a parish there called St. Francis of Assisi, which has experienced extraordinary growth in the last three years.  During that short span of time, Sunday Mass attendance has more than tripled; religious education enrollments are five times more than what they were just three years ago; and as many as 70 lay leaders are taking on various ministries that serve the parish and the larger community.  If you’re like me, you wouldn’t normally expect to find such a thriving Catholic community in a relatively small town of North Carolina.  But, something special is happening here.

Parishioners of all ages gather early to witness the traditional "living" Stations of the Cross.

The parish’s leaders, Father Julio Dominguez and Sister Joan Pearson, who arrived here three years ago, are both innovative people constantly thinking of new ways for this church community to reach more people and create new leaders.   Although they are always ready to try new things to make the Catholic faith speak to people, I quickly learned that their secret to success has been as much about getting back to the basics of the Catholic tradition and incorporating customs that have proven to sustain the faith for centuries.

That is why parishioners in Lenoir spent more than three months preparing for a “living” Stations of the Cross, which was open to the entire community on Good Friday.  Sister Joan expected attendance to jump this year, and sure enough, 600 people showed up for this mid-weekday Stations of the Cross.  Given that the church only seats about 300 people, the Stations of the Cross had to be done outside.  To enhance the experience, parishioners act out the scenes of each of the 14 stations in full costume and are accompanied by music and brief reflections.

The crowd drops to their knees, moved by the power of the 11th Station of the Cross.

At the 11th station, as the cross and the actor playing Christ were physically lifted up by the Roman soldiers and placed in the ground for crucifixion, I heard a collective gasp sweep through the hundreds of people as they came to their knees on the grass.  Tears filled the eyes of many, as they reflected upon God’s love expressed through the cross and how that cross has been part of all of our lives.

What impressed me the most about this experience, however, was the endless sea of toddlers, children and teens who were present at this event.  Just as the Stations of the Cross were starting, I happened to turn around to see a steady stream of parents pushing strollers across the Church parking lot as they made their way to the stations.   It felt as if they were literally carting in the next generation of Catholics to hear the same stories that our ancestors told.

Traditions like the "living" Stations of the Cross engage the parish youth in a compelling and inspiring way.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the afternoon was when a young boy, no more than five years old, broke ranks with the rest of us and wove his way through the actors to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he was being taken down from the cross.  The boy reached out and tenderly touched the lifeless feet the Jesus.  I have a feeling that for years to come that boy will remember his brief encounter with Christ this Good Friday.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension

Advertisements

No Catholic Left Behind (Alaska Part 1)

Ever since Fr. Wall joined Catholic Extension as president in 2007, the dioceses of Alaska – Juneau and Fairbanks along with the Archdiocese of Anchorage – have been encouraging him to visit,  to experience this unique expression of the Church that is supported by Catholic Extension donors.  This week we landed in Juneau, the smallest diocese in the country in terms of population, but one in which nine priests and one bishop “shepherd a flock” spread out over 700 miles, the size of Florida, and much of it navigable only by boat or plane.  The severe weather, vast distances and time it takes to travel are mind-boggling.  The spirit and faith of these Catholics is awe-inspiring.  The needs are great.

Bishop Burns of Juneau welcomes Fr. Wall to Shrine of St. Terese, a Catholic landmark on SE AK coastline.

According to locals, Alaska has the highest rate of suicide in the entire U.S, double the rest of the country.  It also has the highest rate of domestic violence.  The sheer beauty of southeast Alaska – snow-capped mountains and pristine glacial waters – can overshadow these tough realities. Yet, one becomes inspired by the faith and tenacity of the people coming together at the church even when they can’t have a priest on a regular basis.  (Catholics comprise about 10 percent of the population; more staggering is that approximately 60 percent of Alaskan’s are “unchurched.”)

We traveled by boat to Tenakee Springs (pop 131) where parishioners start pouring into the newly renovated St. Francis Chapel the minute the boat docks.  One parishioner has renovated the chapel with his own hands; another’s son-in-law has built the beautiful, rustic altar; another has  painstakingly repaired the broken pieces of the crucifix.  These are hands-on Catholics ready to celebrate the Eucharist any time a priest comes.  Catholic Extension has built or helped renovate nearly every church in Alaska and these parishioners – a faithful, outspoken bunch – are grateful for any chance to receive the Word or the Eucharist.  They are hungry for more.

Karla Donaghey of Diocese of Juneau restored the broken, worn crucifix for St. Francis Chapel in Tenakee Springs, AK (pop 104).

The next stop is Hoonah, a predominantly Native American community of 700 nearly two hours from Juneau.  Tragedy struck here last summer when two local policemen were gunned down for no apparent reason by a citizen.  The diocese is still trying to support the parishioners of Sacred Heart and the community as they recover from their shock and grief.

We celebrate Mass with Bishop Burns and Fr. Wall, among others.  One parishioner arrives in a wheelchair, delighted with the opportunity to experience the liturgy.  He prays a special intention “for those suffering from drug and alcohol abuse.”  He is accompanied by his friend, a woman, and they clutch hands as the Mass unfolds.  She has designed and painted Sacred Heart’s nameplate – another sign of the love and care these parishioners pour into their churches.

Back in Juneau, we learn that 32 young Catholics have worked tirelessly to raise the funds to attend World Youth Day in Madrid this summer.  Spaghetti suppers, car washes, raffle tickets, “chorebusters,” movie nights, and the presence of “kids at the church all the time running fundraisers” – coupled with funds from Catholic Extension donors – are making the trip possible.  It’s so important for these kids “to see and experience the universal church firsthand,” explained John, their youth ministry director.

Bishop Burns celebrating Mass in Juneau at the Catheral of the Nativity of the BVM.

With a diocese this vast, investing in technology is top of mind, explained Bishop Burns.  He’s already using Skype to communicate with youth groups too far away to reach.  It will be critical for adult faith formation as well as lay leader training.

We often hear that it’s our duty to ensure “no child is left behind.”  Visiting the Diocese of Juneau makes you realize that it’s also imperative to make sure “no Catholic is left behind.”  Thanks to Catholic Extension donors, and the work of some very determined, dedicated people, it’s working.

— Kathy Handelman, Director of Marketing Communications