US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Parishes with Pull

By Paul Wilkes | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

There are certainly many new approaches to spirituality and belief these days, but the parish remains the place most Catholics go to for sustenance. In fact, two thirds of all American Catholics are registered parishioners. While a varied lot, to be sure, they all are looking for-albeit in many different ways-a transcendent connection to God and guidance for their life's journey, a place where they will be at once nurtured and prodded. Catholics today seek not just to be on the rolls of an institution to fulfill their religious obligations; they want a spiritual home.

My interest in finding excellent parishes came into being after I returned from a parish in New Jersey where I had given a three-day pre-Lenten mission. Simply put: I loved being there. It was so alive; the parishioners and staff were so friendly and so ready to say "yes." The programs were varied and useful-both old and young were being educated, and people in their 20s were crowding into the Sunday night liturgy. Only when I returned to my home parish and a certain sadness came over me did I realize the dramatic difference between that parish and my own.

There were surely other parishes like that one in New Jersey, I assumed, and over the next year, with the generous support of a grant from the Lilly Endowment, two researchers and I set out to find them. What we found is that great parishes not only exist, they abound. I am convinced that their approaches to the various aspects of parish life can succeed elsewhere. Neither these parishes nor their pastors are cut from some magical cloth that inured them to the problems facing both the church and people today. In fact, these problems often made these parishes into the great places they have become.

Of the hundreds of great parishes our project has identified, I have profiled eight in my new book, Excellent Catholic Parishes. Here are two of them.

Faith with a Latino Flavor
As the sun slips behind the imposing bank buildings and high-rise hotels that flank Interstate 10, it sets ablaze a bronze statue of Jesus Christ: the peasant Christ, with a rough-woven serape over his shoulders, a walking stick in one hand, a small bag in the other. As Father Arturo Banuelas stands beneath this at-once unassuming and imposing figure, the soft sounds of tumbling water from a three-tier fountain impart a sure peace to the place. Behind him sits the stately, mission-style stucco church of St. Pius X.

"El Paso is a border town," he begins. "Hispanics are on the borders of the Anglo world; to be a Catholic is to stand at the edge of a secular society. Even today, the church is still on the border between old ways and new ways, the traditional church of Sunday devotion versus the church that we carry into the world each day. So, it was appropriate that our 'Border Christ' would be the symbol of our church-always on the move, not ever at home, willing to go where he is needed, wearing the simplest of clothes, carrying no more than he needed but, because of his marginalized status, capable of entering all cultures and bridging all people as one."

Banuelas' modest assessment of his parish and its signature statue belies what has happened here. St. Pius X has wedded ancient Hispanic values and faith with a Vatican II vision of a modern parish, infusing each with new meaning. St. Pius X-or San Pio X to its largely bilingual congregation-is considered not only one of the most outstanding Hispanic parishes in America, but one of the best, period. With hundreds of members solidly trained as lay leaders, new ministries springing up virtually weekly, and liturgies that appeal to everyone from los jovenes to Los majores de edad, this parish indeed serves as a ray of hope for Hispanics and for the church at large.

As I spend time at St. Pius, talk to parishioners, and witness some of their 39 different ministries, it quickly becomes clear that this parish has thrived for two primary reasons. The first is the positive, willing-to-risk attitude of its pastor. The second is a concerted lay training program based both in periodic parish evangelization retreats that lead people into small Christian communities and Tepeyac, a lay institute that provides theological underpinnings for ministry.

St. Pius owes much of its success to its laypeople, who are not considered "volunteers" in the programs they either originate or join; they are "ministers."

As I sit with a group of Jovenes en Cristo members, they tell me how they came into being. They were too old for teenage activities and younger than the 35-plus group. "We had no place to turn for guidance as we face some of the biggest decisions of our lives, decisions that will shape our lives," said Victor Hugo Arquelles, 27. They wanted the church's guidance, and they craved good friends and fellowship.

While Banuelas emphasizes such community building in everything, he draws a line: "Community without service is a self-help group." So Jovenes en Cristo is other-directed-playing bingo with kids with cancer in a hospital or taking 15 at-risk teenagers on a retreat.

Another group at St. Pius, which eventually came to be known as the Living Word Ministry, started with the Passion drama the parish stages each year on Good Friday. "After we all went to Tepeyac for classes," says Tom Chavez, who plays Jesus, "we saw that the Passion drama was just a beginning; we could do so much more to make the gospels, the personalities in the church come alive."

What continually impresses me as I talk with these people across such a wide spectrum of interests and ages is the theological depth and the organic quality of the St. Pius ministries. They have risen up out of the human needs of the parishioners and out of a desire to extend themselves into the world.

For Frank Lopez, the prospects of a lucrative legal practice and a comfortable upper-middle-class life faced off against the gospel values St. Pius X espouses. "And the gospel finally and clearly spoke to me," he says. A graduate of a prestigious law school, Lopez could have joined an upscale law firm. Instead, he took a position with the University of Texas-El Paso to work on the thorny issues of border law, and he has made a personal commitment to St. Pius X's sister parish in Juarez, Mexico, which is a few miles from the church yet is a world removed.

Lopez and I walk the dusty, unpaved streets of the colonia in Juarez, just across the border from El Paso. "Our work here is not about charity. It is a journey together with the people of the colonia," he says. "When they come to El Paso they bring their music and their faith. We need each other; after all, we are one family. My heart was always with the poor, but it was only after I studied the documents of Vatican II at Tepeyac that my intellectual needs were met. I saw the 'why' behind the 'what' that I wanted to do."

In essence, people like Lopez are, although they might not know it, vowed religious of a new kind of lay order that as yet has no name. In a parish like St. Pius, with excellent religious formation, support, and encouragement, they are able to live out their quite serious religious vocations while remaining in the secular world.

"I am a dinosaur," Banuelas says with a smile. "Laypeople are the future of the church. This is no quick fix. This is a long haul. And we need to make changes, especially for Hispanic Catholics. We are losing them to other churches, because in the Catholic Church, instead of honoring and utilizing their rich faith and heritage, we are still trying to assimilate them, make them into eurocentric Catholics. They are not."

Does he think there is a priest shortage? "Yes and no," Banuelas answers. "Yes, in that people might not be anointed before death by a priest, or a priest might not take the casket to the cemetery, or their classes might not be taught by a priest. But are these the most important things?

"No, there is no priest shortage, because the mission of the church becomes more credible when laypeople are the leaders. Laypeople don't have the restrictions clergy do; they are every place. That is why this is a very creative time in the church and a most exciting time to be a priest-dinosaur that I am-because I am multiplied time and time again out in the world by our parishioners.

"Some other parishes look upon us as radical, liberal, but we are not. We are theologically, liturgically solid, yet we adapt to people's needs. All that has happened here is that people have been given back their church, total possession-and they bring a unique Chicano flavor with it."

When Banuelas arrived, the church building, as the pastor recalls, was "nothing more than a glorified gym." Today, the original church building serves as exactly that, for the use of the parish and parish school of 550 children, and a new church has been constructed. The architects-in consultation with laypeople and Banuelas-designed three major gathering areas. "So there are three places where people can gather before and after church," he says. "This is so important, that the people of God have a natural place to stop and to talk-about the church, about their lives. Perhaps more gets accomplished in these places than in formal meeting rooms."

Banuelas firmly believes that images also form souls. Sixteen stained-glass windows encircling the cupola of the new church depict a litany of the saints of the Americas. As people leave the church, a stunning stained-glass window in the gathering area reminds them that their spiritual work, rather than ending, has just begun.

"I cannot say how important it is for people to have ambiance, to have symbols that speak to their experience," Banuelas says. "We have simple needs, so it is basically a simple church, a space to be used, not only for liturgy, but for community events, to be visited whenever a person stops by. That is why we are open all day. Yes, things get stolen every once in a while, but to restrict people from visiting their home would just not be right."

St. Pius X has brought out the best in people, tapped talents they didn't know existed, and made Catholicism the moving force in their lives. As I sit amidst some of the parishioners in the rectory one afternoon, one of two hearing-impaired women, who had been included in the discussion through people signing to them, raises her hand. "Once you have a parish like this," she says, "you just won't have it any other way. When Father Arturo leaves, we will miss him badly, but something has begun here that will only get stronger."

Cooperate and Everyone Benefits
For more than 100 years, the farmers of the Upper Midwest have endured the vagaries of weather and market prices, but 20 years ago the hardest of times hit. The increased mechanization of farming, which required less labor and more capital, and the advent of large-scale agribusiness forced more and more farmers out of business. The population began to shrink. Stores, post offices, and parish schools closed. Consolidated was the word used, but it simply meant the end of treasured parts of a proud and independent rural life.

Around the same time, dramatic changes took place in Catholicism, the faith that had sustained so many of these farmers. Priests and nuns left religious life. So when their bishop asked members of these five Minnesota towns to consolidate so they might pool their resources, many saw it as another defeat, another imminent closing.

"Look, when we got word of this, I was ready to fight it to the death," says John Shekleton, the robust 63-year-old owner of the Murdock Cafe. "Nobody was going to take my church away from me, the church founded by the ancestors of the townspeople who come in here every day."

That was 22 years ago. "The way it worked out is simply amazing," his wife, Roxanne, adds. "We really got the best of all worlds-we have better programs, because we could do one well rather than five half-baked, and we have five pastors instead of one."

Arriving at the Catholic Area Parishes office in Benson-the only one of the five towns appearing on my map-and being greeted by Sister Clara Stang, a Franciscan, it is obvious that Roxanne didn't exaggerate. The consolidation had succeeded and even provided the model for a new kind of extended Catholic parish.

The staff meeting on Wednesday mornings provides just one example of a rare kind of ecclesial cooperation. Not only does the staff coordinate programs for the 1,000 families scattered across some 400 square miles, they also agree upon a unified message for the coming weekend's liturgy. In addition, they write up three points for the bulletin to encourage reflection on the next week's gospel reading. These points focus the discussion in the 15 to 20 small faith communities that will gather that week, and they will be read at every parish meeting. Homilists at the weekend liturgies will reflect on them as well.

"We are constantly working on unity here," says Father Steven Verheist, pastor of St. Francis in Benson. Verheist, together with Father Ronald Huberty, pastor of Sacred Heart in Murdock, and pastoral administrators Sister Clara Stang at the Church of the Visitation in Danvers, Sister Darlene Gutenkauf at St. Bridget's in DeGraff, and Sister Louise Bauer at St. Malachy's in Clontarf make up the Catholic Area Parishes' leaders.

"While I am the presider at the liturgy, it is the assembly that is important. They are the people of God; from this extended family comes the Spirit. And they need not be territorial; shared resources mean that everyone can benefit. And it has caught on. I've heard it over and over again from our parishioners: 'These used to be priests' parishes-now these are people's parishes.' That is a high compliment; that is ownership," Verheist says.

Tim Mattheisen, who operates Do-Mats Supermarket, remarks, "We all knew one another, but that didn't mean we necessarily were praying as a community or really befriending one another. The singing, the liturgy really get me going. Something is happening here, and we all can feel it."

This consortium of parishes-perhaps the first in the country-has carefully used the strengths of each member of the pastoral team and yet allows each parish to maintain its individual identity. Gutenkauf is a talented musician and liturgist who also enjoys working with the elderly. Bauer has a gift for teaching children and young people in religious education. Stang is a proficient organizer and a visionary; she works intensely with small faith communities. Huberty is the RCIA expert and a compassionate listener, an excellent counselor. Verheist is good with youth, liturgy, and administration.

The churches share liturgical planning, RCIA preparation, and a religious education curriculum. The small Christian communities cross parish lines, but each parish still has its own parish council, finance, and education committees; holds religious education classes in the parish; and controls the funds directly related to that church's upkeep and specific needs.

The parish does not request, it requires a high level of lay participation and leadership. "Everybody has to pitch in; you can't hide in these little towns," Roxanne Shekleton says, laughing.

"Out here we are believers in what my grandfather from Belgium used to say: 'The grass is always greener where you water it,'" explains Verheist. "We take what we have and try to make these parishes into the great places that they can be."

"Sometimes it seems like America has forgotten us," says Nancy O'Leary, the parishes' bookkeeper. "But in certain ways that's exactly what we want. I think we have a sense of community out here that everybody could learn something from."

"People are crying out for meaning in an era of fragmentation," says Verheist, "and rural people are beautiful examples of living a meaningful life. But their way of life is constantly being threatened. These people have tremendous pressures upon them, yet they have so much to teach us."

Stories of conversion, such as Kevin McGeary's, abound. His modest farmhouse overlooks 400 acres of family land he can no longer profitably farm. He had to rent out the land and now drives a grain truck.

"I got into drugs in the service, drank too much when I got back, eventually got divorced, and was generally messing up my life," he begins as we sit at his kitchen table. Stang listens, but says nothing.

"But Sister helped me get an annulment, let me see I was not only worthy to receive the Eucharist but that Christ really wanted to feed me. Then she hooked me up with an ATEC (Adults and Teens Encounter Christ) retreat, which was the best weekend of my life; it really turned me around. I saw what my life was about: to spread Jesus' Word and his love. Jesus became my high. Now, Visitation is my family, my gathering place, instead of some bar or liquor store. This is my home."

Stang and I drive back to the Danvers rectory where she lives. Straightforward, not pious, she radiates a deep spirituality and never calls attention to herself. She is a superb pastor, giving quiet testimony to what new and powerful roles religious women play in a changing church.

The five Minnesota parishes, however, hardly make up some perfect Catholic world free of jealousy, hate, and selfishness. When representatives of a Hmong community from the Twin Cities explored the possibility of resettling some of their people in the Benson area to work at a clothing manufacturing firm, negative comments from townspeople caused Hmong leaders to withdraw their interest.

Stang promptly started an antiracism task force and held a three-day seminar to educate and sensitize the townspeople.

As I drive out of town and into the open countryside, where family farms have disappeared without a trace, I am reassured to know that the church has not left these brave and good people. They are the unknown and unsung heroes and heroines who feed not only us, but a good portion of the world. While farming is done on a larger and larger scale, they have kept the intimacy of rural life alive. Independent and rugged as farmers have always been, they have proved themselves people who can also do things together. Small things, important things, holy things.