How John Paul II's 'new springtime' came to an American parish

How John Paul II's 'new springtime' came to an American parish

Elizabeth A. Wittman

While there may be a trend within churches in Western nations like Australia and the United States towards greater secularisation and merely token acceptance of Christian beliefs and practices, strong and courageous leadership at diocesan and parish level can reverse this. The following case study indicates what can be done.

When I was heading out to college 25 years ago, I asked people for advice. Their responses were mostly unremarkable, e.g., "stay sweet" or "work hard". But there was one notable exception. A nun I knew gave my hand a squeeze and confided, "Always make the sacrifice to go to a good priest." At the time, I thought Sister's advice was a bit odd, because I figured the Mass was the Mass, but I never forgot her words to me.

Once married to a career military officer, and after suffering through my share of shall we say "creative" liturgies, I started taking Sister's words to heart. As my husband and I hop-scotched across the USA, we always searched for the most orthodox parish near each new assignment, and as a result, often drove 30-40 minutes for Mass on Sundays. Through it all, we have been part of many remarkable parishes, and have known some truly outstanding priests. However, the full import of Sister's words has been vividly brought home to me over the past four years.

When the time came for my husband's final assignment and retirement, we jumped at the chance of moving to the Arlington Diocese (Virginia), even though it would mean a long commute to work. Because of my husband's long commute, we decided to choose the better of the two closest parishes. The parishes were quite similar, with somewhat progressive pastors and very solid assistant priests. We made the choice for our future parish because it had a crucifix and the tabernacle in the sanctuary (although the tabernacle was to the side), whereas the other parish featured the "risen Christ" instead of a crucifix in the sanctuary, with the tabernacle reserved outside the main body of the church.

At that time, our new church was a very typical parish from what we'd seen across the country. It was a large parish, newly built, and located in an up-scale neighbourhood complete with a young, upwardly mobile congregation. Although there was a small group of dedicated parishioners who attended daily Mass, the parish as a whole appeared lax. Sunday Masses were casual; the communion lines were long, and confession lines were short. Additional devotions such as the Stations of the Cross during Lent were sparsely attended.

Even the social events of the parish, such as coffee and doughnuts after Mass or parish fairs, attracted very few. The parish had only existed seven years, most people didn't know each other, and to top it all off, the parish had a five million dollar debt. It wasn't the ideal parish, but the rubrics were generally followed and the two associate priests were excellent.


Two years after we joined the parish, it was announced that the pastor was retiring. When word came out about his replacement, the rumour mills started grinding. Whatever else our new pastor would be, it was obvious he was not someone that people felt neutral about, although no one questioned his basic orthodoxy. We all wondered whether and how he would change the parish, but no one could have anticipated the metamorphosis the parish was about to undergo.

The very first thing Father did upon arriving at the parish was to move the tabernacle to the centre of the sanctuary, directly under the crucifix. Besides making the tabernacle the focal point of the church, it also brought it into view from all spots of the church. This change alone made a huge difference. The liturgy was centred, balanced architecturally. It felt so right, with Jesus where he belonged - directly in the place of honour.

It was a joy to visit the parish over the next year and see each change Father put in place. The sanctuary was soon resplendent with lovely linens and candlesticks. Votive candles were set up in front of the statues of Our Lady and St Andrew. Father placed a statue of St Joseph and the Child Jesus in the sanctuary, and statues of St Thérèse of Lisieux and the Sacred Heart elsewhere in the church. A beautiful painting of the Last Supper was placed above the tabernacle and the effect was striking. The sanctuary that had been sparsely decorated was now a place of beauty, and more formal; it was now palpably a place for prayer.

Financing the improvements to the church was done by offering the parishioners the chance of memorialising the various "upgrades," whether candle sticks, nativity figures or hymnals. In addition, Father erected a shrine to Blessed Padre Pio in the vestibule, and on the church grounds he built a wayside Marian shrine, complete with benches and flowers.

In short order the church was transformed into a place a beauty, but I wondered how the people themselves could be changed in any significant way. Judging strictly by appearances, it was clear that it would take more than new altar linens to bring about a renewal in peoples' faith.

On the spiritual level, Father introduced many devotional practices to daily use. His first change was to introduce daily adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. He recited the Angelus while processing into Mass; he established the practice of reciting the Divine Mercy chaplet and the daily rosary before and after daily Mass, and introduced the prayer to St Michael the Archangel on a daily basis. Not unexpectedly, most people didn't know these prayers, so, with the help of the Knights of Columbus, Father had laminated prayer sheets placed in all the pews. Now, after 2-1/2 years, most people, even at Sunday Mass, can recite these prayers.

Father also introduced the use of Latin. Every Wednesday evening there is a Latin Novus Ordo Mass followed by a Holy Hour. Additionally, Father uses Latin for a "High Mass" on Sundays at 10:30. This Mass, with choir and organ, uses many of the classic Latin hymns; but for those who prefer a folk Mass, there is one offered every Sunday as well.

The Latin was a real adjustment. Father brought in the Adoremus Hymnal, which contains the Latin and English words of the Mass, and over the course of several Sundays, before Mass, Father methodically explained the meaning and pronunciation of the Latin responses. Once again, the general response of the congregation has been amazing. Where I had once stumbled along on the Confiteor or the Pater Noster the words began to flow more easily. It has been a blessing to be able to pray in the official language of the Church.

Father has used his pulpit well. He has preached on such wide-ranging topics as the importance of reverence in church, proper dress, guidelines for reception of Communion, the truth of the Real Presence, and how to make a good confession. His sermons have been timely; for instance, when the papal document Dominus Iesus made the news, Father spoke at all the weekend Masses explaining the Pope's teaching in a reasonable, clear way, so as to counter the spin the national media had put on it. Controversially "taboo" subjects such as contraception and abortion, divorce and remarriage, the fundamental disorder of alternative life styles, and the distorted sex education offered in the local public schools were dealt with clearly at Sunday Mass in accordance with Church teaching.

Religious education

The parish's catechetical program was put in the hands of a dedicated, orthodox Director of Religious Education, who brought in Ignatius Press for the core curriculum. A concerted effort was made to recruit and train catechists to educate the children enrolled. Catechist enrichment days dealt with topics from moral theology to Church history.

A catechist I know has been preparing eighth graders for their Confirmation for over 10 years. She has seen a marked improvement this past year in her students' enthusiasm, knowledge of and interest in the faith. Also, contrary to past experience, this was the first year every one of her students has continued to attend weekly religious education classes, even after having been confirmed in late spring. My friend attributes this to the fact that these students are showing the benefits of the content-rich religious education offered in recent years, and that with knowledge of the faith comes love for the faith.

The priests themselves personally undertook the religious education of the high school students and those enrolled in the RCIA program. A weekly Holy Hour format provided the time for adult catechesis in the form of a series on the Catholic Catechism and a Bible study. Currently Father is preaching on the spirituality of St Francis de Sales, and its practical application in daily life. Other avenues for education in the faith are semi-annual parish pilgrimages and an extensive audiovisual lending library, stocked with videos and tapes on saints, miracles and living the Catholic faith, as well as family-style entertainment.

Above all, it must be said that Father and his two associates lead primarily by example. It is not unusual to see one or another of the priests praying before the Blessed Sacrament prior to Mass. I would characterise the three of them by saying their hearts are in what they do, they love their vocations, they aren't afraid of hard work and they all have a sense of humour.

The effects of this concentrated effort have been amazing to witness. Daily Mass attendance has easily tripled. The confession lines are long and times have been extended to accommodate the penitents. The enthusiasm and faith of the parishioners is truly inspiring. The parish has been blessed with multiple vocations to the priesthood and religious life. It has been such a transformation that it is obvious grace has been at work.

The Pope has written often about the new springtime in the Church, and I feel that I have been privileged to witness an inkling of what God is willing to do if we make the effort. Although I have focused on the changes at my parish, I have noticed many of our neighbouring parishes have instituted similar reforms, particularly in the promotion of daily adoration, strengthening of religious education, and reintroduction of Latin in the liturgy, with similar results. It is very encouraging to see.

This article, here edited, first appeared in 'Homiletic & Pastoral Review', annual subscriptions to which can be arranged through Ignatius Press, PO Box 180, Sumner Park, Qld 4074, tel (07) 3376 0105.

The author of the article, Elizabeth A. Wittman, is a wife and mother from Virginia.

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