What can happen if parishes are faithful to the Church’s centuries-old patrimony and seek to revitalize along a transcendent path, which expresses the “other” and the eternal, the divine?
This movement seeks to ensure that the faithful Mass lifts the believer out of the world and up to heaven, rather than dragging the Mass down to the standards of the world.
When Father Frank Phillips of the Canons Regular became pastor of St. John Cantius Church in Chicago on Aug. 15, 1988, he found a parish shrunken to a postage-stamp size of its former self. The flourishing neighborhood of decades past was gone, and an expressway further seemed to keep people away. The parish had only a single child in attendance.
Now, the church has become a major model of what can happen with a transcendent approach to rebuilding a parish. To begin, Father Phillips restored and reintroduced a more disciplined and reverent liturgical life. “The bottom line is everything in a parish has to flow from the Mass,” Father Phillips noted.
“Once we introduced the ordinary form in Latin, the congregation started growing and continued to grow,” Father Phillips said.
When Father Phillips arrived, the Sunday Masses totaled about 70 people. Parish membership had dropped to 200. Today, there are nearly 2,000 families registered. The parish has come a long way from that one child in the parish in 1988; now, “we have hundreds of children,” the pastor said.
Said Father Phillips, “We’ve had Muslims, Buddhists, one Hindu and those of no religion or Lutheran or Methodists” become parishioners.
In Omaha, Neb., St. Peter Catholic Church is another prime example of what can happen when a parish gets revitalized through a transcendent model.
When first-time pastor Father Damien Cook arrived, the parish had a sparse, mostly older, population and not many families. Once there, he began to implement what he said he would as a pastor: focus on faith fundamentals. As he put it succinctly: “It all starts with the liturgy.”
The liturgy attracted more people as word got around of what St. Peter’s was offering.
“EWTN itself has always been an inspiration,” he said. Attending daily Mass in high school and college, he “really read the documents [of Vatican II] and came to the same conclusion as Mother Angelica and the priests there [about how the Mass should be offered],” he said. “I see the way they celebrate. That’s reaffirming to me.”
Since a parish three miles away offers the extraordinary form of the Mass, Father Cook concentrates on celebrating the Novus Ordo “with a real, sacred sense of reverence and following with a holy obedience what the Church is asking, explaining each step to people.”
“We’re in an impoverished area in downtown Omaha,” said Father Cook, so why are people coming? “If you have a beautiful liturgy and charitable hearts, they feed each other.”
This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Corpus Christi procession Father Cook started soon after he arrived. Now, more than 1,000 people come from all over Omaha as the procession moves from church to church, finishing with Benediction at St. Peter’s. “This is another way to restore the sacred,” said Father Cook. “Being there in a public way creates ownership in our faith, and that seeps into your work life and family life, where you’re then more firm in belief and willing to explain that to others.”
Not surprisingly, St. Peter’s has had an influence in other ways, too. One parishioner wanted to film one of the processions, and that led to his company making a documentary about the parish’s revitalization, Where Heaven Meets Earth, on StoryTel.org, which has been shown on EWTN. (StoryTel.org also filmed the story of St. John Cantius Church’s revival.)
Little wonder Father Cook modestly said, “God really blessed us here.”
‘Encountering the Savior’
In Naperville, Ill., Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church is a lovely old-but-restored church for a parish of nearly 4,000 families. It was already a large suburban-Chicago parish, with a perpetual adoration chapel, large school and many faithful people.
But the pastor, Father Thomas Milota, wanted his parishioners to understand more deeply why everything begins and ends with the liturgy: because everything begins and flows from the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. “Unless you have that, the rest ends up being surface [worship],” he said.
Today, the sight of 600 children at the same Mass chanting the Sanctus together with their whole hearts silences those who say children can’t or don’t want to do this.
“The children love it when Our Lord is reverenced,” said Father Milota. “They have a spiritual sensitivity to him, and they know he loves them. When they come in contact with good Catholic liturgy, they don’t want a ‘rock band’ anymore. They come not to be entertained, because they know when they are encountering the Savior of the world.”
This liturgy-driven approach draws people. Said the pastor, “People come to the parish because of the perspective we have and because they want to have their children have that education.”
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.
Upcoming: “Part II: Revitalizing Through Transcendent Art
Photo of St. Peter's Corpus Christi
procession via http://www.stpeterchurch.net/.