Franciscan Parish Lives Namesake’s Mission

Northern Virginia church’s lay faithful are on fire to be disciples who put their faith into social action in their community and state.

Anti-human trafficking committee members at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle, Va., discuss initiatives to engage their community about the issue.
Anti-human trafficking committee members at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle, Va., discuss initiatives to engage their community about the issue. (photo: Alexis Smith)

TRIANGLE, Va. — If any parish could be a model of the New Evangelization in action, it might be St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in northern Virginia.

At this Franciscan parish, the friars have inspired their faithful to do apostolic work in their community.

“What we do is captured by a saying in the Rule of the Secular [Franciscan] Order: from Gospel to life, from life to Gospel,” said Rob Goraieb, a lay Franciscan.

For the past three years, Goraieb has led the parish’s Franciscan Advocacy Action Council, which helps the parish put the Gospel into action in a variety of ways.

“Your faith has more purpose when you’re actually putting it into action,” he said.

Parishioners can do so through Stephen Ministry’s lay counseling, serving the homeless and the hungry with St. Francis House and the Respect Life Committee, as well as visiting the homebound and/or ministering to victims of domestic violence or human trafficking.

The work of the parish is “owned by the parishioners,” said Franciscan Father Kevin Downey, the pastor.

“We empower the laity, they take ownership, and they drive it,” he added.

Father Downey said his vision of his job as pastor is “to make my people disciples. Then I have to move them from disciples to wanting to become apostles. And there is a difference between the two: a disciple is someone who follows Jesus; an apostle is someone who proclaims Jesus,” he said. “And I want a parish of apostles.”


Faith to Action

At the heart of St. Francis parish’s activity, Goraieb said, is “proper formation” in the faith.

“We make sure there is formation with everything,” he said. “We want people to go beyond activism and be true disciples of Christ.”

The 21-week “ChristLife” program, the 14-week “Good News People” program and the “Called and Gifted” program are a few examples of the faith formation at St. Francis.

“This gave me a direction for my faith — to use my faith to help others and spread the good word,” said Margie Petrizza, 51, a wife, mother and full-time office manager in Fredericksburg, Va.

Petrizza said the “Good News People” program, which St. Francis parish has piloted for the last three years, helped her to focus on being an “intentional disciple” and then prompted her to sign up for the “Called and Gifted” program, where she discerned she could use her talents to work with human-trafficking victims.

“It’s intensified my prayer life incredibly,” she said, speaking about her work with the Sexual Assault Victims Advocacy Service (SAVAS) as a hospital companion for victims. “I just want to please God.”

This October, the Respect Life Committee held its baby-bottle fundraiser for the local Birthright chapter, alongside a spread of pro-life literature focused on Church teaching. It offers a variety of ways the parish can get involved: 40 Days for Life, Project Rachel, supporting the local Birthright pregnancy and maternity center, and an elder-care project.

“We’re the voice for the voiceless,” said Isabella Clemente, 56, a Respect Life Committee member with 35 years experience as a pediatrician; she is also the mother of an 19-year-old adopted daughter.

“On all the committees, we know we share a common thread and common work,” she said, because they all deal with the dignity of the human person.


Action and Advocacy Council

“It’s a very active parish,” said Gary Burton, 60, a former FBI agent with 24 years experience, as well as a new lay Franciscan and longtime member of the Franciscan Advocacy Action Council.

The council, led by Goraieb, serves as an umbrella to coordinate and encourage the activities and communication of different committees putting the Church’s social teaching into action.

“It’s an extension of the parish council. We serve to fulfill mission,” said Burton, who works with Goraieb as both a member of the council and with the Anti-Human Trafficking Committee. “It’s through the Franciscan Action and Advocacy Council that we tie it all together.”

The activities of all the committees try to address what the U.S. bishops’ conference calls the “the two feet of love in action”: charitable works (the immediate response) and social justice (addressing the root causes). Goraieb explained that sheltering the homeless is only half of the response; the other half is to address the reasons preventing people from sheltering themselves.

And part of it is going out into the community through the community-organizing group.

“You go into the community, knocking on doors, find out the key issues, raise up leaders in the community and address [those issues],” Goraieb said.


Anti-Human Trafficking

Particular cooperation and expertise can be seen in the actions of St. Francis’ Anti-Human Trafficking Committee.

At October’s meeting, 15 members of the parish gathered, ranging in age from high-schoolers to those in their golden years. The committee, which has upwards of 25 members, has caught the attention of the U.S. bishops’ conference for working hard to fight human trafficking in their community and their state.

The meeting began with prayer and a reflection about why each of them came. Some were military veterans with a passion for protecting the weak; others were led because they had deepened their faith through the parish’s formation programs; others were shocked to learn that the buying and selling of human beings for sex and labor was a reality in northern Virginia and their community, and they wanted to know how to help.

Human trafficking is related to abortion, with many young victims being forced to abort their babies, Clemente said.

The meeting’s discussion then turned to strategy: how to get public-service announcements into schools and public places about the signs of trafficking and how to educate law enforcement about identifying victims and entering that data on their reports. Virginia ranks as the seventh-worst state on human trafficking, but the legislative subcommittee reported that they have made progress in getting lawmakers on board with producing better legislation. Part of the problem involves immigration issues: Victims of human trafficking can’t be deported, but victims can be deported immediately if they’re charged first with the crime of prostitution.

Then there was an update about Northern Virginia’s sexual-assault crisis center, which needs volunteers who meet strict criteria as well as safe houses. The center helps hide youth who have escaped traffickers and educates them in basic life skills and provides with a safe haven.

The group was busy planning the Nov. 8 conference they are co-hosting with the Peace and Justice Commission of the Diocese of Arlington, Va.

No matter the current focus, it is about doing everything for Christ.

“Most people don’t need to do a big thing to have an impact in the kingdom [of God],” Burton said.

And parishioners are big on encouraging others in their efforts.

Goraieb said there is an internship program to help young people understand how to put Catholic social teaching in action.

“We want them to bring this teaching into whatever they do,” he said. “We want them to take this stuff, the work that we do, and bring it to their colleges.”


Inspiring the Laity

The key to St. Francis parish’s success is how the friars inspire the lay faithful to live out the call of Vatican II to spread the Gospel.

“The laity are involved every step of the way,” Goraieb said, adding that “without [the pastor] and the other friars that we have being supportive, it couldn’t happen.”

Father Downey readily admits that he is grateful for the passion of his laity. Goraieb, for his part, makes sure the pastor is informed about everything and gets his approval for their activities.

Said Father Downey, “You have to look around your parish and find people who share that same vision.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.