South Carolina Parish Lives Vatican II

GREENVILLE, S.C. — The congregation, packed into the pews and standing in the aisles, sings in Latin with the choir.

After Mass, groups meet to feed the poor, visit the sick, bring Communion to shut-ins, and learn how to make the faith a part of their lives and defend the Church against challengers.

During the week, as many as 20 parish groups meet, from the traditional altar society to the newly formed Center for Evangelical Catholicism, which teaches a formal curriculum and sets the agenda for most other parish activities.

Welcome to St. Mary's Parish in Greenville, S.C., where, 40 years after the close of the Second Vatican Council (see Weekly Book Pick, page 13), Vatican II is not a nebulous spirit, but a daily lived-out experience.

In his four years as pastor, Father Jay Scott Newman has transformed the parish in the areas of liturgy, lay leadership, evangelization and ecumenism, according to the teachings of the council, with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as his guides.

Pope Benedict, who was a theological expert at the council, will celebrate Mass Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican II. For many, it will be a time to reflect on how faithfully the council has been implemented around the world, especially on the level of people's everyday lives.

“There is a great amount of gibberish about the ‘spirit of the council’ that has nothing to do with the council,” Father Newman said. A convert from the Baptist faith, he studied for the priesthood at the Gregorian University in Rome, where “we had the Bible open in one hand and the documents of Vatican II in the other.” After his ordination in 1993, he put his learning into practice.

As he tells the story, 15 minutes after arriving as pastor of St. Mary's in June 2001, he moved the tabernacle from its place outside the sanctuary to the center spot behind the altar. By Sunday, he had prepared materials for a more reverent liturgy than the parishioners had experienced in a while. Then he set out to educate the laity on how to fulfill their duties as active members in the parish and evangelizing Catholics in the community.

“The first thing I did was teach an adult course in Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium,” the council's constitutions on divine Revelation and the life of the Church. “Everything we do in the parish is in some way a conscious expression of what I see as the council's authentic teaching, informed by the magisterium of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which John Paul called the final document of Vatican II.”

He also hired a full-time assistant, David Hottinger, who holds a master's degree in divinity from Harvard University and is the director of the Center for Evangelical Catholicism. Hottinger entered the Catholic Church eight years ago, with Father Newman as his sponsor.

The center he directs, Hottinger said, encourages Catholics to “embrace their faith not merely as a set of rules to be followed or intellectual propositions to be agreed with, but as a complete, comprehensive way of life, centered on Jesus Christ and the divine life to which we are called.”

Father Newman explained, “In the buckle of the Bible Belt, where Catholics make up only 3% of the general population, and with Bob Jones University only four miles away, you have to learn and live your faith if you are going to remain Catholic.”

The parish population has grown significantly since Father Newman arrived, with about 2,700 families registered and a total of almost 7,000 members.

Weekly collections have doubled over the past four years, to $28,000, the pastor said. A capital campaign to restore the small Gothic church for the parish's 150th anniversary brought $2 million in additional donations.

The parish, however, has far outgrown the cozy 450-seat church, where the six Sunday Masses, including one in Spanish, are standing-room only. Seeing the great number of young families and children who come on Sunday, Father Newman is planning for the future, raising funds for a new 1,200-seat church.

The elementary school, with 350 students, is the most important work of the parish, according to Father Newman, because it forms the next generation of Catholics. Much is demanded of the parents, as well. The school's mission statement warns that St. Mary's School “is intended only for children of families with deep commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and genuine respect for the classical forms and disciplines of Christian education.”

Jay and Kate Tierney came to the parish four years ago from another Greenville parish because their children were attending the school. The move has changed their lives. “We came because we wanted to have church and school in one place for our children,” Kate said, “but it wound up being a conversion experience. We were introduced to the whole idea of being evangelical Catholics, to live our lives as apostles.”

St. Mary's parish gained notice outside the diocese last year when George Weigel, the biographer of Pope John Paul II, featured it in his book Letters to a Young Catholic. Weigel had gotten to know Father Newman through mutual friends, and wrote about St. Mary's in a chapter on excellence in liturgy.

“St. Mary's, Greenville, is as good a place as there is in North America to experience what Catholic worship is and ought to be — and then to think about why and how we pray, as a community and as individuals,” Weigel wrote. “In the liturgy restored and renewed as Vatican II intended, the people of Greenville have come to understand that it is God who invites us to worship and empowers us to worship.”

To anyone who asks why Catholics go to church, Weigel would answer, “Go to St. Mary's, and the question will answer itself.”

Joann Miller, director of religious education, said, “I think in a lot of ways our church is living out the teachings of the council, especially in regard to the beauty and dignity of the sacred liturgy, which gives a center to everything else we do pastorally.”

Father Newman said, “The first thing I turned my attention to was the liturgy, because as Lumen Gentium says, the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. As pastor, I have tried to order divine worship to the mind of the Church.”

“My second priority,” he continued, “was adult education. Most Catholics live their faith with the knowledge of a 14-year-old, or whenever they received their confirmation. When they find out the riches of the faith for adults, they are hungry for more.”

To bring parishioners into Catholic adulthood is Hottinger's goal.

“The Second Vatican Council highlighted the Church's teaching that every baptized Christian shares in the Church's apostolic mission to the world,” he said. “If that is so, the parish must become far more serious about training and preparing the laity for that mission.”

Stephen Vincent is based in Wallingford, Connecticut.