Last week we received a note from Fr. Bob Kelly of the Divine Word Missionaries. He wanted to thank you, the people of Assumption Parish, for your welcome, your attentiveness to his message, and your donations of $5,200 in support of his Order’s missions in Ghana. If you were not here, Fr. Kelly preached at all the Masses August 30-31 as part of our parish’s participation in the Society for the Propagation of the Faith’s summer mission appeal program.
I have always felt that mission appeals serve a double purpose. First, they raise money for some very real and immediate church need. Second, they raise awareness about something that we sometimes forget: that we are part of a world-wide church, and we have brothers and sisters in the faith in every inhabited part of the world. The very word “catholic” means “universal”. But sometimes we get so wrapped up in the issues that affect our parish or the church in Chicago or the church in the United States that we forget that we are but a tiny piece of Christ’s church.
Back in the 1990’s when I doing shrine ministry and serving as assistant provincial, I spent my summer weekends giving mission appeals for our Servite missions in Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa. The way the mission appeal system works in our country is that religious congregations, mission societies, and missionary dioceses make application to the mission office in each diocese. The diocesan mission office then invites a certain number of these entities to make an appeal in one or more specific churches within that diocese. It is then up to the missionary group to negotiate an acceptable date for the appeal with the local pastor and to get someone to that location on that specific weekend. In order to honor all the invitations, someone like me, who has spent only about four weeks on the ground in South Africa, can get pressed into regular service. This system has worked well. It assures parishes that the mission speaker represents a reputable organization and it prevents parishes from getting bombarded by multiple appeals, which very likely would be the case if every mission group were free to line up its own bookings.
As many of you know from your own experience of going to Mass away from home, there is a lot of variety out there. The prayers and the readings may be prescribed by the universal church, but the style and the spirit in which Mass is celebrated, the way that the rubrics for saying Mass are interpreted, and the way the pews and altar are oriented can make the actual experience of attending Mass in different places feel very different. As a visiting priest, one just tries to blend in. Some places I visited on my mission appeal journeys really stick out in my memory. One was an enormous church in Lewiston, Maine that had been built by a religious congregation (not ours!) in the 1930’s based on the dimensions of Chartres Cathedral. The main aisle was nearly 300 feet long (which, by the way, is the length of a football field), and the church seated 2,200, making it the second largest church in all of New England. Unfortunately even before the church was finished, the city’s population was in decline. There were only about 75 people at one of the Masses, almost all of them in the very back. How do you establish any rapport when the people are that far away? It was akin to standing under the goal post at a football stadium talking to people in the stands in the other end zone! At the other extreme was a tiny church in the town of Spillville, Iowa. The town had been settled by Czech immigrants in the late nineteenth century, who had fled to the hills in the northeastern Iowa when they could not get along with the German farmers in the flatlands. There up in the hills they had created a little Alpine village and built a church according to the style they remembered from their homeland. When the Czech composer Anton Dvorak visited the United States in 1893, he spent the entire summer in Spillville and on weekends played the church’s organ for Sunday Mass.
At some churches I visited, the mission collection was very small, sometimes less than the expense of getting there. Some of these were very poor parishes in inner city neighborhoods; some were in tiny towns in isolated places; and some churches were just hard to access. One church in Minnesota where I had an appeal advertised itself as “the only Catholic Church in the United States located on the fourth floor” (No, there wasn’t an elevator). And, yet, the more isolated the location and the smaller the congregation, the more important it is to offer parishioners a concrete reminder that they are part of a very big church. So, I hope you learned something about your Catholic brothers and sisters on the other side of the world from Fr. Kelly’s talk. And I too thank you for being so generous in supporting the Catholic Church in Ghana.