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Here's What a 'Holy Mess' Looks Like

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DAVID BEER, member of St. Mary’s “That Man is You” men’s ministry — A lot of the time as Catholics, we are told what to do, but we’re not shown how to do it, how to get started. Volunteering? OK, but what do you do, where do you go? Feed the hungry? OK, but where, how? With Fr. Andy pushing us, we’re figuring out “how” and “where” and then testing our faith, stepping out, and trusting in the Lord.

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DOUGLAS WELLS, Deacon at St. Mary’s Parish — We’re learning that when ministering to those living outside of the faith, you have to first let them know they have value. You love the sinner, hate the sin. You have to be present to them, serve them as if they’re Jesus Christ Himself. We’re trying to see with the eyes of Jesus Christ — that’s the ticket.

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ESTELA MARTINEZ, coordinator of St. Mary’s mobile food pantry — It’s very exciting to be able to help those in need. That’s what we are here on earth to do — help one another, as our Savior says. We’re only here for a short time, and we have to make the best of it. This [the food pantry] is a great blessing to our parish, one of many ministries to come.

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HEATHER NELSON, CCD teacher for teens — Each week, we have a 90-minute time frame to make an impact on the students. We pray that through the Holy Spirit, they can defy the odds and not drift away from the faith. We can’t introduce the faith as being totally about the “rules.” We also have to share the joy of being Catholic, of being different. We hope to at least plant a seed in their hearts, letting them know that they can always call upon Jesus and Mary no matter what. And if they drift away, they can always come home to the Church.

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LEXI LOVETERE, leader in St. Mary’s “Y Disciple” youth group — Young Catholics are now embracing social media, for a good purpose. This is so important. We now see videos made by young Catholics around the country. They’re funny and cool, and they’re drawing in the youth. We have teens who aren’t even Catholic coming to our youth group now, and they want to be there.

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HELEN LEIN, member of Rosary group — We pray a lot. The harder things get in the world, the more Rosaries we pray. The family is in tough shape in this country. Children are being raised without a mother or a father. I know with the school here, through Fr. Andy, the children are given such a good example to be good and kind and holy and to put others before themselves. This is what the world needs.

The following first appears in the spring 2015 issue of Marian Helper magazine. Order a free copy.

By Felix Carroll (Feb. 23, 2015)

On a cold, dark evening in December, Fr. Andy Davy, MIC, steps up to the front door of his parish chapel in a quiet neighborhood in Plano, Illinois, but he doesn't need a key to open it. Not any more. It's unlocked — 24/7.

The worst thing that's happened was when a young girl from the neighborhood recently climbed up into the choir loft, thrust her hand into a piñata, and stole some candy.

Pope Francis has said "our church doors should always be open," and it's safe to say the Holy Father wasn't speaking figuratively. His advocacy for unobstructed ingress into the Catholic Church — literally and figuratively — has been the hallmark of a two-year papacy that's transforming the Church.

There's a term for this transformation: the "Francis effect." Saint Mary's, one of five parishes in the United States administered by the Marian Fathers, illustrates what can happen when Pope Francis's rallying cries for authentic discipleship are answered.

A Holy 'Mess'
"I want a mess in the dioceses! ... The parishes, the schools, the institutions, exist to go out!"

Those were Pope Francis's words at World Youth Day in 2013. Father Andy, the pastor of St. Mary's, was in Brazil for the occasion. He returned to Plano wide-eyed, fortified, and resolute to build upon his parish's existing ministries, create new ones, and boldly go where parishioners have rarely gone before: out of their "comfort zones" and into a secular culture that's increasingly indifferent, dismissive, or outright hostile toward the faith.

"For so many people, the norm was you go to church because you have to, or only because you'll go to hell if you don't," says Fr. Andy, who was ordained in 2009, one of about a dozen new Marian priests whose vocations were greatly influenced by St. John Paul II and his call for a "New Evangelization."

In the minds of many — including Fr. Andy — the Holy Spirit has drawn a perfect blueprint for a revitalized Church by means of three consecutive Popes. Saint John Paul II was the great philosopher who laid the groundwork for a springtime for the Church; followed by Pope Benedict XVI, the great theologian who inspired the faithful to rediscover the basic truths of the faith, grounded in Christ's mercy; followed by Pope Francis, the great pastor who puts mercy into action and embraces the simplicity and risk-taking spirit of the Church's earliest years.

Parishes such as St. Mary's strive to practice what Pope Francis preaches — to make Christ matter to the modern world; to create hope among the young; to be servants to the old; to be poor among the poor; and to include the excluded.

And to do so joyfully. Or, to put it in the Pope's words, to not be "sourpusses."

"He really did use the word 'sourpusses,' didn't he?" marvels Fr. Andy. Yes, Pope Francis employed the word "sourpusses" in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), released on Nov. 24, 2013.

Indeed, in a parish undergoing the Francis effect, people will want to go to Mass; they'll want to live the faith.

Who Are We?
In the fall of 2013, Fr. Andy stood before his congregation during Sunday Mass and asked, "How many of you know our parish's mission statement?" Not a hand was raised. He admitted he couldn't recite it either. He knew it was wordy and well-intentioned. But the fact he and his congregation were unfamiliar with it was proof enough it needed revision.

On the spot, Fr. Andy suggested the following 14-word mission statement: "To be led, and to lead others, into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ."

Adhering to the mission entails making Mass "matter," starting first with carefully crafted homilies that make the Gospel relevant to people's lives. It means forming intentional disciples who are missionary and evangelizing by nature. It entails being concerned with who's not here and loving them too much to sit in church and wait.

"Pope Francis has helped our parish to change our whole mindset," says Fr. Andy. "We have to be a 'missionary parish.' We cannot be content to just sit in our pews while the world needs to know the love of Jesus."

Feeding Body and Soul
Wearing a soiled, oversized winter coat, a man named Craig blows heat into his hands as he takes a seat in the pews of the church on a bitterly cold evening a week before Christmas. He's not a parishioner, but that doesn't matter right now to the St. Mary's volunteers unloading food outside. He heard through word of mouth the parish was handing out free boxes of food, and he needs food.

Plano, a town on the far western edge of the Chicago suburbs with a population of 11,000, has borne the brunt of a drawn-out economic downturn. A father of one daughter, Craig, who was laid off two years ago from a manufacturing job and now works for minimum wage at two retail chain stores, says he has been moved by St. Mary's generosity.

Enough to attend Mass?

"I'd like to, yeah," he says. "I'm not sure how Christian I am, but yeah."

The Francis effect is responsible for St. Mary's securing a grant last summer under Catholic Charities that brings a mobile food pantry to town seven times a year. The food is blessed by Fr. Andy, boxed up by parishioners, and distributed to about 200 families. The boxes include baked turkeys, fresh vegetables — the good stuff.

"Our parish had taken collections for the poor for years, but we had never really done hands-on ministry to this extent," says Fr. Andy. "And now we are tasting the sweetness of serving others that we might not ever have encountered, and it's catching fire."

Indeed, the food truck has helped build relations with the larger community, including the public schools. Father Andy, who now makes it a point to be a presence at high school sporting events, was asked to bless the football team last fall. A priest blessing a public school sports team is just about unheard of these days.

"The Holy Father wants us to step out," says Fr. Andy, "and this is the sort of grace that can occur as a result."

Ministries on the Move
The food truck is one of many St. Mary's ministries making a holy mess. Membership in the parish's youth group has soared from five to 40 students in the last couple years.

"And these are teens who want to be here," says Isabel Rubio, one of the group leaders.

A men's ministry formed two years ago now attracts 25-30 men for Saturday morning fellowship.

"We talk. We pray for each other. We step out in faith together," says John Lovetere, a member of the ministry.

The parish now hosts Marriage Encounters in Spanish. There are more ministries beyond that. The parish is looking for ways of providing medical assistance to the poor and uninsured.

And the parish is forming young disciples in its kindergarten-through-eighth grade elementary school, which puts heavy emphasis on both catechesis and works of mercy. Father Andy, priest-in-residence Fr. Michael Callea, MIC, and Fr. Matthew Lamoureux, MIC, pastor of a nearby parish, are all deeply involved in the school.

"When I was growing up, we didn't talk to priests. We were afraid of priests," says third-grade teacher Lisa McGill. "That's not the case here, and one of the results is the eighth graders actually want to go to confession now."

Parishioners agree that the seeds for the Francis effect were first planted in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the parish instituted Eucharistic Adoration in its chapel. Adoration continues nearly around the clock, seven days a week.

Indeed, a revitalized Church all starts and ends with Jesus.

"When we talk of the crisis in the culture and an erosion of faith," says Fr. Andy, "that forces us to get to the heart of the Gospel. There's so much to do, and it sounds overwhelming, but really it's very exciting."

Food for Thought
In the meantime, St. Mary's Parish has come to understand it cannot attract non-churchgoers to the Sacraments through coercion. They must first respect the dignity of each person and love the person as Jesus does.

Case in point: When parishioners gather to distribute food for the poor, they do so with a prayer that the recipients will equate this warm church building with hope, refuge, and healing.

"It's a soft sell," says Deacon Doug Wells, a jack-of-all-trades in the parish's many ministries. "We tell them they are always welcome here, and maybe they didn't know that before."

On the evening of the food distribution, Deacon Doug has placed piles of pamphlets at the door that contain information about the Catholic faith. While awaiting his turn to collect his food, Craig thumbs through a pamphlet. Whether he comes to Mass is a matter now for the Holy Spirit to sort out, Deacon Doug says.

In the meantime, you can't feed the soul without first feeding the stomach. To that end, Deacon Doug heads out to the food truck. He opens the church door. Along with his fellow parishioners, he steels himself against a stiff wind as he steps out of his comfort zone.

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Recommended Reading

These three resources have proved invaluable in St. Mary Church's efforts to revitalize its community life:

• Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), by Pope Francis, 2013.
Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter, by Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran (Ave Maria Press, 2013).
Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, by Sherry Weddell (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012).

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