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THIS is what a vibrant parish looks like

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I knew from the get-go that St. John the Baptist Church in Madison, Alabama, was an active and vibrant parish. After all, the people there scooped up 550 copies of my Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Catholic Catechism in order to use it as a text during the Year of Faith. That’s some serious Catholic mojo happening there. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, I received an email a while back asking if I’d be willing to come down and do a series of talks for the parish. That’s typically something that would happen on a diocesan level, at least where I come from, so the fact that a single parish would have the resources and motivation to do this intrigued me. Clearly they get it: If you don’t feed people, they just might walk away. And at St. John the Baptist Church, the people are being fed, and not just tiny scraps but endless buffets of spiritual goodness from what I saw on my recent visit.

The bulletin alone is enough to make that clear. Page after page of activities and devotions and opportunities for people of every age and background. But if you want the real proof of this parish’s vibrancy, sit through all five Masses on a weekend — I did just that last weekend — and watch in amazement as 3,500+ people come pouring through those doors, most of them with little children. I don’t think I’ve seen that many newborns in one place outside a hospital nursery. And at every Mass, when the children brought up donations for the food pantry as part of the offertory, I kept waiting and waiting for the lines of kids to end, but it seemed to go on forever. As far as I’m concerned, you can measure the health of a parish by the presence of so many young families with children.

As I listened to the announcements at Mass, as I looked around at the physical structure of the church, as I listened to the pastor and the associate pastor at Mass and watched them laugh and visit with their parishioners in the vestibule after Mass, I have to admit that I felt some pangs of jealousy. THIS Is the parish I’ve been looking for all my life. Can I commute from New York to Alabama every week?

Do you know what I think makes this parish work so well? It’s a beautiful blend of the best of our Catholic traditions. You cannot look at this parish and try to pin it down or label it, which is probably why I felt so at home there. From the obvious focus on Eucharist — the tabernacle at the center of the altar, the post-Communion prayer that weaves together Thomas Aquinas and the Baltimore Catechism in order to focus parishioners on the reality of what they have just experienced, the Adoration that occurs every single day in the little chapel after daily Mass — to the welcoming and easy-to-sing contemporary music and the inclusion of children and the casual rapport between the priests and the people. It all worked like a well-oiled machine, and as I watched happy faces streaming in and out of Mass after Mass, I thought: This is a parish that gets it. This is a parish that understands its people.

Confession is available three times a week. THREE times — on Saturday afternoon and two weekday evenings before the weekday evening Masses. Weekday EVENING Masses. A clear recognition that not everyone can go to Mass at 9 a.m. or noon. And those confessionals are active. Father Phil, the pastor, told me he was in the confessional on Saturday from 2:50 until just before 5 p.m., so two solid hours, and people just kept coming. And Father Joy, associate pastor, was hearing confessions at the same time.

It’s not hard to see why this parish is successful. There is a basic understanding that people need to be fed or they will go elsewhere, and so they are given sustenance through the sacraments and through ongoing adult faith formation, through babysitting for parents with young children who want to attend presentations and through conveniently timed faith formation programs for families, through its variety of musical styles at Mass — from choir to contemporary group with electric bass to single cantor and piano, depending on the Mass — and through its active Life Teen program and moms’ group. And on and on. If any pastor wants to see a successful parish in operation, stop by St. John the Baptist one Sunday and be amazed. I was. I’m just sorry I can’t go back next weekend.

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16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mary, this sounds like a match made in… heaven! :-) Although, I’m sorry that the geography is a bit challenging! It is a wee bit far to go every weekend. Oh Mary, it does my heart good to hear you so enlivened by this experience.

    October 30, 2013
  2. Wonderful, wonderful post, Mary. I love that you emphasize what CAN be done right. I love the idea of EVENING MASS…I would definitely attend. I also wish that our Catholic parishes had 20 minutes of music ministry worship BEFORE Mass began. So many people tell me they love the music worship in nondenominational churches and this is simply a “cultural” expression that could easily be accommodated in Catholic circles and would certainly prepare our hearts for the more solemn prayers of the Mass…however, I have also experienced the contemporary music during adoration, and it so rightly fits there, too. I HOPE, I HOPE, I HOPE that the Spirit will move us to such vibrancy.

    October 30, 2013
  3. Michele T #

    Thank you for coming to visit our “little” family in Madison. We moved here 11 years ago and I knew right away I was home!! We have seen the changing of pastors and parishioners and still the love and welcoming feelings are there. Every. Single. Day.

    Please come and visit us again sometime. Blessings.

    October 30, 2013
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      Hi Michele,
      It was such a joy to visit your parish. What a wonderful community! Thank you for making me feel so welcome. I hope I get to come back some day.
      Peace,
      Mary

      October 30, 2013
  4. Lisa L. #

    Thank you for the kind words regarding our Parish. We hope to see you again!
    My oldest child also attends our school; you can’t imagine what a blessing it is to be a part of this faith community every day.

    October 30, 2013
    • Michele #

      My oldest also goes to SJ school, and it really is incredible and unique in its spirituality.

      October 31, 2013
  5. Kim T. #

    Mary,

    I, too, am thankful you came & sorry I missed your presentations! We’ve had sick kiddos at home, so I missed all weekend. :-(

    What you’ve written does my heart good. We just joined the Catholic Church this year & this is the only parish we really know. We can only compare it to past protestant churches. Now I know for certain I don’t want to leave it! (not that we were contemplating.) :-)

    Thank you for your ministry and I hope you’ll return again soon.

    In Christ,
    ~ Kim

    October 30, 2013
  6. St. John the Baptist certainly does sound like a a vibrant parish. But there are others. A bit closer to home for you would be St. Joseph’s in Bronxville. If I recall correctly, the former pastor told me the parish has 4,000 families. We have seven Masses on Sunday, three every weekday, and the Sacrament of Penance M-S: after the noon Mass daily and between 4-5 Saturday afternoon. There’s a children’s Mass every Sunday at 9:30, and the few times I’ve gone it’s packed. I suspect the 7:15AM Mass is not heavily attended, but the 8:15, 10:45 (which I attend), noon, 1:00, and 5:00 masses are either crowded or at least well-attended, except in the summer, because Bronxville is an affluent town and there’s that whole weekend house thing. Five resident priests, a great elementary school, and (it appears to me) a high level of participation.

    October 30, 2013
  7. KarinM #

    I am so glad you came and enjoyed our little community! We moved to Huntsville 5 years ago and love it here. We love the area and we love our church! Please, come back at any time to visit! I have also started reading “Cravings” and it is really hitting a nerve in a good way!

    October 30, 2013
  8. Diona C #

    It was a pleasure to hear you speak Monday morning, you brought us great topics and great reminders for how we can focus our “everyday” on our God! I came here from CO 9 years ago and it has been a blessing in my faith life, but I could never have explained why quite like you did in this post. Thank you so much for your gift to us!!

    October 30, 2013
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      Thank you so much! I remember you because of the CO reference. :-)
      You were all so welcoming. It was a great weekend. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced that kind of joy in a parish setting.
      Peace,
      Mary

      October 30, 2013
  9. Bernadette Mayer #

    Mary, thanks for coming and also thank you for the faith writing – I look forward to reading “Walking Together” and “Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer” . Yes we are being spiritually fed – very pro leadership and response of the faithful. Priests are not afraid to explain and support our Catholic faith; great Diocese support and leadership too. Our faith community has grown in size and faith opportunities over the years. Having been a member of St. John’s for 20 years (grew up in WI, lived some years in TX), our active and vibrant parish started small. When our Religious Education building was built in phases starting with the six classes starting in the main level in 1996 and adding a grade level and double classes each year (building named after Father Patrick Murphy who lead the parish from a mission tin building to the present church built when there were less than 300 families, from the original 50 families) – shortly before the RE building was built, we had over 500 students in religious education and not enough room to educate them, yet some of our reluctant parishioners were afraid of supporting a Catholic school (Bishop David Foley announced at ground-breaking it would be a Catholic school and religious education building, sparing Father Murphy from negative parishioner pressure – these older parishioners have over the years realized the value of investing in our children). The year prior to the RE building availability, the solo priest’s garage was air conditioned in order to hold RE classes there! 1996 was also the first year for Catholic High School in Huntsville and that has also grown tremendously (now named Pope John Paul II Catholic High School, in a new facility; St. John’s has become the largest feeder school to JP2 once our school had 8th grade graduates). We hope the kind of opportunities we have here in Madison AL can happen in other parts of the country. I enjoy EWTN and find that also feeds me spiritually and allows me to have a better understanding of our faith – even though we are 100 miles away from EWTN satellite, I could not receive until DirecTv added EWTN – hispanic EWTN was available first – we had to change out our house’s receiver dish to get the added programs like EWTN. Your comments about being open to our faith rings very true. Living in the ‘bible belt’ allows more Christian faith to be expressed in our community/state; many Catholics are relocating here with jobs, and we have an active RCIA program – as a life long Catholic, I enjoy hearing faith journeys. The converts here have great faith! We Catholics can always do a better job living out our faith as Christians – fighting the ‘politically correct’ reduction of faith expressions publicly. Continuing to do all with Christ’s presence.

    October 30, 2013
  10. Terry Thompson #

    Mary, I was in attendance at the Sunday evening service when you spoke about what to expect from your presentation that would be following the Mass. I had planned to be there even before hearing your commentary. After listening to you and seeing your enthusiasm and humility, I knew I had made a good decision! I sat in one of the front pews and frankly, could not wipe the smile off my face while you talked.

    You had me right from the get-go. You were raised by a devout Irish Catholic mother. I was blessed to have two devout Italian Catholic women in my life: my Mom and Grandmother. I never questioned or rebelled against any of our Catholic teachings.

    Death was part of life to me. Coming from a large Italian family, we kids were expected to attend the funerals of relatives and friends. My grandmother passed away when I was in my thirties. When my mother died after battling cancer for five years, I came face-to-face with the greatest challenge of my faith life. It was then that I truly owned my faith. The beliefs that I had professed throughout my life became a realization of truth. These beliefs would sustain me in the days and years ahead. In retrospect, I had taken them for granted. In order to live through the loss of my mother, God finally had my full attention. Does this sound familiar? He got it again when my husband of 36 years suddenly died.

    I’m now 72 years old and enjoying my days of retirement. As a matter of fact, prior to retiring I had been the Pastoral Associate at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Madison for 13 years. The job description for this position is different from parish to parish and even from diocese to diocese. At St. John’s, I was responsible for directing the religious education formation/education of our members. In the world of Directors of Religious Education, the acronym DRE has been defined as “directly responsible for everything”. While working there, I also helped with the coordination of parish ministries and the programming for liturgical seasons. Your sentiments about our parish pulled on my heart strings. It was an affirmation of what so many people have worked toward accomplishing! Under Fr. Phil’s leadership, opportunities to minister to the needs of our parishioners are more available. He is not afraid to use parish resources to hire the qualified staff members to provide this direction. When I retired, there were two full-time staff members and three administrator. And, there were already about 1800 families. Today, those numbers have tripled. He is a visionary and recognizes the need for leadership in the respective areas of ministry. He also encourages those leaders to enlist the talents of the lay people to develop the ministries.

    Some thirty years ago, I was asked to help out as religious coordinator in a newly formed parish in Huntsville, Al. We had just moved into the area. Little did I know what God had in store for me. I grew up during the forties in a Philadelphia suburb and graduated high school in the late fifties and was a college student during the early sixties. Lay people just did not work in the Church during my formative years. I have had the ride of my life. I still question, why me God? There have been up days and yes, there have been down days. I often had to go to my room at home and lock the door to find a quiet place to pray.

    The greatest blessing to my prayer life has been the practice of Centering Prayer. It is a prayer form that speaks to me. I can pray anywhere, any time and any place. Except, of course, while driving. Driving with eyes closed would definitely give me the opportunity to arrive at the pearly gates in a hurry. There are days, though, that I take this beautiful prayer form for granted. Thank you for reminding me of the need to step away from the busyness of life. Thank God for the gift of Thomas Merton. Climbing his ‘seven story mountain’ has been worth the effort.

    Mary, I have totally connected with you. I look forward to another opportunity for our paths to cross. I have two friends who live in Albany. They are Sisters of St. Joseph of Chrondolet. Do you live close to that area? Sister Marilyn Vassallo, who is a canon lawyer and believe it or not, also, a spiritual director would be someone, I think, you would enjoy getting to know. I know, I know, I only met you once and now, I am suggesting a spiritual director for you! Kind of like those folks who want to help you become less rosary-challenged. She and I have directed retreats together.

    By the way, when you talked about your first silent retreat, I had to keep myself from laughing out loud. I completed my first seven-day silent retreat this past summer. You are so right, it takes two days to develop the rhythm of the experience. It was in the ordinariness of those days that I encountered my God in what you were calling ‘a conversion’ experience.

    Thank you for saying “yes” to your calling. God has blessed you abundantly, Mary. And, like Mary, our Blessed Mother, He is pleased with you and the way you are helping spread the Gospel of His Son, Jesus Christ.

    I will keep you and your family in my prayers. Whenever, I hear a gong, it will be a reminder of your little girl, Chiara, yelling out, “it’s time to pray.”

    My silent retreat was at The Chiara Retreat Center, a Franciscan place of spirituality in Springfield, Illinois. Another New Yorker, Andre Cirino, OFM and Josef Raischl, OFS (Josef lives in Germany) directed us through a “Journey Into God” by St. Bonaventure.

    The song goes on…in the hearts of all who wrestle with God.

    Sincerely,

    Terry

    .

    October 31, 2013
  11. BeHonest #

    It’s nice when you can go to a parish and
    Actually be fed… Our religion has it all.
    You can get that in NY as well come to
    Central Harlem to St. Charles Borromeo
    … I love to hear about people experiences
    When visiting other parishes… I’m glad
    you had a great experience! :-)

    November 1, 2013
  12. Cheri F #

    I am also from St. John’s in Madison, AL. Thank You for enriching our Parish! A friend I will begin Sharing Cravings this Thursday… Over lunch.
    We met after 8:30 mass regarding our similarly curly locks. Enjoyed both of your talks on Sunday!

    November 4, 2013
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      Hi Cheri,
      Yes, I remember meeting you! Enjoy Cravings. Let me know what you think of it.
      Peace,
      Mary

      November 4, 2013

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