Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Priscilla A. Greear - Florida Catholic
MIAMI | Pastors in Coral Gables and Kendall are inviting the faithful to ask them any burning (or mundane) questions and connect informally beyond Sunday Mass, following Pope Francis’ call to make the church more welcoming and accessible.
And the faithful are responding at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables and Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Kendall, from the sporadic churchgoer and Scripture hungry former Baptist to the incognito rabbi and parish council member.
In early January, Little Flower pastor Father Michael Davis welcomed a small group of parishioners and visitors into the elegant Spanish Mediterranean rectory on Anastasia Avenue, once owned by Gables founder George Merrick. Together they savored a sinful pastiche of postres, exchanged experiences of parish life and enjoyed an evening of fellowship before a return to the daily grind.
Father Davis has held the no-agenda “Dessert with Father Davis” gatherings quarterly over the last six years to build community in the booming Gables parish, announcing them in the parish bulletin.
“Some people see the priest up in the sanctuary and that’s about the extent of their experience of a Catholic priest. Even with our 3,200 registered families I’d venture to say there are a solid 2,000 of those families that I have never shaken their hand at the door of the church,” said Father Davis. The gathering is an opportunity “to reach out and welcome people to a deeper relationship with their parish and its pastor.”
He encouraged those who came that night to “courageously get involved” by attending an upcoming ministries fair.
“There are those who go to church and go home and there are those who come to church and make it a home,” Father Davis said, noting Little Flower’s 57 active ministries. “It’s a pretty brutal world out there and life is difficult without having God in the middle of it.”
Participants first gathered in the living room, accented with wood beams and a stained-glass image of Jesus, and later made their way to the 12-seat dining room for coffee and desserts. The pastor jokingly asked if any rabbis were present as he recalled how one had attended incognito, only to reveal his identity at the end and commend their joy as Catholics.
In introductions, former Episcopalian Verna Hume enthusiastically spoke of Son Flower, a ministry that holds a quarterly reception, Christmas party, Lenten evenings and other hospitality. Among seasonal events, there’s the candlelight rosary ceremony on the feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary and the unveiling of the church’s life-size Nativity — which during Advent led a trucker to park his 18-wheeler and kneel before it.
Cynthia Absher said she just moved back from Rhode Island and reconnected with the church she had joined three years ago after her husband died. She recalled emotionally how Father Davis had once told her after Mass that “we will journey together with Jesus.”
Another participant, raised Catholic, said she had been attending Baptist churches and now wanted to get “biblically connected” at Little Flower.
Jasmine Ventura said she hopes to get more involved after attending the parish for a decade. “I’ve been coming on and off to Little Flower. I really need more of a connection. Throughout these years I don’t know anybody.”
Hume invited her to consider the hospitality ministry, affirming that “there’s something here for everybody in our parish.”
Over at Lourdes, Msgr. Kenneth Schwanger also is striving to make the church more accessible. On a sunny Saturday morning at 9 a.m., he held his monthly Ask Monsignor office hours with coffee and sweets, and reflected cheerfully on his aim to create a safe space where active parishioners and shy newcomers alike can ask the pastor anything.
With zero inquiring Catholics on this slow Saturday, “It doesn’t look like you’re going to see us in action,” mused the tall, friendly pastor.
Nevertheless, he sees it as part of his ministry. “When word gets out, people know there is a predictable place you can come and ask questions. But like when you celebrate Mass, you celebrate if one person shows up or 10,000 show up.”
In July 2017, Msgr. Schwanger started the second Saturday initiative from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., mindful of those who may not be comfortable or have the opportunity to otherwise discuss issues with the pastor. He typically gets three or four members and highlighted a frequently asked question: how to love the unlovable neighbor — or coworker or family member.
“Authentic love is not a contract negotiation. It’s something that you freely offer to bless the other person. You’re not looking at what you’re getting out of it and how it’s going to serve you,” said the pastor. “Jesus gave his life wholly but he rose from the dead and when you give your life in that way you find new life, you rise with Christ.”
Holding degrees in business and law from the University of Florida, he said that as a priest he’s challenged daily to “walk the walk” and truly love and be open to his neighbor, through which he has felt deeply satisfied — and never lonely — in his vocation.
“Jesus says somewhere in the Gospels those who give up father, mother, brother, sisters for the sake of me receive a hundred in return and it really is true,” he reflected. “Through discernment and integration and prayer life the Lord has made clear to me that this is my place in the world in the grand plan.”
Msgr. Schwanger also welcomes theological questions in parishioners’ search for truth and formation of conscience, which he called “a lifelong journey” for the Christian.
“This is a place where anybody can ask anything — that’s the idea,” he said.