When we arrived in Boston three years ago, the parish had many problems: the priest who had preceded us was aged and ill; he had been here for more than 20 years and saw a rapid decline of the parish community that was once the second or the third largest in the entire diocese of Boston. He did what he could in the last couple of years, limiting himself to the essentials, to keep the parish alive. When we arrived, we did not begin with “great projects”, but rather, we sought to build upon what was there before, and upon what the Church offers as ways to help flourish Christian experience: the Sacraments, prayer, and common life.
For example, we reintroduced the Stations of the Cross during Lent, which had disappeared in recent years, and we prepared the central moments of the liturgical year with care. We put forward, with simplicity and clarity, the invitation to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, at times in the form of a “penance service.” With the help of two Italian friends, Gabriele and Miriam, we gave order and life to the hymns, aiming especially to help the community participate in the liturgy, and avoiding a mere “time for listening.” These simple suggestions were enough to make our parishioners happy and grateful. As to the Confession, we saw the positive effects of making ourselves available to the people. They were yearning to live the Sacrament as a gift from Christ, and it was made possible through our presence.
I took up the catechism group. America is a place where it is very important that “the machine functions and produces as it is programmed.” The catechism group was like this when we arrived. There were all the necessary elements: the classrooms, catechism instructors, programs, books, etc. The children prepared themselves to receive the Sacraments, but, as it happens in many other places, they all would disappear afterwards. In reality, they had not really entered into the Christian way of life from the beginning. The majority of parents send their children to catechism, but do not come regularly to Sunday Mass. In the past three years, I worked with Mary Grace, a high school teacher, to help the families to get involved with their children’s catechism, as an experience of faith for everyone and not exclusively for the children. We invited the families to come to simple events, such as the Palm Sunday’s procession where the children bring up small boxes with allowances put aside during Lent. It was an occasion to propose catechism to the parents as well. Every Sunday, I briefly visit all the catechism classes: I exchange some words with the children, ask some questions, and invite them to pay attention to the liturgical moments or to the Sacraments that they will be receiving. I am beginning to realize more and more the importance of being fully present: if you make yourself be seen, to children as well as to the adults at the end of the Mass, they begin to see themselves, not as part of a “parish program” or a “liturgical ceremony”, but as a part of life, of a community.
We have a handful of funerals at our parish, an average of two a week. Today, I celebrated a funeral where many people were present: the funeral of Anne Marie, a 54-year-old lady passed away with cancer. Funerals are often dramatic; it is not always easy to stay in front of the mystery of death and pain. However, I am discovering the enormous value and the dramatic beauty of offering back to the Heavenly Father His daughter or His son. They are moments where I am constrained to surpass the daily routines of life to gaze at the face of the Mystery of God that is Himself Life after death. Even if I do not know the majority of the people whom I accompany during their last earthly voyage, funerals are always an occasion to encounter every one of them, a moment where I cannot be banal about what I say, a circumstance in which I am called to face my fragility and the fact that I am created by the Father. The words that I say cannot be mine: in fact, there aren’t any words that can stand in front of death. However, there is the word of God, meditated and lived out by the Church in liturgy and in prayer. A funeral is also an important moment to meet the families: it is still the tradition to invite friends for lunch the day following the funeral. These are brief moments, but they leave their traces in the memory. It is often the only way they are connected to the Church, together with baptism, which remains with the people. At the wake, it is evident how people are embarrassed to stay in front of death, and how they are in some way looking for certainty, for an answer to their questions.
One of the most significant moments during these years at the parish has been getting to know Marie Bolger, an elderly lady around 60 years of age from Boston, who comes to confession regularly. Marie broke her spinal cord at work about 20 years ago, and from that moment, she has been going though every sort of health issue. She had been away from the Church for some years, but about 10 years ago, she returned to the faith. When we came to St. Clement’s parish, she had also recently moved to the area with her husband, because they had to sell their house and their property. Marie spends her day going from doctor’s appointment to other visits. She had not studied; she is simple yet has a great affection for Christ and for the Church, which has been teaching me a lot. Her judgments surprise me because they as are authoritative as the ones that I have been taught in the Fraternity and in the Movement. Her way to live out her faith with desire and simplicity permitted God to build in her a heart rooted in Christ. “Once in a while, I think about how beautiful it will be to see the face of Jesus,” she tells me often. And she says this with the concreteness of a lover who is in search for the loved one. She thanks me every time we meet, because as a priest, I am an instrument of the gift of the Father’s mercy during the Sacrament of Confession. I answer her by saying that I am the one who needs to thank her, for the gift of her simple faith and the friendship with me.
In the photo: Father Paolo Cumin with St.Clement’s youth group, in Boston.