Monday, April 27, 2009

St. James: Charity and Love

Happy Monday of the Third Week of Easter. I wanted to take some time today to share some information about my parish, St. James, which is located on the near South Side of the City of Chicago. The parish is over 150 years old and has a rich history. To get a sense of that history, click here. What this description of the history of St. James doesn't tell is what has been happening at the parish recently. As many of you know, Holy Name Cathedral here in Chicago had a fire in the attic earlier this year. After the fire, Chicago city officials decided to visit churches that had been designed by the same architect that had designed Holy Name. One of those churches is St. James. The officials arrived, examined our church, which has a few cracks on the ceiling of the south transept, and then ordered the church closed after the following Sunday's Masses. This all happened shortly before Ash Wednesday. My friend Rochelle, sitting behind me in church the day this was announced, began to cry, telling me that she had gone to grammar school at St. James and was a parishioner her entire life. It was a very sad day for St. James. We have been worshipping in our parish hall ever since. We are also in the middle of a capital campaign, "Towering Into the Future," aimed at raising funds to repair St. James' tower. I am proud to say that the parishioners of St. James, who total a mighty 250, are a resilient group of Catholics. What drives us the most, I believe, is the outreach that we provide to the local community. Our food pantry is serving over 2000 persons per month. Check out the photo of our food pantry above. The elderly in the area's homes and nursing facilities are well cared for by our Social Care ministry. St. James is indeed a parish that has its eyes fixed firmly on the poor and disenfranchised on the near South Side of Chicago. 
On this past Saturday night, we held our annual fundraiser for the social care ministry, "Jazzin' to Feed," a jazz concert with a big raffle and a silent auction. The planners had hoped to raise 50,000 dollars. God is good—we raised over 69,000 dollars. God is good.
I've been a parishioner at St. James for about six years. In that time, I have turned into a tithing Catholic. When one sees such need, I don't think there is a choice in the matter. God has blessed me in so many ways. I have no choice but to make a return to the Lord. 
A few years ago, I asked my pastor, Fr. Edward Linton, OSB, what he tells his confreres when they ask him about the size of the parish. Without hesitation, he said, "I tell them we are a parish of 16o0." I looked at him incredulously and said, "Where are all these people? I don't see that many at Mass. You've got to be kidding." He then challenged me, saying that my focus was too narrow. "You may think that there are only 250 people here, because that is roughly the number that go to Communion at Mass each week. But for so many of the poor in this community, they receive 'communion' in a different way. 'Communion' for them may mean a jar of peanut butter, or a box of spaghetti, or a bottle of shampoo. They know Christ through these simple things. They may not 'go to Communion' at Sunday Mass, but they are 'going to communion' in a parallel way when they come to the food pantry. Hence, I count these people as members of this parish." This certainly was an eye-opener for me. I don't want to argue the obvious theological concerns that this brings up. I just share this with you as a reminder of the connection between what we do at Mass and what we are supposed to do after we are dismissed from Mass each Sunday. My experience at St. James has brought me to see a stronger connection between the Eucharist and outreach to the poor. Fr. Edward reminds us often of that connection. 
As we—the people of St. James—continue our exodus in our parish hall, we have some obstacles ahead of us. We don't know the future for our church building. Our Mass attendance has dropped off since moving into the hall. Please say a prayer for us. But we are still singing and praying and helping the poor. In case you haven't noticed, I love being a Catholic. And that love is rooted in the local community. It's rooted in the people I have fallen in love with at St. James. I hope your experience of being Catholic is as rich and full as is mine. I hope your Catholic life is lived in a place where charity and love prevail.

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