I spent Good Friday in Lenoir, NC, located near the eastern edge the Appalachian Mountain range. Catholic Extension supports a parish there called St. Francis of Assisi, which has experienced extraordinary growth in the last three years. During that short span of time, Sunday Mass attendance has more than tripled; religious education enrollments are five times more than what they were just three years ago; and as many as 70 lay leaders are taking on various ministries that serve the parish and the larger community. If you’re like me, you wouldn’t normally expect to find such a thriving Catholic community in a relatively small town of North Carolina. But, something special is happening here.
The parish’s leaders, Father Julio Dominguez and Sister Joan Pearson, who arrived here three years ago, are both innovative people constantly thinking of new ways for this church community to reach more people and create new leaders. Although they are always ready to try new things to make the Catholic faith speak to people, I quickly learned that their secret to success has been as much about getting back to the basics of the Catholic tradition and incorporating customs that have proven to sustain the faith for centuries. That is why parishioners in Lenoir spent more than three months preparing for a “living” Stations of the Cross, which was open to the entire community on Good Friday. Sister Joan expected attendance to jump this year, and sure enough, 600 people showed up for this mid-weekday Stations of the Cross. Given that the church only seats about 300 people, the Stations of the Cross had to be done outside. To enhance the experience, parishioners act out the scenes of each of the 14 stations in full costume and are accompanied by music and brief reflections.
At the 11th station, as the cross and the actor playing Christ were physically lifted up by the Roman soldiers and placed in the ground for crucifixion, I heard a collective gasp sweep through the hundreds of people as they came to their knees on the grass. Tears filled the eyes of many, as they reflected upon God’s love expressed through the cross and how that cross has been part of all of our lives. What impressed me the most about this experience, however, was the endless sea of toddlers, children and teens who were present at this event. Just as the Stations of the Cross were starting, I happened to turn around to see a steady stream of parents pushing strollers across the Church parking lot as they made their way to the stations. It felt as if they were literally carting in the next generation of Catholics to hear the same stories that our ancestors told.
Traditions like the "living" Stations of the Cross engage the parish youth in a compelling and inspiring way.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the afternoon was when a young boy, no more than five years old, broke ranks with the rest of us and wove his way through the actors to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he was being taken down from the cross. The boy reached out and tenderly touched the lifeless feet the Jesus. I have a feeling that for years to come that boy will remember his brief encounter with Christ this Good Friday. — Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension