One of my passions as a priest (who was ordained in 1981 – thus the title of this article) has to been to help people more deeply understand the various liturgical rites of the church. I often try to find new ways to help people to encounter the power of liturgy that shapes and forms us as Christians. This is always done with an eye to the rubrics in the official liturgies (like the Mass) yet to celebrate the rites with full, robust and reverent use of symbol (lots of water at baptism, generous amounts of oil in anointing…). It comes naturally, it seems, for me to think outside of the box when adapting our Catholic rites and devotions. Some ways of doing rites don’t have to be done the same way over and over again just because “that’s how it’s done” or “it’s always been done this way.” My challenge to myself has been study the rite, explore how it’s ritual action can be done in a way that makes the meaning more clear and faithful to the meaning of what is taking place. Ask a few brides how I’ve challenged their concept of what a wedding should look like!
My desire to adapt and think “differently” about the enactment of rituals finds expression especially when it comes to devotional practices like Stations of the Cross and the Rosary.There is a richness to the Catholic ritual and prayer life that I sometimes wonder if people “get.” In particular, I want children to know the beauty of our liturgical and devotional life. I used to have move opportunity to teach and celebrate liturgy with children when I was at my previous parish since it was co-sponsor of a Catholic Grade School. Here, in my present parish, the interaction with children is a bit curtailed since there is limited time in the Parish School of Religion classes and I don’t want to take away too much time from their class time. Yet, the desire to make the ritual and devotional life of Catholics more interiorized and a part of their formation as disciples of Jesus leads me to look for opportunities to creatively have the children experience Catholic prayer that they might not otherwise be exposed to.
Such was the experience of yesterday, the 5th Sunday of Lent, of getting creative with an age-old pious traditional prayer of the church so that the youth (and their parents) would learn something about the history of the prayer, experience the prayer and maybe be moved in the heart by the prayer of The Stations of the Cross. The volunteer catechists were a bit anxious about the activity, I hear from the parish Coordinator of Religious Education, but with her and their help which I greatly appreciate, the morning’s event was a positive experience for all.
Several weeks ago I suggested to our parish Coordinator of Religious Education that since the stations of the Cross were originally a pious practice that pilgrims to Jerusalem actually walked the “via crucis” of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem to Calvary and then to the place of his burial, we should have the students experience walking from station to station outdoors. For centuries, thanks to the Franciscans who initiated the practice of setting up stations of the cross at churches in other places other than Jerusalem for people to “make the pilgrimage” to Calvary, generations of Catholics have symbolically been able to retrace the steps of Jesus. But, what has happened, in most places is that when the stations are prayed people stay put in their pew while a cross and two candle bearers walk the stations in the place of the assembly. This is how I experienced the Stations as a child. Whenever we hold stations in my parish I encourage people to walk along with me and the assisting ministers around the church.
I wanted the children to know the roots of the devotion and to see the norm is walking during the stations. Also, I wanted them to be more involved in making the stations their own than just saying someone else’s words while looking at someone else’s artwork. Since we don’t have a set of outdoor stations of the cross like some churches and retreat houses I decided the youth could make their own stations of the cross. I envisioned simple crosses drawn on the pavement of our parking lot with chalk. With the help of our CRE and catechists, the idea grew and so did the artwork. The catechists were given a card the CRE had found with pictures of the 14 traditional stations (I originally had planned to use the newer 14 designated by John Paul II which this parish is not familiar with, apparently). The youths were divided into groups, mostly by grade, and assigned a station to draw on the pavement that spans a city block. 30 minutes later the “stations” were ready and a short catechesis was given by me. The children were taught the traditional call and response “We adore you O Christ, and we praise you.” “By your holy cross you have redeemed the world” and how to genuflect during its recitation. We learned a simply sung refrain to sing while moving from station to station “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” At each station, a student read the name of the station and a sentence about it which I followed up with a short spontaneous prayer. Nothing elaborate was the intent. Just be simple and show that they could do the same thing on their own (in church or at home). With a word to be prayerful (the group was!) and no talking between stations, we were off to the first station and a journey into discovering the power of devotion, re-imagined, yet traditional and centuries old. It was a good experience for the parents, the youth, the catechists and the priest. I hope the children remember it as another way to encounter the mystery of Christ’s love. Perhaps we’ve begun a new annual tradition here at St. Mary, too.
Since the stations will stay on the pavement a couple of days until it rains or they’re worn off by cars and children from the middle school playing on the pavement I did tell the youth who attend school in our building that’s rented to the public school district that it was their duty to “evangelize” their classmates who were not Catholic. Surely, their friends and teachers would want to know what the pictures were. Even children, as members of the baptized, are to proclaim the Good News and this was going to give them an opportunity to live out their baptismal vocation in a unique way. Who knows what seed will be planted to bear fruit in the future because we decided to re-imagine a traditional devotion on the parking lot.