Francis effect infuses St. Augustine in Philly

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St. Augustine parishioners prepare a meal at the Gift of Life Family House in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of St. Augustine Parish)
St. Augustine parishioners prepare a meal at the Gift of Life Family House in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of St. Augustine Parish)

by Peter Feuerherd

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Looking for the Pope Francis effect?

For Augustinian Fr. Bill Waters, it's alive and well at St. Augustine Church in Old City Philadelphia.

A landmark near the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, the church was founded in 1796 by the Augustinian Fathers, who also operate another venerable Philadelphia institution, Villanova University, located just outside the city limits.

St. Augustine is both a destination and a neighborhood church. Many come from outside the neighborhood to attend Mass, including a large community of Filipinos from the metro area who have adopted the church as their own. Center City Philadelphia has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, as condos attract newcomers and retirees who return to city life after rearing families in the suburbs.

Upon taking on pastor duties in 2014, Waters sought a unifying theme for the eclectic parish, and found it in the statements of Francis. He organized study groups around various papal documents before the pope visited Philadelphia in September 2015.

Waters discovered a renewed interest in things Catholic. Jews told him how much they admired Francis. And Catholics, he said, "feel good about being Catholic again."

St. Augustine began to feed off that new positive outlook by putting the pope's words into action.

"We built on what was already present in the context of what Pope Francis discussed about laypeople taking a more active role in the church," he told NCR. The parish calls its plan "Creating a Community of Involvement and Evangelization."

The Pastoral Council put aside all other business and devoted months to reading and reflecting upon the pope's apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"). After the study was completed, Waters challenged the group to come up with a pastoral plan to address the parish needs.

They looked on what was already in place and how St. Augustine could be a positive force.

Philadelphia's role as a medical hub generated increased parish interest in Gift of Life, a program that provides hospitality to families and patients seeking transplants in the city.

Eight hospitals in the city perform transplants, and those procedures often involve long and lonely stays from those from out of town.

Some 30 parishioners are involved in providing meals and conversation to the families staying at a nearby Gift of Life facility.

"It gives us a sense of mission and purpose, doing something good for people in a difficult situation," said Rosemary Lorenz, a leader of the parish effort. Church volunteers shop and cook meals.

The parish took on the Francis challenge of evangelization with a conscious effort to reach out to young adults who have found a home in the City of Brotherly Love.

The effort built on efforts already in place, including a 7 p.m. Sunday Mass, a spiritual bookend to the week for both old and young parishioners. It is the latest opportunity to attend Mass in the Philadelphia area, and is similar to liturgy hours on college campuses. Noted for its music, the Mass concludes with a social.

Chesley Turner, a Villanova grad and parishioner for the past 10 years and Pastoral Council member, said the parish is cognizant of what Francis means by evangelization.

"People find they can connect to him even if they have a hard time connecting to the church as a whole," she said. "We wanted to tap into that."

That means connecting with young hipsters, a growing force in center Philadelphia.

The church keeps its doors open on First Fridays, a regular monthly program that encourages visits to art galleries and other attractions in the neighborhood. At St. Augustine, the doors are not only opened, the sounds of music emanating from the church regularly attracts a crowd at the monthly event.

Another outreach is via the 60 weddings that take place each year at the church. Couples often select the church for its classic architecture as well as the parish's reputation for welcoming.

Many of the couples are not churchgoers, but during the preparation process they are gently asked to consider coming to Mass at St. Augustine. Some take up the offer and become parishioners.

Ed Riehl, a native Philadelphian, came to St. Augustine after returning to the city four years ago. An attorney, he led a parish committee formed to implement "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," Francis' encyclical on the environment.

 During Lent, parishioners were surveyed on whether they turned off their cars when they are idled and if they turned off lights in vacant rooms. Parishioners were then given tips on what they could do to improve environmental quality, such as shopping at markets that sell local produce. Parishioners volunteered for neighborhood cleanups.

"We feel we have parishioners who will want to get their hands dirty," said Riehl.

Another group formed around Francis' exhortation on family life, Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love").

The group consisted of a married couple, a single woman, a divorced man, and another man in his second marriage. They reflected on the responsibility to form conscience and to help people prepare for marriage, and the various cultural and economic strains placed on contemporary marriage.

The group concluded with a day of reflection for married couples on Valentine's Day weekend. Eighteen couples, married from six months to 52 years, participated.

Bill Schmedding, another parishioner, said that the references to Francis, in various committees and regularly in homilies, reinforces the parish's mission and message.

"We are not cheering for the pope," he said. "We support him. It gives us some kind of direction and organization."

As a result, he said, there's always an opportunity and invitation for parishioners to get involved.

Waters noted that the parish activities, taken individually, are not unique to St. Augustine. Other parishes engage in similar projects. Yet taken as a whole, Francis has given parishioners an invitation to get involved, and the people of St. Augustine have responded, he said.

[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR's Field Hospital series on parish life and is a professor of journalism at St. John's University, New York.]

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