New Jersey parish holds service to pray about national anxieties

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by Peter Feuerherd

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Praying a little harder than usual? A bit nervous about what the future holds? Not feeling the make-America-great-again vibe?

The people of St. Anne Parish in Fair Lawn, N.J., share your anxiety. So they prayed about it at an Advent service Dec. 12.

The idea for the service, which featured the social teachings of Pope Francis, grew out of the anxieties and spirited discussions that surrounded the post-election season, noted Donna Stickna, director of faith formation for the parish, who organized the event.

An octogenarian parishioner, who follows current events avidly at home via her computer and wanted to remain anonymous, brought up the need for a prayer service. The parish agreed, invited local Muslims and Jews, and scheduled the service. It attracted about 40 participants.

It was welcome, said Stickna.

"I thought it was fantastic. I saw the pain, confusion and the uncertainty and fear among my parents," she said. During the election season, 8-year-old catechetical students pushed their teacher to talk about what they were hearing at home and in the media about the 2016 election.

"Everyone on both sides was unsure about how it was going to play out," she said.

Fair Lawn and surrounding Bergen County went for Hillary Clinton, as did blue-coded New Jersey. How parishioners from St. Anne voted is an unknown. Stickna emphasized that the service was not simply an opportunity for disgruntled Democrats to express their anguish.

"The prayer service was not anti-Trump or pro-Democrat. It was about our challenges and what the pope is saying [about them]," she said.

In that spirit, Stickna invited a good friend, Barbara Semeraro, a Republican who voted for Donald Trump.

"We are polar opposites politically. But she loved it. She thought it was wonderful," said Stickna, who worried during the campaign that their four-decade friendship might have trouble surviving the wider divisions in the country.

Participants in the prayer service reflected upon issues such as immigration, the economy, prejudice and poorly run government. The prayers were interspersed with quotes from the pope.

For example, on immigration, Francis was quoted:

"Where is your brother?" His blood cries out to me, says the Lord. This is not a question directed to others; it is a question directed to me, to you, to each of us. These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace; they were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death. How often do such people fail to find understanding, fail to find acceptance, fail to find solidarity? And their cry rises up to God!

On the economy, the pope was quoted as saying it was "necessary to remove the law of profit and gain from its central place, and to put the person and the common good back at the center."

On government, the pope was quoted as explaining, "The culture of extreme individualism ... has led to a loss of a sense of solidarity with and responsibility for others."

And on racism, the point was that whenever minorities are persecuted, "the wellbeing of society as a whole is endangered and each one of us must feel affected."

While the papal quotes are nonpartisan, they sounded far different from what was frequently expressed in the campaign by President-elect Trump, who regularly invoked promises to deport millions of immigrants and to register Muslims while banning them from entering the country.

But unabashed Trump supporter Semeraro loved the atmosphere nonetheless. The music was exquisite, she said. She said she learned more about what the pope was saying about current issues and looked forward to learning more, acknowledging that there is a difference between the pope and the incoming president on issues such as immigration.

"It's okay. He's the pope and he [Trump] is the president, and never the twain shall meet. That's OK with me," she said, offering praise for both the president-elect and the pontiff.

All in all, she said, "it was a great bipartisan service. We all needed it. We left our political feelings at the door."

The service ended with the parish choir singing "Let There Be Peace on Earth," followed by informal discussion that extended the bipartisan sense of fellowship. The parish is looking to do something similar during Lent.

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

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