With song, prayer and service, parish’s different cultures united by faith
May 30, 2017
Rather than the traditional image of a “melting pot,” Franciscan Father Chris Posch, the pastor of St. Camillus in Silver Spring, likes to think of his diverse parish as a stew.
“It’s an inspiration, so many gifts, so many approaches to life, so much respect and sensitivity for diversity and reverencing other people and their approaches,” the priest said of his parish, which has about 5,000 parishioners from nearly 100 countries.
The Franciscan, who is of Irish and Slovak ancestry, said of the parish, “I think of a stew pot. Put all the ingredients into the stew and steam… Every ingredient has its own flavor and gives its own flavor to the other ingredients. Everyone is giving of themselves and enriching the other, and everyone is receiving from the others, growing, discovering and being edified. At the same time, everyone maintains (their) identity.”
Located in Silver Spring, which the priest noted has been found to be one of the most diverse communities in the United States, St. Camillus Parish, the people who serve and worship there, and its neighboring institutions reflect that diversity.
Father Posch – who is known as “Brother Chris” at the parish, in the Franciscan tradition, like its patron saint, Francis of Assisi, the early members of that order and those who serve today in Latin America – is from Long Island, New York, and the four other Franciscans serving there are from Cuba, the Congo and Costa Rica.
“We’re kind of a microcosm of the parish,” said the Franciscan, who wore his order’s brown habit and sandals.
Masses are celebrated each weekend in English, Spanish and French at the church, and in Spanish at its Langley Park mission, where some religious education classes have been taught in Mam, a Mayan language spoken by Guatemalan immigrants. Masses at the parish are sometimes also celebrated in Haitian Creole and in Bangla, also known as Bengali, the main language of Bangladesh.
“We’re all the body of Christ. God is revealed in all different cultures,” the priest said.
The neighboring St. Francis International School, which has 405 students in grades pre-kindergarten through eighth, is sponsored by four parishes: St. Camillus; St. Mark the Evangelist in Hyattsville; Our Lady of Vietnam in Silver Spring; and St. Catherine Laboure in Wheaton. The parents of students were born in 52 different countries.
The parish community also has an intergenerational identity. Located near the church and school are the Victory Oaks apartments for senior citizens operated by the Archdiocese of Washington’s Victory Housing corporation.
Some residents of Victory Oaks walk to the church for daily Mass, and the schoolchildren sometimes walk to the senior apartments for school activities, like a recent student mock trial, where some of the seniors served as jurors.
“It’s my church,” said Maria Luisa, a resident of Victory Oaks. She came to the United States from El Salvador 40 years ago and is a longtime St. Camillus parishioner, where she has served as a catechist and choir member over the years. “I like to go to church every day,” she said, noting that afterward people pray the rosary together in different languages.
Father Posch noted that St. Camillus has identified itself as a multicultural parish for three decades, but this past year, inspired by a program from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, it has taken steps to broaden its approach to being an intercultural parish, where its members make “a conscious effort to learn from each other.”
One way that has unfolded has been through faith-sharing circles at the parish, where people from different backgrounds sit together and share stories and their faith journeys. Forty parishioners, with roots in five different continents, recently went on a retreat together.
“We’re definitely inserting intercultural awareness into every aspect of the parish,” said the priest, who noted that a parish festival in mid-May included food and entertainment that reflected parishioners’ roots in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and the United States.
He added that as people experience the work of the Holy Spirit unfolding among parishioners from different cultures, “Every day is Pentecost (here).”
Toby Harkleroad, the principal of St. Francis International School, said, “I live in Bowie. I come here because this community is a real living community of the body of Christ.”
More than one-half of the parishioners at St. Camillus speak Spanish, and they share their faith and culture at parish Masses and programs, and to mark special religious seasons of the year, such as a dramatic, nearly three-mile long Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession between St. Camillus and Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Takoma Park, where the passion of Christ is re-enacted.
The real meaning of Christmas came alive in the parish’s Posadas celebration this past Christmas, a traditional Mexican novena from Dec. 16-24, where people dress as Joseph and Mary and seek room at the inn, knocking on the doors of people’s homes, where people pray and sing together and await the arrival of Jesus. This year, to give the celebration an intercultural focus, about one-half of the 300 participants were Latino and the rest were parishioners from other backgrounds, and they knocked at the door of the school and at Victory Oaks.
At the Easter Vigil at St. Camillus – where more than 80 people became full members of the Catholic Church, including 23 who were baptized – verses of a song were sung in nine different languages, as people from different backgrounds processed to the altar, each putting a cloth there that formed a tapestry representing their cultures united as one faith.
The parish’s traditional Lenten soup suppers even gained an intercultural flavor this year, as 13 different kinds of soup were served, and the diverse participants reflected on topics like the crosses they have faced in their own lives, and the times they have fallen down and when people helped them carry their crosses.
Sandra Perez, who has been a parishioner at St. Camillus since 1987 and the parish secretary and office manager for the past 15 years, said, “Now being intercultural, (there) is a deeper sense of being one with Christ despite our differences. As we share and get to know one another, and trying to understand each other’s background, we see we all are created equal, and it does not matter where you come from, as one also has the same struggle, the same dreams, and we are all trying to become better Christians by accepting one another.”
Perez, who helps coordinate the faith formation at the parish’s Langley Park mission, said she is inspired by parishioners’ “kindness to the poor and vulnerable, no matter who or where they come from, they do not go empty. They have found a family among us.”
Father Posch, who recently served as the director of Hispanic ministry for the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, and who served a poor parish in Bolivia, where he ministered to street children, spoke about St. Camillus Parish’s service to the poor and its programs to protect God’s creation and to promote peace – all Franciscan ideals that parishioners live out during the year.
The parish’s food pantry distributes about 100 food baskets each week. “If we’re short on rice, someone donates a 20-pound bag of rice. It happens every day,” he said.
An Earth Day fair was recently held in front of the school, with exhibits promoting ecological issues and recycling. This summer, the parish will again host a peace camp for children between July 31 and Aug. 5, with a family peace camp slated for September.
The parish’s intercultural focus, and its service to the poor and for peace, was reflected at a recent Sunday Mass. The Intercultural Choir led the congregation in singing an entrance hymn in the language of a tribe from Zimbabwe. The offertory song was in Spanish, and the closing hymn was an African-American spiritual.
In his homily, Father Posch noted, “We’re interwoven with each other, in relationship with each other. We are the body of Christ.”
At the Mass, Holly Foley, a volunteer with the St. Francis Builds mission trip program of St. Camillus Parish, spoke about her first trip, where parishioners helped build a school in a poor area of Nicaragua. “We work with people side-by-side, helping them, walking with them… The families lived in shacks. What little they had, they shared with us. It was clearly an expression of their deep, deep faith.”
Foley also described a recent mission trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where a group of 17 parish volunteers would be going in late May. When the parish’s pastor asked St. Francis Build volunteers attending that Mass to stand, several dozen, including choir members, stood.
Since the St. Francis Builds program began in 2006, parishioners have made more than 30 mission trips, including building houses for the poor in Latin America and the Middle East, and building and restoring homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Later this summer, the parish is planning mission trips to Peru and West Virginia.
After Communion, Joseph Cidade-Harkleroad, a third grader from St. Francis International School, spoke about the upcoming peace camp for children, and what he had learned at last year’s camp. “I learned (about) different kinds of peace,” he said. “There’s a peaceful mind and a peaceful heart. You can spread peace around the world. Everybody can be a peacemaker.”
Later, parishioners told the Catholic Standard about how the intercultural identity of St. Camillus has deepened their faith.
Yannick Allepot serves as a catechist and is in charge of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program for the parish’s French speaking African community, which is composed of people from 13 different African countries and Haiti. He and his wife and their three children attend Mass at St. Camillus, and the children go to St. Francis International School.
“Without the shadow of a doubt, the parish has taught me openness to others, in exposing me to different ways of celebrating the mysteries of our faith,” he said. “I have come to love and appreciate the orthodoxy, authenticity and deep attachment to Christ that are present in the different cultural expressions of our faith.”
Allepot said what he finds most inspiring about the parish is “its desire and willingness to go further and to challenge us to see Christ in whoever seems so different from us.”
Tracy McDonnell, the pastoral associate for liturgy and music at St. Camillus, since 1991 has led its music ministry, including its Intercultural Choir, a 40-member ensemble that includes parishioners from diverse backgrounds and a range of ages. The choir’s members formed the core of the multicultural choirs that sang at Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 Mass at Nationals Park and Pope Francis’s 2015 Canonization Mass for St. Junípero Serra at the National Shrine. Their songs are in many different languages and range from Gregorian chants in Latin to prayers or hymns in Hebrew, Spanish, French, Arabic and from a variety of African tribes, accompanied by instruments reflecting different cultures.
“The diversity of our community is our greatest blessing, and the music is but a reflection of that,” McDonnell said. “In addition, the spirituality of the Franciscans, reflected particularly in ministry to the poor and vulnerable and reverence for God’s creation, is something I have come to deeply treasure.”
Beth Hood, a member of the parish council at St. Camillus and a volunteer with the St. Francis Builds program, said, “What is most inspiring about this parish is that there are parishioners from all over the world, who despite differences of birth, language, race and culture – share the same faith, commitment and devotion to following Christ. We are able to share each other’s perspectives, music and heritage, while also seeing that we worship the same God. There’s something amazing about going to Mass among people who have elaborate headdresses, or saris, or humble dresses, or Birkenstocks, or whatever other dress that represents a person’s culture. It’s a visible representation that the Holy Spirit transcends culture and nationality, and finds all of us laying our hearts in the hands of God.”
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