Early Sunday morning I knelt before the tabernacle in a large empty church in a big city. The church is my church, St. Anthony of Padua, in Cincinnati. My prayer is distracted by thinking of all the work that must be done to keep this parish alive. When Bishop Zaidan asked me to serve St. Anthony of Padua here, I told him confidently that I will serve wherever the Holy Spirit wants me, thinking to myself of the great act of devotion that my parents did, when I was one year old, dedicating me to St. Anthony of Padua, and taking into consideration the powerful impact that the MYO of this church had on me during the 2014 retreat.
But kneeling in this vast empty church, my confidence is waning. Confidence in myself, that is.
Over the past 5 years of parish work in Cincinnati, I worked hard and expected the parish family to respond. The people of God did respond—our Sunday liturgy attendance, church groups, and income increased in a few years. That made me feel good, and naturally led to the pride common in successful pastors. Now, however, kneeling in this vast empty church, I get the feeling that it is humility time. I begin to see that nothing I do will double the number of parishioners coming to this parish. There’s too much competition for their time and money in this city; indifference has devastated family life in Cincinnati.
In this space I was moaning over the attendance. But I guess I could see the church as one half empty, or I could see it as one-half full! The other day I was again praying in the church. I was struck by the goodness and beauty in our parish, even when attendance is not the best. I began to think of all the good folk at St. Anthony’s — ...those who work at the festival, our religious education, family ministry, librarians, those who pray in the church every day, those who sing in our choir, those in our MYA, MYO, Dabkeh, Sodality, NAM, parish and finance councils, Maronite convention team, our capital campaign and building committee... By God’s grace, our parish is flourishing and will flourish more and more, if we want!
I’m 43 years old and it’s time to surrender to God. In the first 5 years of my priesthood, I worked at a frenzied pace, depending a lot on myself. As I get older, God is giving me the gift of weakness, so that He may be strong. The reality is, it is God who grants the increase. Even if He is pleased to accept our help, He certainly doesn’t depend on it.
So I stay in this empty church, and it is God I find in it, not myself. He has largely erased my own powers, and the affirmation that comes to a priest when his church bursts with people. In a greater measure, then, I have found the only beauty and love that never wanes, but only grows brighter with time. God has brought me to this vast empty church to find Him, in whom my heart is glad… This is how I am understanding the Renewal of the Church, today.