Over the course of a gorgeous fall weekend last October, formation faculty member Dr. Patricia Klein led Mundelein seminarians Michael James (Syro Malabar – Chicago), Lee Noel (Diocese of Cheyenne), and Michael Baldwin (Diocese of Grand Rapids) on a brief but influential immersion trip to three nearby Spanish-speaking parishes in Waukegan. The group from Mundelein was able to spend time at Immaculate Conception Church, Queen of Peace Church, and Holy Family Church. The weekend’s activities promised opportunities for shared prayer and for learning about the community outreach of surrounding Catholic parishes.
Beyond the laughs, deep discussions, and fellowship of that weekend, it became clear that compassion, community, and encounter were the three main values observed and developed in a short span of time. Thanks to the monetary and prayerful support of donors, the seminarians now get a chance to implement those same lessons during their annual Pre-Theology class service trips, with one group going to Piura, Peru from February 11-18 and another cohort traveling to visit Native American communities in rural Arizona. The seminarians are looking forward to relating to the Peruvian culture in a deeper sense and are hoping to serve with a renewed connection to the people on a different continent with virtues that they honed in their own backyard during their October immersion experience
Beginning the weekend in prayer, Dr. Klein led the students with a reading from Pope Francis’ 2013 encyclical The Joy of the Gospel, focusing on the Church’s responsibility to serve the poor and restore the dignity of all people. Fr. Tim O’Malley, rector of Most Blessed Trinity Church, graciously served as host for the group and got their trip started by getting the group involved with the parish soup kitchen, which was serving dinner in the church basement. Being able to share a meal with patrons, listen to their stories, and sometimes just sit alongside in quiet while enjoying good food was a powerful experience of the “ministry of presence.”
The seminarians and Dr. Klein received further confirmation that their trip was going to be a powerful demonstration of the presence of community when Fr. Tim drove past his parish to introduce them to a men’s group of parishioners who were volunteering their time (on a Friday night AFTER work in the COLD!) to put new tar and asphalt down in the church parking lot. The display of compassion by the men for their church was a moving scene. The night continued when Fr. Tim brought the Mundelein quartet to meet the young adult group from his parish and join them for their monthly outing, which involved a hayrack ride, hot drinks, and quality conversations at Kroll’s Fall Harvest Farm. Enjoying fellowship amongst a college-aged crowd and observing the tight-knit bonds they had developed served as a powerful reminder that time spent together building up the community pays dividends when it comes to making disciples for all nations and keeping a solid foundation in the Church.
Saturday morning began with a rosary in Spanish that was hosted by the Holy Family Church pro-life prayer group, followed by a Spanish Baptism also at Holy Family led by Fr. Tim. Both settings offered ideal examples of the intersection of prayer and culture, something that will undoubtedly be present in Peru as well. A faith formation retreat was taking place just down the street at Immaculate Conception, and it was impressive to see the number of people (around 200) in attendance. There was cause for even more elation when we were told that it was essentially like this every weekend!
Much like the young adult group, this was another significant reminder that the Church is thriving in many areas. After a nutritious lunch of local Hispanic fare with some of the retreat leaders and visiting priests at Immaculate Conception Church, the Mundelein group headed out to visit Joe Russell III, a brother with the Order of St. Benedict. Brother Joe is the founder of the Flowering Tree on the Back of the Great Turtle, an educational resource center in Waukegan that provides outreach programs and life skills classes for children in the surrounding neighborhoods. Their school promotes the importance of nutrition, sustainability, cultural appreciation, and diversity while weaving in Catholic teachings and themes. The school has become a pillar of their community as a well-respected beacon of hope for many neighbors who see it as a prime example of promoting the dignity of all people.
Upon returning to Fr. Tim’s rectory, praying evening prayer together, and walking across the street to Immaculate Conception for Reconciliation, the trip culminated with a Spanish celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Witnessing the love that this community has for their church was moving, and the celebration continued in the church basement with a tasty potluck dinner as well as good conversations to conclude the service trip.
The Waukegan experience offered plentiful opportunities to stretch the souls and minds of the participants, and it is precisely these memories that the seminarians will draw from when they serve their host communities in Arizona and Peru. Specifically, it was a joy and privilege to see how the lives of parishioners seemingly revolved around their church communities. By centering their hearts around Jesus through group prayer and activities, they were able to use their faith as a springboard to serve others and promote the dignity of all people.
When discussing their experiences with their classmates, there is a shared confidence amongst the Pre-Theology seminarians that these upcoming mission trips will bear fruit for students and hosts alike. As the Waukegan participants make final preparations for their respective mission trips, it is apparent that there is a common humanity in the Church that will undoubtedly be present in both Arizona and Peru in the people they serve. The lessons in compassion, community, and encounter that were experienced in Waukegan have molded them to be better disciples for and with the people of God. Now they go forth in order to apply those experiences in foreign lands, open their hearts, and be witnesses of Christ’s love.