As I mentioned in an earlier blog, this summer has been a summer of weddings for me. Often times I am presiding over two weddings each weekend -- this weekend [today], only one. Today I had the privilege of presiding over the wedding of Allie VandeHei and Saul Van Lanen. Because Allie is a daughter of Lourdes parish and a recent graduate of St. Norbert College, I have known Allie for the majority of her wonderful life. In fact, I not only know her, but her parents as well. I consider Dave and Ann to be good friends; but I also know all of Allie's grandparents -- the VandeHei's and the Baeten's are good friends of our local parishes, of SNC and SNA as well.
Unfortunately, I do not know Saul quite as well as Allie. Nevertheless, on all counts he seems to be a great guy -- a person of incredible integrity; so I suspect, hope and pray that this will be a lasting endeavor -- bolstered by their families of origin and the Church as well. But what I did not expect was that so many young folks from Lourdes -- former students from Lourdes Elementary -- would be present for the nuptial event.
During the Liturgy of the Word, I took an opportunity to quietly survey the congregation that gathered at Old Saint Joe's at 4:00 PM tonight. The church was filled with so many young folks who were grade school student at Lourdes during my formative priestly days as I served the parish as their associate pastor. As a means to get to know each kid by name, I served lunch to each and every kid in the parochial school each and every day during my years there. It was a quick and easy way to get to know their names -- and their temperaments as well!
Today, many of those kids gathered for the 4:00 PM Wedding Ceremony. At the conclusion of our liturgy, I thanked Allie and Saul for allowing me to preside over their wedding, but also -- given the congregation that gathered -- I thanked them for taking me on a trip down memory lane -- or at least, down Lourdes Avenue!
Throughout the ceremony, I noticed how much so many of these kids -- now adults -- have grown - in years, in size, in confidence and in grace. I instantly recalled memories of their First Communions, First Confessions, graduation from Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary and their Confirmation as well. Now, I have the wonderful grace to celebrate in their wedding celebration. In fact, I encountered another young student from Lourdes who asked me if I would attend his wedding celebration which is on the horizon for next year -- I have the privilege of knowing four generations of his good family!
Upon returning to the priory after the wedding, I noticed the DVD on my shelf which is entitled, "SLEEPERS." As you know, I relate many things in life to an already released DVD! In this case, I considered the DVD which stars Robert De Niro as a local parish priest. [Could there be anything cooler in life that that?] Robert, who plays, "Father Bobby" is called upon to represent in criminal court four of his parishioners who have gotten into a bit of trouble in life -- after so many years have separated them from their Catholic grade school experience. Because Fr. Bobby has been the only "father figure" many of these kids knew, he would continue to support them throughout their post-adolescent formative years.
Our story here is different than the Hollywood version of the Catholic parochial neighborhood in 1980's Bronx. The students who gathered at OSJ today have families who remain in tact. Their parents remain married, they continue to give to their church, the have stayed great friends with grade and high school classmates over the years. Sadly, after leaving the grade school, their relationship with Church often changes. Perhaps today they may not need their priests as much as they may have needed earlier on, unless a sacramental milestone such as today's approaches. And yet, today was a day to remember as a blessed past and a current situation wherein we recall how our church involvement in the past created a firm foundation which -- through the Grace of God -- gathered us together again, amidst one of the most holy and memorable days of their lives.
I have to admit, I felt pretty old today -- seeing these kids, now in the prime of their lives; knowing I am so much older than them! And yet it was a wonderful day, realizing that we could minister to each other so many years later as Church once again. Their needs have changed -- my ability to tend to their souls has changed as well. But it seemed so right earlier today. I am grateful that I am a priest who belongs to a religious order -- a religious family -- who ministers to a local church in any number of ways and at so many apostolates. Long ago, it was serving food in the cafeteria at Lourdes, preaching at the children's Masses on Thursdays. Today it consists of presiding over their weddings. What's next, their children's baptisms? Their parents' funerals? Who's to know? But serving in one local community over the entirety of my priesthood places me in a blessed position, reminding me daily that among the young and the old -- good friends from the past and people with whom I have yet to connect, "God's flock is in your midst, give it a shepherd's care!"
Father James Baraniak, O. Praem.