The pastor at St. Vincent de Paul’s Parish, Stephen Vrazel, joins us for this edition of Faith Time. Here’s a look at our conversation:
Chad: We wanted to talk about Lenten missions? What are those?
Guest: A parish mission is a series of preaching, prayer, and worship that takes place in a parish over a period of a few days to a week. The mission refers to the priest or religious brother or sister who is sent to a place (or invited to come) to preach the good news. They generally occur during the seasons of Advent and Lent, so we often call them Advent or Lenten missions.
When we say mission, it’s not talking about foreign missionary work, but home missions, where we reinvigorate the faith of the people of our parish. It’s a practice that’s not that dissimilar from tent revivals and circuit preachers in other Christian traditions. People get accustomed to hearing their own priest’s preaching, both in content and style, so it’s good for someone from the outside to come in on occasion and give another perspective.
Being pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish, missions are particularly important to me, because our patron saint, St. Vincent, was famous for the missions he gave. Even the society of priests that he founded (which goes by the nickname Vincentians) is called the Congregation of Mission.
Chad: Where did you go and what did you do?
Guest: Since I am a pastor of a parish, I’m not free to go and give missions as often as priests in other ministries are. The first mission that I gave was at the Cathedral parish of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, up in Canada. I’ve also given a mission at Our Lady of the Gulf in Gulf Shores, and most recently, a parish in Pittsburgh.
The schedule can vary slightly from parish to parish, depending on the needs of the people and the direction from the pastor, but my missions include preaching at all the Sunday Masses, added times for confession and Eucharistic adoration, and a series of three talks given over three days or nights. I also make myself available for whatever other ministries the pastor would like me to do.
Chad: do trips like these reinforce the message of the season?
Guest: During Lent, Catholics are generally more open to committing themselves to more extraordinary spiritual exercises. They’re looking for something more to do, for more opportunities to follow the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, as well as to be more open to repentance and conversion. The character of the preaching at a Lenten mission is usually penitential since that’s the theme of the season. For instance, the talks that I give focus on the biblical notion of “hardness of heart,” how our hearts can be closed off to God and we don’t even realize it. A Lenten mission can really open people’s eyes and hearts to a new experience of God’s love and mercy. Often when the missionary is a priest, like me, we have added time for confession. People are a bit more willing to go to confession to a priest from far away whom they will never see again.
Chad: what have you learned on these trips?
Guest: Jesus said of himself that a prophet is not heard in his native place, and there’s some truth in that. Even if a priest didn’t grow up in a parish, people get used to you, and sometimes that familiarity can inhibit your ability to really challenge people. A mission is a chance for an outside voice to come stir things up and light a fire under people. Whether it’s been the times I have invited priests to come speak in my parish or the times I’ve gone out to other places, I find the missionary can speak with an authority that is different than the pastor, and people are receptive to it. It’s an important method of evangelization, and I think that’s why it’s not something that’s really limited to Catholicism.
Chad: What is the best thing someone can get from doing this kind of service work?
Guest: I love being able to experience the Catholic nature of the Church, that is, the universality. When I go to a far away parish, there is so much that is familiar: the prayers of the Mass, the sacraments, etc. But there is also a lot of diversity. The Church is everywhere and for everyone, but it has a different flavor depending on where you go. The history, the demographics, the music, even the accents vary so much from place to place. It’s edifying to see that diversity and know that we are all still brothers and sisters in Christ.
Chad: what is the biggest challenge of a mission like this?
Guest: Being away from my parish. I’ve returned this week to St. Vincent’s after being away for two consecutive weekends, and I miss my parish family. (From what I hear, some of them actually miss me too.) They’ve never heard what I have to say on these parish missions, and I think they sort of wonder what I’m up to when I’m away. That’s why I’ve decided to offer the same mission that I gave last week in Pittsburgh to my own parishioners during Holy Week, starting the evening of Palm Sunday, March 25 and concluding Tuesday, March 27. Anyone out there whose curious as to what a Lenten mission is, you’re welcome to join us at St. Vincent’s.