According to Father Peter Grover, Director of St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine in Boston's Back Bay neighorhood, Catholics are starving for a deeper spiritual life. The order to which he belongs, The Oblates of the Virgin Mary, is devoted to feeding that desperate hunger. He's seen two parishes, St. Clement, and St. Andrew's in Avenel, New Jersey, revive under his direction. How did it happen? He made it possible for his parishioners to study the Scriptures and talk about their faith.
I watched Fr. Peter closely as he celebrated Mass recently at St. Clement. His graying hair was mussed in the back, as if he'd just rolled out of bed. Yet his face looked freshly scrubbed—as bright, I thought to myself, as a schoolboy's, with a touch of ascetical tautness. His spirit shone in his eyes, changing instantly with his emotions. Boston was in his voice: "a's" and "o's" flattened into an "ach" or an ache, his "r's" lingering in protest. His restrained manner brought out the liturgy's dramatic lines, and his simple yet profound preaching brought out the immediacy of the Gospel texts.
The fervor of his congregation was unmistakable. These Catholics sang like Baptists! Instead of stampeding toward the door at the closing hymn, they observed a short period of Eucharistic adoration. Where had such Catholic churches been all my life?
Many parishioners ask the same question when they first arrive. What makes St. Clement so different?
"We can't just tell people about Christ's life," Fr. Peter says. "We have to inspire our people to want Christ's life inside them. You can only have joy by living God's life. You've got to fall in love. The Lord asks Peter: 'Do you love me?' You've got to answer that question. Then the good works follow."
I visited with Fr. Peter looking for remedies to the lukewarm state of so many Catholic parishes.
I visited with Fr. Peter looking for remedies to the lukewarm state of so many Catholic parishes. Despite calls at the highest levels for a new evangelization, and the existence of outstanding lay movements such as Communion and Liberation, Focolare, the Community of Saint Egidio, and Opus Dei, local parishes have lagged behind in the renewal of true spirituality that Vatican II meant to inspire. An official with the Rome-based Institute for World Evangelization (ICPE), Nelida Ancora, recently suggested that what's needed today is for the local parish to embrace the spiritual vitality of the lay movements and incorporate their methods.
That's what's going on at St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine under Fr. Peter Grover's direction. "You've got to give people environments where they can talk about their faith," Fr. Peter says. "Normally, the priest does all the talking. He gets all the fun because he gets to talk about the faith, which is the greatest thing. But a lay person, he never gets to talk about the faith. You go to work, you can't talk about the faith—there you talk about the football game, politics. Maybe you go home and your wife and kids aren't interested. Where can you talk about the faith? It's the best thing in your life and you can't talk about it to anybody."
At St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine people do talk about their faith, in a variety of study groups. The young adult group meets every week to study and discuss the coming Sunday's Mass readings. The group begins with an opening prayer and turns its attention immediately to the texts. Social activities and charitable works occur as an outgrowth of the members' Christian unity, based first and last in study and prayer. This practice mirrors the catechetical methods of the lay movements. The room-bursting attendance at these functions provides evidence that people make the faith their own in a new way when they begin to speak about what's in their hearts. The program has been so successful that the Archdiocese of Boston has put the Oblates of the Virgin Mary in charge of running parish-based programs for young adults throughout the diocese.
'Normally, the priest does all the talking. But a lay person, he never gets to talk about the faith. It’s the best thing in your life and you can’t talk about it to anybody.'
The young adults program has its complements in an "Upper Room" program for middle-aged adults, an open Bible study led by Fr. Peter, a topical lecture series on great issues in the faith, a Hispanic program, and a Saturday morning breakfast where the new Catechism is taught systematically.
I suggested to Fr. Peter that many pastors might find centering every gathering in catechesis and spiritual development unworkable in their parishes. After all, St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine enjoys the benefits of being run by a significant if small religious order, which also maintains a seminary, Our Lady of Grace, attached to the church. Located in Boston's Back Bay, catercorner to the Berklee College of Music and mere blocks from Boston University and Northeastern, a "T" ride from Harvard, MIT, Boston College, and the other educational institutions of "America's Athens," St. Clement, I pointed out, must be packed with articulate members.
Fr. Peter quickly explained that the same approach revived the more typical suburban parish of St. Andrews in Avenel, New Jersey. Equally important, Fr. Peter explained, was that when he first came to St. Clement in 1995, his order had come to a decision that the church had to be renewed or shut down. Its roof and pipes leaked, the walls were blackened with the soot of votive candles and the city itself, and the cheap, half-broken chandeliers were about to fall down. No one was coming to Mass. The attached seminary also needed to improve its physical plant, as well as upgrade its curriculum, staffing, and students.
St. Andrew's and St. Clement were renewed by putting worship and catechesis first. Fr. Peter minimized the "happy get-togethers," parish dinners and the like, and took his parish leadership on retreats instead. By giving lay leaders opportunities to talk about their faith, he inspired them to claim that faith as their own and prepared them to lead others in doing the same.
I asked Fr. Peter how difficult this task was. I have been in so many Catholic groups where, when a theological question was raised, all eyes turned to the priest. The clericalism of the past has created an atmosphere in Catholic culture in which only the priest is expected to address such questions.
St. Andrews and St. Clement were renewed by putting worship and catechesis first.
He said that asking lay Catholics to talk about their faith can be awkward at first. They don't always have the necessary theological vocabulary, so they found themselves stumbling to explain things, the way most of us do when we take our cars to a mechanic. "That thing there," he says, mimicking such an encounter, "you turn it on and it makes a funny noise." Once people become comfortable, though, "they find themselves speaking the language; they start to talk from the heart and it's a great thing to see."
We talked about why so many pastors seem afraid of entrusting teaching responsibilities—particularly adult catechesis and ongoing spiritual formation—to lay leadership. Fr. Peter didn't want to generalize, but he attributed the problem to a lingering clericalism—"Don't talk about the faith," he said, spoofing these attitudes, "just shut up and listen, and I'll tell you what the faith is."
Then he introduced a truly radical and hopeful notion: he thinks that the religious vocation crisis in the Western European Church today is being used by the Holy Spirit to correct the clericalism of the past. The clergy and the laity must now join in a true evangelistic partnership in which the clergy and religious focus on feeding the people and the people bring the world to Christ. "God's running the Church, hang in there," he told me, gently chiding my pessimism. "God's doing a good job, He's directing the Church to where it's going."
In this new partnership priests are being directed to concentrate on the essence of the priestly vocation. "I can do three things that you can't do," Fr. Peter tells me. "Say Mass, anoint the sick, and hear confessions. Preaching as well—those four things, although the laity can preach in certain instances. I have to stay on mission in these things. To sacrifice hearing confessions to go to meetings, planning boards, or being a builder, that gets me further and further away from my mission."
Fr. Peter drew my attention to how "Jesus always stayed on mission." He remarked that Jesus was "the worst social worker in the world," because He didn't heal everyone, when He well could have. He knew that his mission was to bring the good news of the Kingdom and to suffer and die and rise again as a ransom for many, restoring humankind's communion with God.
We have to rely less on 'happy get-togethers' and concentrate on what the Church is truly about.
To carry out his mission, Fr. Peter follows the disciplines of his order in study and prayer, with particular emphasis on Eucharistic adoration, intercession with the Blessed Virgin Mary, and meditation on the Scriptures using Ignatian methods. "I have a responsibility to educate myself and be inspired; I can't inspire others unless I'm inspired myself. It's got to start here. That's what I found about the Oblates, that our founder gave us a way to keep inspired. You have to keep praying and studying and never stop. Otherwise you're not going to be able to give what you don't have."
Fr. Peter's order invites the laity into the same disciplines. Besides the Bible studies and other teaching groups that characterize the parishes they run, the Oblates of the Virgin Mary also conduct Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and other retreats, as well as spiritual direction, and training the laity to do spiritual direction. They also try to make the Sacrament of Reconciliation as available as buying milk. (At the order's St. Francis Chapel in Boston's Prudential building, the sacrament of reconciliation is available twenty-four hours a day.)
Because of his natural abilities, his study and prayer, and his formation in Ignatian methods, Fr. Peter is a powerful preacher. In his preparation he meditates on the lectionary passages, until he arrives at an "aha" moment—an epiphany of how our lives are taken up into the Gospel passage. He preaches as Jesus taught, with stories and common comparisons.
The day I attended Mass Fr. Peter spoke on Christ's generosity in healing those brought to Simon's house after dark, when Jesus must have been exhausted himself. The priest used a personal story about buying a small, vanilla ice cream cone, only to see a portion of the scoop shaved off after the server weighed it. Still, the server's tip can beckoned a response, and Fr. Peter tossed in his change, if begrudgingly. This caused him to understand that his own "tip can" before God is more like an enormous bin, and the measure in which we receive will be in accord with how we measure. So we pray to have the unstinting generosity of Jesus. "You'll get it back," Fr. Peter ended, "I promise you, you'll get it back." Anyone could see that the thought delighted him as much as he hoped it would delight his listeners. (Fr. Peter's sermons are posted on the .)
As we concluded our talk, Fr. Peter emphasized that the laity can undertake its role in the new evangelization by virtue of their experience. He used the example of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac. After the demoniac was healed, and his demons were dispersed to a herd of swine who plunged over a cliff, the man asked Jesus if he could come with him and be his disciple. Jesus told the man to remain in his home territory. He was simply to tell his neighbors what God had done for him. The next time Jesus visited the area, Gennesaret, everyone knew him. They brought all their sick and afflicted to him to be healed. That's how powerful the testimony of the former demoniac had been. "You don't have to complicate it with theology," Fr. Peter says. "Just tell what God has done for you."
'God's running the Church, hang in there,' Fr. Peter told me, gently chiding my pessimism.
I left my encounter with Fr. Peter Grover greatly heartened by what I had seen and heard. By virtue of our Eucharistic worship the hearts of the Catholic laity belong to Christ, but the inheritance of clericalism has created a Catholic lay culture mostly incapable of "speaking the hope that is within you." We have to start talking to one another about the unity we have in Christ. We have to rely less on "happy get-togethers" and concentrate on what the Church is truly about: the knowledge and love of Christ. It's not hard—in fact, it's a lot less time-consuming than the usual activities that consume so much of local parish life at present. The clergy need to stay on mission—to do what only they can do—while the laity must assume its diverse and multifaceted role in bringing Christ to the world.
First, though, as Fr. Peter says, we have to fall in love. We have to answer Christ's question—Do you love me?—anew, and with all our hearts.