Catholic Herald staff
In the back of Good Shepherd Church, Rib Lake, a prayer pot contains the names and addresses of lapsed Catholics.
Each week during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, parishioners pray their loved ones – friends, neighbors, family members – will return to the church.
“Come back to me” is the Year of Mercy theme at the parish. Capuchin Fr. Otto Bucher, pastor, said the idea for the pot came, “I guess from the pope.”
“I think we took it very seriously, the Year of Mercy, and particularly to bring people back to the church,” he added. “A lot of people are supposed to be Catholics … and a lot of people aren’t practicing the faith.”
Praying for lapsed Catholics is one part of the effort; during Lent, those named in the prayer pot will also receive a letter. They will be told the parish is praying for them and invited to visit a Catholic church in their area.
In the village of Rib Lake, home to fewer than 1,000 people, Fr. Bucher, his staff and parish council aim to convey the same message. They hope the Year of Mercy will be a year of homecoming.
Mary Kauer, parish secretary, believes the ministry of mercy is working. Already, two couples have come into Good Shepherd seeking to strengthen their marriages.
Fr. Bucher has noticed a change as well.
“It has made some effect,” the priest commented.
Despite Rib Lake’s small size, it’s a lively place, and the parish has many young families. Catechism classes are key to keeping the faith alive, Fr. Bucher said. The desire to have their children catechized or confirmed keeps parents in contact with parishes, and Good Shepherd utilizes that bond.
“We kind of have the children convert their parents,” he said. “We just had a youth Mass last night. We had an awful lot of people.”
The priest finds some parents want to pass on their religion without actively participating.
“This is a very common thing in about every parish,” Fr. Bucher said.
He noted the trend last year before confirmation.
“There were two that I never saw in church,” he said. “So I had to meet with them.”
Instilling the faith in those children – and making it stick – is a tall order.
“They simply follow the bad example of their parents as they get older,” he added. “So that’s a challenge.”
As in many towns, there are complications when Catholics come home. Many were not married in the church or are on their second or third marriages.
“They have been approaching us,” Kauer said. “They feel uncomfortable coming to Mass and not receiving communion. They wonder, can they receive it?”
That’s when Fr. Bucher has to sit down with them and establish where they stand sacramentally.
In their outreach of mercy, every soul counts.
“Even if you get two or three in the course of the year, it’s more than it was when we started,” Fr. Bucher added.
Mercy for all
“Our parish council has been instrumental in deciding what to do for this Year of Mercy,” Kauer explained. “They said their main goal is to try to bring back those who have been lapsed in their faith.”
Regular churchgoers are not any different, she added.
“The Year of Mercy is for all of us,” she continued. “If we come to Mass every week, we still need mercy.”
To fulfill that need, the parish is inserting Year of Mercy elements throughout the liturgical year. During Advent, the reconciliation service included a rosary of mercy and the imparting of blessings through the laying on of hands.
“Powerful,” Kauer called the service.
They are also taking a more material approach, wearing clothes that promote the pope’s mission.
“Enough people ordered, so we can get … T-shirts,” Kauer said. “We figured this message, Year of Mercy, can get out in the community.”
Kauer said they also try to reach out to parishioners through the bulletin. The Year of Mercy corner leads readers to spiritual growth by tackling difficult subjects – depression, healing after abortion, jealousy – through the lens of mercy.
As a collective, the parish plans to promote the corporal works of mercy through a reprisal of their 2015 Lenten project.
Youths and families were encouraged to participate in last year’s “Love thy neighbor” project by doing something for someone, then taking a picture of the results. The photos were posted in a mural — a visual reminder of Jesus’ instructions.
This year’s project will be an expanded version, with a checklist of corporal works of mercy “to get people to think of helping others,” Kauer added.
Overall, Good Shepherd parishioners are very generous to their neighbors, according to their pastor. The church hosts a local food pantry, and when additional needs crop up in the community, someone puts the word out, and the needed items show up in the sacristy.
“We get to know the people in need, and they’re not just Catholics,” he added.
Good Shepherd also hosts soup potlucks and a Palm Sunday breakfast, and parishioners are asked to invite their friends, especially Catholics who have drifted away from their church or into another.
“Food always seems to work with bringing people in from the community,” Kauer said.
“One of the challenges we do have is some of the people have drifted off to these community churches,” Fr. Bucher added.
It is those challenges, as well as the fun of ministering to a “younger, exciting parish,” that keeps Fr. Bucher moving.
A teacher for 37 years, the post-retirement priest has no plans for a second retirement.
“I’m excited in this parish,” he said. “We have an awful lot of youngsters …. It keeps me busy.”