As the Scots College community prepares for the new academic year, there is a chance to reflect on the experiences of the summer. Today, Ryan Black looks back on his time in a parish in America.
This summer, I was delighted to be asked by my bishop and the Vocations Director to take part in a pastoral placement in the USA.
When I found out about the placement a few months ago, I was excited. Being in the States would be great, but experiencing the Church in another part of the world would be even better. However, one week before I left for America, I felt really nervous about the prospect; I didn’t know anyone at the parish, the archdiocese or the state of Minnesota.
I arrived in Minneapolis at the end of July. I was greeted by the pastor of the parish where I would be based – Our Lady of the Lake (OLL), Mound, Minnesota. Fr Tony O’Neill, a native Scot, brought me to my new home and assured me that no one would think anything of it if, having arrived at the rectory around 11pm, I didn’t make it up for the Holy Hour that he and the other priest in the house, Fr Nathan LaLiberte, met for every morning at 6.30am.
My first experience of the people of Minnesota was at 8.30am Sunday Mass the next morning. Fr Tony introduced me after Mass and immediately the people welcomed me and began to try to trick me into speaking for longer, just so they could hear more of my accent. Invitations to dinner followed soon after.
After the second Sunday morning Mass, and more attempts to get me to recite lines from Shrek, Fr Tony and I met formally to discuss how the placement would play out. He described the life of the Companions of Christ, a priestly fraternity of diocesan priests of which he is the Moderator, and together we brainstormed about what kind of pastoral activities I would be involved in over the next five weeks.
I would be involved in marriage and funeral preparation meetings, serving at Mass, various ‘Companions’ events, meetings with parish staff and other such parish activities. I would also spend some time at Fr Nathan’s parish, St Maximilian Kolbe in Delano, and at a larger parish, Our Lady of Grace (OLG) in Edina, shadowing other Companions and experiencing life in one of the biggest parishes in the archdiocese. I would also MC for the Archbishop at a Mass in Delano, where he would dedicate a new altar.
Fr Tony and Fr Nathan recognised that it would be odd to travel all the way to the USA and not enjoy some free time. We agreed that I could travel to Chicago for a few days since I had always wanted to see it and some of my classmates from Rome live there and had invited me across. There were also plenty of opportunities to socialise with parishioners and staff from the various parishes where I was based.
One of the biggest differences between the Church in Scotland and the Church in Minnesota is the school system; our Catholic schools are state schools, but their schools are attached to particular parishes and are ultimately the responsibility of the pastors there. This allows the priest to have a more direct impact on the way the school is run and staffed, but it certainly takes up a lot of his time on a weekly basis, even during the summer break; along with his principal and other staff, he must work hard to encourage new families to register at the school.
Another huge difference is how parishes are run day-to-day. My experience of parish life in Scotland has taught me how reliant we are on volunteers: RCIA, preparation for the sacraments and other important work is often the responsibility of good volunteers who are interested in the life of their parishes. However, in the States, much of this important work is done by paid members of staff. I spoke to several people in Minnesota about this difference in approach, and the responses I got from them were mixed. Some would like to see a return to a volunteer-based evangelisation while others see the importance in employing a staff, which generally results in more uniformity and ensures the priest that the people doing the work won’t run out of time to do it.
Certainly, my faith in the importance of an active laity has been renewed. The people of OLL, St Max and OLG have an obvious love for their parishes and their priests. In this respect, there is no difference between the Church in America and the Church in Scotland. However, there are perhaps more opportunities Stateside for them to live out this love. My placement in the USA has given me plenty of food for thought about how we can give similar opportunities to the Catholics (indeed, all Christians) of Scotland.
One day after my return to Scotland, I was able to attend the National Pilgrimage to Carfin, where the bishops consecrated our country to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Perhaps, there has never been a time when we have needed this more. I am sure Our Lady will bless us and our Church in the years ahead. We need some American enthusiasm in living out our faith.