As you know, I returned to the States in late June. I had a little bit of time off to relax after a long year, and I was able to visit some family and friends, take a trip to see my sister in Kansas City, and celebrate the 25th ordination anniversary of my cousin who's a priest of the Diocese of Little Rock. A few days after the Fourth of July, I began my pastoral assignment for the summer. I was stationed in the northwest part of Arkansas, working with Fr. Shaun Wesley, who serves the parish communities in both Eureka Springs and Berryville. When I arrived, Fr. Shaun had already been working for about a month with another seminarian, Mauricio, who attends Saint Meinrad, my old seminary, but it didn't take me too long to situate myself and understand where I fit into the picture. The two parishes, St. Elizabeth in Eureka Springs and St. Anne in Berryville, each had their own character, with wonderful and welcoming people at both places. Each also had their own challenges as well and it was a really great insight into parish life in Arkansas to see the various strengths and the needs of each community.
The biggest task of the summer -- certainly in my experience and likely in Fr. Shaun's and Mauricio's as well -- was preparing for St. Anne's first annual parish festival on July 25th, the eve of the Feast of St. Anne and St. Joachim. From the start, it was a lofty endeavor and a large undertaking. The aim was to provide an event that would bring the parish community together, introduce some of the other Berryville neighbors to the Catholic presence in town, and hopefully raise some money for the parish building fund. These weren't fundamentally easy tasks -- St. Anne's parishioners are about 50/50 Anglo and Hispanic, and Berryville is largely made up hard-working farmers and plant workers, most of them evangelical Protestant. Needless to say, it was going to take work to bring them out on a Saturday. Luckily, Fr. Shaun is a gourmet chef, so food was the main attraction from the outset -- beef brisket, pork ribs, baked beans, tomato & cucumber salad, and a host of homemade desserts from the parish community.
The festival was a huge hit. It had been a lot of work -- securing rentals, enlisting workers, endless logistical planning, pick-ups and drop-offs, troubleshooting, food purchase, food preparation, and so on. Much of that was, for better or worse, done in the last week before the day of the festival, but God's Providence was really with us and everything worked out well. In the end, we served nearly 600 full dinners (about 100 more than hoped for) and lots of other snacks, drinks, desserts, etc. There were kids' games, a kids' train, big bouncy castle things (which are, by the way, a real chore to roll up!), and live music. It was really inspiring to see the parish come together as we had hoped, and the event was definitely a showcase of St. Anne's to the Berryville community. And we even made some money, so in every aspect it was a great success. Many remarked about how they can't wait till next year's festival (and many wanted to the help of us seminarians again in putting it together), and I hope I get the chance to attend again somewhere down the road.
That's just one event, and from only one of the two parishes at which I served, but it's a pretty good example of the summer experience for me. Being with fellow Arkansans, getting to know them, worshiping with them at daily and Sunday Mass, and thinking of what it will be like to serve them as a priest was very rewarding. I'm very grateful to Fr. Shaun, Mauricio, and the parish staff at St. Anne and St. Elizabeth for their guidance, advice, and fellowship in giving me a taste of pastoral ministry in Arkansas.
The summer also provided me a great opportunity to reconnect with some of my fellow seminarians for the diocese. First, we gathered in early July to celebrate the priestly ordinations of two of our brothers, Fr. Edward D'Almeida and Fr. James Melnick. Ordinations are always exciting events, but this was one was even more special since I'd studied with them at the NAC this past year. I was able to lector at the ordination itself and at the first Masses for both priests which was a real privilege for me. Both men are now involved in parish ministry in Arkansas, and our prayers go with them.
The seminarian community also gathered in August as we do every year to enjoy a few days of prayer and relaxation at Lake Catherine near Hot Springs. A wonderful Little Rock family has hosted the retreat for a few decades now, and for the last few years, priests from around the diocese have made the trek down to talk about their experiences, share some insights, and enjoy good food and some fun on the lake. For me, it was an opportunity to get to know several of the new seminarians whom I hadn't met before and catch up with those that I did know. Most of them were headed back to school directly, and since the academic calendar is different here in Europe, several of them will be priests by the time I get to return. It's exciting to see guys you've been in seminary with drawing close to priesthood and a good reminder for me of how close 2012 really is.
My last few weeks in the States mostly consisted of spending some time with family and friends and preparing to return to Rome. I was able to see much of my extended family in the area, celebrate my little brother's 21st birthday with him, make a little road trip with the family to get him moved into his new apartment at Creighton, and make some trips to see friends in St. Louis and Dallas/Ft. Worth. I also was checking off the list all the necessary tasks that had to be completed before crossing the pond again. It was a busy few weeks, and it was a little mentally draining to think about gearing up for another year. Thankfully, though, everything was accomplished, and when it came time to make the return journey, I was ready for it and thankful for a really great summer. I look forward to the next one!
Until next time....