Spirit of social ministry comes alive at Little Falls gathering

The Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, as part of their 125th anniversary, hosted a celebration April 10 for people in the diocese who work in parish social ministry. These people are members of social justice teams or social concerns committees or outreach ministry committees.

Whatever you call them, and their names differ from parish to parish, they spread the love of Jesus in the diocese and in the world by making the seven themes of Catholic social teaching come alive. They are volunteers who answer the church’s call to all of us to work in the area of charity and justice — that is, to reach out to people, locally and globally, who are in need, vulnerable and in some cases rejected and judged by much of the world.

Karen Van Slyke, a member of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud, smiles while being blessed by Franciscan Sister Carolyn Law, during the Social Ministry conference April 10 hosted by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls. Photo by Paul Middlestaedt / For The Visitor
Karen Van Slyke, a member of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud, smiles while being blessed by Franciscan Sister Carolyn Law, during the Social Ministry conference April 10 hosted by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls. Photo by Paul Middlestaedt / For The Visitor

In 1994, the U.S. bishops wrote a document titled “Communities of Salt and Light.” They wrote that they “see the parish dimensions of social ministry … as a part of what keeps a parish alive and makes it truly Catholic.”

The bishops went on to say that “effective social ministry helps the parish not only do more, but be more of a reflection of the Gospel, more of a worshiping and evangelizing people, more of a faithful community. It is an essential part of parish life.”

Bishop Donald Kettler echoed these words as he spoke to the group April 10 when he said, “I’m here because this is important work … terribly important! I came because I want to be here.”

He praised religious women and men, who have led the way in social ministry and “hear the voice of the Spirit” calling all to not only have a “relationship with God” but also to “work for social justice.”

He said religious women and men have always understood that we need both, even though Catholics often miss this essential reality of what it means to be Catholic. “Social concerns committees get that same Spirit” and we “need them in every parish in the diocese,” the bishop said. He challenged everyone in the room to “speak up and get others in our parishes started and growing” in this ministry.

Many stories

As I looked around the room that day at the more than 120 participants, I saw an elder man who has been doing this holy work for 30 years next to a young mom with her family who began the work three years ago and everyone else in between.

I saw people from parishes across the diocese, some who were starting new parish social ministry committees and some who have been working tirelessly for 20 years or more.

There were pastors and sisters and lay people. There were people from very small parishes or clusters and people from larger parishes.

All of them brought their own stories of how they got into this work of care and compassion for others. Each shared the passion that comes from giving of yourself, sometimes being counter-cultural as you stand on the side of all of God’s people, no matter what their race, ethnic background or economic status.

Sitting around these guests and with them were Franciscan sisters of all ages whose vocation centered on that same call, that very same “Spirit.”

Catching the Spirit

Around us in the Franciscan Center were displays that gave us a glimpse of the work of the sisters throughout their 125-year history. Surrounded by this spirit of faith and social justice, we listened to people on a panel from Onamia, St. Cloud and Alexandria tell the story of how they got involved in social ministry in their parishes, what keeps them involved and what their parishes are doing.

I couldn’t help but be inspired. I was inspired by the amazing work being done in the parishes by these often small teams of people, amazed by the number of hours put into each of the projects and terribly grateful for that “Spirit” Bishop Kettler spoke of that is not only in our religious communities, but is being caught by lay people involved in parish social ministry all across the diocese.

At the close of the celebration, we were each individually blessed by the sisters with oil and these words: “Using the gifts God has given you and the passion in your heart, go and rebuild God’s church.”

These words of Jesus to St. Francis were very special as the sisters shared their vocational call with us. How blessed we were that day because of the wonderful love of the Franciscans and the Spirit they pass on and have passed on for 125 years.

Thank you, sisters, for inspiring us and calling us to a more loving and compassionate way of life. Thank you, sisters, for often standing with those persons who are misunderstood and marginalized and teaching us the way. Thank you most of all for loving us and calling us to love more.

We have been blessed and taught by you for 125 years, and we are grateful for the Spirit you bring to the diocese!

For information on starting a social ministry team in your parish, contact Kathy Langer at klanger@ccstcloud.org or call 320-229-6020. Langer is director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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The Visitor is the official newpaper for the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

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