A parish that showed the way
“Father, when does Easter end?” I am often asked that question about this time of year. I suspect that what folks really mean is, “When does the Easter Season end?” I suppose it would be fair to say that Easter Sunday lasts as long as any other Sunday, and that the Easter Season lasts a span of a few weeks. That would be accurate—but misleading. Easter is a fact that spans across the centuries and gives meaning to past, present and future; the Easter Season is a daily fact that reaches into eternity. I learned those truths at the parish I belonged to before I became a Jesuit.
From 1984-1990, I was a member of Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian parish in Washington, DC—a predominantly African-American parish. When I was a member of the parish, the 10 a.m. Mass ran very long, but no one seemed to notice. There was lots of singing, there were lots of hands raised up high (and the hands tended to have a missal in one and a rosary in the other), and the preaching was superior. Parishioners demanded a lot from their homilists and the homilists delivered. In fact, if a homily ran under 30 minutes, people complained about being cheated of the spiritual nourishment they needed.
There was one more distinctive feature about the parish at that time. At the end of the homily, Father would have an altar call. Anyone who wanted to become Catholic, or return to Catholic practice was invited to come forward. Any who came forward were immediately grabbed by the Director of Religious Education and a member of the RCIA team. This happened every Sunday. And every Sunday, parishioners were urged to bring friends into the Church. The result? Each year, at the Easter Vigil, there were dozens of baptisms and many folks were received into full communion with the Church. On Easter Sunday morning, the parish was radiant with joy and thanksgiving.
I marveled at it all. This was a parish that saw evangelization as everybody’s job. Parishioners took it for granted that they would be expected to invite and pray people into the Church. The concrete living of the parish (rather than just vague, unmeasurable aspirations of a parish “mission statement”) was clearly focused on bringing people home to the life of the Church founded by Christ. This parish lived for and from Easter. Throughout the year, the daily life and worship of the parish had Easter Vigil/Easter Sunday as its goal. The efforts were fruitful and the celebration was a hint of Heaven. On Easter Monday, the clock was re-set, and everybody got back to the work of evangelization again. What made the parishioners distinctive in my experience was their evident conviction that God had done something very important for them in the midst of their difficult and painful lives, something so wonderful that they gave their best to the worship of God and to inviting others to find what they themselves had found.
I don’t know how often this pattern is replicated in other parishes, but I suspect that it is not very often. From what I’ve heard from many and observed elsewhere, “Easter Sunday” lasts but a day and “Easter Season” lasts just a few weeks and then they are put on the shelf again for a year, behind the Advent wreath and the Christmas decorations. In other words, by Easter Monday morning, save for the Paschal candle in the sanctuary and a few extra “alleluias” during Mass, very many parishioners and parishes return to the mode of “business-as-usual.” Easter Vigil/Easter Sunday might have been simply edifying or even exciting (or, even worse, “nice”) but not really consequential. In other words, for very many, the promise of the Easter Vigil and the glory of Easter Sunday are not the stars they steer by. “Easter” is a holiday (with an emphasis on “day” rather than “holy”) and not an abiding presence, power and project in their lives.
I believe that the example I found all those years ago at Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian parish is a challenge and an invitation to Catholics today. The parish made clear that treating Easter as just a day that comes and goes is neither inevitable nor desirable and that the Easter Season is not a matter of decorations but rather is a way of life. In other words, for the parishioners, Easter was a constant in their lives that made their lives meaningful and fruitful.
What about the rest of us? My hope is that we can talk as parishioners, pastors, and fellow disciples about how to live Easter as a daily reality, as the measure of our parish life, and as our ultimate goal. Yes indeed—let us rejoice on Easter Sunday. And let our joy be evident not so much by passing feelings and “alleluias” but by our daily commitment to bring people into union with Christ within the life of the Church He founded. Then we can rightly join Saint Augustine and say, “We are an Easter people, and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song!”
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.