Father Alejandro López Cardinale and his Massachusetts parishioners launch a family project to foster a sense of belonging during COVID-19.
In the summer of 2020, I was concerned about how to help my parishioners in Somerville, Massachusetts, feel part of our parish community amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As I was leaving for my annual retreat, a parishioner left an image of the “Pietà” encased in a small wooden box outside my door. It reminded me of the pilgrim images that visited from house to house in my home parish in Venezuela. At the retreat, I read an interview with Pope Francis, where he indicated the value of popular piety. I was inspired. Why not combine the need to reach out to parishioners with the “pilgrim images” of my youth?
Soon the Proyecto Comunidad (Community Project) was born.
One thing was clear: we could not do this alone. Our parish had to work with institutions already developing paths of missionary discipleship for Hispanic Catholics in the United States. Immediately, we contacted the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and the Maryknoll Lay Missioners, with whom we have collaborated since I arrived in this bilingual parish community in 2018.
We proposed that, given Maryknoll’s experience with online communities of faith, we develop this project together.
We began the project’s first phase during Advent last year, with 12 families each receiving a pilgrim image of the Blessed Mother or a saint to accompany them during the liturgical season. The families committed to following weekly study guides developed by Maryknoll, which facilitate prayer, Bible readings, questions for reflection and discussion as well as action items to do as a family. The guides were written in Spanish and the prayer encounters were conducted in Spanish and English.
At a weekly prayer encounter during Lent of 2021, Kayla Lopez reads the Maryknoll study guide as other participants listen and reflect. (Courtesy of Alejandro Lopez-Cardinale/U.S.)
By gathering the family around the Word of God and the pilgrim image, this project engages participants in theology and living faith by inviting them to walk together, as Jesus did with his disciples. This is an initiative to foster and encourage the family as the first group called to be a small community that becomes part of the larger parish community.
“The Church is coming to them and they are called to accompany others, especially during the time of isolation due to COVID,” says Deacon Kevin McCarthy, a Maryknoll mission promoter. “The study guides have the components of prayer, reflection and action. They help people understand their identity as missioners not only at home, but as families that strive to support others.”
Father Lopez-Cardinale, pastor of St. Benedict Church, enjoys a meal with community members at a parish event in 2019. (Courtesy of Alejandro Lopez-Cardinale/U.S.)
The Peña family told me, “Father, you cannot imagine what the visit of the pilgrim image has become in our family!” This project, they explained, came at a time when they were going through a tough situation. “The moments we shared through the visit (of the image) and the study guides helped us to reconnect as a family, to work for a solution together, to endure the situation, and, amid everything, to feel that we could be united with other members of the family in El Salvador when the youths shared the meetings through social networks. For us, it was a blessing.”
Father Lopez-Cardinale smiles during the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December 2020 at his parish in Somerville, Massachusetts. (Courtesy St. Benedict parish/U.S.)
Proyecto Comunidad has opened new doors and paths. The Lopez family says that when they invited their young family members to participate, the youths came looking disinterested and annoyed. “But, after the second week, they began inviting all their cousins through their social networks, those from here and those from El Salvador, even those who live in other states of this country,” say the Lopezes.
“From annoyed, they became the ones leading the sessions, the ones who reminded us about the encounters. They were the first to be there, around the pilgrim image every week, and waiting to answer the questions during the sharing moments presented by the study guides,” the family continues. “As the time with the pilgrim images was drawing to a close, (the young people) themselves asked: ‘When will we have them again?’ ”
We will hold the project’s third phase in Advent and we hope to organize a family parish gathering in the spring of 2022, inviting all who have participated in the three phases. This is just the beginning. We ask the Holy Spirit to show us the way we should continue to build the Kingdom of God.
Featured image: As part of Proyecto Comunidad, sacred images, including this image of the Holy Family, visit the homes of families in St. Benedict parish in Somerville, Massachusetts. (Courtesy of Alejandro Lopez-Cardinale/U.S.)