As one might expect a man in his late thirties to be excited about, I love smoking meat in my backyard and grilling meat on my deck. Given my interest and practice, I always volunteer to be one half of the grilling station in the “American Food Booth” at my parish festival. The parish festival concept in western Pennsylvania is iconic, hearkening back to the community carnivals of the mid 19th through 20th centuries. Funnel cakes, hot dogs, children’s games, beer, and the big six wheel have remained staples for decades. Aside from being an obvious fundraiser for the parish, the parish festival yields so many goods for the parish family that remain unspoken so many times.
First, as with many parishes across the United States, our parish was formed as a result of the combining of 4 parishes, and those 4 parishes were the combining of more than 10. Hard feelings and the grief seem like they’re always present, but the festival is a place where that seems to disappear. Comradery and fellowship seem to win, and the parish seemingly grows. The guy next to me at the other grill and I had a beautiful conversation about the nature of worship and the place of Latin in the liturgy. When his friend came to help us at the grill a few minutes late, she reported that she had taken her mom to the hospital earlier that day. I took that opportunity to pray for her and her family’s needs. This is all just naturally flowing during the course of doing the jobs assigned to us. This is a truly a beautiful effect of large-scale fundraisers, not to make money, but to bring people together in a parish.
Jesus brought people from so many backgrounds and places together in His earthly ministry and left us the mission to do the same. Quite honestly, we can’t give what we don’t have, so while we stand and bicker about churches closing or who has the better homily, we can’t actually minister to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and even moreso, to the community around us. The parish festival can bring the parish into greater unity but serves as an incredible witness to the local community.
I’ve always found it interesting, and quite daunting, that our pastors are not only charged with the safekeeping of the Catholic souls in a geographic area, but all of the souls within their canonical boundaries. Invite your neighbors to church; You may be surprised at what happens. Regardless, on the festival grounds we find neighbors from all over, some of whom have never been to a church, let alone a Catholic one. Some of their ideas of the Catholic Church may be ones riddled with fallacies and fibs, if not even worse lies they’ve heard from others or mainstream media about who we are and what we do. This may be the only time we get the opportunity to show them that we love Jesus, and because we love Jesus, we love them too! No matter what!
It just so happened that the line for our booth passed right by the grill. I had a great conversation with someone in line about the nature of infant baptism while I was slinging dogs, and it felt so natural, I wish I had that kind of interaction every day! My sincere hope is that every parishioner working the event sees the opportunity to evangelize the community in such a forum. Additionally, I was so inspired by our whole clergy team walking the grounds, talking to people, and lending hands, all while donning their clerics. Just by virtue of their presence, the community at large got to see real holy priests interacting with human beings. The perception people have of priests has drastically changed in the last few years, and so I find it to be doubly awesome when people see the men on our clergy team doing what they do so naturally, being Jesus to others.
So here comes the battle cry. If you haven’t been to your parish festival, or you haven’t volunteered, get in there and get dirty. Not everyone needs to have the theological training that a priest, catechist, or theologian does to evangelize. You just need to be willing to imitate Christ in a very real way to your fellow parishioners and the community without being afraid of the heat of the grill, the splash of the grease, or the roll of the dice. When it comes to festival games, Jesus wins every time, and His Love remains the greatest prize we could ever hope for.