Sunday, November 28, 2010

On the Edge of a Diocese on the Edge

On this first Sunday of Advent, we went to Mass at the tiny, half-empty church in Menahga, Minnesota. We were spending our first overnight visit to the Kluesners' log cabin, built by Paul Kluesner here on the farm and moved up and assembled on a lake near Wadena.

There are two choices of Sunday Masses nearby: the 9 a.m. in Park Rapids and the 10:30 a.m. in Menagha. We chose the later Mass, for obvious reasons. Menahga's Assumption Church is at the farthest northern edge of the St. Cloud diocese, a full two hours from where we live. It is one of three churches in a "cluster," including St. Frederick Catholic Church in Verndale and St. Hubert Catholic Church in Bluegrass. St. Frederick have a Mass on Saturday at 6 p.m. and St. Hubert's Msas is at 8:30 a.m. every Sunday. Until recently, the cluster was served by a young priest, but he has taken a break to discern his vocation, questioning, it seems, his commitment to celibacy. I'll tell you one thing-- it would be a very difficult thing indeed to be alone on this edge of Wadena County.

We were uncertain who would be presiding at Mass, so I was excited and very pleased when I turned and recognized Father Eberhard Schefers ready to process down the short aisle. This was a treat I thought I might not have a chance to experience: Mass with Fr. Eb.

Fr. Eb lives in St. Joseph, where he moved a little over a year ago when he retired from parish ministry. He then agreed to participate in a process at the monastery to consider and plan for the future of on-campus ministry at the monastery in the face of declining numbers of Sisters. He is a kind, quiet man, one of the priests of a certain generation who spent his whole life in faithful service wherever he was sent, to the people of Minnesota.

When he registered that I was in the pews, he smiled, and he offered me the Eucharist with a smile and by name. Things like this make me so happy, and remind me of the privilege of living where I do, working where I do, at this moment in history.

The night before, our discussion had turned naturally to the question of what will happen to the church as the numbers of clergy decline. What would be a good solution? Married clergy? Women ordained? The four of us agreed that both would be positive developments, with in fact a more immediate support of women clergy. Bringing a family seems more complicated somehow, although plenty of churches have not only made this work, but benefited from the blessing of having a minister who was married and had children. There are, in fact, already married priests in the Roman Catholic Church (widowers and converts).

At stake here, ultimately, is the accessibility of the sacraments. But even now, we can see the extraordinary situation unfolding-- not just for our parishioners. Here is retired Fr. Eb Schefers, who had told us at our final committee meeting in August that he hasn't really been to more than a few Masses in St. Joseph, because very weekend he's been called upon to give Masses in other parts of the diocese.

What does that mean exactly? Well, that morning it meant a two hour drive, about 125 miles, to celebrate a Mass for about 80 people, in a church that was neat and serviceable, with minimal aesthetics and an organ better suited to a living room. Fr. Eb, beting who he is, gave a wonderful homily, drawing on the readings and telling two engaging anecdotes that the congregation responded to audibly.

After church, we invited him to join us for brunch back at the cabin. Unfortunately, he couldn't come. He had to hit the road because he had another Mass, at 3:30 p.m. in Clearwater, Minnesota, 20 miles to the East of St. Cloud, at a nursing home.

Bless his soul, Fr. Eb Schefers. We will not see his like again.

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