PENN YAN — Members of the six parishes that make up the Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community jump-started their Lenten season with a Feb 26-28 retreat led by Father Patrick Van Durme, pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Hornell.
The retreat focused on the Easter mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the way this mystery is celebrated through the Mass. The first night of the retreat was held at St. Januarius Church in Naples, where Father Van Durme spoke about Jesus’ death.
Catholics are familiar with the fact that Jesus died for their sins and to destroy their death, but they may not always realize that Jesus died for another reason, Father Van Durme said. Through his death, Jesus gave the world a physical example of God’s love and the love he wants people to show for one another.
The next night, parishioners gathered at St. Michael’s Church in Penn Yan to listen to Father Van Durme’s presentation about Jesus’ resurrection. By rising from the dead, Jesus showed his believers that they too could attain eternal life. He also showed them that they can help build the kingdom of God here on earth, even before they get to heaven, Father Van Durme said.
The retreat concluded Feb. 28 — the night before Ash Wednesday — with a teaching Mass at St. Michael’s. The Mass was a fitting conclusion to the retreat, Father Van Durme said, because it tied together the themes of the previous two evenings. The evening’s Scripture selections told of the Lord’s salvation and encouraged Jesus’ followers to be holy. In the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus told Peter that his followers would be rewarded on earth, but they would also be persecuted.
“It’s important for us to realize that when we talk about faith and following God, it’s not just about up in heaven. It’s about here on earth, too,” Father Van Durme said.
Catholics will be rewarded by God but persecuted by the world for living out their faith. Nonetheless, Catholics are called to build the kingdom of God on earth, and Lent is the perfect time to start, he said.
“How are we changing our lives to live the Gospel so we can be part of salvation here and now?” Father Van Durme asked. “It’s time not to do the old thing. It’s time to be holy today. It’s time to stop being who we were.”
Living the Gospel will no doubt be challenging, but Catholics can find strength in each other and in the celebration of the Eucharist at Mass, he added. Mass and the Eucharist are not about magic, but about Catholics praying together to make God present, he said.
“When we do this together, we’re strengthened. The whole point of receiving the Eucharist, of holding God in our hands, is to make us stronger so we can go out those doors and change the world. If it stays in this room or any of our rooms, we’ve missed the point,” Father Van Durme said.
After attending a parish retreat or receiving the Eucharist, many Catholics feel motivated to change their lives and the world, but this motivation sometimes slowly drains away as they encounter opposition, Father Van Durme said. With the help of a weekend Mass, however, Catholics can receive the Eucharist, recharge their spiritual batteries and have the strength to live the Gospel for another week, he said.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist is not the only important part of the Mass, however. Some people consider the first part of Mass — or the Liturgy of the Word — the boring part they need to sit through in order to get to the fun part of Mass, or vice versa, Father Van Durme said. However, both parts of the Mass are equally important.
“We are here to see God, to receive God. The first way we receive God is through the word,” he said.
Catholics are fed through God’s word in the same way they’re fed through his body and blood in the Eucharist, he added. Toward the end of the Liturgy of the Word, Catholics stand up and recite the Nicene Creed, stating who they are as people of faith.
“Because of the Gospel we’ve heard, this is who we are,” Father Van Durme explained. “Really pay attention to the words we say, because we’ve heard them so many times we might not hear them anymore.”
Father Van Durme stopped several times during the rest of the Mass to explain what he and the congregation were doing and why they were doing it. Although most Catholics have learned all this at some point in their lives, they often forget the details, so a teaching Mass helps them better understand their faith and the Mass, he said.
Many parishioners recite their responses at Mass without really thinking about what they’re saying, agreed Chris Wagner, a parishioner of St. Michael’s.
“We wish the whole world could have been here,” added fellow St. Michael’s parishioner Marie Wilkins.
Catherine Fortuna, the housekeeper at St. Michael’s, said she’s always thought the Mass gave her strength, but she was glad to hear a priest say as much from the pulpit. That knowledge will give her the strength she needs to face the obstacles in her life, she said.
Before concluding the teaching Mass, Father Van Durme challenged the parishioners to cling to the lessons they learned during the retreat and do their best to live their lives for God.
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience does not easily go back to its old dimensions. New experiences expand who we are,” he said. “The mind does not easily go back, but it can. You have to work to keep your mind expanded. Tomorrow begins Lent. Tomorrow will your life be different, or will it just be the same old?”