‘Be with the People’

PHOTO BY HENRY BECK, OFMFor Deacon Colin, it’s the key to being a pastor.

With one question – “What was the parish like?” – Colin King is off and running. We started discussing St. Columbanus at the Provincial Chapter. If life had not intervened, we might still be talking about it. That’s how much Colin loves the South Side Chicago parish where he interned as a transitional deacon.

Saturday, he will be ordained. For the past eight months he has seen firsthand the kind of place he’d like to serve, the kind of priest he wants to be. And it reinforced his desire to minister in Jamaica.

“The church is the anchor of that community,” he says of St. Columbanus, one of Chicago’s oldest African-American parishes. “It’s not a poor parish; it’s in a transitioning neighborhood” encircled by gang turf wars and “the violence Chicago is becoming known for.”

A diocesan parish, “It’s very much Franciscan, very relational, connected to the community, involved in social services,” such as sports for youth and adults, a pantry that distributes 2 million pounds of food per year, and “active and intentional outreach to young men who aren’t making the best decisions in life.”

As for Matt O’Donnell, the dynamic pastor at St. Columbanus,”I’m really impressed with him,” Colin says. “He has sat down with gang leaders. He does ‘clergy pop-ups’, taking grillouts to street corners.” From Matt he has learned, “You need to be with the people, go out and train them to be disciples, following the early Church models. A parish so engaged in the community, and not just the Catholic community” reflects “a lot of what Pope Francis is calling us to be.”

High Standards

Besides sacramental ministry – a baptism, a wedding, funerals, assisting at Mass – Colin did everything from home visits to coffee runs to food distribution, “whatever they invited me to do.” As for preaching, “I think that’s something I’m growing into, something that, as an introvert, scared me in the past. When you preach you have to reveal yourself and your relationship to God; otherwise, you’re reading an essay. Probably the single largest way to influence the people of God is a homily. If it’s good, you can really touch people. If it’s bad, they tune you out.”

Because “Fr. Matt is a wonderful preacher, the standards are very high.” A month into his internship Colin was asked to preach a school Mass – on short notice. “As I was about to process in, Fr. Matt said, ‘I’m your mentor; you’re my transitional deacon. Just don’t suck.’” That took care of the tension. “One of the great gifts of being there was that people supported me and gave me honest feedback,” Colin says. “One thing that comes to mind was, ‘Make sure to have a good connection with the people in the pews.’” At Catholic Theological Union, he practiced six- to nine-minute homilies. “In an African-American setting, that’s not enough.”

Jamaica Calls

The parallels to worship in Jamaica, where Colin served his STiP year, were striking. “My experience in Jamaica rekindled my vocation,” he says. “I’ve never felt more alive than in my year there.” As a post-ordination ministry, “It was one of my top choices.” More than once he told Provincial Minister Jeff Scheeler, “I’m willing to go there at a moment’s notice.”

When the paperwork clears, hopefully by mid-July, Colin will head to Negril to be Associate Pastor at Mary, Gate of Heaven Parish. Entering the Order eight years ago, “I never thought about going to Jamaica, but the Spirit had different plans.”

Ordination is both an ending and a beginning. “Nobody joins religious life for formation,” Colin says. “You enter to do active ministry.”

He sees himself becoming “my authentic self as God called me to be.” And starting Saturday, “My real life begins.”

Toni Cashnelli is the director of communications for the Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist Province in Cincinnati, Ohio. Click here to learn more.