“Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.”

Isaiah 60

In Advent 2023, a heartfelt initiative unfolded at a Next Generation Parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It began with eight Ziplock bags, each containing a rosary and a QR code. Dubbed "Prayers for Fr. Tom Baker – Just Because," this secret project aimed to create a parish-wide spiritual bouquet for their beloved pastor. However, as Christmas approached, Fr. Tom's discovery of the surprise revealed the profound impact of the parish's collective prayers. This unexpected outpouring of support lit a path for the entire community to actively engage in parish life and express love for their pastor.

At the top of the QR code’s web form was a photo of Fr. Tom in front of a “Be the light” sign at a recent parish event. The form also invited prayer participants to share a message of encouragement and support to the parish priest. After praying a rosary or alternate prayer, the parish member was then instructed to pass along the Ziplock bag to another parishioner so that little by little, the prayers would accumulate into a parish-wide spiritual bouquet.

When Fr. Tom launched into his homily on the solemnity of the Epiphany – the same day that the parish planned to present to him their spiritual gift – it was clear that he had caught wind of the surprise. He told them that he saw the messages that everyone compiled for him and that, “it was very humbling and beautiful,” even admitting that they made him a bit emotional.

A Message of Light

Instead of sprinkling Fr. Tom with a handful of rosaries as a spiritual bouquet, the parish offered over a hundred rosaries and other prayers, for the intentions of their pastor. This gift, much like the star that appeared to the wise men on this same day, oriented Fr. Tom’s homily to the message of light.

“Epiphany was a long time ago," he said, “but manifestation of God’s presence still happens today… Shining isn’t complicated. Being a positive person, in the midst of whatever you’re going through, isn’t rocket science, it’s a choice. This is our Christian call – to be a light, a star – in the world, guiding others to Jesus.”

Through St. Rita's Next Generation Parish work, a team was assigned to assist with implementation of the Pastoral Plan. Members assisting with the Engagement/Empowerment (EE) Priority spearheaded the "Prayers for Fr. Tom" project, and the messages that accompanied the prayers were overflowing with encouragement. One message read, “You continue to be our steady and fearless leader of light, and my prayers will continue to shine over our beloved St. Rita parish and school.”

Parish teens created prayers specifically for Fr. Tom and asked that God, “Let [Fr. Tom’s] humor be a source of light in moments of darkness, bringing smiles to the faces of those who need it most.”

Another message read, “We wouldn’t be where we are today without you.”

Moved by the love and gratitude that accompanied the parish’s prayers, Fr. Tom shared how the gift affirmed his mission and ministry, “This is who I am. I just try to live what I believe, be a light, smile, and have hope. It humbled me, but reminded me that I’m where I need to be and doing what I need to do. It’s not complicated. The drummer boy is about a drummer who is sharing a gift – his gift. That’s what we’re called to do.”

Empowering the Lay Faithful

This was only one of the many ways the Implementation Team plans to foster communal spirit and support for the clergy in their Next Generation Parish initiatives. The third priority in St. Rita’s Pastoral Plan is dedicated to empowering the lay faithful, and young adults in particular. The Pastoral Plan states, “The site visit report, the key Disciple Maker Index (DMI) learnings, and anecdotal sharings indicate that St. Rita Parish has struggled with volunteer participation of all ages, as well as attracting youth and young adults.” The parish recognized the need to provide “roles where people feel they are needed and where their talents and gifts are welcomed, utilized, and appreciated.”

It seems that empowering the faithful toward prayer is the best way to begin. Rosario, a member of the Engagement/Empowerment Team said they found that, “good works, like prayer, remind us how we belong to each other and are called to receive and share Christ’s light. A simple inspiration, fueled by God’s will and in partnership with Him, can be the spark that ignites something far greater than what was originally envisioned.” What served as a gift to Fr. Tom became a gift to the entire community, becoming a way for all to participate in the life of the parish and love for their pastor.

P.S. Want to offer your own message of encouragement “just because” for Fr. Tom? Click here to fill out the form and pledge your spiritual gift.

by Mike School

January 25, 2024

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